I’m part of a informal faith group that meets on a semi-regular basis. Very often our conversations turn towards issues of doctrine, most recently, the nature of the Eucharist. My Protestant/Non-Denominational friends are the mindset that Jesus intended the receiving of bread and wine as a symbolic gesture, whereas I am obviously of the Catholic persuasion that they truly are his body and blood. They proposed, “Why can’t we just take Jesus’ words, ‘Do this is remembrance of me’ and just remember him. Why do we have to complicate them?
I want to share my response to them, because not only do I think this is one of the most difficult barriers for a non-Catholic to cross, but I also think it’s one of the simplest expositions in the Apologist’s Toolkit, as well as a “Sola Scriptura”-friendly approach to help part the clouds of doubt from our Protestant friends.
The premise is simple: Start with John 6:32, and verse by verse, walk through the passages until the end of the chapter. That’s it. No jumping from book to book, no church fathers, no philosophical explanations. One set of contiguous verses that clearly demonstrate the truth of the Real Presence. If you’re new to apologetics, start here. Let’s walk through it now.
“Jesus then said to them, ’Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Lord, give us this bread always’” (John 6:32-34).
Jesus opens by pointing out that the Father gives the “true bread” from heaven, and this bread “gives life” to the world. Notably, the disciples plead to always be given this bread.
“I am the bread of life” (John 6:48)
Strikingly, Jesus reveals that he is the bread that was just referenced. He is the true bread from the Father, he gives life to the world, and the disciples plead to always be given him.
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51)
Here Jesus makes an explicit reference to his “flesh” being something that we should consume. At this point we are faced with this dilemma, “Is Jesus using a metaphor, or is he being literal?” Let’s continue with the verses and see what clues we can find.
“The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52)
We begin to see the confusion and disbelief among the Jews. We’re now faced with two options, either Jesus could clarify that what he meant was symbolic (because obviously the Jews understood him as being literal), but instead, he opens up a beautiful monologue revealing this mystery to us further.
“So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:53-56)
The structure of his language here is what is so striking. He begins again with a “Truly, truly”, a rhetorical device that we see him use throughout the Gospels when he knows a truth will be hard to hear, but its importance is crucial. Next, he repeats the need to eat the flesh and drink the blood 3 times in 3 sentences (note the bold phrases). It’s as if he is saying, “I cannot make this truth any clearer, I’ll repeat it over and over to make its truth sink in for you”. In the 3rd clause (in green), he gives another clue, saying that his flesh is food indeed (or truly) and blood drink indeed (or truly). These two “indeed”s, in the same sentence, make it implausible to interpret this metaphorically. No, the meaning is clear, Christ intended us to take these words literally.
One final point cannot be overlooked. The Greek word recorded in the above passages for “eat” is trogo. Notably, this is not the normal word used for eating through the New Testament, in fact, it has a much more graphic connotation. A more accurate translation would be to chew or to gnaw. This has serious ramifications for those who try to read metaphor into Christ’s words. By imploring us to “gnaw” on his flesh, he makes it clear that these passages are meant to be taken literally.
“After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer walked with him. Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Will you also go away?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:66-68)
Whatever Jesus was saying to the disciples was so radical, so unheard of that it caused many of them to stop following him. In fact, this is the only episode in Scripture where a teaching causes people to leave Christ (and he had some VERY outlandish teachings, especially for Jews). Reading his words metaphorically wouldn’t cause this sort of reaction. The people were used to him speaking metaphorically, in parables, etc. Peter’s answer here shows him to be a paragon of faithfulness. He must have been shocked at what Jesus said, but instead of leaving him like the other disciples, he totally places his faith in the Lord and says “Lord, to whom shall we go?”
We are called to do the same. No matter how shocked we are, the words of Scripture must be accepted. And to my friend who wants to simply “take Jesus’ word for it,” there is no denying Jesus’ word—the bread and wine are truly the body and blood of Christ. One simple series of passages, John 6, can bring us to that truth.
The opinions expressed by the DPS blog authors and those providing comments are theirs alone; they are not necessarily the expressions or beliefs of either the Dead Philosophers Society or Holy Apostles College & Seminary.