Monday, December 6, 2010

One of many ways Scripture teaches the Real Presence

Some Biblical interpreters do not believe the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. One of the verses used by these interpreters to demonstrate this idea is John 6:63 which comes toward the end of Christ's discourse including the well-known words: "unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you."

I made a post on the Catholic Answers forums recently on this subject, and since it was "blog-length," :) I thought it fitting to include here with some minor touch-ups for improvement.

Let's look at John 6:63
John 6:63 The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.
Those who interpret this as Jesus canceling out all His prior literal language in the chapter in favor of a symbolic understanding of the Eucharist run into a problem. First, if their interpretation were correct, to be consistent they would have to say Christ's sacrifice of blood on the cross counts for nothing.

But second, that is not what Jesus meant by "the words I have spoken are spirit." Consider the flow of the text in John 6 (which by the way comes right after 2 miracles: multiplication of loaves & fishes and walking on water).

Jesus' audience in John 6 is a signpost for the Real Presence. It's actually important to know that Jesus often spoke symbolically of Himself, like when He said: "I am the door" (John 10:7), or "you are the salt" (Mat. 5:13), or "take my yoke" (Mat. 11:29). Since the disciples knew Jesus sometimes spoke symbolically, it makes no sense that they would suddenly take "symbolic" words literally if He was indeed speaking symbolically yet again. They would have naturally said, "Oh! He's speaking symbolically of course! As He often does!" (EDIT 12/15/10: See later in John an example of Jesus clarifying Himself when His disciples actually did misunderstand him John 11:11-14.)

But the audience understood Jesus literally. "How can He give us His flesh to eat?" they said (John 6:52) and "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" (John 6:60). Jesus does not reply, "Because I'm speaking symbolically" or the like. Instead, He responds, "Do you take offense at this?" (John 6:61). And the gospel writer adds: "Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe" (John 6:64). These untrusting disciples departed from Jesus over this issue. And Jesus let them walk away thinking He had spoken literally.

If a person insists Jesus was speaking symbolically, then that person as a byproduct makes Jesus a deceiver for seeing they did not understand Him correctly and still letting them depart from Him. Jesus actually confirmed their literal understanding when He did not correct them but rather asked: "Does this offend you?"

Of course, those departing disciples correctly understood Jesus literally. And Jesus knew it. Peter, who was there, did not understand how Jesus could be speaking literally either---but he knew by faith to trust Jesus. "To whom shall we go?" (John 6:68) Peter said when asked by Jesus if he also wished to depart. Peter's faith preceded his understanding. Such as it is with the mystery of the Eucharist. But the point is, not a single member of Jesus' audience, whether those who departed nor those who remained, understood Him to be speaking symbolically. And Jesus confirmed their understanding in His responses.

So what does "the words I have spoken are spirit" mean from John 6:63? It means His words were spoken such that they are understood not by the mind of "flesh." In other words---His words are not understood by human reason, a natural understanding. Rather, only a spiritual person can understand how Jesus can give us His literal flesh and blood to eat.

I think St. John Chrysostom, ca 390 A.D., explains this verse well:
His meaning is, 'Ye must hear spiritually what relateth to Me, for he who heareth carnally is not profited. (Homilies on John)
Christ's words are spiritual words, not carnal words. Spiritual does not equal "symbolic."

Jesus made a similar statement earlier in the gospel of John:
John 3:12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
Here we see the same contrast between the carnal and the spiritual with regard to understanding what Jesus says.

Consider two final passages from Paul that tie into this:
1 Corinthians 2:14 The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.

1 Corinthians 11:28-29 Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.
You see how Paul teaches the exact same thing about discerning Christ's body in the Eucharist by using a spiritual understanding?


  1. The book of John was written in the Greek Language. And when the author recorded things down - when he said you must eat my flesh - he used the Greek word "trogo."

    Now in the Greek language, many words can be used for "eat". However, the word "trogo" was chosen; it's a very special word because it cannot be taken symbolically. When that word was chosen - when you trogo something, you actually gnaw on it. The definition is to aggressively or loudly munching, gnawing and chewing, as an animal would eat.

    This cannot be taken symbolically, and the author chooses this word so that later on when people read this - it's not a soft word - it's meant to actually gnaw and to eat. It's very important; it cannot to be taken symbolically.

  2. Also good evidence for the Real Presence. Thanks for posting. :)

  3. I found your blog while reading a discussion on the Catholic Answers forum (I am not a member). I have been searching the net in hopes of finding a Catholic exegesis on the whole bread of life discourse, beginning at verse 25. I am a former Catholic and would like to compare my understanding of the whole discourse to that of a Catholic who is educated in Catholic doctrine.

    Have you done this, or know of a website where someone has. I am not looking for a book or pamphlet, but rather an online publication. If you plan to do this in the future I would be interested in reading your exegesis.



  4. Online, I'm not sure, here's what a search turned up:

    Otherwise, I'd have to recommend a number of books, stuff by Scott Hahn or Grant Pitre or even Karl Keating's.

  5. I was nice of you to do a search for me; thank you!