HERE’S HOW TO RESPOND to two arguments that Protestants commonly turn to in order to disprove the Catholic understanding of John 6. They are: (1) the argument from “The flesh is of no avail” and “My words are spirit and life” and (2) the “door” and the “vine” argument.
In my previous article of this two-part series, I showed how two other popular objections—one on the charge of cannibalism and the other on the prohibition in Leviticus of drinking blood—fail in refuting the Catholic literal understanding of Jesus’ command to eat his flesh and drink his blood.
Let’s see if the two new objections carry the weight that Protestants think they do.
“The flesh is of no avail” and “My words are spirit and life”
The objection: Jesus says in John 6:63, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” Doesn’t this prove that Jesus intended for us to interpret his preceding command symbolically to eat his flesh and drink his blood? If “the flesh” were of no avail, then why would he intend to give us his flesh to eat? If his words are spiritual, wouldn’t that mean they are symbolic?
The answers to the above three questions are no, no, and no. Here are the reasons.
First, if Jesus were trying to clarify the audience’s literal understanding (John 6:52, 60), then his competence as a teacher would have to be called into question. Notice that the disciples leave Jesus immediately after he gives the “spirit and life” teaching (v. 66). Why would the disciples leave Jesus if he intended to convey only the so-called true meaning of his words, namely, they must believe in him? They already did that.
One would think that if this were the case, then the disciples would have said something like, “Oh, is that all you meant? We just have to believe in you? Well, we don’t have a problem with that, since we already believe.” But this is not what they said. They left him. And it seems unreasonable that Jesus would have let them leave him based on a misunderstanding.
Second, the Greek word for “spirit,” pneuma, is not a synonym for symbol. For example, the Bible says that “God is spirit” (John 4:24) and that angels are “ministering spirits” (Heb. 1:14). Does that mean God and angels are mere symbols? Of course not.
Finally, Jesus didn’t say “my flesh” is of no avail but “the flesh.” We know he couldn’t have meant his flesh, since he explained six times in verses 54-58 that his flesh would bring eternal life. Jesus wouldn’t contradict himself.
“The flesh” is a New Testament phrase that is often used to describe human nature apart from God’s grace (see Mark 14:38; Romans 8:1-14; 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:1). What Jesus means is that without God’s grace, belief in the Eucharist is impossible. If his disciples are to believe his teaching, they must avail themselves to that grace.
Jesus’ words are of the Spirit and therefore can only be accepted by the power of the Spirit. This is why Jesus places the command to eat his flesh and drink his blood as the bookends of his teaching: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (v. 44) and “no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (v. 65).
Therefore, Jesus’ teaching that his words are spirit and life does not contradict the Catholic literal interpretation.
The “door” and the “vine”
The objection: If Catholics interpret Jesus’ command to eat his flesh and drink his blood literally in John 6, then they would have to take him literally in other passages when he says he is a door (John 10:9) and a vine (John 15:5). Catholics don’t believe they must pluck a leaf off of Jesus or oil his hinges. Obviously, Jesus is using metaphors in these passages. Similarly, Jesus’s language of eating his flesh and drinking his blood should be taken as a metaphor.
The first reason why this objection fails is that the people in the audience in the door and vine passages do not interpret Jesus literally as they do in John 6. No one listening to the door and vine teachings said, “How can this man be a door made out of wood?” or “How can this man claim to be a plant?” Jesus’ audience recognized he was speaking metaphorically.
This stands in stark contrast to the audience in John 6. After hearing Jesus’ teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, they say things like, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v. 52) and “This is a hard saying, who can listen to it?” (v. 60).
Both the Jews (v. 52) and Jesus’ disciples (v. 60) understood Jesus to be speaking literally. If Jesus were speaking metaphorically, then his competence as a teacher would have to be called into question. But no Christian wants to do that.
Second, you would think that if the folks in Jesus’ audience were misunderstanding him—thinking he was speaking literally when he was only speaking metaphorically—he would have corrected their misunderstanding, especially given the gravity of the teaching (“unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man . . . you have no life in you,” v. 53).
This is something Jesus had occasion to do several times in the New Testament. For example, when the apostles thought he was talking about real food in John 4:32-34, Jesus explained his “food” was doing the will of the Father. In Matthew 16:5-12, Jesus warns, “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (v. 5), which causes the apostles to think he is commanding them not to eat the bread from the local Pharisaic and Sadducean sandwich shop. But of course Jesus clarifies their misunderstanding by informing them he was talking about the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
It seems out of character for Jesus to let his disciples remain trapped in their literal understanding if they misinterpreted him, unless there was no misunderstanding to begin with.
Finally, I don’t think Jesus’s response to the Jews, his disciples, and the apostles could have been anymore emphatic in affirming their literal thoughts.
Notice that after the Jews murmur among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v. 52), Jesus reiterates the need to eat his flesh and drink his blood no less than six times in six verses (v. 53-58).
Moreover, the language for eating intensifies after the Jew’s quarrel among themselves, starting in verse 54 (the opposite of what you would expect if Jesus were speaking metaphorically). Before verse 54, the Greek word that John uses is phago, which is the second aorist of esthio. This is a generic term for eating. But starting in verse 54, the Greek word changes to trogo, which literally means to gnaw or chew. It doesn’t make sense that more graphic terminology would be used to convey a less than real meaning for eating.
When his disciples murmur in verse 60 (“This is a hard saying, who can listen to it?”), Jesus appeals to his Ascension in response: “What if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before?” (v. 62).
In other words, as my colleague and mentor Tim Staples explains in the aforementioned audio set, Jesus’ command to eat his flesh and drink his blood is just as real and literal as his Ascension. Why would Jesus appeal to his literal ascension in order to explain a metaphorical command?
Jesus further affirms his disciples’ literal thoughts by letting them walk away in verse 66, and then turns to the apostles and says, “Do you also wish to go away?” (v. 60).
If Jesus meant his teaching to be taken metaphorically like in the door and vine passages, then he sure wasn’t very good at communicating it.
Jesus’ command to eat his flesh and drink his blood challenges all who read it, just as it challenged those who heard it for the first time 2,000 years ago. For this reason, many develop ways to get around the literal meaning of the text. But for the reasons mentioned in the two articles of this series, these attempts fail.
With whom will you stand? The multitudes that left Jesus, saying, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” Or Peter, who says, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).