Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

John 6.51-58
Proper 15 - Year B

Other texts: 

As I wrote last week, the rough outline for this week's text is:

JESUS SPEAKS (vv. 43-51)

Since this section was part of last week's lesson, I will concentrate only on v. 51.

Jesus calls himself "bread" with two modifiers:

  1. living (present participle of zao)

  2. having come down (aorist participle of katabaino) out of (ek) heaven

We have seen these modifiers (or versions of them) previously in this chapter, but not together.

  1. living / life / life-giving
    "I am the bread of life (genitive of zoe) (v. 35, 48, see also v. 58)

  2. (coming down) out of (ek) heaven
    "bread out of heaven" (vv. 31, 32 -- of manna & Jesus in 32b?)
    "bread coming down out of heaven (vv. 33, 41, 50, see also v. 58; always of Jesus)

I think that it is easier to interpret modifier (2) than (1). Whether the bread of heaven is the manna or Jesus, both have their source in God up in heaven. There is an emphasis on the fact that Jesus as the bread from heaven "having came down". Jesus' origins are in heaven. That is where he came from. The same word (katabaino) is used of Jesus in (3:13; 6:38, 42). This word does not have the "emptying" sense of kenoo (Phl 2:7); but refers more to place, like "coming down" from a mountain. Jesus was once "up," but now he has "come down."

This "descent" from heavenly to earthly may also be indicated by the word "flesh" (sarx). Recall 1:14: "And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth."

That may be one reason John uses the word sarx in this section (vv. 51, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56). Otherwise, the eucharistic term used is always soma = "body" (Mt 26:26; Mk 14:22; Lk 22:19; 1C 10:16-17; 11:24). Something I just discovered is that in the Nicene Creed, the word translated "incarnate" (of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary) is the verbal form of "flesh" (sarkoo, which doesn't occur in the NT). We could translate it, "enfleshed" or "becoming fleshly". It is second in a long line of aorist participles that present a "U"-like picture starting with "having come down" (katerchomai, a different but synonymous word to the one used in John 6) to "having gone up" (anerchomai, the opposite of "having come down"). More about sarx later.

What is meant by "living bread" or "bread of life"? Earlier "living" was used to modify water (4:10, 11, see also 7:38). "Living water" is a phrase that literally refers to flowing water in contrast to still or stagnant water like that in a well or cistern or puddle. As such it implies fresh and life-giving, and perhaps better tasting, water. Stagnant water can be detrimental to health and taste buds. However, it is also clear that Jesus uses the phrase metaphorically to mean something more than just flowing water. It refers to himself -- something about what he offers the world. While water is necessary for "life," Jesus is the source of an "abundant" life (10:10).

"Life" is a quality that is in the Father (5:26) and in Jesus (1:4; 5:26, 40) and is Jesus (11:25; 14:6). If "eternal life" means being in relationship with the "living Father" (6:57), which begins in the present and lasts for eternity; Jesus as the "living water" and as the "living bread" (or "bread of life") is the means by which this relationship is established and maintained. Jesus is necessary for this abundant "life" just as water and bread are necessary for one's physical life. It is through Jesus that the Father establishes a relationship with us that gives us eternal life. More specifically, I think that this entire passage indicates that it is through the eucharist that the Father establishes and maintains this life-giving relationship with us. (Although God is certainly not limited to the sacramental means of restoring the relationship with sinful humanity.)

I have purposely used "the Father" to talk about this relationship. The Greek pater occurs 15 times in this chapter; theos (=God), occurs 7 times. John uses pater to refer to God (vv. 27, 32, 37, 40, 44, 45, 46, 46, 57, 57, & 65), but also to "ancestors" (vv. 31, 49, & 58) and to Joseph, Jesus' earthly father (v. 42). People were known by their "fathers" and their "ancestors". They were the source of one's identity and life. Calling God "Father" indicates something about our relationship to God and an understanding about our identity -- who we are, i.e., children of God, our Father.

Religions, in general, are about understanding and relating to a god or gods. I think that Christianity is different because we understand and relate to God as "the Father". It is a different type and quality of relationship than one might have with a god. To properly understand God as "the Father," requires the revelation of "the Son." In addition, in other religions, the relationship is usually based on something the worshiper has to do, e.g., the proper worship, sacrifice, or behaviors. In Christianity, the relationship is based on what the Father has done -- loving the world, sending the Son, etc.

A comment should be made about "the world" in this verse. Frequently in the church there are discussions about universalism. It is clear that Jesus' gives himself for the world (see also 6:13, 33) -- just as it is clear that God so loved the world (3:16). Yet we also have numerous examples of people who do not reap the benefits of what Jesus offers the world. We don't know if "the crowd" or "the Jews" who continually question Jesus in this section will come to believe and eat and drink. We do know that "many of his disciples turn back and no longer go about with him" (6:66). Why do they go away? Literally, they are not able to hear his hard word (logos) (v. 60) -- more on that next week.


The NRSV's "disputed among themselves" is a little tame. The Greek word machomai implies "serious conflict, either physical or non-physical, but clearly intensive and bitter" (Lowe & Nida). It would appear that it was a little more heated than a polite discussion going on among the Jews. Note that the conflict is among themselves -- not with Jesus or his disciples. (Perhaps the present situation within the Episcopal Church might be used as an example of a group in conflict with itself -- a conflict that most mainline denominations are or will be facing.) As I've suggested in earlier notes, my hunch is that this "serious conflict" among the Jews about Jesus indicates the situation among the Jews in John's day more than during Jesus' lifetime. The Jews were divided about Jesus.

I note also Jesus' comment in v. 54, which expresses the superiority of his bread from heaven over the manna that the Jewish ancestors ate. What Jesus offers is, in some ways, similar to what the ancestors received -- bread from heaven as a gift from God; but in other ways is something brand new -- it is a person, not manna. Christianity is both rooted in Judaism and it is something new and different.

The Jews' question here says more than Jesus has indicated up to that point in the narrative. He has not yet talked about eating his flesh. He has only offered his flesh for the life of the world (v. 51). John uses the antagonists to push the argument forward. (A similar thing occurred in v. 41.)

Jesus doesn't answer the question of "how?" but indicates the necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood. As the commercial says: "Just do it."


I promised more about "flesh" (sarx) and here it is. "Eating someone's flesh" appears in the Bible as a metaphor for hostile action (Ps 27:2; Zech 11:9 -- both use sarx in LXX). Could this be similar to the double meaning behind "lifting Jesus up" in John (3:14, 8:28; 12:32, 34)? It is both a hostile act (crucifying Jesus) and a salvific act (exalting Jesus).

According to Brown [John, The Anchor Bible], the Aramaic phrase (transmitted through Syriac) "eater of flesh" is the title of the devil [p. 284].

Brown also relates that the drinking of blood was looked on as a horrendous thing forbidden by God's law (Gn 9:4; Lv 3:17; Dt 12:23; Ac 15:20). Symbolically it could be brutal slaughter (Jer 46:10) [p. 284]. In Ezekiel's judgment against Gog, he speaks:

As for you, mortal, thus says the Lord GOD: Speak to the birds of every kind and to all the wild animals: Assemble and come, gather from all around to the sacrificial feast that I am preparing for you, a great sacrificial feast on the mountain of Israel, and you shall eat flesh and drink blood (39:17, boldface added).

The only positive presentation available to us of eating flesh and drinking blood is the eucharist, which is what I believe these verses are about. However, a generalization might be made in regards to the negative connotations of these phrases: God often takes what is sinful and evil and turns it into something good and salvific; e.g., the execution on the cross; the image of eating flesh and drinking blood; and even us as sinful and evil human beings who have been turned into saintly children of God and a means for spreading the gospel message to the world.

It can be noted that some accused ancient Christians of being cannibals because it was assumed that they ate flesh and drank blood. What may sound comforting and familiar as a sacramental meal to us "insiders," could seem horrendous to the uninitiated "outsiders". This might serve as a warning to us to try and look at our words and actions from an "outsider's" view. What may seem very clear to us, may be nonsense to the visitor to our worship. For instance, I've learned that we can't assume that the people in the pew -- even life-long Lutherans -- know what the word "justification" means or even "grace". Can we come up with other words, phrases, or illustrations of what these words mean so that the "outsiders" better understand what we are talking about?

The combination "flesh and blood" in Hebrew as in English can mean the whole person rather than designated two distinct parts. It may be that by the phrases "eating flesh" and "drinking blood," Jesus indicates that we have to receive all of him.

The grammar of v. 53 is a present general condition. It might be translated:

If you are not eating the flesh of the son of man
and if you are not drinking his blood,
then you do not have life in yourself.

Brown comments: "The universality and absoluteness of this statement have caused some churches to adopt the practice of giving the Eucharist to infants. They put this statement on a par with the absoluteness of the requirement of being begotten of water and Spirit (Baptism) in 3:5" [p.283]. Is participating in the eucharist necessary for salvation? This verse seems to indicate that. Martin Luther argued that it was.

How frequently does one need to eat and drink in order to have this life? Martin Luther writes: "You have to worry that whoever does not desire or receive the sacrament at the very least around four times a year despises the sacrament and is no Christian, just as anyone who does not listen to or believe the gospel is no Christian" ["Preface to the Small Catechism," Book of Concord, Kolb & Wengert, ed., p. 250]

And a little later: "... you do not have to make any law concerning this.... Only emphasize clearly the benefit and the harm, the need and the blessing, the danger and the salvation in this sacrament. Then they will doubtless come on their own without any compulsion. If they do not come, give up on them and tell them that those who do not pay attention to or feel their great need and God's gracious help belong to the devil" ["Preface to the Small Catechism," Book of Concord, Kolb & Wengert, ed., p. 251]

And: "For I call it despising when people, with nothing to hinder them, let a long time elapse without ever desiring the sacrament. If you want such liberty, you may just as well take the further liberty not to be a Christian; then you need not believe or pray, for the one is just as much Christ's commandment as the other. But if you want to be a Christian, you must from time to time satisfy and obey this commandment. For such a commandment should always move you to examine yourself and think: 'See, what sort of Christian am I? If I were one, I would surely have at least a little desire to do what my Lord has commanded me to do.'" ["The Large Catechism: The Sacrament of the Altar," Book of Concord, Kolb & Wengert, ed., p. 472]

I strongly agree with what Luther says -- maybe that's why I'm a Lutheran pastor! However, as vv. 53-56 promise the gift of life to those who feed on Jesus' flesh and drink his blood, this eucharistic promise follows the main body of the discourse that presents the necessity of believing (vv. 29, 30, 35, 36, 40, 47, see also 64, 69) in order to receive the gift of life. I like these comments from Brown:

... where the original discourse stressed the necessity of belief in Jesus, the new discourse stresses the necessity of eating and drinking the eucharistic flesh and blood. ...

This is only a hypothesis, but we must remember that the juxtaposition of the sapiential and the sacramental themes is as old as Christianity itself. The two forms of the Bread of Life Discourse represent a juxtaposition of Jesus' twofold presence to believers in the preached word and in the sacrament of the Eucharist. This twofold presence is the structural skeleton of the Eastern Divine Liturgy, the Roman Mass, and all those Protestant liturgical services that have historically evolved from modifications of the Roman Mass. [pp. 287-290]

... The juxtaposition of the two forms of the discourse teaches that the gift of life comes through a believing reception of the sacrament (cf. 54 and 47). [p. 292]

Perhaps this two-fold approach can be used to illustrate the two-fold outline of the liturgy: the Word proclaimed which one needs to hear and believe and the Meal served which one needs to eat and drink. Both are images of Jesus getting into our lives: through our ears and through our mouths.

I just had a discussion with another pastor about whether or not the eucharist should be offered at every worship service. He thinks, "No. It's not necessary" because it can exclude "seekers". I argued, "Yes. It's an essential part of who we are and what we do as Christians." I think that there is an essentialness in these verses (and in our Lutheran Confessions) about celebrating the sacrament. I have compared it to the Sabbath-keeping of the Jews. It was not only something they did, it was a defining characteristic of those who follow the Jewish religion. Jews are Sabbath-keepers. Christians are Communion-Celebraters. There are certainly other things that Jews and Christians do and believe, but circumcision and sabbath-keeping for the Jews; like baptism and communion-celebrating for Christians are essential, defining acts of those who adhere to those religions.

Besides the word "flesh" (sarx,) being distinctively Johannine in regards to the eucharist feast, John is also unique in using the word trogo for "to eat" (vv. 54, 56, 57, 58). (He also uses the more common esthio -- vv. 5, 23, 26, 31, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 58.) Trogo is a cruder term, sometimes translated: "to chew" or "to gnaw" or "to eat audibly". BAGD says: "John uses it, in order to offset any Docetic tendencies to 'spiritualize' the concept so that nothing physical remains in it, in what many hold to be the language of the Lord's Supper."

The image of "gnawing on flesh" is not how we normally picture the eucharist, but the crude image can help us from over-spiritualizing the humanity of Jesus or of the eucharist. It is eating and drinking. It is chewing and swallowing. As I mentioned above, the Nicene Creed captures some of this crudeness by talking about Jesus "becoming fleshly". While "incarnation" means the same thing (from Latin roots, as does the word "carnivore"). It has become such a "churchy" word that we can miss the secular-ness of Jesus "becoming fleshly".

Robert Capon [Hunting the Divine Fox] writes a bit about our modern spiritualizing of the sacrament:

Jesus instituted the sacrament of his body and blood by commanding his disciples to eat bread and drink wine in remembrance of him. Human nature being what it is, however, it wasn't long before someone got the idea that the bread for the sacrament ought to be something special. It wasn't enough apparently, that by Jesus' own words, any old bread would be nothing less than his true, risen and glorious body really present in a high mystery. They had to have super-bread. And so in accordance with Murphy's Law (if a mistake can be made, it will be), the angelic fish-food communion wafers were invented, snow white, unleavened, crumbless, odorless and tasteless. And made by nuns. Out of rice flour. Without salt. In little waffle irons with holy monograms on them. [p. 125]

Similar to what I suggested above about God taking what is sinful and evil and turning it into something good and salvific -- God does the same with ordinary bread and wine and mundane actions of chewing and drinking and swallowing. If God can do that, then maybe God can also use ordinary and mundane people (like us) to bring Christ's saving presence to a sinful world.


Brown: "And so it is that, while the Synoptic Gospels record the institution of the Eucharist, it is John who explains what the Eucharist does for the Christian" [pp. 292-293].

The benefits listed in our text are:

These are declaration! We can and should declare to those who eat and drink that they have these benefits. They may believe the words or they may not; but I don't believe that we can refuse to declare these promises from scripture to all communicants.

The emphasis is on "life" or "living," both now in the present and in the future. Not only is this life presented with the image of "eating and drinking," but also the analogy of the relationship between Jesus and his Father (v. 57). Just as Jesus' source of life came from the Father -- from being sent by the Father and from living in obedience to the Father (rather than obeying self), so the source of our life comes from our relationship with Jesus -- believing in him and "eating and drinking" him and being sent by and obeying Jesus.

An interesting approach to this whole picture is to take a biological view of eating and drinking. Through the wonders of the human body, what we eat and what we drink become part of us. (I realize that some of what we take in turns into waste products and leaves the body, but I would be quite reluctant to discuss those in any graphic detail from the pulpit.) When we eat bread and drink wine; or eat donuts and drink coffee, or pretzels and beer, or whatever, that food and drink ends up nourishing our blood which, in turn, nourishes every cell in our bodies. That biological fact can present a very graphic picture of Jesus remaining in us. Jesus is not just in our heart or head; but Jesus (as bread and wine) becomes part of every nook and cranny of our entire being -- or more correctly flowing through every tiny capillary in every cell in our body. We can talk about Jesus being in our little toe or even in our ear lobe. Wherever the chewed bread and drunk wine has gone, Jesus is there.

This crude image of eating and drinking can also be a corrective to an overly emotional, sentimental, subjective understanding of "Jesus-in-me." Whether we feel it or not, the objective truth is, when we chew the bread and drink the wine, we are receiving the flesh and blood of Jesus in some way and he flows throughout our bodies; and we are receiving the benefits that Jesus promises us.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901