Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this said, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, conscious that His disciples grumbled at this, said to them, “Does this cause you to stumble? “What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. “But there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who it was that would betray Him. And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.”
– John 6:60-65, NAU
At the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus gives (John 6: 22-59) his Bread of Life discourse. The discourse gives the true meaning of the miracle Christ wrought in feeding the multitude. The miracle was a sign pointing to Jesus as the Savior of the world. Physical food will perish, but the food that endures (John 6:27) to eternal life will come through Him.
After the Bread of Life discourse, the disciples reacted. They did not understand and were disturbed by what Jesus said. In John 6:60-65, Jesus responded to their concerns. As a part of His response, Jesus gives us a key statement (verse 63) about the flesh and the Spirit. He said, “‘It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.'”
What Jesus said in 6:26-58 and His reply to the disciples in 6:60-65 are interrelated. Jesus’ words in 6:62-63 are explanatory and illuminate 6:26-58. On the other hand the explanation itself cannot be fully appreciated without first understanding the problems expressed by the Jews in 6:26-58.
The Claims of Jesus
Jesus said (verses 32-33), “‘it is my Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.” Then, He declared (verse 35), “”‘I am the bread of life.'” In addition he said (verse 41), “‘I am the bread that came down out of heaven.'” Moreover (verse 50), “‘This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.'”
Jesus is both the gift and the giver. In verse 51, Jesus says, “‘and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh.'” Then, Jesus declares (verse 54), “‘He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.'” Moreover (verse 56), “‘He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.'”
The question arises, How shall they eat? Jesus makes this plain in verses 35 and 47. In verse 35 He states, “‘he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.'” Then, in verse 47, He says, “‘Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life.'” We eat the bread of life by believing in Jesus Christ.
The Person of Christ
Jesus is one Person with two natures–the divine and human natures. Walvoord (p. 106) says, “The study of the Person of Christ is one of the most complicated and intricate studies that can be undertaken by a biblical theologian.” Then he proceeds to write an excellent chapter on this subject. We cannot treat the subject fully here.
When Jesus says (verses 35 and 38) “‘I am the bread of life,” He is referring to His entire Person. Both the divine and human natures are included. As the bread of life, He has life and gives life. All who come to Jesus and believe in Him (verse 35) shall never hunger or thirst and shall have (verse 47) eternal life.
Jesus, who is the bread of life, says (verse 41) “‘I am the bread that came down out of heaven.'” The bread which comes down out of heaven refers especially to His divine nature. The divine nature of Christ has come down from heaven and united with the human nature. Through this process, the bread of life becomes both divine and human. Even though the phrase “out of heaven” emphasizes the divine nature, Jesus can say (verse 38), “‘I have come down from heaven.'” The entire Person of Christ is the subject.
The bread of life includes the flesh of Christ. Some argue that the flesh refers only to the material flesh and blood of our Lord. However, others hold that the flesh refers to the entire human nature. That human nature includes His literal flesh and blood. For example, Wescott (p. 106) writes, “”‘flesh’ describes human nature in its totality regarded from its earthly side.” Similarly, Barclay (p. 230) maintains that “the flesh of Jesus was His complete and full humanity.” The bread of life has a human nature as well as a divine nature.
Our faith is in the total Person of Christ, which includes His divine and human natures. Jesus said (verse 57), “As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also shall live because of Me.” Here, according to Lenski (p. 500), the word “‘me’ denotes the entire person of Jesus with both of his natures.
The disciples said (verse 60), “‘This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?'” The disciples do not say what specifically gave them a problem, but their questions appear to be the same as those of the Jews in the synagogue. Thus, we will begin by discussing these questions.
First, when Jesus spoke of the “bread of God” (verse 33), the Jews in the synagogue said (verse 34), “‘Lord, evermore give us this bread.” Later, when Jesus said (verse 41) “‘I am the bread that came down out of heaven,'” the Jews were offended. Grumbling about this statement, they said (verse 42), “‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?'” They understood that Jesus was human, but they objected to His divine nature and origin. Jesus reaffirmed his divinity, but did not defend it.
Second , another difficulty arose when Jesus said (verse 51), “‘and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh.'” This time the Jews (verse 52) asked, “‘How can this man give us His flesh to eat?'” Wescott notes the difference between this question and the one previously asked. He (p. 106) writes: “The question before was as to the person of the Lord: ‘Is not this the Son of Joseph?’ The question now is as to the communication of that which He gives: ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?'”
How can Jesus offer His flesh to eat? Jesus replies (verse 53), “‘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 yourselves.'” This reply does the following two things.
One, it reinforces what Jesus had previously said. As Lenski states (p. 0), “Instead of softening his words regarding the eating of his flesh Jesus, we may say, hardens them.” Hendriksen (p. 242) writes, “Instead of speaking merely about the necessity of eating his flesh, Jesus now speaks about the necessity of eating his flesh and drinking his blood.”
Two, although Jesus does not explicitly mention His death at this time, the mention of His blood implies His death. The mention of His blood calls to mind His sacrifice on the cross. The entire incarnation and life of Jesus was a part of His offer of Himself, but the supreme moment when He offered His flesh was at Calvary. He did not offer His flesh to eat in a literal sense. Rather, they are to eat by means of faith in what He did at Calvary for them.
In both verse 27 and 51, Jesus uses a future tense. This suggests to most interpreters that Calvary is in view. This is clearly true, but to some degree Jesus was giving life even before Calvary. As Beasley-Murray (p. 229) avers:
The disciples said (verse 60), “‘This is a difficult statement.'” Jesus responded (verse 61-62), “‘Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before?'” According to Barclay (p. 62):
We might ask, What does the ascension have to do with the problems that were troubling the Jews? One, the ascension will help the disciples believe in the divine nature of Christ. Two, when He ascended, He had a resurrected body. Thus eating and drinking will not consist of literally eating flesh and drinking blood. As Morris (p. 383) declares, “When they see Christ ascend they will know that the eating and drinking are spiritual phenomena, to be interpreted in the light of Jesus’ heavenly status.”
The Spirit and the Flesh
In verse 63 Jesus deals with the Spirit and the flesh and their contrasting roles in giving eternal life. The meaning of “flesh” in this passage impacts not only this verse but also the entire Bread of Life discourse.
First, Jesus says (verse 63), “‘It is the Spirit who gives life.'” The Holy Spirit quickens and gives life to the believer. He communicates the life of the Person of Christ. This makes the new birth and life in Christ possible. This harmonizes completely with John 3:5 where Jesus told Nicodemus, “‘Truly truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.'” These truths apply in some way before the glorification of Jesus and in fullness later.
Second, Jesus (verse 63) says, “‘the flesh profits nothing.'” The issue here is, What does Jesus mean by flesh? In my view Jesus means flesh in an unqualified sense. In other words Jesus states a general principle about flesh; that is, human flesh and human nature do not profit. They cannot do anything to bestow eternal life. This, of course, is true. Jesus told Nicodemus (John 3:6), “‘That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.'” Lenski, who holds that Jesus does not refer to His flesh, ) writes (p. 510:
However, treating flesh in this verse as a general principle does not preclude a special application to the flesh of Jesus. Indeed, many hold that in this verse, as in verse 51, Jesus means His flesh. For example, Godet (p. 45) says “the word flesh cannot be taken here all at once in a different sense from that which it has had throughout the whole preceding discourse.”
Either as an application of a general principle or as a direct reference, an apparent contradiction is encountered when we apply the term flesh to Christ. Jesus stressed that fact that He gave His flesh for our eternal salvation and upheld the importance of eating His flesh (verse 51). Now, He says that “‘flesh profits nothing.'” This seems to be a contradiction.
The seeming contradiction often is resolved as follows. According to verse 51, the bread that Jesus gives for the life of the world is His flesh. The sacrifice of Christ upon the cross was essential to salvation. One must (verses 53-54) eat His flesh and drink His blood to have eternal life. The death of Christ opens the way for the full and complete work of the Spirit. Even so, it is ultimately the Spirit who gives life.
The flesh of Christ was unique. As Hull maintains (p. 278), “the flesh of Jesus was crucial because it was interpenetrated by the spirit that gives life.” Similarly, Swete (p. 141) says, “It is the Spirit in the humanity of our Lord which is life-giving.” The Holy Spirit uniquely indwells and empowers the human nature of Christ. Without the Spirit, not even the flesh of Christ would bring salvation. It would profit nothing.
The Words of Jesus
Then, Jesus declares (verse 63), “‘the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.'” The life of the world-to-come, eternal life, has to be communicated to us. God communicates Spirit and life through the words of Jesus. Unless we hear and understand His words (Romans 10:14), we will not have eternal life. Several points are meaningful.
First, Jesus speaks the words of God. He said (John 7:16), “‘My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me.'” Jesus speaks the about God’s life, character, and qualities. He makes known God’s intent, desires, and will. The words of Jesus reveal God. All of this is included in life. Thus, the words of Jesus are life.
Second, the words of Jesus are Spirit. According to Godet (p. 45), the meaning of this verse is: “My words are the incarnation and communication of the Spirit; it is the Spirit who dwells in them and acts through them; and for this reason they communicate life.” With regard to the Spirit, Burge maintains that He (p. 107) “is not just the Spirit, but the Spirit of truth who exists in union with Jesus’ word (14:26).” Although the Spirit can communicate directly, without the words of Jesus, there is a close relationship between Jesus’ words and the Spirit.
Third, the words of Jesus are life. According to Morris (p. 385), “Jesus’ words are creative utterance (cf. the words of God in Gen. 1). They bring life. They do not only tell of life (cf. 5.24).” Jesus Himself is a source of life. In John 5:26 He declared, “‘For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself.'” When Jesus speaks, He communicates His life to us. The life given to us by the Spirit is the life of the Son.
Coming to Christ
Jesus had made it plain (verses 40 and 47) that the way to receive eternal life was through faith in Him. The way to eat His flesh and drink His blood was by believing in Him. Jesus makes two points.
First, Jesus points out (verse 64) that “‘there are some of you who do not believe.'” Moreover, He knew all along those who did not believe and who would betray Him. The disciples should not be surprised that some would not believe. Jesus was not in any way surprised.
Second, it is the Father who makes it possible for men to believe. Jesus said, “‘For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.'” Similarly, in verse 44 Jesus said, “‘No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.'” Therefore, the disciples should not be surprised when some to not believe. As Morris (pp. 386-387) states:
The Jews believed in both God’s sovereignty and man’s free will. In the Bread of Life discourse Jesus recognizes both truths. Indeed, we see both sides in John 6:37 where Jesus declared, “‘All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out.'”
The Lord’s Supper
Whether or not the Bread of Life discourse refers to the Lord’s Supper is often debated. According to Lange, we may differentiate three major views in the history of interpretation.
Naturally, those who maintain that the bread of Life discourse refers either directly or secondarily to the Lord’s Supper have a further discussion. The discussion turns on whether to take a sacramental or symbolic approach.
In my view the Bread of Life discourse does not refer to the Lord’s Supper. Nevertheless, the Lord’s Supper is a time when we express our faith with a special intensity. The presence of Christ is especially real to the believer.
The key passage with regard to the Spirit and flesh is verse 63. What it says about the Spirit is not ambiguous in any way. It is the Spirit that gives life. Moreover, in a general and unspecified sense, flesh does not give life. Whether we regard flesh as human nature, literal flesh and blood, or human nature inclusive of literal flesh, it profits nothing. We cannot derive life from flesh.
With regard to Christ, He gave His flesh at Calvary. This sacrifice was absolutely necessary for our salvation. The flesh of Christ was interpenetrated by the Spirit of God. His sacrifice opened the way for us to experience the quickening of the Spirit and the new birth. However, even His flesh by itself does not bring life. It is the Spirit who ultimately gives life.
For Further Study
Arndt, William F. and Gingrich, F. Wilbur. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Cambridge: The University of Chicago Press, 1957.
Barclay, William. The Gospel of John, Volume 1. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956.
Beasley-Murray, G. R. Baptism in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962.
Dunn, James D. G. Baptism in the Holy Spirit. London: SCM Press Ltd. 1970.
Godet, Frederick Louis. Commentary on the Gospel of John, Volume II. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1893.
Hendriksen, William. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1961.
Horton, Stanley M. What the Bible Says About the Holy Spirit. Springfield: Gospel Publishing House, 1976.
Hull, Willilam E. The Broadman Commentary. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970.
Ladd, George Eldon. A Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974.
Lenski, R. C. H. St. John’s Gospel. Columbus: The Wartburg Press, 1942.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1971.
Robertson, A. T. Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vols. 1-6. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930.
Swete, Henry Barclay. The Holy Spirit in the New Testament. London: Macmillan and Company, 1910.
Thiessen, Clarence. Lectures in Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977.
Walvoord, John F. Jesus Christ Our Lord. Chicago: Moody Press, 1969.
Wescott, B. F. The Gospel According to St. John. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971.
Copyright © 2004 By George M. Flattery