JOHN 6:56-59. THE BREAD WHICH CAME DOWN OUT OF HEAVEN
56“He who eats (Greek: trogon) my flesh and drinks my blood lives (Greek: menei—from meno) in me, and I in him. 57As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father; so he who feeds (Greek: trogon) on me, he will also live because of me. 58This is the bread which came down out of heaven—not as our fathers ate the manna, and died. He who eats (Greek: trogon) this bread will live forever.” 59He said these things in the synagogue, as he taught in Capernaum.
“He who eats (trogon) my flesh and drinks my blood” (v. 56a). Earlier in this discourse (vv. 50-51), Jesus used the polite Greek word for “eat”—phage. Now he shifts to a coarser word, trogon—used for the munching of feed by animals. His use of the word here is shocking—attention-getting.
“lives (menei) in me, and I in them” (v. 56b). Jesus promises that those who eat and drink abide in him and him in them. This concept of “abiding in” or “living in” (meno) is important in this Gospel:
• Jesus promises the disciples that the Spirit of truth will abide with them and will be in them (14:17).
• He invites the disciples, “Remain in me, and I in you”— likening such abiding to the relationship between vine and branches (15:4-7).
• He says, “If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and remain in his love” (15:10).
• Jesus expresses the same idea of deep relationship (without using the word, meno) in his High Priestly Prayer, when he prays for the disciples, “that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be one in us; that the world may believe that you sent me” (17:21).
• Paul expresses the same idea in different words when he talks about Christians being “in Christ” (Romans 8:1; 1 Corinthians 15:18; 2 Corinthians 5:17, etc.).
“As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father” (v. 57a). The phrase, “living God,” is common in both Old and New Testaments, but this is the only occurrence of “living Father.”
“so he who feeds on me, he will also live because of me” (v. 57b). Jesus establishes the life-giving chain of authority. The “living Father” sent him, and he lives because of the Father. In like manner, the person who eats his body and drinks his blood (believes in him/ accepts him/ participates in the Eucharist) will live. As the Father gave Jesus life, so Jesus gives us life.
“This is the bread which came down out of heaven—not as our fathers ate the manna, and died” (v. 58a). Jesus’ listeners had mentioned manna, referring to it as “bread out of heaven” given by Moses (v. 31). Jesus corrected them. It was not Moses who gave them bread, but God. Nor was manna the true bread from heaven, but it was only a type (a foreshadowing) of the true bread from heaven.
Jesus identified himself as the bread of life (v. 35) and the living bread (v. 51). He has already reminded his listeners that the manna could not be the bread of life, because their ancestors, who ate it, died in the wilderness (v. 49), and he reiterates that thought here.
The death that the ancestors died was a physical death, but some rabbis believed that the wilderness generation had died spiritually and had thus forfeited any claim on eternal life (Brown, 284).
“He who eats this bread will live forever” (v. 58b). Jesus is promising eternal life (v. 54), which is a quality of spiritual life that we can enjoy now and forever rather than a continuation into infinity of physical life—“This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (17:3).
“He said these things in the synagogue, as he taught in Capernaum” (v. 59). This is the first of five times that the words, “synagogue” or “synagogues”, are used in this Gospel. Here and in 18:20, the mention of the synagogue has a neutral character, but the other three instances speak of those who have have believed in Jesus being banished from the synagogues (9:22; 12:42; 16:2).
Capernaum is Jesus’ hometown as an adult (Matthew 4:13; 9:1; Mark 2:1). It is the home of Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14)—and possibly of Peter and Andrew as well. Jesus performed many miracles in Capernaum, including healing the centurion’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13) the woman with the hemorrhage, and Jairus’ daughter (Mark 5:21-43).
But Jesus warned, “You, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, you will go down to Hades. For if the mighty works had been done in Sodom which were done in you, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom, on the day of judgment, than for you” (Matthew 11:23-24).
JOHN 6:60-65. THIS IS A HARD TEACHING
60Therefore many of his disciples, when they heard this, said, “This is a hard saying! Who can listen to it?” 61But Jesus knowing in himself that his disciples murmured (Greek: gonguzousin—grumbling) at this, said to them, “Does this cause you to stumble? 62Then what if you would see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63It is the spirit who gives life. The flesh (Greek: sarx) profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and are life. 64But there are some of you who don’t believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who didn’t believe, and who it was who would betray him. 65He said, “For this cause have I said to you that no one can come to me, unless it is given to him by my Father.”
“This is a hard saying! Who can listen to it?” (v. 60). It is not “the Jews” (v. 52) who make this complaint, but Jesus’ disciples. They are offended by Jesus’ language—his imagery—his metaphors. We are reminded of Paul, who spoke of “stumbling block of the cross” (Galatians 5:11), and who said that “the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are dying” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
“But Jesus knowing in himself that his disciples murmured (gonguzousin— grumbling) at this “ (v. 61a). The grumbling of these disciples links them to the Israelites in the wilderness who grumbled because they did not trust the Lord to provide for their needs (Deuteronomy 1:27; Psalm 106:25). Godly people are not exempt from the usual difficulties of life, and sometimes find themselves the objects of persecution. We are always tempted to imagine that God has abandoned us—that God is not trustworthy. We, too, are always tempted to grumble that God hasn’t treated us right.
“Does this cause you to stumble?” (v. 61). The Gospel causes people to stumble, in part, because God’s ways are not our ways. We would not save the world by weakness but by power. We would not choose to have God’s son born in a manger but in a palace. We would not choose a cross, but a sword—or a classroom—or a medical lab—or a wealthy charitable foundation—or some other instrument that would offer us opportunity to use power and to exercise control.
The Gospel also causes people to stumble because it is costly. When Christ calls us to eat his flesh and to drink his blood, he is inviting us to participate in his death. The Christians who first read this Gospel experienced persecution. They knew martyred Christians, suffered under the threat of martyrdom, and knew Christians who avoided martyrdom by compromising their faith.
The church is always tempted to remove the offense of the Gospel by tailoring its message to fit the world’s values. Someone has said that, if we want to know what the church will be saying in a decade, we need only know what the world is saying today. While such cynical judgment is patently unfair to the many Christians who stand, often heroically, as witnesses against their culture, it is all too fair a judgment on other Christians who too readily bless popular trends. When we hear what passes for preaching in some pulpits, we have to wonder how much is inspired by Galilee and how much by Hollywood. The more prosperous and sophisticated we become, the more we are tempted to love prosperity and sophistication—and the less likely we are to challenge the culture in which we live.
The Gospel with no offense, however, is like a surgeon with no scalpel—having no power to heal. Christ, truly revealed, will always be an offense except to the redeemed. The cross will always be an offense, except to the redeemed. The church must always be ready to give offense—to speak out for Christ and against the destructive beliefs and behaviors that the world finds so attractive.
“Then what if you would see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?” (v. 62). These disciples were offended by Jesus’ claim to be the “bread which came down out of heaven” (v. 58). What will they think when they see him ascending into heaven? (v. 62).
In this Gospel, the process that ends in Jesus’ ascension begins with his being “lifted up” on the cross (3:14; 12:42). At this point, Jesus’ disciples cannot even begin to understand Jesus’ veiled allusions to the cross. Only later, after they have seen the resurrected Christ, will his word begin to make sense to them.
“It is the spirit who gives life; the flesh (sarx) profits nothing” (v. 63a). On the one hand, it seems natural that Jesus would say that the sarx is useless. In this Gospel as well as elsewhere in the New Testament, sarx is often used to contrast that which is worldly with that which is Godly (1:13; 3:6; Romans 7:5; 8:3; 13:14; 1 Corinthians 3:1; Galatians 3:3).
But on the other hand, we are surprised to hear Jesus say that sarx (flesh) is useless. A key theme of this Gospel is that the Word has become sarx and lived among us (1:14). Jesus has just promised that those who eat his sarx and drink his blood abide in him (v. 56).
The key to understanding this apparent conflict is that the references to sarx (flesh) are positive when associated with Jesus—and negative otherwise (Lincoln, 237). Jesus’ sarx conveys blessings, but worldly sarx “profits nothing.”
“The words that I speak to you are spirit, and are life” (v. 63b). In this verse, Spirit deserves a capital S, because it has to do with the Holy Spirit—God’s Spirit. In this Gospel, Jesus will impart the Holy Spirit to the disciples on the first Easter (20:22), but the Spirit is already active, having come to rest upon Jesus at his baptism (1:32). Jesus’ words impart Spirit and life to the disciples.
“‘But there are some of you who don’t believe.’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who didn’t believe, and who it was who would betray him” (v. 64). Early critics of Christianity claimed that Jesus’ choice of Judas as an apostle proved Jesus’ fallibility. This Gospel says that he knew that he would be betrayed, and knew who the betrayer would be (see also 6:71; 13:11, 21). The betrayal will be evil, but Jesus will not permit evil to have the final word.
“For this cause have I said to you that no one can come to me, unless it is given to him by my Father” (v. 65). Jesus has already stated this principle in verses 37 and 44. Faith is a gift of God.
JOHN 6:66-69. TO WHOM WOULD WE GO?
66At this, many of his disciples went back, and walked (Greek: periepatoun—were walking) no more with him. 67Jesus said therefore to the twelve, “You don’t also want to go away, do you?” 68Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We have come to believe and know that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
“At this, many of his disciples went back, and walked no more (periepatoun—were walking) with him” (v. 66). The word “walking” implies following—discipleship.
The disciples who turned back clearly expected something other than what Jesus offers. They expected a messiah in the image of David—a great leader to re-establish their glory days. Following the feeding of the five thousand, they tried to make Jesus king, but he refused their overture (v. 15). Jesus refused to give them what they wanted, and they refused to accept what he was willing to give (Bruce, 164).
“Jesus said therefore to the twelve” (v. 67a). We don’t know how many disciples turned back, but “the twelve” remain. This is one of only four references to “the twelve” in this Gospel (see also 6:70-71; 20:24). This Gospel usually speaks of “the disciples” rather than “the twelve,” but speaks of “the twelve” here to distinguish this smaller core group with the larger group of disciples, some of whom were offended by Jesus’ teachings and turned away from him.
“You don’t also want to go away, do you?” (v. 67b). The question as formulated in the Greek expects a negative response—expects the twelve to respond that they do not wish to go away.
As so often happens, Peter emerges as the spokesman for the disciples. “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life” (v. 68). Scholars generally treat Peter’s words here as the Johannine equivalent of Peter’s confession of faith (Matthew 16:13-20; Mark 8:27-33; Luke 9:18-20), even though Matthew and Mark report Peter making that confession at Caesarea Philippi while John reports it as happening at Capernaum. Another significant difference is that in the accounts of Peter’s confession in Matthew and Mark, Peter’s confession is followed by Jesus’ telling the disciples that he must suffer and die. This is followed by Peter’s protest and Jesus’ rebuke of Peter (Matthew 16:21-23; Mark 8:31-33). There is no hint of Peter’s protest or Jesus’ rebuke in this Johannine account.
“We have come to believe and know that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 69). In the Greek, “we” is emphatic, contrasting the faith of the twelve with the faithless disciples who went away.
“you are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 69b). This is an unfortunate translation. The original Greek is “su ei ho hagios theou“—”you are the Holy One of God”—which is the way that most versions translate it. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” is Peter’s answer as found in Matthew 16:16. I cannot find any justification for mixing the texts in this manner.
“the Holy One of God” (v. 69b). In the Old Testament, the title, “the Holy One,” refers to Yahweh (1 Samuel 2:2; Proverbs 9:10; Job 6:10; Isaiah 40:25; Habakkuk 3:3; Hosea 11:12. See also Isaiah 10:17; 29:23; 43:15; 49:7; Habakkuk 1:12). Peter clearly means the title as lofty, distinguishing Jesus as a special gift from God.
God is the fount of holiness, and all holiness is derived from the holiness of God. Jesus is the Holy One of God because the Father sent him into the world, charged with the holy mission of forgiving sins and saving the world (John 3:16).
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Peter’s words in this context. Some of the other eleven disciples might have been on the verge of going away with the others. By seizing the initiative and voicing unequivocal faith in Jesus, Peter holds the little group together. Had he failed to speak, things might have gone very differently. The influence of one person is often critical. We should never doubt the importance of our witness, however unimpressive it might seem to us at the time.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Barclay, William, The Daily Study Bible, “The Gospel of John,” Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1955)
Borchert, Gerald L., New American Commentary: John 1-11, Vol. 25A (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1996)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Volume Four: Q-Z – Revised, the article, “Stumbling Block,” by G.L. Archer (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John I-XII (Garden City: Doubleday, 1966)
Bruce, F. F., The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983).
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R. and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Carson, D. A., The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991).
Craddock, Fred R.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Gossip, Arthur John and Howard, Wilbert F., The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 8 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1952)
Howard-Brook, Wes, Becoming the Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (New York: Maryknoll, 1994).
Lincoln, Andrew T., Black’s New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Saint John (London: Continuum, 2005)
Moloney, Francis J., Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of John (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998)
Morris, Leon, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995).
O’Day, Gail R., The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Sloyan, Gerald, “John,” Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Smith, D. Moody, Jr., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: John (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999)
Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan