John 6:41-51, Jesus Gives His Flesh for the Life of the World

[August 9, 2015] This gospel text was read on the tenth Sunday of the quiet growing season (signified by the color green) after Trinity Sunday, and it is the second part of Jesus’ discourse in the synagogue of Capernaum on the manna that comes down from heaven. In it he is presenting himself as the Bread of Life. This discourse is actually a continuation of the story of his feeding the multitude of people with only five loaves and two fish, this inciting story separated from the discourse by the disciples’ turbulent sea-crossing when Jesus comes to them walking on the waves, assuring them that he is, but also, in-so-doing, proclaiming that his “I am” is the “I am” of God. Now this “I am” becomes “I am the living bread, the Bread of Life, who gives life to the world,” and now he adds, “The bread which I will give is my flesh.” The following illustrates where these fall in John’s gospel:

(8)

(7)

(6)

(5)

(4)

(3)

(6) (5) (4) (3)

6:1-15
Loaves & Fishes

6:16-21
Sea-Crossing

6:22-71
Bread of Life

(3) (4) (5) (6)

(3)

(4)

(5)

(6)

(7)

1:1-18
Prologue

Last Sunday we only read up to verse 35 in the discourse. This means that we skipped over verses 36-40. That is not something I want to do. In the reading before this, I think I established that people are hungry and Jesus provides himself to meet that hunger. “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall by no means hunger, and whoever believes into me shall by no means ever thirst.” Moreover, I pointed out that the way we eat this bread is by believing into Jesus, not once but daily, on a continuous basis—like the way the Israelites daily ate the manna that came to them every morning—referring to a practice of continual recollection and communion strengthened and informed by the weekly practice of the Lord’s Supper.

Jesus also insisted that he—as the one and only bread of God—comes down out of heaven. I said that this refers to the incarnation, the eternal Word of the Father, the Son of God, becoming flesh, taking on our human nature as his own in addition to his native (original) divine nature. That “flesh” or human nature refers not only to human personhood, but also his participation in createdness itself. He identified with created nature by becoming himself created. He was (and is) the biological and physical body he assumed, not only the personhood of the “human nature” that he assumed. (We might be tempted to interpret the essence of human nature as something abstract in order to avoid the reality of its bodily-ness, its tactility, its “flesh,” but this would miss the point.) The human person that he was was in fact not a second person in addition to his divine person, but the very same person as the person of the Son of God. The church has learned, in its understanding of Jesus, to distinguish Personhood and nature or essence.

Verses 36-47: Concerning Faith in Me (Belief)

Then Jesus addresses the issue of the people’s unbelief: “You have seen me, yet you do not believe.” Is he acting surprised and annoyed that they do not believe? This is one way to hear this. Or is he merely stating this as a fact? For he goes on to speak with thanksgiving, it might seem, that some—surprisingly—do believe. He attributes their belief to his Father, not only to the Father’s will but to the Father’s divine activity within the Trinity. First of all, if anyone believes it is because the Father gives that person to the Son. If the Father gives the individual to the Son, that person will come to Son. In verse 35, coming to the Son was apposite to believing into him. Here too the meaning is the same. If the Father gives you to the Son then you will come to the Son, that is, you will believe into the Son. The will of the Father and the will of the Son are the same, for the will is a function of the divine nature which Father and Son share. Therefore, if you come to the Son, the Son will by no means cast you out. Whatever you might think, however you interpret your experience, the reason you came to the Son is because the Father gave you to the Son. The Son therefore will by no means turn you away, for the will of the Father and the Son are the same. (As an aside, his human will, though separate, is in concurrence with his divine will.)

No one else but these come to the Son. People might see the Son (with the eye of flesh and soul) but they cannot believe into him on their own. Belief is a divine activity; actually it is an intra-Trinitarian activity. (It literally takes place between the divine Persons, which is something that I hope will become clearer as we proceed.) As human beings we might have the potential for it but we do not have the capacity to make it actual. This requires divine grace.

On the other hand, “all that the Father gives me,” without exception, “will come to me.” If grace is giving us the capacity to fulfill our potential, we do not have the capacity to resist it. This grace is irresistible.

When Jesus says that he has come down from heaven not to do his own will but the will of him who sent him, he means that he has come down from heaven—become flesh—not to do his human will but to do the divine will of the Father who sent him. Within the Trinity, the Father eternally begets the Son, and the Father also sends the Son in time. The Son is the exact image of the Father, and is sent to do the Father’s will.

What then is the Father’s will who sent the Son into the world? It is that “of all which he has given me I should lose nothing but should raise it up in the last day.” Not only are we guaranteed to believe into the Son, with the certainty that the Son will accept us, but it also becomes certain that the Son who accepts us (and does not cast us out) will by no means lose us, but rather, he will certainly raise us up in the last day, the coming day of our redemption. If we believe into him, we shall have eternal life, for the Holy Spirit will enter our spirit and mingle herself with our spirit. Apparently this is what we cannot lose. This deposit guarantees the resurrection of our flesh, that is, the divinization of our entire human nature.

Of course, Christians will want to get into an endless debate about election and free will. Jesus’ words upset some Christians, apparently because of whom they seem to exclude. Because they only include those who believe, by implication they exclude all those who will never believe. But does Jesus says that some will never believe, not in this life nor in the age to come? He does not say that here, nor perhaps anywhere in the gospels. We get caught up in the linear-binary thinking of men (the masculine problem-solving mode of thinking), limiting logic to predetermined outcomes, but reality does not correspond to this kind of thinking; it eludes it, which is why there is always paradox.  Of course no one can believe against their will. There is a natural goodness in each of us which our sin prevents from coming through, nor can we eradicate our created nature, though we can deny it. It is this sin which is overcome by grace (for we cannot overcome it on our own). God’s grace does not control us against our will; rather it frees our will from that which would bind it.

Moreover, it is mistaken, I think, to assume we know who believes and who does not. We know enough to delimit the church—it is those who believe in Jesus as he is borne witness to in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Yet in John’s gospel, Jesus—speaking out from the divine “I am”—speaks of believing in “me,” and I would question whether that “me” can be limited to the adherence to the testimony itself or if that testimony does not witness to a divine one who is bigger than that. Have there not all along been Jews, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus and animists who come to a point in their lives when they realize who Jesus is—as borne witness to in the Scriptures—and say with awe and surprise and love that they have long believed in this One? Who was this then who they believed in before they recognized that it was Jesus? Would it be right to simply dismiss their claim? Or cannot Jesus transcend our comprehension?

Let us return to the text. The group of verses we are examining, verses 36-47, are about faith in Jesus, and in particular, the fact that some do not believe: “You have also seen me, and yet you do not believe.” In the discourse of Jesus in the synagogue, it is the second movement towards the center. Last week our reflection was on the opening movement of coming; it corresponded to the closing verses 66-71 of going. This second movement corresponds to verses 60-65. There, also, the issue is that some believe and some do not. In verses 36-47 belief is attributed to the Father, and verse 65 reminds us of this: “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it has been given to him from the Father.”

6:22-25
6:26-35

6:66-71
6:36-47

6:60-65
6:48-59

Notice that verses 60-65 goes a step further than verses 36-47. There, at the chiastic heart of these verses, Jesus introduces the Holy Spirit: “It is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh profits nothing; the words which I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” In other words, we come to Jesus and believe because the Father gives us to the Son. And, as Jesus says to the Father in 17:2, “You have given [the Son] authority over all flesh to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.” When Jesus says that he has come to give life to the world (6:33), he means that he has come to give eternal life, the uncreated life of God which knows no beginning and no end. Jesus refers to this indirectly in 6:27 but directly in 6:40 and then again in 6:47. When we believe in the Son he gives us eternal life.

Jesus explains that believing into him is the same as eating the bread of life: he is the bread of life and the way to eat this bread is by believing into him. Later he will expand this: the bread is his flesh which he gives for the life of the world, and unless we eat this flesh which he gives and his blood which he pours out we will have no (divine) life within us; if we do, however, we will have eternal life because he will give it to us (verse 54). We are not, however, up to this point in our reflection.

What verse 63 shows, nevertheless, is that the Son gives us his own divine uncreated life when he gives us the Holy Spirit. It came to the disciples in John’s gospel on the evening of the resurrection when Jesus breathed into them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (20:22). When we receive the Holy Spirit, not only does the Lady now abide in us, comingled with our own spirit, but co-inherent with her, the Son abides in us (and we in him); and moreover, not the Son only but the Father also comes to abide in us (14:23), for the Three co-inhere. This does not happen, however, until Jesus, with his human nature, “becomes” (by co-inherence) the Holy Spirit upon his resurrection and ascension (that is, until his humanity is glorified, or divinized: meaning, until his human nature, including all its retroactive history, comes to shares all the perfections—“properties”—of his divine nature). This means that in chapter 6, when Jesus talks about giving his believers the gift of eternal life, he is speaking not about the moment when he was speaking but rather in anticipation of Easter, the day of his resurrection.

What will become apparent in the next segment, in the central verses 48-59, is that this cannot happen until Jesus has passed through the crucifixion. It is only by giving his flesh for the life of the world and pouring out his blood that the Holy Spirit can come. This is what the Gospel according to John is about. But we jump ahead.

We were on verse 40. It follows and explains verse 39. The Father gives you to the Son and therefore you will come to the Son and believe into him, the Son will give you eternal life, and the Son will not lose you but—by means of this eternal life which you as a believer now have—will raise you up on the last day. What would it mean if the Son were to lose you? It would mean that you could lose the eternal life that you were given, which could only happen if you could turn from the Son and no longer believe into him. This is what can never happen. Why? Since it is the Father who has given you to the Son in the first place, it is the Father’s will that the Son be revealed to you (you “behold” the Son)—who the Son really is—and that beholding this you believe into the Son and therefore be given eternal life and (on that basis) be raised by the Son on the last day. It is the Father’s will, in other words, that the sequence be completed. If it is the Father’s will that the sequence begin, it is the Father’s will that it be brought to completion. Therefore, the Son—whose divine will is not another but the same as the Father’s—will bring it to completion. This verse, which is at the chiastic center of 6:36-47, is a promise, then, to those who believe into Jesus. Jesus promises to raise them up on the last day and therefore to do what he must do to make this happen.

6:36-37

6:45-47
6:38-39

6:41-44
6:40

In verses 41-44 we return to what Jesus said in verses 38-39. The murmurers mention the bread but that is not the topic here; Jesus will return to the bread metaphor in verse 48. Here they are more concerned that Jesus is saying that he “came down from heaven.” They misunderstand the nature of the incarnation. If they can locate Jesus’ origin—his birth—from human parents, parents known to them, how can he say that his origin is in heaven? Either he was born of his mother, and therefore comes from his father and mother, Joseph and Mary, or he came down out of heaven. It has to be one or the other. Since it is the first, it cannot be the second. Jesus does not respond to this.

The answer of course is that it is only his human nature that originates from his mother. His divine nature originates from God without beginning. On the other hand, his human nature, while physically originating with his mother, was not caused by his mother and father (as the murmurers assume), except insofar as his mother consented. The initiative and cause of his human conception was not Mary but the Triune God. He physically came from Mary, as could have been physically observed, but he came from heaven, a euphemism for the divine will, initiative and active cause. (This does not negate that Mary still bore—in his human nature—the Person of God the Son; she is still the “mother of God.” That, however, makes a different point: that Jesus in his divine and human natures is only one Person.)

Jesus tells them to stop murmuring among themselves. It serves no purpose since they are not going to be able to solve anything on their own. What they need is for the divine initiative to take place in them. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws that person.” It is not just that the Father has to have selected them to give them to the Son, but the Father must also draw them to the Son. If they are not being drawn to the Son, as these people apparently were not, then the Father has not yet taken the initiative with them, at least not in such a way that it was apparent. The Father draws people to the Son by revealing the Son to them so that they do not merely “see” the Son with their eyes, as in verse 36, but that they “behold” (look at) the Son with their spirit, as in verse 40. The first word is horaō, the second word is theōreō. One is with the eye of flesh, the other the eye of spirit. If a person beholds the Son, this is enough to irresistibly draw that individual to the Son. Consequently, if a person is not drawn to the Son, then that individual has not yet beheld the Son’s beauty, goodness and truth. If, however, this divine opening of their inner eye to behold the Son has taken place, then, Jesus says, for certain, “I will raise that person up on the last day.”

Verses 45-47 corresponds to verses 36-37 but they also follow from 41-44 and together with them follow from the certainty of verse 40. Referring to Isaiah 54:13 and elsewhere, Jesus reiterates that it is not enough to figure things out on your own, to teach yourself. Unless God teaches you certain things, there is no way you can know them. This is one of those things. In fact, this, in its uniqueness, is the one thing that only God can teach you—who the Son truly is, for God can only be known by self-disclosure, by self-revelation. No one and nothing else can reveal the divine Persons, and, since the divine nature ontologically derives from the Persons, the essence of the divine nature. Though philosophy can point forward to it and lead up to it, at a certain point philosophy can only take us to the “cloud of unknowing,” and must fall behind and leave us. “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me,” Jesus says. We may behold the Son, but we cannot behold the Father. No one has seen (horaō) the Father, except the Son who shares with the Father the divine nature. This One (and the Holy Spirit) has seen the Father. As for our created nature, it can only “hear” and “learn from” the Father—by divine revelation. The only thing we ever hear and learn from the Father is the Son, who is the Word of the Father, the only Image of the Father which we will ever behold.

(By saying this, I do not mean to limit the Word to the Incarnation itself, for the Word was and continues to be present in all creation, for by the Word all things came into being, and “what has come into being in him was [conscious] life, and [this] life [is] the light of human beings.” It continues to be there, for the darkness cannot overcome it, even though in our alienation we are blind to it.)

And if the Father does speak to us the Word and reveal Jesus to us so that we can behold the Son, we will come to the Son. Jesus come down from heaven, the incarnate One, comes to us as the divine “I am.”

Verses 48-51, The Bread Which I Give for the Life of the World Is My Flesh

And as such, he says, “I AM the Bread of Life,” as the incarnate One, the enfleshment of the divine Son. Here begins the heart of the entire discourse that day in Capernaum, the center of which is verse 53: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within yourselves.”

6:48-51

6:57-59
6:52

6:54-56

6:53

“I am the bread of [divine] life.” What does this mean? “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This,” the bread that I am talking about, “is the bread which comes down out of heaven, that anyone may eat of it and not die.” The effect of this bread is to overcome death itself. “I am the living bread.” I have this divine life within myself; I am living with it, and overcome death on account of this divine life within me, the life that animates me. “If anyone eats of this bread,” of me, “that one shall live forever.” The divine life within me, with which I am alive, is impervious to death.

I shall die, Jesus is saying, the biological life of my body shall be overcome; indeed, even my soul shall die. Yet their life, the life of my body and soul shall be reignited from their source, which is the life of my Person, the life I have as God, as a sharer in the divine nature and essence. My body shall be raised and my soul restored to it, and thus I, who overcame death by my personhood as God, will resurrect in my entire humanity. Now, however, my body will live not merely with its biological fire but with the life of God, as will my soul.

The body of Jesus died on the cross even though it was as divine as Jesus himself because his divine nature was not manifest in it; it was still hidden in his Person. In resurrection, however, his body will manifest his divine nature, sharing in its perfections (properties), thus Jesus will at last be glorified. His flesh will become as omnipresent and eternal as his divine nature. The humility of the divine Son will continue, for this humility is the humility of God, but his divinity will no longer be hidden in his humanity but rather his humble humanity will manifest it, thus being glorified by it.

Jesus then said, “And the bread”—that aspect of me which is communicable, that you can consume and digest and metabolize into yourself—“the bread which I will give,” for he is offering himself up to the Father for this, to give himself to us, like the peace offering of Leviticus, “is my flesh, given for the life of the world.” He is going to become communicable—that the world may have his life—by giving up his flesh, by dying. This is how he becomes bread for us.

If we had never fallen away from God, if our relationship with God had never been ruptured, his Incarnation would have been sufficient for him to be the Tree of Life for us, for us to “eat” him and receive his divine life as our own. However, because of our alienation from God, the holiness of the divine life would destroy us; indeed, it already bring us under the divine judgment. The light of the divine holiness exposes us, it exposes the lie in which we live, it exposes that the “life” (the soul) by which we live is false and, indeed, is our own construction: it is not of God’s creation but is built on lies. It cannot coexist with the light of the divine holiness. Its fires would thus consume us.

Rather than allowing that, God—out of mercy and patience—gives us the gift of death. How then can God give life to the world? How can God overcome our death so as not to destroy us? By God entering into not only our death but into our judgment, without sin, but rather by identification, and being loved by the divine Persons—there, in our judgment. Our atonement then is by Christ’s identification with us, and our salvation is by Christ’s union with us as the Holy Spirit.

(This is where I’ll stop, because I still need to offer a reflection on the next few verses: 52-58, which will be a continuation of these thoughts, and hopefully will arrive at something of practical substance for us spiritually.)

Leave a Reply