A great point of contention among modern Christians is over what exactly occurs within the Lord’s Supper (or more appropriately, the Eucharist, or Divine Liturgy). Most of the contention surrounds John 6:53–60, but sadly many people bring theological baggage to the debate; thus, it is best to approach the passage as objectively as possible via an exegetical method. When one does so, one should come to the conclusion that while the bread and wine in the Eucharist may not become the substance of Christ’s body, it is concurrent with Scripture to say they are essentially the body of Christ. In short, a proper reading of John 6:53–60 should leave the reader believing that something happens in the Eucharist, and the act is more than a symbol.
While I could appeal to the Church Fathers on this matter – specifically how St. Ignatius, a disciple of John, refers to those who deny that Christ is present in the bread and wine as “heterodox” – it is easier to appeal to Scripture. Many Christians in the Protestant tradition are too quick to dismiss the Church Fathers; rather than offer a treatise on why we should include them in our interpretations, it is best simply to take the Scripture for what it is.
Biblical Context of John 6:53–60
The context of John 6 provides the set up and meaning for the contentious passages concerning partaking in Christ’s body and blood. Chapter 6 opens to John recounting Christ feeding the five thousand people with just a few loaves of bread and a few fish (vv. 1–14). After performing the miracle, John recounts that Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee to avoid being made a king (v. 15).
The next day the crowd located Christ on the other side of the sea and sought him out because he had given them food (vv. 22–26). It is here where Christ rebukes the crowd for not seeing the deeper meaning in his feeding of the five thousand people, notably that he is the eternal bread of life that cannot run out and is always plentiful (vv. 27–29). He then begins to explain that he is greater than Moses; while Moses gave the Israelites temporal bread in the desert, he [Jesus] gives eternal bread that also grants eternal life because he is the bread that comes down from Heaven (vv. 30–52). It is here the Jews question what Christ means by such a confusing statement, which leads to vv. 53–60 where Christ makes what was then (and is now) a baffling statement about eating his body and drinking his blood. The seventh chapter of John deals with the ramifications of Christ’s words as the Jews seek to kill him, causing Jesus to flee Judea.
In a broader biblical context, this passage helps to demonstrate that Jesus truly is the Messiah, which is the intended purpose of the Gospel of John (John 20:30-31). However, in order to demonstrate that Jesus is the promised Messiah to the Jewish population, John presents quite a few themes in the entire Gospel, specifically Christology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, theology, and eschatology. Whereas John 1 serves as a preamble to the Gospel of John, in many ways John 6 serves as the solidification that Jesus is the Messiah, by showing that He descended from Heaven and offers eternal life.
While many people will grant that the main point of John 6 is to show Jesus as the Messiah, one can wonder why exactly John goes to great lengths to focus on Christ saying He is the “bread of life.” Certainly if the phrase is merely symbolic, or a metaphor as some contend, then John would have little need to include it in his Gospel. He could have opted for a less offensive metaphor, or another memory of Christ’s teaching that He was the bread of life while not mentioning eating of his flesh or drinking his blood. Yet, despite his options, John chose to use Eucharistic language in this particular passage.
Looking to the immediate context, one can see that John shows the repugnance of both the Jews and other disciples as a way of indicating that Christ was talking about something beyond a metaphor. Metaphors might upset people to varying degrees, but once explained metaphors can usually be tolerated; yet with Christ this is not the case. Verse 60 shows that Jesus’ own disciples admitted that it “…[I]s a hard saying… ,” thus showing that the immediate audience took what Christ said as something more than a metaphor. One can see in the next chapter that John states the Jews sought to kill Christ after the events of John 6:53–60. While some have argued for alternative reasons for the Jews and disciples being so offended, Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland contend that,
The Jews were seriously offended by the repugnant idea of eating flesh – even the Greco-Roman world viewed any kind of “cannibalism” with horror. And if Jesus meant to be understood as speaking figuratively, what in the world did his remark mean?
Thus, it is quite easy to conclude that the original audience took Jesus’ saying prima facie and did not see it as a metaphor.
As stated, however, when John wrote his Gospel he had a particular audience in mind, specifically Christians who needed confirmation that Jesus truly was the promised Messiah. Therefore, while John 6 serves a partial purpose of displaying Jesus as the Messiah, it also strengthens the practice of the Eucharist. According to The New Interpreter’s Bible,
The syntax of v. 53 (“unless…”) makes clear that eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of Man is a condition for receiving the gift of life. …The strong emphasis on the Eucharist reflects a shift in the primary audience to whom the Fourth Evangelist understands these words of Jesus to be addressed. The primary audience is no longer the audience in the store (the Jewish crowd), but the readers in John’s own time. …The insistence in v. 53 on both the fullness of the incarnation and the participation in the eucharist may be the Evangelist’s attempt to counter developing docetic or gnostic tendencies within his community that wanted to deny the bodily aspects of Christ and of Christian experience.
John therefore includes the saying of Christ for the purpose of reminding Christians exactly what they are partaking in when they engage in the Lord’s Supper; while arguing for transubstantiation (that the bread and wine become the same substance of Christ) may take John 6:53–50 beyond its exegetical scope, it is equally incorrect to take the Lord’s Supper as pure symbolism or metaphor.
The idea of partaking in Jesus’ flesh and blood is repeated throughout Scripture. In Matthew 26:26-28 we read,
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
The same language is used in Mark 14:22-25, Luke 22:14-23, and even 1 Corinthians 11:23-29. John certainly would have been aware of such language, so for him to include a passage that solidifies a literal reading of “flesh and blood” would indicate that John understood Christ’s own words to be literal.
Further, the internal evidence doesn’t seem to lend itself to metaphor or symbolism. By saying “verily, verily” Christ indicated that He was making a very strong statement of authority, not something that had to be read into. It seems odd to say that this passage is symbolic or metaphorical when evangelical Christians are unwilling (and rightfully so) to say that Christ’s miracles were metaphorical, that His resurrection was metaphorical, or that the events preceding this passage were metaphorical. After all, if it is possible for Christ to raise from the dead, certainly it’s nothing for Him to be present in the bread and wine presented to His followers.
A final way around this passage as forcing one into accepting that Christ is present in the bread and wine at the Eucharist is to say that the passage has nothing to do with the Lord’s Supper, as Calvin did. However, such a reading is not likely when, once again, we consider the context John was writing in. As evangelical scholar Andreas J. Köstenberger writes, “On a secondarily level, however, John may expect his readers to read Jesus’ words in light of the church’s observance of the Lord’s Supper, though not necessarily in a sacramental sense.” The New Interpreter’s commentary, however, drives the point home:
In Hebrew, the double formula “flesh and blood” emphasizes the corporeality of human existence, and its use here is thus an affirmation of the incarnation of the Son for Man. For the Christian reader, however, the double formula has unmistakable Eucharistic associations.
When considering the cultural context John was writing it’s almost impossible to see 6:53-60 as not relating to the Eucharist.
Meaning for the Modern Age and Conclusion
In light of John 6:53–60, evangelical Christians must rethink how they approach the Lord’s Supper, or more appropriately, the Eucharist. In partaking in the Eucharist Christians are engaging in more than a mere act of symbolism, but a very mystical act that unifies the believer with Christ’s body, and unifies the local body with each other (1 Corinthians 10:16–17). The fear of the Roman Catholic Church should not prevent us from seeking the truth. Likewise, we do not have to buy into transubstantiation (as in the Roman Catholic tradition) in order to believe that Christ’s essence is in the bread and wine. We can say with a straight face that we really are partaking in the body and blood of Christ – eating of His flesh and drinking of His blood – without agreeing that we are partaking in His substance, just His essence.
Thus, upon reading John 6:53–60, believers are to recognize that they partake in Christ’s spirit through faith, but also partake in his body through the Eucharist. In both they are unified with each other in the local body, and ultimately unified together in the universal Church. Therefore, when Christians come together for the Lord’s Supper, an aura of respect should be prevalent among the congregation. One should truly seek the forgiveness of his brother before partaking in the body of Christ (Matthew 5:24). During the taking of the bread and drinking of the wine the church should recognize it’s unity in that moment and then seek to live that unity in perfect holiness as they depart; for Christ is present in the Eucharist as he stated quite plainly in John 6:53–60.
 The term “essentially” here is meant in a philosophical understanding, to say that the bread and wine take on the essence of Christ’s body and blood. It is not meant as a simple summarization.
 This is the only miracle recounted in all four Canonical Gospels. It is also found in Matthew 14:13–21, Mark 6:31–44, and Luke 9:10–17.
 Kim Stephens, “The Christological and Eschatological Significance of Jesus’ Passover Signs in John 6,” Bibliotheca Sacra 164, no. 655 (JL-S 2007): 315
 Gail O’Day, “John” in Luke and John. Volume IX in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 496–498
 Popular evangelical scholar D.A. Carson makes an argument for interpreting John 6:53–60 as a metaphor in The Gospel of John. Volume 4 in The Pillar New Testament Commentary. (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 294. However, his argument falls short when considering the reactions of the Jews and even Jesus’ own disciples.
 For an alternative view that explains how the Jews and disciples could have been offended even with Christ speaking in a metaphor, see Albert J. Harrill’s article, “Cannibalistic Language in the Fourth Gospel and Greco-Roman Polemics of Factionalism (John 6:52-66),” Journal of Biblical Literature 127, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 135. See also Andreas J. Köstenberger, John. Volume 4 in Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Robert Yarbough and Robert H. Stein (Grand rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 218. I reject the arguments offered, however, because they simply try too hard to explain away the literal reading of the text.
 Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland, eds. Luke ~ Acts. Vol. 10 in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 448.
 Keck, 608.
 Eleanor Hanna, “Biblical Interpretation and Sacramental Practice: John Calvin’s Interpretation of John 6:51-58.” Worship 73, no. 3 [May 1999]
 Köstenberger, Bakers, 217.
 New Interpreter’s Bible, 608.
 From a philosophical perspective, the furthest one could take John 6:53–60 is to argue that via a mystical process, the bread becomes the essence of Christ’s body rather than the substance of Christ’s body (same with the wine and blood). Admittedly, such an argument is Platonic, but it still fits within the Biblical context without violating the commands against cannibalism.