Do We Need the Church?


In our fiercely individualistic and overly cynical society the statement, “I don’t need the Church,” has become somewhat of a truism. Typically followed by something like, “I don’t see why I need to go to some building every Sunday when I can experience God just as well on my morning walk?” Faith or, as it is nebulously referred to these days, ‘spirituality’, is viewed as purely a private affair. Church is perceived as some drafty building filled with stuck up, superstitious, people who gather to hear some stuck up preacher foist his opinions on a bunch of mindless drones for an hour. Ironically, these sentiments are increasingly shared by Christians who feel all they really need is their Bible and a personal relationship with Jesus.

Now, it is certainly true that we can experience God on our morning walks (or whilst doing any number of things); it is equally true that we need to read Holy Scripture and have a relationship with Jesus. But, is the Church largely irrelevant in this process? Can a vague spirituality, practiced in relative isolation, ultimately satisfy the deepest longings of our hearts? To answer these questions, let’s examine the popular sentiments I just canvased a little more closely.

Experiencing the Numinous

Clearly, there is more than one way to experience–to have some sort of contact or interaction with–a person. Take my wife, for example. One way I can experience her is through her art (she’s an extremely talented photographer). When I observe her photos–paying attention to the way she frames each shot, to the colors and lighting she utilizes, and to the story each picture tells–I, in some limited way, experience her thoughts, her intentions, and her creative power. Yet, I am far removed from her. She is the cause and her art is but an effect.

Another, more intimate, way I might experience her is through reading her blog. Her writings afford me a glimpse into her mind. In them I discover her hopes, dreams, and desires; I learn about her values, convictions, and overall philosophy of life. I become very close to her; yet I am still one step removed. For she is not wholly present to me; her words are but a shadowy extension of the reality that is her.

Which brings us to the next level of experience: personal contact. When I sit down with my wife, and speak to her face to face, I encounter the creative power behind the photos and directly interact with the mind from which the writing sprung forth. I have come into personal contact with the reality I had, up to that point, only experienced from afar. I am no longer interacting with the cause through its effects but dealing directly with the cause herself.

Yet, I can get even closer still. As her husband, there is an even deeper way in which I can experience my wife; and that is through the nuptial embrace. When she and I become one; and share ourselves with one another in the most intimate way possible.

Each of these interactions describe very real ways to experience my wife; yet, clearly, these experiences vary greatly in terms of the level of intimacy involved.

The point being, many of us only seek to experience the numinous from afar; avoiding any intimate or personal contact. This is not to downplay the importance of such interaction. For, surely experiencing God through the beauty of His creation whilst on our morning walk is a great good (like any experience of great art). However, if I want to draw closer to and fully experience the Creator of all things I have to come into direct contact with Him; I must move beyond the Universe and interact with its ultimate cause.

Just as with my wife, I might seek to experience God through something He has written (or has inspired to be written). Again, this too is a great good. For, without a doubt, reading and meditating on the Bible will reveal much about God’s character, His motives, and His plans for my life. The key question is: Is this all God has to offer? Are we stuck merely experiencing God vaguely through the Universe He has made or through reading His inspired writings? Or, has He provided a more intimate, more personal, more direct way to experience Him? Something akin to the intimate relationship that I share with my beloved bride.

A Personal Relationship

As I said before, many Christians advocate having a personal relationship with Jesus. Yet, most understand this relationship, this experience of the numinous, to be an isolated, private, affair; one that is mediated almost entirely through the private study of the Bible. Perhaps, however, this is only scratching surface; it is only the tip of the proverbial ice-burg. Perhaps, God is interested in something deeper; something more profound. Perhaps God is offering Himself to us; that we might intimately experience Him in a way analogous to that of the relationship I share with my wife.

The biblical theologian Brant Pitre explains:

 …none of these ways of seeing God–as a distant watchmaker, as an impersonal force that binds everything together, or as a kind of invisible superhuman hero–is the way a first-century Jew like Jesus of Nazareth would have seen God. From an ancient Jewish perspective, the one true God–“the LORD” or “He Who Is” (Hebrew YHWH) (Exodus 3:15)–is not just the Creator. From an ancient Jewish perspective, the God of Israel is also a Bridegroom, a divine person whose ultimate desire is to be united to his creatures in an everlasting relationship that is so intimate, so permanent, so sacrificial, and so life-giving that it can only be described as a marriage between Creator and creatures, between God and human beings, between YHWH and Israel.

Christians believe this divine marriage was fully realized in the person of Jesus Christ who, through His incarnation and passion, initiated a New Covenant between God and men; who gathered for Himself a people; namely, a Church; i.e., the New Israel. St. Paul communicates this idea, utilizing the imagery of marriage, on multiple occasions. Perhaps, most clearly, in this passage from Ephesians:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the Church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones (Ephesians 5:25-30).

Being a Christian means being grafted or adopted into a community; a family. It means entering into the life of God who exists as an intimate communion of three distinct persons sharing one essence and will: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It means being part of a living Body–the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church–whose head is Christ. It is within this community that we fully and completely encounter the risen Lord; the Bridegroom who desires us to know Him and to experience Him directly.

Within this community, this communion of saints, we are able to experience Christ in a very real, very tangible, very personal, and deeply intimate way: namely, through the most Holy Eucharist. Through partaking of the Eucharist–the body, blood, soul, and divinity of our Lord really present in the bread and wine–we not only become one with our Lord but He draws us into union with each other as well. St. Paul explains:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of the one bread (1 Corinth. 10:16-17).

Understood in this sense, asking the question, “Do we need the Church?” is on par with asking, “Do I need to spend time with or make love to my wife?” I suppose I could get by with a long distance relationship; but that is not my hearts deepest desire and longing. My desire is to be near her, to experience her personally, and to be as intimate with her as I possibly can. Likewise, we can get by on our own, experiencing God from a distance, but this will never satisfy the deepest yearning of our hearts: which is to be known by and to know the God who brought us into being in the most intimate way. Such an experience of the numinous can only take place within the context of the Church.

Mary as Mediatrix: An Incarnational View


Many Christians find the notion that Mary played a role in our salvation extremely blasphemous. They particularly find the ascription of the title Mediatrix to Mary, found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, offensive.  In their eyes this ascription stands in direct opposition to Jesus’s role as the sole mediator between God and man. After all, Sacred Scripture is crystal clear on this matter:

“For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time” (1 Timothy 2:5-6 NKJV).

While I completely embrace these words from St. Paul, I deny that they constitute a defeater for Catholic Marian dogma. I contend that the aversion to Mary’s role in our salvation, endemic in so many Christians, is a form of Neo-Docetism. I further maintain that shedding this Neo-Docetist attitude, and embracing an incarnational approach to theology, will help us to understand Mary’s soteriological importance.

The Neo-Docetist Attitude

To be sure, Jesus is the One Mediator between God and men. For it is only through the Word who, “became flesh and dwelt among us,” (John 1:14) that we can be united to God. Mediation is the very point of the incarnation. God, in His love, united Himself to His creation so that His creation might be united to Him: this is the ultimate act of reconciliation. It is, also, the cosmic destiny–or telos–of the universe. As St. Paul states:

“For he [the Father] has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10).

But many Christians fail to see any of this.  They fail to see the fundamental importance of the incarnation; and fail to see the work of Christ as including the redemption and renewal of the body and the physical/material world in general.  In consequence, the work of Christ is often narrowly construed. The matter of greatest importance, for many Christians, is that Jesus came to satiate the wrath of the Father so as to take away the punishment necessitated by sin (i.e., Penal Substitutionary Atonement).

Mediation, on this view, only happens through the cross; everything hinges upon the death of Christ. As such, the incarnation plays little to no role in the process and is almost a peripheral issue. This implicit denial of the incarnation lies at the heart of the Neo-Docetist attitude. Unlike Classical Docetism, which explicitly denied the incarnation, Neo-Docetism minimizes the importance of the incarnation to the point where its relevance to soteriology is indiscernible.

As I have argued before, this attitude also leads to the rejection of a sacramental worldview; one in which God works in and through the corporeal world to bring about its renewal. Everything in the Christian faith, given the Neo-Docetist perspective, becomes over spiritualized. Baptism looses its efficacy and becomes just a symbol. The Eucharist is no longer the real presence of Christ, but a sentimental ritual that we perpetuate out of obedience. Works of love play no role in our salvation, which is wrought through faith alone (i.e., a mental assent or acknowledgment of Penal Substitutionary Atonement).

Penal Substitution and Mary

Obviously, if one adopts a Neo-Docetist attitude, Mary can play no role in the mediation between God and man. For if (1) mediation is narrowly construed as Penal Substitutionary Atonement and (2) salvation is merely a sort of mental assent to this doctrine, then it is utter lunacy to ascribe to Mary the role of Mediatrix. Clearly, Mary didn’t take the sins of the world upon herself and die on the cross, thereby satiating the wrath of the Father towards mankind. It must be admitted, therefore, that if we adopt this limited conception of mediation, it makes sense to oppose Catholic Marian dogma. On this view, the very notion of Mary being a Mediatrix is nonsense.

Incarnational Theology and the Role of Mary

If, however, mediation is understood in a broader incarnational sense, the role of Mary becomes crystal clear. For it is through Mary that the Word became flesh; it was in her womb that the Creator and sustainer of the universe took on human nature.

God did not force Himself upon Mary against her will either. As Peter Kreeft is fond of saying, “God is not a rapist.” Mary didn’t have to accept the message from Gabriel; she didn’t have to submit herself to what the Lord was intending to do in her life.  Mary, like you and I, had a real choice to make when she heard the message: she could either choose to reject God, as Eve had done in the garden, or choose to fully submit to His will and trust in Him.  To all of creations great relief, Mary chose the latter saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Like us, Mary’s faith in the Lord was made possible by the grace of God; and it was through the grace and love of God that Mary was emboldened to open herself to receiving the Lord. Likewise, it was the power of the Holy Spirit, working in and through the Virgin, that made it possible for the Word to take on flesh; and it was through the incarnation of the Word that God united Himself to man.

It is in this context, the context of the incarnation, that Mary is said to be Mediatrix. For it is through her openness to God that the Lord was able to make his abode among men. As Hans Urs von Balthasar so eloquently explains:

“[in Mary] we see readiness, a receptivity that is totally unreserved: body, soul, and spirit are utterly open, “openings” to God. Here the essential thing is that the body is involved; that the handmaid’s consent echoes right through her, down to the lowliest and most unconscious fibers of her being; her whole self, in its materiality, from its lowest level upward, makes itself a womb for the Wholly Other, for God’s self utterance (and hence his “substance”). Never before had this substance taken up its abode within the straitened dimensions of a mortal body.”

Through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of our Lord, human nature has been restored to its former dignity and purity, and it is once again possible for the creation to be fully united with its Creator.

In all of this, there is but One true Mediator, and that is God. For it is God who creates and sustains the world, and it is God who saves. Mary, on her own, has no power to mediate. This is why the Catechism says:

“Mary’s function as mother of men in no way obscures or diminishes this unique mediation of Christ, but rather shows its power. But the Blessed Virgin’s salutary influence on men . . . flows forth from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it, and draws all its power from it. No creature could ever be counted along with the Incarnate Word and Redeemer; but just as the priesthood of Christ is shared in various ways both by his ministers and the faithful, and as the one goodness of God is radiated in different ways among his creatures, so also the unique mediation of the Redeemer does not exclude but rather gives rise to a manifold cooperation which is but a sharing in this one source” (CCC article 970).

Considered in this light, it is clear that Mary plays a substantial role in salvation history and that her role in no way threatens Christ’s position as the One mediator between God and man.

Penal Substitution, Sola Fide and the New Docetism

Isaac Gutiérrez Pascual ©2010

Earlier this month I spoke about the cosmic importance of the Incarnation.  Today I’d like to build upon this reflection.  As I noted before, many Christians fail to see the Incarnation as the cosmic destiny or telos of creation and, likewise, fail to see the work of Christ as including the sanctification, redemption, and renewal of the body and the physical/material world in general.  For many, the work of Christ is narrowly construed.  It was merely to satiate the wrath of God the Father so as to take away the punishment necessitated by sin (i.e., Penal Substitutionary Atonement).  This popular view of the atonement is accompanied by another important doctrine classically referred to as Sola Fide or “salvation by faith alone.”  It is this doctrine which teaches that belief—often understood as a sort of mental assent—in Jesus’ work on the cross is the sole means of our salvation.

I submit that both Penal Substitutionary Atonement (henceforth, PSA) and Sola Fide represent a form of “Neo-Docetism.”  Unlike classical Docetism, which explicitly denied the Incarnation (that the Word actually became flesh), Neo-Docetism places such little significance on the Incarnation, and such heavy emphasis on Sola Fide (i.e., a mental assent to the propositional truth of PSA) it implicitly denies the Incarnation as being absolutely necessary for our salvation.  Unfortunately, when we fail to view theology, and especially soteriology, through the lens of the Incarnation we run into major problems.  Before we elaborate on this point, however, let us first take a closer look at Docetism as it was originally espoused.

Classical Docetism

Classical Docetism rejected the Incarnation outright and, in consequence, the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist (which was overwhelmingly accepted by all orthodox Christians for over a thousand years).  Evidently, the original Docetist’s also rejected works of mercy as being crucial or necessary aspects of true faith in Christ.  We learn this from the letters of St. Ignatius—who, consequentially, knew St. Peter and was installed as the Bishop of Antioch after St. Peter traveled to Rome .  In his letter to the Smyrnaeans these three common threads of Docetism–the rejection of the Incarnation, the Eucharist, and works of mercy—are made very clear.  St. Ignatius writes:

“But look at the men [i.e., the Docetist’s who deny the Incarnation] who have those perverted notions about the grace of Jesus Christ which has come down to us, and see how contrary to the mind of God they are.  They have no care for love, no thought for the widow and orphan, none at all for the afflicted, the captive, the hungry or the thirsty.  They even absent themselves from the Eucharist and the public prayers, because they will not admit that the Eucharist is the self-same body of our Savior Jesus Christ which suffered for our sins, and which the Father in His goodness afterwards raised up again.  Consequently, since they reject God’s good gifts, they are doomed in their disputatiousness.  They would have done better to learn charity, if they were ever to know any resurrection.”


By minimizing the soteriological importance of the Incarnation, and, in fact, failing to make it the measure of their theologizing, the Neo-Docetist’s appear to follow the same pattern as their ancient predecessors.  They reject the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist—and, thus, renounce the sacramental worldview held by the earliest Christians.  In so doing, they fail to see how the love of neighbor (in tangible ways) is of soteriological importance.  In point of fact, Sola Fide flatly rejects the idea that works of love and mercy are necessary for authentic faith and, thus, for salvation.  For some the Neo-Docetist attitude has morphed into a full blown Gnosticism which views the human body as superfluous (e.g., we’re just “spirit-beings” waiting to escape the body), considers matters of social justice of secondary importance, and almost completely ignores the environment.  Interestingly, these Neo-Docetist/Gnostic tendencies play a major roll in why Millennials seem to be drifting away from evangelicalism.

Incarnational Theology 

In contrast, theology viewed through the lens of the incarnation recognizes the broader implications and importance of, “the Word [who] became flesh and dwelt among us . . . full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  It recognizes creation as being essentially good (Genesis 1:31) and as originally intended to be in full communion with God.  It knows that nature is ultimately designed to direct us to its Creator.  It thus maintains a sacramental worldview which acknowledges the Holy Spirit works in and through the created world to sustain and renew it.

It further understands that sin has subjected all of creation to futility because sin estranged the creation from its Creator.  Affirming with St. Paul that:

“The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:20-22).

Incarnational theology understands that, by taking on a real body, the Word of God, through whom and for whom all things where made (Colossians 1:16), sanctified the flesh and ushered in the renewal of creation.  As a real man Christ lived a life of perfect faith—obeying the will of the Father, healing the sick, giving sight to the blind, feeding the hungry, turning men away from their sin— admonishing us to do the same.  Saying, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).  Thus, showing us that to have a living faith is to be like Christ; to love the world as He loved it; to obey the will of the Father; to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  This is why St. James says:

“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?  So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:14-17).”

Thus, salvation understood in light of the Incarnation is holistic–encompassing the whole of man.  Jesus requires we give God everything we are.  It is the first and greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matt. 22:36).  Mental assent given to a set of propositions about Jesus (i.e. Sola Fide) is not enough; for, “even the demons believe–and shudder” (James 2:19).  Faith certainly has a knowledge component but is not merely knowledge.  Faith is tangible–it is played out through us as we live our lives in the corporeal world.

The Eucharist 

In accordance with everything that has been said, incarnational theology also recognizes the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  It embraces the most controversial of Jesus’ teachings because it knows that He desires to draw us—in our entirety, body and soul–into full communion with Him; for this is the very point of the Incarnation.  Thus, it understands what Jesus means when He emphatically states:

“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 you.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.  For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:53-56).

The Word became flesh to give his flesh for us; to transform us; to redeem us; to restore us to what we truly are: men and woman made in the image and likeness of God.  What amazing grace this is–that the God who formed the universe would unite Himself to it in order to preserve and keep it.  This is the Gospel message–the kingdom of God is at hand!  The Almighty God who created the heavens and the earth draws near!  Intimately and, some might say, uncomfortably near.  It is the most provocative message ever proclaimed by any teacher in all of history.

A Mystical Transformation or Why I Changed My Mind About the Lord’s Supper

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[1] 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).[2] 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).[3] 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.[4] 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.

Meaning Analysis

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[5], 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[6], 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?[7]

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.[8]

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.[9] 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.”[10] 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.[11]

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.[12] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Kim Stephens, “The Christological and Eschatological Significance of Jesus’ Passover Signs in John 6,” Bibliotheca Sacra 164, no. 655 (JL-S 2007): 315

[4] 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

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] Tremper Longman III & David E. Garland, eds. Luke ~ Acts. Vol. 10 in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Revised Edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 448.

[8] Keck, 608.

[9] Eleanor Hanna, “Biblical Interpretation and Sacramental Practice: John Calvin’s Interpretation of John 6:51-58.” Worship 73, no. 3 [May 1999]

[10] Köstenberger, Bakers, 217.

[11] New Interpreter’s Bible, 608.

[12] 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.