I have recently been in correspondence with someone who is leaving a Protestant church for Roman Catholicism. Naturally, the prime question I raised was why? A Bible-believing Protestant must surely be quite convinced of the biblical warrant for Catholic doctrines in order to make such a conversion. The response I received was focused largely on the teaching of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, supported by John 6; along with the primacy and infallibility of the Pope, supported by Matthew 16:17-19. I was particularly interested in examining John 6, since it is a lengthier and richer passage than Matthew 16:17-19, and one which warrants a careful explication. When one really starts to systematically study the passage, a number of themes, associations, and parallels become clear which are not necessarily evident given a cursory reading. And, this is a passage which does, to many cursory readers, appear to be speaking literally of eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood, in a way which suggests the doctrine which Roman Catholics have, of the Real Presence.
Of John 6, specifically verses 35 and following, my correspondent says—
Christ explicitly states that He is the bread of life and goes on to say, in verse 53, “except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you”. The attitude and actions of His other disciples is apposite: “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him”. Understood literally, what Christ had said was hard to swallow (as it were); yet Christ made no effort to explain either to them or His apostles what He had meant (if indeed the verse should be treated symbolically) as He had done with His parables. This would then infer that the Eucharist is the literal blood and body of Christ.
My response is as follows, slightly edited and expanded for clarity—
I am surprised that you reference John 6 as being influential in your move to Catholicism. Not because it cannot be interpreted as favoring transubstantiation, but because it so strongly emphasizes the doctrine of particular election, which the Catholics deny. Anyway, I’d like to offer my own thoughts on John 6:35ff, and I hope you’ll read them and consider them and pray on them. It is a very rich passage, so my exposition will necessarily be lengthy—but I think we would both benefit from investigating in some depth what Jesus says here, and meditating upon it.
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
36But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
This passage tells us a huge amount about how to understand what Jesus is about to say in verses 43-51. Notice the various clauses.
Firstly, Jesus tells his listeners that he is the bread of life, which is preliminary to his startling later statements in which he elaborates this theme. He tells them whoever comes to him will never hunger, and whoever believes in him will never thirst. At this point, when he says that he is the bread of life, he is clearly speaking in the context of verses 32-34, drawing a parallel between himself and the manna sent by God to the Israelites in the wilderness. He is telling the Jews, in effect, that he and the manna come from the same place, and that the manna was a physical foreshadowing of the spiritual function which he himself fulfills. I’m sure you’re familiar with the way in which the Old Testament uses antitypes of various sorts to prefigure many things found in the New Testament. John’s gospel is replete with Old Testament antitypes being correlated with Christ; particularly those found in Exodus, which is itself an antitype of a Christian’s journey through life before reaching heaven (the promised land). So, knowing this, we should be seeking to understand John 6 in terms of a typical fulfillment of the Old Testament manna.
Notice that I italicized the words come and believes before. This is because these words inform how we interpret Jesus’ later comments regarding eating his flesh and drinking his blood. He says in verse 35 that anyone who comes to him, anyone who believes in him, will never hunger or thirst. I think we would both agree that he is referring here to anyone who has faith in him—anyone who comes to him in faith: that is, Christians. But obviously he does mean that Christians never literally hunger or thirst, because clearly they do; so already we see that he is speaking figuratively, as he so often does. He is using hunger and thirst as metaphors for being in spiritual need; of being spiritually lifeless: hence, he is the metaphorical bread of life.
I think Catholics would agree that this verse is teaching that whoever has faith in Christ will always be spiritually satisfied in the eternal sense—that is, that whoever has faith in Christ will have eternal life. Throughout this sermon, Jesus is obviously speaking in an eternal sense rather than a temporal one: contrasting physical life with eternal life. This is made particularly clear in verses 49 and 50 where he says, “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.
Secondly, we see that Jesus says whoever comes to him and believes in him will never hunger or thirst. That is, whoever comes to him and believes in him will have eternal life. But he immediately goes on to directly assert that those to whom he is speaking do not believe: “but you have seen me and do not believe”. Now, he doesn’t stop there, but rather uses this statement as an opening parenthesis leading to a clear explanation of their unbelief: he asserts that all whom the Father gives him will come to him, and that he will lose none of these people, but raise them up on the last day. Then he finishes with a closing parenthetical statement which echoes the opening one, saying: “everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Notice the very specific conjunction, and. He is drawing a strong distinction between those to whom he is speaking, and those who will have eternal life. And he is telling them in no uncertain terms precisely why they do not believe, as compared to those who will have eternal life: because the Father has not drawn them. This clearly contradicts the Roman Catholic doctrine of prevenient grace, and the free will of man in responding to that grace.
This continues in verses 41 to 51. The Jews understandably grumble among themselves about how Jesus says he is the bread come down from heaven. They know his physical father and mother, and so his claim to come from heaven is at best ludicrous to them, if not openly blasphemous. But what does he say?
Do not grumble among yourselves.
44No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. 45It is written in the Prophets ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— 46not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.
He clearly associates coming to him with believing in him. The two are one and the same. The Jews do not believe Jesus and grumble about what he is saying; Jesus tells them not to grumble, that no one can come to him, that is that no one can believe him, unless the Father draws that person. In fact, Jesus says, that person will be taught by God, as even the Prophets attest. He is essentially telling the Jews that what he is saying is not new revelation. Just as Nicodemus should have understood what Jesus was telling him in John 3 about regeneration, because it was all contained in the Old Testament of which Nicodemus was supposed to be a teacher (3:9-15; this, of course, also makes it impossible to interpret “water” in that passage as referring to baptism, as the Catholics do), so the Jews should understand and believe what Jesus is telling them now, because it is all taught in the Old Testament. Particularly, it is perspicuous in Jeremiah 31 verses 33 and 34, but also in Isaiah 54:13 and other places.
Jesus then concludes this teaching on election by again reiterating, this time in even more obvious language, the conditions for salvation: “whoever believes has eternal life.” So he has now said that whoever comes to him, whoever believes in him, will never hunger or thirst; that whoever looks on the Son and believes in him will have eternal life; and again that whoever believes has eternal life. He is nothing if not emphasizing the condition for eternal life in the midst of his also commenting on who can and will receive it—and that condition is belief.
Now, we have two clear metaphors so far. Firstly, to never hunger or thirst means to have eternal life. We know this for two reasons: Jesus interchanges freely between the metaphor and the reality it describes (vv 35, 40, 47); and, if it is not a metaphor but is meant literally, then what he is saying is absurd. Secondly, then, within this hunger and thirst metaphor, Jesus is claiming that there is a “bread” which will forever satisfy. This metaphorical bread is Jesus himself. Hunger and thirst are spiritual need; the bread of life is the spiritual fulfillment of need in Jesus. There is no place, so far, to interpret this bread as being literal. We must remember these two metaphors as we continue.
Jesus then returns in verse 48 to drawing a parallel between the manna of Exodus, and himself. He is, after all, speaking to Jews, and he is showing how the Old Testament prefigures him. The Israelites ate manna in the desert, and they died—but Jesus “is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” Here the language starts to sound quite literal, but consider everything which has gone before: how Jesus is speaking symbolically, conflating the physical antitypes in the Old Testament and the spiritual fulfillment in him, so as to parallel them via metaphor. Consider how carefully he started his sermon by saying that whoever comes to him, whoever believes in him will never hunger or thirst, metaphorically speaking, but have eternal life. And now, he again conflates the physical and the spiritual, so as to draw a parallel, by speaking of the physical eating of manna and the physical death of the Israelites; and then the eating of himself, and the spiritual life which results. Are we to suppose that, in such a clear case of the physical prefiguring the spiritual, we must now interpret the spiritual fulfillment as physical? Surely that would merely betray that we have not understood the purpose of Jesus’ conflating physical antitypes with spiritual fulfillment, but instead been confused by it like the Jews, thinking that he was speaking physically in both cases. But if he is indeed intending to draw a contrast between physical death and spiritual life, then surely he is also intending to draw a contrast between physical manna and spiritual bread, and between physical eating and spiritual eating.
Indeed, does he not clearly show us this in his opening statements of verses 35 to 47, where, as I have pointed out, he three times states that eternal life and eternal satisfaction from hunger and thirst (which we know mean spiritual hunger and thirst) is procured by believing? Since he has been speaking all along of metaphorical hunger and thirst, and since he has clearly said several times that these are sated by believing, how can we become so confused now as to think that, because he has started using more literal-sounding language, he has suddenly started to describe a new requirement for salvation which is in physical eating and physical bread? Surely he is still speaking metaphorically, explaining a spiritual truth in terms of a physical antitype. If the hunger and thirst to which he is referring are metaphorical, and the bread which we must eat to be sated is metaphorical, then the eating itself must be metaphorical—just as when, “on the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink,'” he was speaking metaphorically (John 7:37); or when he says in John 4:14 that “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again”.
Now, if the bread of which he speaks here in John 6—which he identifies with himself—is metaphorical, as I have already established, then the eating of it must be metaphorical also. And what does he say about eating the bread? That “one may eat of it and not die” (v 50), and that “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (v 54). And what has he already clearly stated in the exact same language? “That everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (v 40). Thus the connection is clear: Jesus is the metaphorical bread prefigured in the manna; and belief in Jesus is the metaphorical act of eating.
Throughout the whole passage so far, Jesus has used the physical events in Exodus to teach about a spiritual fulfillment in himself. He conflates the physical with the spiritual so as to teach by way of metaphor—and this can understandably lead to confusion because sometimes he speaks in a way that sounds like he is literally saying that he is bread, that we must eat his flesh, and so on. But that is the point of a metaphor! To think that is actually speaking literally is to completely miss what he is doing in the first place: it is to fail to see that he is teaching metaphorically. Each “literal” statement he makes is in fact a metaphorical statement couched in terms of the physical analogy he has chosen. And, in case this is not obvious, he “starts us out slow” at the beginning of the sermon by spelling out in more obvious language the metaphors he is going to use. He clearly states what we must do to have eternal life, so that when he restates it in metaphorical language, we can see the parallel and understand it. To eat his flesh is to believe in his work.
Now, you have said that he makes no effort to explain either to the Jews or to his apostles that this sermon should be treated symbolically. Indeed, verses 52 through 59 have him restating his teaching in even more literal language after he is questioned by the Jews. And clearly the Jews take him literally, and he seems to intend for them to take him literally—for he surely is aware that they are seeking clarification, and that by restating himself thus (rather than explaining himself), he will confirm in their minds their assumption that he is speaking literally. But should this suggest to us that he is speaking literally? It does not seem so at all. For in Matthew 13:13 he says, “This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.” And he references Isaiah 6:10, which is similarly cited in John 12:39-41. We see often in the New Testament how the Jews are deliberately excluded from understanding the truth about Jesus, and how he achieves this by speaking symbolically. Therefore, in light of the very clear metaphorical/antitypical nature of his teaching here in John 6, we ought to understand this teaching as being delivered with the same intention. We certainly should not think it to mean something literal, for that would be to commit the twofold error of violating the internal consistency of the passage, and the external consistency it has with other scriptural principles.
Moreover, it is in no way true that Christ does not attempt to explain to his apostles that his sermon should be understood symbolically. Certainly he does not explain it to the Jews—but in versus 60-65, when his disciples are themselves grumbling about how hard it is to swallow what he’s saying, he tells them, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” This plainly contradicts his previous statement that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man […] you have no life in you” (v 53)—at least if you take it literally. If you take it metaphorically, however, then in fact he is affirming and explaining what he previously said in the sermon. Thus he clearly, though briefly, corrects them that his words were not to be understood literally, but spiritually.
Furthermore, consider how the apostle John, who wrote this passage, understood it himself. Notice that he quotes Jesus as saying, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (v 56). I have deduced that, if Jesus is speaking metaphorically, then feeding on his flesh is a metaphor for believing in him. But what does John himself say? ” Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:15). Surely the use of the exact same language in these two passages is not coincidental.
I think I’ve written well enough for you to consider for now. I really hope that you will consider it, and ponder it carefully and prayerfully, because if I am right then this has very far-reaching ramifications for your decision to become a Catholic.