The Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation teaches that the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper literally (though invisibly) transform into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus' human body. These elements are thus considered proper objects of worship, as they are thought to be God Himself physically present. They are also a sacramental means of obtaining the grace of Jesus Christ for faithful Roman Catholics who partake of them.
Perhaps the primary text that Roman Catholics appeal to in defense of this doctrine is John 6:51-55:
“'I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.' Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, 'How can this man give us His flesh to eat?' So Jesus said to them, '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 yourselves. He who eats 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,'” (John 6:51-55).
They argue that Jesus plainly claims that you must literally eat His flesh and blood to attain eternal life and that this is talking about the bread and wine of communion which Jesus would later institute. If one were to accept this interpretation, however, it would have to mean that anyone who performs the physical act of eating the communion elements is absolutely guaranteed eternal life. Note again that Jesus says:
"He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day," (John 6:54).
Jesus also says immediately after this:
"As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me," (John 6:57).
Whatever it means to eat Jesus, to eat His flesh and drink His blood, whoever does it is promised eternal life and future resurrection. Jesus swears on the Father who sent Him that anyone who eats Him will live. Again, whatever Jesus means by "eating" Him, everyone who does it has eternal life. Guaranteed. Roman Catholicism, however, denies any such guarantee.
Likewise, if anyone doesn't eat His flesh and blood they will not have eternal life:
"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 yourselves," (John 6:53).
If this refers to physically eating Jesus' human body in the form of the bread and wine of communion, then it also ends up saying more than the modern Roman Catholic would intend. The man who truly repents and believes in Christ but dies before he makes it to his first Catholic Mass is still bound for hell. So, too, with faithful Protestants who partake of communion without a Roman Catholic priest to perform the miracle of Transubstantiation. They are likewise bound for hell since their communion elements have not transformed into the literal body and blood of Christ. Thus, this reading of the passage would claim that everyone who performs the physical act of eating the bread and wine at a Catholic mass will be saved, and no one who does not eat these elements can be saved. Salvation is, thus, based on the performance of a ritual rather than on faith in Christ or repentance of sin, which would be contrary to everything else the Bible says. A quick look at the context, however, shows that this is not at all what Jesus had in mind when He told men to eat His flesh and drink His blood.
A consistent theme that runs through the Gospel of John is that of Jesus using analogies to express His purpose, and then of people missing His point by taking such imagery literally. For example:
- In John 2:18-22, after driving the money changers from the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus tells His accusers to “destroy this temple, and in three days I will rebuild it.” They think He means the literal temple, but John explains that Jesus is actually referring to His own body.
- In John 3:1-18, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be “born again.” Nicodemus mistakenly believes He is talking about literal birth. He is actually talking about regeneration by the Spirit and eternal life through faith.
- In John 4:7-14, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that she should be seeking the living water that He can give. She thinks that He means literal water. He explains that He means regeneration within unto eternal life.
- In John 4:31-38, Jesus tells the disciples that He has food about which they do not know. They think He means literal, physical food. He explains that His food is to accomplish what the Father sent Him to do, namely, bringing about the salvation of many (including the Samaritans).
- In John 7:37-39, Jesus says, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink," and "From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water." The passage makes clear that Jesus was actually talking about coming to Christ in faith and being made new by receiving the Holy Spirit (regeneration).
Further examples could be multiplied. These, however, are sufficient to demonstrate that John 6 falls in the midst of a long series of episodes where Jesus uses physical imagery to speak of spiritual reality (most frequently of faith, regeneration by the Spirit, and Christ’s giving of eternal life to those who believe.) Several of these images involved comparisons to food and drink. When we arrive at John 6 and find Jesus telling a crowd that they must eat His flesh and drink His blood to have eternal life, and they take His words literally and are appalled, the most obvious assumption seems to be that they have misunderstood Jesus and His words are figurative and pointing to something else. This would be consistent with the rest of John's narrative. Such are the kind of incidents in Jesus' life that John goes out of his way to emphasize. When we read the passage, this is indeed exactly what we find.
In the aftermath of the feeding of the 5,000, there are crowds following Jesus in hopes of being fed again by Jesus miracles. Jesus says to them:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you, for on Him the Father, God, has set His seal.’ Therefore, they said to Him, ‘What shall we do, so that we may work the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent,” (John 6:26-29).
Jesus tells us up front that He is commanding them to come to Him in faith rather than seeking literal, physical food. They even ask Him about the plural "works" of God, but Jesus responds with only one, singular work, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent." Jesus goes on to further explain:
"I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst," (John 6:35).
You partake of Jesus as the bread of life by coming to Him and believing in Him. It is by faith in Christ that one will cease to hunger and thirst. Jesus is using the image of food, but He is talking about coming to Him in faith, as Jesus says plainly just a few verses later:
"For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day," (John 6:40).
Jesus promises eternal life and future resurrection to "everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him." This is the literal reality to which His food analogy corresponds. As we read on, Jesus explains this yet again:
"Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh," (John 6:48-51).
Jesus begins with the plain statement that "he who believes has eternal life." He goes on to say, "Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die." Notice how this parallels with Jesus' earlier conversation with the Samaritan woman:
"She said to Him, 'Sir, You have nothing to draw with and the well is deep; where then do You get that living water? You are not greater than our father Jacob, are You, who gave us the well, and drank of it himself and his sons and his cattle?' Jesus answered and said to her, 'Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life,'” (John 4:11-14).
Jesus is comparing physical eating and drinking, which can only sustain temporarily, to the gift of life that He gives by the Spirit, which is eternal and satisfies fully. Jesus was not telling the woman to physically drink some particular liquid He would give, nor was He telling the crowd to literally eat His human body. He was using imagery to illustrate the fact that regeneration and eternal life found in Christ through faith satisfy and sustain as no food or beverage could ever do. Jesus is talking about coming to Him in faith to receive eternal life through His death and resurrection. As Jesus also earlier explained to Nicodemus:
“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God,” (John 3:15-18).
John's gospel never focuses on the communion meal. Even in John's telling of the Last supper, there is no mention made of Jesus' discussion of the bread and cup. That's not John's focus. Instead, as He explains:
"Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name," (John 20:20-21).
John had a very specific focus in what he chose to report about Jesus' life and teaching. His point was that the reader would have life by believing in Jesus. This is the message that flows through the whole gospel. Jesus wasn't talking about the ritual of the Lord's Supper in John 6. He was talking about eternal life in the Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ. He says so Himself toward the end of the passage:
"It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life," (John 6:63).
Far from teaching transubstantiation, John 6:51-55 is not even talking about the bread and wine at all. When Jesus says, "if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh." He is talking about giving Himself on the cross, and to "eat the bread" is to come to Him by faith. When Jesus says, "He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day," He is merely repeating what He said earlier in the chapter, "everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day." To "eat" or "drink" Jesus is to come to Him in faith. This is the point Jesus was making. Just as He would later go on to say:
"I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies," (John 11:25).