Cannibals and Vampires for Jesus? (John 6:51-71)
Topic: One Lord: So Great a Salvation Passage: John 6:51–71
I. Ancient Accusations
Did you know that Christians in the first centuries of the faith were accused by many Romans of despicable practices like incest, infanticide, and cannibalism? For some critics, this was simply the Roman “PR” machine at work to vilify Christianity by any means necessary. But others actually believed these charges. So where did such outrageous accusations come from? They were inspired by pagan confusion about early Christian terminology and practices. For example, if you heard that your Christian neighbor was going to a love feast with their brothers and sisters, you might imagine some bizarre, incestuous gathering was taking place. But as we know, that Christian neighbor was simply going to a fellowship meal with the family of God.
In the same way, when it was said that Christian worship involved partaking of the body and blood of Jesus, charges of cannibalism seemed justified. But any visitor to a Christian worship gathering would find that only bread and wine were being consumed, not an actual person. And yet the language is still provocative, isn't it? Of course, we know where the language comes from. Jesus used these terms at that last supper with his disciples, the evening before his crucifixion. The Apostle Paul later described this episode in I Corinthians 11:23–25...
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread,  and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”  In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
Eating His body and drinking his blood? Why would Jesus use this scandalous language?
II. The Passage: “Whoever Feeds on Me” (6:51-71)
Let's consider that question by looking together at John 6. We read, beginning in verse 51...
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”  The Jews then disputed among themselves, 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 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.  As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.  This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died [i.e., the manna in Exodus]. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”  Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.
To make sense of what Jesus is saying here, I think it's important to point out three things:
First, Jesus is still speaking here about being the “bread of life”. You may remember that when, earlier in this chapter, the crowds came seeking more miraculously multiplied bread, Jesus encouraged them to work (v. 27) “for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” How could they work for such food? Verse 29... “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Then in verses 32 and 33, after they mention the manna described in the book of Exodus, Jesus goes on to refer to “the true bread from heaven” and the “bread of God”. Finally, in verse 35, he makes this stunning declaration (the first of seven “I am” statements found in this Gospel): “I am the bread of life”.
It's important to note the rest of verse 35. Take a look: “...whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” So when Jesus describes himself in verse 51 as “the living bread that came down from heaven”, he's simply continuing this conversation about spiritual nourishment that results in eternal life. And more specifically, that He IS that spiritual nourishment. But in verse 51, we also discover that...
Second, Jesus explains this figurative bread as his literal flesh. Look back to that last phrase in verse 51... “And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Even though there is a lot of figurative language being used here (Jesus, for example is not literally a walking loaf of bread), this statement about his “flesh” should be taken literally. Jesus is partly explaining what he means by the word “bread”. Someone might ask, “So you're saying that Jesus is talking about literally eating his flesh?” No. Of course not. Even though we should take the word “flesh” in a literal sense, I think the context helps us see that the words “eat” and “feed” here are still being used figuratively.
How is one nourished for eternal life? Jesus has already made that clear in verse 29: “...that you believe in him whom [God] sent”. Belief then becomes a main emphasis in the conversation: v. 30, v. 35, v. 36, v. 40, v. 47. So throughout this chapter, this image of eating should be understood as a picture of faith. Just as eating is the body receiving or consuming physical nourishment, faith is the heart or spirit receiving (or consuming) spiritual nourishment. But why talk about his literal flesh? That brings us to a final point...
Third, the fact Jesus “will give” his flesh points us to the cross. Did you notice how in verse 51 Jesus spoke using a future tense? “...the bread that I will give...” Even though Jesus was presently calling them to faith, there is clearly something that still has to happen. Jesus has not yet, but “will give” his flesh “for the life of the world”. When you read the Gospel of John as a whole, it's not difficult to see how Jesus is speaking here about his death on the cross. Four times in chapter 10 he exclaims, “I will lay down my life” (vs. 11, 15, 17-18). In chapter 12, Jesus declared, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." [then John adds this note] He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die. (2:32-33)
So let's stop and think about this for a minute. Jesus is offering his listeners, he's offering us this morning, spiritual nourishment for eternal life. What is this nourishment that saves spiritually-starving sinners like us? It's Jesus himself. Even more specifically, it's Jesus as (1:29) “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. Because He stood in our place as the perfect sacrificial lamb, bearing the righteous wrath of God for our sins, his death, his broken flesh and shed blood, became for us the only means of life. Listen again to verses 53 through 57 with the figurative language translated in light of what we just learned...
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you [embrace in faith the bodily sacrifice] of the Son of Man and [receive atonement through his shed blood] you have no life in you.  Whoever [embraces in faith my bodily sacrifice on the cross] has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.  For my [bodily sacrifice on the cross] is true [spiritual nourishment].  Whoever [trusts in my bodily sacrifice] abides in me, and I in him.  As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever [receives my sacrifice], he also will live because of me.
What incredible reassurance Jesus gives as he directs our eyes to the work he accomplished on our behalf! Perfect man. Perfect sacrifice. Perfect provision. So no, even though we're called to eat his flesh, we are not cannibals for Jesus. And no, though we are called to drink his blood, we are not vampires for Jesus. Christ is calling all people to receive the incomparable, spiritual nourishment now possible because of his broken body and shed blood.
I think there's more we could say about 'feeding' on Jesus' flesh and blood, but first, let's talk for a moment about how people responded to these words of Christ. We already read one response: v. 52... The Jews [leaders] then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” They fail to grasp his identity (vs. 41-42). They fail to acknowledge his power. Therefore, they fail to humbly seek to make sense of his words here. But notice the contrast presented in the remaining verses of this chapter. Look with me at vs. 60-71...
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”  But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this?  Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?  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.  But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.)  And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”  After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.  So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?”  Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life,  and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”  Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.”  He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray him.
What's stunning here is that it wasn't just religious elites who had a problem with what Jesus was saying. Verses 60 and 61 are clear that many of those who had followed Jesus as disciples were also “grumbling” about this teaching, even asking, “who can listen to it?” Clearly, what Jesus was telling them about himself didn't match up with who they expected him to be; maybe who they wanted him to be. I'm sure many of them had hoped Jesus would also be a kind of political leader. But now, he was beginning to sound downright crazy.
This is why Jesus again emphasizes the role of the Spirit in giving understanding to wayward, spiritually dull sinners. If they were taking offense at this talk of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, what would they think about his eventual ascension, an ascension that would include the scandalous reality of being “lifted up” (cf. 3:14; 8:28; 12:32) on a Roman cross.
As Jesus makes clear, the departure of these disappointed disciples was not an indication he was saying or doing something wrong. It was an indication that such people simply had not been spiritually touched by God's grace. They had not (v. 39) been “given” to the Jesus.
But the twelve apostles stood firm. Though they may not have fully understood everything Jesus was saying, they knew he was pointing them to eternal life in a profound and powerful way. They had already been fed by the Bread of Life. The chapter closes with Jesus, once again, stressing that divine choice, not human discernment, was the ultimate reason for their faith.
III. Come Eat
So clearly this passage is first and foremost a call to trust in Jesus Christ as the only source of true, spiritual nourishment, both now and forever. If you have not already, embrace Christ in faith. Acknowledge your hunger. Disavow the tainted offerings of human wisdom. Ingest the truth about this perfect Savior and perfect sacrifice. In a few minutes, talk to God about Jesus.
But I believe this passage is also a powerful doorway into language and imagery we find throughout the NT. Wasn't Paul feeding on the flesh and blood of Jesus when he declared...
But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:14)[and similarly to the Corinthians] For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (I Corinthians 2:2)
In these passages, Paul is explicitly walking by faith; not simply faith in Christ, but in Christ crucified. Paul certainly believed that saving faith was a call to receive Christ crucified. But he also believed that sanctifying faith should be focused on Christ crucified. How is His broken body and shed blood part of your daily spiritual diet? 'Feeding' on Christ in this way nourishes us in extremely powerful ways:
It inspires humility, gratitude, and worship as we remember the unfathomable price that was paid for our redemption. Again... Perfect man. Perfect sacrifice. Perfect provision.
It sobers us up when we think we can somehow merit God's favor. We were so wicked that we rejected and killed God's own Son, and so helpless it took him coming in the flesh and dying in the flesh to save us. We remember: “It is finished.” (John 19:30)
Regular 'feeding' issues a regular call to “take up [my] cross daily” (Luke 9:23) and “put to death... what is earthly in [me]” (Colossians 3:5), for “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:24)
Finally, remembering His love should rouse your love. Jesus will go on to tell his disciples in 15:13, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” God's love famously celebrated in 3:16 should inspire and inform our love each day. I love how Paul blessed his readers along these lines, “Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible. (Ephesians 6:24)
In conclusion, it's important to point out that one of the most powerful ways to regularly feed on the Bread of Life is actually a community practice, rather than a private, devotional practice. The Lord's Supper or Table is what Jesus gave to our faith family so that we would regularly refocus as His people. Remember what Paul said, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (I Corinthians 11:26) John 6 is not about the Lord's Supper. But the Lord's Supper is about John 6; about the stunning truths Jesus revealed in that chapter. So whether together or apart, let's direct our eyes of faith to Christ crucified. It's there, through Him, that we will be satisfied; nourished even now for eternal life. Amen!