READ : John 6:53-54
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; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.
John 6:53-54 rsv
It was the most controversial claim He ever made. Some who heard it began to argue among themselves. Others were stunned and said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (v. 60). After hearing it, many of those who had previously followed Jesus drew back and no longer went about with Him. If ever a message created a crisis, this one did.
Here’s a brief section of that message. It captures the heart of what Jesus was saying. Listen. I’m reading from John, chapter 6, beginning at verse 52:
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; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Now what was startling, what was offensive here? Three things in particular. Jesus told His hearers that without Him they had no life at all. They were dead. Second, He claimed that apart from His flesh and blood, that is, apart from His violent death, they had no possibility of true life. And finally, He said, if they did not eat His flesh and drink His blood, that is, receive Him into their lives as the slain One, they would remain in death. All of that seemed hard for them to understand, even harder to accept. It lifted up what is always most offensive about the Christian faith: its exclusive claim, Jesus’ teaching that He and He only can give people the life they most need. It’s the claim, the claim scandalous to some, that He is the one and only Savior and that apart from Him, the whole world languishes in death.
That may seem hard and unreasonable to you, listening to me now. It may irritate you, upset you, offend you. That’s certainly understandable. All that I ask is that you listen carefully to what Jesus says and remember who He is before you dismiss this remarkable claim. For some, what seems on the surface offensive has become supremely wonderful. They aren’t ashamed of Jesus’ message. They don’t apologize for it or blunt its pointedness. They glory in it. They say, like the apostle Paul did, “Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14). The singular claim of Jesus Christ becomes their song, their hope, their exceeding joy. And I hope, as you listen and as the Spirit of God moves in your heart and life, that it will be so for you.
ONLY IN CHRIST
Look with me at the first claim. Jesus says that apart from Him, people like us, all of us, have no life. What can He mean by that? “I’m very much alive,” you say. Maybe you’re in the prime of life, enjoying health, vibrantly awake and aware. It makes no sense for you to be told that you are actually dead.
But there are different kinds of “life and death,” aren’t there? We say of a sound sleeper that he is “dead to the world.” We recognize, of course, that he’s alive in a physical sense, but for the time being, he doesn’t act like it. You speak to him, touch him, shake him, but he doesn’t respond. He sleeps on. You give up your efforts finally. He’s dead to the world of conscious awareness. He doesn’t react to what’s going on around him.
I remember when I was a pastor in Chicago years ago, visiting a man who had been struck on the head with a swinging steel beam. His heart was beating, his lungs were pumping, his eyes were open, but in those eyes there was only a vacant stare. He didn’t understand what I said that day. He seemed not to know I was there. He was dead to the world of the mind. Nothing short of an absolute miracle could ever repair the brain injury so that his mind could live again.
According to the Bible’s witness, those are pictures of our spiritual condition. We are dead to the world of the Spirit. We were created for God, to live in relationship with Him. But we have turned away, rebelled, and lost our true life. We still seem to be alive. We’re like flowers freshly cut or a branch just now broken from a tree. We may look fresh and fruitful, but we’ve been cut off from our life-source. It’s only a matter of time until the effects of that become evident. The forces of death are already at work. We too may appear to be alive. We may believe that we are, in every sense. But from God’s perspective, we have lost our true glory. Estranged from Him, we are the walking dead.
Hear how the apostle Paul describes our pre-Christian experience: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:1-2). Again he says, “we were dead through our trespasses. . . .”
All life comes from God. The special kind of life of which Jesus is speaking occurs in people only when they are in fellowship with God. When that communion is broken, life stops. Death reigns. And those who are spiritually dead have no more ability to revive themselves than corpses have to come out of their graves. Only God can breathe into them His life-giving Spirit so that they live again.
Jesus is claiming here to be “the bread of life.” He’s the One who comes from God, He says, to give life to us. Even more, He is that life. The alternatives, then, become very simple. If we have Christ, we have life. If we do not have Christ, we do not have life. That’s precisely the way Jesus puts it.
ONLY BY HIS DEATH
Here’s a second staggering claim. Jesus says that apart from His flesh and blood, we do not have life. Perhaps you’ve heard of the character Shylock in Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice. He’s a creditor who demands a grim payment if a certain financial obligation is not honored. He wants a pound of the debtor’s flesh. When the debt isn’t paid, Shylock insists upon his due. He is foiled at last, however, by a clever judge. The judge rules that he can take the pound of flesh but he must do so without shedding a single drop of blood. That, of course, isn’t possible. The flesh and the blood are intimately joined. In all living mammals, if you separate the flesh and the blood, death follows. That separation usually means violent death.
When Jesus speaks of His flesh and blood as necessary for our true life, He’s pointing ahead to the somber reality of His death, His death by crucifixion. He’s pointing to that as absolutely necessary if any one of us is to have abundant, eternal life.
That, friends, is what the apostle Paul calls “the offense of the cross.” In the ancient world, the cross seemed offensive to everyone. The cultured Romans could not bring themselves to speak about it. The word cross held too many vile and terrible associations. To the Jews, death on a cross was even worse, something accursed. Anyone who died in that way, they believed, must be under God’s malediction. Yet Jesus will die in this way. He says that only by His so giving Himself will life become a possibility for you and me.
That’s truly a hard saying, isn’t it? Is my sin so heinous, my condition so hopeless, my need so vast, that only the dying of God’s Son can avail to save me? That’s devastating to our human pride. That lays our pretensions in the dust. “Do you mean to say that apart from Jesus’ crucifixion, I can never know forgiveness, never see the face of God, never be in heaven?” Yes. That’s exactly right. According to Jesus, all who gather with the hosts around the throne of God will be totally dependent for that blessing upon the Lamb of God, the One who was slain for our sins.
ONLY THROUGH RECEIVING HIM
Now for the third of His hard sayings: It’s only as we “eat [his] flesh” and “drink his blood” that we have eternal life. Whatever can that mean? It sounds strange to our ears. It makes us uncomfortable. To His first hearers, it was clearly the most repugnant thing He could say. In their culture, it was absolutely forbidden to eat meat which still contained blood. Drinking blood was seen as an abomination. Yet Jesus is saying here that they must partake of His flesh and His blood in order to have life.
Further on in this passage, He says, “He who eats me will live because of me” (John 6:57). In other words, partaking of His “flesh and blood” is partaking of Him, the crucified One. Eating and drinking here are vivid signs of what it means to believe. We’re accustomed to language like that when it comes to hearing a message. We’ll say that a listener “drank in every word” a speaker said. She “took it to heart,” we say. He “internalized the message.” That’s the idea here. Only it’s not a verbal message but a person. We must receive this Jesus who died on our behalf and now lives. We must welcome Him into our lives so that by His Spirit He becomes a part of us and we of Him.
It’s become more clear in this generation than in any other that “we are what we eat.” We’re dependent for the nourishment we need, for the vitamins and minerals essential to our life, on the food we take in. Food is transformed by our bodies to become literally a part of us. That makes eating a vivid and powerful image of what it means to receive Jesus Christ. A vital, personal union comes into being. Jesus Christ, the living Lord, comes to dwell within us. We dwell in Him, like branches, as He says, in a vine. It’s a friendship, a fellowship, a bond of union. And it is only in that close, intensely personal relationship with God through Christ that we begin to experience the life which is our true destiny.
I see another way in which this image is especially appropriate. Eating and drinking are intensely personal acts. No one else can do them on our behalf, nor can anyone force them upon us. The hunger strikes of IRA prisoners or other zealots for a cause are all striking proof of that. No one can make another eat when that person is determined to starve himself. We eat and drink only when we desire and purpose to do so.
So it is, friends, with believing. Although Christianity is intensely communal, although we are living members of one body, dependent on one another, no one of us can receive Christ for someone else. We can testify to others that we have tasted and seen that the Lord is good. We can offer Christ to them in the word of the gospel. But they must choose to appropriate Him. They must open the doors of heart and life for His entrance.
That’s the issue raised so pointedly here. Jesus tells His hearers that He, in His own person, is the life that has come down from heaven for them. He shows that only by the mystery of His dying does life become available for them. And then, He claims that this can become power and reality for them only as they personally welcome Him as their Lord and Savior.
That’s exactly what He’s saying to you and me today. In the preaching of His word, what’s happening right now, Jesus offers Himself. He points to His wounds and reminds us that they were borne for us. Then He asks for our hearts. Will we be offended? Will we call this, as others did, a hard saying? Will we lose interest, as some did, and turn away? Or will we rather say, “Come to my heart, Lord Jesus. There’s room in my heart for You”? I pray God it may be that response for you.
Prayer: Oh, yes, Father, may this controversial claim become life and power to all who share this program, as we receive Jesus. Amen.