Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Back to the Bread of Life

“Some commentators claim that John 6 cannot be talking about the Lord's Supper because the verbs (in vv. 52-59) are aorist. This is very implausible to me. John recorded a discourse of Jesus in which he speaks of eating flesh, drinking blood - both resonant with Eucharistic associations, and he wrote this discourse to churches that commemorated Jesus with a meal of Jesus' flesh and blood. And yet, we know that John didn't intend to talk about the Eucharist because of the verb tense! If John didn't intend his readers to think of the Eucharist, he's chosen a singularly odd way to do his business. It almost seems like a trick: Everything in the chapter SOUNDS like Eucharist, but John leaves us the subtle clue of the verb tense to let us know it's not. A wider point about grammatical-historical exegesis: This is an example of grammar trumping the text; the verb tense controls what the passage means, rather than the whole passage controlling what the passage means. This is not the way we normally use language; when we use rich and resonant imagery, we expect our readers to notice it, and not to focus on verb tenses and not to let the verb tenses control (or cancel out) the imagery. (This is not to say that the verb tenses of Scripture are irrelevant or unimportant. They are, as is every jot and tittle. But there is not reason to make the verb tenses controlling.)”


I agree with Leithart that the proper interpretation of Jn 6 cannot turn on fine points of verbal aspect.

But that’s not what’s wrong with the sacramental reading of Jn 6.

1.He fails to distinguish between the audience of the discourse and the audience of the Gospel.

The Gospel was written for Christians, but the discourse was spoken for Jews.

Jesus wasn’t addressing churches that observe the Eucharist.

Jesus was addressing Jews who were living on the Old Testamental side of the cross.

2.Contemporary readers have a responsibility to draw some distinction between now and then, and not act as if every book of the Bible was written to them.

Although the Bible is written for the benefit of the church, every book of the Bible is not written to the church—much less the contemporary church.

This is a mistake that occurs all the time in popular fundamentalism. Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye act as if the Bible is written specifically to Christians living in the late 20C or early 21C, so that every time there’s a war or oil crisis in the Mideast, this is one more stage in the endtime denouement.

They also treat the martial imagery in Revelation as code language for modern military technology.

Many high churchmen who make fun of Lindsey and LaHaye do the very same thing in their own way.

They also act as if they are the target audience for Jn 3 and Jn 6. They also act as if Jn 3 and Jn 6 are written in code language—that Jn 3 is an allegory of the font, while Jn 6 is an allegory of the Mass.

3.Everything in Jn 6 does not sound like the Eucharist. It talks about bread and blood, but it doesn’t talk about wine or body.

4.It is true, nevertheless, that Jn 6 is reminiscent of the Eucharist.

And that’s because Jn 6 and the Eucharist both stand for the same event. They both stand for Calvary.

The difference is that Jn 6 is prospective, whereas communion is retrospective. Jn 6 looks forward to the cross, whereas communion commemorates the cross.

5.And this brings us to a larger point: Leithart fails to ask what function Jn 6 performs in narrative theology. Where does it fit into the narrative arc?

Is Jn 6 intended to point the reader to the communion table?

No, Jn 6 is intended to point the reader to the cross. This is preparatory for the passion.

Indeed, Jn 1-18 is paving the way for Jn 19.

The entire preceding narrative is structured around the glorification of Christ on the cross.

Like 3-point perspective, the narrative sightlines direct the reader’s eye to the climactic events of Golgotha. That’s the focal-point.

So not only does Leithart’s interpretation disregard the Jewish audience for the Bread of Life discourse in particular, but it also disregards the Christian audience for the Gospel as a whole.

6.One objection to my interpretation might be that misunderstanding is a subtheme of the Fourth Gospel. The listener often misunderstands the words of Jesus.

That being so, maybe Jesus said something in Jn 6 which wasn’t meant to be intelligible at the time.

But there are several problems with this move:

i) In the Gospel of John, these misinterpretations are treated as culpable. The listener incurs guilt for misconstruing the words of Jesus.

But if their true import were dependent on information to which he had no access, then how is he at fault?

ii) Their misunderstandings ordinarily consist in taking Jesus too literally: in failing to appreciate the metaphorical character of the discourse.

Jesus is moving on two different planes, where the concrete imagery is emblematic of spiritual truth. His listeners never make the transition.

And yet the sacramental reading of Jn 3 & Jn 6 is distinguished by its literalism.

iii) In Jn 3, Nicodemus is reprimanded precisely because he was in a position to understand what Jesus said.

His incomprehension is not due to lack of information, but moral and spiritual obtuseness.

He is blameworthy because he knew enough to know better.

That is also the underlying theme in Jn 6. And it comes to a head in Jn 12.

Our Lord’s opponents are inwardly blind. They see, but they lack insight.


  1. If you deny the sacramental readin of John 3:5, what's left? You'd have to argue that "water" means some Old Testament symbol, like the water from the rock or the water of the Red Sea. But that wouldn't make sense in the sentance: Is Jesus saying we must be born of the Red Sea and the Holy Spirit?

  2. P.S. -- in the Greek, water and spirit refers to ONE thing. So you can not argue that it refers to natural birth and a later spiritual birth. Water here means something that confers the Spirit. Explain zat.

  3. The water would be a literary allusion to some OT rite or event, but it wouldn't be tied to that referent.

    We need to distinguish between sign and significate. Different signs can share a common significate.

    It wouldn't be that we're born of water from the rock, but rather, that whatever water from the rock signifies (or other suchlike) is what baptism signifies.

    It's not the sign that's reproduced, but the significate.

    In Jn 3:5, it signifies the new birth. However, that is also a metaphor.

    Natural metaphors are open-textured. There can be a one-many relation between the metaphor and what it signifies.

    There's also a question of whether baptism carries a uniform import throughout the NT. Does every NT writer use it to signify the very same thing?

    These questions can only be answered on a contextual, case-by-case basis.

  4. Steve has made a lot of good points, and I want to add some comments of my own.

    The best explanation we have for the identity of the eating and drinking in John 6 is verse 35. Early on in His comments, Jesus makes a reference to the significance of faith in verse 29, and He repeatedly mentions faith thereafter (verses 35, 40, 47, 64), without mentioning the eucharist even once. John wrote his gospel with salvation in view (John 20:31), and we see John including many of Jesus' "believe and be saved" statements (John 3:16, 5:24, 6:35, 7:38, 11:25, 12:36, etc.). Interpreting the eating and drinking as references to coming to Christ and believing in Him is consistent with verse 35, explains the repeated references to faith without any references to the eucharist, and is consistent with the salvation through faith theme of John's gospel.

    If we want further evidence of what Jesus meant, we can look at what He told individuals about their salvation. Jesus never tells anybody that he must wait for baptism or the eucharist before being justified. Rather, people are repeatedly told that they're justified before or without being baptized or participating in the eucharist (Mark 2:5, Luke 7:50, 18:10-14, etc.). Advocates of baptismal justification sometimes attempt to explain these passages by arguing that baptism didn't become the normative means of attaining justification until after Jesus' resurrection. In addition to the arbitrary and unproveable nature of that argument, notice the inconsistency of some of the people who use it. On the one hand, we're told that Jesus was telling Nicodemus that he must be baptized in order to be justified. On the other hand, we're told that baptism wasn't yet the means of attaining justification when Jesus spoke to Nicodemus. This inconsistency is seen in Tertullian, who wrote the earliest treatise on baptism and was an advocate of baptismal justification:

    "And thus it was with the selfsame 'baptism of John' that His disciples used to baptize, as ministers, with which John before had baptized as forerunner. Let none think it was with some other, because no other exists, except that of Christ subsequently; which at that time, of course, could not be given by His disciples, inasmuch as the glory of the Lord had not yet been fully attained, nor the efficacy of the font established through the passion and the resurrection; because neither can our death see dissolution except by the Lord's passion, nor our life be restored without His resurrection....Grant that, in days gone by, there was salvation by means of bare faith, before the passion and resurrection of the Lord. But now that faith has been enlarged, and is become a faith which believes in His nativity, passion, and resurrection, there has been an amplification added with the sacrament, viz., the sealing act of baptism; the clothing, in some sense, of the faith which before was bare, and which cannot exist now without its proper law. For the law of baptizing has been imposed" (On Baptism, 11, 13)

    Tertullian is telling us that baptismal justification didn't go into effect until after Jesus' resurrection. Yet, Tertullian tells us that the "chief" reason for accepting baptismal justification is John 3:

    "When, however, the prescript is laid down that 'without baptism, salvation is attainable by none' (chiefly on the ground of that declaration of the Lord, who says, 'Unless one be born of water, he hath not life'), there arise immediately scrupulous, nay rather audacious, doubts on the part of some" (On Baptism, 12)

    So, baptismal justification didn't go into effect until after Jesus' resurrection, but the pre-resurrection discussion in John 3, in which Jesus tells Nicodemus about the current requirements for justification at that time, is cited as the primary evidence for justification through baptism. Elsewhere in his treatise, Tertullian contradicts the New Testament further by dismissing Abraham as not being representative of how people are justified today, since Abraham wasn't baptized (On Baptism, 13). Yet, Paul describes the Galatians as justified "by hearing with faith" (Galatians 3:2), which surely isn't a reference to being baptized, and he goes on to cite Genesis 15:6 as an illustration (Galatians 3:6-9).

    That's one of the problems with the sacramental reading of John 3. It isn't consistent with what Jesus and the apostles taught about justification through faith. Even if we were to grant the gratuitous assertion that doing the work involved in participating in a sacrament isn't to be considered work, the fact remains that sacraments are something other than faith. If they're neither faith nor works, then they're a third category. But adding a third category to faith doesn't give you faith. It gives you faith and participation in sacraments, whether you call that participation "work" or something else.

    As Steve said, one of the most significant steps in coming to a right understanding of John 3 and John 6 is to look at the context. Jesus was addressing Jews who had no New Testament, and He addressed them at a time when He was repeatedly telling people that they were justified as soon as they believe, without any baptism or participation in the eucharist.

  5. I don't know, that still sounds like a stretch. Just one more comment on the original argument of this post: It doesn't matter that Jesus was speaking anachronistically. He could still have meant baptism, since he often used anachronisms and expected people to know what he meant, anyway. Remember, he told the Jews He would tear down the temple and rebuilt it in 3 days. This was an anachronism, but, like Jn 3:5, it signified a future fulfillment.

  6. Hello said:

    "I don't know, that still sounds like a stretch. Just one more comment on the original argument of this post: It doesn't matter that Jesus was speaking anachronistically. He could still have meant baptism, since he often used anachronisms and expected people to know what he meant, anyway. Remember, he told the Jews He would tear down the temple and rebuilt it in 3 days. This was an anachronism, but, like Jn 3:5, it signified a future fulfillment."

    The issue isn't how the text could possibly be read, but rather how to make the most sense of it. We know that Jesus is referring to His body in John 2:19 because John tells us so in 2:21. We have no such statement about the water of John 3. Since we can explain the water without including baptism, and since we know that Jesus repeatedly told people that they were justified before or without baptism, it makes more sense to see the water of John 3 as something defined by the Old Testament and by John's gospel (John 7:38-39), not by later sacramentalism. In the immediate context of John 3, Jesus goes on to mention faith three times (verses 15, 16, and 18) without mentioning baptism at all. We see the same thing in John 6, where Jesus repeatedly mentions faith, but says nothing of the eucharist. Baptism and the eucharist aren't needed to explain these passages, so why should we accept your appeal to anachronism? You refer to "future fulfillment" of John 3:5, but nothing in the text or context suggests that being born of water is something that will only occur in the future. To the contrary, Jesus criticizes Nicodemus, as a teacher of Israel, for not understanding Him, and He's discussing how to see the kingdom of God in the present, not in the future. To try to place baptism into the text is unnatural. It makes less sense of the text and context. The same is true with regard to the eucharist in John 6. Both passages make sense, and make better sense, without including sacraments. Why include the sacraments, then?

    Keep in mind what I said earlier about the salvation theme of John's gospel (John 20:31). If something like baptism or the eucharist was to later be added to faith as a means of attaining eternal life, then why would John emphasize Jesus' pre-resurrection comments on salvation (John 3:16, 5:24, 6:40, 11:25, etc.) in order to teach his post-resurrection readers about how to be saved? If people were saved differently after the resurrection than they were before it (if baptism was added as a requirement, for example), then why would John write a gospel emphasizing pre-resurrection teaching on how to be saved? You could argue that Jesus' pre-resurrection statements are meant to teach us the necessity of faith, even though faith is insufficient without having baptism added to it. But, then, why would John never even once explain to his readers that Jesus' statements are no longer applicable to us, and that baptism has since that time been added as a requirement? It makes more sense to conclude that John emphasizes Jesus' statements about the sufficiency of faith because faith continued to be sufficient. People today are justified the same way they were prior to the resurrection, through faith alone. Jesus' statements about justification through faith are just as relevant and complete today as they were when He spoke them.