Christ Covenant Church
Jon Marq Toombs
[A few after-thoughts on what it means to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ.]
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. (John 6:53-54)
This is one of the strangest and creepiest things Jesus ever said. It is also one of the deepest and truest.
But what does it mean?
Unlike the Jews who first heard it, we are not shaken or stirred by the hard saying. When they heard it, they took it seriously — even if too literally. They reacted as if Jesus were calling on them to cannibalize him. Not only was that considered a pagan notion, it conjured up terrible and horrible memories from their past.
In order to understand their emotional reaction, we need to stand in their sandals and hear Jesus in light of their experience with God — their history and God’s covenant.
Here are two ways to understand Jesus’s hard saying.
According to God’s Law, eating flesh and drinking blood was one of the many curses brought on by covenant-breaking and unfaithful disobedience. As it is written in Deuteronomy:
But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you… And you shall eat the fruit of your womb, the flesh of your sons and daughters, whom the LORD your God has given you, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemies shall distress you. The man who is the most tender and refined among you will begrudge food to his brother, to the wife he embraces, and to the last of the children whom he has left, so that he will not give to any of them any of the flesh of his children whom he is eating, because he has nothing else left, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemy shall distress you in all your towns. The most tender and refined woman among you, who would not venture to set the sole of her foot on the ground because she is so delicate and tender, will begrudge to the husband she embraces, to her son and to her daughter, her afterbirth that comes out from between her feet and her children whom she bears, because lacking everything she will eat them secretly, in the siege and in the distress with which your enemy shall distress you in your towns. (Deuteronomy 28:15, 53-57 ESV)
Despite the graphic warnings, God’s people broke faith and disobeyed his voice. Thus, they brought on themselves the curses of the covenant.
Historically and covenantally, eating flesh and drinking blood were linked to curses.
In the days of Elisha, Ben-hadad king of Syria mustered his entire army and went up and besieged Samaria. A severe famine coupled with intense military conflict led to a economic crisis which ended in moral decay.
Now as the king of Israel was passing by on the wall, a woman cried out to him, saying, “Help, my lord, O king!” And he said, “If the LORD will not help you, how shall I help you? From the threshing floor, or from the winepress?” And the king asked her, “What is your trouble?” She answered, “This woman said to me, ‘Give your son, that we may eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow.’ So we boiled my son and ate him. And on the next day I said to her, ‘Give your son, that we may eat him.’ But she has hidden her son.” When the king heard the words of the woman, he tore his clothes—now he was passing by on the wall—and the people looked, and behold, he had sackcloth beneath on his body— (2 Kings 6:24-30 ESV)
In the days of Jeremiah, God warned the people through his prophet that Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon was going to go up and lay siege to Jerusalem and bring total disaster. The reasons why:
Because the people have forsaken me and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their fathers nor the kings of Judah have known; and because they have filled this place with the blood of innocents, and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind—therefore, behold, days are coming, declares the LORD, when this place shall be called the Valley of Slaughter. And in this place I will make void the plans of Judah and Jerusalem, and will cause their people to fall by the sword before their enemies, and by the hand of those who seek their life. I will give their dead bodies for food to the birds of the air and to the beasts of the earth. And I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at. Everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its wounds. And I will make them eat the flesh of their sons and their daughters, and everyone shall eat the flesh of his neighbor in the siege and in the distress, with which their enemies and those who seek their life afflict them.’ (Jeremiah 19:3-9 ESV)
In the days of Ezekiel, God echoed his warnings that he was sending the Babylonians to judge his people.
Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Because you are more turbulent than the nations that are all around you, and have not walked in my statutes or obeyed my rules, and have not even acted according to the rules of the nations that are all around you, therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, even I, am against you. And I will execute judgments in your midst in the sight of the nations. And because of all your abominations I will do with you what I have never yet done, and the like of which I will never do again. Therefore fathers shall eat their sons in your midst, and sons shall eat their fathers. And I will execute judgments on you, and any of you who survive I will scatter to all the winds. (Ezekiel 5:7-10 ESV)
After King Nebuchadnezzar demolished Jerusalem and carried Jews away into captivity, Jeremiah wept over the desolated city and sang this lament:
The tongue of the nursing infant sticks to the roof of its mouth for thirst; the children beg for food, but no one gives to them. (Lamentations 4:4 ESV)
Happier were the victims of the sword than the victims of hunger, who wasted away, pierced by lack of the fruits of the field.
The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people.
The LORD gave full vent to his wrath; he poured out his hot anger, and he kindled a fire in Zion that consumed its foundations. (Lamentations 4:9-11 ESV)
In light of this history, it is possible — perhaps even likely — that the notion of eating flesh and drinking blood brought to the minds of the Jews all the horrific things their forefathers experienced when their cities were under siege and when they went into exile as slaves.
Furthermore, according to God’s Law the eating and drinking of the blood of animals — and, by extension, human beings — was forbidden. As it is written in Leviticus, “You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not interpret omens or tell fortunes.” (Leviticus 19:26 ESV).
Again, in light of God’s covenant and their history, it is possible that the notion of eating flesh and drinking blood conjured up pagan images of occult rituals and idol-worship.
No wonder the Jews reacted as they did when they heard Jesus’s strange teaching.
They disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man Jesus give us his flesh to eat?” Not at all meaning, “How can he possibly give each one of us a bite of his flesh and a drink of his blood?” but, “How in the world can eating his flesh and drinking be anything but a curse?!”
To their ears, the notion of God the Father taking hungry and thirsty people, and drawing them to his Son Jesus, and telling them to eat his flesh and drink his blood, so that they might have eternal life, verged on the grotesque, not to mention the blasphemous and profane.
They figured that eating the flesh and drinking the blood (especially of a fellow Jew) could only mean one thing: that God was going to bring curses and judgements on the people; that God was going to leave and abandon his people again.
And yet, God was right there with them.
He gave them bread in the wilderness and led them across a stormy sea to a synagogue at Capernaum. He came near to bless, save, and abide with his people. He was teaching them and showing them the way of life over against the way of death. The Word made flesh was dwelling among these homeland exiles, not as one full of wrath and law, but one full of grace and truth.
The Bread of Presence was in their midst, yet they did not recognize him.
The bottom line is this: The Jews gave their sons and daughters to each other as perishable food in order to survive warfare, famine, and exile. But God gave his Son as imperishable food and drink to save a world under siege from sin, death, and judgment. He gave his one and only Son for the life of the world.
That’s one way to understand what Jesus meant. Here’s another way.
Viewed from the angle of worship and sacrifice, eat my flesh and drink my blood takes on a different meaning.
The clue is seen and heard in the echoes of the Passover, the Exodus from Egypt, and the sojourney in the wilderness reverberating in the background of this story.
Remember, the main reason God delivered Israel out of Egypt was so that his people could worship him. The same things holds true in the context of this story. “God is seeking worshipers who will worship him in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24)
When the OT people of God worshiped in the wilderness they offered many kinds of sacrifices to him, including the flesh and blood of bulls, lambs, and goats. They also offered grain offerings and drink offerings. The priests would take portions of these offerings, give a token to the Lord on the altar, and keep the rest for themselves per God’s instruction. So roasted meat, fresh breads, and strong wines were offered to the Lord as the worshipers’ way of giving thanks and praise to God, and as God’s way of providing life for his priests. (e.g., Numbers 28:1-8)
In this story, Jesus gave thanks to God (eucharisteo 6:11) and promised to offer his flesh and blood for the life of the world. Then he offered his flesh as true bread and his blood as true drink to all who would draw near to him by faith. In other words, he offered to give the holy food of God and priests to the ones the Father gives him, in order that they might eat and drink and live as priests. This is one of the deepest and truest thing Jesus ever taught.
In his own mysterious way, the Spirit of Christ wanted the world, the crowd, and us to know the grace and truth of the Word made flesh. Namely, that –
Jesus is the true and better priest who offers sacrifices on behalf of his people, so that his people might live on the holy food of the sacrifice of himself.
Jesus is the true and better passover lamb who will be slaughtered for the sins of the world; whose flesh will be roasted in judgment and whose blood will be smeared on the door frames of our hearts.
Jesus is the true and better atoning sacrifice who pleases God and takes away the sins of the world — even our sins. Not only our sins, but also the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:2)
Jesus is the true and better offering of bread and wine who gives his blood to gladden the heart of man, and gives his flesh to strengthen man’s heart. (Psalm 104)
In the torn flesh and shed blood of Jesus at the cross, God gives back all the sacrifices, tithes, and offerings his people have ever offered him, for the life of people from every tribe, language, people-group, and nation.
For Jesus, eating his flesh and drinking his blood is liturgical, sacrificial, and communal. It means whoever consumes the grace and truth of the Word made flesh by faith will live; whoever considers him their source of life-sustaining nourishment will live; whoever feasts their soul on the Word of God by faith will have eternal life. As it is written: man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from God’s mouth. Especially the Word made flesh.
So how does one eat his flesh and drink his blood?
Not with a fork, but by faith. Not with the senses, but by the spirit. Not with the tongue, but by the truth.
We eat his flesh and drink his blood the same way we drink living water, eat heavenly bread, walk in the light, abide in the vine, and take up the cross: spiritually and mystically, by faith in Jesus Christ.
By believing Jesus is the Word made flesh, Son of God, who laid down his life for us, we are taking the grace and truth of his sacrifice into ourselves by faith, and we are transformed from lifeless dirt-clods to life-breathing spirits.
By eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood by faith, his death becomes our life; our dry bones are covered with new flesh; our hearts of stone are changed into hearts of flesh, and his life-blood flows through our bodies.
To eat his flesh and drink his blood is to believe into him, to become one with him body and soul, to enjoy union and communion with the Lifegiver.
The bottom line is this: The Jews made their offerings to God and gave their sacrifices up to the priests. But God gave his people the Lamb of God who offered himself up to the Father on the cross to take away the sins of the world, who gave his flesh and blood for the life of the world.
Image Time Magazine Tina Marie Photography/Getty Images/Flickr RF