“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them.” (Matthew 5:17)
In my last post I reviewed in detail the words Jesus said in John Chapter 6, that Catholics believe clearly point to an understanding of the Eucharist. There is the timing of this teaching that associates it to Passover (John 6:4). There is the miraculous multiplication of loaves to feed the crowds (eucharisteó), which lead them to profess that Christ is “the” prophet that Moses foretold, and to expect that he would bring forth new manna (John 6:14,30-31). There are Christ’s words that he himself is the fulfillment of the manna from the Old Covenant and that this bread would be the flesh he would give for the life of the world – “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh,” (John 6:51) and “my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.” (John 6:55) And while even the apostles didn’t really understand how he could give them his flesh to eat, unlike many other disciples they remained with Christ. And at the Last Supper when celebrating the Passover liturgy, they would understand how the bread Christ will give is indeed his flesh for the life of the world (Luke 22:14-21, Mark 14:22-25, Matthew 26:26-29).
But near the end of this discourse Jesus says “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (John 6:63) Some use this passage to claim that these words dismiss the very strong and clear words Christ spoke, and mean he was only speaking symbolically.
The first question – what does Jesus mean when he says “the flesh” is of no avail? In “The Gospel According to Rome” (an anti-Catholic work) James McCarthy has this view – “Eternal life was to be obtained by believing Jesus’ words. Eating his flesh would be profitless.” But Jesus does not say that “eating my flesh would be profitless.” He says that “the flesh is of no avail,” or “the flesh” is profitless. By equating “the flesh” to the flesh of Christ, McCarthy is in essence claiming that the flesh of Christ is of no avail, or profitless. That is the only logical conclusion to his claim, which is a most disturbing claim for any Christian to make. How can the flesh of Christ which is given for the salvation of the world ever be seen to be useless? The flesh of Christ is crucified for our sake, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5, 1 Peter 2:24)
Aside from that, McCarthy seems to totally miss the point that through the entire discourse, Christ has been specifically speaking about “my flesh.” “The bread which I shall give for the world is my flesh, My flesh is food indeed, he who eats my flesh has eternal life,” (John 6:51-55). Jesus does not then turn around in verse 63 and say that “my flesh” is of no avail. He says “the flesh,” which is not the same thing as “my flesh” – the flesh of Christ. And to understand what he means, we need to look at how the term “the flesh” is used within Sacred Scripture.
“The flesh” is a New Testament term that is often used to describe human nature apart from God’s grace. For example, St. Paul writes to the Romans “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, indeed it cannot; and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:3-8) St. Paul does not mean here that if we are in our physical bodies we cannot please God. But our human nature apart from God’s grace certainly cannot.
In the previous chapter he tells the Romans that “While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.” (Romans 7:5-6) Clearly when St. Paul says “while we were living in the flesh” he doesn’t mean people don’t still have physical bodies. But their human nature is now enlivened with grace, and under the dominion of the Holy Spirit.
We see Jesus use similar language when Nicodemus struggles to understand what Jesus meant about being “born again” – “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:6). Nicodemus is not going to be able to rely on his fallen human nature to understand what Jesus means; he must rely on the Holy Spirit. And when St. Peter professed that Christ is the Messiah, Jesus said to him “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17). St. Peter could not understand who Christ was by relying on “the flesh” but he could when He relied on the Spirit.
Jesus tells the apostles to watch and wait with him in the garden – “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:38). “The flesh” is human nature apart from God’s grace. And when Jesus says “the flesh is of no avail” in John Chapter 6, he is simply telling us that we are never going to understand if we rely on our own human understanding. For his words are “spirit and life” and we will need the power of the Holy Spirit to understand.
Another view that needs to be addressed is the idea that because his words are “spirit” that means they are only symbolic in nature. That would not be consistent with Scripture either. If something is denoted in the Bible as “spiritual” or “supernatural” it does not mean it is only symbolic or not physical in nature. It means it’s under the dominion of the Holy Spirit.
For example, St. Paul writes to the Corinthians that the Israelites “all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.” (1 Corinthians 10:3-4 NKJV). We don’t conclude from that statement that the manna was not physically real or the “rock” that provided water was only figurative. We conclude that it was material but under the dominion of the Holy Spirit. He writes to the Romans “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1) Our very real, not symbolic bodies become “spiritual worship” when they are under the dominion of the Holy Spirit.
And St. Paul also writes about the resurrection of the body that “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.” (1 Corinthians 15:44) and “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50). Some incorrectly interpret these passages to believe that our physical bodies will not be resurrected at all, but will rather become some new kind of “spiritual bodies” that have no relationship to our current physical bodies. This ignores the fact that Christ still bore the wounds of his passion; it was his same body that was resurrected. As Catholics we understand that likewise our physical bodies will indeed be resurrected, but St. Paul here refers to them as now being a “spiritual body” because they are under the dominion of the Holy Spirit. “Flesh and blood” that cannot inherit the kingdom of God simply refers to our human nature apart from God’s grace. Not that our physical bodies will not be resurrected and in heaven.
When Jesus completed the Bread of Life discourse and said that “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63) he is not saying that he was only speaking symbolically. He is telling us that our fallen human nature apart from God’s grace (the flesh) will never be able to understand what he means. It is only through the Holy Spirit we ever be able to understand and accept what he said. As St. Paul writes, “The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14) This is exactly what happens with those who chose to leave Christ over his words.
Another common objection to the Eucharist that needs to be addressed is the idea that Christ couldn’t be speaking literally because the Old Testament forbids the drinking of blood; that it would be a sinful act. If that is true, it would mean at the Last Supper Jesus commands the apostles to do something “symbolically” in memory of him that if they really did would be in violation of God’s commands and a sin. That seems problematic even if the Eucharist is merely a symbol.
In his book “Reasoning from the Scriptures with Catholics” (an anti-Catholic work), Ron Rhodes explains this view:
“We must keep in mind the Scriptural teaching that drinking blood is forbidden to anyone (Genesis 9:4; Leviticus 3:17). The disciples, schooled in the commandments of God, would never have understood Jesus to be instructing them to go directly against the commandments of God.
Related to this, keep in mind that some months later Peter said, ‘I have never eaten anything unholy or unclean’ (Acts 10:14). Peter could not have said this if he thought he had actually ingested the body and blood of Jesus Christ, for the law defines such an act as unholy and unclean (Leviticus 3:17). Further, the Jerusalem Council repeated an injunction contained in the Old Testament law to the effect that Christians are to abstain from blood (see Acts 15:29). This would not have made much sense if those at the council thought they had actually drunk the real blood of Jesus.”
Sometimes I read things that make me scratch my head, and sometimes I read things that make me gasp. This is one of the latter. For in his enthusiasm to try to prove the Catholics wrong on this issue, Mr. Rhodes is making the argument that the blood of Christ is unclean. If he believes that Peter could not have thought that he drank the blood of Christ because he stated “I have never eaten anything unholy or unclean,” the only conclusion is that Mr. Rhodes believes that the blood of Christ is unholy or unclean. And that is an unfathomable position for any Christian to take.
For the record St. Peter says this about the blood of Christ – “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.” (1 Peter 1:18-19)
But the claim that Mr. Rhodes makes that the Old Testament law defines drinking blood as “unclean” is simply not true. Yes, the drinking of blood is banned. But not because it is considered to be “unclean.” Far from it. Blood was actually used for purification and consecration – to make something holy (Leviticus 8:14-15, 22-24, 30). We see this also in the New Testament in Hebrews 9:11-14, 18-22 – “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Hebrews 9:22)
God forbids the Israelites from eating certain animals because they are “unclean.” (Leviticus 11). But they were not permitted to drink the blood of any animal, regardless of whether it was clean or not. The reason was not because blood was considered unclean, but rather because “the life” of the animal was in the blood. And this command was in place long before the Mosaic law and certain animals were defined as “unclean.” Genesis 9:3-4 – “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood.” But the command is also reinforced in the Mosaic law – “If any man of the house of Israel or of the strangers that sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it for you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement, by reason of the life….For the life of every creature is the blood of it; therefore I have said to the people of Israel, You shall not eat the blood of any creature, for the life of every creature is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.” (Leviticus 17:10-11,14)
Humans should not ingest the “life” of animals as though we were merely one of them. But we should also not compare the blood of Christ to that of an animal. And if the “life is in the blood” as Scripture teaches, how much better can it lead us to understand what Christ tells us about drinking his blood — “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).
So yes, the Old Testament bans the drinking of blood because “the life of the animal” was in the blood and it was given to them for the purpose of making atonement. In the fulfillment of that act of making atonement in the New Testament, Christ sheds his precious blood for the forgiveness of sins. And he then gives us his flesh and blood to consume under the form of bread and wine so that we might have “eternal life.” And in no way can we ever accept a view that professes we cannot receive the true blood of Christ in the Eucharist because it is “unclean.”