First of all, let me offer this disclaimer: I do not like the term �literally.� First and foremost, the way the term is often used is a fundamental mistake with regard to what metaphors really are and, more importantly, do (literally!). Metaphors are what they are precisely because there is something really real that they convey and which gives them their meaning. When one says that �Jesus is the gate of the sheep� one does not intend (forgive the crassness), that his limbs are wood, his innards barbed wire, and he has a latch sticking out his side. (Yes, I realize these are anachronistic to Jesus’ day, but one ought get my point.) Rather, one means that the thing a gate does (the reality it conveys) is the same thing Jesus does: provide ingress and egress for the sheep. The �literal� reality of the gate is identical with the �literal� reality of who Jesus is. Metaphors (as the etymology suggests) are bridges from one referent to another on the basis of a commonly shared reality.
Secondly, the terms �metaphor� and �literally� are misunderstood and misused. �Literally� is intended to mean some sort of real physical reality only. �Metaphor� is intended to mean something that’s only theoretically, or conceptually, true. Thus, when one hears �Jesus is not literally the gate of the sheep� they mean by that that he is not made of wood and barbed wire. But this conveys both too much and too little. Too much in the sense that �literally� ends up conveying the notion that the meaning is somehow constrained to physical reality, when that physical reality is what it is only because the full metaphysical reality which metaphor and referent share precedes, fulfills and completes it. Too little in that �metaphor� is usually used to dismiss any tangible connection between referents. The connection is �merely� conceptual.
One can see, I hope, how it is that I do not like the term �literally,� but that is how the question usually is framed: Are Jesus’ words in John 6 meant to be understood figuratively or literally?
The answer is, quite simply: Both. It’s not an either/or scenario, but a both/and. There is a �literal� (or metaphysical) reality which fills and completes what the symbols represent. In fact, it makes no sense whatsoever to speak of these symbols as merely or only figurative. If there were no reality behind the metaphor, it wouldn’t be a metaphor.
So, my argument is that �blood� and �flesh� in John 6 cannot be merely or only figurative. That is to say, �blood� and �flesh� have no metaphorical meaning unless they also have a �literal,� or really real, meaning.
First, let’s observe that St. John’s Gospel abounds with metaphors that must have a �literal� (or really real) meaning.
�You must be born again.� �I am the light of the world.� �I am the way, the truth and the life.� Would any of us deny that the metaphor for being born again has a very real reality behind it, and shares with biological birth a very important reality: namely the making of a new person? Would any of us deny that Jesus and light share a very real reality (illumination)? Would any of us deny that Jesus is not really life and truth? Then clearly the consistent pattern in St. John’s Gospel is to use one referent to stand for another by way of the common reality they share. These are metaphors in the truest sense: they bridge one referent to another.
Secondly, let’s observe that the overall context of St. John’s Gospel, as well as the context of John 6 is deeply Eucharistic, that is to say, evocative of the Lord’s Supper, and that this requires a reading of John 6 that understands �flesh� and �blood� as Eucharistic.
Of the seven specific signs noted in St. John’s Gospel (turning the water to wine 2:1-11; curing the nobleman’s son 4:46-54; healing the paralytic 5:1-15; feeding the 5000 6:1-14; walking on water 6:15-21; giving sight to the blind man 9:1-41; and raising Lazarus from the dead 11:38-44), two of them occur in John 6. Furthermore, the two signs that occur in John 6 are tied specifically to the Passover (verse four), and both are evocative of the Exodus: the eating of manna in the wilderness and the crossing of the Red Sea.
One should also note that the Passover is highlighted in John 13:1 at the beginning of the following chapters which give Jesus’ discourse at the Last Supper. Note also that in John 6:11 we have the verb for give thanks eucharisteo, and although the language of John 6 lacks the full liturgical form that the Synoptics offer (took, blessed, broke, gave), we do have the �took,� �gave thanks,� and �gave/distributed.� Note also that St. John’s Gospel lacks the �institution narrative� that the Synoptics offer. John 6 nicely provides that element to his own Gospel, even if the events reported in John 6 are not the historical Last Supper events. In fact, given St. John’s penchant for describing one reality with another, it makes perfect sense that John 6 is intended by St. John to be the �institution narrative� for his Gospel. Indeed, given that the Synoptics and St. Paul preserve the account of the Last Supper as the institution of the Eucharist, it would seem odd if St. John’s Gospel did not have some similar account, as important as this clearly was to the New Testament Church.
Thus the consumption of Jesus’ Body and Blood here in John 6, fits in perfectly with the earlier writings of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. That is to say, literarily, though the events St. John is narrating really happened historically, he is using them in his Gospel functionally as a Eucharistic/Lord’s Supper narrative.
Thirdly, the �flesh� and �blood� to which Jesus refers functions as a sign (semeion) of his Person.
In St. John’s Gospel �sign� (semeion) occurs seventeen times (the verb semaino three times in 12:33, 18:32, and 21:19). Of those seventeen times, four occur in John 6. It always indicates a revelation of the Person of Jesus, or an authentication of the revelation of Jesus. The first occurrence in John 6 (verse two) indicates a large crowd followed him because of his �signs� he was doing upon the sick. In the second occurrence (verse 15), the sign of the feeding of the 5000 conveyed to the crowd an authentication of Jesus as the Prophet foretold to come into the world. In the third occurrence (verse 26) Jesus upbraids the crowd because they did not seek a sign (that is to say, they didn’t seek the true revelation of Himself), but bodily satisfaction. In the final occurrence–which significantly sets up the discussion on �flesh� and �blood�–the crowd asks for a sign by which Jesus can be believed. And while Jesus is known to have refused to give a sign to those who demanded it (Matthew 12:39//Mark 8:12//Luke 11:29; and Matthew 16:4), here there is no explicit refusal. Indeed, in context, the sign he gives the crowd is his flesh and blood.
Fourthly, the contrast in John 6:27 is not between physical and spiritual (or, crudely, �literal� and �metaphorical�), but between perishable and everlasting.
Work not for the food which perishes, but for the food which abides unto everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give to you; for upon Him God the Father has set His seal.” (John 6:27)
Indeed, if we truly believe the Incarnation, we know that in Jesus there is no separation or division between the physical and the spiritual. That is to say, because of the Incarnation, matter matters.
Similarly, the contrast in John 6:63 is not between literal or figurative, but between flesh and spirit.
Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, “This is a hard saying; who can hear it?” And Jesus, knowing in Himself that His disciples were murmuring about this, He said to them, “Does this offend you? What then if you should see the Son of Man ascending where He was before? It is the Spirit who makes alive; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. (John 6:60-63)
Now lest anyone take this as proof that this is a spiritual reality and not a physical one, note that Jesus contrasts the reality of drinking his blood and eating his flesh with his own Ascension into heaven. And clearly his Ascension was both a bodily and a spiritual reality. In other words, Jesus is saying, if consuming his flesh and blood is offensive, how much more offensive his Ascension to heaven, revealed as truly God’s Son. And if his Ascension is a bodily and spiritual reality, then, to preserve the offense of both, the �flesh� and �blood� we are to consume of Him is also material and spiritual.
But note the offense of the Jews: the discerned it in merely physical, bodily, material terms–which would truly be repugnant. Jesus is emphasizing that the reality is not merely physical, bodily, material, but that it is also and necessarily spiritual. Just like his Ascension. Indeed, apart from the spiritual, that is to say, the divine, the material reality is nothing. And all of this is predicated upon belief versus offense, faith versus rejection. Thus, �flesh� here does not contrast with spirit in the sense of physical versus spiritual but in the sense of human versus divine, doubt and skepticism versus belief and faith.
Finally, the bread of heaven, whom Jesus is, is appropriated by the consumption of Jesus’ flesh and blood; and Jesus lets the offense of it stay, without apology, or explanation.
Therefore the Jews were contending with one another, saying, “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?” Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up in the last day. For My flesh truly is food, and My blood truly is drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not as your fathers ate the manna, and died. He that eats this bread shall live forever.” (John 6:52-58)
This is perhaps the most telling of all. Jesus is well known to have explained to his disciples the spiritual realities behind his parables, which he did not do with the crowds. Here the crowds object to Jesus’ saying, and when he is alone with his disciples, does he then explain that he did not mean it literally? No, indeed, he maintains the offense: �You won’t leave also, will you?� For it is precisely the offense of the reality, that we must bodily and spiritually consume the flesh and blood of Jesus, that provokes either faith or rejection.
And, regrettably, it still does so today, even among those who claim the name of Him Who revealed these things to us.