Monday, August 07, 2006

Weekly Communion and John 6

I do think that in the discussion of weekly communion, one often sees John 6 pop up. It is the main text to prove transubstantiation, but we will not be dealing with that as no Presbyterian/Reformed exegesis would include such an error. Still many will point to John 6 as showing a need for weekly communion claiming John 6 discusses the Eucharist. I do not believe this chapter in John is speaking of the Lord’s Supper at all, but rather is teaching us about Christ. In as much as the Lord’s Supper also proclaims Christ the two have overlap, but that does not mean John 6 applies to the Supper.

First, this speech of Jesus is well before the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Many commentators think that this is easily a year prior to the institution of the Supper. Taking the Supper then and imposing it back upon this chapter seems a little like forcing one’s views about the Supper onto a text. Rather we ought to let the text tell us what it is talking about.

Second, this text appears not to be pointing forward to a yet to be instituted Lord’s Supper, but rather backward to Moses and the Manna. This is not a theology of the Supper, but a fulfillment of sign of manna in the wilderness. Jesus says as much in verse 32-35. The true bread from heaven is Jesus. He points back to the manna again in 48-50.

Third, the bread from heaven is figurative. I am not sure any disagree on this point, but what is the figure should be explained. John 6:35 tells us that Jesus is the bread of heaven and those who come will not be hungry and those who believe will not thirst. The next verse condemns the crowd for seeing, but not believing, and then Jesus launches into a discussion about being drawn and believing. Thus, the figure appears to be about believing on Jesus, not about any sort of partaking of bread in the Lord’s Supper. See also verse 47. These verses cannot be ignored as we discuss eating and drinking his flesh in verses 51 and following.

Fourth, after Jesus says to eat his flesh and drink his blood, he says those that do eat his flesh "shall live forever"(v.58). This should bring our minds back to verse 47 where Jesus says "whoever believes has eternal life." It is reasonable to assume then that the figure of eating his flesh that produces ‘living forever’ is the same as the believing that produces ‘eternal life.’ After all this is in the same discourse. Notice also the similarities in verse 44 and 54. Both those who believe and those who eat the flesh and drink the blood are ‘raised up on the last day.’

Fifth, thinking that Jesus was speaking about the act of eating was the mistake of the crowd. Verse 52 shows us the crowd wonders how they can eat the flesh and blood of Jesus. And Jesus seems to rebuke them for thinking that way. When they continue to murmur in verse 61 Jesus openly rebukes them. Yet, what is there mistake if Jesus is really speaking about eating the bread and wine of the Supper? They are simply wondering how they can eat the flesh and drink the blood, which is a very legitimate question if Jesus has not yet said, ‘This is my body’ and ‘this is my blood.’ How could they have known he meant the sacrament that has not yet been instituted. Jesus seems to think they should have gotten the message and thinking it was eating anything was a mistake. In fact, verse 63 Jesus says, "The words I speak unto you, they are spirit, they are life." Jesus seems to equate his message about being the true bread to his words, and believing his words. Indeed as he states in the same verse, "It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing." When the crowd leaves it is because they do not believe (64).

Sixth, the disciples who stay understand the meaning of the teaching. They explain it for us in Peter’s answer in verses 68-69. "Lord to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Peter and the other faithful know that Jesus has been speaking about believing and trusting his word. Peter’s answer corresponds nicely to the discourse as well. Peter believes in Jesus as Christ commands in verse 35 and the crowd fails to do in verse 36. Peter confesses the ‘eternal life’ that Jesus spoke about in verses 40, 47, 53, 57, and 58 is found in believing the words of Jesus. Which by the way is also what Jesus says directly in verse 63. Peter also confesses Jesus to be the Son of the Living God which fits nicely with verses 36-40, and being the bread "from heaven" (32-33) that gave the crowd trouble in verse 42.

Thus, I hold that John 6 is not about the Lord’s Supper, but is about believing on Jesus and his words in general. We should not take the sections that speak of Christ’s flesh and blood to be references to the yet to be established Supper because Christ in the discourse applies them to belief in Him and His words. They are used figuratively here for belief in Jesus, not for bread and wine.

Today some argue that we should read Scripture through the lens of the Liturgy, and thus read this passage as one pertaining to the Lord’s Supper. They use this as proof the grammatical-historical method is not the main way to read the Scripture. This is a disturbing development in the push for weekly communion, and hopefully is not a method used by all of its advocates.

Weekly communion advocates want to point to John 6 and say we are to eat his flesh and drink his blood in the Supper so that he dwells in me and I in him. They argue then that not partaking weekly under values this chapter and this teaching of Christ. Yet, if this chapter is talking about believing in Jesus and believing his words, then it has no force at all for a weekly communion argument.

6 Comments:

Alastair said...

I have responded to your comments on my blog.

Adam said...

Lee, wouldn't those in our circles that understand John 6 as referencing the Lord's Supper then also have to take the position that participation in the Lord's Supper is absolutely essential for a person to be saved? I don't see how they avoid that problematic conclusion from the text if they are going to claim it refers to communion?

pduggie said...

Jesus says things on many occasions that his hearers misunderstand or misinterpret until after the ressurection.

Leithart is an advocate of weekly communion, but in the link I see no argument for weekly communion from John 6, other than to say that communion is of great significance because Jesus speaks of it in strong terms.

I suppose an argument for weekly communion from John 6 could be made. It might go like this

1. John 6 teaches faith is related to spiritual life as food is to life.

2. Communion is an enacted form of the teaching of Jesus in John 6

3. The features of the teaching of John 6 should be replicated as much as possible in communion for it to have its best effect in increasing saving faith.

4. Eating every time a church gathers for worship is the best way to reinforce the teaching of John 6, that faith is to be exercized in every worship meeting.

Andrew Duggan said...

Paul, one problem is in that last step,

"4. Eating every time a church gathers for worship is the best way to reinforce the teaching of John 6, that faith is to be exerci[s]ed in every worship meeting."

It would be helpful for you to demonstrate the superiority of the "eating" (the Lord's Supper) as the best way to reinforce the teaching of John 6. Wouldn't preaching on John 6 be a better way to reinforce its teaching than simply having the Lord's supper without any mention of John 6? -- or are you going to require that every (weekly/morning and evening) celebration of the Lord's Supper include a sermonette on John 6 as part of the table address?

Also why does the teaching of John 6 need weekly (morning and evening) reinforcement, more than the teaching of John 1-5 and 7-21, or any of the other books of the Bible?

Lee said...

Pduggie,
One of my points is that I do not think there are arguments from Scripture stating weekly communion. All arguments for it have to come from sources involving a theory of the sacraments, such as John 6. You are right the link is simply to random thoughts about John by Leithart, but it does show he holds John 6 is about the Eucharist.

Anonymous said...

Weekly Commmunion? Nay, more often - "Do this as oft as ye drink it [red wine], in remembrance of me". I take this to mean that every meal to include red wine at a table comprising exclusively believers should include a communion. That this is impossible in sectors of the church that require an 'ordained' person to govern Communion is their problem. High time that the juggernaut of tradition hit the buffers of scripture!