by Dale Smelser
There are several keys to understanding this passage. One is verse 48 where Jesus said, "I am the bread of life." Then verse 50, "This is the bread of life which comes down out of heaven that a man might eat and live."
As we will note, the consideration of actual baked bread is not in this passage. It is not talking about the Lord's Supper, or the "Eucharist." If so it would assure eternal life to all who ate it. But there were plenty who ate it in the New Testament who would not have life. Many at Corinth had been baptized and ate the Lord's supper, but that no more gave them life than those baptized unto Moses, and who ate the Manna after that release from bondage (I Corinthians 10:1-12). Rather, they perished in the wilderness. Some ate literal bread to their own destruction (I Corinthians 11:27). Physically partaking of the Lord's Supper did not in itself result in eternal life. But eating his flesh and drinking his blood did. Whatever that meant, the two actions must be distinct actions.
First, we remember that Jesus had miraculously fed bread and fish to 5,000 people. They would make such a provider king and follow him for that (John 6:15). So now, back across the Sea of Galilee in the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus told them not to work for the food which perishes (which included the bread of the Eucharist), but to work for that which abides to eternal life (v. 27). They asked what they must do to work the works of God and Jesus told them that was to believe on him whom God had sent (vv. 28-29). Note again, the food that perishes not, is not physically consumed bread, but the Christ of whom we must partake by believing. We can see this building up to his claim to being the bread of life, of whom we partake by believing.
As people in a pinch, Jesus' listeners forget what he has done and this language reminds them of Moses who gave their fathers bread. So they ask what sign Jesus would do in comparison. Jesus said it was not Moses but God who gave them bread and who was now giving them the true bread out of heaven that they may eat (partake of through their faith) and receive life (vv. 32-33). They asked for that bread just as the woman asked at the well for living water, which was no more physical than the bread of which Jesus speaks. To which Jesus answered as he would repeat, "I am the bread of life, he who comes to me shall not hunger and he who believes on me shall never thirst" (v. 35). Again we see this is not about eating anything physical. We can do that and still hunger and thirst. He is the bread, not, the bread is him. And "eating" is not ingestion of physical material, but believing.
Another key to understanding the passage is to note the correspondence and comparison of believing and eating.
1. "Everyone who beholds the Son and believes on him should have eternal life" (v. 40).
2. "He who believes has eternal life" (v. 47).
We have life because the bread he gave was his body given for the life of the world (v. 51). We partake of the benefit of this bread, his sacrificed body, through our faith. So then comes the graphic figure, "He who eats my body and drinks my blood has eternal life" (v. 54). Who has eternal life? Those who believe. Who has eternal life? Those who eat his flesh and drink his blood. In this manner, through believing, we partake of the bread of life, the body offered on the cross. That sacrifice is why Jesus is the bread of life, that which gives eternal life, not just a material substance, as the bread (manna) Moses gave. We must eat of him, actually take Christ into ourselves, which conveys how consuming faith is. It is not a casual acceptance. We do not do this eating representatively by eating the "host," but by ingesting him through our consuming faith.
The importance of that is memorialized in the Lord's Supper, where in eating the bread and drinking the cup we do so in "remembrance" of Christ (I Corinthians 11:24), and thereby "proclaim" his death (I Corinthians 11:26). Those of faith will do that because the one in whom they believe told them to do it. But John 6:50-54 is not speaking of the Lord's Supper. It pictures Christ as the bread of life of whom we partake in believing. The Lord's Supper is a memorial of that. We do it in memory. We do not partake of Christ by eating the Lord’s Supper. We partake of Christ by believing.