Jesus said in John 6:53 – “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” (ESV).
Years later, the Apostle Paul spoke of Jesus’ words during the Last Supper in the upper room. He writes, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor 11:23-25).
There is a strange similarity between the words of Christ in John 6 and His words at the Last Supper. In both cases, He encourages the people to eat and drink His body and blood (metaphorically, of course!). But is this just a strange coincidence of two passages sharing a similar metaphor? Or are we looking at a thinly veiled allusion in John 6 to the Lord’s Table?
At first it may appear as though John 6 alludes to communion. The Gospel of John, after all, does not have a “communion scene,” so many commentators throughout the ages have surmised that perhaps this is John’s way of sneaking it in. Others have noted that the drinking of blood was forbidden by Old Testament law (Lev 17:10-14), so the words of Christ would have been offensive to Jews had they not been referring (ultimately) to communion.
However, there are three good reasons why not to read communion into John 6.
1) The first and perhaps most obvious reason is simply because the Lord’s Table was not yet instituted when Jesus first spoke the words in John 6. In fact, we know that John 6 took place during the Passover season (John 6:4), so it was at least an entire year removed from the first institution of communion on the night of His betrayal. Thus, even though Jesus’ words encourage His followers to “eat and drink” Him, the original listeners could not possibly have understood this to refer to communion, since communion hadn’t yet been instituted.
John’s readers might have made that connection, but it must be secondary, not primary, since the primary referent in the passage itself is belief in Jesus. Every time Jesus says “eat my flesh” or “drink my blood,” He is referring to the need to believe in Him for salvation (see my sermon for more on this).
2) Many commentators have pointed out that if John wanted to write John 6 in such a way to draw a reader’s mind towards the communion table, he could have done a better job. By this it’s meant that he leaves out some “key words” that are closely associated with communion in other Lord’s Supper passages.
For instance, the most glaring omission is the word “body” (the Greek word is soma). 1 Corinthians 11:24 says, “This is my body, which is for you.” In Matthew 26:26, Jesus says, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Mark 14:22 – “Take; this is my body.” Luke 22:19 – “This is my body, which is given for you.” All four communion passages in the NT use the word soma, body.
However, Jesus uses the word “flesh” (Greek: sarx) in John 6. The word “body” is not found anywhere in John 6. Why, if John (or Jesus) wanted to make an allusion to communion, did he leave out such an important key word? This may indicate that there was no true intention to make a veiled allusion to communion; rather, the similar theme of eating/drinking can be over-read from one text to the other.
3) But the most important argument against the Lord’s Supper allusion in John 6 is that in the text, Jesus is clearly saying that the eating/drinking of His flesh/blood is necessary for salvation. Consider again the passage I cited at the top of this post: “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” (John 6:53). The entire passage is all about the need for the people to believe in Jesus for eternal life.
Communion does not give life. It is a remembrance of what Jesus Christ has done for us. It is an act of worship. It is an act of communing with God and fellow Christian. But it is not salvific. Taking communion is neither necessary to earn salvation nor necessary to maintain salvation.
Thus, the primary point of Jesus’ words in John 6 and Jesus’ words in the upper room during the first communion were different. John 6 teaches about eternal life and salvation. Communion teaches about remembering the salvation we already have and worshiping God for it.
We must be careful not to read into a text what is not there, even one with such similarities as we have seen here. Every time Jesus eats a meal, communion is not in the background.