The Lord Jesus said, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you have no life In you." Was Jesus speaking literally or figuratively? The Roman Catholic Church teaches His Words are literal. Their literal interpretation is the foundation for its doctrine of transubstantiation -- the "miraculous" changing of bread and wine into the living Christ, His body and blood, soul and divinity. Each Catholic priest is said to have the power to call Jesus down from heaven when he whispers over the wafer, "Hoc corpus meus est." Catholics believe they are actually eating and drinking the living body and blood of Jesus Christ when they consume the lifeless wafer. This is a vital and important requirement in their salvation and a doctrine they must believe and accept to remain a Catholic.
If priests indeed have the power to change bread and wine into the body and blood of the glorified Christ, and if indeed consuming His body and blood is necessary for salvation, then the whole world must become Catholic to escape the wrath of God. On the other hand, if Jesus was speaking in figurative language then the Eucharist becomes the most blasphemous and deceptive hoax any religion could impose on its people. There is no middle ground.
Catholics need to know that Jesus used figurative language when He spoke to the Jewish multitude in this sixth chapter of John. There are at least seven convincing reasons why this passage must be taken figuratively.
Drinking Blood Forbidden
The Law of Moses strictly forbade Jews from drinking blood (Leviticus 17:10-14) A literal interpretation to drink blood would mean Jesus was teaching the Jews to disobey the Mosaic Law. This would have been enough cause for them to persecute Jesus. (See John 5:16)
If John 6:53 is interpreted literally, it is in disharmony with the rest of the Bible. Eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ for eternal life adds another requirement to the Gospel of grace. Furthermore, it gives no hope of eternal life to any Christian who does not consume the body and blood of Christ. A literal translation of this verse would oppose hundreds of Scriptures that declare justification and salvation are by grace through faith alone in Christ.
Since the "eating and drinking" in verse 6:54 and the "believing" in verse 6:40 produce the same result - eternal life we have an unexplainable dilemma if both are taken literally. What if a person "believes" but does not "eat or drink"? Or what if a person "eats and drinks" but does not "believe?" This could happen any time a non-believer walked into a Catholic Church and received the Eucharist. Does this person have eternal life because he met one of the requirements but not the other? The only possible way to harmonize these two verses is to accept one verse as figurative and one as literal.
Eating and Drinking Can Be Figurative
The Jews were familiar with the use of the figurative language of "eating and drinking" in the Old Testament to describe the appropriation of divine blessings to one's innermost being. It was God's way of providing spiritual nourishment for the soul. (See Jeremiah 15:16 and Ezekiel 2:8, 3:1)
Jesus Confirmed His Use of Figurative Language
Jesus informed His disciples there were times when He spoke figuratively to impart spiritual truths (John 16:25). He often used that type of language to describe Himself. The Gospel of John records seven figurative declarations Jesus made of Himself -- "the bread of life" (6:48), "the light of the world" (8:12), "the door" (10:9), "the good shepherd" (10:11), "the resurrection and the life" (11:25), "the way, the truth and the life" (14:6), and "the true vine" (15:1). He also referred to His body as the temple (2:19). When speaking to a mixed crowd of believers and unbelievers, Jesus used parables (figurative language) so that unbelievers could not understand the mysteries of heaven which were not granted to them (Mat. 13:10-17). The reason the multitude were seeking after Jesus was because they wanted more physical food (John 6:26). Jesus was offering them spiritual food (John 6:32-33). As believers partake of Jesus, He will abide in them (John 6:53). They will never hunger or thirst. Clearly this is in a figurative sense (John 6:35). As the good shepherd, He feeds His people knowledge and understanding of Himself (Jer. 3:15).
His Words Were Spiritual
Jesus ended this teaching by revealing "the words I have spoken to you are spirit" (6:63). As with each of the seven miracles in John's Gospel, Jesus uses the miracle to convey a spiritual truth. Here Jesus has just multiplied the loaves and fish and uses a human analogy to teach the necessity of spiritual nourishment. This is consistent with His teaching on how we are to worship God. "God is Spirit and His worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24). As we worship Christ He is present spiritually, not physically. In fact, Jesus can only be bodily present at one place at one time. His omnipresence refers only to His spirit. It is impossible for Christ to be bodily present in thousands of Catholic Churches around the world.
A Counterfeit Miracle?
There is no Biblical precedent where something supernatural occurred where the outward evidence indicated no miracle had taken place. (The wafer and wine look, taste and feel the same before and after the supposed miracle of transubstantion). When Jesus changed water into wine, all the elements of water changed into the actual elements of wine.
The 6th chapter of John took place three years before the Last Supper. If the Words of Christ were taken literally, why didn't people start gnawing on His flesh after this teaching? The ones who departed from Jesus were unbelievers (6:36) who had followed him to Capernaum for another free lunch (6:26). When Jesus offered Himself as "spiritual" food they were not interested (6:63). Those who ate of the spiritual food for eternal life were believers (6:40) and remained with Jesus. He had the words [not the flesh] of eternal life (6:68). Catholics need to know that when Jesus is received spiritually, one time in the heart, there is no need to receive him physically, over and over again in the stomach. Anyone who believes they are literally eating Jesus is absurd and cannibalistic.
At the Last Supper Jesus asked believers to remember Him until He comes again. Why do Catholics remember Him if they believe He has come again the Eucharist. "For I [Paul] received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; 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." In the same way He took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood; do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes" (1 Cor. 11:23-26). If transubstantiation were true and Jesus is indeed physically present, why would He ask us to remember Him. Furthermore, God does not dwell in Catholic tabernacles made with human hands (Acts 7:48).
The only way to receive Jesus is spiritually by faith John 1:12-13).