Roman Catholics like to try to claim that they are just taking Jesus “literally” when they interpret “this is my body” to mean that what was in Jesus’ hands was not bread but his physical body [FN1]. Three passages in John help to illustrate the problem with that approach: John 4, John 6, and John 7. In the first, Jesus refers metaphorically to living water, in the second Jesus refers to himself as food and drink, and in the third Jesus offers drink to those who thirst.
In John 4, Jesus interacts with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. He asks her for water, she objects because he’s Jewish, and he responds that she should be asking him for water, because the water he offers is better than the water from Jacob’s well. She misunderstands him as speaking physically, even after some further explanation. She wants to stop the labor of drawing water and misunderstands Jesus’ comments about “never thirst.”
John 4:6-15Now Jacob’s well was there. Jesus therefore, being wearied with his journey, sat thus on the well: and it was about the sixth hour. There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink. (For his disciples were gone away unto the city to buy meat.) Then saith the woman of Samaria unto him, How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans. Jesus answered and said unto her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water. The woman saith unto him, Sir, thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep: from whence then hast thou that living water? Art thou greater than our father Jacob, which gave us the well, and drank thereof himself, and his children, and his cattle? Jesus answered and said unto her, Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life. The woman saith unto him, Sir, give me this water, that I thirst not, neither come hither to draw.
In John 6, Jesus interacts with a number of “disciples” who want Jesus to repeat the miracle of the loaves that’s reported at the beginning of the chapter. Jesus explains that the person who believes on him will never thirst and whoever comes to him will never hunger, calling himself the “bread of life” that “came down from heaven.” Jesus insists that the bread he offers is better than the manna that the people ate in the wilderness. Jesus talks about them eating his flesh and drinking his blood, but they take him physically and go away in disgust. Jesus explains that the words he speaks are spirit and life. Jesus asks the twelve if they will go away too, but Peter (speaking for the group) says that they will stay with him because they believe and know that his words are the words of eternal life.
Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled. Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed. Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent. They said therefore unto him, What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat. Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world. Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread. And Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.
But I said unto you, That ye also have seen me, and believe not. All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.
The Jews then murmured at him, because he said, I am the bread which came down from heaven. And they said, Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? how is it then that he saith, I came down from heaven? Jesus therefore answered and said unto them, Murmur not among yourselves. No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me.
Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father. Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life.
I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.
The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat? Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever.
These things said he in the synagogue, as he taught in Capernaum. Many therefore of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is an hard saying; who can hear it? When Jesus knew in himself that his disciples murmured at it, he said unto them, Doth this offend you? What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before? It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.
But there are some of you that believe not. For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him. And he said, Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father. From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.
Jesus answered them, Have not I chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil? He spake of Judas Iscariot the son of Simon: for he it was that should betray him, being one of the twelve.
In John 7, Jesus interacts with those at the temple for the feast. Jesus offers the thirsty people water. John explains to us that Jesus is speaking about the Spirit as the “rivers of flowing water.”
In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified.)
These passages illustrate Jesus’ fondness for using food as a metaphor for trust in him. We approach the Lord’s table by faith, coming to Him as represented by the bread and cup. We gain a benefit from this if we do so by faith, but not if we do so any other way. It is not the physical elements that provide the benefit we receive, it is the Spirit.
Remember what Jesus said about clean/unclean foods:
Matthew 15:17 Do not ye yet understand, that whatsoever entereth in at the mouth goeth into the belly, and is cast out into the draught?
Unfortunately, it seems our Roman Catholic friends and relatives fail to understand this. Christ is our spiritual food and drink, not our physical nourishment.
Isaiah 44:3 For I will pour water upon him that is thirsty, and floods upon the dry ground: I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon thine offspring:
Psalm 105:41 He opened the rock, and the waters gushed out; they ran in the dry places like a river.
Isaiah 48:21 And they thirsted not when he led them through the deserts: he caused the waters to flow out of the rock for them: he clave the rock also, and the waters gushed out.
Psalm 78:20 Behold, he smote the rock, that the waters gushed out, and the streams overflowed; can he give bread also? can he provide flesh for his people?
1 Corinthians 10:4 And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ.
The blessings we receive in Christ are primarily spiritual blessings. We drink the spiritual drink from the spiritual Rock, and that Rock is Christ. He is our Rock, we trust in Him.
To the glory of his grace!
Footnote 1: I should add that the Roman Catholic position is particularly absurd in that it takes “this is my body” as implying that the bread ceases to be bread and becomes the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus. Likewise, it is claimed that “this is … my blood” implies exactly the same thing about the contents of the cup. That’s quite far from taking the words literally, in which the bread would just be the body, and the contents of the cup would just be the blood.