Having declared that He is the bread of heaven sent down to provide eternal life, Jesus expanded on what He meant by telling His hearers in the Capernaum synagogue that the bread of heaven is His flesh that He gives for the life of the world (John 6:16–52; see v. 59). The conceptual parallels between this statement and other texts such as Luke 22:19—“He took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’ ” —indicate that Jesus was referring to His atoning death. The bread of life is Jesus, particularly in His sacrifice for our sins.
The conceptual parallels with the institution of the Lord’s Supper, as well as the general tenor of John 6, particularly verses 52–59, have led many people to conclude that Jesus is speaking of the sacrament as a source of life and necessary for salvation. Certainly, that has been the majority position in the Roman Catholic Church. However, while the Lord’s Supper is no doubt a tangible picture of many of the realities described in this text, Jesus could not have been talking directly about the sacrament at the time He gave the Bread of Life Discourse. After all, He had not yet instituted the supper, and the crowd, which was not made up of His closest disciples, would not have known about the supper and so would not have been able to make the application of our Lord’s words to the sacrament. More important, Jesus told the crowd what it means to find life by eating His flesh and drinking His blood. Note the parallels between verses 40 and 54. Those who believe are those whom Christ will raise up on the last day, and those who eat and drink the flesh and blood of Christ are those whom He will raise up on the last day. To eat and drink of Christ are not fleshly, carnal acts of chewing fundamentally; eating and drinking of Christ consists of trusting in Him for salvation. Augustine of Hippo comments on today’s passage, “Believe, and you have eaten.”
Christ is the true food that our souls need for us to enjoy eternal life. And there is no way to eat of this food other than by faith in Christ alone for salvation. When we believe that Jesus died to atone for our sins and that He has been raised from the dead for our justification, then we are united to Him and enjoy salvation. We abide in Him and He in us, and we will enjoy the resurrection of the just life as well as life in God’s presence forever (vv. 55–59).