A Heavenly Feast

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas before the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper on January 3, 2021.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “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. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever” (John 6:47–58).[1]

One of the best-known miracles of Jesus is the feeding of the five thousand. Counting women and children, the multitude was considerably larger but the food available was exact: five barley loaves and two fish. Taking a meal for few not many, Jesus gave thanks, as should we, and distributed the food with gratitude. What was given was received, all were fed and then some, yielding twelve baskets of leftovers. So astonishing was the feat and feast that the people considered Jesus to be a prophet equivalent to Moses, or perhaps a king (John 6:2-15).

It is indeed a memorable miracle, but it was not the only meal that Jesus offered the crowd, not of bread and fish but of flesh and blood. Another followed, not of bread or fish but of Christ. A miracle providing an abundance of bread and fish was desirable. An offer to be fed on Jesus’ flesh and blood was repulsive. And with the offer, Jesus’ followers went from many to few. They no longer wanted him as king; they no longer wanted him at all. Little has changed: Many gladly receive divine blessings but are repulsed by the offer of Christ himself, his body and blood.

Yet, Jesus says, “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.” Jesus’ words were and are startling. Literally interpreted, Jesus invites his disciples to a cannibalistic feast. Surely this is not his meaning. What then are we to make of Jesus’ offer? How are we to understand his body and blood? The key is in the context. Jesus is responding to an inquiry.

The miracles of Jesus are revealing, but they were not satisfying. Those who were fed miraculously want more…miraculously. They demand a sign, a heavenly work, like the days of Moses. They say, “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’” (John 6:31). Multiplying bread and fish is miraculous but raining manna from heaven is divine.

Jesus’ miracles are often misunderstood. Divorced from their underlying meaning, they are miraculous yet superfluous. In the feeding of the five thousand, there was meaning in the meal. Jesus did not come to feed the hungry another meal. He came to bring a feast of life that lasts forever. Yes, he directs us to his flesh; he offers us his blood; but it is understanding the necessity of his direction, the life-gift in his offer, that translates Jesus’ words from the bizarre to the beautiful.

Eating as Believing

Contrary to the Jews’ interpretation, Jesus is not promoting cannibalism. He is sharing the gospel: “whoever believes has eternal life.” It is a spiritual statement of satisfaction, but the Jews can’t see past their last meal.

So, Jesus explains, “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.” Though Israel was fed from heaven, the food only met their temporal needs and gave only mortal sustenance. In other words, as miraculous as the manna was, it could not provide anything more than a meal. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asked, “Isn’t there more to life than food…?” (Matt. 6:25), teaching us to think beyond our next meal, and yet we like Israel think more of our next meal than eternal life. The eternal is overshadowed by the urgent and immediate. Our hunger is often seemingly satiated on a substitute rather than satisfied in Christ.

To explain this so those with eyes may see and those with ears may hear, Jesus uses the. metaphor of bread: “I am the bread of life.” While the spiritually blind and deaf can only see Christ before them and only hear his statement literally, the spiritually hungry find the full satisfaction of their spiritual hunger in Christ alone. He is the heavenly manna of life, and because we receive spiritual life through faith in him, we may understand Christ’s offer of himself, eating as believing. We partake of Christ through faith in him.

However, in our passage Christ has not yet gone to the cross. Jesus speaks of what is to come, saying, “And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” What he foreshadows then we know now is fulfilled. Isaiah prophesied, “he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). Connecting this prophecy to Christ’s atoning work in his boy upon the cross, Peter writes, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet. 2:24). It is only through Christ’s body sacrificed that we “live to righteousness.” Therefore, he is indeed the bread of life upon whom we feast, eating as believing.

Drinking as Trusting

Likewise, in keeping with the metaphor, Christ offers the cup of his blood. Again, if taken literally it is both grotesque and unlawful. Old Testament law specifically prohibited eating blood because “the blood is the life” (Deut. 12:23). Similarly, in the New Testament the Jerusalem council commanded Christians to abstain “from blood” (Acts 15:29). But Jesus offers up his blood in which life is not lost in sacrifice but is given.

To drink Jesus’ blood is not to partake in carnal indulgence but to trust in the atoning work of Christ. Simply put, the writer of Hebrews explains, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). To the point, it is not any blood but Christ’s shed blood that atones for our sin past, present, and future. It is in Christ alone that “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Eph. 1:7).

Therefore, the metaphors of eating and believing are remarkably appropriate, when we consider our sin and need for salvation. We must have Christ and take in what he freely offers if we are to live and have life eternal. Those who do not eat (as believing) and drink (as trusting) do not have life but remain spiritually dead in their sins and trespasses (Eph. 2:1). To eat, believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, to drink, trusting in his finished work upon the cross, is to have the life that is in Christ alone, life that he gives, life in his body and blood that never ends: “For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 NET).

Understanding this, now listen carefully to what Jesus says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” As eating is believing and drinking is trusting, in Christ we have (present tense) eternal life and a certain bodily resurrection in the future. All who by God’s grace through faith in Christ have eaten his flesh and drunk his blood, receiving eternal life and the consummation of a resurrection that awaits us.

Feasting as Fellowship

As opposed to the multiplied barley loaves and fish and even opposed to the manna that came down from heaven, Jesus distinguishes his flesh and blood as “true food” and “true drink.” The distinction of “true” is necessary in a world of counterfeits. The world will always offer a substitute for the body and the blood of Christ, leading many to be satisfied in the fake and false.

Thankfully, in giving us himself, Christ guarantees it with his presence. He says, “whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” One commentator describes this as “the closest possible relationship so that [figuratively] the eater is in Christ and Christ in the eater.”[2] Imagine: The Christian enjoys the closest possible relationship with Christ. Through his Spirit, this is reality. This may also be described as a mystical union with Christ. For example, Paul explains in Ephesians, “In love [God] predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ…In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses…to unite all things in him. …In him we have obtained an inheritance. …In him you also…were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (1:4-5, 7-13). Through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit we are enjoying fellowship with Christ.

Likewise, we enjoy this fellowship collectively in the church. In Ephesians, we are described as members of the household of God, growing into “a holy temple in the Lord” and “a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:19, 22). And it is in the church’s sacrament of the Lord’s Supper that we hear the words and see the emblems depicting our faith in Christ.

No, we do not literally eat the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament, nor does partaking of the bread and wine grant eternal life. But as Jesus took the bread saying, “This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 22:19), he points us to himself and our union with him through faith. When he says, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20), he points to his atoning work uniting the cross and our covenantal union with him through his Spirit.

So, when we come to the Lord’s table we look to his body, the bread, and his blood, the wine, seeing in them the mystical union we enjoy with Christ and in Christ one another. We come to a feast, so to speak, not in quantity but in substance, a sacrament that reminds us of our union and nourishes us by his Spirit.

I am reminded of The Valley of Vision prayer in which we are led to pray and so let us pray together:

            God of all good,[we] bless thee for the means of grace;

            Teach [us] to see in them thy loving purposes

            and the joy and strength of [our souls].
            Thou hast prepared for [us] a feast;

             and though [we are]  unworthy to sit down as guest[s],

             [we] wholly rest on the merits of Jesus,

            and hide [ourselves] beneath his righteousness;
            When [we] hear his tender invitation and see his wondrous grace,

             [we] cannot hesitate, but must come to thee in love.
            By thy Spirit enliven [our] faith rightly to discern

and spiritually to apprehend the Saviour.
            While [we] gaze upon the emblems of my Saviour’s death,

            may [we] ponder why he died, and hear him say,

            ‘I gave my life to purchase yours,

            presented myself an offering to expiate your sin,

            shed my blood to blot out your guilt,

            opened my side to make you clean,

            endured your curses to set you free,

            bore your condemnation to satisfy divine justice.’
            O may [we] rightly grasp the breadth and length

            of this design,

            draw near, obey, extend the hand,

            take the bread, receive the cup,

             eat and drink, testify before all men

            that[we] do for [ourselves], gladly, in faith,

            reverence and love, receive [our] Lord,

            to be [our] life, strength, nourishment,

             joy, delight.
            In the supper [we] remember his eternal love,

            boundless grace, infinite compassion,

            agony, cross, redemption,

            and receive assurance of pardon, adoption,

            life, glory.
            As the outward elements nourish [our bodies],

            so may thy indwelling Spirit invigorate [our souls],

            until that day when [we] hunger and thirst

            no more,

            and sit with Jesus at his heavenly feast.[3]

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John, Revised (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 336.

[3] Arthur Bennett, ed., The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002), 360-61.

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