Catholic apologetics is more robust today than it has been in the recent past. Since Rome has given more freedom of exploration and discover along with the encouragement for Catholics to study the Scriptures, there have been many Catholic apologists preparing Catholics to defend the faith. This apologetic engagement has been interesting due to the rise of the emerging church and its general attitude toward apologetics which is apathetic at best, and antagonistic in some emerging circles (but that is another story).

Having said this, the engagement between Protestants and Catholics must go on for the differences are still relevant. One of the key differences between Protestants and Catholics through the years is the view of the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. Catholics, along with the Orthodox Church, have traditionally believed that the Eucharist represents the centerpiece of our worship to God. Catholics call the celebration of the Eucharist “Mass.” They believe that when properly administered, the bread and the wine literally turn into the body and blood of Christ. This is called “transubstantiation” because the “substance” of the elements “transform” into Christ’s blody and blood. Most Protestants rejected this view of the Eucharist opting for either a memorial view or a spiritual view of the Lord’s supper (Lutherans have believed in a somewhat mediating position called consubstantiation).

Why is this important? Because historic Protestantism has charged the Catholic church with idolatry, believing that they have turned God into an idol of bread and wine, worshiping the elements without, indeed, contrary to, a scriptural basis. Catholics, on the other hand (and this is important), have elevated the celebration of the Mass and the belief in Transubstantiation to an essential of Christianity. In other words, according to Catholic dogma, if you do not celebrate the Mass as they believe it to be understood, you are in great danger of the fires of Hell, since missing Mass without a valid excuse is a mortal sin.

With the recent rise of modern Catholic apologetics, Catholic lay people are being trained to answer some of the more difficult objections to their faith that Protestants bring forward. The two primary areas that Catholic apologetics is centering on are issues with the canon of Scripture and the doctrine of Transubstantiation. We are focusing on Transubstantiation here. Not only this, but I want to focus on one particular arguement that is being put forth more and more in defense of Transubstantiation that comes form John 6.

Here is the passage: John 6:48 “I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 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.” 52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 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. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 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. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not as the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum. 60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? . . . After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.”

The Basic argument is this: If Christ was not speaking literally when He said, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day,” why did they respond by saying: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” If Christ was only speaking symbolically about feeding on His flesh and drinking His blood (as most Protestants believe), then it is not really a “hard saying,” just a misunderstood saying. According to the Catholic apologist, if Christ was speaking symbolically, Christ could have–indeed would have–corrected them and said, “This is not really hard. You must understand I am only speaking symbolically of eating my flesh and drinking my blood.” But He did not. He let them walk away. The Catholic apologist will often emphasis this fact and declare it to be uncontestable evidence that Christ was speaking literally about eating and drinking His flesh and blood. Thus, this becomes a primary defense of transubstantiation and the necessity of partaking in Mass for eternal life.

Karl Keating, a top Catholic Apologist, says:

“There was no attempt to soften what was said, no attempt to correct ‘misunderstandings’, for there were none. His listeners understood him quite well. No one any longer thought he was speaking metaphorically. If they had, why no correction? On other occasions, whenever there was confusion, Christ explained what he meant. Here, where any misunderstanding would be catastrophic, there was no effort to correct. Instead, he repeated what he said” (Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism, [San Francisco: Ignatius, 1988], 233-234).

While I respect and appreciate the attempts of some very fine Catholic apologists to defend difficult positions and believe this to be a good argument on the surface, I believe it is seriously flawed. I believe that it is taken out of the context of the entire book of John and bears a burden that it cannot sustain on exegetical and theological grounds.

Why? For two primary reasons:

1. Jesus is always being misunderstood. John rarely records Jesus’ correcting the misunderstanding of people.

The people in John 6 were looking for Christ to provide for them like Moses did and they were not interested in His talk about belief and eating his flesh. Some naturally thought that he was being literal about his statements. It is true, Christ did not correct them. But this is a common theme in the ministry of Christ. As Peter demonstrates, it is only those who stay with him that get the answers for eternal life (John 6:68). Often Christ would speak in parables and not tell any but those who were His true followers (Luke 8:10). The rest He let go in their ignorance since he knew all men and he was not committing himself to them.

John presents this side of Jesus more than any other of the Gospels when he says: John 2:24-25 “But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men, and because He did not need anyone to testify concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man.”He did not entrust himself to his listeners. Why? I suppose some wanted a king who would provide literal food for them like Moses did in the wilderness and they left when it became clear that He was not going to do the same. Some thought that He was speaking about actually eating his flesh and blood, I violation of the Mosaic Law, and they left. But why didn’t He simply correct their misunderstanding in this case? For the same reason He does not throughout the book of John. He often says things that are open to misinterpretation and then leaves His listeners in their confusion. Notice these examples

a. John 2:18-21 “The Jews then said to Him, “What sign do You show us as your authority for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will You raise it up in three days?” But He was speaking of the temple of His body.” Notice, Christ was not being literal here yet He did not correct the misunderstanding. This misunderstanding eventually leads to His conviction and death.

b. John 3:3-4 “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom ofGod.’ Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?’” Notice again, Jesus does not correct Nicodemus’ misunderstanding (although, like in John 6, it is obvious to the reader that this is not to be taken literally).

c. The disciples want Jesus to eat: “Rabbi, eat” (John 4:31). Jesus answers: “I have food to eat that you do not know about” (4:32). “So the disciples were saying to one another, ‘No one brought him anything to eat, did he?” (John 4:33). This time Jesus does correct his disciples, but in frustration because they cannot see the symbolism behind it. In other words, they should know enough by now to interpret His words symbolically since this is the way He always spoke.

Now we come to John 6. John’s readers should know by now that Christ speaks symbolically in such statements as these. We should understand by now that Christ is always being misunderstood by “outsiders.” They also know that sometimes Christ corrects the misunderstanding (especially with true followers) and sometimes he does not. Therefore, it would be irresponsible for the reader to take Christ literally in John 6.

Would Christ have corrected the misunderstanding of unbelievers whose heart he already knew?

“For judgment I came into the world, so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind” (John 9:39).

“For this reason they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, ‘He has blinded their eyes and he hardened their heart, so that they would not see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and be converted and I heal them'” (John 12:40).

It does not seem so. This was not His modus operandi.

2. Another important factor that Keating and other Catholic apologists fail to take into account is that John does not even record the events of the Last Supper at all. Obviously if we took the Catholic interpretation of John 6 and believed John included this passage to communicate that believers must eat the literal body and blood of Christ in order to have eternal life, you would expect John to have recorded the events that it foreshadows. You would expect John to have a historical record of the Last Supper, the inaugurating meal of the Eucharist. But John does not. What an oversight by John! In fact, John is the only Gospel writer that did not record the Last Supper. Therefore, it is very far-fetched to say that in John’s mind, a literal eating and drinking of Christ body and blood are essential for salvation. Remember John wrote the only book in the NT that explicitly says it is written for the purpose of salvation and he does not even include the Lord’s Supper. John 20:30-31 “Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

Why did they walk away? Because, like all other unbelievers, they expected something of Jesus that He did not come to provide and they misunderstood His teachings and intentions. A very common theme in John and a very common mistake today.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    8 replies to "Why did He let them walk away: John 6 and transubstantiation"

    • nuntym

      Hi! I made a few comments about this article in

      Sorry if the language was a bit, uhm, harsh.

    • Alan J. Eddy

      There is absolutely nothing in Jesus’ Bread of Life Discourse that even remotely suggests that He is talking symbolically about His Body and Blood. You are so wrong in believeing that they walked away for any other reason than they were scandalized!!! His desciples knew very well what Jesus meant. If Jesus were talking metaphorically wouldn’t He have gone after them? Hey don’t leave I was only talking symbolically about my Body and Blood. It never happened did it Michael . Instead Jesus turned up the heat and asked His own apostles if they were going to leave Him too? Sad how protestants miss the boat on John 6.

    • Glenn Shrom

      John 6 has Jesus speaking of himself as the bread from heaven – the manna. The Last Supper has Jesus speaking of himself as something from the Passover meal – the unleavened bread and the cup of redemption.

    • Glenn Shrom

      I have more on this topic for later if you’d like.

    • Alan J. Eddy

      Michael, in John 6 the disciples left Christ because they were scandalized. They muttered to themselves: “How can this man give us His body and blood to eat? They knew what Christ was talking about and it was His literal presence in the bread and wind. The Greek word to eat used in the Bread of Life discourse is Trogo. It has only one meaning , to eat or gnaw on flesh. Jesus even asked his own apostles if they were going to leave Him too. Then Jesus drives His real presence home again with this profound statement: ‘

    • Alan J. Eddy

      Michael, in John 6 the disciples left Christ because they were scandalized. They muttered to themselves: “How can this man give us His body and blood to eat? They knew what Christ was talking about and it was His literal presence in the bread and wind. The Greek word to eat used in the Bread of Life discourse is Trogo. It has only one meaning , to eat or gnaw on flesh. Jesus even asked his own apostles if they were going to leave Him too. Then Jesus drives His real presence home again with this profound statement: ‘Unless you eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of man you have no life in you”. I think you need to really study and contemplate what Jesus is really saying in John 6. Human logic like you are using falls way short of the mark.

    • tecla

      Michael have you considered 1 Cor 11: 25-34 ? I really think you should. The fact that people were dying from partaking of the Lord’s supper unworthily really doesn’t make any sense to me if it was just a symbol. I mean why would a loving father punish people for just symbols?

      The fact that the gospel of John does not give an account of the Lord’s supper really does not imply that John 6 literal view is not true. I mean how many things are not written in John and yet we take them to be true as long as they appear in other gospels and vice versa.

      You see, the Jews never do things symbolically. They actually participate in it as if they were there during the time Exo 12, particularly verse 27 of this chapter where the parents would tell there children this is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord…..note the present tense. If it were just a symbol I think it would read, ” This represents the passover sacrifice……”or, ” This was the…” same applies to the words of our Lord in the gospels and Paul’s words to the Corinthians.

      By the way, can you limit God in whatever he wants to use to manifest himself? The miracle of transubstantiation is the greatest miracle ever and yet you do not want to acknowledge it to be done by God by denying His real presence.

      You remind me of Naaman who wanted the prophet to touch him and invoke the Lord’s name or something extraordinary yet the prophet didn’t negotiate with him except for the simple element that God would use to heal Naaman. And I tell you it was until he accepted the order given by the prophet that he would be healed. Protestants ask to see blood and body of Christ live or some extraordinary thing to believe the real presence. You guys are no different from Naaman and until you make the step he made you will be missing this greatest miracle of all times.

      All I can say to you is what Jesus said in Mat 16:4 An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah…..
      Not sure for I have not read much about Protestant history but I heard the reformers did not doubt the real presence. If that is true, I think the modern protestantism is rebelling against its founders….just saying.

      Goodluck in your journey of faith.

      with love

    • John

      Jesus is talking spiritually to CARNAL followers
      He answers them

      27 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. note

      28 Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?

      29 Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the WORK of God, that ye BELIEVE on him whom he hath sent.
      NOW listen what Jesus says is food

      34 Then said they unto him, Lord, evermore give us this bread.

      35 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.

      36 But I said unto you, That ye also have SEEN ME , and BELIEVE NOT NOT.

      37 All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.

      Eatin and drinking is coming and nelieving in Jesus its not literall, and Jesus ends it with,

      63 It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the WORDS that I speak unto you, they are SPIRIT, and they are LIFE.

      64 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.

      65 And he said, Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father.( Jesus again tells them no one can come to him unless the father draws them)

      66 From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.

      67 Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?

      68 Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.

      69 And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.

      God bless

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