A Response to Tim Staples:

In my 2011 debate with Dr. Peter Barnes, a Presbyterian minister and apologist in Australia, the topic was the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and it centered on Jesus’ famous words in John 6:53: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” After about three hours of debate, I could sum up Barnes’s central objection in one sentence—a sentence which just happens to be found in the New Testament: How can this man give us his flesh to eat? (John 6:53)

So Staples begins in bad form, by seeking to impute unbelief to Barnes as to how the presumed Eucharistic miracle could occur.  But beside being unfair to Barnes, this is begging the question, presuming the answer in the question, and therefore a form of circular reasoning. The question to be decided from the text is not how Catholic transubstantiation occurs, but whether it occurs at all, and more importantly, what was Jesus actually teaching, i.e., where does the text actually lead us.

Dr. Barnes could not, and would not, deny the Lord said what he said in Scripture. His only recourse (as is the case with all who deny the real presence), ultimately, was to claim Jesus was speaking “metaphorically.” And after all, he had to be… right? I mean, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” In other words, his ultimate objection to the Catholic and biblical position is not so much rooted in the text as it is in a fundamental incredulity when it comes to the words of the text.

Again, a sustained ad hominem, an attack on Barnes rejection of the presumed outcome.  As such not a substantive argument at all.  Barnes obviously believes what Jesus said.  But His understanding of what Jesus means is quite different, and that is where the focus belongs.  Impugning Barnes with unbelief seems uncalled for here.

I argued in that debate, and I will again in this post, that if we examine the text carefully, not only is there nothing in it that indicates Jesus was speaking metaphorically, but the text itself actually points in the opposite direction.

Proving John 6 has no metaphor would require excising it nearly entirely from Scripture, as the passage has not just one, but many closely interrelated metaphors, at least as linguists define metaphor.  Perhaps Staples is working from some more eclectic dictionary and means something other than what students of language ordinarily mean by that term.

Just the Facts. First, everyone listening to Jesus’ actual discourse 2,000 years ago believed him to have meant what he said. That is significant.

No. The idea that Jesus’ audience was a monolithic group is a presumption not a fact and is not supported by the evidence. The situation was more complex. The verse describing the crowd’s response is here:

Joh 6:52  The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat?

Note the word “strove.” In Greek it’s “emachonto,” which ordinarily would refer to armed conflict, but here describes more of a war of words, and this occurs not between Jesus and the crowd but between some in the crowd versus others in the crowd, a harsh debate, which necessarily means they did not all share the same opinion about what he meant.

For example, in his Letters on the Eucharist: Addressed to a Member of the Church of Rome, E.O. Phinny recounts a conversation from the Babylonian Talmud where the various schools debate over who will “eat” Messiah and when. This did not refer to Messiah physically, but referred to the material bounty expected upon the arrival of Messiah.  Apparently some were “preterists,” in the sense they though Hezekiah’s reign was the Messianic fulfillment, while others were futurists and waited for a time yet to come. The bottom line is, the notion of “eating” Messiah had already taken root as a metaphor for Messianic blessing and bounty, so depending on who was there, you could have contrary factions in the crowd taking one of several positions on what Jesus actually meant. We also know that some among the Pharisees, such as Nicodemas, were sympathetic to Jesus, albeit a minority.  They too may have stimulated the internal debating of the crowd.

The point is, Staples’ assertion that the crowd had an absolutely monolithic understanding of Jesus’ words is in direct conflict with the text.  Therefore, every further premise built on that false foundation is discredited.

This is in stark contrast to other places in the gospel where Jesus did, in fact, speak metaphorically. For example, when Jesus spoke of himself as a “door” in John 10, or a “vine” in John 15, we find no one to have asked, “How can this man be a door made out of wood?” Or, “How can this man claim to be a plant?”

Staples again reveals to the attentive reader that he is using a much narrower definition of “metaphor” than the standard dictionary definition. So let’s talk about what metaphors actually are. A metaphor works by creating a partial overlap between two otherwise dissimilar conceptual domains. If the linking verb of being is “is,” (Greek estin), then we say it is a direct metaphor: A is B. If we use A is like B, that is also a metaphor, but indirect. In either case, we are using A to teach about B because they are different enough they won’t be confused, and yet they have some attributes in common so we may use the one to teach about the other.

As a classic example, in Shakespeare Romeo compares Juliet to a summer day. No confusion is really possible, yet we get that sense of warmth and cheer that Juliet bring to Romeo.  Thus a summer’s day, with which we are all familiar, has been used to teach us about Juliet, with whom we are not familiar.

Likewise, in each of the cases Staples mentions above, the door, the vine, etc., the domains are sufficiently different that no domain confusion was likely to occur.  We know by direct observation Jesus is not a door or a vine. But that does not preclude more difficult metaphors, ones in which the two domains are different, but not in a directly visual way. But if the analysis gives us a metaphor by the rules, then that’s what it gives us.

Compare these to John 6. Jesus plainly says, in verse 51, “I am the bread come down from heaven and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (vs. 51). The Jews immediately respond, as I said above, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” They certainly understood him to mean what he said.

Again, Staples is begging the question. We don’t know if they understood Him or not at this point.  We do know there was dissent in the crowd, NOT uniform understanding. Furthermore, we know these men are carnal, and not (presently at least) being drawn to the Lord, because Jesus expressly says so in verses 64-65. Can we trust their judgment?  Or can we eliminate metaphor in the speaker simply because His listeners had difficulty spotting it?

1Cor 2:14  But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

We also know that the default teaching mode for Jesus in public settings was parable:

Mat 13:34-35  All these things spake Jesus unto the multitude in parables; and without a parable spake he not unto them:  (35)  That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.

So if His carnal listeners didn’t get it, en masse, then first of all, that’s what we Paul says we should expect of carnal minds not enlightened by the Spirit, and second, who are we to say that He expected them to get it, when he specifically taught that it was His expectation that some should NOT “get it.”

Mat 13:13-15  Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.  (14)  And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive:  (15)  For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.

Continuing then …

Moreover, when people misunderstand Jesus, he normally clears up the misunderstanding as we see in John 4:31-34 when the disciples urge our Lord to eat and our Lord responds, “I have food to eat which you do not know.” The disciples ask each other if anyone had brought any food because they thought our Lord was saying he had to bring his own food because they had forgotten to do so. They misunderstand him. But our Lord immediately clears things up saying, in verse 34, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work.”

And yes, Jesus does offer clarification to His disciples, and most often only to them, because such exchanges were typically private tutoring. His disciples were intended to understand. By contrast, the crowd in John 6, as we have already established, had an abundance of unbelievers, who were tagging along not because they were disciples in the full sense, but because they had just been fed by a food miracle, and they wanted more of that, yet not wanting the true source of their most important food, because they were not among those who were being drawn to the Father. That they received a clarification of any kind was an act of grace on Jesus’ part.

A Real Barnes Burner. In our debate, Dr. Barnes had a very interesting rejoinder to this point. He claimed, in essence, that in at least some cases when his listeners misunderstood our Lord, he purposely made no attempt to clear up the misunderstandings. And Dr. Barnes then cited three more examples claiming this to be a pattern in the gospels.

In which case Barnes was following the Scriptural pattern accurately, as indicated above. A parable is an extended metaphor. I am surprised that Staples here does not at least acknowledge the problem of the public parables being given with no guarantee that Jesus expected them to understand.

1. In John 3:3-4, Dr. Barnes claimed, Jesus left Nicodemus in the dark when after he declared to him, “… unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God,” Nicodemus responded, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?

But with Nicodemas I think Barnes’ example is defective, though Staples misuses the error. With Nicodemas, Jesus does go on to say that which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the spirit is spirit, so He is giving Nicodemas the same sort of key to unlock the spiritual and NOT corporeal meaning as He provides His disciples in John 6:63.  As this was a private exchange with one sincere inquirer, we can see that Jesus is treating Nicodemas as a disciple in the making, if not yet over the threshold, and so receives an extra measure of help. So the pattern Barnes had proposed is actually holding up pretty well here.

Response: Even a brief perusal of John 3 and John 6 shows a substantial difference between the two. In John 6:52-53, the Jews were “disputing among themselves and saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” That is the context in which Jesus then appears to confirm them in their thoughts and reiterates, “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.”

No, Jesus does not confirm their confusion. The crowd in John 6 was conflicted among themselves, having a virtual war of words over what He meant.  Which of their misconceptions did He confirm? None. What did He actually say?  He did NOT say, “Those of you who think this is about eating my physical flesh, you got it right.” He basically ignored their ignorance and confirmed one thing, that His offer of food to them through His body and blood was absolutely real and absolutely necessary.

(This, BTW, is in striking similarity to the Nicodemas narrative, in which Jesus affirmed the reality of the new birth too, even confirming it with the same formula “Amen Amen” He uses repeatedly in John 6. So why do Staples and his co-apologists not recognize the error of making synonyms out of “real” and “corporeal?”  I don’t know. There is nothing more real in the universe than God, and God is spirit. The new birth is spiritual, and very real. Therefore affirming that something is “real” does NOT force one to think it is “corporeal.”  Keeping that in mind …)

No matter how one interprets Jesus’ response to Nicodemus beginning in John 3:5, he doesn’t come close to saying anything like, “Amen, amen I say to you, unless you climb back into your mother’s womb a second time and be born anew, you cannot have eternal life.”

And He says nothing of the kind in John 6 either. Again, Staples is jumping to conclusions by assuming the “realness” of Jesus’ body and blood as food can only mean corporeal realness as food. But spirit is real too, and spirits can eat:

John 4:32-34  But he said unto them, I have meat to eat that ye know not of.  (33)  Therefore said the disciples one to another, Hath any man brought him ought to eat?  (34)  Jesus saith unto them, My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work.

And here:

Mat 4:3-4  And when the tempter came to him, he said, If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.  (4)  But he answered and said, It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.

And so we see again and again how spiritual eating of spiritual food is a constant theme in the teaching of Jesus. Therefore, while Staples can see this dichotomy of spirit and flesh when he comes to Nicodemas, his assumption prevents him from seeing the same exact analogy at work in the Bread of Life discourse.  Nevertheless, the analogy is “real,” and very striking, if one is open to it:

Joh 3:5-6  Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.  (6)  That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Note that He first uses the “Amen Amen” to confirm the absolute reliability of what He is teaching, exactly as He does in John 6, then He clarifies the meaning as spiritual, not fleshly, exactly as He does in John 6.

He says you must be “born of water and spirit… the wind blows where it will, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (vs. 5-8).” This seems to me to be clarification that he is not speaking about climbing back into a mother’s womb. Being “born anew” is a spiritual experience that transcends literal birth from a womb.

And just as the Nicodemas clarification is a redirect from the physical to the spiritual, so too is John 6:63 the clarification that Jesus in no way is advocating a corporeal eating of His flesh, but shows forth a spiritual meaning, belief as a way of consuming and drawing sustenance from the Bread of Heaven, Jesus Christ,  The crowd was willing enough to be fed by his physical bread, but they were hard-hearted toward His spiritual claims on them, and so shut their own eyes and so defeated their own capacity to see the spiritual meaning. This self-imposed blindness led them down one dark alley after another, ever seeing but always refusing to see the obvious, even when Jesus gave them every clue.

In fact, this is one of the more interesting aspects of metaphor. A metaphor is designed to create a learning event, using A to learn about B, through shared attributes.  But what if the subject is so prejudiced against the conclusion, that they refuse to learn what the metaphor can teach them?  This really happens psychologically.  The learning event can fail if there is a predisposition to reject the conclusion. This explains beautifully why the literalists in Jesus’ crowd got stuck on physical eating. They were at heart  rejectors of Jesus, so they were functionally unable to learn the spiritual lesson expressed in the eating metaphor. All they could see in their blindnesss was the physical act of eating.  They couldn’t link it to believing in Jesus, because they didn’t want to go there.

2. In John 4:7-15, Dr. Barnes claimed, Jesus left the famous “Samaritan woman at the well” in her misunderstanding when she thought Jesus was offering her literal, physical water. But is that really what we find in the text?

If this is what Barnes did, and I am taking Staples at his word here, then I would agree that by the end of the conversation the woman is beginning to get where Jesus is going, that the water He speaks of is somehow connected with recognizing Him for who He is, and thus being set free from the sins of her past to worship God in spirit and in truth.

Response: When Jesus asked this Samaritan woman for a drink in verse seven, she was most likely not only shocked that a Rabbi would speak to a Samaritan woman in public, but that any Jew would ask an “unclean” Samaritan to draw water for him. But in verse 10, Jesus answered her,If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.

Agreement here.  She would have been shocked.  This has no bearing on Staples argument, but it is good to find agreement wherever possible.

The woman then responds, in verse 11, “Sir, you have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water?” To which, Jesus responds, in verse 13-14, Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.In verse 15, the woman then begs our Lord, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.”

Again, nothing controversial here. The Protestant Bible says the same thing.

There is no doubt the Samaritan woman has it wrong here. But far from leaving her in her error, our Lord responds most profoundly, beginning in verse 16, “Go, call your husband…” And when the woman responds, “I have no husband,” in verse 17, Jesus reads her soul and tells her, “You are right… for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband.”

As stated above, we agree here that Jesus does move toward giving her a spiritual understanding of what He meant. In fact, this point is so obvious it makes me wonder whether Barnes actually missed it, or whether in context of the debate he was trying for some other point which Staples has not clarified for us in his recital. On the other hand, in the context of debate, sometime people make mistakes they would never make if they had time and reflection to write their arguments out.

He now has her attention, to say the least. And he then turns the conversation to what he was really speaking about in terms of the “living water” he came to give that would “well up to eternal life.” In verse 23, he declares, But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. [24] God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

And so now we have Jesus redirecting her to think of this water in spiritual terms.  Yet Barnes is right in one thing, if indeed he says Jesus didn’t give the full answer, because He didn’t. Jesus did encourage her to think in spiritual rather than corporeal terms, yes, but He didn’t talk about this water as a representation of the infilling of the Holy Spirit upon regeneration, a doctrine that would not be fully manifested until after Pentecost.

When the woman then responds, in verse 25, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ); when he comes, he will show us all things,” Jesus then tells her plainly, in verse 26, “I who speak to you am he.”It seems clear that the woman then understood that Jesus’ words were metaphorical concerning the “living water,” because she immediately “left her water jar,” went back to her fellow countrymen and urged them to, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ” (verses 28-29)? And according to verse 39, “Many Samaritans… believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” She came to realize Jesus was about much more than filling war jars.

Indeed, and on this point I think we all agree, and I suspect Barnes would too, but that is speculation on my part without having watched the debate. It just seems too obvious to miss, and that always raises a red flag with me.  But more importantly, this entire subplot has been introduced by Staples as a way of arguing there was no way Jesus was going to leave the crowd in John 6 with the wrong impression, because clearly He did help others. But as we have shown above that is fallacious reasoning, for two reasons:

1. Jesus very often did leave the crowd in the dark, as He did in the parable of the sower of the seed. So there is no assurance He would set the crowd in John 6 straight, even if He was more helpful with the Samaritan woman or Nicodemas.

2. Jesus did in fact offer a clarification in John 6:63, that the category of this teaching was spirit, not corporeal. The fact that the crowd refused to accept this correction is no fault of Jesus’.

3. Dr. Barnes also claimed that when Christ said “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees” in Matthew 16:6, the apostles thought he was speaking literal, which is true. But Matthew 16:11-12 could hardly be plainer that Jesus did not leave them in their ignorance:How is it that you fail to perceive that I did not speak about bread… Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.

I am not aware of nor does Staples here inform us of how Barnes characterized this event. But yes, as here, so with Nicodemas, the woman at the well, AND John 6, there is the offer of some degree of correction.  The thing is, in John 6, there was, I would argue, less need of a corrective than in these other circumstances. Why? Because Jesus has already established the context for the specific metaphor in question in verse 35, complete with not only a classic statement of metaphor (I am the Bread of Life), but followed on immediately with an explanation of what we are to learn from the metaphor (Jesus permanently satisfies our hunger and thirst):

Joh 6:35  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.

This amounts to a preemptive strike against any argument for a corporeal misunderstanding of His meaning. First He describes the two things to be compared  (bread versus Jesus) with the linking verb “is.”  So this is definitely a metaphor. But then He goes further and immediately explains how bread teaches something about Him. The shared attribute is that both bread and Jesus can satisfy hunger if eaten. And how does one “consume” Jesus? By coming to Him and believing in Him (which are two different ways of saying the same thing).  And here’s the big clue. Is belief a physical act, or a spiritual act.  Of necessity, spiritual.

Spirit vs. Flesh.  There is much more about the text of John 6 and the greater context of the New Testament in general that make a “Catholic” understanding of John 6:53 unavoidable. In our debate, Dr. Barnes and I grapple with many of those texts.

Meaningless blather. Substance please …

But John 6:63 is probably the most important of all to deal with as a Catholic apologist. This is a verse that is set within a context where not only “the Jews” who were listening, but specifically “the disciples” themselves were struggling with what Jesus said about “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood.” “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it” (verse 60)? It is in this context that our Lord says to the disciples: “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”

As noted above, this motley crew of a crowd included more disciples than just the twelve. Others had begun to follow Him in the wake of His popularity as a miracle worker, especially of late the stunning multiplication of loaves and fishes.  It is not at all clear that His inner circle of twelve were among the grumblers and doubters.  How could they be?  Toward the end He tells the doubters they have NOT been given belief by the Father. Of the twelve, that would only apply to Judas, but most likely the rest did believe, and understand, as Peter would testify representatively at the end of the chapter.

The Protestant apologist will almost invariably say of this text, “See? Christ is not giving us his flesh to eat because he says ‘the flesh is of no avail.’”There are at least four points to consider in response:

 

1. If Jesus was clearing up the point here, he’s a lousy teacher because he didn’t get his point across. According to verse 66, “many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” immediately after this statement. They obviously still believed his earlier words about “eating [his] flesh” to be literal because these “disciples” had already believed in and followed him for some time. If Jesus was here saying, “I only meant that you have to believe in me and follow me,” why would they be walking away?

It is insidious to charge Jesus with the failure of unbelievers to believe. That’s just what unbelievers do.  It isn’t Jesus’ fault. Furthermore, Jesus specifically identifies their unbelief as the core problem:

Joh 6:63-65  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.

Notice the sequence. First He says the spirit makes alive, and the flesh has no value (Greek ophelei).  Then He places His own words in the category of spirit, therefore His words make alive. Now He says “BUT,” some of you don’t believe, and you don’t believe because the Father didn’t grant you that belief. So the one and only method He outlines for partaking of Himself as food is belief, and then He says that His doubters don’t have that belief. So why is anyone, including Staples, the least bit surprised when unbelievers end up not understanding something you can only understand IF you believe?  That’s why they were hung up on the flesh, because as non-spiritual beings, that’s all they had. They were as Paul says, dead in their trespasses and sins, of carnal minds, unable to comprehend spiritual things. If they fail to get Jesus’ lesson, they are to blame.  Not Jesus.

And again, this correlates to why there is a group that walks away. We know it isn’t everybody. The twelve hang with Jesus right up to the last supper, so it can’t be referring to them.  Even Judas didn’t leave at this time.  But if the food groupies left, because they “figured out” that Jesus was not an EBT card, that would be carnal wisdom, and spiritual foolishness, in exactly the group we would expect to see it, those not granted faith by the Father.

2. Jesus did not say, “My flesh is of no avail.” He said, “The flesh is of no avail.” There is a big difference! He obviously would not have said my flesh avails nothing because he just spent a good portion of this same discourse telling us that his flesh would be “given for the life of the world” (John      6:51, cf. 50-58).  “The flesh” is a New Testament term often used to describe human nature apart from God’s grace (see Romans 8:1-14; I Cor. 2:14; 3:1; Mark 14:38).

Jesus would not make the statement “my flesh is of no avail,” because it wouldn’t make sense to the argument He is building. In verse 63 He is not speaking of a specific instance of flesh, but flesh as a category, as He often has before, distinguishing between things spiritual and things worldly, just as He does with Nicodemas and the Samaritan woman. Spiritual life comes from spiritual sources, not corporeal. He was only using the corporeal figure of eating to teach about those spiritual realities. Therefore defining categories such that the spirit gives life, and His words belong to that category, would be exactly what He was saying back in verse 35.

It is true He gives His flesh for the life of the world, and His flesh is corporeal. But the metaphorical approach to this passage does not deny the physical reality of Christ or the physical nature of His sacrifice for us.  To suggest that it does reflects a basic misunderstanding of how metaphor works. A metaphor is just a device used to teach about one thing by means of another. It’s not the metaphor that’s spiritual, it’s the eating. The body of Christ, given for us in crucifixion, is corporeal. But how do we partake of the benefit that death provides to us? We partake of the benefit of ordinary physical food by eating it. But the death of Christ in His body is an event with spiritual consequences.  Our sins have been paid for.  How to we take part in that spiritual benefit?  By believing in Him. Just as He said in verse 35 above.  The spiritual eating, belief, gives life.  The physical eating has a profit margin of exactly zero, with respect to eternal life. Nothing there.  Look to the spirit, and you solve the puzzle.  Look to the flesh, and you come to a dead end. Quite literally.

3. That which is “spiritual,” or “spirit” used as an adjective as we see in John 6:63, does not necessarily refer to that which has no material substance. It often means that which is dominated or controlled by the Spirit. For example, when speaking of the resurrection of the body, St. Paul writes: “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body” (I Cor. 15:44). Does this mean we will not have a physical body in the resurrection? Of course not! Jesus made that clear after his own resurrection in Luke 24:39: See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.

This discussion of the spiritual body is creative but again not appropriate to the context. First, in our passage, “spirit” is NOT an adjective, but a noun.  An adjective may well describe some composite of things for which the adjective gives the dominant feature, but not the only feature. If for example we say chess is an intellectual activity, we do not mean there are no physical playing pieces. Certainly there are.  But the dominant activity is mental. But if we say success in chess depends on intellect, we are using the term as a category, not an adjective, and indicates we are speaking only of intellectual processes and qualities, not mixed with physical components. In other words, by using these two categories, we are contrasting the intellectual aspect of chess with the physical components of chess.

So too this use of spirit versus flesh in contrast to each other is for the purpose of making a distinction, in this case to teach that belief is the spiritual means of consuming the Bread of Life, including those benefits acquired by virtue of His dying for our sins.

The resurrected body is spiritual and indeed we can be called spiritual as Christians inasmuch as we are controlled by the Spirit of God. Spiritual in no way means void of the material. That would be a Gnostic understanding of things, not Christian.

Staples’ raising the Gnostic denial of the physical Christ is completely out of place here.  Two contrasting categories exist, spirit and flesh. Spiritual life belongs to the category spirit, and fleshly life belongs to the category flesh, and they serve two different functions.  One does not cancel the other out. This is exactly what Jesus told Nicodemas, yet Staples does not rush to (false) innuendo of Gnostic heresy there.  That’s because there, as here, it is indisputable that spiritual life must come from a spiritual source, in which physical life is no help at all for that purpose.  Which is night and day different from the Gnostic error, which completely displaced the physical as not even being real for Jesus.  This type of sloppiness on Staples’ part is not a credit to his apologetic approach.  It is ad hominem by innuendo, and a false accusation at that, and does not advance the understanding of the text in any meaningful way.

4. In verses 61-62, Jesus had just said, “Do you take offence at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before?” Jesus wants to ensure the apostles do not fall into a sort of crass literalism that would see the truth of the Eucharist in terms of gnawing bones and sinew. It is the Holy Spirit that will accomplish the miracle of Christ being able to ascend into heaven bodily while also being able to distribute his body and blood in the Eucharist for the life of the world. A human body—even a perfect one—apart from the power of the Spirit could not accomplish this.

This is a gloss of pure imagination dropped over a text which in context has no connection whatsoever with transubstantiation, a quasi-Aristotelian speculation that would remain unheard of in the church for the next nine centuries, and even then hotly disputed and found contrary to Augustine and other early Christian thinkers.  Instead, Jesus is dealing with the offense of His doubters.  It is easy to be offended at the idea of needing this lowly Jesus for eternal life, at least while the Son of Man, Logos, Creator of the Universe, Prince of Peace, Mighty God, High Priest after the order of Melchizedek, stands before them in mortal disguise.  But will they still be “offended” when they see Him ascend into the heavens to resume His former glory?

And that is precisely when He hits them with their category error. All along it has for them been about their bellies, their power, their aspiration to wealth and comfort, their anger at occupying Rome, their desire for revenge on their enemies, their arrogant view of their standing with God as the chosen people, on and on and on, lust and pride on steroids, with not a hint of spiritual life. And so this too they see in physical terms. But Jesus says no, they are in error. Category error. All this talk about eating has been about the spirit, spiritual eating, not corporeal eating, which spiritual eating He has already explained in verse 35 as coming to or believing in Him, His words, His person. And if they don’t see that now, in His humility, if they are offended now, when He seems so weak, there will be no recourse for them once He visibly ascends to be with His Father, to rule in glory.  When faith becomes sight, the opportunity for faith has passed.

Thus, Jesus words, “It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail” refers to the truth that it is only the Spirit that can accomplish the miracle of the Eucharist and it is only the Holy Spirit that can empower us to believe the miracle.

Staples here assumes facts which are not in evidence. In John 6 there has been no discussion of the transformation of ordinary bread into body and blood. That is to confuse First Century metaphor with medieval alchemy. Instead, just as the Father miraculously sent manna from heaven to feed Israel physically, so now Jesus descends from Heaven to feed them spiritually, which feeding they must do by believing in Him, which capacity to believe is itself miraculous, because it must be given by the Father, else they will not believe, and so will not eat of the bounty of Messiah. Yet clear as this is, Staples seems to build his entire argument on the premise that it was actually those same unbelievers, with their crassly corporeal interpretation of eating, who were right after all, even though Jesus specifically denies this with His rebuke in verse 63.  And even though Peter demonstrates that spiritual eating, that complete believing in the words of Christ, as a living model of the very thing Jesus was teaching:

Joh 6:68  Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.

In so saying, He agrees with Jesus that this is a spiritual matter, not corporeal, by declaring his belief in the words of Jesus as the only source of hope for eternal life. And who am I to disagree with both Peter and Jesus?  If Tim Staples prefers to believe the unbelievers instead, that is his choice, but I think it is singularly unwise.

Peace,

SR