Transubstantiation, John 6, Faith and Rebellion

Let us pray that we never fall into this grave error.

Jaume Huguet, “The Last Supper”, c. 1470
Jaume Huguet, “The Last Supper”, c. 1470 (photo: Public Domain)

Many have difficulty accepting in faith Jesus’ word in John 6 and at the Last Supper, regarding the Holy Eucharist (involving His true Body). Likewise, the doubting disciples in John 6 said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (6:60; RSV) They wouldn’t accept His teaching, because (so they claimed) it was too “hard” for them.

But we don’t have to understand everything to the nth degree. Christianity requires belief in a number of things difficult to grasp and accept, but we accept them based on the authority of revelation.

Some argue that Jesus was frequently misunderstood, and usually didn’t correct people’s misperceptions. Thus, they contend that John 6 is an instance of Jesus was merely speaking metaphorically (which His hearers didn’t grasp).

But it's untrue that Jesus didn’t correct misunderstandings. He did on many recorded occasions; for example: John 3:1-15 (Nicodemus and the meaning of “born again”), Matthew 13:36-51 (explanation of the parable of the tares), Matthew 15:10-20 (what defiles a man), Matthew 16:5-12 (metaphorical use of leaven), Matthew 17:9-13 (parallel of Elijah and John the Baptist), Matthew 19:24-26 (camel through the eye of a needle and rich men), Mark 4:33-34 and Luke 8:9-15 (meaning of parables in general), Luke 24:13-27 (Jesus’ teaching about Himself to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus), John 4:31-34 (metaphorical meaning of meat), John 8:21-32 (His own divinity), John 10:1-9 (parable of the Good Shepherd), and John 11:8-15 (sleep as symbolic of death).

Another example is the entire Chapter 16 of John, where the disciples did not understand, and Jesus explained at length to clarify, and then they did understand. In John 6 it was again disciples who were questioning:

John 6:60-61, 66 Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” [61] But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at it, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? . . .” [66] After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.

Yet Jesus did not explain; He merely repeated with more force. And it is the only recorded instance (other than Judas) of any of His disciples ceasing to follow Him. The plausible reason is because He knew that they were questioning and would not have accepted any further explanation anyway. We know this from hard evidence:

John 6:64 “But there are some of you that do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that would betray him.

This theme appears elsewhere in John, too (see 8:27, 43-47; 12:37-40). Jesus is emphasizing that some people don’t “understand” because they don’t want to: they lack faith; they can’t “bear” His word, and they are burdened with undue skepticism and led by the devil, the father of lies. This is what happened in John 6 with those disciples who left Him. It’s a theme in the Synoptic Gospels as well (see Matt 13:13, 19; Lk 5:21-22).

Jesus often explained and corrected His disciples who misunderstood and who were willing to listen. Therefore, John 6 makes sense only in terms of interpreting it as an instance where it was not an innocent misunderstanding (mistaking a supposed figurative discourse for a literal one), but rather, a deliberate refusal to believe (understanding but not accepting).

The argument hinges on the clear distinction between how Jesus talked to open-minded and closed-minded people, and between how He talked to disciples and the masses. It’s beyond ludicrous to think that Jesus would have allowed anyone to stop being His disciple based on a misunderstanding of supposed figurative or symbolic language for literal. He would have corrected them.

Not explaining because He knew it would be futile is perfectly consistent with His behavior in other such scenarios. The disciples were constantly misunderstanding Jesus, and He corrected and educated them over and over.

We know that Jesus thought this about them because of what He said: “Do you take offense at this?” (John 6:61; meaning, of course, that they did, because He knew their hearts). Again, look how their questioning is described:

John 6:64 “But there are some of you that do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that would betray him.

Language of not believing and betrayal doesn't apply to misunderstandings. Therefore, it makes no sense to think that He let them stop being His disciples based on a supposed misunderstanding.

Jesus tells His disciples what His parables mean, but not the larger crowds. This is explicitly stated in Matthew 13:10-11 and Luke 8:9-10. And note that the “disciples” were not just the Twelve, but included also at least the “seventy” mentioned in Luke 10:1 ff.: sent out to preach the gospel and heal the sick (10:9) and to cast out demons (10:17).

Jesus “rejoiced” upon their enthusiastic report and thanked His Father, “that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes . . .” (10:21): language quite similar to the parables being understood by disciples and not all the masses at large.

If we “fast forward,” then, to John 6, who is being referred to? It is “His disciples” (three times: 6:60-61, 66). Jesus revealed the inner secrets and deeper teachings of the gospel of the kingdom to His disciples. That is who these people are.

Therefore, He would surely have revealed this teaching to these disciples who deserted Him if they had merely misunderstood it. But He did not, because He knew that they understood, but were hardhearted.

What they rejected was eucharistic realism. It requires more faith than symbolism or mystical, spiritual presence. They didn’t yet have it, and they decided not to try to stick around in order to get it. They had had enough.

Let us pray that we never fall into this grave error.

As part of Jewish-Christian dialogue, a joint concert was given on Sept. 4, 2021, in the Dohány Street Synagogue by the Solti Chamber Orchestra in Budapest. Hungary.

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