THE increasing interest of Jews in Jesus and His teachings has excited considerable enthusiasm in some quarters, and much alarm in others.
One thing that has greatly impressed Jews who examine the New Testament records of the teachings and practices of Jesus is the fact they appear to be Jewish to a remarkable degree and quite in harmony with the Old Testament Scriptures. The difference between the way of Biblical religious life and that of modern Judaism in its several denominational forms lies chiefly in the post-Biblical traditional rabbinical teaching and practice rather than in what Israel's ancient prophets have written.
However, the eagle-eyed, determined opponent of Jesus occasionally finds in Christ's teachings some that appear to be very objectionable, and these are used to prejudice inquiring minds against Him.
Recently a certain rabbi urged in a newspaper that Jews investigating the New Testament teachings of Jesus should not let the fact that so much of it is in the Old Testament influence them favorably toward Him. Here is an example of the way that is done:
"What is there in the teaching of Jesus that is true, that is not found in the religion in which you were born? What is there in the teaching of Jesus that is new, and also true? Are you aware of the fact that the oft-quoted phrase, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,' is from the book of Leviticus, written more than one thousand years before Jesus lived? On the other hand, are you aware of the fact that Jesus said: (John 6:54) 'Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, has eternal life'? This is certainly new, but is it true? Are you prepared to accept this?"
This reminds me of an experience that I had when I was a beginner in the gospel ministry. A young man, a Jew, attended some of the evening evangelistic services at our camp meeting in Atlanta, Georgia. As we carried on a friendly conversation one day, he cited these words of Jesus: "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him" (John 6:53-56).
Taking these words literally, the Jew commented that they smacked of cannibalism, and that such a doctrine was exceedingly repugnant to a mind guided by truly religious sentiments.
While I could find a ready explanation of what Jesus meant by speaking of Himself as "the living bread which came down from heaven" (verses 51, 58, 63), I could not ignore the fact that many of the Jews who listened to Jesus murmured, and debated among themselves, saying: "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (verse 52). Even His disciples complained: "This is an hard saying; who can hear it?" (verse 60). And "from that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him" (verse 66).
I must confess that the young Jew's objection to the idea of eating Christ's flesh and drinking His blood stunned me, however much I earnestly endeavored to show him what Jesus meant by eating "that bread which came down from heaven" (verse 58). The terms flesh and blood do not have precisely the same meaning as does bread.
For many years I deliberately did not preach or write on the eating of Christ's "flesh" or drinking His "blood" as set forth in John 6. But I did often read that chapter and endeavor to fathom its depth of meaning. I accepted it by faith, but would not attempt to give a logical explanation, for I had none to offer. In the Bible, in the natural world around me, and in my own physical being it self, there was much that I could accept as fact, but which I could not explain. With the passing of time, and with increased experience and learning, I have found satisfactory answers to many of my questionings. Sometimes it has taken ten years to get the answer to one, to another twenty, to another thirty. Some will find their answer only in the hereafter. Concerning some things, we must say in faith and humility as students of the Word: "Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known" (1 Cor. 13:12).
Now, however, I can say that to me the Lord's discourse about eating His flesh and drinking His blood is one of the most precious, beautiful, and soul-satisfying portions of the Bible. It no longer smacks of cannibalism, no longer suggests feasting on human flesh and blood.
The answer to my forty years of longing for an explanation of this text came to me suddenly one day while I was dictating to my secretary entries for the Comprehensive Index to the Writings of Ellen G. White. I was beginning to index chapter 39 "Give Ye Them to Eat" in The Desire of Ages, page 364, when my eye caught the fifth and sixth sentences, which read:
"The Passover was at hand, and, from far and near, bands of pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem gathered to see Jesus. Additions were made to their number, until there were assembled five thou sand men besides women and children."
Instantly, as a flash of light, it occurred to me that this could be the key that would unlock those mysterious words of Jesus about eating His flesh and drinking His blood. Quickly I reached for the Bible on my desk and turned its pages to John 6, where I read in verse 4: "And the passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh."
My heart palpitated with joy, and praise and thanksgiving to God silently breathed forth from my lips. In almost dumb amazement I wondered why, after having read those words in John 6:4 and The Desire of Ages, page 364, many times during the years, I had not perceived their significance in my yearning to find the answer to my query!
Those 5,000 men, plus the women and children accompanying them, were on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem to participate in the annual celebration of the Passover festival, as appointed in the Mosaic law (Deut. 16:5-7). Thus to eat the roasted flesh of the slain Paschal lamb, and to drink the accompanying cup of wine symbolizing its shed blood, would be an important part of their celebration of that Pass over feast. Unleavened bread was also eaten as a part of the sacred supper.
The slaying of the Passover lamb typified the death of "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). "For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us" (1 Cor. 5:7). But the eating of the roasted flesh and the drinking of the accompanying wine in the Paschal meal represented the believer's partaking of the benefits of the Saviour's death in our behalf.
It is very obvious that Christ did not mean that His words should be carried out literally to the extent of eating His real flesh, and drinking His real blood. When He said, "I am the bread of life" (John 6:35), He did not mean that He was literally made of bread. "The bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world" (verse 51). "The flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life" (verse 63).
The Saviour was speaking to the Jews in metaphorical language that was familiar to them. By the term metaphor, we mean, in rhetoric, a figure of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of object or idea is used in place of another by way of suggesting a likeness or an analogy between them.
For example, the psalmist says that God's word is "sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb" (Ps. 19:10). "How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!" (Ps. 119:103). The prophet could say to God: "Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart" (Jer. 15:16). And the pious patriarch of Uz said concerning his Maker: "I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food" (Job 23:12).
Thus Jesus was using metaphorical terminology that had been familiar to the Hebrew people for more than a thousand years.
At a later Passover meal Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper. As He took a portion of the Paschal bread, He "blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body" (Matt. 26:26). Also He passed to them a cup of the Passover wine, saying: "This is my blood of the new testament [covenant], which is shed for many for the remission of sins" (verse 28).
Thus no Jew, or anyone else well acquainted with Holy Writ, has grounds for construing Christ's words in John 6:51-57 as so repugnant as to smack of cannibal ism. Nevertheless, we need to be prepared with a good explanation when men murmur (John 6:41, 43, 52, 60, 61) or quibble because of such statements in the Bible. Sometimes the key that unlocks a Biblical passage and opens to view its wonderful meaning may be found in the context. The more we can learn of the language, the time, the geography, the customs, and the pattern of thought among the ancient Jews, the better we can understand some apparently "hard saying" in the Bible.