I am the bread of life. Your ancestors 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. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh (John 6:48-51).These words are difficult to accept in what might be considered their literal sense. Totally apart from the issue of cannibalism which was such a scandal to Jesus' original hearers, there is a problem in understanding how it is that the bread which is offered here can keep a person from dying. The ancient Hebrews ate manna and still died; Jesus says that whoever eats his flesh will not die, and yet all the apostles and all other Christians throughout the ages (with the possible exception of Mary, if the Roman Catholic Church is to be believed) have died. Are Jesus' words therefore falsified by historical example, or do they require some other interpretation, perhaps a more spiritual one?
There are two possibilities of interpretation, as far as I reckon. Either we grant that the word "die" is being used differently when it describes the ancient eaters of manna and the ones who eat the bread from heaven, or else they are being used in the same sense but not in a physical one. Let us consider both possibilities in turn.
First, Jesus might be referring to the death of the ancient Hebrews as a physical one. The generation which ate the manna died before they reached the promised land, despite the very many great and wonderful miracles performed for their sake by God after the Exodus. On the other hand, the person who eats the bread which has come from heaven, viz. the flesh of Christ, will live forever and will not die. At this point we are no longer referring to a kind of physical death, as if Christ's flesh were the equivalent of a fountain of youth which might keep a person in life indefinitely. On the contrary, the idea is rather as the apostle Paul said: Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day (2 Cor 4:16).
There are at least two aspects to the being of a human person, the inner and the outer. The inner is the one which is enlivened and granted new energy and vitality through a spiritual communion with Christ, whereas the outer one may fall apart and die. Christ is speaking about the inner, spiritual life which his disciples have, and which will not be taken away from them so long as they remain in communion with him. This contrasts with the kind of spiritual death which Paul speaks about to the Ephesians: You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived (Eph 2:1-2). When he says that the Ephesians were simultaneously dead as well as alive, dead in the sins in which they lived, it is plausible to understand him to referring to the state of their "inner man" or "inner nature" as being dead.
On this reading then, Jesus wishes to emphasize the spiritual life which is granted through the bread come down from heaven, viz. his flesh. One argument in favor of this interpretation is the admonition with which Jesus begins his discourse. He apparently wishes to draw the attention of his audience from the physical to the spiritual:
Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you (vv. 26-7).They are less concerned with the signs -- with the demonstrations of divinity, with the presence of God, with the coming of the promised Messiah -- than they are with being filled with food. Their gaze is "downward" rather than "upward," so to speak. Sensing this, Jesus wants to reorient them towards spiritual matters of which they had previously been ignorant or indifferent.
On the other hand, the argument against this interpretation is that it requires to understand Jesus as using the same word in two different senses in close proximity, and this may be too much. For some persons it smells of eisegesis. For this reason, we may prefer to interpret Christ as referring to spiritual death in both cases. The manna which came from heaven was of no ultimate use to the ancient Hebrews because they were still spiritually dead: in the hardness of their heart, they were separated from the Lord and did not benefit from their Exodus. The manna did not help them, but Christ's coming down from heaven will help all those who believe in him.
Of these two interpretations, I personally prefer the first one. It seems to me best to think of Christ as referring to the contrast between an obsession with material existence and a full stomach, which can only lead a person to death in the long run, and an acceptance of Christ as the ultimate gift of God, which gives us eternal life. This is a timely message for many of us living in affluent countries like America. In my time visiting Romania this summer, I've seen persons who are quite poor, poorer certainly than many persons in America, who were happy to receive a bit of bologna and a loaf of bread as food for the week. I have much more than I need; indeed, in comparison to these poor souls, I've eaten like a king since I got here. But how much time have I spent feeding the hunger of my soul in communion with Christ? That is the crucial question for all of us.