In the course of our consideration of the New Testament evidence regarding paedocommunion, we have noted on several occasions that there are no passages that directly address the issue. For this reason, advocates of paedocommunion commonly appeal to the covenant status of children of believing parents to argue for their admission to the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament of the new covenant. The principal biblical argument of paedocommunionists is the alleged analogy between the Old Testament Passover, which was a meal that included the participation of the young children of the household, and the New Testament Lord’s Supper. In these respects, the paedocommunion argument bears a striking resemblance to the common argument Reformed theologians have advanced for the practice of paedobaptism.
However, there are two passages in the New Testament that do speak rather directly to the general question of who may be admitted to the Lord’s Supper. The first of these, John 6, which we will treat in this article, does not often play a prominent role in contemporary discussions of the topic of paedo-communion. Despite the relative neglect of this passage, it constitutes an important piece of New Testament evidence, since it specifically addresses how believers partake of Christ’s body and blood. The second passage, 1 Corinthians 11, has always been regarded to be of special importance in determining who may receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In this passage, which we will treat in subsequent articles, we have the most extensive New Testament description of the manner in which believers are to participate sacramentally in the body and blood of Christ. The historic insistence of the Reformed churches that only professing members of the church be admitted to the Table of the Lord is largely based upon a particular reading of this passage.
Though John 6 may not appear at first glance to be an important passage for determining who may partake of the Lord’s Supper, there is a long tradition in the Christian church of treating this passage as the apostle John’s account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. The strong language that Jesus employs in this passage to describe what it is to eat His body and drink His blood, has often been appealed to by the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches as evidence for their understanding of the “real presence” of Christ in the Supper. It has also buttressed a sacramentalism that views the sacrament as a necessary and indispensable means of participation in Christ. Because this passage has been appealed to in support of a certain unbiblical views of the Supper, interpreters in the Reformed tradition have often shied away from associating the language of this passage with the sacrament.
Whatever the connection may be between John 6 and the Lord’s Supper, this passage is not often cited or treated as especially important in contemporary debates on the subject of paedocommunion, Our interest in the relevance of this passage to the topic of paedocommunion stems from the way it describes the believer’s participation in Christ’s body and blood. Whether John is expressly alluding to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper or not, his account of Jesus’ discourse has significant implications for the way the body and blood of Christ are to be received. We will argue that this passage has important, albeit indirect, implications for our question whether the children of believers should be admitted to the Table of the Lord, which the Lord appointed as a sacramental means of participation in His body and blood.
John 6 and the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper
Before looking more closely at what John 6, especially verses 4758, say about the manner in which believers participate in Christ, we need to pause to address the question whether this passage is the Gospel of John’s account of the Lord’s Supper. The obvious problem with this claim is that John 6 nowhere expressly speaks of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
Despite the absence of any express reference to the sacrament, those who read this passage as John’s account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper appeal to several features of the passage that allegedly allude to the sacrament. First, though the discourse of John 6 occurs prior to the period of Christ’s betrayal and death, the description of what it is to eat and drink Christ’s body and blood is recalled by the apostle John from the perspective of Christ’s ministry, including His death and resurrection, in its entirety. The discourse makes sense only within this broader context, which includes the institution of the sacrament whereby Christ’s body is eaten and His blood is drunk.
Second, this passage, like many other passages in the Gospel of John, represents Jesus making reference to a future occurrence, namely, the institution of the Lord’s Supper, even though His disciples at the time might not have fully understood all of its implications. Throughout the Gospel of John, for example, Jesus refers to His impending death though His disciples had no real understanding of what He was telling them.
Third, Jesus’ words in John 6 occur within the context of John’s account of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. In the account of this miracle, John describes how Jesus “took the loaves, and when He had given thanks, He distributed them to those who were seated” (v. 11). This language is very similar to the language used in the Gospel accounts of the last Supper (cf. Luke 22:19; Matt. 26:26-27; Mark 14:2223), and suggests a possible allusion to that event.
Fourth, at the end of John 6 (vv. 6071), we read that many were offended by Jesus’ words and that Jesus responded by referring to Judas as the disciple who would betray Him. This reference to Judas’ betrayal parallels the Gospel accounts of the last Supper, which include Jesus identification of Judas as His betrayer.
And fifth, the language that describes what it is to “eat” Christ’s body and “drink” His blood is so reminiscent of a sacramental eating and drinking of Christ that it is difficult to deny the connection. For this reason, already in the earliest history of the church, this passage was traditionally associated with what transpires in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, it was often appealed to by those who opposed the church and accused its members of engaging in a form of cannibalism in their celebration of the sacrament.
Though these considerations seem to support the view that Jesus in John 6 is speaking, albeit obliquely, about the Lord’s Supper, they prove no more than that this discourse may have implications for our understanding of what it is sacramentally to eat the body and drink the blood of Christ. There are two significant obstacles to connecting directly the discourse of John 6 with the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. On the one hand, the occasion for the discourse is the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, and not the last supper, when Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. The arguments for a sacramental reading of John 6 are finally unable to answer satisfactorily the question why the historical occasion for the discourse is entirely different than the one on which the Synoptic Gospels record the institution of the Lord’s Supper.
On the other hand, the strong language of the discourse suggests that the eating and drinking that Jesus describes is an indispensable means for saving participation in His Person and work. If Christ’s discourse in John 6 directly refers to the kind of eating and drinking that only takes place in the sacrament, then a strong sacramentalism seems to be the inescapable implication. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, for example, a sacramentalist reading of John 6 is the basis for a view of the Eucharist that requires participation by all members of the church, including infants, in order for them to have communion with Christ. And in both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, a Eucharistic reading of this passage has encouraged a simple identification of the sacramental elements, bread and wine, with the body and blood of Christ, and to a quasi-magical view of the way the sacrament communicates Christ whenever it is received.
In my judgment, John Calvin’s comments on this passage strike a fine balance on the question whether it is a description of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Commenting on Jesus’ words in verse 56, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him,” Calvin argues that
it is plain that it is wrong to expound this whole passage as applying to the Lord’s Supper. For if it were true that all who come to the Lord’s holy Table are made partakers of His flesh and blood, all alike will obtain life. But we know that many of them fall into perdition. And indeed, it would have been inept and unseasonable to preach about the Lord’s Supper before He had instituted it. So it is certain that He is now treating of the perpetual eating of faith. At the same time, I confess that there is nothing said here that is not figured and actually presented to believers in the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, we might say that Christ intended the holy Supper to be a seal of this discourse. This is also the reason why John makes no mention of the Lord’s Supper. And therefore Augustine follows the proper order when, in expounding this chapter, he does not touch on the Lord’s Supper until he comes to the end. And then he shows that this mystery is represented in a symbol whenever the Churches celebrate the sacred Supper, in some places daily, in others only on the Lord’s day. (emphasis mine)
According to Calvin’s interpretation of this passage, it is not first of all about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Rather, it is a general discourse that describes what it means to eat and drink of Christ in the way of faith. When believers receive Christ by faith, they share in Him and obtain life by eating and drinking His body and blood. Since the sacramental eating and drinking of Christ is a sign and seal of the believer’s participation in Christ, it is one mode of such spiritual or believing participation in Christ. However, John 6 is not speaking or alluding to the sacrament, though it may warrant certain inferences regarding the sacrament and its reception.
As we shall see in our discussion below regarding the teaching of this discourse, it speaks broadly (and not specifically sacramentally) of what it is to participate by faith in Christ and share in the life He communicates to His people. This participation and sharing in Christ takes place when God the Father draws the elect into life-giving communion with Christ. That this life-giving communion may be nourished and strengthened by the instrumentality and use of the sacrament is undoubtedly true.
However, Christ speaks much more comprehensively in this discourse than a direct sacramental application requires. If the discourse were specifically about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, it would seem to follow that the only way in which someone could have life in communion with Christ would be by means of a participation in Christ through the sacrament. We prefer, therefore, to read John 6 as a general description of what it means for believers to enjoy communion with Christ. However, as a general description of such communion, the passage has significant implications for the sacramental form of such communion.
The Occasion and Teaching of the Discourse
The occasion for Christ’s discourse in John 6 is the account of Christ’s miraculous “sign” of feeding the five thousand (vv. 1-15). When a large crowd followed him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus multiplied the five barley loaves and two fish of a young boy and fed those who had gathered. At the close of the meal, John reports that there were twelve baskets of bread left over (v. 13). Upon witnessing this “sign,” the people declared, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (v. 14).
In this context, Jesus commences to discourse at length about Himself as the bread of life, whom the Father has given in order to nourish and sustain His people (vv. 25-40). Recalling the event of the Lord’s feeding manna to His people Israel in their wilderness wandering under Moses, Christ declares Himself to be the fulfillment of this event: “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes from heaven and gives life to the world” (vv. 32-33). Whereas the manna of the old covenant nourished Israel in the wilderness, Christ is the true bread from heaven whom the Father has given to nourish His people unto life eternal. All who come to Christ in faith will no longer hunger or thirst, since He is the true heavenly food and drink who grants the fullness of life to all who partake of Him (vv. 35). No one who comes and eats and drinks of Christ will be “cast out,” but the Father will draw them by faith and preserve them forever.
Before we consider the most striking portion of the discourse in John 6, it is important to note that Christ emphasizes the necessity of faith to a participation in the life that He alone is able to give. Some come to Him and eat and drink, others do not. Those who do not believe in Him, even though they have seen Him, have no part in the saving benefits of His person and work. Those who come to and have a part in Him only do so because the Father draws them.
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. (Verses 3740, emphasis mine)
These words are especially important to a proper understanding of the strong language that Christ uses subsequently to describe what it is to eat His body and drink His blood. Though it may be an inadequate way of expressing it, the eating and drinking of which Christ is speaking is peculiar to those whose reception of and participation in Christ is by faith. The Father who sent Christ to be the life-giving nourishment of the world, is the One who draws believers to come to Christ and share fully in the life that He imparts. The communion with and participation in Christ that is described in the discourse of John 6 is a spiritual, believing communion and participation. Those whom the Father does not draw into communion with Christ by Christ, have no part in Christ or the life that He imparts.
The heart of Jesus’ discourse in John 6 is given in verses 47-58. In this section of the discourse, Christ speaks in bold and unqualified terms of what it means to eat His body and drink His blood. Since this portion of the discourse is usually viewed as the most obvious allusion to what occurs in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we will quote it in full before making any further comments.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers 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. 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.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 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. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 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. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not as the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
The language of this portion of Jesus’ discourse is strikingly provocative. The term used for His body is “flesh,” the same term that we find in the prologue of John’s Gospel, when he speaks of the Word who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14). The verbs used to describe the believer’s participation in Christ’s body and blood are ones that could be used for physical chewing and swallowing. At one point in this section of the discourse, Jesus switches to a term for eating that not only calls attention to the acts of chewing and swallowing, but also to the sounds that accompany these acts. Throughout the discourse, the emphasis falls upon a real participation in Christ who is the Word become flesh, and who grants true life to all believers who genuinely eat His flesh and drink His blood. It is not surprising, therefore, that these words provoked the response from the crowd, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v. 53). For a Jewish audience, these words must have appeared to contradict the Old Testament prohibitions against the drinking of blood (Gen. 9:4; Lev. 3:17; Deut. 12:23). The language employed at this point to describe the believer’s participation in Christ was also the occasion in the early church for the charge of “cannibalism” to be brought repeatedly against the Christian community by its opponents. It is not difficult to understand why the language of these verses has been the occasion for the development of a “realistic” view of a literal eating of Christ’s body and drinking of His blood, as in the Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic traditions. Nor is it difficult to see how the unqualified language of these verses has given rise to a kind of sacramentalism, which views the sacramental participation of believers in Christ as indispensable to their participation in Christ and enjoyment of fellowship with the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Since we have already discussed whether the discourse of John 6 refers to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, we will not revisit that question here. What is important to our purpose is that Christ clearly teaches the necessity and indispensability of a true communion in His body and blood, which were given for the life and salvation of His people. Only those who enjoy a true communion with the body and blood of Christ can obtain eternal life, enjoy fellowship with the Father who sent the Son, and benefit from all that was accomplished by the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Rather than attempting to explain the manner in which believers enjoy this true participation in the body and blood of Christ, the discourse simply describes the mystery of this life-communion in the boldest possible language.
The Implication of John 6 for the Question of Paedocommunion
It was not our purpose by means of these comments on the discourse of John 6 to sort out all of the questions that pertain to what it means to eat Christ’s body and to drink His blood. Our interest is principally focused upon the question of the implications of the teaching of this discourse for the subject of paedocommunion. Since this passage describes the manner in which believers partake of Christ’s body and blood, it has significant for the manner in which this participation takes place by means of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. If the sacrament is a divinely-appointed means whereby its recipients enjoy a true participation in Christ’s body and blood, the description of the nature of any such participation, which is given to us in this discourse, is of particular significance for the question who may receive Christ sacramentally at the Table of the Lord.
The implication of this passage is expressed well in the language of the Belgic Confession, which declares that “the manner of our partaking [of Christ by means of the Lord’s Supper] is not by the mouth, but by the Spirit through faith” (Article 35). Without specifically citing John 6 as a proof text, the Belgic Confession echoes the teaching of Jesus’ discourse, when it insists that “we … receive by faith (which is the hand and mouth of our soul) the true body and blood of Christ our only Savior in our souls, for the support of our spiritual life.” The point of these affirmations in the Belgic Confession is to emphasize that those who commune with and partake of Christ by means of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper do so by the mouth of faith. There is no communion with Christ apart from a believing appropriation of the gospel Word that declares Him to be the Word become flesh for us and for our salvation. Unless the Father grant a believing response to the gospel in the hearts and minds of believers, they will not be able to come to Christ to eat His body and drink His blood. The necessary prerequisite to any participation in Christ is this divinely-worked response of faith. If this holds true for any participation in Christ, it holds true for any sacramental participation in Him and His saving work.
Admittedly, John 6 does not speak directly to the question of paedocommunion. In our reading of the passage, we are not even prepared to concede that it speaks directly of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. But the general teaching of John 6 regarding how believers participate in Christ’s body and blood has a clear and compelling implication for any mode of communion with Christ, whether by means of the gospel Word or the sacrament that accompanies the Word. The church’s requirement that those who are admitted to the Table of the Lord confirm in a public manner that they are genuine believers is a legitimate application of the teaching of this passage. Without becoming sidetracked with questions about the precise age at which such faith may best be publicly attested, we can conclude in a preliminary fashion that the teaching of John 6 lends important support to the historic insistence of the churches that communicants at the Lord’s Table first profess their faith before they be admitted.
Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of the Mid-America Reformed Seminary. He also serves a contributing editor of The Outlook.