The Law of Moses anticipated that, in the peace or fellowship offering, the flesh of the sacrificed animal would be eaten by the worshiper. And, of course, the sacrificed lamb was eaten by the worshiper in the Passover meal. John prominently quotes John the Baptist: “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:29).
And so, Jesus’ teaching that his followers must eat his “flesh” would seem to point plainly enough to Jesus as the Lamb of God, sacrificed for the sins of God’s children.
However, the idea that Jesus’ followers should drink his blood was a much harder teaching. After all, there were no scriptural rituals or sacrifices in which the Jews would drink the blood of the sacrificed animal. In fact, the Law states that to do so was a capital crime!
(Lev 17:10-12 ESV) 10 “If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. 11 For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life. 12 Therefore I have said to the people of Israel, No person among you shall eat blood, neither shall any stranger who sojourns among you eat blood.”
That’s pretty strong, and similar commands are found in Gen 9:4 (commanded to Noah); Lev 3:17; 7:26-27; 17:14; 19:26; Deu 12:16, 23, and probably more. It’s among the most strongly attested commands in the Torah.
Therefore, Jesus was certainly aware of the challenge he was presenting to his followers. He was speaking in terms of an abomination.
On the other hand, I seriously doubt that the audience thought he was teaching cannibalism. The culture well understood speaking through metaphor. The difficulty would not have been in being way too literal (more of a Western mindset) but simply in interpreting the metaphor. Why speak in terms of an abomination before God? How can that be a good thing? It would have been very hard for a good Jew to even consider the meaning of the metaphor. (Recall Peter’s reaction to God telling him to eat unclean animals. He refused!)
We Westerners cheapen Jesus’ point considerably when we declare, “Oh, he just means the grape juice!” No, that’s not what he meant. The grape juice means what Jesus meant — meaning that our time would be very well spend in pondering that question.
The grape juice
But let’s talk about grape juice for a minute. The wine (it was really wine, you know) of the Passover meal was not part of God’s commandment. It was purely a human idea.
Read Exo 12 and Num 9, where God’s commands for the Passover are recorded. There was to be a lamb, sacrificed and eaten, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs. There no mention of wine, and wine surely would have been hard to come by in the wilderness. I suspect the first 40 Passovers or so celebrated by Israel after they crossed Red Sea involved drinking water, because that was would have been the only drink they had until they entered the Promised Land. (There would be occasional exceptions due to wine obtained military victories or through trade, I’m sure.)
You see, the cups of wine consumed during Passover were added by humans. (It was an “innovation.”) The Oral Law taught that the wine symbolized the “blood of the covenant,” from Exo 24 — the blood of sacrificed animals sprinkled on the people and the altar (representing God) to seal the Mosaic covenant. The ancients used blood to make a covenant strictly binding, symbolically saying, “If I don’t honor this covenant, you may do to me what we’ve just done to these sacrificed animals.”
Thus, to the Jews of Jesus’ day, the wine of the Passover symbolized the blood of a sacrificed animal — and they drank it. It’s the only example of a symbolic drinking of blood I can find, and yet it’s an entirely man-made ritual (and part of the basis for our communion remembrance). Jesus adopted an entirely unauthorized practice, with a purely human interpretation, and made it his own.
Of course, what I just said is very Modern in its perspective. You see, I suspect that Jesus (and his listeners) would have considered the Spirit to have led God’s leaders into finding new and powerful symbols in the Passover. The rabbis’ expansion of the Passover’s symbolism was certainly true to the spirit and purpose of the ritual and, like our communion, reminded those participating of God’s blood oath to the Jews – and the Jews’ blood oath to God – a very good thing indeed.
In short, Jesus found nothing sinful or abominable about his nation inventing new rituals and imagery to celebrate God’s delivery of them from slavery. Indeed, he liked it so much that he adopted it. And that tells us quite a lot about how God wants to relate to his children.
Next, I should point out that in Jewish rabbinic practice, the debates and lectures of the great rabbis are recorded in the Oral Law in highly abbreviated form. After all, someone had to memorize these things! (David Instone-Brewer’s Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context has some excellent resources on this point.) It’s likely that Jesus’ words in John 6 are also highly abbreviated. The words recorded by John are certainly true and inspired, but this was likely a lengthier conversation than recorded, if we read John’s Gospel like the other literature of that age.
Therefore, we have to read the material as true but highly compressed. What John preserved for us is all of the essence. He gave us the words that matter most, and they all matter a great deal. And so, we have to grant ourselves a measure of license to imagine what the original was like — based on John’s text.