1. Why is this passage listed among difficult passages?
Jesus says these words so bluntly that people have always tried to take them literally. Roman Catholic tradition has so interpreted them and coupled them with their doctrine of transubstantiation and then applied them to receiving the elements of the Eucharist. This view is aided by the fact that many present were taking Jesus literally (v.52). No wonder we have problems with these words today since the Bible records that many of the disciples were perplexed, even offended, about these words too (vv. 60,61).
2. How do we deal with the difficulties in this passage?
First we need to ask why the people were having such a hard time understanding Jesus? Jesus answers this question in v. 26,27. Their focus was on the physical not the spiritual. Partly because of the preceding miracle, they were interested in physical manna like Moses had given, not spiritual food (see 6:15). Verse 27 then becomes a key verse for understanding the rest of the chapter. Jesus repeats this concept at the end of the dialogue, underscoring its importance. (v. 58).
This verse (27) sets up the contrast which Jesus then explains; the food that spoils which was the wilderness manna that the people mention in v. 31 versus the food that endures – himself with all that he offers (v. 33,35).
Are there indications in Jesus’ words that vv 53,54 for example should not be taken literally but figuratively? I believe the answer is clearly yes. First of all, there is the sheer difficulty of taking them literally, especially for Jewish people who were listening. Think about the Acts 15 prohibition regarding blood. I think Jesus said it in a way that people either would be offended or would have to take it figuratively as he intended. Secondly, when questioned by the disciples, Jesus gives v. 63. Remember the caps are not in the original. But interpreters have seen a mix of Holy Spirit and spirit of the words in this verse. For example, Leon Morris in NICNT “A woodenly literal, flesh dominated manner of looking at Jesus’ words will not yield the correct interpretation. That is granted only to the spiritual man, the Spirit-dominated man.” (p. 385). So NIV capitalized Spirit one time and not the other. Third, if we try to take them literally, are we not still trapped in the physical side of Jesus’ analogy?
Is Jesus talking about what we call communion? Jesus is speaking at least a year earlier. Yet Jesus obviously knew what was coming and the disciple writing is writing with all the events of Jesus’ life as well as the traditions of the earliest church in mind. For us as Protestants, the best answer seems to be that Jesus is referring directly to the act of believing on him, of appropriating his sacrificial work for ourselves rather than directly to the sacrament he would later institute. This will lead to the simplest and most straightforward interpretation. However, we realize that this appropriation of Jesus’ work is exactly what the Lord’s Supper enacts and symbolizes. So when we read these words we cannot help but apply them to communion.
3. What are the key truths or inspirational messages of this passage?
There are a couple other side issues besides the nature of the food. For example, How do you work for the enduring manna? We know how we work for food that spoils. Jesus points the way to working for the food that does not spoil (v. 29).
Jesus also points out the source of both mannas (v. 32). This causes offense as many objected to this saying (vv. 41,42).
Jesus explains how the enduring manna works (vv 39,40).
Jesus explains how to eat the enduring manna (vv. 43-47).
The evidence is that Peter at least partially understood (v. 68).