Why did Yeshua’s disciples turn away from following Him? What was the difficult saying that so offended them? It was His statement about
descending from above that offended the crowds.
The Real Difficulty
Yeshua’s disciples found His mystical claims hard to swallow. Many of them grumbled and said, “This is a difficult statement” (John 6:60). What did the disciples of Yeshua find so difficult? Commentators explain that the Jewish disciples found the imagery of eating His flesh and drinking His blood offensive. If so, the disciples did not understand that their rabbi spoke metaphorically. They assumed that He somehow literally intended them to eat Him. Alternatively, they did not understand that He spoke about the sacrament of the Eucharist (which He had not yet introduced) through which the bread and wine miraculously transubstantiate into His actual flesh and blood. Neither of these explanations completely satisfy the puzzle. The sacramental explanation is anachronistic. The theology of a Eucharist sacrament and its transubstantiation did not yet exist, nor had Yeshua yet conducted His Last Seder at which He shared the cup and the bread with His disciples. Revulsion over cannibalism imagery is also unlikely. The Jewish congregation in the synagogue at Capernaum could not have taken the rabbi literally or understood Him to be suggesting actual cannibalism—even on a sacramental level.
On the contrary, all indications from Jewish literature point to a literate society that deftly handled and manipulated metaphors, a society capable of sorting symbolism and reassigning imagery much more aptly than ourselves. Immersed since childhood in the poetry of the Hebrew Scriptures which speaks of wine as “the blood of grapes” and the sacrifices on the altars as “the food of God,” the Jews at the Capernaum synagogue were probably more literate than most modern Bible readers and better equipped to think abstractly than the average Bible reader today. We are more accustomed to the metaphor of eating and drinking than we sometimes realize. For example, we devour books, digest information, drink in teachings, swallow rumours, chew on ideas, ruminate on scriptures, and have dogmas shoved down our throats. In one passage, the Talmud itself employs the metaphor of “eating the Messiah,” and by this it means enjoying the blessings of the Messianic King (b.Sanhedrin 99a). The eating and drinking of His body could not have so deeply offended His disciples, for He obviously intended it figuratively. He Himself explained it as a metaphor for abiding in Him.
Why then did so many of His disciples take offense at the bread of life discourse? The difficulty did not rise from the eating and drinking metaphor but rather from His claim to have descended from heaven. The Galileans knew better. They knew his parents and his family, and they knew that He had grown up locally. “How does He now say, ‘I have come down out of heaven’?” they objected. This was the real difficulty.