Figurative and literal language

I was raised in the CLC and later, in my thirties, started attending WELS congregations. For many of those years I never fully believed the Lutheran teaching on the real presence. The Bible did not convince me that it was the proper understanding. I left the Lutheran church several years ago, however, I'm not afraid of being wrong and changing my position if the Scriptures show me that I'm wrong. My question: I was told as a Lutheran that the simple words of Christ himself, "This is my body, this is my blood" is sufficient proof to support the teaching of the real presence. However, in John 6 Christ talks about himself and of eating his body and drinking his blood. Yet in "The People's Bible" the author says that this language was to be understood figuratively, not literally. I am in agreement with the author and think that it would be supportive of my understanding of the Lord's Supper if Christ's words in Matt. 26:26 were not taken literally. So the question becomes: Why is Matt. 26:26 taken literally and John 6:53 figuratively?

Recognizing and understanding context is so critical to accurate biblical interpretation. Consider the context of John 6:53. Going back to John 6:25, we see that that John is describing what happened after Jesus miraculously fed thousands with just five loaves of bread and two small fish.

In his conversation with the crowds who were looking for more “miracle food” (John 6:26), Jesus shifted his language from literal to figurative. He spoke of the “bread of God” (John 6:33), and he identified himself as “the bread of life” (John 6:35, 48, 51). Jesus spoke of the importance of believing in him (John 6:35, 40, 47). In John 6:51 Jesus describes faith in him as eating “the living bread that came down from heaven.” In that same verse Jesus shifted the metaphor from bread to “my flesh,” and in verse 53 he describes believing in him as eating “the flesh of the Son of Man and drink[ing] my blood” – “consuming” him in faith. (Also of interest at this point is the fact that Jesus spoke of his “flesh” and not his “body,” as he would in the institution of the Lord’s Supper. The original Greek has two different words for “flesh” and “body.”)

The context of John 6 clearly shows the figurative language Jesus was using to describe the importance of believing in him. In addition, we need to keep in mind the historical context: at the time of John 6 Jesus had not yet instituted the Lord’s Supper.

When we look at the context of Matthew 26:26, we recognize a narrative in which Jesus is not using figurative language; his words were meant to be taken literally. There was nothing symbolic or figurative when Jesus took bread and wine and said, “This is my body. This is my blood.”

In short, we derive accurate and intended meaning of Scripture when we pay attention to the context.