Does the sheep pen gate of John chapter 10 refute the Catholic understanding of John chapter 6? No. Both the text and the context show that Jesus is the true bread from heaven (John 6:32). The constant teaching of the Catholic Church for twenty centuries is that our Lord is really present in the holy Eucharist. Part of that understanding comes from the Gospel of John, chapter 6. One objection by non-Catholics is that Jesus did not really mean for us to take that literally; but rather, symbolically. John chapter 10 might be offered in support of the objection.
John chapter 6 contains the Bread of Life discourse. Many non-Catholics dismiss the text by spiritualizing it. It is merely symbolic, they say. Certainly, they assert, Jesus could not have really meant we are to eat his Flesh and drink His Blood. According to the argument, that passage should not be taken literally, just as we are not to think Jesus is an actual sheep pen gate. In John 10:9, Jesus says, “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.”
But what if Jesus intended us to understand the imagery of the gate as a figure of speech? And what if Jesus intended us to take His Flesh and Blood literally. How can we really know these answers?
Context is important. For example, in John chapter 8 Jesus says: “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.” (John 8:58). Out of context, that makes little sense. In context, Jesus was speaking with Jews who knew the Old Testament; and they knew God had communicated His unspeakable name to Moses. Our Lord’s hearers understood what Jesus meant. In John 8, they reacted in a manner commensurate with their limited understanding. Their understanding was limited because they understood Jesus’ reference to Himself as God, but they did not understand that God could be standing right in front of them wearing sandals! The Incarnate Hidden God.
Back to John chapter 6 and the Bread of Life discourse. In context, upon hearing that Jesus’ disciples must eat His Flesh and drink His blood, many disciples turned and went away. In John 10, you don’t find the Good Shepherd discourse turning disciples away. Also, in John 10, the Scripture expressly states that Jesus was speaking in a figure of speech:
Although Jesus used this figure of speech, they did not realize what he was trying to tell them. So Jesus said again, “Amen, amen, I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep. (John 10:6-7; emphasis added)
In John 10, Jesus’ hearers did not understand, so He continued with his figure of speech. We know it because of text and context. In John 6, we don’t have figure of speech language. And the context is different too. Instead of using figures of speech, something else is going on in the Bread of Life discourse.
In John 6, the disciples got Our Lord’s message. Their ears picked up what our western ears might miss. We know the disciples understood Jesus’ meaning literally because they were offended. Of course, they knew the twelve-hundred-year-old Mosaic law:
As for anyone, whether of the house of Israel or of the aliens residing among them, who consumes any blood, I will set myself against that individual and will cut that person off from among the people, since the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement on the altar for yourselves, because it is the blood as life that makes atonement. That is why I have told the Israelites: No one among you, not even a resident alien, may consume blood. (Leviticus 17:10-12)
In light of this Old Testament prohibition, Jesus’ words were radical. However, several clues point to Our Lord intending that we understand the Eucharist really to be His Body and His Blood. Notice the disciples’ objection. This is a hard saying (vs. 60). Many disciples walk away (John 6:66). It would have been easy for Jesus to correct any misunderstanding. But He doesn’t. Jesus lets them walk away! They heard Him correctly. Instead of correcting them, Jesus doubles down:
Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats* my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day.” (John 6:53-54).
The grand miracle of the Incarnation has far-reaching consequences: the reality of the Sacrifice of the Mass; Our Hidden Lord is received in the holy Eucharist. The Incarnation remains a stumbling block to many. When, by God’s grace, I realized our Great High Priest offers His Flesh as “true food” and His Blood as “true drink” (John 6:55), a team of wild horses could not keep me away. Replying with Simon Peter to Our Lord’s question, whether I too want to leave: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68).
AS FOR ME, I KNOW THAT MY VINDICATOR LIVES, AND THAT HE WILL AT LAST STAND FORTH UPON THE DUST. THIS WILL HAPPEN WHEN MY SKIN HAS BEEN STRIPPED OFF, AND FROM MY FLESH I WILL SEE GOD: I WILL SEE FOR MYSELF, MY OWN EYES, NOT ANOTHER’S, WILL BEHOLD HIM: MY INMOST BEING IS CONSUMED WITH LONGING. JOB 19:25-27
ONE LORD. ONE FAITH. ONE BAPTISM.
* [6:54–58] Eats: the verb used in these verses is not the classical Greek verb used of human eating, but that of animal eating: “munch,” “gnaw.” This may be part of John’s emphasis on the reality of the flesh and blood of Jesus (cf. John 6:55), but the same verb eventually became the ordinary verb in Greek meaning “eat.” (NABRE)