John 6:22–71: I Am the Bread of Life, The Words of Eternal Life
Jesus has just fed the 5,0001, but he’s now on the other side of the sea from all of the people who were fed yesterday. (He has also walked on water, and the people sort of notice that even though he wasn’t on the boat with his disciples he’s gone anyway, but we’ll see in this passage that they’re much more concerned with him feeding them than with him walking on water. To be fair, they might not know, they just wonder how he left if he wasn’t in the boat with his disciples.) So the crowd piles into boats themselves, and head off to Capernaum in search of Jesus.
They do find him, and ask him: When did you get here? (I assume part of that question is also how did you get here…) But Jesus knows what’s really happening:
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” (verses 26–27)
The crowd’s response to this seems, on the surface, like maybe they’re listening; they ask him what they must do, to “be doing the works of God” (verse 28). His response is simple—maybe too simple?
Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (verse 29)
Interestingly, the next question the crowd asks is not, “Who is the one He sent?” They already get that Jesus is talking about himself. But they do ask him to prove himself to them by showing a sign/miracle; in fact, if he could repeat yesterday’s miracle and provide some food, that would be great…
So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” (verses 30–34)
As shown, Jesus corrects them on a couple of points:
- It wasn’t Moses who gave the people manna, it was God. That might sound like a nit-picky comment—like when someone in church refuses to ever say “I’m going to do this or that” without specifying “God willing” at the end—but it’s not. Jesus is trying to get them to see a point that’s bigger than just bread; the manna that was provided to the Israelites in the desert was a foretaste of Jesus himself, who is the bread of God. Which brings us to…
- Jesus is the bread of God! Yes, he performed a miracle yesterday, and provided food practically out of nothing, but the miracle he came to this world to perform of taking away our sins and making us right with God is a much larger, much more important miracle.
The people still don’t get it, though, and are asking for him to provide this bread—“always.” It’s actually quite similar to the Samaritan woman at the well: Jesus talks to her about living water, and her immediate reaction is the understandable, “please give me this living water so I don’t have to keep coming back to this well.” Jesus talks to these people about him being “the bread from heaven,” and they say, “please keep us fed!”
Jesus has already told them that he is the bread from heaven, but based on their last comment—“Sir, give us this bread always.”—they don’t seem to get it. So he goes into more detail:
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (verses 35–40)
Every time I read this passage, I can practically hear the italics on that first word: “I am the bread of life!”
The people don’t like this message, however. Not only is he not going to feed him, but now he’s talking this nonsense about him being the bread?!? And why is he making such big claims, anyway? This is Joseph’s son! But he knows their hearts:
So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me—not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (verses 41–51)
The people don’t seem to be getting his point, but he doubles down on it:
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (verses 52–58)
But it’s just getting too much for some people. Now even some of Jesus’ disciples are starting to doubt.
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray him.
This is another example of Jesus speaking at one level and his listeners speaking at a different level, but it’s not hard to understand what he’s trying to say. The question is whether we’ll listen.
Obviously the people in this passage are preoccupied with bread and being fed. And of course, we should remember that these are people who didn’t necessarily have food to eat each and every day; if Jesus had been promising physical “bread” for them to eat every day—like the did the day before—it would have removed a lot of uncertainty from their lives.
However, they’re also missing the point of the manna that God gave to the Israelites in the desert in the first place: it wasn’t primarily to feed them. He could have done that in other, less supernatural ways; providing miraculous food each and every morning to the Israelites was about more than feeding them, it was about teaching them to be dependent on Him. (Go back and read Exodus and see how God provided the manna to the people, and you’ll see that the entire emphasis is on faith in God, not on food.) Which is the same lesson Jesus is trying to teach these people, if only they’d accept it.
It’s a fantastic lesson for modern day Christians to learn, too, especially in societies that are overly “individualistic.” The idea of being dependent on anyone, even God Almighty, is abhorrent to us, but we need to get over that. One of the major lessons of the Bible is that depending on ourselves instead of on God is a sure way to fail.
“I am the bread of life!”
It should be clear by now that when Jesus says that “whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst,” he’s talking in a spiritual sense, not a physical sense. There are Christians who go hungry, and who go thirsty; throughout history there have been Christians who have died of starvation. We are to trust in God for our daily bread—even those of us in rich countries, who don’t have to worry about tomorrow’s food, should be dependent on Him—but our dependence on God should also not be limited by our physical needs. Our hunger for Him, our thirst for Him, should be so overwhelming that even if He didn’t provide food, and we starved, we’d be satisfied, because we’d be with Him. (Here as well as in the life to come.)
As is so often the case, Jesus is talking in a spiritual sense but the people he’s talking to want to keep it in a physical sense. It’s just like when he was telling Nicodemus in 3:1–15 that he had to be “born again,” and Nicodemus was sarcastically talking about going back into his mother’s womb; now Jesus is talking about being the “living bread that came down from heaven” that people must eat to live forever, the people start arguing among one another: “how can he give us his flesh to eat?!?”
To do the will of Him who sent me
Jesus recognizes here that though the people have seen him they don’t believe in him. And although he doesn’t explicitly say it, I think it’s clear that even if he were to provide a miracle—even if he was to feed these people again—it wouldn’t be enough. They’d be back the next day, saying, “we’ll believe you if you feed us again!” And again the day after that. After all, he already fed them yesterday, miraculously, and it wasn’t enough; why would it be enough if it did it again today? And tomorrow? And… The point is, all of this stuff about providing bread, for Jesus, is a side issue, not the main issue.
So what is the main issue? The Father is going to give the Son believers. Jesus is going to save those people from their sins—all of those people, every single one that the Father gives him—and he is going to raise them on the last day. They’re going to have eternal life, with God. Again, as he says:
For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (verse 40)
Jesus did a lot of miracles, but he didn’t do them for their own sake. His miracles were to prove that he was who he claimed to be, so that the people of his day and the people reading about it later would look on him, and believe in him, and have eternal life.
No one can come to me unless it is granted to him by the Father
When some of Jesus’ disciples said that “This is a hard saying,” they were right. It is hard teaching. Even once we get past the physical vs. spiritual part, it’s still hard—in fact, it’s harder. When we combine these teachings with other teachings in the New Testament—the sermon on the mount, for example—Jesus is telling his listeners that obeying a set of rules isn’t good enough for them to gain access to God. You’d have to have obeyed all of the rules, all of the time, perfectly, for all of your life, just to avoid being consumed for your sin! Did you once commit a sin when you were a kid? Then you’re not perfect, and you have to be perfect to come into the presence of God. And that’s an extremely hypothetical example—someone who’s close to being perfect but only ever committed one sin—whereas real humans sin on a daily, hourly, even constant basis. (I would argue that none of us ever properly obeys the command to love the Lord your God with all our heart and with all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength (Mark 12:30).)
So yes, it’s a hard saying. And the disciples’ next question was quite appropriate: “Who can listen to it?” And Jesus answers them: those whom the Spirit has enabled to hear it:
But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” (verses 61–63, emphasis added)
If you want life, “the flesh is no help at all”—don’t try to gain eternal life by obeying rules and trying to gain acceptance by God in that manner. Ask for it. As stated before, it has to be about trust in Him, not trust in yourself.
And when we do come to believe, that’s it. When you’re in, you’re in. Jesus will lose none that the Father has given to him. Will you continue to sin? Yes. Not as much as you did before, and the Spirit gives us the power to overcome that sin, but we will sin. But because it’s up to Jesus, not us, even the sins we continue to commit will not be enough for Jesus to “lose” us. It’s not in our power, it’s in His.
Lord, to whom shall we go?
When Jesus turns to the twelve, and asks, “Do you want to go away as well,” Peter’s response has always struck me (and probably strikes others as well): “Lord, to whom shall we go?” It’s the right question!
Yes, some of Jesus’ teachings are difficult. Yes, following Jesus means submitting to Him in all areas and aspects of my life and nobody wants to do that! Even now that I’ve been a Christian for over 30 years, I still hesitate at the thought that I need to totally submit to God, in all areas of my life. (“But even … ?” YES! Even that!) It’s hard teaching. But… to whom else could I go? Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not true, and that’s the main thing: is Jesus who He says He is? Then… what else could I possibly do but trust in Him, and then follow Him to the best of my ability? (In that order.)
Other religions, other philosophies, other teachers, other approaches to life… they might sound good, in some respects. They might let me live the life I want to live, or do the things I want to do. But are they true? If Jesus really us who He says He is, then what am I losing out by going with any religion/teaching/philosophy/teacher other than faith in Jesus Christ?
Every time I talk about Jesus “feeding the 5,000,” I always want to add in the caveat that that was 5,000 men, meaning that there were also women and children there, too. So it was more like the feeding of the 10,000, or the feeding of the 15,000, or … ↩︎