Meditating on Great Themes in John: 11. The Bread of Life
John 6:35 Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirst
When we come to the feeding of the five thousand in the fist part of chapter 6, we could be rather blasé about it. We have heard Jesus talk about changing Simon into Peter, we have seen him change water into wine, we have heard him speak about resurrection possibilities, we have heard him speak about new birth transformation, we have heard him speak about being source of living water, we have seen him heal an official’s son from a distance, we have seen him heal a long term invalid and now to find him feeding well over five thousand people with five loaves and two fish Jn 6:1-13), we may be tempted to think, oh, just another miraculous sign. Well, yes, it is heralded as a miraculous sign (v.14) but it is something much more and that will only become clear as we progress through the chapter.
But note in passing we have seen two instances of physical healing and now we have seen two instances of Jesus changing physical substances – first the water into wine and now expanding a small amount of food to be able to feed a large number of people. It is no wonder that the people started to identify Jesus was the coming prophet Moses spoke about (see Deut 18:15) and surely a man who could provide for them in such ways was worthy to be their king.
But that is not Jesus’ plan and so he quietly leaves and, I suspect, goes off to pray leaving the disciples to pack up and start off across the Sea of Galilee in a boat. The trouble with miracles is that with pigeon-hole them, we put them in little boxes and fail to realise the bigger implications. I say this because John has shown us the one who is master over material things and over the state of our bodies and so neither we nor the disciples should be surprised when Jesus follows them across the lake – but without a boat! They were terrified when they see him walking across the water towards them (Jn 6:16-21). They had not realised that God can change water into wine, can expand bread, can impart life when there is only death and can bring healing to sick bodies and so essentially can do anything in His world – and that Jesus is His Son and so can do the same! It is interesting that John makes no comment about what the disciples felt the next morning but I guess they were looking at Jesus through new eyes. Perhaps it was beginning to sink in who it was who they had with them!
But John’s attention is taken up with the crowd who had been fed and who now followed Jesus (Jn 6:22-25) When they question Jesus about how he got there, he ignores their question and challenges them over why they have come. This is an opportunity to teach the truth, based on what happened the previous day: “Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” (v.26,27) You’ve come, he says because I fed you, but don’t make getting physical food the central focus of your life, food that will keep you going for a limited time on this world (implied by what follows). Focus instead on getting spiritual food which is lasting and produces eternal life, which I alone can give you. Wow!
Now Jesus had just said work to get the right sort of food so they ask, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” (v.28) i.e. what does God want of us to be able to earn this sort of food. “Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (v.29) We are back there again. We’ve seen it before in this Gospel: believe in Jesus, that is all that is required of you.
The crowd respond rather obtusely, “What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do?” (v.30) Hold on, he did it yesterday evening! But they, like so many of us, don’t like being challenged so they are responding with a challenge of their own: “Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: `He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” (v.31) i.e. we’re Moses’ followers and he did that miracle so what will you do if you are his prophet? Well, actually, he didn’t, it was God who did, replies Jesus (v.32) but in saying it he adds a slight edge to it: “it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.” The true bread? Yes, “For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (v.33) The bread of God is a person????
To this they reply, “Sir, from now on give us this bread.” (v.34) Do they know what they are asking, I wonder. It is then that Jesus makes this powerful response: “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (v.35) What is he saying? I am the source of all life. Bread is often referred to as the staff of life, the essential food to enable us to live. I leave you to ponder more fully on that.
However in the verses that follow, note the number times when Jesus says he has come down from heaven (and the implication is, where he has existed from eternity before coming to earth): “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.” (v.38) “They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, `I came down from heaven’?” (v.42) “here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die.” (v.50) “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” (v.51) “This is the bread that came down from heaven.” (v.58) This teaching was not there in the Synoptic Gospels but John makes sure we see it again and again. This Jesus is the eternal Son who existed in heaven and who left heaven and came to earth, and he is the source of all life.