(John 6:1-71 - Jesus - The Bread of Life - cont.)
John 6 beautifully illustrates a very typical pattern in the Fourth Gospel. After a significant event is narrated, discussion with either the Jews or the would-be disciples follows. Their misunderstanding opens the way for Jesus to enter a major discourse that reveals more of his true nature. The events of feeding of the five thousand and walking on the water are followed by a discussion with the "crowd." Their failure to understand Jesus offers him the opportunity (and necessity) of expounding further about his identity as the Bread of Life. This is a further development of Jesus the giver of Life that had been the theme in John 4:43-5:47.
Commentators frequently mention how difficult it is to outline John 6:22-59. The two miracles of 6:1-21 and the concluding reaction in 6:60-71 are clearly separate sections of the chapter. However, verses 22-59 form an almost seamless tapestry of interwoven patterns moving deliberately to the climax of verses 53-59. Any division is somewhat arbitrary. However, for our sake we will deal with verses 26-34 and the Sign of the Manna, verses 35-50 and Jesus as the Bread of Life, and verses 51-59 and the Eucharistic Bread of Life.
John 6:26-34 - The Sign of the Manna
This section is organized around the questions of verse 25 ("Rabbi, when did you come here?"), verse 28 ("What must we do to perform the works of God?"), and verse 30 ("What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?"). Within the literary framework of John the questions serve to allow Jesus opportunity to advance his teaching.
Verses 22-25a form the transition from the recounting of the two miracles on a Passover theme to the discourse on the deeper meaning of those miracles by Jesus. These verses are a bit obscure as they mix specific details with general statements about the crowd. Their main purpose, however, is to portray the crowd looking for Jesus and finding him to ask the question, "Rabbi, when did you come here?" The reader should immediately recognize the inappropriateness of their title, Rabbi. In both chapter 1 and chapter 4 the use of the title, Rabbi, is followed by revelation of more accurate and more exalted titles for Jesus. Further, the title, Rabbi, which was used by the transmitters and debaters of Jewish tradition, seems strangely inappropriate to readers who have just read of the feeding of the five thousand and the walking on the water.
The question, "when did you come here?" can be taken in two ways as is often the case in John's gospel. The surface meaning simply is an inquiry arising from the crowd's awareness that Jesus had not left the other side of the Sea of Galilee in a boat. The question is both when and how Jesus had gotten back to the Capernaum side. The question also raises the issue of Jesus' origin. The references to the Son of Man in verse 27 and the bread from heaven in verses 32-33 suggest a theological answer as to how and from where Jesus had come. However, for this question the surface meaning is adequate to introduce Jesus' remarks.
The "truly, truly," (amen, amen) in verse 26 that introduces Jesus' answer points to the fact that his response is not casual conversation but revelation from God. The whole matter of the crowd's looking for Jesus was not based on understanding but on seeking self-gratification. The statement, "You are not looking for me because you have seen signs," sounds contradictory in light of the following accusation that they had come to him because of the feeding of the five thousand. For John "seeing signs" in the physical sense of optical perception is of no significance. To "see a sign" one must penetrate its meaning. We would speak of "understanding signs." (Interestingly, the particular Greek word that John chose for "see" is very similar in form for a word meaning "know.") True understanding of the feeding of the five thousand would have recognized that the barley loaves were only pointers to the true bread. The gift of loaves should have pointed to the giver. How often we are like the Jews in seeking only the gifts and not being interested in the giver.
Instead of seeking bread that passes away (verse 27), the crowd should have "worked" for the bread that abides for eternal life. "Abides" is one of John's favorite words and here it describes the bread which the Son of Man will give. That bread is the bread of "eternal life," another of John's favorite phrases. The association of bread with the Son of Man is preparation for the ultimate revelation of the bread being Jesus himself.
The term, Son of Man, was Jesus' favorite self-designation. John 1:51 associates the Son of Man with messengers going up to and coming down from heaven. The bread that the Son of Man will give turns out to be the bread of God which comes down from heaven in 6:33. In fact, the bread given by the Son of Man is Jesus. Though not stated here in verse 27, the final clause anticipates that identification that will be made in 6:35. It is the Son of Man whom God has sealed or on whom God has set His seal.
The statement about sealing has been taken in several ways. The word "seal" may only mean to affirm or confirm. In this sense the clause of verse 27c describes God's affirmation or approval of Jesus. Others have noted that the seal bore the image of the owner. In this sense the sealing of Jesus describes the fact that he has the stamp of God's image in the world. This was a common understanding of Jesus in the New Testament (Col. 1:15, Hebrews 1:3). Still others have drawn upon the fact that this verb, "seal," was used very early in the history of the church to describe both baptism and the work of the Spirit (cf. 2 Cor. 1:22). They believe that this clause refers to the commissioning of Jesus at his baptism when the Spirit was poured out upon him. Though John may have several of these meanings in mind, the tense of the verb favors the last-mentioned interpretation. The crowd [and we] should work for the bread that abides because Christ is that bread and God, via the Spirit, has set His seal of approval on that loaf.
The command to work for the bread that abides provides the catalyst for the next question, found in verse 28, "What must we do to work the works of God?" The question itself is unusual coming from the crowd because it really is the "right" question. As such it leads directly into an extremely important response by Jesus.
Verse 29 sets forth a very important concept for the Fourth Gospel. The work of God is either that which God desires from mankind or that which God accomplishes in a person or, most likely, both. That "work" is trusting in Christ. The significance of the modifying phrase "of God" indicates that the "work" of faith is not our effort but the gracious gift of God enabling us to trust in Christ. That faith is to be "in" the one whom God sent. John observes a significant distinction between "believing in" and "believing." It is very important that verse 29 speaks of "believing in" while verse 30 speaks only of "believing." Further, the verb is in the continuous tense signifying that it is a lifetime of trusting in Christ that is the work of God, not simply a single moment of belief. Finally, it is crucial that the object of trust is "the one whom God sent." The particular Greek verb for "send" meant "sent with the power of attorney." The significance of Christ for the Christian faith, the reason he is the one to be trusted in, is the fact that he came to us as the emissary of God. As 5:30 observed, he did not come to do his own will but the will of the sending Father.
The response of the crowd in verse 30 is staggering. "What sign will you do in order that we can see and believe you?" They had eaten the multiplied barley loaves, they had seen the miracles of healing, they knew Jesus had miraculously crossed the lake without a boat, and they asked, "What sign will you do?" If miracles could bring faith surely that crowd would have been the best of believers! But even their request indicates that their pursuit of the miraculous was self-centered rather than oriented to the will of God. The purpose of the sign they requested was for them to see and to believe. Not "believe in" signifying trust, but simply "believe" signifying intellectual acknowledgement. The tragedy of the crowd's request is that it so frequently and so closely resembles the petitions we offer to God.
The request is, in fact, not a request but a challenge, a dare, as verse 31 makes clear. Referring to the manna in the wilderness and citing Scripture the crowd dares Jesus to top that miracle. The challenge was double-barreled. First, it was a challenge to top Moses, the man Judaism saw as the founder of their faith. If Jesus would call them to trust in him, he would have to win that right by out-performing Moses. Thus the challenge is clearly laid out in terms of Judaism versus Christianity. Second, it was a challenge to bring in the Messianic Age, to prove himself as Messiah. The Jewish expectation of that time believed the Messiah would renew the gift of manna. The pseudepigraphal work, 2 Baruch, states, "The treasury of manna shall again descend from on high, and they will eat of it in those years." The Midrash Rabbah on Ecclesiastes 1:9 says, "As the first redeemer caused manna to descend . . . so will the latter redeemer cause manna to descend." The challenge to Jesus was clear. Jesus could have easily responded to them as he did to Satan in the temptation, "You will not put the Lord your God to the test."
The answer of Jesus has been recently shown to have been formulated along a typical pattern of Jewish interpretation of Scripture. The pattern was for the interpreter to respond to a Scripture passage by saying, "Do not read ______ but ______," and then to provide an alternative way of understanding the passage. The crowd had said, "He gave them bread out of heaven to eat." Jesus responded, "Do not interpret the 'he' as Moses but as the Father. Do not read 'gave' but 'gives'." Suddenly the Scripture citation by the crowd has been turned to a witness to Jesus. This radically revised interpretation of Scripture is characteristic of the conflict between Judaism and Christianity in the first century. Both appealed to the same Scriptures (what Christians now call the Old Testament), but radically different interpretations arose from the same passages. Christian faith affirmed that Jesus himself, and the Holy Spirit (v. 27) provided believers with the "true" interpretation (cf also 2 Cor. 3).
This is clarified by the further modification that the Father gives the true bread from heaven. The word "true" may be taken to mean "genuine" as opposed to "false" or "spurious" or in typical Hebrew thought it could mean "reliable" and thus "lasting" as opposed to that which passes away (cf. v. 27). Verse 33 creates a common Johannine double meaning. It can be translated, "The bread of God is that which comes down from heaven." or "the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven." To take the personal translation makes the statement a direct reference to Jesus himself and that understanding will be developed in verses 35ff. To take it as "that which" makes the statement a reference to bread and the crowd responds on that level in verse 34.
Verse 34 concludes the self-centered response of the crowd in this section. Their misunderstanding of the true bread is a retreat to Judaism and a withdrawal from the trusting faith in Christ that was described as the work of God. It is also very similar to the remark of the Samaritan woman in 4:15, "Sir, give me this water in order that I might not thirst nor come here to draw." By this request the crowd confirms Jesus' accusation of verse 27 that they are only interested in the bread that passes away. They are willing for Jesus to constantly provide barley loaves as in the feeding of the five thousand. But when he responds to their challenge to repeat the miracle of manna by claiming a new approach to Scripture, to Moses and Judaism, and to the Messianic Age they must change the subject back to barley loaves.
John 6:35-50 - Jesus, The Bread of Life
This section can be divided into verses 35-40 and verses 41-50. Verses 35-40 identify Jesus as the bread of life and make it clear that the life spoken of includes both the present and the future. Verses 41-50 build from Jewish rejection of Jesus to describe how one can make use of the bread of life. Verse 35 is the key that opens up the whole section.
The section begins with the clear statement of Jesus, "I am the bread of life." This is the first obvious statement of this truth by Jesus, though it had been broadly hinted at throughout the first half of the chapter. The whole discussion of the manna in verses 22-34 appears to have been designed to lead up to this statement. The Jewish request in verse 34 suggests misunderstanding of the sign of the manna, which allows John and Jesus to make the matter perfectly clear. In this sense the statement that Jesus is the bread of life also is a clarification of the Scripture quotation of verse 31. The audience here should not interpret the "he" as Moses, but as God the Father. They should not read "gave" but "gives" and finally they should not interpret "bread" as manna but as Jesus himself. Thus the Scripture really means that the Father is giving Jesus as the bread for the world.
This is also the first of the major "I am" sayings in the Fourth Gospel. We saw some of the significance of the ego eimi (I am) in 6:20. However, there the phrase was used in an absolute sense. "Ego eimi, do not be afraid." Here, we find the first of the series of uses with a predicate. "I am the bread of life," 6:35, "I am the light of the world," 8:12, "I am the door of the sheep," 10:7, "I am the good shepherd," 10:11, "I am the resurrection and the life," 11:25, "I am the way, the truth and the life," 14:6, and "I am the true vine," 15:1. Each of these statements is a description of Jesus' relationship with people. To describe himself as the bread of life is not a statement about the chemical make-up of Jesus' body. Rather it is a statement of what he can be for people - nourishment and sustenance that provides life.
In the ancient world generally, and in Palestine particularly, bread was the basic foodstuff. It was the primary source of nutrition and usually the only "solid" food consumed by a Palestinian peasant. As such it was virtually the source of survival. Thus the fundamental thought that would have been associated with bread by Jesus' audience was that which nourished and sustained life.
Some scholars have also seen allusions to the Wisdom tradition and Isaiah. In the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus the personified Wisdom of God speaks the following words: "Come to me, all you who desire me, and fill yourselves with my fruits ... . They that eat me shall still be hungry and they that drink me shall still be thirsty. He that obeys me shall never be put to shame and they that work in me shall not sin" (Ecclesiasticus 24:19, 21-22). In Proverbs 9:5, personified Wisdom invites, "Come, eat my bread, and drink wine which I have mixed for you." Similar words of invitation may be found in Isaiah 55:1-3, "Ho, every one who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in fatness. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live. . ." (RSV).
Against the background of these verses the remainder of verse 35 becomes clear. The invitation to come to Jesus is an invitation to come to the Wisdom of God, to God himself. The concept of believing, so important to John, and the concept of coming to Jesus find their meaning in the passage of Isaiah -"hearken, ...delight ... and incline your ear."
Verses 37-40 expound this invitation of verse 35. Who is it that will respond to the invitation? All that the Father gives to Jesus will come to Him. In a manner strange to us, this phrase is constructed with a neuter construction (everything that...) rather than a personal construction (everyone who...). This appears to be a way that John showed the universality of the gospel. It also implies a predestination, but it is only a positive predestination. Only those whom the Father gives come to Jesus.
There are two significant points here. First, people do not respond to Jesus on their own initiative and ability. It is the grace of God that allows us to respond. John Wesley described that grace as prevenient grace, grace that goes before our decision making process. Second, God's grace directs people to Jesus. That was the unusual point in the original setting.
What reception will a person who comes to Jesus receive? Verse 37, "I will certainly not cast out the person who comes to me." This is a Semitic figure of speech meaning a hearty welcome will be extended to the one who comes. The reason that such a hearty welcome will be given is because Jesus is not pursuing his own will but the will of the Father. Verse 38 repeats John 5:30. The will of the Father (verse 39) is that nothing that he (the Father) has given Jesus be lost. The word is the same as was used in verse 12 where the fragments are gathered up "so that nothing will be lost." Positively, the same idea is expressed in the last part of the verse; Jesus will raise what is given to him in the last day.
Verse 40 brings this portion to a conclusion by shifting to a personal construction. The will of the Father is that everyone who is seeing Jesus and who is believing (present, continuous tense) in him might be having (present, continuous tense) eternal life. Furthermore, Jesus will raise such a one in the last day. Here, Jesus is the source of life - now and in the last day. This is the exposition of the claim, "I am the bread of life."
The further development of the thought is built on the murmuring of the Jews. The word used for murmuring here is a relatively rare word in the New Testament, but it was used in the Old Testament to describe Israel's murmuring against God. As such it implies unbelief and disobedience to the word and command of the Lord. Though we might have many legitimate complaints against human beings or human institutions we need to be careful to not gripe against God. Though we may find a small pleasure in avoiding and postponing submission to earthly authorities by our griping, such behavior toward God is disobedience and rebellion. Thus it is no surprise that John describes these grumblers as "the Jews," his favorite terms for those who oppose Jesus.
The center of the Jewish complaint is Jesus' claim to have come down from heaven. After all, they knew his parents, his hometown, and they were certain that such knowledge was adequate to fully explain Jesus. He could not be son of Joseph and Mary and also have come down from heaven. As Lindars notes, "The Jews' objection was really a matter of 'the scandal of the incarnation'." Yet, from John's perspective that was the first thing to be known and believed about Jesus, as the prologue to the Fourth Gospel indicates.
The affirmation of the deity and humanity of the Word flew in the face of Jewish logic but something more important than logic is at work here. Jesus warns (v. 43) the Jews not to murmur among themselves. The issue is not logic but obedience to the Father (v. 44). No one is able to come to Jesus unless the Father draws him. The concept of God's drawing people to himself is expressed in the Greek translation of Jeremiah 31:3 and in Hosea 11:4. In both cases it is an expression of God's great love for Israel. Thus murmuring against Jesus is not a matter of logic or theology, but of rejecting the love of God that attempts to draw one to Jesus. The Jewish error of making their understanding of Jesus more important than submitting to the love of God has, unfortunately, been repeated frequently.
The focus now turns back to the bread of life. Verse 45 cites a Scripture from the prophets, "They will all be taught by God." This is a paraphrase from Isaiah 54:12, "all your sons will be taught by God." By omitting "your sons" the quotation can be expanded from Israel to have a universal appeal. Further, recognition of the passage as coming from Is. 54:12 will remind people of the following verses in Isaiah 55 which were alluded to in verse 35 when Jesus described himself as the bread of life.
Verse 45 also notes that everyone who hears (obeys) from the Father and who learns (becomes a disciple) comes to Jesus. The argument can now be summed up. Jesus is the bread of life. Everyone who believes in him will have life. The Jewish ancestors had eaten the wrong bread in the wilderness and they died. Verse 50 begins just like Exodus 16:15, "This is the bread [which the Lord has given you to eat.] But no longer is it manna, but Jesus that God gives to eat, and the one who eats this new bread will not die.
John 6:50-59 - Eating and Drinking Jesus
A new dimension enters the discourse at this point. This verse speaks of eating Jesus' flesh and drinking Jesus' blood. Obviously, to understand these words in some literalistic, cannibalistic way would be a serious distortion. But how should they be understood? The closest parallel language in the New Testament is found in the words of the institution of the Lord's Supper. "Take, eat, this is my body." "Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant." Verse 53 denies life for those who will not eat and drink. Verse 55 affirms that Jesus' flesh and blood is true or genuine food and drink. Verse 56 declares that the one who eats Jesus' flesh and who drinks his blood "abides" in him and he abides in that one.
Partaking of Jesus is the way to life. John here, and this is unusual for him, envisions that partaking of Jesus as being done through the Eucharist. The assimilation of Jesus into the life of the believer gives life. The feeding of the five thousand and the following discourse point out that the Eucharist is one of the ways of assimilating Jesus into one's life. This is not a magical view of the Eucharist. Verse 56 is climactic. Abiding in Christ in personal relationship is the bottom line. However, the Eucharist re-enacts for the Christian the Passover, the feeding of the five thousand, and our hope for participating in the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (the Messianic banquet). As such John wants believers to know that their life comes via the flesh and blood Jesus.
John 6:60-71 - The Response
These verses present the last material of Jesus' ministry in Galilee according to the Fourth Gospel. In a very condensed form they show an important shift in Jesus' ministry. After a period of public success the Messiah who would not be made king enters a time of declining popularity.
The amazing thing about these concluding verses is that they portray many disciples as rejecting these words of Jesus. Disciples "murmur" (the same word as used in verse 41) and refuse to believe. However, Peter is able to respond with a significant confession of faith. How does he do it? Verse 63 indicates that it is the Spirit who makes alive and enables disciples to respond to Jesus' words.
Our response to Jesus is a matter of life and death. There is considerable difficulty in following Christ. How can we make the right response? If so many who were among the five thousand fed failed to follow, how can we make the right response? It is by the Spirit who makes alive the words of Jesus so that He can become true food and true drink for us.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you begin each day pray that the Lord will speak to you through His Word and that the Holy Spirit will make the Word alive and meaningful to you.
First Day: Read the notes on John 6:26-71. Look up the Scripture references.
1. Identify one or two new ideas that seemed important to you.
2. Select a truth for which you see a personal application in your own life. Describe how it would apply to you.
3. Does Jesus provide the sustenance and nourishment of your life? Ask the Lord to help you make Jesus really the Bread of Life for you.
Second Day: Read John 7:1-36. Focus in on John 7:1-9.
1. Why did Jesus not want to return to Judea?
2. Why do you think Jesus' brothers wanted him to go to Judea?
3. Compare verse 6 with John 2:4; 5:25; 12:27; 17:1; and 2 Corinthians 6:2. What is the flow of thought in these verses? What can we conclude about our time?
Third Day: Read John 7:1-36. Now focus on John 7:10-15.
1. What was the attitude of the crowd concerning Jesus?
2. Why do you think the Jews were seeking Jesus at the Feast?
3. What is the effect of fear in this passage? How does fear impact the way you speak of Jesus? How would you like to speak of Jesus if fear were not a factor in your life?
Fourth Day: Read John 7:1-36. Focus in on John 7:16-24.
1. What condition does Jesus give for knowing whether or not his teaching is from God?
2. What is the logic Jesus is using in verse 23?
3. Compare verse 20 with Matthew 12:24-32. What is the danger of considering the works of Jesus as coming from Satan? Is there any application of this to our lives?
Fifth Day: Read John 7:1-36. Now focus in on John 7:25-30.
1. Why did the Jews conclude that Jesus was not the Messiah (Christ)?
2. In what sense could Jesus say in verse 28 that the crowd knew him and did not know God? Is the same problem sometimes true in your life?
3. Verse 30 is similar to Matthew 21:46. Read Matthew 21:42-46. What does it mean to call Jesus the chief corner stone? How would that understanding of Jesus apply to your life?
Sixth Day: Read John 7:1-36. Focus in on John 7:31-36.
1. What was the basis of belief for the "many" who believed according to verse 31?
2. How did the sarcastic question at the end of verse 35 become a prophecy? How has it been fulfilled?
3. Read Matthew 7:7 and John 7:34. What important truth does Isaiah 55:6 add to our understanding? This is a time when the Lord may be found. Describe how you are seeking him now.