John 6: I am the bread of life

Our Summer series is focussing on the ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus found in John’s gospel:

  1. I am the bread of Life John 6: 25-51
  2. I am the Light of the World 8:12-30
  3. I am the Gate 10:1-10
  4. I am the Good Shepherd 10:14-27
  5. I am the resurrection 11:17-18
  6. I am the Way 14:1-14
  7. I am the True Vine 15:1-8

In addition, John also has seven signs pointing to who Jesus is:

  1. Water into in wine  2:1-11
  2. Temple cleansing    2:14-17
  3. Healing the nobleman’s son 4:41-54
  4. Healing a lame man 5:1-15
  5. Feeding the multitude 6:1-15
  6. Healing a blind man 9
  7. Raising Lazarus 11:1-12:19

Now it is important to note these two points because John writes with a very clear purpose in mind: ‘Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’ John 20

These sayings of Jesus are not just nice sayings for us to take comfort in or use as slogans. They have a purpose and meaning which combined with the signs and the structure of the gospel are designed to lead us to the conclusion that Jesus is the Messiah. John’s gospel is a book of two halves. All the signs fall in the first half which ends in chapter 12 following the triumphal entry and Jesus very clearly identifying himself with God the Father. It is in this chapter that we get the statement, ‘Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.’ John 12:37. Faith cannot depend upon miracles. The second part of the gospel focusses on the length discourse of Jesus at the last supper and then his passion.

Now we read a long chunk of John 6 because it is one long narrative that belongs together and to understand the saying and the passage we need that bigger picture of what is going on and what is being said. In case you hadn’t noticed, it as a passage rooted in the Old Testament and rooted in the Passover, both of which combine to point to who Jesus is. It is also a significant chapter in that Jesus causes some of his disciples to give up following and go back home, because what he was saying was too difficult to take on board: ‘From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.’ John 6:66.

There is progression in this passage to which I hope to give some insight, in order to understand the saying, ‘I am the bread of life.’ I am going to use three headings: What can I get? See the sign. Focus.

What can I get?: The beginning of this chapter you know so well from the other gospels as well as John, and numerous enactments and re-tellings through your Sunday School and even school days. In verse 4 John makes what seems to be a throw away statement, but it sets the context for the whole chapter: the Jewish Passover Festival was near. Through the Passover God prepared the people for deliverance by instructing them about eating and preparation. In the desert God delivered the people by providing manna and quail. 

Here they are on the mountainside and the people need feeding – they need deliverance otherwise they won’t have strength to make it home –  so the disciples look to Jesus, and Jesus looks to them. What is the test that Jesus sets Phillip? I surmise it is the test of faith: will Phillip trust Jesus or not? Andrew sceptically brings the five loaves and two fish, with little hope that it will feed the crowd, but still they are looking to Jesus. They follow his instructions and the people are delivered for hunger on the mountainside. The disciples exercised faith in following Jesus’ instructions, but in the other gospels we read that they didn’t understand the significance of what took place. What is more, neither did the crowd; they were just looking to be fed.

When they track Jesus down the following day, he doesn’t give them a warm welcome, because he knows they have come looking for a free lunch: ‘you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.’ John 6:26. They haven’t understood the sign or made the extended connections with God providing in the wilderness. If Jesus can provide a free lunch, then let’s go to him. If not we’ll look elsewhere. Now this may sound harsh but is true. Jesus doesn’t leave them there though and takes them on a journey, challenging their understanding and pushing them ultimately to their stretching point. 

Of course, this is the problem churches hit with their social action projects. We serve to demonstrate the love of God and in doing so meet the physical needs of people. We demonstrate the compassion of Christ, because that is exactly what he did. He freely gave, but in everything he was also demonstrating who he was and from where he came. We also have an ultimate purpose: presenting Christ crucified and raised. We are not just a branch of social services. Jesus does point the crowd to the higher goal: 

Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.’ John 6:27. 

The work required? To believe in the one God has sent. And so Jesus leads the people on in their understanding.

See the sign: Those who have come looking for him are beginning to move with him. ‘Ok so you want us to believe in you. Give us a sign like Moses.’ Jesus must have wanted to say, ‘Hello!! What happened yesterday? Wasn’t that just like Moses in the wilderness?’ What he does is correct their understanding – it was God who provided in the wilderness, just as he had provided the previous day. It was a bit like the request of the Pharisees in Matthew 12:38 when they asked for a sign. Not long before they had seen the man with the withered arm healed. What this clearly tells us is that signs or miracles cannot be the foundation of faith or sustain faith. John tells us in 12:37 that 

Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.’ In John 2 after he had performed miracles it is recorded that, ‘ many people saw the signs he was performing and believed in his name. 24 But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.’ 

The signs did not stop people grumbling and complaining about God in the wilderness. Later in this chapter, the sign did not stop people grumbling and complaining about Jesus. The signs didn’t convince the Pharisees, and the signs didn’t stop the people calling for Jesus’ crucifixion. 

We have a new prime minister and all the signs are good for those who support Brexit – or see an opportunity for the Tory party to regain some credibility. However, the support is entirely dependent on what Boris can do for the supporters. If he doesn’t deliver what they want, his support will fade away and he will face opposition. If you don’t give us what we want we will go elsewhere. In the same way, the other parties are hoping to regain some credibility by trying to give their supporters what they want.

In the gospels Jesus definitely does not pander to what the people want. He is confident in who he is and from where he came. Why could he throw away all protocol and perform foot washing at the Passover? Because who knew from where he had come and to where he was returning. Our confidence is not in the miracles of Jesus, but in his crucifixion for the sins of the world and his  resurrection. Jesus pushes these people further in challenging their understanding.

Focus: The Sherlock Holmes stories are fun and easy to read. However, one of the things he didn’t say ever was, ‘Elementary my dear Watson.’ I think the phrase comes from a film. What he did say on more than one occasion was, ‘Watson, you see, but you do not observe.’ You can see what has happened, but you don’t take in all the clues that explain it. You don’t draw on your previous understanding to lead you forward. This is where the people Jesus was talking with were, and he sought to take them further.

Notice that once Jesus has corrected their account – God provided not Moses – he then takes the idea of bread further, saying the bread that comes from heaven gives life, and that he is that bread. It is this close identification with God the Father; the fact that he declares himself the source of this life giving bread and also that he identifies himself as the Son, that causes the people to grumble. Here also you have an echo of what happened in the wilderness as the people grumbled against God. The cause of their grumbling? How can the carpenter’s son be the bread of heaven? They knew the family. Jesus is abrupt in dealing with the grumbling: stop it and listen to what I have to say.

Now Jesus at this point says some difficult things. It is through faith in him that people will receive eternal life. Linked with this is the statement that those who believe in him have eternal life – that is in the here and now – but will also receive eternal life at the resurrection. Three times he links faith in him with receiving eternal life and being raised on the last day. On the final occasion in 6:54 he goes too far for some and they leave.

Eating and drinking has been the metaphor throughout and it is always linked with deliverance. It is the time of Passover when a meal directed by God enables the people to make the night time escape. The manna in the desert prevents the people from starving in the wilderness. Feeding the crowd on the mountain is another deliverance for people who would have had a long trek home. It is a meal that enables people to walk the path of deliverance. Jesus then says he is the bread from heaven, but more than that: he is the meal that will deliver to eternal life and resurrection on the last day. The very graphic language of eating and drinking flesh and blood is the stumbling block. They were not cannibals and the law expressly forbade the drinking of blood which is why animals had to be killed in a certain way. 

We may say it is obvious that Jesus is using metaphorical language, but the Christian church through the centuries has understood this in different ways, as you will know. However, for us as Baptist Christians, we understand this symbolically, because what is important is putting our faith in Jesus Christ. Physical food of whatever kind, does not bring forgiveness and salvation. This I think is indicated by John 6:63 in which Jesus says it is the Spirit who gives life. This also seems to be reinforced by Peter who declares, ‘You have the words of eternal life.’ 

The challenge of Jesus still comes to us. Are we only interested in what we can get and as soon as the feeling goes or the buzz fades we are looking for gratification elsewhere? Are we interested in the concept, intrigued by the signs and happy to discuss, like the Athenians with Paul concerning the resurrection? Or do we put our faith in the one who is the bread of life, giving forgiveness and new birth through the Spirit, and willing to commit our lives to following him? Are we open to receive the gift – to see the signs observe and understand? Our response will determine whether or not Jesus raises us on the last day.