16. The Bread of Life (John 6:22-71)
I know what its like to get excited about “free bread.” A few years ago, my brother Dan was visiting us over the Christmas holidays. On Christmas eve, we went to a nearby Safeway grocery store to purchase a few last-minute items, knowing all the stores would be closed on Christmas day. When we got to the checkout counter, I thought I overheard the clerk tell someone there was free bread. Did my ears ever perk up! When I inquired, the clerk said that since the store would be closed the next day, all the bread on the shelves was free.
You should have seen what happened from this point on. Some folks were too proud to go back for free bread; others made their way back to the bread and discretely picked through the loaves, taking one or two of their favorite varieties. Then there was me. I should begin by telling you we had come in our van—a large van. Signaling Dan to gather up some shopping carts, I proceeded to clear the shelves, raking the loaves into the carts, and with Dan’s help, wheeling multiple cart loads out to the van. Now some of you would not have wanted to be anywhere near me as I “gleaned” in the “field” of that Safeway store. I must tell you, though, that some of you in the audience ate that bread. Dan and I loaded the van, then I proceeded to call everyone I knew in our church who could use some free bread, and we had a number of takers.
This lets you know that when it comes to being enthusiastic about free bread, I am right there at the top of the list. I can identify with the people in our text who are privileged to be in the wilderness across the Sea of Galilee from Capernaum, in the wilderness where Jesus fed the 20,000 people who gathered (5,000 of whom were men). When Jesus fed this crowd, they were ready to make Him their king—by force if necessary. Jesus sent His disciples away, dismissed the crowd, and went off by Himself to pray. Later in the night, He set out for Capernaum, walking on the sea. Out on the sea, He came upon His disciples, and they were terrified, taking Him for a ghost. Our Lord identified Himself and got into the boat; immediately they reached shore.
In the morning, the crowd whom Jesus fed begin to search for Him. It takes them a while to realize that He is no longer nearby. They then set out for Capernaum in search for Him, and not long afterward, Jesus is spotted. A crowd gathers about Him once more, if not to hear Him teach, to have Him perform some miracle of healing—or to witness a healing. In our text, the folks who witnessed the feeding of the 5,000 find Jesus and challenge Him to be their “bread-winner” forever by providing them with bread, “like Moses did.” Jesus declines to grant this request. Instead, He offers them better “bread,” and He makes it clear to them in doing so that He is better than Moses.
Jesus is certainly better than Moses, but He is also one “like” Moses. Moses led the people through the midst of the Red Sea; Jesus just crossed over to Capernaum by walking on the Sea of Galilee. After the Israelites crossed through the Red Sea, God provided them with manna to eat. Jesus just fed the 5,000 in the wilderness “across the sea.” Even better, He offers men a “bread” that gives eternal life. It wasn’t long after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea that they began to grumble against Moses, and in our text, it isn’t long before the Jews begin to grumble against Jesus, especially His teaching. In chapter 5, our Lord was rejected by the Jewish religious leaders for healing a man on the Sabbath, for commanding the man to carry his bed on the Sabbath, and especially for claiming to be equal with God. Now, these Jerusalem Jewish leaders are more committed than ever to put Jesus to death. In chapter 6, our Lord will be rejected by many of the Galileans who once followed Him as His disciples. The reason will be our Lord’s teaching on the “bread of life” in chapter 6.
This sixth chapter of John is a watershed, a major turning point in the Gospel of John. From this point on, Jesus is not nearly as popular as He once was. His enemies are determined to do away with Him. From a historical point of view, it is only a matter of time until our Lord’s arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Our text plays a pivotal role in all of this, so let us listen well to the words of this Scripture.
Catching Up With Jesus
22 The next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the lake realized that only one small boat had been there, and that Jesus had not boarded it with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. 23 But some boats from Tiberias came to shore near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 So when the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus.
It is hard to overestimate the excitement and eagerness of the people regarding our Lord and the kingdom of God at this moment in time, especially among those who have just witnessed the feeding of the 5,000. Jesus has been publicly ministering for approximately two years. His disciples have just returned from going about the land performing miracles in Jesus’ name and proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom of God. Many have seen Jesus perform miracles and heard Him preach. Many more have heard about Him. John has told us that the miracle of this feeding takes place near the time of the Passover (6:4). Messianic expectations are running high, and the ministry of our Lord only serves to fan the flames of enthusiasm.
The morning after the miracle of the feast in the wilderness, the crowds surely awaken with a great sense of expectation. Jesus has gone further up the mountain by Himself, but there seems to be no way for Him to return to Capernaum without passing by them. He surely will not walk around the Sea of Galilee the long way, and He can’t go in the boat as the disciples took it the night before, at the Lord’s command. Jesus is going to have to walk around the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and thus pass by the people on His way—or so they suppose. After some time passes, it becomes apparent that Jesus is nowhere to be found. Then, some people arrive in boats from Tiberias on the other side of the Sea, south of Capernaum, and they are looking for Jesus as well. The crowd finally realizes that Jesus has left, even though they do not know how He managed to do so. (They, of course, have no idea that He walked across the Sea of Galilee, rejoining His disciples.) As many as possible squeeze into the boats and return to Capernaum in the hope of finding Jesus.
25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” 26 Jesus replied, “I tell you the solemn truth, you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate all the loaves of bread you wanted. 27 Do not work35 for the food that disappears, but for the food that remains to eternal life—the food that the Son of Man will give to you. For God the Father has put his seal of approval on him.”
Those who have been searching for Jesus find Him on the other side of the lake and are obviously amazed to learn that He somehow eluded them and reached Capernaum before they arrived. They must wonder how He accomplished this, for they inquire, “Rabbi,36 when did you get here?” It is a way of satisfying their curiosity without really asking Jesus “how” He did it. The question seems awkward, and perhaps it is. If they are mystified about how Jesus got to Capernaum without passing by them, it may be difficult for them to articulate their thoughts. The possible answers to their question may seem unthinkable.
I have titled this section of our text, “Politically Incorrect,” for good reason, I believe. If Jesus had done the “politically correct” thing, He would have called the people’s attention to the miracles He had just performed, especially the “unknown” miracle of His walking on the sea. In today’s terminology, it would have been great PR (public relations) material. I can imagine what some people would make of this: “Well, it’s interesting that you ask. As you know, no boat was available, so I found it necessary to use My supernatural powers to walk on the Sea of Galilee, thus reaching the other shore ahead of you. This is just one more proof of My power to serve you as your Messiah.”
Jesus never even mentions this miracle. It is not for them to know, but only for our Lord’s disciples and those who read John’s Gospel. If the people of that region knew what Jesus had done, they would have been even more eager to make Him their king, even if by force. Jesus sees through their question and, beginning in verse 26, He does that which is politically incorrect: He exposes their motives and rebukes them for their sin. The reason the crowds are hovering around Jesus is that these folks are hoping He will provide them with free bread forever. The “messiah” they want is only a “meal ticket.”
Earlier in John chapter 2 (verses 23-25), we saw that those with only “sign-faith” were those our Lord kept at arms reach; He did not commit Himself to them. If our Lord avoided “sign-faith” believers, then you can well imagine how Jesus feels about these people who are looking for a “free meal messiah.” Though they witnessed the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, these folks did not grasp its meaning, nor did they come to faith in Jesus as God’s Messiah. They have been given a free meal, and they want more of the same.
We need to read verse 27 very carefully lest we misunderstand our Lord here (as His audience does). The verb “to work” is found but once in this verse. In the Greek text, the verb is an imperative in the present tense, and it is negated. The negation conveys the thought that men should not work—more precisely, that men should stop working.37 We almost automatically read the verse this way: “Stop working for the food that disappears, but work for the food that remains to eternal life.” The words “work for” are not in the original text, however. I do not believe we are to read them into the text as we do. Jesus is not suggesting that men cease working for earthly bread, but work hard for heavenly bread. He is saying that the “bread” which He offers is “bread” which He gives. It is not bread for which men work. Thus, the sense of His words would be something closer to: “Stop working for the food that disappears, and seek instead the bread which remains to eternal life, the bread which I give.”
Our Lord now makes a very bold statement, which accompanies His offer of “bread from heaven.” On Jesus, the Father has put His seal. My Microsoft software, which I am running on the computer I am using to write this message, has a very carefully made “seal” on the box. Under this Microsoft seal, these words are printed: “These stickers indicate that this product is genuine Microsoft software …” This seal is proof that I have purchased genuine Microsoft software. There is no higher “seal” than that which the Son of God has from God the Father.
The question, of course, is just what constitutes this “seal” of the Father. Further, we need to know just what the “seal” authenticates as genuine. I have studied both Greek and Hebrew (actually, I majored in Hebrew), but I do not profess to be a scholar in either Greek or Hebrew. As a result, I am reluctant to translate or retranslate the text. I am going to make an exception here, however, because the order of the words in the Greek text seems to suggest the answer to one of our questions. Literally rendered, the text would read something like this: “For this One the Father has sealed, the God.” Nearly all take this to mean that God, the Father, has sealed the Son. Of course this is true. But our Lord may be saying that the Father has sealed Him as God. In other words, Jesus has been performing miracles—doing the work of His Father. The Father “set His seal” on the Son at His baptism. The Father “set His seal” on the Son through His Word, through the Old Testament Scriptures, which spoke of the coming Messiah. All of this has been emphasized in chapter 5 of John’s Gospel. The “seal” is the testimony of God to the Son. The “seal” authenticates the Son’s claim, not only to be the promised Messiah, but also to be the Son of God.
Here is another “politically incorrect” statement. This claim of our Lord is the claim He made in chapter 5, the same claim which got Him into trouble with the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem. One would think the “politically correct” thing to do would be to drop this claim, or at least to cease emphasizing it. Jesus does just the opposite. Once again He boldly makes this claim as a part of His gospel. If men will believe on Him for eternal life, if they will receive the “bread” He offers them, they must receive Him as “bread from God.” The deity of our Lord Jesus Christ (Jesus is God) is not an incidental claim, a secondary issue; the deity of our Lord is essential to the gospel. Men who would receive the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ must receive it from Him as God. Someone might conceivably come to faith in Jesus without fully grasping this truth, but as I read the Scriptures, no one will receive eternal life from Jesus who rejects His deity. This is why Jesus makes such a point of this truth. This is also one of the things which offends men about our Lord’s gospel.
Doing and Believing
28 So then they said to him, “What must we do to accomplish the deeds God requires?” 29 Jesus replied, “This is [God’s work:38 so that you]39 believe in the one whom he sent.” 30 So they said to him, “Then what miraculous sign will you perform, so that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the desert, just as it is written, ‘He40 gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
Jesus does not rebuke His audience for seeking “free bread,” but rather for working for bread that does not last. Jesus is offering to give them free bread forever, but it is a very different kind of “bread.” As usual in the Gospel of John, our Lord’s words are not understood correctly. They think that Jesus is encouraging them to accomplish some work that will please God, and thus they can earn eternal life. So they ask, “What must we do to accomplish the deeds God requires?” Their question is a reflection of their distorted interpretation and application of the Old Testament law. They think the law spells out what God requires of them, so that through law-keeping they can earn His favor. They are wrong. Paul sums up what the role of the law really is, and how men must be saved:
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God, which is attested by the law and the prophets, has been disclosed—22 namely, the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. 24 But they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. 25 God publicly displayed him as a satisfaction for sin by his blood through faith. This was to demonstrate his righteousness, because God in his forbearance had passed over the sins previously committed. 26 This was also to demonstrate his righteousness in the present time, so that he would be just and the justifier of the one who lives because of Jesus’ faithfulness (Romans 3:19-26).
Our Lord’s words indicate that salvation is God’s work, not man’s. Salvation is accomplished through the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Men are not saved by striving, but simply by believing in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life. The Jews once again take these words the wrong way. They reason something like this: “Jesus claims that men must believe in Him in order to be saved. If we are to believe in Him, then He must prove Himself to us, showing us that He is worthy of our trust. He must perform some very impressive miracle if He is going to get us to believe in Him.” And so they attempt to turn the tables on Jesus, challenging Him to do something worthy of their faith. They even dare to hold Moses up as the standard, drawing attention to what they wrongly believe he accomplished, which “deed” Jesus must exceed if He is to earn their trust:
30 So they said to him, “Then what miraculous sign will you perform, so that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the desert, just as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’” (John 6:30-31).
This is truly amazing. They seem to ask for one great work, one magnificent miracle. They then seek to remind Jesus of what Moses did (or at least what they thought he did). They claim that Moses gave their ancestors bread from heaven to eat. Jesus is expected to meet or exceed this standard. They are requiring that for them to believe in Jesus as their Messiah, Jesus must provide bread from heaven, as Moses did. This manna was provided for the Israelites for 40 years. It seems that this is at least how long Jesus is expected to provide bread for them.
32 Then Jesus told them, “I tell you the solemn truth,41 it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but my Father is giving you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
Our Lord’s words must be carefully considered, because they set forth a number of corrections to the view put forth by the Jews. First, the words which Jesus is about to speak are of the utmost importance. They are introduced by the words, “I tell you the solemn truth” (“Verily, verily,” KJV). Second, it was not Moses who gave the Israelites bread in the wilderness; it was God. This is the clear teaching of the Scriptures which speak of the feeding of the Israelites in the wilderness:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you. And the people shall go out and gather a certain quota every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in My law or not (Exodus 16:4, NKJV).
“You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger, And brought them water out of the rock for their thirst, And told them to go in to possess the land Which You had sworn to give them” (Nehemiah 9:15, NKJV).
23 Yet He had commanded the clouds above, And opened the doors of heaven, 24 Had rained down manna on them to eat, And given them of the bread of heaven (Psalm 78:23-24, NKJV).
The people asked, and He brought quail, And satisfied them with the bread of heaven (Psalm 105:40, NKJV).
Third, the “bread” which God gave (past tense) Israel in the past is not the “true bread” which God is now giving (present tense) men from heaven. The Father who gave “bread” to their forefathers in the wilderness is still giving “bread,” but it is “true bread.” It is true bread in that it is the “ultimate and final fulfillment of earlier prototypes.”42
Fourth, Jesus is not just the “giver” of bread, He is that bread. The “bread” of which our Lord is speaking is from heaven. The bread is a Person. Jesus is that bread:
“For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (verse 33).
Jesus Defines “Bread” and Explains Jewish Unbelief
34 So they said to him, “Sir, give us this bread all the time!” 35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. The one who comes to me will never go hungry, and the one who believes in me will never be thirsty. 36 But I told you that you have seen me and still do not believe. 37 Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never send away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me. 39 Now this is the will of the one who sent me: that I should not lose one person of every one he has given me, but raise them all up at the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father: that every one who looks on the Son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Our Lord’s audience does not understand what He is saying at all. They still think Jesus is offering them some kind of literal bread, which they can eat and fill their stomachs, just as they ate the barley loaves at the feeding of the 5,000. So when Jesus speaks to them about “bread,” they quickly ask for more: “Sir, give us this bread all the time!” They offer Jesus a full-time job as their chef.
In His response, Jesus makes it very clear that He is speaking of “spiritual bread,” not literal bread. It is He who is the “bread,” so whoever comes to Him will never hunger. In verse 35, Jesus speaks of the one who “comes to Him” as the one who “believes in Him.” To come to Jesus is to trust in Him, by faith, as the “bread from heaven,” who is God’s only provision for eternal life.
In verse 36, our Lord goes back to the challenge given Him in verse 30:
So they said to him, “Then what miraculous sign will you perform, so that we may see it and believe you? What will you do?”
If these folks are to believe in Jesus (as He has said they must in verse 29), then they must have proof, and He must provide it. They expect Jesus to perform some miracle to prove that He is worthy of their faith. The fact is that Jesus has already performed many miracles, and yet they have not believed in Him. So now Jesus takes up the matter of their unbelief.
He has already told them all they need to know, and they have seen Him at work, performing many miracles—miracles such as the feeding of the 5,000. None of this brings them to faith, however. They persist in their unbelief. The reason for this is not popular, but it is true:
37 Everyone whom the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never send away. 38 For I have come down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me. 39 Now this is the will of the one who sent me: that I should not lose one person of every one he has given me, but raise them all up at the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father: that every one who looks on the Son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Those who “come to Him” (see verse 35) are those whom the Father has given to the Son (verse 37). Everyone the Father gives to the Son comes to Him in faith. And everyone who comes to the Son in faith will be accepted—none will ever be sent away (verse 37). The reason we may be so confident about this is because of the Son’s relationship to the Father. The Son will not act independently of the Father, but only in submission to the Father. If the Father gives someone to the Son as a believer, the Son will receive this individual, because the Father has given them to Him. Think of it, our eternal destiny is contingent upon the Son’s submission to the Father. No wonder Satan sought to tempt our Lord to act independently of the Father! The Son’s will is to do the Father’s will, and so those whom the Father gives, the Son gladly receives, because the Father gives them to Him. And those the Father gives, He gives for keeps, and the Son does keep them. He turns none away who come to Him, and He loses none of those He receives. This must also mean that none who comes to our Lord in faith can be “lost” by death. The basis for this resurrection hope is that our Lord has the authority and the power to “raise them up at the last day” (verses 39, 40).
Grumbling Against Jesus
41 Then the Jews who were hostile to Jesus began complaining about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven,” 42 and they started saying, “Isn’t this Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven?” 43 Jesus replied, “Do not complain about me to one another. 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who hears and learns from the Father comes to me. 46 (Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God—he has seen the Father.) 47 I tell you the solemn truth, the one who believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, and they died. 50 This is the bread that has come down from heaven, so that a person may eat from it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats from this bread he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
By this time, there are many differing opinions about Jesus. The Jewish religious leaders have long since made up their minds that Jesus will not be the Messiah—not if they have anything to do with it! They have, in fact, already determined to put Him to death (see 5:18). Some would have Jesus as their king, even if by force (see 6:15). A number are still undecided about Jesus, but some sincerely believe in Him as the Messiah. Included in this number are the 11 disciples and a number of others (see 1:12, 49; 2:11, 23). Some of the people seem to embrace the view of their religious leaders, rejecting Jesus as an impostor, or at least not their kind of Messiah. Starting at verse 41, it is this latter group that reacts to Jesus’ teaching on the “bread of life” and begins to grumble.43
The word “complain” or “grumble” implies complaining against Jesus behind His back. Angered by His claim to be “the bread that came down from heaven,” they begin mumbling among themselves and to those in the crowd against Jesus. Notice that their words are not addressed to Jesus, but to others about Jesus: “Isn’t this Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven?’” Notice the “now” of verse 41. It underscores the alleged inconsistency those who oppose Jesus are claiming. They are saying, in effect, “We know who Jesus is and where He came from. We know about His birth as a mere man. How can he now, at this point in his life, claim to be divine?”
It isn’t really such a bad question when you stop to think about it. If Jesus was born of earthly parents alone, then His claim to have come from heaven is absurd. But these people don’t really have their facts down as well as they think. In one sense, Mary and Joseph were the earthly parents of our Lord. Mary was His biological mother, while Joseph was not His biological father. He did play the role of father in our Lord’s growing up years, and Jesus submitted to both His father and His mother (see Luke 2:51). Had these folks given careful heed to the Old Testament Scriptures, they would have known that the promised Messiah was to be both human and divine, God and man (see Deuteronomy 18:15; Isaiah 9:6). He was to be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14). He was to be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). And so these Jews who think they know our Lord’s origins so well are wrong in their facts. The Old Testament Scriptures indicate that our Lord would come to earth as He did, and the events of our Lord’s birth perfectly fulfilled the Scriptures. But these folks are determined not to believe in Jesus as God’s Messiah, as God’s provision of “bread from heaven.”
The asking of the question is not wrong, in and of itself. We should not hesitate to probe the claims of Jesus Christ and to expect a reasonable answer. This question is wrong because of the facts it assumes, and because it totally disregards other crucial facts. In the context of John’s Gospel, there are many witnesses to the truth of our Lord’s claim to have come down from heaven. Look at John’s statements in chapter 1. Look at the miracles our Lord performs in chapter 2 and elsewhere (5:36). There was the witness of John the Baptist and of the Father at our Lord’s baptism. Our Lord did not testify alone to His divine and heavenly origins; there were many witnesses. But His opponents closed their eyes to these witnesses. Theirs was a willful unbelief.
Our Lord responds to this complaint, but not in a way His adversaries expect, and certainly not in a way they wish. Jesus tells them to stop mumbling to one another. Do they not believe Him? This is no blow to His pride, nor is it a shock. Jesus expects this. They do not believe because they cannot believe. Jesus explains that it is impossible for anyone to believe in Him unless the Father who sent Him draws them, and these He (Jesus) will raise up in the last day (verse 44). God must draw men to faith in the Son, the same God who sent the Son.
Do these folks find it impossible to believe in Jesus? Jesus is not taken aback by their unbelief. Jesus does not strive to convince them that He is who He claims to be. He simply tells them that they are not among those whom the Father has given Him. Do you notice that the issues here in our text are very much the same issues that we find in chapter 5, when Jesus is in Jerusalem, rejected and opposed by the Jewish religious leaders? If He is who He claims to be, then He is from heaven, and He can raise men from the dead.
Here is something few people would recommend to those who desire to witness to others about Jesus as the Messiah, the Savior of the world—telling the lost that they cannot and will not be saved unless the Father draws them, unless they are chosen of God. Yet this is what our Lord chooses to emphasize in His response to the unbelief and opposition of His adversaries. But there is more. If verse 44 emphasizes the negative side of the story of election,44 verses 45-51 boldly declare the positive side of election.
Jesus turns to Scripture to make His point, citing Isaiah 54:13. In this prophecy, God is speaking to the Jewish people about their future hope in Messiah and His coming kingdom. Many wonderful things are promised in relation to the coming of the kingdom of God. Among these promised blessings is the assurance that “all of Israel’s ‘sons’ will be taught of God” (verse 13). Jesus applies this verse in a very different way than we might expect. If “all of Israel’s sons will be taught of God,” then those who are untaught—those who refuse to accept the teaching of Messiah—must not enter into the kingdom of God. These “grumblers” against our Lord do not receive His teaching, and thus show that they have no part of this kingdom. They are not those of His kingdom because God the Father (who sent the Son) has not chosen or drawn them.
The only One who has seen the Father, the only One who has “learned” directly from Him, is the Son (see John 1:18; 3:32-33; 5:20-21, 37-38). To be “taught of God” is to be taught by God through Jesus Christ, the Messiah. He alone has seen and heard the Father, and explains His Word and His will to men. Do these “grumblers” not accept Jesus and His teaching? This tells us more about them than it does about our Lord.
The one who hears our Lord’s teaching and trusts in Him as the “bread from heaven” is the one who gains eternal life, who gains entrance into the blessed kingdom of God, as promised by the prophets (and specifically Isaiah, whom Jesus has just cited). Jesus is the “bread from heaven,” and thus is the “bread of life,” the “bread” who gives men eternal life. This “bread” is vastly superior to the “bread” which their ancestors ate in the wilderness. Though they ate manna for many years, they eventually died. The “bread” which God provides in Jesus is a bread which results in eternal life. This is true bread, the real thing.
Now Jesus gets to the really hard part of His teaching. He is not talking about physical bread, about manna or even the barley loaves He provided in the wilderness for the multitude. He is talking about something “spiritual,” something from heaven which results in spiritual life. Those who are chosen and drawn by the Father will “come to” Jesus in faith (verse 37). They will believe in Him (verse 35). But what is the nature of this spiritual “bread,” and how does one partake of it? This is the focus of the next verses, and our Lord’s teaching on this matter produces a very different “exodus.”
Jesus gets to the bottom line of how men must respond to Him in verse 51: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats from this bread he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Jesus does provide the “bread of life,” but He is this “bread.” Those who “eat” of this bread will live forever. The bread that men must “eat” in order to have eternal life is the “flesh” of our Lord.
All along in the Gospel of John, Jesus has been speaking to men in spiritual terms, and men have been understanding Him in merely literal terms. For example, Jesus spoke to the Jerusalem Jewish leaders about “destroying this temple” in chapter 2, and they took Him to be referring to the literal temple, while He was referring to the “temple” of His body (2:19-22). In chapter 3, Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about being “born again,” and once again He was taken literally. Jesus spoke to the “woman at the well” about “living water,” and she thought it was something to drink (John 4:10-15). In our text, Jesus speaks about “eating” His “flesh,” which is the “bread of life,” and at least some of His audience takes His words in a most literal way, and they are repulsed.
The Real Mission of Jesus
52 Then the Jews who were hostile to Jesus began to argue with one another, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat!” 53 Jesus said to them, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves. 54 The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood resides in me, and I in him. 57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so the one who consumes me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like your ancestors ate and died. The one who eats this bread will live forever.”
Many of us have had countless offers to obtain a “free gift” of one kind or another, only to learn that there is a catch. In almost every instance, what is supposedly “free” is not free at all. The Jews are very interested in “free” bread, and Jesus offers it to them. In fact, this “free bread” is even more “free” than His audience supposes. They think it is bread they have to work for, but Jesus makes a point of telling them it cannot be obtained by man’s good works, but only freely, as a gift of God’s sovereign grace.
Up to this point in time, no one has really grasped just how our Lord had purposed to save men from their sins. Even the disciples will not understand this until after our Lord’s sacrificial death and victorious resurrection. It is about this point in time, however, when our Lord begins to tell men how He is going to save them. In the Synoptic Gospels, it is shortly after the “great confession” of Peter that Jesus begins to inform His disciples about His coming death in Jerusalem (see Matthew 16:13-28; Mark 8:27-38; Luke 9:18-27). It would appear from a comparison of the Gospels that the great confession took place shortly after the feeding of the 5,000.45 So it is that we find—for the first time in the Gospel of John46—our Lord’s revelation that He will give men eternal life by His substitutionary death on the cross for the sins of men.
At least some of the Jews who hear Him advance from “grumbling” to “arguing”47 (verse 52). It seems as though the words of our Lord have divided the audience. They are not said to be arguing with Jesus, but with one another. Some appear to accept our Lord’s words; others will have nothing to do with this line of teaching. And so those in the crowd begin arguing with one another. Those who oppose Jesus and His teaching interpret His words in a crassly literal way: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat!”
Once again, in verses 53-58, Jesus responds to what is being thought and spoken by those in the crowd. He is not really trying to convince His adversaries, but simply attempting to clarify His meaning, knowing that the more clear His teaching becomes, the more offended many will be. He does not at all back down from what He has said, but affirms it in the strongest possible language:48 “I tell you the solemn truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves” (verse 53). Jesus does not offer an alternative method for obtaining eternal life. Only those who “eat His flesh” and “drink His blood” will have this everlasting life. This “eternal life” extends beyond death and the grave! The one who eats and drinks of Him will have eternal life, and in the last day Jesus will raise this one up from the dead. The flesh of our Lord is “true” food, and His blood is “true” drink (verse 55). It is that which “truly” sustains life, beyond death, to eternal life. The one who eats His flesh and drinks His blood abides (NET Bible, “resides”) in Christ, and He in them (verse 56).
Jesus links this claim to be “true” food and “true” drink to His previous claims to be God and to have come down to the earth, sent by the Father from above (verses 57-58). Just as the Father sent the Son from heaven and the Son lives out the life of the Father, so the one who “eats” and “drinks” the Son lives because of the Son. The Father’s life extends to and through the Son to those who will partake of the Son’s flesh and blood. This is that “bread from heaven” of which Jesus has been speaking. Eating this bread gives eternal life to whoever eats it.
Another “Exodus”: A Parting of Jesus’ Disciples
Why the Jews Could Not Stomach the Bread of Heaven
59 Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. 60 Then many of his disciples, when they heard these things, said, “This is a difficult saying! Who can understand it?”49 61 Because Jesus was aware that his disciples were complaining about this, he said to them, “Does this cause you to be offended? 62 Then what if you see the Son of Man ascending where he was before? 63 The Spirit is the one who gives life; human nature is of no help! The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus had already known from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 So Jesus added, “Because of this I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has allowed him to come.” 66 After this many of his disciples quit following him and did not accompany him any longer. 67 So Jesus said to the twelve, “You don’t want to go away too, do you?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom will we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69 We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God!” 70 Jesus replied, “Didn’t I choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is the devil?” 71 (Now he said this about Judas son of Simon Iscariot; for Judas, one of the twelve, was going to betray him.)
Things have “progressed” from grumbling—to arguing—to downright rejection of our Lord’s teaching. Jesus has been saying all these things while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Many “followed” Jesus as “disciples” who did not really believe in Him, not in the way He is now defining His mission and ministry as Israel’s Messiah. They “followed” Jesus out into the wilderness, where He taught them and fed them, but they are not willing to “follow” Him where He is going with His teaching. They are not willing to “follow” Him to the cross of Calvary. They claim His teaching is too difficult, too obscure, but this is not really true. They are more than willing to follow Jesus when His message was not clear to them. They cease to follow Him as His message becomes more and more clear. They do not like what they are hearing, and they want to hear no more of it.
Once again, Jesus knows what they are thinking and saying, and thus He responds in verses 61-65. Do His words offend them, causing them to stumble and fall away? If they are offended by His insistence that He has come down from heaven, what will they do if they see Him ascending back into heaven? It is one thing to claim to have come down from heaven, and quite another to be seen returning to the place from which Jesus claims to have come.
But moving beyond the literal aspects of His teaching, Jesus gets to the heart of the problem—His audience simply cannot grasp the spiritual meaning of His words. In some ways our Lord’s conversation here with the crowds is similar to His conversation with Nicodemus recorded in chapter 3. Nicodemus wondered how a man could be reborn from above. This crowd wonders how one can obtain eternal life through eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking His blood. In both cases, Jesus refers to the spiritual dimensions of His message, and specifically to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ words are “spirit and life.” Without the Spirit, His words do not “come to life,” and they do not produce eternal life. The Holy Spirit gives eternal life, quickening those who are dead in their trespasses and sins. Those who cannot grasp His words are devoid of the Spirit, and thus Jesus’ words are beyond human comprehension, and certainly beyond acceptance. Included with the unbelieving among our Lord’s disciples is one of the twelve, Judas Iscariot. Jesus does not name him here, though all of us now know immediately to whom He is referring. Unbelief does not shock Jesus, because He knows that no one can “naturally” believe, on their own; they must be called and drawn by the Father through the quickening (life-giving) ministry of the Holy Spirit. Even one so close to Jesus as Judas can see and hear all that he does without truly coming to faith in Jesus as the Messiah.
This is the breaking point for many. This is teaching that many can not and will not understand, nor are they willing to follow Jesus any longer. Many so-called “disciples” prove only to be “followers” for a time. Having heard these words of Jesus, they leave Him, never again to follow Him as His disciples. I am reminded of the parable of the soils, in which Jesus describes the seed which falls on rocky ground:
5 Other seed fell on rocky ground where it did not have much soil. It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep. 6 When the sun came up it was scorched, and because it did not have a root, it withered … 16 And these are the ones sown on the rocky ground: whenever they hear the word, they receive it at once with joy. 17 But they have no root in themselves and are temporary. Then, when trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they fall away50 immediately (Mark 4:5-6, 16-17).
In the parable of the soils, the seed sown on rocky ground represents those who too quickly embrace Jesus and His teaching, without fully grasping what it means. They are offended by the suffering and affliction that comes into their life as a result of following Christ, and thus just as quickly, they fall away. In the case of the “disciples” in our text who leave Jesus, it is the suffering of Jesus which causes many to cease following Jesus. One cannot help but wonder, however, if it isn’t fairly obvious to these folks that if their Master must suffer and die, they may also experience the same rejection and persecution, if not death. The teaching of Jesus is not what these “disciples” want to hear, and so they abandon the Master, who is God’s Messiah.
Jesus then turns to His closest disciples and poses the question, “You don’t want to go away too, do you?”51 Predictably, it is Simon Peter who speaks for the twelve. Notice his answer to Jesus’ question. He does not seem to fully grasp what Jesus has been saying, either. We know from Peter’s great confession in the Synoptic Gospels that when Jesus introduces the subject of His rejection and crucifixion, Peter strongly objects:
17 And Jesus answered him, “You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father in heaven! 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on the earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.” 20 Then he instructed his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ. 21 From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid, Lord! This must not happen to you.” 23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me, because you are not thinking the thoughts of God, but of men” (Matthew 16:17-23).
Neither Peter nor any of the other disciples close to our Lord understand what Jesus is talking about at this moment in time. They will understand, but not until after the Lord’s death, burial, resurrection and ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit (see 16:12-13). But even if they do not understand the teaching of our Lord at this moment, they know no one else has the answers, and that He does. They believe that He is the Son of God, God’s Messiah. They believe that only through Him can they obtain eternal life. They know they have no one else to turn to but Jesus. They are going nowhere.
It is a wonderful profession of faith that Peter makes. He speaks for all of the twelve, save one—Judas Iscariot, who is to betray Him. This too is known to the Savior, and so He indicates this to His disciples. Though He has chosen all twelve of them, one of these twelve is “a devil.” Like much of what Jesus has been saying at this time, the disciples do not really understand Him. We know He is speaking of Judas, and they will know it in good time. But Jesus tells them ahead of time so that they will understand that He is not a victim in His death, but a Victor, a volunteer who chooses to submit to His Father’s will, and to die on the cross of Calvary in the sinner’s place.
In the unfolding drama of John’s Gospel, John chapter 6 is a watershed. Jesus has not only been rejected by the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem (chapter 5), He has now been rejected by the masses in Galilee, those who a few hours before would have made Him king by force. Is this not a preview of what will take place just a year later, when our Lord triumphantly marches into Jerusalem and is hailed as the King? Will it not be but a few hours before the crowds are calling for the death of Jesus? And will this rejection and death not be the very thing Jesus has foretold in our text?
Our text is much more than mere history, a skillfully written account of what happened in the life and ministry of our Lord. It is recorded to instruct us, and there is much for us to learn here. Let me conclude this message by pointing out some of the lessons it has to teach us.
This text exposes some of the wrong reasons people turn to God, and why they reject the gospel when they finally understand it. Consider some of the reasons why people seek God, which are not biblical. First, many people seek God to “meet their needs.” These “needs” are almost always physical or material, rather than spiritual, and they are the “needs” we define for God—which we expect Him to meet. We want physical health, success in our endeavors, and food on the table. We look to God to provide these for us, not as secondary desires, but as primary demands. When God fails to meet our demands, when life doesn’t go as we wish, we find God to blame. How many of us, as Christians, find God’s “meeting our needs” as the dominant theme of our prayer life? Unfortunately, in the presentation of the gospel, some people present God as the great “need-meeter,” rather than as the sovereign God, who seeks those who will serve Him and submit to His will, the God who came to seek and to save the lost. Our greatest need is the forgiveness of our sins, not more varieties of bread on the table.
Second, some people turn to God for salvation, but they seek a salvation to which they can contribute, a salvation which they control (see 6:36-37, 44). We all think we want something free, but we balk at a salvation that is completely free. In our pride and self-will, we seek for God to save us our way, and with our help. We don’t want “charity,” yet charity is the only thing that will save us. Everything we touch is defiled, even our efforts to please God (more accurately, especially our efforts to please God). Salvation is God’s work.
Seeing is not necessarily believing. Those who saw and heard our Lord could ask for no more proof that He was the Messiah. But for all they observed, they did not believe. Only the sovereignty of God in salvation explains their persistent unbelief and rejection of our Lord. Only the sovereignty of God in salvation explains the conversion of a lost sinner. And the sovereignty of God in salvation is the basis for our security. The fact that it is all of God is the reason we can be saved, and it is also the reason our salvation is so secure. He who began the good work of our salvation is also the One who will complete it (Philippians 1:6). This does not mean that we have no choice to make, or that we are not held responsible for that choice. It simply means that salvation is of the Lord; it is His work. Those whom He chooses and draws come to Him. Should this make us apathetic and passive in seeking to win others to Christ? Not at all. It should motivate us, both to pray to Him who saves and to share the good news of the gospel with those who are lost.
Third, some seek to abuse our text by claiming that it is the basis for obtaining salvation through the sacrament of holy communion. A friend of mine reminded me that this text is the primary text for those who teach that salvation comes through the sacraments, particularly that of holy communion. Unbelievers through the centuries (particularly the Jews, so far as the Bible is concerned) have sought salvation through rituals, rather than through the righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. In John chapter 6 Jesus is not teaching us that we can be saved by our ritualistic partaking of communion, for this is but a symbol of our “partaking” of Christ by faith in His death, burial, and resurrection in our place.
Fourth, some seek a savior who is merely human, and they are repulsed by One who claims to be divine. Have you noticed that other (false) religions have their leaders, but only Christianity has a man who claims also to be God? The Jews in our text are not offended by a Savior who claims to be a man, but by a Man who claims to be God—and the only way of salvation. The deity of Christ is offensive to lost men. Have you wondered why men and women put their trust in individuals who are clearly fallible, clearly less than divine? I think it is because we would rather have a “god” in our image than to submit to a God who will conform us to His image.
Fifth, many people seek a savior who conforms to their distorted interpretation of Scripture. There are, of course, many “interpretations” of the Bible. Even born again Christians differ on many interpretations. But the people in our text want a messiah who conforms to their distorted views of what the Bible teaches. They want to give Moses credit for feeding the multitude in the wilderness, not God. Many are those who claim to offer a salvation that is taught in the Bible, but much that is claimed as biblical is simply man’s distortion of the truth. Only those whose eyes God has opened, who have the Spirit of God in them, can rightly interpret the Word of God (see John 16:12-15; 1 Corinthians 2:6-16).
Sixth, many are those who want a “bloodless” salvation, who do not wish to be saved by a suffering Savior. The most offensive thing about our Lord’s teaching in John 6 is His insistence that He came to save lost sinners by way of the cross of Calvary. While all of the specifics of this are not spelled out, this is the essence of what Jesus is teaching, and of what His “followers” find repulsive. How can they miss this, as familiar as they are with the Old Testament and the “bloody” sacrificial system. As the author to the Hebrews has written, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). John the Baptist introduced our Lord as the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, see also verse 36).
Our sin deserves the death penalty, because the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). We deserve to die for our sins, because we are sinners. Jesus Christ is the sinless Son of God. He came to die in the sinner’s place, to bear the guilt and punishment for our sins, and thus to appease God’s holy wrath on our sin. By His sacrificial death on the cross of Calvary, Jesus paid the price for our sins. It is only by faith in His “flesh and blood” as He came to this earth and died in our place that we are saved. This is how our Lord became the “bread of heaven that gives life to the world.” Have you tasted this “bread”? Have you acknowledged your sin, and the divine wrath it merits? Have you trusted in the sacrifice Jesus Christ made on the cross of Calvary for your sins? I urge you to partake of this “bread” and to obtain eternal life through Him.
35 It occurs to me that while Jesus is here instructing His audience to “cease working,” it is He who is indicted in chapter 5 by the Jews for working (on the Sabbath). There, in effect, the Jews are instructing Jesus to “stop working.”
38 “So here Jesus terms belief in him as the work of God. These Jews were thinking of various deeds of the Pharisaic type and rules. Jesus turns their minds to the central fact. ‘This simple formula contains the complete solution of the relation of faith and works’ (Westcott).” Archibald Thomas Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931), 6 vols., en loc.
39 I have chosen to differ with the NET Bible here, because I feel that our Lord’s meaning is clear. The words in brackets are my translation. The Jews thought salvation was their work. Jesus taught that it was God’s work. The Jews say, “What must we do to earn God’s favor?” Jesus replies, in effect: “Salvation is God’s work. The result is that when God works to save you, you will believe in Me, the One whom He sent to save you.”
40 This translation is a bit unfortunate. The NET Bible unfortunately does not capitalize pronouns referring to God. Because the pronoun “He” is the first word of the (English) sentence, we might be inclined to think that the people are referring to God here, but they most certainly are not. They are referring to Moses. If the word order of the original text had been followed a little more closely (something not always necessary, or even advisable), the sentence would read, “Bread from heaven he [Moses] gave them to eat.” This would make it much clearer that the people believe Moses gave the Israelites bread from heaven.
43 Grumble here is the same Greek word in the Greek text as is found in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures, when the Israelites grumbled against Moses (Exodus 17:3; Numbers 11:1; 14:27, 29; 17:6, 20). Is Jesus greater than Moses? He surely is, but He is also the “prophet like Moses” (Deuteronomy 18:15), who also experiences the grumbling of God’s people, the Jews.
44 The doctrine of election is a part of the doctrine of the sovereignty of God in man’s salvation. Ultimately, man does not choose God; God chooses man (see John 15:16). Men do not open their hearts to Jesus, God opens men’s hearts and minds to Him (see Acts 13:48; 16:14). It is God who chooses to save men, not men who choose to be saved. Those whom the Father has chosen will choose to trust in His Son, but only because they have first been chosen by God (see 1 John 4:19). Men are called to make a choice regarding Jesus Christ, but all who “choose to trust in Christ” are those who have first been chosen by the Father. This is a difficult doctrine for some to accept, but it is taught in the Bible. We find it difficult to accept, not because the Bible opposes it, but because our flesh and our pride opposes the thought that God is in control of everything, including our salvation. Sin is about man’s rebellion against God’s rule.
46 Our Lord’s substitutionary work on the cross of Calvary is alluded to prophetically by John in John 1:29, 36. Jesus also spoke about the destroying of “this temple”—His body—in John 2:19. Once again, our Lord spoke of being “lifted up” in John 3:14-16, but no one understood what He meant by this until after His death and resurrection. This is the clearest statement about the sacrificial and atoning death of Jesus as the Messiah made by our Lord up to this point in John’s Gospel.
47 “Strove … to fight in armed combat (Ac 7:26), then to wage a war of words as here and 2 Ti 2:24. They were already murmuring (41), now they began bitter strife with one another over the last words of Jesus (43-51), …” Archibald Thomas Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931), 6 vols., en loc.
49 I love the translation of the New English Bible here: “This was spoken in synagogue when Jesus was teaching in Capernaum. Many of his disciples on hearing it exclaimed, ‘This is more than we can stomach! Why listen to such words?’”
Related Topics: Christology