If the last blog post seemed a bit like an English comprehension exercise, it was only to ensure that we see the scale of what Jesus was claiming during that Passover miracle 2000 years ago. In drawing extensive links to that ancient event, John was helping us to see that the feeding of the 5000 was even more impressive than a feat of mass catering. The time, events and specific details of the occasion all work together to remind us of the Exodus1, when God rescued His people from Egypt. And here, Jesus was declaring Himself to be the one offering an even greater rescue.
“I am the bread of life”
That was the sense of His great “I am” statement. While comparing recent events to the old bread miracle in the Exodus2, Jesus simultaneously drew a contrast: this time, it’s the true bread (v32). What does true bread mean?
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (v35)
Jesus wasn’t just offering more food. He was offering the eternally satisfying substance of eternal life. Unlike that first bread miracle, where the nation of Israel enjoyed bread from heaven but still died (v49), Jesus said that His offer is an eternal one. And the offer is available to anyone who wants it – “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” (v37)
It’s not simply a promise of ‘no more death’. It’s a promise of life beyond the grave. “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
And He wasn’t simply pointing at some offer in the distance. He said that He Himself was that bread. The offer centred solely around Jesus Himself.
A metaphor you can sink your teeth into
Like many of the “I am” sayings of Jesus, this first one uses such a simple image to get the point across. Bread would have been a staple part of their diet – something they needed simply to survive. To compare yourself to bread is like comparing yourself to oxygen. It brings us right down to the nitty gritty of survival. And Jesus said that He was an ever-flowing supply.
Occasionally competitions will issue a “year’s supply of …” whatever product they’re advertising. Even less frequently they’ll put up a “life-time’s supply”. Those are pretty sought after prizes! But in a context where obtaining your next meal was the daily battle, the provision of a lifetime’s supply of bread was beyond comprehension. And then to describe this bread as the kind that enables you to live forever (v51) – well, that would have been something else!
The offer is already stunning to us when we live in an age of vast culinary variation; imagine every meal involved a loaf, and you start to understand the wonder of this special bread!
Turning sour – from food to flesh
But to say “I am the bread of life” makes it more personal than simply something Jesus offers. He said that the offer is integral to Himself. In fact, the point was made explicit towards the end of their conversation. To explain the nature of this living bread, He made the point clear: “And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (v51)
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (vv53-54)
It feels like we’ve taken an awkward turn, doesn’t it? Why did Jesus have to turn the conversation to cannibalism?
Well, it’s pretty plain from v51 that we’re not talking about eating each other. Jesus was explaining how this living bread secures life for the world: by giving His flesh. Jesus was claiming that obtaining life for the world would require nothing less than His death.
We don’t get an explanation here, but we certainly see how integral Jesus Himself is to this rescue offer. The fundamental necessity of His death will be a theme John returns to numerous times in the coming chapters; but already we see that an amazing offer of life is available, and it required Jesus’ death.
This is the work of God
Some have suggested that Jesus is talking about ‘Holy Communion’ or the ‘Eucharist’ in these verses, but notice that there’s no mention of the Last Supper in this chapter. We’re still at least a year away from that final meal Jesus shared with His disciples. The description of His flesh and blood is clearly making reference to His death3.
So what does it mean to feed on His flesh and drink His blood?
Well, these verses come at the end of a conversation which had been going on since v25. And throughout, this offer of life has been made available to the same group of people: those who believe.
This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (v29)
I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. (v35)
For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. (v40)
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. (v47)
So in these closing moments of their conversation, the offer hasn’t changed4. The work God requires is exactly the same: believe in the Son, and you will have eternal life.
And the people said…?
I wonder how comfortably these words settle in our ears? The exclusivity of the claim, the necessity of His death… does our understanding of Jesus and His rescue offer make room for these enormous claims? Had we a picture of Jesus who came to save the world without getting His hands dirty? Or can we see that the epic rescue (on a scale greater than the Exodus!) involves the kind of rugged realism we might prefer to skip over?
Even those of us who are immensely familiar with the truths that Jesus was putting forward need to stop and listen. There are no individuals exempted in v53: unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. That’s true of everyone we know who refuses to depend on Jesus’ death. Are we happy to get behind these words?
But while some parts may be hard, the offer is no less tantalising. With His arms open wide, Jesus includes more “whoevers” and “anyones” than we get anywhere else in John’s gospel. Presented on a platter we see the endlessly satisfying bread of eternal life, available to anyone who will come and believe in Him.
But when we look at the response of the people back then, we end up with a rather puzzling result.
After this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him (v66)
It’s the kind of unexpected reaction that we weren’t quite prepared for. Or were we? Well, to answer that we’ll need a third and final post on this chapter…
More on John’s gospel will be published each Wednesday evening, with a bonus blog article thrown in on most weeks at some point before the next Wednesday. Feel free to share posts using the buttons below, and you can subscribe to the blog by using the sign-up form on the right.
- See the footnotes in the previous blog posts for more on that ↩
- See Exodus 16 ↩
- Of course, the Last Supper was also an allusion to His death, and the Lord’s Supper is a regular reminder of that same event. Since both the metaphor in John 6 and the reminder in the Lord’s Supper are referring to Jesus’ death, it is understandable why similar language and categories may crop up. ↩
- When Jesus describes the work of God in v29, it’s clear that He’s talking about believing in Himself. Those who suggest that v53 is talking about Holy Communion are essentially suggesting that eating that meal is necessary in order to be saved, which would undermine His statement earlier in the chapter. ↩