John 6:26-69, the Themes of the Bread of Life Discourse
After Jesus had performed the miracle of feeding the 5000 with bread and fish that He had created, the huge crowd decided that He was in fact the great prophet that Moses had promised in Deut. 18:18. Moses had promised that God would send another prophet to Israel that would be even greater than Moses, but like Moses He would speak God’s Word, deliver them from oppression, and do miracles. Through Moses, God defeated their enemies, delivered them from the Gentile oppressor, and fed them manna (bread) every day. It was easy for the crowd to assume that Jesus would deliver them from Rome’s oppression, free them, and then feed them bread every day. In John 6:30-31, the people even bring these expectations to Jesus saying “Do some miracles and get to work for us just like Moses did when he provided bread from heaven every day” (my paraphrase). Like most people their perspective and their expectations of Jesus were totally materialistic and temporal. Jesus’ task in the Bread of Life Discourse was to use the metaphor of bread to move them from their material/temporal preoccupation to the spiritual/eternal purpose of His coming. Jesus came from heaven to carry out God’s redemptive program for mankind. Jesus came to suffer and die just as He said, He came to “give His life a ransom for many”. He had no political, social, or military agenda. He came to die on the cross as an atonement for their sin.
Let Them Eat Cake
In 1789 in Paris, France, just prior to the French revolution mobs in Paris were rioting to protest their poverty and hard life. They knew they were starving while the nobility was living in splendor. Queen Marie Antionette, who was famous for her frivolous and extravagant lifestyle, asked her aids what was wrong with the people. Their reply was they were rioting because “they have no bread”. Her naïve reply became famous, “Well, let them eat cake”. It revealed the rulers’ complete lack of consideration for the people. In John 6, the problem of the people in first century Israel was the same—while the Romans and Jewish religious leaders lived well, the vast majority of people “had no bread”. Bread has always been the symbol of that which sustains physical life. Therefore we can easily see why the people were so needy and wanted Jesus to deliver them and take care of their earthly needs. Nevertheless, Jesus knew their biggest problem was the need to be saved from their sin. From God’s perspective eternal life is far more important than temporal life. Jesus realized the crowd followed Him around the lake because they wanted to exploit Him. All they wanted was more free meals—clearly they were confused like the man who wore a button with huge letters BAIK. Someone asked him what they stood for and he replied “Boy am I Konfused” The person then told him confused was spelled with a C not a K. The guy said, “See, I told you!” In His Bread of Life Discourse, Jesus endeavored to move their preoccupation from their material/temporal needs to their spiritual/eternal needs by means of the metaphor of bread.
Themes of the Bread of Life Discourse
As you read through the dialogue between Jesus and the crowd in John 6:26-69, you will discover four themes that He repeated over and over for emphasis. First of all Jesus was unique in that He came from heaven—v.33, 38, 50, 51, and 58, “I have come down from heaven”, secondly is the necessity of belief on their part—v.29, 35, 36, 40, 47, 64, 69, “everyone that believes in Me has eternal life”. Thirdly is His emphasis on eternal life—“he who believes has eternal life” in v.40,47,64,69. The fourth teaching that reoccurs is His reference to the New Covenant ministry of the Holy Spirit drawing people to believe in Christ in v.37,44,65, “no one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him”. Since Jesus quotes from Isaiah 54:13, Jeremiah 31:34, and Ezekiel 36:26 (all about the New covenant), we can conclude that Jesus is referring to the New Covenant ministry whereby the Holy Spirit ministers to hearts preparing them to receive and believe the Gospel. Their religion was based on law, tradition, ancestors and ritual ceremony, but none of that brings eternal life. But the inner conviction by the Holy Spirit moves us to believe in the atoning work of Christ on the cross.
Jesus Came from Heaven, Believe in Him
Jesus correctly identified the crowd’s motivation in John 6:26 when He said, “you seek Me not because you saw signs (pointing to His true identity), but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” Jesus then told them to stop basing their life on materialism, but work for the “food” which endures to eternal life, which only Jesus can give them. They then asked Him what they needed to do to get that kind of food. Jesus answered that the work God requires is that they believe in Jesus as their Savior. Why should they believe in Jesus? What was He going to do for them? After all, Moses provided bread for the people every day in the wilderness. Jesus answered all those questions by revealing who he is and where He came from. First of all, Moses did not provide bread, God did, and God in the flesh had come down from heaven to give them the “true bread out of heaven” (Jn.6:32-33). Jesus then used the bread of God, which comes from heaven, as a metaphor for Himself coming from heaven to give them God’s grace—eternal life. Then in v.38 Jesus made it clear that He came from heaven to do the will of God, which is to redeem all who will believe in Him. After the crowd began grumbling Jesus repeated in v.50-51, “I am the bread of life that came down out of heaven”. Continuing the metaphor, Jesus said if you eat this heavenly bread (believe in His atoning work on the cross), then you will have eternal life. Jesus was saying that he came down from heaven, sent by God to feed our restless hunger for meaning and fulfillment and satisfaction. Again in v.58 Jesus distinguished Himself from the manna in Exodus 16. They had to eat that bread every day, and eventually died, but if you eat the spiritual bread of Jesus you will receive eternal life. Jesus is the only “bread” that God has sent from heaven to save us. No other man has preexisted the creation as God, and then taken on the flesh in order to atone for our sins. There is only one authorized spokesman for God, and that is Jesus, and He is the only mediator between God and man.
The Crowd’s Progression of Unbelief
It is interesting that the crowd used the Exodus 16 bread (manna) as a reason Jesus should feed them every day. If you read Ex.16-17, you will see that even after God continued to give them bread every day, they got tired of it and wanted more, wanted something else. Ronald Reagan noticed this same kind of insatiable hunger in the American people as he said, “A baby is a lot like the American public—insatiable appetite at one end and total lack of responsibility at the other end.” People are hungry because there is a restlessness within us for something more, but only Jesus has the food to quench that kind of hunger.
We can follow the crowd’s progression throughout this story. In John 6:34, they are very interested, “Lord give us this bread” Jesus was talking about. As Jesus made it more about believing in Him instead of their religious works they began grumbling in v.41, and in v.42 they say, “wait a minute, this guy is just another person from around here, in fact we know His father Joseph so how can He say He came from heaven? Their doubts turn to anger in v.52 where they began arguing with each other and with Jesus. In v.60 they are troubled, and in v.61 they grumbled so as to “stumble” meaning to take offense and be against Jesus. Then in v.66 their rejection was complete as the text says, “as a result of this (Jesus’ teaching)…many withdrew”, abandoning Christ and joining the religious leaders in opposition to Him.
The Scandal of the Gospel
In this Bread of Life dialogue Jesus kept repeating that He was the Bread of Life come down from heaven that they must believe in, but they just kept asking and arguing, so in verses 51-58, Jesus added a more controversial image to the discussion. They not only needed to eat the living bread, but the bread was Jesus’ flesh. When they objected to that, Jesus added, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you have no life (eternal). He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day”. In v.56, Jesus explains what He meant—that eating and drinking His flesh and blood are symbolic of abiding in Christ. The people were outraged and probably accused Him of cannibalism—talk about not kosher. Yet Jesus was using the metaphor of bread as His flesh and blood to symbolize that Jesus was going to give His flesh and blood to atone for sin. His death is essential for our life. Think of eating as partaking in His death. Whoever partakes in His death also partakes in His life. His death results in our life. This was too much for the majority of them so they “withdrew and were no longer following Him”.
In the midst of this controversy and rejection, Jesus turned to His closest disciples and asked “How about you guys, do you reject these difficult statements also? Is this too hard for you as well?” Peter answered for the 12, “Lord to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life, and we have believed…” I think Peter was saying they didn’t understand everything He was saying yet they did believe three important things—there is no one else who has come down from heaven, Jesus alone has the truth about eternal life, and we believe Jesus is the One sent by God to save them.
The Mystery of Conversion
Jesus says something very remarkable in John 6:37, 44, and 65. Jesus said that for a person to believe and be saved there must be an inner enlightenment by God the Father. We can hear the Gospel and see the impact Jesus makes on others, and even be interested in the teachings of Jesus, but the “ears and eyes of the soul” must be opened so we can see and hear so as to understand and commit our lives to it.
These passages are very controversial, and there is much debate over what they mean, so let’s talk about what they do NOT mean. They do not mean that God excludes people. Passages like Jn. 3:16, Acts 3:26, 2 Peter 3:9, and 1 Tim. 2:4 make it clear that God loves all people and desires that everyone would be saved. It does mean that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), and therefore they need God’s help to be saved. John Wesley taught that God’s “prevenient grace” precedes human decision, and it allows people to use their free will to choose Christ. He said that God’s grace enables us to believe but does not ensure. On the other hand, Calvinists believe that God calls, draws, and prepares our hearts to believe, and God’s call is irresistible which makes sense to me. God is at work drawing, convicting, and leading people to come and be saved. Who in his/her right mind would turn down such an offer? Nevertheless, whichever way you follow, each side is certain that God must do something in order to change our hearts to enable us to believe in Jesus and be saved. In Jeremiah 31:33, God promised a New Covenant in which He would “put My law within them, and on their heart I will write it”. In Ezekiel 36:26, God promised “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you…and I will put My Spirit within you”. Jesus said He came to bring in this New Covenant in which His Spirit would draw people and change their hearts from within (Luke 22:20), and His blood on the cross would make that possible.
In 1983, Barbara Walters interviewed Johnny Carson, Johnny Cash, and Walter Cronkite on television. Johnny Carson came off as a bit of a hedonist just living for the pleasure of the moment, but never finding fulfillment. Walter Cronkite was a humanist, and a worldly-wise philosopher. At the end of the day they both looked at life as “That’s the way it is” because there is no more than this. Johnny Cash was very different. He had lived a very rough life filled with bad choices, addiction, and even prison. But he had found Jesus late in life and God had changed his heart. He spoke of a hope for the future which neither Carson or Cronkite seemed to have. Johnny Cash had found the Bread of Life that leads to eternal life. He had discovered the truth that Simon Peter professed in John 6:68-69, “Lord to who else can we go, only you have the words of eternal life”.