John 6:22-50

Reflection on the Bread from Heaven

John 6:22-24     Setting up the Dialogue

22 The next day, the crowd that had remained across the lake
saw that there had been only one boat there,
and that Jesus had not embarked on the boat with his disciples who had gone off alone.
23 However, boats from Tiberias came near to the place where they had eaten the loaves when the Lord had given thanks,
24 so when the crowd saw that Jesus was no longer there,
nor were his disciples,
they got into the boats and went to Capharnaum looking for him.

Jesus had just identified himself to the disciples as I am. Interestingly, the author commented on the feeding episode as happening after the Lord had given thanks. This was the first time in the narrative that Jesus was referred to as Lord, a title used generally by Jews as a respectful substitute for the name of God (YHWH), which they would not pronounce aloud. In later Christian practice, the title was associated with the risen Jesus. Its uncharacteristic use on this occasion may have arisen from the post-resurrection Christian community’s familiarity with the risen Christ present in celebrations of Eucharist.

The author wished to situate the discourse that would follow in the context of synagogue (as he would remark explicitly later in the narrative [verse 59]). It was in synagogues scattered throughout the Diaspora that Jews gathered at Passover to reflect on and reconnect with the God whose glorious actions in the past they remembered and celebrated. The Disciple wished to show that same God intimately accessible to the community of believers in the person and action of the risen Jesus, present with them whenever they gathered in faith.

The narrative was not particularly concerned about the unlikely logistics of how the people got back to Capernaum and into their synagogue.

John 6:25-29     Food that Endures

25 They found he had crossed the lake,
and said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”

It is important for readers once more to remember that the author was not reporting an actual conversation of Jesus and the crowd. What follows is a theological reflection on the significance of Jesus, conveyed in the form of narrative. While the issues raised may have covered matters of open dispute between the Christian community and their Jewish contemporaries, the work was written directly to stimulate the thought and personal response of the community and not to convert (or refute) the community’s adversaries.

26 In answer Jesus said to them, “I tell you clearly,
you are not looking for me because you saw the signs,
but because you ate the loaves and were filled.

The last time that Jesus was with the crowd, they had tried to take him by force and to make him king. In a sense they had read the event as sign, but had drawn the wrong, or incomplete, conclusion. Jesus took the direct approach on this occasion, and addressed their self-interested motivation. This crowd’s reaction was not unusual; people, consistently, are absorbed by surface wants and ignorant of their God-given deepest heart desires and spiritual hunger.

27 Work for the food that does not perish,
for the food that lasts for eternal life,
the food that the Son of Man will give you.  
He is the one whom the Father has endorsed.”

Their interest in material food provided the occasion for Jesus to talk about another nourishment – no longer the manna that perished, but the food that lasts for eternal life, which he was giving to the world. The narrative recalled the earlier feeding event when, under instruction from Jesus, the remaining fragments were gathered up so that nothing may be lost [verse 13]. The dialogue followed a similar pattern to the earlier “conversation” between Jesus and the Samaritan woman [4:7-10]. Once again, Jesus did not clarify what precisely he was talking about. 

What was the food, the life source, that he would provide? Until now, the Torah, the Law and teaching mediated through Moses, were understood to be the source of life (God’s gift of the Torah was one of the major themes celebrated at Passover). The Psalmist had written:

I have longed for your precepts;
in your righteousness give me life ...
... Let your mercy come to me, that I may have life;
for your law is my delight...
... I will never forget your precepts,
for by them you have given me life...
... Your decrees are righteous for ever;
give me understanding that I may live. [Psalm 119:40,77,93,144]

The role formerly fulfilled by the Torah was now to be taken by Jesus. The teaching of Jesus would become source of life – God had endorsed him; God guaranteed that what he was doing was, in fact, what God had commissioned him to do. For the author of the Gospel, what was significant about Jesus was who he was, why he was sent and what his life and priorities taught of the mind and heart of God. Essentially, what Jesus yearned to give to people was the experience of eternal life, already beginning in the present.

When referring to himself, Jesus regularly used the title Son of Man. Against the background of Hebrew Scriptures, the title carried the sense of one who was persecuted for his integrity, yet raised by God and made Universal Judge of the end-times. The themes of blood shed, resurrection and the gift of eternal life available to the whole world would all figure prominently in the ensuing dialogue.

The Need for Faith

28 So they said to him,
“What should we do in order to be doing the works that God wants?” 

The crowd took up Jesus’ insistence of working for the food that lasts and asked what they needed to do to do the works of God, assuming that the works of God were what would endure for eternal life.

29 In answer to their question, Jesus said,
“This is the work God wants –
that you trust in the one whom he sent.”

The Gospel was consistent. The work, the saving project of God, would begin by people trusting Jesus, and the values adopted by Jesus, as the way to salvation. Such faith meant recognising who Jesus was, whom he revealed, and what his (pending) death and resurrection had to say about God, about God’s saving action and about the consequent human response to God.

Believing in Jesus – 1 

The faith in question is not faith in statements or abstract truths. For the Beloved Disciple, faith is not something static but dynamic. It is movement towards another; it involves trusting that other and entrusting self to that other. It is relationship, a constantly deepening relationship of mutual love. All true love is an act of faith-filled entrusting of self to a still-to-be-explored and open-ended relationship – a relationship where both lover and loved-one will grow into what they will recognise only in hindsight. Believing in Jesus is an on-going, creative journey of never-ending relationship in love.

John 6:30-40     The Father Gave Them Bread from Heaven to Eat

30 They then said to him,
“What sign will you do that we can see
so that we can trust you?
What sign are you giving?
31 Our ancestors ate manna in the desert –
as the Scripture said,  ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’.” 

For the sake of his argument, the author either chose to ignore the event of the previous day or presumed that the sign did not carry sufficient weight to convince the crowd that the Father had, indeed, endorsed Jesus.

Consistent with their celebrating the Feast of Passover, the crowd cited Moses’ miraculous feeding of the Israelites with manna in the desert of Sinai. It was a key theme of Passover.

The quotation came from Psalm 78. Interestingly, the Psalm clearly placed the gift of the manna in the context of the Israelites’ challenging of God and their muttering: (The Jews “muttering” would become explicit later in the narrative [verse 41].)

They [the Israelites] spoke against God, saying,
“Can God spread a table in the wilderness?
Even though he struck the rock so that water gushed out
and torrents overflowed,
can he also give bread,
or provide meat for his people?” 
Therefore, when the LORD heard …
his anger mounted against Israel,
because they had no faith in God,
and did not trust his saving power.
Yet he commanded the skies above,
and opened the doors of heaven;
he rained down on them manna to eat,
and gave them the grain of heaven. [Psalm 78.19-24]

The text cited by the crowd, He gave them bread from heaven to eat, would provide the framework for the reflection that follows. Essentially, the text raised four issues that would continue to interweave through the dialogue:

  • He: the Father is the initiator and the source of life;
  • gave: the life that God offers is pure gift – a gift that God longs to give;
  • bread from heaven: the means by the life given by God is nourished – the truth revealed and embodied in Jesus;
  • to eat: the gift of life, offered by God through Jesus, needs to be believed, received and actively absorbed by people before it can be of benefit to them

The Father Gives

32 Then Jesus said to them, “I tell you clearly,
it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven.  
Rather, it is my Father who gives you the bread from heaven,
the authentic bread.
33 God’s bread is what comes down from heaven
and gives life to the world.” 

The Jewish crowd had not mentioned Moses. Nevertheless, to avoid any possible confusion, Jesus made clear that the provider of the manna was not Moses but the Father. He immediately went on to add that God was now giving another gift of bread, the authentic bread from heaven, of which the original gift of manna was merely a foretaste. 

This authentic bread come down from heaven gives life, not only to Israel, but also to the world. The universal relevance of Jesus’ mission and the unlimited outreach of the love of God could hardly be more clearly affirmed.

However, to take Jesus’ use of the term world as meaning, simply, “everybody”, could be to limit it too much. In the Gospel, the word world often refers to the world as it takes shape in the human constructs of cultures and sub-cultures that are corrupted by the power of sin. It is to this concrete, broken and corrupting world that Jesus wishes to give life. Unless such cultures are somehow redeemed, individual people remain captive under their destructive influence.

The Bread from Heaven – Source of Life

34 So they said to him, “Lord, give us that bread all the time.”

The crowd’s misunderstanding of what Jesus was talking about echoed the response of the Samaritan woman to Jesus’ promise of living water [4:15].

35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. 

The revelation unfolded further: Jesus would not only give bread from heaven but was the bread from heaven. Indeed, he was the bread of life. 

Jesus’ response was the first of a number of self-descriptions that he would make in the course of the narrative. Each claim would add a further revelatory description of his activity and impact (in this case, the bread of life); and preceded by the words I am ... would contain a veiled revelation of Jesus’ divine origin.

… Whoever come to me will never hunger.  
Whoever trust themselves to me will never thirst.”

As Jesus had already promised the Samaritan woman: whoever drinks the water that I shall give will never thirst again [4:14], so now he promised that those who come to him, that is, who undertake the journey of faith to believe in him, would never be hungry. To accept Jesus as the bread of life meant coming to him and believing in him. Only by moving on from where they were, coming to him, trusting him and entrusting themselves to him, believing in him, could disciples participate in the life Jesus was bringing to the world.

The offer of Jesus was not confined: whoever come ..., whoever believe.... Its outreach was inclusive, and expressed the universal, unconditioned love of the Father.

Writing from his viewpoint of a long life as a disciple of the risen Jesus, the author was able to verify that experience as truly the experience of life. Faith in Jesus had truly sustained him across the years.

Believing in Jesus – 2 

The Gospel saw faith in Jesus as perfecting and fulfilling what had been contained in the Torah. Jesus offered eternal life. For people to experience that life required that the world be saved, because the world, as it was, prevented people’s experiencing the life that Jesus offered.

Jesus invited people to a way of living in the present so authentic that it would continue into, and constitute, life in eternity. It was the way of radical, unconditional, totally inclusive and consistent love. It was a way of living which utterly transcended the possibilities of legal prescriptions, even the Torah. It was a way of living that went beyond rational or ethical responses. Essentially, to an unredeemed world, it would remain unthinkable – until it was lived by Jesus.

Jesus’ death was different from the cold, rational and ethically motivated death of Socrates, admirable though it may have been; different from the deaths of terrorists, sacrificing their own lives, but doing so out of hatred for their enemies. Jesus underwent death motivated solely by love. In the process, he set people free to dream of other worlds.

Only by being immersed in truly loving relationship with Jesus can people even understand the way of Jesus. To have any chance of living it authentically, they need to be transformed by Jesus. Such transformation involves a different process from striving for a moral ideal or from carefully observing moral directives. The power of cultures to blind their members is strong. This is true of every culture, even religious culture. Only by surrendering to genuine intimacy with Jesus – by believing in him – can people hope to break free from the competing desires, rivalries and, ultimately, murderous propensities that are hidden in every culture. Only thus can they begin to imagine, hope and live differently. The author would address the details of this possibility particularly in the Last Supper Discourses [Chapters 13-17].

To succeed, disciples would need to be empowered by drawing life from Jesus. Precisely to answer that need, Jesus identified himself as the bread of life, the sustaining energy and life-force of genuine love. To stress the intensity of such a life-giving bond with himself, he would go further and introduce the need to eat his flesh and drink his blood [verses 53-56].

Seeing and Believing

36 Yet I told you that you have seen me and you do not believe.

At this stage, the narrative inserted a brief reflection on faith. It would return later to the thought of Jesus as the bread of life.

The crowd, like their ancestors, had seen and lived through the experience of being fed miraculously in the wilderness. They had seen the sign, but they had not seen what the sign pointed to. They had hailed Jesus as prophet; they had sought to force him to be king, but they had neither come to him, free of their limited expectations, nor seen the truth of what the sign pointed to: they had not entrusted themselves to Jesus; they had not believed in him.

In its final chapters, the narrative would deal with the connected, but more pertinent problem for later disciples, of the need to believe without seeing [20.29]. At the same time, the author wrestled with the question puzzling his community: the question of the continuing unbelief of their contemporaries, despite the resurrection of Jesus and the obvious fruits of the ongoing power of the Spirit of Jesus at work within the Christian community.

Faith in Jesus and Eternal Destiny

37 Everyone that the Father has given me will come to me;
and I never send away anyone who comes to me,
38 since I have come down from heaven
not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me.

For the author, as for Jesus, the origin of all true life and activity was the Father. The Father was being; the Father was life. Jesus was fully conscious of his origin in the Father. The Father was the source of his life, and the source of the life that he was sent to extend to the world [verse 57]. The insight which motivated Jesus was his clear sense of having come from the Father and of carrying out the will of the Father for the world. 

The Christian disciples who had come to Jesus had experienced being driven away from their synagogues. The narrative served to reassure them: disciples who came to Jesus were ultimately the Father’s gift to him. If people would not come to Jesus and would not entrust themselves to him, the reason was their prior failure to be open to the subtle inspiration of the Father who sent him, and created them in the image of God.

For the author’s contemporaries, the challenge of faith was precisely to accept that Jesus, who had freely allowed himself to be brutally murdered rather than compromise his stance of unconditional and universal loving respect for people, truly revealed the heart and mind of God. Faith in God meant faith in Jesus, just as faith in Jesus meant faith in God. Jesus reflected, in human form, what God was like. To believe in Jesus required, effectively, that people redefine their image of God.

39 And the will of the one who sent me is
that I lose nothing of all that he has given me,
but that I raise it up at the last day.

For the community, this was a wonderfully consoling affirmation of the life-giving and saving intentions of God. 

Jesus had already stated that everyone that the Father has given me will come to me. The converse, similarly, is true: everyone who has come to Jesus has been given to him by the Father. 

Jesus repeated the promise of resurrection that he had given in the previous discourse [5.28-29], though, on this occasion, he connected it more clearly to the last day, the day associated in the literature of the era with the Son of Man and with judgment.

Faith in Jesus as Means to Life

40 And the will of my Father who sent me is that
all who have seen the son and believe in him have eternal life
and that I raise them up at the last day.

Eternal life and being raised on the last day seemed to be alternative ways of speaking of the same destiny. Until this point in the discourse, Jesus had spoken mainly of life, without further specification. Now he spoke clearly of eternal life. Eternal life needs to be considered as more than unending life. It is not the same as immortality. Eternal is special to God. To live eternal life is to share in the way of life proper to God. The word focuses on the quality of such life more than simply on its permanence.

The word translated as see carries more depth than simply visual sight. It refers to contemplative sight. It means understanding who Jesus is. To see Jesus as Son was to see him in relation to his Father. Believing in him added the further sense of entrusting self to him as Son, and, therefore, as the revelation of the Father.

Resurrection from the Dead

As the narrative had mentioned, when Jesus spoke of his body as “the temple” [2.21-22], he would himself be raised from the dead. The community bore witness to that fact, and their experience was that they themselves shared in Jesus’ risen life. The reference to resurrection “on the last day” reflected the general usage of the time that spoke of resurrection in that way. Resurrection was seen primarily as a community destiny, rather than simply as a personal experience. The general understanding had the effect of making it seem somewhat emotionally unreal and unappealing. Jesus’ promise was more personally focussed.

John 6:41-46     The Basis of Complaint – Recognising God in Jesus

41 The Jews were muttering among themselves
because he said, “I am the bread that has come down from heaven”.
42 They were saying, “Is this not Jesus the son of Joseph,
whose father and mother we know?
How can he now say that he has come down from heaven?”
43 In answer, Jesus said to them, “Stop muttering among yourselves.

As their ancestors in the wilderness of Sinai had complained about God [Psalm 78.19-24], so, now, the crowd muttered about Jesus. Not surprisingly, the Jewish crowd wrestled with the unthinkable origin of Jesus – the mystery of Incarnation. Even within the author’s community of believers, insight into that mystery had grown only over time. The primary reason why the issue was now explored further was, not because of historical problems with Jesus and his contemporaries, but because of the debilitating effect that the disbelief of the community’s non-Christian contemporaries exercised upon the community of disciples itself [verse 66].

Little has changed over the centuries. Many people are prepared to respect the memory of Jesus, the son of Joseph. But they do not accept him as the source of life, and the unique revelation of God: the bread come down from heaven.

The people’s muttering allowed the narrative to develop further the two themes of Jesus’ having come down from heaven and identifying himself as bread. 

44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them.  
And I shall raise them to life on the last day.

Jesus based the crowd’s faith struggle in their deeper problem with the Father. Jesus had said earlier: since I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. What was attractive about Jesus, what would properly lead people to come to him, was the integrity, love, compassion and healing that radiated from him. These he had sourced precisely from his Father, from whom he had come and by whom he was sent. To be attracted to Jesus was, effectively, to be attracted to the Father. Similarly, failure to appreciate Jesus was, likewise, failure to be responsive to the radical truth and love expressive of the Father, which shone through Jesus [1.17-18].

45 It is written in the Scriptures,
‘They will all be taught by God’.  
All who hear the Father and learn come to me.
46 Not that anyone has seen the Father,
except the one who is from God.  
He has seen the Father.

The quotation from the prophets put on the lips of Jesus cannot be found literally in the Jewish scriptures. However, Jeremiah had looked to a future where God would be clearly recognised and would speak to people from deep within their hearts:

I will put my law within them, 
and I will write it on their hearts; 
and I will be their God, and they shall be my people… 
… they shall all know me,
from the least of them to the greatest [Jeremiah 31.33,34]

The mutterers refused to open themselves to the drawing (the calling) of God, who gently spoke to them in their deepest selves. Had they known God, had they noted the hunger within their own hearts, they would have recognised Jesus; although, the author was quick to add, human knowledge of God was not to be compared with Jesus’ knowledge of God.

Where Jeremiah had Israel chiefly in mind, Jesus’ impact was universal, inclusive of everyone. Though the Scriptures had spoken of Moses conversing with God, Jesus, having come down from heaven, had uniquely seen the Father.

John 6:47-50     Summarising

47 I tell you deliberately, whoever believes has eternal life.

Jesus spoke clearly of eternal life as an experience possible in the present: eternal life was both present and future. The difference between present and future experience of eternal life lay, simply, in the degree of people’s capacity to be aware of it and to enjoy it.

For the author, since eternal life was a present possibility, its reality could be verified in the actual experience of the community members. The Gospel was a constant call to disciples to get in touch with their heart’s hunger for life, to name it, to appreciate and to cultivate it.

48 I am the bread of life. 
49 In the desert your ancestors ate the manna –
and they are dead.
50 This is the bread come down from heaven –
but whoever eats this bread does not die.

Jesus was the fulfilment of the Scriptures, the bearer of the ultimate liberation begun with the first Passover. The original manna had been but a shadow of the transformatively personal sustenance that God now offered his people in Jesus.

Next >> John 6:51-58