By Peter Amsterdam
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In John chapter 6, we read of Jesus feeding five thousand people with bread and fish. After that, He withdrew to a mountain by Himself, while His disciples got in a boat and started off to Capernaum. After rowing three or four miles, it was dark, and the lake became rough due to the wind, which made it difficult to make headway. Then the disciples saw Jesus walking on water and coming near the boat. They took Him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached land.
The next day, when some of the people who had partaken of the loaves and fishes saw that Jesus wasn’t there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”1
Considering that the crowd had wanted to make Jesus king after having eaten the bread He had provided, it’s not surprising that they sought Him out the next day. Jesus didn’t respond to their question, but instead exposed their motives. They weren’t interested in the meaning of the miracle He had performed or who He was; they were focused on the fact that He had provided them with bread. This is similar to how people responded to Roman emperors in Jesus’ day. Roman emperors and other politicians kept the Roman people pacified with free food. Like Roman clients, the crowds joined Jesus’ “entourage” just for “a handout of food.”2
Jesus went on to say: Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.3 Seals were used in various ways in antiquity, and rulers sometimes gave a seal to those who were commissioned to act on their behalf. This passage seems to convey that the Father had verified Jesus through the signs and miracles which Jesus did. As an alternate interpretation, some Bibles translate this phrase as: “On Him God the Father has placed His seal of approval.”
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”4 As Jesus had told them to labor—or work—for food that endures to eternal life, they wanted to know how Jesus defined work. Jewish tradition didn’t isolate works from faith, as faith was often one “work” among many. Whereas here, Jesus defined faith differently—He stated that the work that was necessary for eternal life was belief in Him.
So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”5
It seems rather odd that they would refer to the sign of manna which God gave the Hebrews in the desert, when just the day before, Jesus had multiplied five loaves of bread to feed five thousand. Their asking for a sign so they could believe showed that they didn’t really want to see and believe, but rather were interested in receiving more free food.
Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”6 Jesus reminded them that the manna in the wilderness was not from Moses, but from God. Manna was not “the true bread” from heaven, but rather an earthly, material type of that bread. It gave life to the people of God for forty years, and also served as a foreshadowing of the “bread of God” which gives “life to the world.”
They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”7
Those listening understood that the bread was a metaphor for a divine gift. They began to recognize that in some way Jesus was offering them “life,” even eternal life, as He had earlier told them not to work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures to eternal life. Having told them that they were to labor for the food that endures to eternal life, He is now telling them that He is the way to that life, He is this bread, He is the one who gives this life. This in a sense changes the focus from what Jesus does to who Jesus is.
However, once Jesus said that He was the bread, some clearly did not believe.8 The people had asked for a sign, and Jesus replied that He was the sign. He explicitly stated that He came down from heaven, and that His purpose was to do His Father’s will.
The Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”9
The people began to grumble among themselves, probably confused and/or disagreeing with one another as to what He meant. Knowing who His parents were made it difficult for them to accept the concept that He came down from heaven.
Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.”10
Earlier He said, All that the Father gives me will come to me,11 and here He makes the same point in a stronger fashion—no one can come to Him without the Father drawing them. A person is “drawn” to Jesus by being taught by God, by hearing and responding to God’s call.
Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.12 This is the third “truly, truly” statement in this chapter. He is making a solemn vow that whoever believes has eternal life because He is the bread of life.
Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.13
Earlier, the crowd spoke about manna and indicated that they would like a similar miracle. It was because of this that Jesus said, “I am the bread of life.” Having said this, He then spoke of manna’s limitations. While it was food from God, it had to be eaten the day it was gathered, and whatever was left over was rotten the next day. It sustained the people, but they still died in due course. However, those who eat of the bread Jesus was speaking about will not die. The Greek verb tense used for eat in the phrase so that one may eat of it and not die indicates a once-and-for-all action, so that when anyone partakes of this bread once, they will never die.
Since this is no ordinary food, how then is it eaten? The answer of course is to believe, as Jesus stated earlier: Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. The concept of belief or faith as eating gives some insight to what it means to believe. We partake of and absorb what we believe in a manner similar to eating food, so that it becomes part of who we are. Those who partake of Jesus will never die.
Jesus’ definition of the bread as His flesh, His body, was a startling statement, but it became even more so when He stated that He would give Himself, His own body, His own flesh “for the life of the world.” Those listening to Jesus didn’t know that Jesus was speaking of His death for the salvation of the world.
This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.14
The “bread of life” which comes “down from heaven” is different from any earthly bread. Those who eat this bread, who take Jesus into their lives, while they will experience physical death, won’t experience spiritual death. As Jesus said earlier in this chapter:
This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 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.15
May all of us who have eaten the bread of eternal life be faithful to share this bread with others.
Originally published January 2018. Excerpted and republished December 2020.
Read by Gabriel Garcia Valdivieso.
1 John 6:24–26.
2 Craig Keener, The Gospel of John, A Commentary, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 676.
3 John 6:27.
4 John 6:28–29 NIV.
5 John 6:30–31.
6 John 6:32–33.
7 John 6:34–35.
8 John 6:36–40.
9 John 6:41–42.
10 John 6:43–44.
11 John 6:37.
12 John 6:47–48.
13 John 6:49–51.
14 John 6:58.
15 John 6:39–40.