Written by Pastor Ed
I Am the Bread of Life
October 1, 2017
John 6: 35-50
Bread – that most basic of foods and a symbol for all food in many instances. In the Old Testament, bread is referred to 290 times, from the bread that Jacob gave Esau with his stew, to the famine in Egypt, the bread that God provided in the wilderness, and the shew bread of the temple. And the prophets recall all of that as well as railing against those who steal the widow’s bread, or sell favours for a piece of bread. And there’s even Ezekiel’s bread, baked symbolically over dung that has become a modern store item.
In the New Testament references to bread , of which there are 109, we find them in the accounts of the last supper as well as the early church in Acts breaking bread together. But many of the references to bread in the New Testament are related to the feeding of the 5000, and the 4000, which is recorded in all four Gospels. And it’s in the context of the feeding of the 5000 as recorded in John’s Gospel that we find the first of the “I AM” statements of Jesus, which we will be looking at over the next several months.
First of all, the background for this text, as presented in John’s gospel. As we know, John was not particularly concerned about chronology in his gospel, but rather choose specific themes and situations to further his purpose, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah” (20:30-31) So Chapter 6 focuses on the theme of bread, beginning with the feeding of the 5000. That is followed by the disciples crossing the sea and Jesus coming to them walking on the water.
The next day, the crowds who had been fed were puzzled because they couldn’t find Jesus. They had seen only one boat, and knew that Jesus had not gotten into it, yet he wasn’t around. So they got into their own boats and crossed the sea, where they found Jesus and asked him, “When did you come here?” (6:25) And thus begins the dialogue around bread. It’s a familiar pattern in John; a sign followed by some questioning, and then a long discourse related to the sign and its meaning.
In this case Jesus responds by saying that the people didn’t come looking for him because they thought he was something special, but simply because they had gotten fed.
“Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” (26-27)
“Well then”, the people respond, “what sign will you give us that we might believe?” And they make reference to the manna, the bread that their ancestors ate in the wilderness. Jesus then responds that just as God gave the Israelites manna in the wilderness, God is now offering something more to give life to the world. “Sir, give us this bread always,” the people respond.
“I am the bread of life.” The first of the “I AM” statements which John records. What follows is a rather lengthy discussion between Jesus and the crowd about what he meant by this, how Jesus could say he came down from heaven, and what it all meant. We get a sense of John’s pulling together various sources as he notes at the end of the discussion that Jesus said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum, a somewhat different setting than at the beginning of the discussion.
There are, and we must always remember this, really two discussions going on in John’s gospel. There is the discussion that Jesus was having with the people around him, which John records, and then there is the message the John is trying to convey to his readers, the church toward the end of the first century. “That you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah.” (20:30-31)
First, what was Jesus trying to convey in his statement? Bread, as I noted, was frequently mentioned in the Jewish scriptures, our Old Testament. Bread was what sustained life, not only in the wilderness wandering which was probably the most important story of Jewish life, but also in many other instances where people like Elijah or other prophets were sustained by bread provided by God, often with birds as messengers.
But that was all physical sustenance, and now Jesus is offering something more. When Jesus, and John, talk about life, they generally refer not simply to the physical world, but rather to a wholeness of life, physical, spiritual, and mental. And what gives sustenance to the whole being? The bread that comes down from heaven, namely Jesus himself. “I am the bread of life.”
If you really want to live life to its fullest, then you need to feed on Jesus, the true revelation of God, for it is Jesus who shows us the truest picture of what God is like. “He is the image of the invisible God,” Paul writes to the Colossians. (Col. 1:15) This is the bread that will sustain you forever. So when we sing, “Break thou the bread of life” we are pointing to Jesus as that bread, the revelation which sustains us and gives us new life.
Jesus is drawing on a long tradition of bread references, and perhaps most specifically the passage we read from Isaiah 55
For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Jesus as the Word, the revelation, the bread that goes forth to bring life and sustain life in all those whom God draws to him.
So, John’s readers might have asked, how do we partake of this bread? And here John moves to a more 1st century reading as he recalls Jesus’ words at the last supper where Jesus on sharing the bread says, “This is my body, broken for you.” And so John connects this saying of Jesus to the sharing of the Eucharist, the body and blood of Jesus.
53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day (6:53-54)
While we don’t hold to a literal transformation of the bread and the wine into the flesh and blood of Jesus, taking a more symbolic view of communion, we also understand that in sharing together in these symbols, we do encounter Jesus in a new and fresh way. When we share together in this meal, we are feeding on him, taking into ourselves and committing ourselves to continue to seek the word that comes to us in Jesus, the word that gives “spirit and life.” (6:63)
We “feed” on Jesus when we study God’s word, when we participate in sharing the Lord’s supper, when we gather together with God’s people, and when we see God at work in the world around us. Whenever we act as Jesus taught or as he gave us an example, we participate in the life of Jesus and feed on him, the bread of life. May we continue to feed on that bread today and every day.