Hungry: Jesus as the Bread of Life in John 6
My hands work quickly, moving slices of bread into place and then smearing them with a generous helping of peanut butter, followed by a glossy glaze of jelly. I press the soft bread together, the collision of salty and sweet making a faint smushy sound, and then place the two sandwiches inside my two son’s’ lunchboxes. This nightly routine has become a moment of respite for me, a way to get quiet and reflect on my own heart and the hunger hidden there.
While I worked, I thought about a piece of scripture that I was working on for my own personal study, the account found in John 6. I wondered about the mothers and fathers who set out with their small children, sometimes traveling a great distance, in order to worship at Passover. As the story unfolds, they would witness the miracle of healing and marvel at this Jesus of Nazareth, wondering, “Could he be the Messiah?” But after a long day in the dusty heat, their bellies still ached; their children still begged for supper.
On that hillside, Jesus performs a miracle of multiplication and mystery and abundance. He feeds the people and yet, they press him for more. The very same crowd that had been fed by the miracle of loaves and fishes are now asking for something else—they are asking for a signal of their liberator. The crowd asks for more food; he offers himself as the Bread of Life. They press him for more signs; he knows they will not believe. They ask, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” He replies, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:28-29).
And in this simple exchange we see the crux of Jesus’ ministry and the theme of John’s gospel come to the forefront of the narrative—if we are to know God, we must believe that Jesus was, and remains, the One and Only Way.
Just as the crowd in John 6 asks Jesus for a list of things to do to please God, things that could easily be labeled as moral, spiritual, and good, we also get distracted by all of the need around us. But Jesus’ answer is just as poignant today as it was when he first spoke it—our singular “work” is to believe on Him for our life, our satisfaction, and our eternal reward. In The Gospel and Letters of John, author and New Testament professor Dr. R. Alan Culpepper explains, “Jesus subordinates the doing of good works to the priority of the one good work, believing in him (v. 29), just as later we will see the individual sins are subordinated to unbelief, the foundation of all sin.”
But is this enough? When we look around at our modern world, we can easily get overwhelmed with the desperation that so many people face daily, of physical and spiritual proportions too great to even comprehend. How can Jesus say that our only work is to believe?
Turning back to the scene from John 6, we can almost feel the tension of the crowd as they continue to press Jesus for a sign, asking for something akin to Moses calling down manna from heaven for their ancestors. But Jesus rightly (and bluntly!) points out, “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” (John 6:49-51). He knew that the desire of the crowd was to produce something from their own effort, to work for their salvation; to do enough good things to impress God and earn a pass into heaven. Is this motive any different from our own?
But Jesus offered them something so much better. He was offering them real life, the kind that bubbles up like a spring of fresh water that will never run dry. He was saying that the only way to truly live in this world, surrounded by so much suffering and pain, is to be connected to the one, eternal, divine life-force that is God. And furthermore, the only way to achieve this connection is by believing in the One who was sent by God, as God, for the sake of us, the world. Jesus directly tells the crowd that He was sent to be given “for the life of the world,” in order that we might overcome death and truly know God. If we do not believe that this is true, that Jesus was the plan of God to save humanity, then we are operating in unbelief. There is no middle ground.
Jesus knew that this question of belief versus unbelief is the bedrock question for all of us. It challenges our assumptions about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. It makes us ask questions about our identity and purpose.
Most of all, it confronts our desire to be ruler over our own life.
The good news is that when Jesus calls himself the “living bread,” He is actually inviting us to participate in the life of God. He is offering the kind of spiritual food that will preserve us, in every circumstance. He is asserting that the things of this world—the food that fills our bellies and the good deeds that we may do—will never fully satisfy and cannot absolve our sinful state before God. We need a perfect mediator, Christ the son of God, who is capable and willing to continually sustain us through his Spirit. This is what the author of John is doing by drawing a picture of Jesus as water, and as bread, and as wine. Just as the hungry crowd asked for more bread, we are also invited to remember our need for the on-going and continually sustaining work of grace that Christ offers—His very self for all mankind.