John 6:35, 41-51
35 Jesus replied, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
41 The Jewish opposition grumbled about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”
42 They asked, “Isn’t this Jesus, Joseph’s son, whose mother and father we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
43 Jesus responded, “Don’t grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless they are drawn to me by the Father who sent me, and I will raise them up at the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets, And they will all be taught by God. Everyone who has listened to the Father and learned from him comes to me. 46 No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God. He has seen the Father. 47 I assure you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that whoever eats from it will never die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (CEB)
One great difficulty with grasping the Gospel of John, at least for us post-modern, linear thinkers, is that John’s thought process—and therefore his writing—doesn’t match ours. We expect a somewhat linear format, but John presents his story in a format that seems to spiral and dance around the center-point. It’s almost a kind of poetry in the disguise of narrative prose. Another difficulty is that the Gospel seems to be written on two levels: physical and spiritual. Some interpreters tend to spiritualize the Gospel while discarding the physical as mere allegory for that deeper, spiritual meaning. Other interpreters tend to emphasize the physical aspects while holding the spiritual inuendo in a kind of uncomfortable tension. I’m of the mind that we need to pay attention to both sides of the debate.
John chapter 6 is especially difficult. Aside from immediate thoughts of cannibalism and wondering if we’re allowed to eat Jesus’ flesh grilled or fried with a little ketchup, how are we to understand Jesus’ words in verses 41-51? Specifically, how do we eat Jesus’ flesh? That’s one of the questions we’ll explore.
But, before we get there, we need to look at how this conversation even got started. After all, it’s weird, and starting in the middle of the conversation doesn’t help. Have you ever had a conversation that got kind of weird and stopped to say, How did we get to talking about this, anyway? Sometimes, to understand what we’re talking about, we have to go back and figure out how we started the conversation to begin with.
This conversation develops out of the events in verse 24 and following. That’s when the crowds began looking for Jesus after his disciples got into trouble during a storm on the Sea of Galilee and Jesus came to them, walking on the water. When the crowd found Jesus, they asked him how he got to Capernaum because they knew he hadn’t travelled in the boat with his disciples (c.f. 6:22). Jesus didn’t answer their question. Instead, he told the people why they were and were not looking for him. They weren’t looking for him because he had done a miraculous sign, but because they ate their fill of bread when he fed the 5,000. Then, he said, “Don’t work for the food that doesn’t last but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Human One will give you. God the Father has confirmed him as his agent to give life” (John 6:27 CEB).
The people asked what they had to do to accomplish the work of God, and Jesus said they had to believe in the one whom God sent. Then, they asked what miraculous sign he would do so they could see and believe. After all, their ancestors ate bread from heaven. All Jesus gave them was a stomach-full of barley bread.
Note that this question kind of proves Jesus’ point that they hadn’t searched for him because he’d done a sign in the feeding of the 5,000. They’d just seen a sign. We were told earlier that a large crowd followed him because they’d seen the miraculous signs he’d done among the sick (6:2). It seems the people of this crowd had short-term memory loss. Or, somehow, they didn’t recognize the signs they had seen for what they were.
This is really the place where the conversation about bread begins. Jesus tells his questioners that it wasn’t Moses who gave the bread from heaven, but his father who gives the true bread from heaven. “The bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33 CEB). The people’s response was, “Sir, give us this bread all the time!” (John 6:34 CEB). That’s where our text picks up with verse 35, where Jesus said, “I am the bread of life…” (CEB).
The Jewish opposition, which is a different group from the crowds though they were likely mixed in among them, grumbled about Jesus because he said he is the bread of life. After all, some among their number were locals from Capernaum. They knew Jesus. They knew his father and his mother. They knew his identity and his origin. How could he say that he’s the bread that came down from heaven?
Jesus responds by telling them not to grumble. No one can come to him unless they’re drawn by the Father who sent him, and Jesus will raise them up on the last day. It’s curious that the word Jesus uses for drawn is found later in John 12, where Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me” (12:32 CEB). In John 6, Jesus says the Father draws people to him. In John 12, he says that he will draw people to himself. It might seem contradictory, except that we need to remember John 1, where we’re told, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (1:1 CEB). Jesus the Word and God the Father are one God together (with the Holy Spirit).
When the Father draws people to Jesus, the Father is drawing them to God. When the death of Jesus on the cross draws people to himself, he’s drawing people to God. When held together with John 12:32, verse 6:44 does not suggest there are people the Father doesn’t draw. Rather, it emphasizes that everyone who comes to Jesus does so by the grace and prodding of God.
From that grace-filled prodding comes our action of listening and learning. When we listen and learn from God, we come to Jesus who was sent by God to raise us up at the last day. Jesus assures us that whoever believes has eternal life, and he is the bread of life. He’s a different kind of bread than the manna of the wilderness that their ancestors ate. That bread filled a physical need. They ate it, and they still died. Manna in the wilderness was a gift, but it wasn’t something that had eternal consequences. In fact, it only lasted for the day on which it was gathered (c.f. Exodus 16:20).
This bread, the bread of life which is Jesus, fills a whole lot more than a physical need. Whoever eats of the bread of life will never die. When Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51 CEB), what does he mean?
To Christians, there’s an obvious connection to the Sacrament of the Eucharist: the mystery in which we eat the bread and drink the grape juice (or wine), which is the body and blood of Jesus Christ. We can be sure that Jesus is referring to a physical act of eating because, in verse 54, Jesus changes the word he’s been using for eat from φάγῃ to τρώγων, which means chew, bite, chomp, gnaw, munch and includes an element of sound. It’s loud and abrasive like crunching your way through a bag of potato chips. My wife can’t stand the sound of other people chewing, but that’s exactly what Jesus says beginning in verse 54. Because of that word change, there’s no way to spiritualize our way out of the physicality of this.
At the same time, eating is used in Ezekiel and Revelation as a way of internalizing something. In Ezekiel, the prophet said: “Then I looked, and there in a hand stretched out to me was a scroll. He spread it open in front of me, and it was filled with writing on both sides, songs of mourning, lamentation, and doom. Then he said to me: Human one, eat this thing that you’ve found. Eat this scroll and go, speak to the house of Israel. So I opened my mouth, and he fed me the scroll. He said to me: Human one, feed your belly and fill your stomach with this scroll that I give you. So I ate it, and in my mouth it became as sweet as honey. Then he said to me: Human one, go! Go to the house of Israel and speak my words to them” (Ezekiel 2:9-3:4 CEB).
In Revelation, John the Seer recounts, “‘So I went to the angel and told him to give me the scroll. He said to me, “Take it and eat it. It will make you sick to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.’ So I took the scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. And it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I swallowed it, it made my stomach churn. I was told, ‘You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages, and kings’” (Revelation 10:9-11 CEB).
In both of these texts, the prophets had to eat the scroll as a way of internalizing God’s word so they could speak it properly. Eating was a way of knowing. Psalm 34:8 tells us to “Taste and see how good the Lord is!” (CEB) as though God’s goodness is something we can sample and recognize.
In the Old Testament, salvation is often described in terms of eating. Isaiah 55 says, “All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money, at no cost, buy wine and milk! Why spend money for what isn’t food, and your earnings for what doesn’t satisfy? Listen carefully to me and eat what is good; enjoy the richest of feasts. Listen and come to me; listen, and you will live” (v.1-3b CEB). In Proverbs 9:5, Lady Wisdom invites us to “Come, eat my food, and drink the wine I have mixed” (CEB).
Life comes from eating and drinking, so it’s not surprising that such simple, life-giving acts would be used to describe the life-giving goodness of God and eternal life through belief in Jesus Christ. The bread Jesus gave for the life of the world was his flesh, nailed to a cross and killed. How do we eat the bread of Jesus, which is his flesh?
In one sense, we chew it in the Eucharist. We eat the flesh of Christ and take the grace of God into ourselves in a physical way. In another sense, eating is equated with believing in Jesus. We believe and, therefore, take God into ourselves—into our heart, mind, and soul—in a spiritual way. When we eat the living bread as Christ tells us we must do, then we will live forever. Jesus will raise us up on the last day.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay