John 6 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Jesus Reveals Himself to Be the Bread of Life
Jesus has claimed to share God's prerogatives of life-giving and judgment and has demonstrated supernatural power. Now the claims in chapter 5 and the power demonstrated in chapter 6 are put in perspective through the series of teachings around the theme of the bread of life (vv. 25-59). The deeds of power are signs of something even more wondrous than the witnesses first thought, for Jesus speaks further of his role as the giver of eternal life and of how people are to share in this life he offers. The crowd's response to this teaching illustrates the judgment that is taking place through Jesus' ministry. In this section we also receive more revelation of the relation between the Father and the Son spoken of in the keynote address.
Jesus' reply, as is often the case, is neither polite nor seemingly directed to the question asked. He responds as a holy man would, revealing their own state of heart. That they are looking for him is good (cf. 1:35-39), but Jesus says there is something wrong with their motivation. The proper motivation has to do with seeing miraculous signs (semeia, v. 26). A sign is a deed that is full of significance, revealing Jesus' identity and God's saving activity in his ministry. They had seen a miracle, but it did not focus their attention on Jesus. Rather, he was seen as a means to the filling of their stomachs (v. 26). Jesus did not come to fill stomachs with food, but to fill lives with the very presence of God, as he will make clear in this dialogue.
This crowd is focusing on the physical realm. In John the physical and the spiritual are interconnected, for the physical is spirit-bearing: the Word became flesh. The present dialogue will teach us this lesson very clearly. This crowd, then, is faulted not for their interest in the physical, but for lacking perception of the spiritual through and in the physical. The same problem afflicts some disciples today, since matter is still spirit-bearing. Too often we fail to have eyes to see and ears to hear the God who is present in our lives, through either the sacraments or the events of everyday life.
These folk had to work hard for their daily bread, so when they found a miraculous source of food this was good news. But Jesus tries to redirect their attention: Do not work for food that spoils (v. 27). Sure, they have to work for a living, but what is their deeper vocation? Their focus is on physical food, which is temporal. Like the manna in the wilderness, it does not last long. But more profoundly, the life it nourishes is also all too brief. Our physical lives of flesh and blood are given by God, and they are significant, but they are not the whole story; this life is transitory. There is a food that endures to eternal life (v. 27); it does not rot but instead nourishes real life, divine life, life that continues on forever. Jesus is repeating what he told the Samaritan woman: "Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (4:14). What do we really hunger and thirst for (cf. Mt 5:6)? What is "blue chip"--of highest value--in our lives (cf. Ward 1994: 23-29)? Are we like this crowd?
Jesus says the crowd is to work . . . for food that endures, but he also says that this is food which the Son of Man will give you (v. 27). So it is both work and gift, concepts that have often been thought to be in opposition to one another. The Son of Man will give this food by giving his own life and also by providing a means by which we may share in that life, as he explains later. Thus, the reference to the Son of Man in this passage (cf. 6:53, 62) is part of the pattern in this Gospel in which Son of Man refers to the Messiah from heaven who brings God's life and judgment, especially through the cross (cf. comment on 3:13).
Verse 27 in the NIV does not represent the word because (gar), which is important for understanding the reason Jesus, the Son of Man, can give eternal life: the Son of Man will give you [food that endures to eternal life] because on him God has placed his seal of approval. It is not clear what in particular the Father's seal of approval refers to. Has placed his seal is in the aorist (esphragisen), so it could refer to some particular event, such as the incarnation or the baptism (1:33-34). It is similar to the references to the Father's bearing witness to the Son (5:32, 37; 8:18). It means that Jesus is, as it were, the authorized dealer. Constantly Jesus is reminding us, as spelled out in his keynote address (5:19-30), that he is utterly dependent on the Father. This thought is vital for understanding everything about Jesus, not least his role in giving eternal life (cf. 6:57). It is the Father, the source of all, who has given Jesus the life that he offers here (cf. 5:21, 26).
The crowd next asks, What must we do to do the works God requires? (v. 28). This is an incredible question. How many Christians today reach the height of this question? For how many of us is this a burning question? How would we answer this question? Many would think of God's work as acting morally or doing evangelism or apologetics or even worship. As important as all of these are, Jesus goes to the heart of the matter, to the source from which all of these vital aspects of eternal life flow--belief in the one sent by God. Without this faith none of these activities benefit us. Our primary work is being receptive to God. All our actions and plans are dependent on the most important action--union with God in Christ by the Spirit. Ultimately it is not a matter of our working for God, but a matter of God's living his life and doing his work through us as we trust him and align ourselves with him by his grace (see comment on 20:27-29).
So this question by the crowd shows that they have gained some understanding since the conversation began in verse 25. They appear to be trying to get on board with Jesus' teaching, for they are talking about the work of God. But they are still missing the main point: they do not pick up on Jesus' revelation of himself and of his role in giving them the food that endures to eternal life. Instead of looking to the giver and the gift, they look to their own role. Somewhere in the midst of trying to please God it is easy to lose sight of, and lose trust in, God's own sovereign graciousness. Jesus' reply to their question sharply refocuses their attention on trust in God and his grace--The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent (v. 29). Once again Jesus describes himself by referring to the Father who sent him. Everything the crowd has said and done has failed to focus on the central figure, Jesus himself. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, has finally gotten them to face in the right direction. It is not many works that God requires but one work. And that work is to believe, to trust in Jesus as the one sent from God, as God's unique Son who offers God's grace. Jesus' work is to reveal the Father (cf. 4:34), and our work is to receive that revelation and align our lives with it.
Once again we see the overwhelming grace of God and his amazing patience with our dullness and stupidity. Just as he worked through the Samaritan woman's misunderstandings to bring her to faith, so here he works with an unpromising situation to get the people to see what is right before their eyes. This is great good news for all of us, for we are also quite dull at times. We too can have stiff necks. Fortunately, as John Shea has said, God has a stiffer neck! We can take great comfort in his patience and the picture we see in this account of his working in all human hearts. We can be assured that God is trying to break through to the heart of every person we come in contact with, and he may want to use us in the process.
While there is much comfort in what we see here in Jesus' dealings with the crowd, we should not take false comfort. The folk in this crowd will end up rejecting Jesus. Indeed, almost all of Jesus' disciples will reject him by the end of the chapter, at least for the present. God's patience is forever, but we can reject him and reject the gift of life he offers. Jesus' presence not only brings the offer of eschatological blessing, but also includes the threat of eschatological danger. The stakes are high for us and everyone we meet.
Many Christians, as John Wesley said, have just enough religion to be miserable. They are like this crowd, missing God's gift of life in his Son. They are not experiencing abiding life, which will be described in this chapter. We, like this crowd, need God's help to understand who Jesus is and what he offers us. We also need help to appropriate this gift of divine life.
Jesus focused their attention on the importance of believing in the one sent by God (6:29). As good Jews they are already aware of how important such faith is. This is quite in keeping with their loyalty to Moses as the one sent from God (5:45; 9:28-29). But they realize that Jesus is talking not about Moses, but about himself (6:27). So they ask, What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? (v. 30). These are amazing questions, for this crowd is actually willing to entertain the possibility that Jesus is in the same league as Moses. The Samaritan woman was willing to consider the possibility that Jesus is greater than Jacob, and in this faith she was brought closer to him. This crowd seems to have a similar willingness, but the results will not be as good.
The NIV, and the interpretation of most commentators, understands these questions as a request for a sign, with the assumption that the crowd goes on to suggest something along the lines of Moses' provision of bread in the desert (v. 31). But this is strange since they have, in fact, just been given bread in the desert. It could be that they are extremely dense or that they are suggesting Jesus' feeding was inferior to Moses'. Yet they had seen in this last sign reason to make him king (6:15), so the questions in verse 30 are puzzling. Indeed, a number of scholars suspect that they are evidence of a patchwork of more than one source.
However, a more satisfactory interpretation is found when we take the verbs in the sentence, which are in the present tense, as referring to the present rather than the future: "What sign therefore are you doing, that we may see and believe you? What work are you doing?" The crowd is not asking for another sign to be given, but rather they want an interpretation of the feeding that has just occurred. Verse 31 then follows quite naturally, for the feeding reminds them of what happened through Moses in the desert. The quote from Scripture cited by the crowd is not an exact quote of a particular verse. It is a summary of several passages, including Exodus 16:4, Nehemiah 9:15 and Psalm 78:24-25. Given the fact that some Jews viewed Moses as a king (see comment on 6:15), the questions in verse 31 would seem to be the crowd's way of seeking confirmation from Jesus that their interpretation of the miracle was correct. They are suggesting that Jesus should allow them to get on with the coronation.
Jesus' response (v. 32) follows a pattern familiar in rabbinic teaching styles (Borgen 1965:61-67). Jesus corrects what he understands to be their interpretation of the Scripture just cited. He who gave them bread was not Moses but my Father, and the giving of the true bread was not past (has given) but present (gives). The claims implied in these changes are astonishing. He is not claiming to be a giver of bread like Moses. Rather, he focuses their attention of the real giver, God. But he identifies God as my Father, thus making himself and his relationship with God the defining expression of God. Such an enormous claim is then backed up with the focus on the present: his Father is giving them bread. This bread is the true bread from heaven (v. 32), the real bread that is the source and standard of all else that can be called "bread from heaven." God is the one who always provides bread, but now in the person and ministry of Jesus, the Father is doing a unique work. Jesus is far more than the giver of bread like Moses was; he is the bread itself, as he is about to make clear.
This style of interpreting Scripture is very typical of the way Christians in the New Testament understand the Old Testament (see comment on 2:22). Jesus is the interpretive key. As the Word and Wisdom of God, he is the fount of all revelation to begin with. It all points to him and coheres in him. This way of interpreting Scripture differs from many modern forms of interpretation, but is not incompatible with them. Unless we interpret the Scriptures in the same way that the authors of the New Testament did, we will miss the great organic beauty of the revelation and its coherent truth.
Jesus continues by explaining (gar, translated for) more about this bread his Father is giving them (v. 33). The language used here is subtle. It could refer to a person coming from heaven, as the NIV takes it: he who comes down from heaven. Or the reference could be more general: the bread of God is "that which" comes down from heaven. Jesus is, of course, referring to himself, as he makes clear in the next section. But the crowd hears it in the more general sense, and they say, from now on give us this bread (v. 34). The phrase from now on translates pantote, which simply means "always." The crowd wants an unending supply of this bread, perhaps like the Samaritan woman wanted a continuous supply of water so she would not have to go to the well again (4:15). Once the crowd realizes he is referring to himself, however, they become far less receptive (6:41)!
Jesus continues to correct their thinking about Moses and the bread as he explains that this bread of God gives life to the world (v. 33). The scope of God's concern is not just Israel, as it was in the wilderness, but the whole of the world (cf. 3:16). And the need is not just for sustenance, but for life itself. The world, apart from God, is dead. Our need is extreme and radical. We need a new birth (cf. 3:3), for apart from Christ we have no real life and are under God's wrath (cf. 3:36). By telling this Jewish crowd that the Father gives you this bread and then saying that it gives life to the world, Jesus includes this Jewish crowd in "the world." Salvation in Jesus does indeed come from the Jews (4:22), but it is also for the Jews. Recent "two-covenant theology," which asserts that God saves Jews through his covenant with them apart from Jesus the Christ, is not in accord with the truth as it is in Christ Jesus.
Jesus grants the crowd's request to receive this bread (vv. 35-40). This request for bread from heaven is met by a revelation similar to that received by the woman of Samaria: when she requested the water, Jesus responded by revealing himself to her. As always, Jesus' revelation of himself means a revelation of his relationship with the Father. Here the revelation of the relation of the Father and the Son is centered on the work of redemption, developing further what was revealed in the keynote address (5:19-30).
Jesus claims, I am the bread of life (v. 35). Seven times in John the phrase I am is used with a predicate, including the passages on bread of life (6:35, 51); the light of the world (8:12; 9:5); the gate (10:7, 9); the Good Shepherd (10:11, 14); the resurrection and the life (11:25); the way, the truth and the life (14:6); and the true vine (15:1, 5). "The predicate is not an essential definition or description of Jesus in himself; it is more a description of what he is in relation to man" (Brown 1966:534). In these sayings Jesus' own identity and the salvation he offers are brought together (cf. Witherington 1995:158). It is in union with him that believers receive his salvation.
He is claiming to be that which one needs in order to have life and continue to live. What he said earlier about the one sent from God (v. 29) and the bread coming down from heaven (v. 33) is now clearly identified with himself. Here is the revelation of the significance of the feeding of the five thousand: it was a sign of who Jesus is--the fount of life (5:26) who gives life (5:21).
Jesus as bread is a very rich image in which we can see connections with God's Word. We are not to "live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD" (Deut 8:3). The idea of the Torah as bread was common in Jewish thinking. At times it is combined with the Wisdom motif, as when Wisdom says, "Those who eat me will hunger for more, and those who drink me will thirst for more" (Sirach 24:21). This Wisdom is identified as "the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law which Moses commanded us as an inheritance for the congregations of Jacob" (Sirach 24:23). Jesus' claim (Jn 6:35) thus makes his teaching superior to the Torah. Jesus later makes this point more explicit: "The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life" (6:63).
Jesus, the bread of life, promises, He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty (v. 35). He expands the promise he made to the Samaritan woman (4:10, 13-14), vowing to satisfy not just thirst but hunger. He makes this promise not privately to an individual, but openly to a crowd. What is required of us is that we come to him and believe. Jesus had chastised the Jewish opponents for refusing to come to him and receive life (5:40), but now he is talking to a crowd that has indeed come to him, even at the cost of some effort (6:22-25). So something more than coming to Jesus is needed, and that something more, as our verse indicates, is faith. But even this is not the whole story, since we have already seen people professing to believe in him who do not do so in truth (2:23-25).
What, then, is needed in order to come to Jesus and actually receive what he offers? In this central section of chapter 6 we have one of the major teachings on why some receive and some do not. There are two sides to this mystery--the divine and the human. On the human side, 6:35 says we need to come and believe, and later it is said we must hear and learn from the Father (v. 45). But behind the human is the divine (v. 45). Those who come and receive have been given to Jesus by his Father (v. 37); they have been drawn by the Father (v. 44). The divine will is fundamental, for "no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him" (6:65; literally, "it is granted him by the Father").
Thus, the will of the Father is fundamental. Jesus has asserted this to be true in his own life (5:19), and he repeats this in 6:38. What is true for Jesus is also true for his disciples. It is God's gracious action in our lives that saves us from beginning to end. God's choice has been fundamental from the beginning, starting with the act of creation itself and continuing through the acts of redemption from the Fall through the call of Abraham, Jacob/Israel and so forth. The biblical teaching is not, however, mere determinism. For example, Jesus has chosen the Twelve, but one of them was "a devil" (Jn 6:70).
Along with the revelation of God's sovereignty is the revelation of his desire that all be saved (1 Tim 2:4). He is the savior of all, though only those who receive him benefit from that salvation (cf. 1 Tim 4:10). Indeed, we have one of the universal invitations in chapter 7: "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink" (Jn 7:37).
It is a mystery how salvation can be open to all yet dependent on the will of God. Several explanations have been offered over the centuries (cf. Browne 1998: 401-42), but they all seem to collapse one side of the mystery or the other. In practical terms, this dual teaching of Scripture leads us to two responses. The first is a life of praise and joy in the revelation of a gracious heavenly Father who is utterly good and completely for us. The second is a life of real effort, taking seriously our Lord's call to enter the narrow gate (Mt 7:13) and to persevere to the end (Mt 10:22; Mt 24:13 par. Mk 13:13 par. Lk 21:19). We heed the warnings in Hebrews about drifting, hardness of heart and rebellion (Heb 2:1-4; 3:7--4:13; 5:11--6:20; 10:26-39; 12:14-29), and we obey the risen Lord's call in Revelation to be one who conquers (Rev 2--3).
These two responses are not separate from one another, because we can only do our part by relying on God's grace. We work out our salvation because he is at work within us "to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil 2:12-13). Without Christ abiding in us we can do nothing (Jn 15:5). All is of grace. It is not so much a matter of just living for him, but a matter of living from him as we abide in him.
After revealing the truth about himself Jesus proceeds to reveal to this crowd the truth about themselves: But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe (v. 36). They saw his sign (v. 26), but it did not function as a sign for them. They saw him with their physical eyes, but they did not have the faith that sees the revelation of the Father in what Jesus was doing. Therefore, they do not qualify for the benefits Jesus has just spelled out (v. 35). By revealing their condition to them Jesus is exercising the judgment that is part of his job description (5:22). The light comes and reveals not only God's presence but also the state of the human heart.
Jesus goes on to explain why they do not believe. The Father is the God who wills salvation, and Jesus is the agent of that will (vv. 37-40). Jesus begins with God's grace, that is, his act of giving: All that the Father gives me will come to me (v. 37). We just heard of the Father as the one giving them true bread from heaven (v. 32), and now the Father gives disciples to Jesus (cf. 17:2, 6, 9, 24). We are the Father's gift to his Son (cf. Loyd 1936:89)! Again the Father is seen to be the source of all. In one sense believers come to the Father through the Son (cf. 14:6), but in another sense they were already the Father's before they became disciples of Jesus. At this point we are at the edge of a great mystery, peering into the ineffable realms of eternity. Here we have a clear affirmation of divine sovereignty. If this text were all we had in this Gospel on this topic, then we would be confronted with pure and simple determinism. We have already noted, however, that the teaching in John's Gospel is more complex than that.
This text also affirms that no one who is to come to the Son will fail to do so. Yet deeper comfort is conveyed when Jesus adds, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away (v. 37). The combination of all in the first part of the verse and will never drive away in the second part of the verse (very emphatic in the Greek; cf. Wallace 1996:468) has made this text the source of great comfort to many believers. Some, however, have misused it, as though a someone's one-time decision for Jesus guarantees a ticket into heaven, assuring salvation no matter how ungodly a life one then lives. We are not to sin that grace may abound (Rom 6:1)! Salvation is a matter of sharing in God's life through an intimate relationship with him. The one who has such a relationship will not live a life characterized by contempt and rebellion, even though we all have pockets of resistance as we live out the war between flesh and Spirit (Gal 5). Our assurance is not in our decision to follow Jesus, but in the graciousness and faithfulness of the Father and the Son who hold fast to those who are of God.
But how do I know whether or not I am one of those who are of God? Any number of people have been driven to despair by this question. The teaching of the Bible on assurance is many sided, but at the end of the day it comes down to trusting God for our salvation. Since we know he wills all to be saved we can be sure that we are included. The only way for that salvation to be effectual in a person's life is by God's grace. So we trust him for that grace, and we live our lives accordingly. In this way our assurance is complete because our confidence is entirely in him. Our job is to receive, trusting him for both the ability to receive and the obedience that is part of the life of salvation. The Christian life is both a resting in God and a supreme effort.
The reason Jesus will not drive away any that the Father gives him is because he has not come to do his own will but the will of him who sent him (v. 38). Jesus' complete obedience is fundamental to his relationship with the Father. In this he is the model of true discipleship.
He then expands further his message of assurance: And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day (v. 39). Not only will he not drive them away, but nothing else will be able to tear them from him. The security is complete. As Paul says, nothing can separate us from the love of God (Rom 8:35-39). Neither an evil impulse from within God (as if such a thing existed) nor evil forces from within or without ourselves can thwart God's gracious gift of eternal life in the Son.
This gift is already experienced in this life, but is not for this life only. Jesus adds a reference to the believer's resurrection, another indication that Jesus is expanding on his keynote address (5:27-29). Jesus concludes this section by combining both the present and the future aspects of salvation: For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day (v. 40). In this one statement the major themes of this section are brought together--the Father's will, human seeing and believing and the gift of eternal life.
Here is the antinomy of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. If we only had verse 40, then the teaching of this Gospel regarding salvation would be based in human decision. When we put the determinism of verse 37 alongside the decisionism of verse 40 we see the two parts of the antinomy, both of which are brought together in Jesus. Our response to him reveals the truth about ourselves in relation to God and thus whether or not we share in God's eternal life.
The description of the people grumbling recalls the response the children of Israel in the wilderness had to the Lord's salvation (Ex 15--17; Num 14--17; 21:4-5; Deut 1:27; Ps 106:25; Sirach 46:7). Now they grumble because of Jesus' claim to be the bread of life. As with Nathaniel (1:46), their problem is with where Jesus is from. They know Joseph and Jesus' mother (6:42), and they judge Jesus' claims on the basis of what they think they already know. It seems they believe that a being who has come from heaven would not have earthly parents. This helps highlight the central claim Jesus is making, his divine origin (6:33, 38, 41, 50-51, 58), and also the fact that the divine has come amongst us within humanity. Here, in the incarnation, is the supreme example of matter as spirit-bearing.Jesus calls upon them to stop grumbling (v. 43), to not repeat the pattern of their ancestors but instead to respond in faith. It is, in effect, a call to repent. But the only way they could stop grumbling would be to become receptive of his teaching about himself. This they are incapable of doing.
Jesus says that by their response they are judging themselves. Their rejection of him reveals their relationship with God, for no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him (v. 43). In putting it this way Jesus indicates that he and the believer have the same origin, the Father. The Father sent the Son and the Father draws the believer. Earlier he said all that the Father gives me will come to me (v. 37). Now he restates that teaching from the point of view of his Father's work in the believer.
By repeating his promise to raise the believer at the last day (v. 44; cf. v. 39) Jesus is claiming to be the one who fulfills the promises of resurrection in the age to come. This future hope is combined in this discourse with a present fulfillment, for Jesus will shortly say that those who eat the bread of heaven will not die but will live forever (vv. 50-51).
Jesus confirms and explains his teaching about the role of the Father with a quote from Isaiah 54:13--It is written in the Prophets: "They will all be taught by God" (v. 45). Isaiah 54 speaks of God's future restoration of Jerusalem to intimacy with himself. By applying this text to his own ministry, Jesus is claiming that the eschatological blessings of the last day are already being experienced in his ministry; God's promise to Jerusalem is being fulfilled now. Those who know Jesus' real identity understand how this is so, for they realize that those hearing Jesus are themselves being taught by God! But the point Jesus makes is different. He is explaining the way the Father draws people. He does so by teaching, as the rest of the verse makes clear: Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. To listen and to learn require humility, a key characteristic of disciples in this Gospel. The one who listens to God and learns will be taught by God and be drawn to Jesus, for Jesus is the one who speaks God's word and manifests his presence. Here we have a very profound reflection on the mystery of the roles of the divine and the human in a person's coming to faith. Indeed, faith itself includes receptive openness to God. Thus, the drawing by God and the reception of the person are intimately interwoven (cf. Bultmann 1971:231-32).
Jesus' claim that everyone who listens and learns from God will come to him is both a comfort and a challenge. It is comforting because it says no one who is really open to God will be left out. But it is also a challenge because it is another one of Jesus' claims to unique, supreme authority. God has indeed not left himself without a witness. General revelation has made something of the truth about himself known, and certainly the Scriptures have done so more clearly. But all such knowledge of God is partial and finds its fulfillment and point of reference in Jesus. All revelation before or outside of Jesus leads one to come to him. When a Jew or Muslim or Buddhist or other religious person who has really learned from God sees Jesus in truth (not as he is too often revealed by Christians' poor witness) they will recognize in him the fullness of what they have already learned. Thus, we once again find in this Gospel the scandal of the Christian claims of Jesus' exclusive supremacy.
Jesus' supreme authority is further established in the next verse when he explains that no one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father (v. 46). Jesus' shift from hearing God to seeing him is probably significant. The Old Testament is saturated with references to people who have heard God, but it is more ambiguous about those who have received a vision of God (see comment on 1:18). The emphasis in this Gospel is that no one has seen God (1:18; 5:37; cf. 1 Jn 4:12), yet those who have seen Jesus have seen the Father (14:8-9). Thus, John again denies the claims of the mystics (cf. comments on 1:18 and 3:13). So the exalted claims about Jesus are matched by the claims John makes for the believers. He claims they have eternal life (v. 47), which goes beyond what the rabbis or the mystics claimed for themselves. The believer not only encounters God but actually comes to share in his life, a thought that will be developed in the Jesus' farewell discourse (13:31--17:26).
Jesus now concludes this section of his teaching by returning to the story of God's provision of manna in the wilderness (vv. 48-50; cf. vv. 32-35). He repeats his claim to be the bread of life and draws out the significance of the word life. This bread he speaks of is a food that keeps one from dying, in contrast to the manna eaten by the wilderness generation, who nevertheless died. Obviously, any food keeps one from dying for a period of time; it sustains life. Jesus, however, is talking about food that is much more powerful than regular food, for the one who eats this bread will live forever (v. 51). It is God's own life that is shared through this bread.
What sort of bread could give eternal life? Jesus' teaching comes to a head as he declares, This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world (v. 51). The Word that became flesh (1:14) now says he will give his flesh for the life of the world, so that the world may have life. Giving of life to the world (v. 33) requires that he give his flesh. This giving is in the future, so it refers to more than his teaching. It is also on behalf of (hyper) the life of the world, which suggests sacrifice (see comment on 10:11). Christ's death is indeed a sacrifice on behalf of his flock (10:11, 15), the Jewish people (11:50-51), the nations (11:52) and his disciples (17:19; cf. Beasley-Murray 1987:94).
This crowd has now received the interpretation of the sign as they had requested (6:30). Earlier the Jews had asked for a sign to legitimate Jesus' action in the temple, and he had spoken of the temple of his body and of his death and resurrection (2:18-21). Now this crowd has received teaching about the manna of his flesh and about how the divine gift of eternal life will be given through the Messiah's death. Here is a cryptic saying indeed! His reference to his flesh only heightens the scandal, as we see in the next scene.
Jesus begins by revealing more sharply our need of the life he offers: I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (v. 53). He claims that the life he is talking about is not merely some optional gift that we can afford to ignore. Apart from the life he offers, we are dead. Here is a claim as demanding as are his earlier claims about his own identity and what he offers to those who believe in him (vv. 30-51). Our utter neediness is seen clearly when set against the greatness of his offer: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day (v. 54). Jesus is promising a new quality of life now and resurrection in the future.
He says, my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink (v. 55). What does real mean here? C. K. Barrett captures part of what Jesus is saying when he explains, "My flesh and blood really are what food and drink should be, they fulfill the ideal, archetypal function of food and drink" (1978:299). This insight is confirmed by what follows: Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him (v. 56). The eating and the drinking has to do with shared life, mutual indwelling. In the physical realm one of the most powerful examples of shared life is eating and drinking--the laying down of life by a plant or animal and the interpenetration of life as molecules are transferred, thereby nourishing life. So once again Jesus' mystifying words are referring to something that could not be understood until after his death, resurrection and ascension and the coming of the Spirit. His death will be the ultimate laying down of life; his resurrection, ascension and sending the Spirit bring onto the human scene the new possibility of actually sharing in the life of God (cf. 17:21-23) as he, the incarnate one, has shared in our life.
The ultimate source of our life is the Father, as Jesus next explains: Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me (v. 57). Our union with the Son enables us to share his life, just as he in turn lives because of the Father. Once again we find the full explanation of who Jesus is and of what he offers when we understand his relationship with the Father. There is an ordering in this relationship, a clear hierarchy, for the Father is the source of all. Our life is entirely dependent on Jesus, as is his on the Father (cf. chaps. 13--17).
In this section, therefore, Jesus is speaking of his death and the shared life that his death will make possible. The language of eating and drinking "appear to be a very graphic way of saying that men must take Christ into their innermost being" (Morris 1971:378). There may also be an allusion to martyrdom, to sharing in the way of the cross (Michaels 1989:116), for "there can be no participation in the life of God except by an equally concrete factual participation in the self-surrender of Jesus" (Newbigin 1982:86). More controversial is whether there is reference here also to the Eucharist.
There are several hints in the text that Jesus is referring to the sacrament here. First, the image of drinking Christ's blood (6:53) does not correspond to the starting point, namely, to the feeding of the five thousand and the manna in the wilderness. Jesus started with the simple image of bread, and now he brings in the idea of blood and drink. Drinking blood is not a natural image for receiving his revelation, though it might be suggestive of receiving his life, since "the life of every creature is its blood" (Lev 17:14; Deut 12:23). But it is a very scandalous image for a Jew since drinking any blood, let alone human blood, was forbidden by the law (Lev 3:17; 17:14; Deut 12:23). Second, although the reference to "real" food and drink (6:55) means this eating and drinking "fulfill the ideal, archetypal function of food and drink" (Barrett 1978:299), it does not mean that this eating and drinking are something other than actual eating and drinking. This is archetypal, "real" (alethes) food and drink, just as Nathaniel was "really" (alethos), archetypically, an Israelite (1:47). Being archetypal did not mean Nathaniel was not also an actual Israelite, nor would the flesh and blood's being archetypal food and drink necessarily mean they are not also actual food and drink. If there is a reference here to actual food and drink, then it must refer somehow to the Eucharist since there is nothing else to which it would correspond. We know from the Synoptics and Paul that Jesus commanded us to observe this rite and that Christians did indeed do so. Christians then, as now, naturally find reference here to the Eucharist unless controversies lead them to find some other explanation.
A third hint is found in the occurrence of the verb form of Eucharist (eucharisteo) earlier in this story (6:11, 23). This may be significant since it is rather superfluous in verse 23. Fourth, the wording of verse 53 follows the pattern given in the Synoptic account of the institution of the Eucharist; for example, Matthew 26:26-28 reads, "Take and eat; this is my body. . . . Drink. . . . This is my blood" (cf. Brown 1966:284-85). A fifth hint is the word used for eats in 6:54. Instead of esthio, which is used elsewhere in this chapter (6:5, 23, 26, 31, 49-53, 58), John uses trogo (also in 6:56-58). While esthio is often used metaphorically, trogo is not; it is a word tied almost entirely to the physical process of eating food.
If there is indeed reference here to the Eucharist, a number of questions are raised, and we must be careful not to read into this text all of the later controversies and refinements. The most obvious point of the text would be that there is some connection between partaking of Christ's flesh and blood in the Eucharist and having eternal life. This would be puzzling, since it appears to put this activity on the level of faith. Both faith and this eating and drinking would be necessary for eternal life (6:47, 51). Apparently, it is not for nothing that our Lord commands us to hold Eucharist (1 Cor 11:25)!
This parallel between faith and Eucharist does not, however, deny the primacy of faith. If both are necessary for life, faith is still the more primary in that it is necessary for obtaining the benefits of the Eucharist. God's life is available in the Eucharist because he promises to be present. We do not attract him there or make him present by our faith. He is present where people gather for Eucharist at his command. But if we do not appropriate it rightly by faith, it may do us no good or even cause harm (cf. 1 Cor 10:1-22; 11:27-30). The actual life-giving efficacy in feeding is only appropriated by faith--the Eucharist is not magically efficacious. The Eucharist is a point of contact with divine reality; it is a means of grace, a means of God's power and life in our lives. But it is not a way to manipulate God, nor does it make this spiritual contact by magic, apart from God's own gracious activity and a person's response of faith.
To say the Eucharist is necessary for eternal life is not necessarily as scandalous as it might seem at first. In the strictest sense of the word, very little is absolutely essential, as the thief on the cross demonstrates: all he had was faith in Jesus as the King of the Jews and a desire to be with him. Jesus here is talking about that which is generally necessary. "The sacrament is normally necessary; but it is the communion alone that is vital" (Temple 1945:95); abiding in him on the basis of his sacrificial death is what is essential. In a sense, the necessity of the Eucharist would be similar to saying one must be a member of the church. Here also we could get embroiled in controversies. But suffice it to say, the church in the New Testament is the locus of divine life, the very body of Christ. Eucharist is one of the central features of church life, and it actually effects our oneness, according to Paul (1 Cor 10:16-17). It is an occasion on the social level that feeds the spiritual life by getting in touch with the divine love of God manifest in the divine self-giving on the cross. The New Testament knows nothing of a Christianity apart from the church. The New Testament is very concrete. It points to this man Jesus and says he is the Son of God. And it points to this community and says, Here is the body of Christ, the center of divine life on earth in its fullest expression. The necessity of the Eucharist is a part of the necessity of the church. It is a part of God's dealing with us as material and relational beings.
Here, then, is some of the deepest New Testament teaching about the Eucharist. The focus of this teaching is on sacrifice and shared life. These are inseparable since there is no sharing of life without the laying down of life. The once-for-all sacrifice of Christ is the pouring out of his life for the life of the world, bringing forgiveness and a new power of life. That sacrifice also shows us the deepest reality about God--his love--and about life: all true life is sacrificial. Life is a matter of exchange: my life for yours, yours for mine. In this sacrificial web of exchange we find the communion, the community, of the Godhead. At Eucharist we receive into ourselves, into our bodies and souls, the life-giving power of God, and precisely by eating and drinking we proclaim the Lord's once-for-all death until he comes (1 Cor 11:26).
The insistence on the Eucharist, this physical activity for eternal life, is theologically and spiritually very important. It protects us from an overly cerebral or falsely spiritual form of Christianity. Salvation itself is something that encompasses all of life. It is a transformation of life and a renewal of life, including physical life. Salvation is not simply a matter of having right opinions or even right actions. Indeed, it is something larger than the human dimension, since all of creation is involved (Rom 8). John teaches us not to simply embrace spirit and oppose matter like the Gnostics did. The incarnate one in his very incarnation has shown physical matter to be "spiritual," that is, to share in divine life. Our bodies themselves are to be transformed. So the imagery involved in eating and drinking, in notions of laying down life and interpenetration, is present in this passage and in the Eucharist itself. But more than mere imagery is present--eternal life is present. The divine and human realms meet in the flesh of Jesus, and that is what a sacrament is: a material point of contact between physical and spiritual reality. Jesus' own body is the convergence of these realms, and he provides points of contact for the nourishment of his body, the church. This passage is referring to Christ's death and our life in him, as is the Eucharist. So it is fitting that the Eucharist is alluded to here, though the primary reference is to Jesus' death and the life he offers.
Obviously, this teaching is especially unclear to these people. They do not understand Jesus' identity, nor do they catch the allusion to his death, let alone the way the Lord will provide for his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood. This cryptic, scandalous teaching took place openly in Capernaum in the synagogue (6:59), which is the place where the Torah is expounded. In the Capernaum synagogue on this particular day the eternal Word himself is giving the manna of a greater revelation.
Jesus Demonstrates His Authority in Two Nature Miracles
Jesus Experiences Rejection by His Disciples
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