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The Life of Jesus - Series 6: Episode 7

Jesus - the bread of life

| Martin Charlesworth
John 6:22-59

This discourse is only recorded in John's Gospel. It relates to the miracle of feeding 5000. Are the people following to see more miracles or do they want to truly identify with him, his suffering and the life he offers?

This discourse is only recorded in John's Gospel. It relates to the miracle of feeding 5000. Are the people following to see more miracles or do they want to truly identify with him, his suffering and the life he offers?


Hello and welcome to our next episode. We're in Series 6 and this is Episode 7 and the topic is ‘Jesus, the Bread of Life’. We're in John 6: 22 - 59.

Introduction and Recap

I hope you've been following Series 6 all the way through, but if you haven't, you can join the story at this point, of course, but the way we structure these series is following the story closely, trying to join together things in the narrative that really matter and are well-connected in the mind of the gospel writers. Going back to Series 3 - that's when Jesus started his public ministry in Galilee. Series 4 was the Sermon on the Mount. Series 5 was his second tour around Galilee, but this time he had his apostles with him and this led to an important moment that provides the start of Series 6, which is that Jesus then moved to a different strategy which is sending the twelve Apostles out in pairs around Galilee to preach, teach and to heal. That was a major development in his ministry which we noted at the beginning of this series. That was followed by, in Episode 4, telling the story of the tragic execution of John the Baptist by the local, regional ruler Herod Antipas, or Herod the Tetrarch, and you'll probably remember the story of the circumstances of his execution. This was a really difficult moment in the ministry of Jesus and it led him to retreat with his Apostles to get away from the crowds. The problem was, he was very popular with the crowds; he was reaching the height of his popularity, but the fact that Herod Antipas had executed John the Baptist suggests the possibility that his next target was Jesus himself and Herod Antipas and Jesus - their headquarters Tiberius and Capernaum, the two towns on the western side of the Sea of Galilee - were only a short distance apart, so it was a time of real vulnerability for Jesus. He took his twelve Apostles away from Capernaum, his headquarters, around the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee to an area near the town of Bethsaida, only just a few kilometres along the coast.

As we saw in the previous episode when we looked at the feeding of the 5000, which was in Episode 5, we noticed that when Jesus tried to retreat, huge crowds followed him. This is the immediate background to the episode that we're going to talk about today. It's actually the feeding of the 5000. This is told in all four Gospels. We're going to follow John's story because John develops the story by telling us of an absolutely amazing dialogue that took place between Jesus and the crowd shortly after the feeding of the 5000 back in Capernaum. That's what we're going to talk about now. On the way back, Jesus asked his disciples to go by boat - the boat they'd obtained to go back to Capernaum. He went on his own to pray and he joined them miraculously walking on water in a stormy situation on the Sea of Galilee in the famous incident that we saw in Episode 6.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand

We're taking up the story very shortly after the feeding of the 5000. The feeding of the 5000 was a huge miracle - 5000 men, possibly another 5, 6 or 7000 women and children as well. We could have 10,000 plus people being fed on the hillside miraculously by the breaking of the bread and the multiplication of the bread, and the fishes likewise. We told that story very clearly in the episode two before this one. We're taking up the story straight away - it had a huge impact on the crowds - and they dispersed gradually. Some people stayed in the area, some people wanted to look for Jesus to talk to him further and the story is left slightly unfinished. John completes the story by telling us what happened in the immediate period after this. This is when Jesus begins to teach about the concept of him being the bread of life, taking up the theme of bread and feeding from the feeding of the 5000, bearing in mind that bread was the staple food of Jewish people at that time, as it is for many people in the world today. You might live in a country where rice is the staple food, so that would be the equivalent, but in their context bread was the staple food. He'd fed the crowd of many thousands on the hillside with bread that was multiplied, and this symbol is going to be absolutely central to what we talk about in this episode.

Jesus Returns to Capernaum

We take up the story with John 6: 22-24 which I'm going to read. This introduces the discussion.

22The next day the crowd that had stayed on the opposite shore of the lake realized that only one boat had been there, and that Jesus had not entered it with his disciples, but that they had gone away alone. 23Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.’

John 6:22-24, NIV

You'll remember that Jesus had returned to Capernaum in the boats, having joined the disciples after walking on water. He's gone back to Capernaum and, as we described before on a number of occasions, Capernaum is the base, the headquarters of Jesus' ministry. It's the home of some of the disciples, notably Peter and his family, and Jesus was based there. This is where he came back to after he'd been travelling around different parts of Galilee and nearby districts. He comes back to Capernaum now and many people are following him back, including this particular group who are going to be the subject of this discussion because, as we'll see in the next few verses, they start asking questions of Jesus, which provokes some very profound teaching from him. You can imagine the situation: everybody's heard that Jesus had performed this astonishing miracle, which is a really unusual miracle - it's not the sort of thing he did regularly. This is the first time we've got such a remarkable multiplication of food, and it happens again with the feeding of 4000 a little later - in a different location. People would be really buzzing with the news of this extraordinary miracle that had happened and then Jesus goes back to Capernaum and we find at the end of our passage, in verse 59, that the teaching that we're just about to discuss took place while Jesus was in the synagogue of Capernaum. You can imagine the scene - a huge crowd on the hillside, many people coming back to Capernaum, milling around the streets and as many as could squeeze into the synagogue came to talk to Jesus at this particular point. They were hoping that Jesus was going to create a political revolution at this point because it says in John 6: 15 at the feeding of the 5000,

‘Jesus knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force withdrew again to a mountain by himself’.

John 6:15, NIV
Jesus Begins to Teach about spiritual Bread

This was a moment of heightened popularity and he was wanting to teach into this situation. He uses metaphorical language all the way through the teaching that we're going to look at. He's talking particularly about the metaphor of bread - not literal bread but spiritual bread, and in the light of the feeding of the 5000. Let's read the first section, verses 25 to 29,

25When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here? ”26Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval. ”28Then they asked him, “What must we do, to do the works God requires? 29Jesus answered “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’

John 6:15-29, NIV

Jesus contrasts normal physical food with spiritual food. The spiritual food is basically having faith in Christ, believing in him and putting your trust in him, because the spiritual food of believing in Christ leads to eternal life. You can earn your daily bread, you can get enough money to eat, you can fulfil your material needs now but that's all temporary. Jesus said that the really important eternal thing is to eat the food that brings you eternal life, and, metaphorically speaking, that means connecting to Jesus Christ by faith. He challenges them here about their motives. Did you come to see the miracles just for your own benefit, just because you're hungry so you eat the food that I can miraculously produce? Or are you interested in the deeper questions? That's what he is provoking them to think about at this point. Let's read on, verses 30 to 33

30So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’32Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

John 6:30-33, NIV

They're referring back to the days when the Jewish people were in the wilderness. Having come out from Egypt - escaped from Egypt and from slavery - and before they'd entered into the promised land, there was a 40 year period where miraculously while they were in the desert - we call it the Sinai Desert, south of Israel today - every single day God provided a miraculous substance called manna which was like bread, which they found every morning when they woke up, wherever they were in the Sinai Desert, which they could eat and it supplied their essential needs. That's what they were referring to and is a precursor - it's an image of something that Jesus develops here. That manna was miraculous but again it didn't last permanently. Jesus is leading them on from an understanding of miraculous bread in the Old Testament to say that this miraculous ‘bread of life’ in the New Testament, which is associated with his person, faith in him and following his ways.

Jesus said ‘I am the Bread of Life’

We come to verses 34 - 40 which is the main teaching that Jesus brings in this section.

34“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread. ”35Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. 36But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.”

John 6:34-40, NIV

This is a magnificent passage. It's a famous passage and it starts with this wonderful statement of Jesus identifying who he is by a metaphor, an image - I am the bread of life. There are seven different images like this in the gospel of John. This is the first of seven statements which starts with ‘I am’ and then there's an image or a metaphor to describe an aspect of who Jesus is. Here it says ‘I am the bread of life’ and ‘whoever comes to me will never go hungry, whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’. Jesus provides for the most fundamental needs of each human person. Just as our most fundamental needs in the physical sense are to eat enough food and to have enough water to drink - this is absolutely the most fundamental thing for us as humans - so in a spiritual sense our most fundamental need is the salvation that Jesus brings and the eternal life that follows, and this comes through active faith in him. Jesus is drawing them away from just observing his miracles, being close to him, being interested in what he does, to ask them a deeper question: Do you actually believe in me as the Son of Man, the Son of God, the Saviour of the world? Do you actually put your trust in me because I am the bread of life? He's promising that our deepest needs will be met through faith in him. This is a magnificent and wonderful promise. Our deepest needs, even beyond physical needs, our needs for meaning, for purpose in life, the need for forgiveness of our sins, the need for relationship with God, and the need to be sure of eternal life, that this life is not the end and we don't end up at the end of this life being judged by God, having disbelieved in him.

These are our deepest needs which are implied in the provisions here that Jesus promises in this first of seven ‘I am’ statements that appear in John's Gospel. I'll briefly mention the others. They all come later on in John's gospel and Jesus speaks these other six statements in a different location - all of them are in Jerusalem when he's present there. As we'll discover later on, much of John's Gospel is focused around the city of Jerusalem. Here are the other statements - I am the light of the world’ - John 9: 5; ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ - John 11: 25; ‘I am the gate’ - John 10: 9; ‘I am the good Shepherd’ - John 10: 11; ‘I am the way and the truth and the life’ - John 14:  6 and ‘I am the true vine’ - John 15: 1.

Each of these are metaphors or images that illustrate different aspects of who Jesus is and here is the first one. ‘I and the bread of life’. Faith in Jesus, according to this passage, leads to three things - spiritual satisfaction, verse 35 and, in verse 40, both eternal life and physical resurrection from the dead. This is a wonderful passage - very meaningful.

The Reaction of the Crowd

Despite all that Jesus says here, it's not going so well with some people in the crowd. Verses 41 and 42,

41At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven. ”42They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”

John 6:41-42, NIV

So unbelief is there, despite Jesus' miracles, and despite all the wonderful things he says about himself. Many people are resisting the implications of what he says. so he gives further explanation verses 43 to 52

43“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. 44“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. 45It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. 46No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. 47Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. 50But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. ”52Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

John 6:43-52, NIV

These further explanations are provoking them to think more deeply. Jesus says that no one can come to him unless the Father draws them - verse 44. He says that he is the Messiah promised in the prophets, quoting Isaiah 54: 13. He says that his ministry is superior to the old covenant of Moses in the time of Moses, because the people who ate the manna in the wilderness died. It gave them spiritual sustenance but it didn't give them eternal life. He's promising eternal life. He says he comes from the Father. He says he'll give them life and there is confusion amongst the crowd. This whole idea that he's going to give his flesh for the life of the world is something that they find very confusing. If he is the bread of life and yet he's going to die and somehow or other his body is going to be the means by which people benefit. This is introducing a new idea that they find very difficult to understand.

We can look at that idea from the point of view of knowing the whole story, because we know that in a very literal and real physical sense Jesus gave his body for us on the cross because he was willing to die for us and that death was a substitutionary death. That death was a sacrificial death. That death was an atoning death that meant that he could take away our sins by being the substitute who took our sins upon himself. We'll discuss the atonement and its substitutionary benefits in much more detail when we deal with the events of the crucifixion, much later on in our teaching. Jesus is alluding to this here. He's pointing forward prophetically to the fact that his body is somehow or other going to be bread for them, sustenance for them, because he's going to die. He's going to give his flesh for the life of the world. This is a challenging teaching and you can see the crowds are confused. They're beginning to argue amongst themselves. There are people who are attracted to what Jesus is teaching, there are people who are confused, there are people who are becoming quite hostile, there are people who find some of the ideas he's introducing quite offensive, there are people who don't understand he is talking in metaphorical language.

Time to Make a Decision

In the final part of this passage in today's episode, Jesus challenges the crowd in the synagogue to make a decision. Verse 53 to 59,

53Jesus 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. 54Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. 55For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. 57Just 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. 58This is the bread that comes down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever. ”59He said this while teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.’

John 6:53-59, NIV

This metaphorical language continues to be the basis upon which Jesus communicates, talking about his blood as well as his flesh, talking about drinking blood and eating flesh. It sounds very graphic doesn't it, that he's using these images and I think he's using this metaphorical language to really stir their thinking and challenge them to make a decision.


Let's reflect now on some things we can learn from this passage. First of all, I notice that Jesus identifies a distinction in the motivation that people have for wanting to know about Jesus. Some want a miracle or some other provision for them. They just want him to do something for them, as many of the crowd did in the feeding of the 5000. Others are wanting to find answers to deeper spiritual issues, and basically, as Jesus talks to this crowd in the synagogue at Capernaum, he's drawing a distinction and making a division between those two particular motivations. People who were with him just very shortly before this on the mountainside, absolutely thrilled at the provision of bread and fish, were now critical of him, as he speaks about these deeper issues. The crowd was divided, just like humanity is divided about Jesus.

He makes the point overwhelmingly that true spiritual satisfaction comes from following him. We get a true sense of identity, of meaning in life, of purpose, even if our lives are very hard, when we know we're following him, and we're heading towards eternity with him. This passage also emphasises the central importance of faith, trusting in Jesus, believing in Jesus - that's what's underlying the whole theology that he's bringing here. To eat the bread of life, so to speak, is to believe in Jesus wholeheartedly, as the Son of God who came to die for us.

We also notice in this passage that there are two aspects of every person's salvation. First of all, God works in our hearts in such a way as to open us up to the possibility of believing in Jesus, and secondly we have to make a personal response. God's initiative and our response - those two things are often seen together in the Bible, and they're seen together here.

This leads us to my final comments which is to answer the question, how does this connect with the Lord's Supper or the Communion, which is a sacrament instituted by Jesus at the end of his ministry? Is Jesus directly talking about the bread and wine of the communion when he's using this metaphorical language about his flesh and his blood? I don't think he's talking about the communion directly. He's using metaphorical language in a more general sense without reference to anything to do with that sacrament directly, but there is an indirect link. I'm going to conclude this episode by quoting the words of Jesus from Luke's Gospel, Luke 22: 19 - 20 on the occasion of the Last Supper in the upper room, the night before Jesus died when he broke the bread and he shared the wine, the cup of wine, amongst his disciples and he instituted the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, or the Communion, with these words,

‘19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’.

Luke 22:19-20, NIV

Here we see powerful symbols which also have a spiritual reality attached to them, which help us to understand and re-imagine what it is for Jesus to die for us. There's a connection between the two, but the primary point in our passage today is about Jesus being the full provision for us, the bread of life, and the need for us as individuals to put our full trust in him. This crowd in Capernaum was divided. Some wanted to become his disciples and some were on the point of backing off discipleship altogether, despite all the miracles and all the amazing things he did. That choice lies before you and me, just as much as it did for that crowd in the synagogue at Capernaum. My encouragement to you is either to confirm your faith, if you're already a believer in Jesus, or secondly, if you're not yet a believer in Jesus. to make a decision for him because he is the bread of life.

Thanks for listening to this episode. I hope you join us for the next one.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What are the basic needs of people? How can these be met?
    2. In what way could Jesus provide for more than your spiritual needs?
  • Discipleship
    1. What are the differences between those who heard Jesus' teaching and saw the miraculous signs and related them to their own needs, and those who were true disciples?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What are the two aspects of a person’s salvation?
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