Bread of Heaven - Letters to the Prison
From the series - Letters to the Prison
We’re in chapter 6 where Jesus is having quite the conversation with the Jews in Capernaum. Last week, we saw how they challenged Jesus to give them a “sign” (as if feeding 20,000 people the day before wasn’t enough of a sign). They argued that Moses had previously fed millions of their people in the wilderness for decades, so what Jesus did the day before was no great thing. They wanted to see more. In fact, the Jewish culture in Jesus’ day mistakenly expected that the Messiah would provide free food for the nation of Israel. So, Jesus needs to correct their thinking:
- 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” -John 6:32-33
There’s a lot going on in these verses. First, when Jesus speaks of the “bread from heaven,” there are two different meanings in mind here. In verse 32a, there’s the “bread” which refers to the manna that God (not Moses) provided to physically feed the Jewish nation in the wilderness for 40 years (Numbers 11:1-11). So, this was a physical substance provided to sustain the physical life of God’s people in the wilderness. This was also more like what the Jewish people in Jesus’ day were (mistakenly) expecting him to provide: Free food for the entire nation.
But they misunderstood the scriptures, which is why Jesus speaks of the “true bread from heaven” in the other part of the verse (John 6:32b). He goes on the describe this “true bread” in verse 33 and this is where things get truly astonishing. Let’s consider some things Jesus has to say about this “bread of God” (the “true bread from heaven”) –and about himself:
- The bread is a person. Jesus refers to the bread as “he.” In a couple of verses, we will see very clearly that Jesus himself claims to be this bread / person.
- The bread “comes down from heaven.” So once again Jesus clearly claims to be a person from heaven.
- This bread –Jesus the person from heaven— “gives life to the world.” There is a true and literal sense in which Jesus, being God, does indeed sustain the physical world and everything in it (see Colossians 1:16-20). So, Jesus is the giver and sustainer of physical, biological life. But that’s not the meaning intended here.
- In John 6:33, Jesus uses the Greek word ‘zoe’ (ζωὴ) which refers to eternal spiritual life. So, the “life” that Jesus –the true bread from heaven— provides is spiritual life. And that spiritual life is eternal. That this eternal spiritual life is given “to the world” does not mean everyone is automatically saved. Jesus will again clarify this himself in a few verses, as we will see. Jesus’ work was enough to cover the sins of the world, but only those who believe in him will be saved (John 3:18).
- This true bread –Jesus the person from heaven-- is “of God” rather than from God. This speaks of the unique relationship Jesus has with God the Father in the trinity. Jesus and God the Father are one. So, this “bread from heaven” –Jesus—is God come to earth to provide eternal spiritual life to those who believe.
What a claim to make!
Tragically, it goes right over the heads of those who were listening to him. Look how they react:
- 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” -John 6:34
They Still. Don’t. Get it.
They’re looking for the free food… the easy ride… they’re in it for what Jesus can do for them. We today have to be careful not to be like them. We understand these verses well enough looking back on it. Still, very often we’re praying to God not to worship or thank him for the eternal, spiritual things he has done for us, but to make demands --sometimes very polite and kind ones on other people’s behalf-- but still… demands, nonetheless. And most of them pertain to this temporal life. People pray for wealth… security… healing… comfort… “traveling mercies…” safety from various threats… and it is perfectly healthy and legitimate to bring these concerns before God in prayer. God knows we need such things (see Matthew 6). But if that’s all we’re in it for –what God can do for us physically in this life—then we’re doing all of this for the wrong reasons.
Jesus, seeing that his words are “going in one ear and out the other” decides to be even more clear and direct with the Jews in Capernaum:
- 35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. -John 6:35
This is both profound and clarifying all at once. When Jesus says “I am…” he is very intentionally referring to himself the same way God does. God is the great “I AM” (Exodus 3) who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. This is a profound thing for Jesus to say about himself. We just finished discussing what Jesus means by “bread of life.” He has a spiritual meaning in mind –not a physical one. Once again, Jesus employs the Greek ‘zoe’ (ζωὴ) for “life” which refers to the spiritual, rather than the physical life of the believer.
Another way to clarify Jesus’ meaning here is to look at it another way. It’s impossible that Jesus could have meant literal physical life in this statement based on the nature of the promise he makes here. If early Christians had thought that Jesus meant literal, physical hunger and thirst in this verse, Christianity would have died out while Jesus still walked the earth because his followers would all have either dehydrated or starved to death waiting for Jesus to feed them or give them a drink. If this had happened, it would mean that Jesus failed to keep a promise he’s made. Jesus does not break his promises. Ever. So, of course, Jesus did not mean literal physical hunger and thirst in this verse. The promise Jesus makes here about those who believe in him is not to sustain the believer’s physical life, but to sustain their eternal spiritual life.
Still, as obvious as this is to us here and now, the Jews speaking with him really still didn’t get it. And their misunderstanding and confusion are only going to get worse, as we will begin to see next week. Until then, keep reading! And consider how you might approach Jesus for your eternal, spiritual needs as you pray to him and consider his words this week. We love you!