The bread of life discourse, outlined in John 6, immediately followed the feeding of the five thousand. In typical Johannine methodology, numerous Old Testament comparisons, in particular that of Moses and Christ, are presented as evidentiary proof to the Jews that Jesus is truly the Messiah, the giver of life. Jesus clearly identified himself as the bread of life, a figure of speech pregnant with meaning and purpose for not only the 1st century hearer, but for the modern seeker of eternal sustenance.
The Apostle John presents a magnificent theological interlude in his gospel account of the spiritual deliverance available to humanity through the person and work of Christ. The pericope of John 6 demonstrates that as manna provided physical salvation for the children of Israel, Jesus, as the bread of life, provides eternal life to those who place their trust in him.
MANNA AS THE FORESHADOWING OF CHRIST
When Christ presented himself as the bread of life, he clearly utilized a typology that was an essential element of the “most crucial book of the Pentateuch for Israel’s history and theology – the Book of Exodus.” This proclamation was in response to the crowd’s continual appeal for a sign as a demonstration of his power and authority. The perishable food that Christ had referred to in John 6:27 clearly referred to the manna provided to the children of Israel in their wilderness wanderings. In contrast with this historical precedent which so permeated the teachings and beliefs of the Jewish people, Christ is presented as the source of imperishable food. Jesus is the manna from heaven sent by God to provide life for his people.
This was no small claim that was made by Christ due to the inherent messianic undertones subsumed within his “I am the bread of life” commentary. It was widely asserted in the Jewish beliefs of the period that Jeremiah had hidden a jar containing manna that he placed in the ark and the Messiah was expected to produce the hidden manna to the people of Israel thus revealing himself. Additionally, as denoted by William Barclay, rabbinic teaching averred that “as was the first redeemer so was the final redeemer; as the first redeemer caused the manna to fall from heaven, even so shall the second redeemer cause the manna to fall.”
The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand resulted not in sufficient evidentiary proof of Jesus superior status to that of Moses. Rather, the multitudes sought further evidence for the claim that Christ had made. Essentially, the Jews disregarded the loaves provided to them as an indication of manna from heaven as the provision had initiated itself from merely earthly loaves made from everyday ingredients. The manna which they sought was a “different thing and a real test.” As noted by F.F. Bruce, they rationalized among themselves, “let the second Moses vindicate his authority in a similar way – not by a once-for-all feeding but on a more lasting basis.”
In response to the disillusionment of the multitudes and their insistence of additional miraculous signs, Jesus first reminded the Jews that it was not Moses who provided them with the miraculous provision of sustenance in the form of manna, but rather it was a gift from God. Christ then explicated further the true meaning of the provision of manna to their forefathers. He saliently indicated that the manna was just a symbol of the bread of life given by God and was targeted merely at answering hunger; a physical need. The claim being made by Jesus in relation to the manna which the Jews sought from him is that Christ is the bread sent from heaven to provide a solution to the spiritual hunger which constantly hounds the soul of man. Calvin rightly avers that the “bread with which Moses fed their bellies was not true bread…the manna came down from the visible heaven, that is from the clouds; but not from the eternal kingdom of God from which life flows to us.” The manna provided to the children of Israel in the wilderness was a mere foreshadowing of what Christ, as the Messiah, can provide.
JESUS AS THE BREAD OF EVERLASTING LIFE
The continual contrast between perishable, physical need and the eternal nourishment and fulfillment found in Christ is replete in John’s Gospel. As with the pericope of the Samaritan women at the well, the Jews who experienced the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand were consumed with expectations for provision of their physical needs. They were largely incognizant of the simplistic profundity just presented to them by Jesus in regards to the spiritual sustenance he can provide.
The Greek word utilized by John to depict true is alethinon, meaning genuine. In this sense, Jesus utilized this terminology to demonstrate the aforementioned foreshadowing of manna to which he is the definitive fulfillment. For many Jews, the Torah was the source of life and direction for essentially every aspect of their daily existence. Rabbinic teaching often referred to wisdom as personified in Proverbs 9:5, as crying out “Come, eat my food and drink the wine I have mixed” as literally a reference to the Torah, the law of Moses. Carson avers that if such symbolism is in fact operative in passages such as this, then what Christ is stating is “the manna God provided through Moses is not the true bread from heaven, nor is the Torah God revealed through Moses the true Torah, though both pointed, in parabolic form, in the right direction.” The manna provided to the children of Israel perished each morning. Exodus 16:19-20 provides the methodology by which the Israelites were to collect the daily provision of manna. None was to be left over for the following day, however, this command was disobeyed and the result was manna that “bred worms and stank”; a clear indication of its perishable nature. Moreover, those who partook of the perishable manna themselves perished and died.
Conversely, the bread of life which was promised by Christ is not for the “sustenance of a fugitive race, but for the life of the whole world. Those who follow him and believe in him will never hunger nor thirst.”8 Unlike the manna which vanished immediately upon entrance into the Promised Land, the bread of life found in Christ would never cease. As noted by Merrill Tenney, “the manna of tradition was impermanent; the real manna was lasting in its effect.” Jesus is the bread which came down from heaven denoting as well the preexistent and eternal nature of what he offers to humanity. This is indicated by the continual use of the Greek word katabainon to depict Christ’s heavenly origins. Unfortunately, the Jews mistakenly correlated the manna, which came from heaven, with the statements of Christ in his assertion that he was the bread of life sent from God. While the original manna did in fact originate from God, it did not provide everlasting life as it was perishable. The Apostle John clearly indicates that Christ is the spiritual manna or bread of life sent from God as an everlasting gift to those who would call upon his name.
As noted by Keener in his comments on the attitudes of the Jews who experienced the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, “the real giver of bread from heaven is God, and what they should seek is not a wilderness prophet like Moses but the gift of God which is greater than the earthly manna in the wilderness.” Those who find their daily sustenance in Christ will find, as indicated throughout this pericope, that their spiritual hunger will be satisfied.
JESUS AS THE BREAD OF FULFILLING LIFE
The Apostle John also denotes that Jesus is the bread of fulfilling or satisfying life to those who trust in him. Christ plainly declares, “I am the bread of life” in John 6:35. Following this declaration, Jesus provides the modality for receiving the bread of life which he offers by stating “He who comes to me will never go hungry.” Only those who come to Jesus can receive the bread of fulfilling life. This is in stark contrast with the demand by the Jews to be given what they perceived was physical manna or sustenance. The verb used for come in this pericope is erchomai connoting the coming of to come from one place to another; in this instance the coming of the promised Messiah. Those who follow the command of John 3:16 thus believing in the Messiah will have everlasting life.
Dr. Elmer Towns notes the importance of erchomai in this pericope by noting that this verb “is the first act of the soul in approaching Jesus…Although John does not use the word repent in his writings, the idea of repentance is certainly implied in the use of the term coming.” The second verb of importance for this discussion utilized in John 6:35 is pisteuō meaning to trust in Jesus or God as able to aid either in obtaining or in doing something: saving faith. Towns again provides valuable insight into the purpose of this verb in John’s pericope by stating this “refers to a continuous relation of trust after coming; it is the confiding eagerness with which the heart receives Christ. Coming to Christ without faith or believing in Christ without coming to him will fail to appropriate the satisfying life he offers.”
This concept of Jesus as the bread of satisfying life and the aforementioned verb combination are again utilized in John 7:37-38 in conjunction with the provision of living water. The Apostle John continually utilizes the dual concepts of water and bread as examples of eternal provision. Calvin saliently notes that the:
“Hebrews, by the figure of speech called synechdoche, use the word bread for dinner or supper; and when we ask from God our daily bread, we include drink and all the other parts of life. The meaning therefore is, whoever shall betake himself to Christ, to have life from him, will want nothing, but will have in abundance all that contributes to sustain life.”
The satisfying bread of life can be obtained by anyone who comes willingly to Christ. This satisfaction, this “total self-commitment to Christ, this appropriating him by faith, is the secret of eternal life and perpetual soul-refreshment.” The Jews requested a sign in order that they might believe in Jesus as the Messiah. This attitude is in total opposition to the need outlined by Jesus to merely come to him.
Those who come to Christ with a “believing heart will in no way get hungry or ever get thirsty.” The Apostle John brilliantly ties together this present pericope with the usage of a figure of speech known as litotes – affirmation produced by the denial of the opposite idea. The contrast presented by John is that those who seek Jesus will never again hunger or thirst as they will receive complete and enduring spiritual satisfaction, perfect peace of soul.
JESUS AS THE BREAD OF RESURRECTION LIFE
As John continues the bread of life discourse, he annotates three significant references pronominal to the resurrection of the saints. Utilizing the leftover loaves of barley collected after everyone had been fed through the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, Christ states that “all that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” Carson avers that the entire purpose of Christ’s incarnation was not to do his own will, but the will of God and “that will was that the Son should lose none of all that the Father had given him.” He goes on to comment that this “preservation of each individual in the collective of the elect includes resurrection at the last day.”
The notion of divine sovereignty is replete throughout John’s Gospel, in particular the bread of life pericope. While some may construe this imbues an overemphasis on Calvinistic perceptions, nevertheless, the Apostle John continually makes reference to the necessity of humanity to come, willingly partaking of the bread of life which Christ offers. Those who choose to place their faith in Christ have the promise of resurrection life at the Parousia.
Furthermore, John further explicates Jesus as the bread of resurrection life by noting in verse 40 by connoting that those who look and believe on the Son of God will experience eternal life of which the resurrection is a benefit therein. Moreover, “his prerogative of resurrection is the final proof of his authority.” The realized eschatology replete throughout John’s Gospel is further combined with the promise of the future eschatology imbued through the Old Testament. John clearly annotates that “Jesus’ involvement in the resurrection indicates his participation in a divine prerogative.” Additionally, John continues to impart the idea that the “life imparted by Christ is a present possession….the great transition is affected, not by death, but by the act of faith in Christ.” The life provided by nature is transient and passing due to the influence of sin, however, the life obtained through belief in Christ has no end; it is “indestructible in its very substance.”
The final resurrection motif present by Christ in this pericope is the idea that those who will be raised in the resurrection are those who have been drawn by the Father and who obey this urging by coming to a saving knowledge of Christ. The notion of looking on the Son depicted in John 6:40 is derived from the word theōreō. The meaning of this Greek verb entails not “merely seeing but rather contemplation, seeing with the eye of faith” as well as to enjoy the presence of one. Of additional importance is the usage by John of the Greek verb helkuse in John 6:44 meaning to draw by inward power, lead, impel; all actions performed by God.
John thus declares that eternal life and the resurrection subsumed therein is “granted to everyone who looks to the Son and believe in him. This eternal life is more than mere unending existence: it is primarily the passing over from condemnation to acceptance, from death to life, and then it is a foretaste, the full banquet of which occurs in resurrection live.” God sent His Son into the world that through Christ, God would draw men unto himself, providing them with the means to eternal life and resurrection from the dead in keeping with the salvific plan of redemption promised throughout the scriptures.
ABIDING IN CHRIST
In John 6:48, Jesus once again declares that he is the bread of life. In the prior declaration, Christ was referring to the fact that those who believe in him would have their physical needs forever alleviated. Conversely, in the second instance of this phrase, Christ directly links the concept of the bread of life to himself thus stating to his audience that those who partake of him, the bread which came down from heaven, would never experience death but would partake in the eternal life which he offers to those who believe in him.
Tenney avers that the “key to a genuine experience with God lies in the sequence of statements in this verse. It is vested in the person of Christ, who descended from heaven to provide for man what his nature requires. To eat of this bread means to appropriate Christ as one’s life.” While it can be argued that John has imbued Eucharistic undertones in this verse, the message of Christ in this regard concerns itself more with abiding in him and making him an ever present aspect of the believer’s life.
Dr. Towns makes a rather salient comment in regards to the application of eating the bread of life. He states “the figure of speech for eating is used here to express the method by which life is transferred from Christ to the believer.” John utilizes two verbs for eating in John 6:50-56. The Greek verb for eating in verses 50-53 is esthiō which according to the Thayer Lexicon connotes the idea to take and eat of a thing inculcating the theological concept of receiving the gift of eternal life by partaking in Christ and his sacrifice. The second Greek verb utilized by John is trōgō a word intimating the idea of a continual eating. In the context of John 6:54, trōgō emphasizes the “continual satisfying of a spiritual appetite through constantly or habitually feeding on Christ.”
Support for this interpretation is found in the principle established in John 6:56 where Christ, referring to the preceding verses regarding the partaking of him, notes that whoever does these things (partaking of his flesh and blood) will “abide in me, and I in him.” As averred by Marcus Dods, John clearly demonstrates the need for those who come to the Father through Christ must “make him (Christ) as thoroughly our own as eating makes bread our own. We must make his spirit our own, assimilate to ourselves all that is in him to encourage, to guide, to sanctify.”
INSTITUTION OF THE LORD’S SUPPER
While the Eucharistic undertones of the bread of life discourse are numerous, the Apostle John does not overtly provide a connection between the Lord’s Supper and the partaking of Jesus as the bread of life. However, it can be averred that John, as is typical in his gospel account, perhaps assumes that those reading his work have a prior familiarity with the institution of the Lord’s Supper annotated in the Synoptic Gospel accounts written and circulated prior to the writing of his gospel. With that said, there are numerous parallels that can be construed throughout the bread of life discourse providing further impetus for the body of Christ to partake in the institution of the Lord’s Supper as a constant remembrance of Christ’s sacrificial offering on our behalf.
The Jews were perhaps astonished at the mention of partaking in the eating of flesh and blood for these evoked rather feral mental concepts. They essentially understood Jesus’ words as an exhortation to anthropophagi. However, this was neither the intent nor the concept behind Christ’s words. Instead, the true meaning, and the foundation for the institution of the Lord’s Supper, is “defined by John in relation to his understanding of Christian experience…It is of the essence of any incarnation of the Word that the spiritual operates through the means of the material.” Furthermore, “spiritual realities are not external, but must be so completely absorbed and assimilated that the most fitting expression is to eat spiritual food.”
The implication of the establishment of the Lord’s Supper is a fitting conclusion to the bread of life discourse. It can be conclusively stated that the bread of life account can be accounted for as a unified peroration with the Lord’s Supper accounts in the Synoptic Gospels. While the specific manifestation of this sacrament is absent from John’s Gospel, he nevertheless imbues it by his inclusion of the necessity to partake of the Lord’s body and blood.
Bruce utilizes the words of the noted church father Augustine of Hippo to further elaborate on the implications of the Lord’s Supper in John’s discourse. He states that Christ’s words presented here can be rightly takes as a “figure, bidding us communicate in our Lord’s passion, and secretly and profitably treasure in our memories the fact that for our sakes he was crucified and pierced.” The death of Jesus on the cross secured a place in eternity for those who place their trust in that salvific event. By presenting Christ as the bread of life, the Apostle John essentially reminds his readers of the need to remember Christ’s sacrifice through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, most notably during the observance of the Feast of Pesach (Passover).
Additionally, it can be asserted that John, as is his custom, hearkens back yet again to Old Testament conceptualizations. Just as the children of Israel were saved from the striking blow of the angel of death, with the blood of the lamb causing death to Passover their homes, so too does the death of Christ cause death to pass by those who trust in that sacrifice. The bread of life is another manifestation of the broken body and shed blood of Jesus that is the foundation of the Lord’s Supper event. Just as the Jewish nation paused to remember each Passover the deliverance of God from Egypt, the Lord’s Supper is a time for believers to remember that the bread of life came down from heaven and thus provided the means by which eternal life can be obtained. In fact, what is often observed under the name of the “Lord’s Supper” has its roots and greatest understanding when celebrating the Feast of Pesach (Passover). A weekly observance only serves to provide a more frequent and needed reminder of the sacrifice of Jesus. The observance of a weekly reminder should not necessarily take the place of the roots from whence it springs.
The absence of clear teaching on the Lord’s Supper in John’s Gospel is apparent. Conversely, the foreshadowing of this even is displayed by Christ himself as he outlined his death, burial and resurrection on the cross as the means by which believers can partake in the eternal life he offers to any who come to him in faith. The eating or drinking of Christ’s body and blood is merely a metaphor and should not be taken literally as an indication that one should partake of the actual eating of flesh and drinking of blood. As denoted by Keener, John clearly intimates that “the Lord’s Supper initially pointed to Jesus’ death and (he) understood it in light of paschal imagery.” Additionally, there is no textual support given in the bread of life discourse for the concept of transubstantiation – the mystical transformation of the sacraments into actual flesh and blood. What Christ is intimating is rather a spiritual interpretation centered on the necessity to come into the kingdom of heaven through the sacrifice he provided as the bread of life.
Andreas Kostenberger denotes two recurring themes which permeate the bread of life pericope: “first, the work of God is not described in terms of acts of Law-keeping but as believing in Jesus; and second, that this work is really no human work at all: it is the work of God.” Jesus as the bread of life is a theologically pregnant idea replete with Old Testament connotations. The Apostle John masterfully depicts the true essence of why Christ was sent by God to humanity. Not only is Jesus the bread of life in the essence of providing daily spiritual nourishment, he is “essential for life; therefore to refuse the invitation and command of Jesus is to miss life and to die.” Christ holistically fulfilled the eschatological expectations predicted in the Old Testament. As the manna from heaven, Jesus provides those who follow him with the realized eschatology so prevalent in John’s Gospel. Thus, the believer can experience the benefits of the true Manna from heaven both in the present and in the future eschatological promise of eternal life.
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Carson, D.A. The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991.
Calvin, John. “Commentary on John” in Calvin’s Commentaries: Volume XVII. Translated by Rev. William Pringle. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009
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Dods, Marcus. “The Teaching of Christ in John.” The Biblical World 6 n. 6 (1895): 467-475.
Enz, Jacob. “The Book of Exodus as a Literary Type for the Gospel of John.” Journal of Biblical Literature 76, no. 3 (1957): 208-215.
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Tenney, M.C. “Commentary on John” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon. Edited by Frank Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.
___________. The New London Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel of John. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1954.
Towns, Elmer. John: Believe and Live. Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2002.