Exploring the Gospel of John: 6


By the Rev. Dr. Michael Petty [Fr. Michael Petty]

St. Peter’s Anglican Church [2006]

Breaking Bread With Jesus

John 6:1-15

1. The scene now switches back to Galilee, from Jerusalem (which is the focus from 2:13-3:36 and 5: 1-47).  A large crowd is following Jesus “because they saw the signs he was doing among the sick” (6:2).  The only healing sign in Galilee mentioned, thus far, is the one in 4:46-54, the healing of an official’s son (designated as Jesus’ second sign, in 4:54).

The mention that the crowd is following because of signs hints at a lack of real faith (a hint confirmed later in 6:15).  In 2:24-25, however, we have already seen that “Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them [those who believed in him because of the signs he was doing], because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”  It is clear that seeing signs does not necessarily translate into actual faith.

2. The mention of going up on “the mountain” (6:3) is important, in indicating the symbolic setting for what is to happen.  Going up to “the mountain” is precisely what Moses does in Exodus 19:3, to receive a revelation from God.  The mountain introduces the theme of revelation and the giving of the manna, which takes place in Exodus 16.  The discourse, which extends from 6:22-71, will take up these themes.  Here, the passage reveals Jesus to be the true bread of life, who fulfills and surpasses the manna given in the wilderness.  The temporal note “Now the Passover . . .was at hand” (6:4) brings this into sharper focus.

3. As is typical of John, the passage emphasizes the sovereignty of Jesus:

First, instead of waiting for the crowd to get hungry and then providing food, Jesus raises the issue even before it arrives.  Here, he plays the host and does not simply respond to a need (see Mark 8, for example).

Second, while Jesus asks Philip about food, 6:6 makes it clear that Jesus knows already what he is going to do.  It becomes clear that Philip is responding to Jesus simply on a human plane; for him, what Jesus asks is simply impossible, in that more than six months’ wages of an average person would make only a dent in solving the problem.  We are immediately reminded of Nicodemus’ protest that being born from above/again is impossible, because it means returning to the womb.

4. Likewise, Andrew responds on the merely human level; he has located some food  — but there is the dispiriting realization that “what are they among so many?” (6:9).  The mention of the two barley loaves may be a reference to 2 Kings 4:38-44, where Elisha feeds one hundred men with twenty barley loaves and some grain.

Andrew’s objection echoes that of Elisha’s servant: “How can I set this before a hundred men?”   The food that Jesus has available is more scarce than what Elisha had and the number of people he must feed is far greater.  Just as we will learn that Jesus is greater than Moses, we now learn that Jesus is greater than Elisha.  The point of these comparisons is not merely to show that Jesus is better than what [who] preceded him but to emphasize the surpassing work of God, which is now taking place — the same theme contained in within the story of the wedding in Cana (2:1-12).

5.  Jesus’ actions with the bread are significant:  (1) Jesus “took the loaves” (2) gave thanks (the Greek verb is eucharisteo) and (3) “distributed them.”  These actions replicate almost exactly Jesus’ actions in the Upper Room which, according to Luke 22:17 were “he took bread, and when he had given thanks [a form of eucharisteo], he broke it and gave it to them.” 

It seems almost certain that Jesus’ actions here are seen as “eucharistic” in nature and, although John offers no actual account of the Last Supper, he is certainly aware of it.   If we put all the pieces of the puzzle together, it seems that John portrays this action as a kind of new Passover — there is the “Passover, the feast of the Jews” (6:4) and there is Jesus’ new Passover.   John further emphasizes Jesus’ role in this feeding because, unlike Mark 8, it is Jesus who distributes the food that he has blessed — not the disciples (6:11).  This emphasizes the point that what is given comes from Jesus and further parallels the accounts of the Last Supper, where the bread and cup are given to the disciples — by Jesus himself.

6.  Paralleling the wedding at Cana episode, the emphasis falls on the theme of abundance.  Even after five thousand men (compare that to Elisha’s one hundred!) have “eaten their fill” (6:12), there is still plenty left over.  The number of baskets filled with leftovers is significant — twelve.

Later on in this chapter (6:67, 70, 71) Jesus will emphasize the fact that there are twelve disciples.  This is not just an unimportant symbolic detail but is a reminder that Jesus’ mission is not just about bringing individuals to the Truth or performing signs to attract a following.  Jesus understands himself to be about the work of reconstituting Israel and this is important because it means that, while there will be a Church of Gentiles, it cannot merely be a Gentile Church, a community which has no connection to Israel.

7.  The response of the crowd now justifies the suspicions hinted at earlier.  It sees in Jesus “the Prophet who is to come” (6:14), a possible reference to Deuteronomy 18:15.  If this is so, the crowd may be thinking of Jesus as a kind of prophet-king and this is the light in which some Jewish traditions viewed Moses.  But it clearly misunderstands Jesus’ mission and identity.  1.49 refers to Jesus as a “king” but it is clear that the crowd is thinking of installing Jesus as king through insurrection — as if his kingship depended upon popular support and was simply an alternative to the rule of Herod Antipas.  This is not to say that Jesus’ kingship is a merely “spiritual” reality but it is to say that “the consent of the governed”  does not determine his kingship – nor is it simply an alternative to other rules.

John 6:16-21

1.  We need to read this episode along with the preceding one, in order to make proper sense.  This is to say that it is an extension of the previous episode — not an independent one. The whole scene is somewhat enigmatic.  The passage does not tell us why the disciples departed without Jesus nor how they expected Jesus to come to them, while they were on the Sea of Galilee.  And while the sea is rough, there is no indication that the disciples are in danger or that they need to be rescued  (as is suggested in a parallel account, in Matthew 14:24).

2. Looking beyond all this, it is clear that this episode has a very definite function, one which is made clear, in Jesus’ response to the disciples in 6:20 which, translated literally, reads “I am; do not be afraid.”  The “I am” is, of course, the way in which God identifies himself in the Old Testament (Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 41:4; 43:10, 25; 45:18; 46:4; 48:12; 51:12).  The image of sovereignty over nature strengthens the connection between Jesus and God’s self-identification.

3. We now know why the effort to make Jesus king was wrong and what the feeding of the five thousand reveals:  Jesus acts as one who has the power of God at his disposal.  In the case of Moses and Elisha, God assists his servants with signs of divine power while, in the case of Jesus, there is no assistance at all, since in him, the Father (the sovereign Creator) is acting personally.

John 6:22-59

1. 6:22-24 provides a transition from the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus’ walk upon the Sea of Galilee to the next stage of the action.  This section recalls the feeding and emphasizes its Eucharistic dimension, by reminding us that the feeding took place “after the Lord had given thanks” (6:23) — making use of the Greek verb eucharisto once again.  This section also emphasizes that only one boat was available to Jesus and his disciples and that it is known that Jesus did not get into the boat with them — underlining the mysterious nature of how Jesus got to the other side.

2. 6:25-29:  The crowd goes in search of Jesus for the wrong reason.  6:25 signals this, when the crowd strangely asks Jesus when he came to Capernaum — not how.  This alerts us to the fact that there is a significant gap between Jesus and the crowd.  Jesus himself makes this clear, when he identifies the reason why the crowd has followed him — it seeks him because he provided food — not because it has understood the sign (note the omission of the role of the fish in the feeding).

Jesus attempts to move this exchange to another plane, with the paradoxical admonition  “Do not labor for the food that perishes [the bread of the sign] but for the food that endures to eternal life [Jesus himself] which the Son of Man will give to you” (6:27).

[Jesus is not telling them to work for anything at all because the real food is not something other than Jesus himself and this food only comes as a gift from God.]  The crowd does not understand this because it asks, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” (6:28).  “Doing the works of God” was a way of speaking about being faithful to Torah.  The question being asked, according to Jesus, is:  What does one need to do, in order to be faithful to God?  Astoundingly, Jesus makes it clear, in 6:29, that having faith in him is what being faithful to God is all about.  This is to say that Jesus understands that faith in himself is being faithful to Torah.

3.  6:30-40:  The questions the crowd asks, in 6:30, at first sounds strange.  We have to remember back to 6:14, where the crowd identifies Jesus as the new Moses (“the Prophet”).  Seen in this light, the question seems to be that of what sign Jesus has performed, to show that he is greater than Moses.  Exodus understands that signs and wonders have vindicated Moses’ office.  The crowd, naturally, sees one of the greatest of these signs as the manna (literally in Hebrew “what is it?”).  The question here seems to be “Can you outdo the giving of manna?”

This is exactly the question that Jesus wants the followers to ask.   Jews generally saw manna, not simply as the “bread” supplied by God in the wilderness, but also as Torah.  By identifying himself as “manna,” Jesus will emphasize that he both fulfills and surpasses Torah.

On the way to this point, Jesus makes a clarification:  it was not Moses that gave the manna but God.  In the Moses scenario, the manna comes to Israel through Moses’ intercession.  In Jesus’ scenario, God is the giver and Jesus himself is the gift.  Jesus makes it clear that he is not simply talking about performing a sign but about God [himself] directly giving a gift.  It becomes clear that manna here is not referring to a thing:  “For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (6:33).

The crowd has not yet caught up to Jesus (no surprise here!) and seems to think that what Jesus is offering is simply an endless supply of manna.  (We remember that the manna stopped when Israel crossed into the Promised Land).  Jesus now makes an unambiguous declaration, which is the center of this whole chapter:  “I AM the bread of life, whoever comes to me shall not hunger and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (6:35).

According to Deuteronomy 8:3, God gave the manna as an object lesson: it made clear that “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”   Here, the manna is God’s life-giving revelation.  In John 6, that life-giving revelation is Jesus himself.

What Jesus says here is amazingly similar to Sirach 24:19-22:  “Come to me, you who desire me, and eat your fill of my produce . . . Those who eat me will hunger for more, and those who drink me will thirst for more.”  In this text, the speaker is Wisdom.  Clearly, Jesus now surpasses what was given through Wisdom.  Two very important things about God’s life-giving revelation in Jesus are immediately made clear:

First, the reception of this revelation is not something which takes place by chance since, not only does it have its source in God, but also the reception of it is, finally, due to God’s work:  “All that the Father gives me will come to me . . . ” (6:37).

Second, the form of this revelation and its consequences are simply spiritual but physical as well.  It is the Father’s will that “everyone who looks on the Son of Man and believes in him should have eternal life.”   Here, “eternal life” means being raised up (resurrected) “on the last day” (6:40).  In Jesus, revelation has a physical quality (humans can look upon it, as in 1 John 1:1) and it leads to the resurrection of the body.

4. 6:41-59: Echoing Exodus 16:2, 7-9, 12, in the Greek Old Testament, the crowd now “murmurs” about Jesus, just as it had done about Moses.  Notice that John partially identifies the crowd as “the Jews,” John’s code phrase for those who reject Jesus.  The reason for the murmuring is stated in 6:42 and appears, on the surface, to be genealogical in nature — Jesus’ parents are known and this knowledge does not seem to fit with the claim that Jesus “came down from heaven.”  The real issue, however, is theological:  John asserts that the human element of Jesus (having human parents) fits with his divine element, being the Word of God; this is the meaning of the initial assertion that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (1:14).

A merely earthly perspective on Jesus will always result in the wrong conclusions.  In 6:43-46, Jesus replies but, typically, does not directly address the objection.  With respect to Jesus, what is truly important and saving is not what humans conclude about him, on their own, but what the Father brings about in them.

An adequate view of Jesus (belief) requires the initiative of God.  Quoting Isaiah 54:13, Jesus restates his point:  “And they will all be taught by God.”   The crucial statement comes in 6:47-51.  This section draws together 6:27, 32, and 35 into a synthesis of amazing concreteness.  The statements “whoever believes in me has eternal life” (6:47) and “I am the bread of life . . . If anyone eats this bread he will live forever” (6:48, 51) are parallel and mutually reinforcing statements.

Jesus identifies himself as the “living bread,” as manna, wisdom, and revelation from God.  These two statements make it clear how to appropriate the manna/wisdom/revelation, which is Jesus.  Jesus identifies belief as essential and makes it clear that it is not simply a human capacity or a mental act.  To believe in Jesus is not merely to entertain ideas about Jesus, which one understands to be true.  To believe in Jesus means that God has brought a person to Christ and has placed that person in a living relationship with him, such that God gives Christ  (the life-giving manna/wisdom/revelation) to the believer.  The ultimate consequence of belief is not enlightenment, but resurrection, to share eternal fellowship with God.

In 6:52-59, the parallel mode of receiving Jesus is made clear, though it is first introduced in 6:51:  “And the bread that I give for the life of the world is my flesh [sarx].”  This is surprising because we might expect that Jesus would say that the bread he will give is his body (soma).  Sarx is much more physical than soma and this seems to focus attention on the physical, concrete nature of Jesus in his incarnation, death and bodily resurrection. The bread Jesus gives for the life of the world is not a concept or a disembodied wisdom but himself, in his own incarnate, crucified. and risen reality.  6:53 is very close to the eucharistic language of Matthew 26:26,28:  “Take, eat; this is my body [soma=”self”] . . . Drink of it [the cup], all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many . . .”

Clearly, this is not meant in a cannibalistic sense, as if life was to be had from eating pieces of Jesus or drinking his actual blood.  (It is interesting to note, however, that the Romans did understand the early Christians to be cannibals, because they spoke in this way.)  Rather, the emphasis seems to be on the fact that the sacramental meal is a means, through which the living Jesus makes available his saving benefits.  The passage does not nake explicit the means by which “eating” mediates eternal life, access to Jesus, but it is possible that something along the lines of 1 Corinthians 10:14-16, where “eating” and “drinking” grant a “participation” (10:16) or koinonia in Christ is in view.  Whatever the means, the meal seems to be connected to Jesus, in the sense that both are physical realities (meal and Christ’ sarx) and the meal symbolically parallels Jesus’ incarnation (sarx), death (in the bread as broken and the cup as poured) and resurrection (celebrated, not in Jesus’ absence, but in his presence).

Questions for Reflection:

(1)  By speaking about Jesus as manna, wisdom, and revelation, John helps us to think concretely about Jesus as the bread of life.  In what other specific ways could we think about this?

(2)  By speaking of bread, the basic food staple of the day, John clearly states the utter dependence of Christians upon Christ.  In what ways does living in a society of abundance hinder this sense of dependence?

John 6:60-71

1. In the previous section (6:22-59) the crowd is identified as “the Jews” (6:41), that is, as those who explicitly oppose Jesus.  This group finds the whole bread of life discourse unbelievable because it understands Jesus only within a human framework (6:41-42, 52).  In this section, the audience is narrowed down, from a group distinct from the crowd and designated as “many of his disciples” (6:60) to the smaller group designated as “the Twelve” (6:67).

2.  The “hard saying” in 6:60 probably refers back to 6:53-56, in which Jesus’ sacrificial death is made unavoidably explicit.  This appears to be too much for those disciples who had accepted Jesus as the Messiah but who now find the notion of his sacrificial death as beyond belief.  We are presented with two different responses to Jesus — both of which are inadequate.  The crowd is unable to get beyond bread and, thus, revealed to be earthly-minded.  The larger group of disciples is able to get beyond bread, to Messiah-ship, but is unable to take the Cross — and the eating and the drinking — which are the visible connections to it.

3.  The question in 6:62 is a little difficult, in Greek, but seems to mean something like “Would you not be even more offended were you to see the Son of Man ascending to return to the Father?”   It is one thing to accept Jesus as the Messiah (within the confines of this term’s Jewish meaning) and quite another to arrive at explicit Christian faith that Jesus is the incarnate Word, who returns to the Father, through his death and resurrection.

4.  The statement in 6:63 sounds a bit odd, given what has come before it, with the emphasis on Jesus’ flesh:  “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail.”  In what has come before, flesh (sarx) has a positive meaning, referring to Jesus’ incarnation and crucifixion.  Now, the meaning has shifted to the negative:  “flesh ” as that dimension of creation alienated from God.  To use a Pauline phrase, the unbelief of the larger group of disciples is due to the fact that they are “in the flesh” (see Romans 7:5, for example); their own perceptions bind them in state, in which they remain, and hostility to God marks this state.   There is a great irony here.  The flesh of Jesus (understood as his death and resurrection) avails much while “the flesh” (understood as a merely human attitude to Jesus) avails nothing.

5.  6:64-65 shows that none of this is a surprise to Jesus.  He is neither shocked nor disappointed; the fact that some of his disciples do not really believe in him does not send him into a state of doubt about his own mission.  It is important to notice that the conviction that Jesus is Messiah is not counted as “belief” by Jesus in 6:64.  These disciples (who are not really disciples) are not given “partial credit” for thinking Jesus the Messiah; they fall into the same category as the crowd designated as “the Jews.”  The reason for this is made clear in 6:65.   All real faith has its mysterious origin in God.   Faith is a relationship of “abiding in” (6:56) and it is granted by God; it has not been granted to this group of disciples.

6.  All of this produces a crisis in Jesus’ ministry (the Greek meaning of the word, “crisis,”  iss a moment of decision).  Some of the faux disciples “turned back and no longer walked with him” (6:66).  Note that no mention is made of Jesus earnestly pleading for them to come back and think things over.

7.  6.67 makes is clear that the disciples have reached a moment of decision:  “Do you want to go away as well?”   What Peter says here is the equivalent of his confession in Mark 8:29.  Peter acknowledges the truth of what Jesus has been saying in this chapter.  Peter, speaking on behalf of true faith, acknowledges that the option of “going away” simply does not exist — he recognizes Jesus as the unique source of the “words of eternal life.”  Once again, as 6:70 indicates, Jesus is not surprised.  After losing many disciples, Jesus does not greet Peter’s confession with relief.  Peter is not congratulated on his loyalty or on remaining one of the faithful few; Jesus knows about Peter because he chose him.  Jesus does not make clear his reasons for choosing “a devil” (6:70).   The passage makes clear that Jesus does not see Judas as a huge disappointment (“Oh, he had so much potential!”).  This introduces an important theme of John’s account of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and death.  Jesus does not appear to be a victim, in any way, nor an idealist, which a corrupt system has over-taken.  Jesus faces betrayal, arrest, and death with a sense of equanimity, not because he has no feelings but because he has long ago embraced the Father’s mission.

Questions for Reflection

(1)   Jesus makes it clear that “the flesh” (a merely human attitude) is a huge obstacle to faith. What are so me of the manifestations of “the flesh” that you see in your own life?

(2)   Does the idea of faith finally being a gift of God seem frightening or comforting (or both)?  What would you say to an atheist or agnostic friend who had read this passage?

(3) Could the idea of faith being a gift of God lead to irresponsibility (“I don’t believe because God has not given me the gift”)?

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Filed under Interpretation of Scripture, The Gospel of John

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