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Gems in the Gospel of John

Part 29 – John 6:51

Living Bread

Three times Jesus announces that he is the bread of life. This is a somewhat strange thing to do, particularly when he goes on to tell his disciples to ‘eat my flesh and drink my blood’. We will need to think about 1) why he does this, 2) what are the Old Testament ideas he is referring to, and 3) what does he mean by eating bread when he has just equated himself with bread.

First, why does he do this? This is the first of the 7 ‘I AM’s with a ‘something following’ with which John has so carefully structured his Gospel. We have already seen how there are 7 occasions on which he reports Jesus referring to himself as I AM and how that was the personal name of God given to Moses at the burning bush. These 7 I AMs with a ‘something following’, better known than the others perhaps, though possibly not as important, also declare the importance and divinity of Jesus in no uncertain fashion and that emphasis is the clear motive of John in including them in his Gospel. So this is the first in an enormously important sequence of statements.

Bread was more widely eaten in those days than it is now and formed the basic source of nourishment for most people. This was particularly true of the Biblical area, which does not get enough rain to grow rice. Bread is not eaten proportionately so much these days because of the wider diet of the more affluent countries, and the large areas of Asia that grow and eat rice. When Jesus said I am the bread of life he was laying claim to a complete and fundamental part of people’s intake using the image of the physical necessity to point to a spiritual need, often overlooked but just as necessary to live a truly full life.

Of course, what he said was misunderstood, which is quite understandable since it sounds as though he was suggesting cannibalism. That misunderstanding reverberated down through the history of the church. It was centuries before people stopped making that an excuse for persecuting Christians.

Secondly: there are at least 2 Old Testament ideas that are in the background in this chapter. The most obvious is when the Israelites were given manna as they travelled through the wilderness (Exodus 16). This, together with quail (a small game bird eaten for food), rescued them from starvation when they were running out of food 15 days after they left Egypt. The story includes a great deal of grumbling on their part, first about the lack of food, then the inadequacies of a quail and manna diet. That grumbling is repeated in this episode but now it is grumbling at Jesus because of what he said: “I came down from heaven” which did not square with what they knew about his background as the son of Joseph (so they thought) and Mary.

Because the miracle of Jesus feeding the 5000 did not clearly include a heavenly angle and only lasted for one day rather than the 40 years the manna came down they did not consider it as impressive. Jesus, however, pointed out that the manna came not from Moses but the Lord God. The bread they had just had came from him – implying that he was on the same level as God himself.

The other Old Testament passage they may have been thinking of was Isaiah 55: 1-2 which reads “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare” which then goes on to 55: 10-11 which say “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Those verses give a clear linkage between ‘bread’ and the ‘word of God’, precisely what Jesus is connecting up in himself when he said, “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.”

Putting those thoughts together makes clear what he meant when he talked about eating bread and his flesh as bread. He came down from heaven as did the manna but he was vastly superior to the manna because he was the very Word of God. That in turn takes us right back to the very first verse of the Gospel. Jesus was the Word of God. We are to ‘eat’ that word taking him, his ideas, his thoughts, his teachings, into our very beings. And, because we are human beings, that means listening to words and hearing them and putting them into practice.

The repeated call of the New Testament that we should be in close identification with Jesus (‘I am with you always’; ‘united with him’; ‘transformed into his image’; ‘when Christ appears we shall be like him’) in practical terms means to be like him in what we say, our words, what we do, our actions, and what we are, our motives and attitudes. We will never completely succeed for we are human and he was and is both human and divine, but the path ahead of us is clear: walk in step with Jesus.<

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