Eating the Bread of Life
Series: The Gospel of John
It’s one thing to admire Christ; it’s another thing to eat Him. Jesus says only those who do the latter have eternal life, but what does that mean?
One of the common experiences of parenting young children is convincing them to try foods they haven’t yet. Sometimes they just aren’t having it, and it’s frustrating, especially when you know they would really like it. My son loves all things carbohydrates: Mac and cheese, rolls, crackers. You give him 1, he eats it all before eating anything else, and then says, “Could I please have more mac and cheese?” But then at Thanksgiving, we tried to give him stuffing, and he wouldn’t touch it. In fact, he was asking for another roll while it sat uneaten on his plate. I’m like, “Dude seriously, you are going to like this. It basically is a roll, but it’s even better: This kind of stuffing has sausage added to it.” He wouldn’t eat it, not because of any deficiency in it, but because of a deficiency in him: In this case not a moral deficiency or anything, but a developmental one: He was just too young to get it. In the passage just before the one at which we’re looking today, Jesus held Himself out as the bread of life, the kind of bread that if one eats of it, will make it so they never go hungry. You might think that would sound good, but we’re going to see in this passage that His claim to be the bread of life turned off many of His hearers, and even many of His disciples. While it came naturally to many of them to admire Jesus when He was healing the sick and turning 5 loaves of bread into enough to fee 5000, and as it comes naturally to many of us today to admire certain things about Jesus, it’s often not truly Him we want, not because of any deficiency in Him, but because of a deficiency in us. Nonetheless, He truly is the bread of life. So Eat the bread of life, because you’ll die if you don’t, you’ll live forever if you do, and where else will you go?
You’ll die if you don’t
We’re picking up in this passage with the response of Jesus’ Jewish audience at that time to Jesus’ statement that He is the bread of life that has come down from heaven. We see in verse 41 that they grumbled about this, and in saying this, John alludes to the history of Israel, who when they were wandering in the wilderness after God freed them from slavery in Egypt, grumbled against their leader at the time, Moses, and against God. In response, God provided quail at night for them to eat, and bread from heaven in the morning called manna, and yet after eating it for a time, they grumbled again. They had bread from heaven and grumbled about it.
And what is happening now in John 6? The Israelites of Jesus’ day have the bread of heaven in front of them, and are grumbling. Why this time? Verse 42: Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, “I have come down from heaven”? Perhaps if Jesus had been born in a palace or raised by the high priest, they could have accepted that He came down from heaven. But this is Mary and Joseph’s kid. They’re average Joes, and perhaps even poor. Sure, Jesus had done some pretty great signs at this point, and the word of them had spread, but if you regard Him according to the flesh, looking at who His parents are and where He appears on the social ladder, you won’t believe He’s truly God, the bread of life, come down from heaven.
In fact, Jesus goes further. In His response to them in verses 43-44 He says that not only can no one come to Him who evaluates Him according to the flesh, but that no one can come to Him unless the Father who sent Him draws them. In theology we call this the doctrine of total inability, which teaches that if we heard the gospel a million times and were given the opportunity to choose to believe in Jesus a million times, unless God draws us to Jesus, we will say no every time. So Jesus isn’t saying, “Some people may sincerely want to come to me, but they aren’t allowed to do so unless the Father draws them.” He’s saying, “No one sincerely wants to come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them.” Sin has so corrupted our flesh that apart from the work of God in us, we will regard Christ according to the flesh, as Jesus’ audience did here, and refuse to come to Him.
As we did last week, this brings us to a point that’s been debated in the history of the church between those who hold to what’s called a more “Reformed” theology and those who hold to something more like what is called “Arminianism.” In Arminian theology, sin has corrupted us, but not so much that we are unable to choose Christ, or they might say God is drawing everyone, what they called “prevenient grace,” and now it’s up to us who says yes or no. But this passage flatly contradicts Arminianism. Jesus is clear that no one can believe unless the Father draws them, and it’s not as though there are some whom God draws, who do not then come to Christ, because Jesus continues in the verse: “And I will raise him up on the last day.” The “him” that Jesus will raise up is the same “him” that was drawn by the Father who sent Jesus. In verse 45 He makes this even clearer: “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” So we have here in John 6 an unbreakable link: No one will come to Christ unless the Father draws them, all the Father draws will come to Jesus, and Jesus will raise them on the last day. That’s the basics of a Reformed doctrine of salvation, and again, you should believe it, not because it’s Reformed, but because it’s biblical, and therefore true.
Since this is what Jesus believed and taught, Jesus is not surprised when people reject Him. He knows no one can come to Him unless the Father who sent Him draws them. That’s why He starts talking about that here in the face of grumbling from His hearers. Have you ever finally taken the scary step to speak the good news of Jesus to someone who doesn’t yet believe and call them to believe it, only to find that they reject it, or perhaps that they aren’t interested in it at all? I have, and I know many of you have. In fact I have people in my life and I know many of you have people in yours who you’ve been sharing the gospel with and praying for for years, who have still not come to Christ, and who seem no closer to doing so than the day you met them. Does that surprise you? Did you think that if you just said it well enough and just prayed hard enough, that surely they would come to Christ? Here’s why if often doesn’t go that way: No one can come to Him unless the Father draws them. Of course many have not come to Him; that’s the norm! The amazing thing is not that some do not come to Christ; the amazing thing is that some do, again not because of any deficiency in Christ, but because by our sinful nature, we don’t want Him! So don’t let a lack of visible fruit discourage you from continuing to speak the good news of Jesus to others and call them to come to Christ. The missing piece in them coming to Christ is not the skill of your presentation or the godliness of your life; it’s the Father drawing them. And so we speak, we pray that the Father draws, and we leave it in His hands.
Jesus is not discouraged by the grumbling. Instead, He doubles down. And so here, verse 48: I am the bread of life. I can’t deny that. And look at your fathers, who you are grumbling like: They ate manna in the wilderness, and they died. By grumbling in the presence of Jesus, the bread of life, these hearers were identifying with their fathers, who grumbled in the presence of the manna in the wilderness, and Jesus is saying, “Look; that didn’t end well for them.” The manna fed their bodies and sustained them in the wilderness, but it couldn’t save them. It’s a fact, recorded in the history of the Old Testament: Everyone from that wilderness generation died, and none of them rose again.
And look, can I tell you something obvious? I don’t care how healthy you eat or how much you exercise; you are going to die. As I’ve heard Pastor Mark from our Manayunk congregation say, “You won’t be healthy when you’re dead.” It’s not just Judaism that can’t save you; that just happened to be Jesus’ audience at that time. It’s a new diet, a new exercise routine, modern medicine, money, alarm systems, safe neighborhoods, therapy, stress-relief techniques. Those can all be good, just like manna was good for a time. Jesus taught us to pray for our daily bread. But you have to broaden your time horizons. You have to really consider how short and limited your life is. Enjoy the good gifts God gives as you go, receive them with thanksgiving, but never forget what they are and what they aren’t: They’re bread, not the bread of life. And when you face times in your life when you do have to choose between getting or keeping more of that stuff and getting or keeping Christ, between eating bread and eating the bread of life, eat the bread of life. You’ll die if you don’t, but you’ll live forever if you do.
You’ll live forever if you do
So Jesus continues in verse 50: This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.” So Jesus once again affirms that He is the living bread, unlike the bread the fathers ate in the wilderness, and from which they died, and if one eats of Him, He promises they will live forever. By eating of Him, Jesus is clearly extending His metaphor. As He is the bread of life and one eats bread, so now He says everyone who eats of Him will live forever, where eating is a metaphor for believing. All throughout this passage and the Gospel of John and the rest of the Bible, the promise of eternal life is made to everyone who believes. So just using this discourse of Jesus’, back in verse 27 Jesus tells the people not to work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life. When the people ask him what work they must then do, Jesus says in verse 29: This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent. Then verse 40: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Verse 47: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.” Eating the bread of life means believing in Jesus. Bread of life = Jesus, Eating = believing. In the words of Augustine, “Believe, and you have eaten.”
And why is it that whoever eats this bread will live forever? Jesus explains further at the end of verse 51: And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. Jesus is saying that He will give Himself, offering His flesh on the cross as our substitute. He will die, so that we might live. The penalty God threatened on sin was death, and so all of us, even those who ate the manna in the wilderness, die. For us to be raised from the dead and live forever, then, one who is innocent must die in our place, paying the penalty for our sins, but then receiving the gift of eternal life as a reward for His obedience. Jesus is the innocent one, the spotless lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, and thus He is saying here that He will offer His perfect flesh on the cross in our place, so that whoever in the world, not only among the Jews, but among all nations, who believes in Him, will live forever.
Now once again his hearers in verse 52 respond negatively. They ask, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” much like in John 3, when Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born again to enter the kingdom, and Nicodemus said, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born again?” Just as they regarded Jesus according to the flesh, so they are interpreting His words according to the flesh. They’re stuck on thinking about bread that you eat with your mouth and wonder, “How could we do that with His flesh?” So once again Jesus doubles down and says, “Ah, not only do you have to eat my flesh, you have to drink my blood.” In Exodus 12, God instituted the Passover, where he told Israel to slaughter a lamb, to eat the flesh of that lamb, and to sprinkle the blood of the lamb on the doorpost, so that when He came in judgment on Egypt, He would “pass over” the houses of those with the blood of the lamb on the doorpost. So just as Jesus has presented Himself as the true and better manna, the bread come down from heaven, here He presents Himself as the true and greater Passover lamb, who is slain not only for Israel, but for the world. To eat His flesh and drink His blood, then, is to believe in Him and His work on the cross. He’s the true sacrifice that gives eternal life, and whoever trusts Him, not only in the abstract, but as the one who came down from heaven and offered His flesh and blood on the cross, will live forever.
Now before I move on, I should mention that there is another interpretation of these words that is the official interpretation of the Roman Catholic Church. I grew up Catholic myself and appreciate much in Catholicism, but this is one important area of difference between Roman Catholicism and the teaching of Scripture, and it’s one that a few of you have asked me about, so I want to address it briefly, and if you have more questions, let’s talk after the service. Roman Catholics hold to a doctrine called transubstantiation, which teaches that in the Lord’s Supper, which they call the Eucharist, the bread and wine are literally transformed into the body and blood of Christ. While it still appears, tastes, smells, and feels like bread and wine, those are the “accidents.” The substance, the real thing, is transformed into the real substance of the body and blood of Christ, hence the name “transubstantiation.” And they appeal to this passage because they say, “Look; Jesus says you have to eat His flesh and drink His blood. He doesn’t say, “You have to eat bread and wine, which symbolize my flesh and blood.” He says, “You have to eat my flesh and drink my blood.” How else could this be done than in communion, where the bread and the wine are transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ?”
But this is a false interpretation of this passage for at least a few reasons, apart from logical problems with transubstantiation: First, it’s not at all clear that John intended to refer to the Lord’s Supper in this passage. If that’s what He wanted to do, the word “body” would be a much clearer choice than “flesh,” as in all the times where the Lord’s Supper is mentioned, He says of the bread, “This is my body,” not “This is my flesh.” Furthermore, John’s Gospel is the only Gospel in which the institution of the Lord’s Supper is not even recorded, so we’d be left with the unlikely scenario that John records this here in reference to an event he will then say nothing about in the rest of his Gospel. It would be like John recording that Jesus is going to give His flesh for the life of the world and then not recording the crucifixion in his Gospel. But then, second, look at the parallel between verse 54 and verse 40. Verse 54 says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Verse 40 says, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” If you don’t interpret the eating and drinking of verse 54 as believing, you bring it into contradiction with verse 40 and all the earlier verses I’ve already cited that teach that everyone who believes will be saved. Jesus says in verse 53 that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” If that means, “unless you take the Eucharist, you have no life in you,” it contradicts all the verses that teach that whoever believes has eternal life.
So like if I say, “Everyone who comes to church at Citylight today will hear this sermon,” but then I say, “Everyone who sits in the front will hear this sermon” and “Unless you sit in the front, you won’t hear the sermon,” that’s a contradiction. On the other hand, if I say, “Everyone who comes to church at Citylight today will hear this sermon” and then I say “Everyone who comes to Highway Tabernacle’s building from 8:30-10:00am will hear this sermon,” that’s just me saying the same thing in different words. If eating and drinking in verses 53-54 meant taking the eucharist, something other than believing, then it would contradict verse 40 and 47 where we clearly see that everyone who believes has eternal life. Furthermore, it’s a fact even within the Bible that there are some who believe who don’t ever take the Eucharist. The thief on the cross next to Jesus who believes in Him, Jesus says will be with Him in paradise, though He died that day having never eaten the Lord’s Supper. Even today children in almost all Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, are not admitted to taking communion; how can they have eternal life if eating and drinking in these verses refers to taking communion? Furthermore, how can the Roman Catholic Church still teach that it is optional for people to drink the wine in communion if Jesus says you must eat His flesh and drink His blood to have eternal life?
Really, then, the Roman Catholic interpretation makes the same mistake in interpreting this passage as Nicodemus in John 3 or Jesus’ hearers in this passage: They interpret His words in fleshly terms, as though Jesus meant that you have to put His material flesh in your teeth and into your stomach like the fathers put the flesh of the Passover lamb into their teeth and stomach. But this misses the whole point of Jesus’ teaching, as it seems like those disciples of verse 60 continued to do, when they say, “This is a hard saying.” In verse 63 He says to them: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” And He does this all throughout the Gospel of John. I already mentioned the example of the new birth and Nicodemus. There’s another story where he meets a woman at a well and tells her to drink living water for eternal life, living water that we later discover is the Holy Spirit, but we have no sacrament where we drink water that is transubstantiated into the Holy Spirit. Later He says in John 10:9, “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.” But we have no sacramental door, which is transubstantiated into the body of Christ, which we must open and walk through to be saved. You can put inspiring language like “intimacy” and mystical rituals around the ceremony of the Eucharist, but the Roman Catholic understanding of it is simply false, and harmful. Jesus promises that whoever eats His flesh and drinks His blood has eternal life, and how many in the world today and throughout history have assumed they have eternal life because they take communion, while in reality the wrath of God remains upon them?
Because here’s what it really does mean to eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood: It means to not merely admire Jesus as many of His followers at that time did; it means to believe in Him, to set all your hopes for eternal life on Him, a mediocre-looking crucified Savior, and many of these disciples, though they admired Jesus, did not believe in Him, as Jesus says in verse 64. So He affirmed to them again in verse 65 that no one can come to Him unless it is granted him by the Father. Then we read in verse 66 that many of His disciples turned back and no longer walked with Him. And you’ve gotta love Jesus’ response in verse 67. He doesn’t try to go chase down the disciples who are leaving and say, “Hey come back guys; I don’t want to offend you.” Instead, He turns to the 12, His closest disciples, and says, “Do you want to go too?” Jesus so doesn’t need us. He’s not some insecure ruler who has to keep people following Him so He’ll feel good about Himself. And look at Peter’s response: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the word of eternal life.” Many of you here today are disciples of Jesus. You’ve professed faith in Him, like these disciples did, and given some appearance of following Him, but there will come times where you come across hard sayings of Jesus, and in those times, you need to keep eating the bread of Life, because, to put Peter’s question to you, where else will you go?
Where else will you go?
When I first became a Christian, I kinda didn’t get that this was an issue, this issue of people following Jesus for a time only to leave Him later. It’s especially shocking if it’s someone with whom you’re close, who you’ve prayed with, in whom you feel like you’ve seen such clear evidence of the Holy Spirit’s work. But it shouldn’t surprise us. It should grieve us, but it shouldn’t surprise us. Scripture is littered with examples of it. Here we even read that it’s “many of His disciples” who turn back. If that happened even to Jesus, we should expect it will also happen to us if we are committed to teaching the words of Jesus.
And we should also expect to face the same temptation. Jesus doesn’t pull punches. Follow Him long enough, and you will come across words of His that make you say, “This is a hard saying.” You’ll start to think, “Man, if I really believed that” or “Man, if I really obeyed that” it could cost me. I might not advance in my career, I might lose my job, I might not be cool anymore, I might never get married, I might not be safe, I might be uncomfortable, I might even die. And Jesus says, “Yeah. So do you want to leave?” And sometimes that departure is sudden, like here, where you come across a hard saying and say, “Wait a second, I didn’t realize that’s what it cost. I’m out.” But more typically, it’s a slow drift. You say, “Well ok I don’t really like that part of the Bible, so I’ll just kinda pretend it’s not there, not really change my beliefs or actions to align with it, but I won’t leave Jesus or anything.” Keep doing that though, and eventually you get far enough from Christ that it feels like the only thing left is to just admit that you don’t really believe this stuff anymore.
It’s better by far to just admit that you’re feeling that way, to God, to yourself, and to your church family. To say, “Hey, I’m really struggling with the Bible’s commands to give to the poor or the Bible’s teaching on sexuality or whatever else. Am I understanding these rightly?” And if you are, and the issue is just whether you will continue with Christ by trusting and obeying His words or turning from Him by rejecting them, seriously consider, “Where else will you go?” I remember a retreat I went to shortly after I became a Christian, and the speaker there had a meal with a few of the students in which he asked us what some of the greatest temptations were that we faced as college students. We said many of the typical things: “Idolizing grades, sexual immorality, drunkenness, wanting to fit in, laziness.” He said, “My greatest temptation is the temptation toward atheism. Some days I want to just put my Bible up on the shelf and say, ‘I’m done.’” I remember thinking, “Wow; aren’t you supposed to be a good Christian?” But this was a man who knew his heart. And he said one thing that’s kept him going is Peter’s question in this passage: To whom shall I go? You have the words of eternal life. And I can say that I’ve had my moments where I’ve wanted to hang it up and be done with Jesus, and I too have been kept by God through these words: To whom shall I go? You have the words of eternal life. So I’ve got to stay with you, and I’ve got to at least try to trust your words and obey this hard thing you’re calling me to, relying on your grace to enable me.
Like, nobody else is even really offering eternal life, let alone able to deliver it. Sure you could go be an atheist but there’s no more hope in that than in the manna the fathers ate and died. It basically says manna is all there is. Sure you could tone back your Christian faith and just be an occasional churchgoer, obey the commands you want to obey and ignore the others, believe the stuff you want to believe and ignore the rest, but that’s a pretty empty way to live: You’ll get the nagging guilt of knowing you aren’t quite living the way you’re supposed to without the joy of knowing Christ. And sure, you could align with another religion, but they’ve all got laws for you to fall short of too, whether they call them that or not, and what they don’t have is the one who came down from heaven and gave His flesh for the life of the world, who then rose again to eternal life, and who now has eternal life in Himself for all who do not merely admire Him, but eat Him by faith. Even when His sayings sound hard to you, eat His flesh. Drink His blood. Believe in Him, suffer with Him, abide with Him, and He will raise you up on the last day.