READ : John 6:35-51
Jesus was a wildly popular figure, and the crowds rushed to see and hear him. But when they listened carefully to what he said, those same crowds were turned off, and disappeared.
We think of Jesus Christ as a very popular teacher, and it’s true; he was that. Jesus was often mobbed by the crowds who turned out to listen to him explain the Hebrew scriptures or talk about the kingdom of God or tell stories that illustrated what God expects of us.
But the gospels tell us also about the downside to Jesus’ teaching ministry. If the crowds sometimes followed him around, if there were occasions when Jesus had to sit on a hillside in order to be seen and heard or teach from a boat offshore because the mass of people literally crowded him off the land, there were also times when the crowds dwindled and the enthusiasm disappeared. Jesus may have been a popular teacher, but what he had to say wasn’t always so appealing. In fact, the more they heard of his message, the less most people thought of it. By the end, almost everybody had deserted him.
WHERE HE IS FROM
A case in point is the encounter between Jesus and the crowd that we read about in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel. The chapter opens with Jesus’ miraculous feeding of more than five thousand people on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The recipients of this free meal were so excited by Jesus’ power they wanted to make him their king. Anybody who could feed the multitudes free of charge was an obvious candidate to run the government, just as he would be today! But Jesus’ mission is different. He has another agenda. As he himself would put it, his kingdom is not of this world. So he withdrew quietly by himself, and later joined his disciples as they crossed the lake at night and headed back home to Capernaum.
The next morning, when the crowd discovered that Jesus and his disciples had left, they hurried after them. Finally catching up with Jesus, the people he had fed tried to pursue this business of the miraculous feeding with him. They were interested in having Jesus make his gift of bread a more or less permanent arrangement. I mean, think of the convenience, the savings: no more trips to the store, no more struggling over the food budget. Just dial up Jesus and put in your order! If they could only get Jesus to take over and provide for them on a regular basis, their worries would be over. But Jesus took their interest in physical bread and used it metaphorically to talk about the satisfaction of a far deeper need.
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. . . . I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. . . . At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the Son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”
“I have come down from heaven,” Jesus stated. This is, to put it mildly, a rather unusual claim for someone to make about himself. It struck the crowd as outlandish; it irritated them and set them to grumbling. Now, I guess their reaction is understandable. If I were going to talk about where I come from, I would probably say I was born and raised in western Michigan. That’s what the crowd of Galileans thought Jesus should have done. If he was going to give an account of his origin, it should have gone something like, “Well, I was born in Bethlehem, but we moved to Egypt when I was just a baby, and then we came up here to Nazareth, where I grew up”. Jesus was a local boy, Joseph and Mary’s son; who does he think he is to say things like, “I came down from heaven!”
One major reason why people miss the reality of the Lord Jesus is because they think they know just where he comes from. They have him figured out. He’s a good man, a religious leader, a fine moral example, an important figure in Western cultural history. “But don’t give us that supernatural stuff,” they say, “we know all we need to about him.” People who think of Jesus only as a good man, or even as the best man ever, miss the truth about him (see v.36). He is not just another human being. Jesus is not from here; he came down from heaven.
When Jesus says, “I came down from heaven,” he isn’t talking about reincarnation or some notion of a pre-existing human soul be joined to a human body at birth. He is referring to his deity. Jesus is speaking as one who is conscious of his eternal divine nature as the Son of God. To say he came down from heaven is to say he came from the position of God, as one who is God in very nature.
WHY HE CAME
If heaven is where Jesus came from, salvation is what he came for.
“I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Why did Jesus come down from heaven into our world? He says he has come in obedience to the Father in order to fulfill God’s will, which is to give eternal life to all who believe in him, the Son of God. There is a perfect harmony between the Father and the Son. God lovingly wills to save people, and Jesus lovingly and obediently makes God’s will operative by accomplishing the work of salvation. It is a terrible distortion to think of God as a wrath-filled avenging power intent on destroying sinners, with Jesus as a loving and kind Savior who just barely manages to persuade his angry Father to spare a few. No, there is complete unity within the three-persons of the Trinity, who is always just and gracious, righteous and merciful, and infinitely loving. So the Father wills, and the Son obeys, and the result is eternal life and resurrection at the last day for “everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him”. WHAT HE IS
All this truth Jesus sums up by calling himself the Bread of life. Bread is one of the most valuable possessions of the human race. When some prehistoric baker discovered what happened when grain was pounded into flour, mixed with water and a little yeast, then placed near a fire, the human race received one of its most important gifts. People are still interested in good bread. I read an article a while back about a new bakery that had opened in Washington D.C. where customers were waiting in line for up to an hour each day to buy specialty loaves of bread for $10 apiece. In Jesus’ day the interest in bread was much more basic. Bread was not an upscale status symbol, or an extra item to put on the little plate next to your salad, or something to hold your sandwich ingredients together. It was what kept you alive. Bread was to Jesus’ world what rice is to the Orient: the basic, sustaining nourishment, the “staff of life”.
“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus told his critics in the crowd.
“I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Jesus was urging these people not to come to him merely for the satisfaction of their physical wants but to believe in him for eternal life. He refers to the story of the manna, the bread God gave to the people of Israel during the Exodus. Jesus understands that as pointing to himself. The manna in the wilderness was really a symbol for Christ himself. He is the true bread of life, come down from God to bring life that never spoils and does not end. The life he gives is eternal, and far superior to mere earthly life. But the life that is offered to all who put their faith in Jesus comes at great cost to him. The bread of life is, in an instrumental sense, his body, which he will give through his sacrificial death for the life of the world.
WHAT WE MUST DO
If Jesus is the bread from heaven, the living bread who gives eternal life, then our responsibility is clear. We must receive him. That is what he himself tells us in the most graphic possible way: “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day, for my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink” (v.53-55, cf.v.56-58). What does this language mean, the crowd wanted to know (v.52)? How does one eat and drink Christ’s flesh and blood, or “feed on” (v.57) him?
Obviously he was not speaking literally. Nor did Christ mean these words in a primarily ritual, sacramental sense, though there is an unmistakable link between Jesus’ words and the symbolism of the worship ceremony which Christians call the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist. But Jesus is not saying that we receive eternal life by eating something with our mouths. He meant that we receive eternal life when we receive him, by faith. Faith, said a great Christian teacher, is “the mouth and stomach of the soul” (John Calvin). To “come to” Christ, to “believe in” Christ, to “look to” Christ, to “eat [Christ’s] flesh” and “drink [his] blood”, to “feed on” Christ these are all parallel expressions signifying the same experience of being personally united to Jesus through faith in his sacrificial death and resurrected life. Faith is participating in Christ’s death, sharing its benefits, and receiving Christ’s life. It is eating and drinking Christ with “the mouth” of your soul. It is claiming him, taking him, identifying with and accepting him. And this is eternal life.
“On hearing this,” John reports,
“many of [Jesus’] disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’ . . . [And] from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” (v.60,66)
Jesus the bread-maker is enormously popular with the masses. But Jesus the Bread of heaven, the only way to eternal life, the One in whom all must believe in order to be saved well, he’s rather offensive. As the crowds melted away Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked if they too would leave him. But Peter, good old impulsive Peter, spoke for himself and every real disciple of Jesus Christ: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (v.68)
There it is. If you can find another who will give you eternal life, go ahead and leave Jesus. But really, where else is there to go?