In sustenance and sacrifice, Jefferson Vann explains how the sometimes confusing passage of John 6:24-59 is consistent with the Johannine theme “Christ offers to raise believers to permanent life.”
As one reads through the Gospel of John, a major theme develops and presents itself. That theme could be summarized by the simple statement: “Christ offers to raise believers to permanent life.” In our survey of the Gospel, we have seen this simple message restated often in a number of ways:
- Christ had life in himself, and that life is light for us.1
- Whoever believes in Christ will not perish, but will have permanent life.2
- Believers await that promise of life, but unbelievers will experience wrath.3
- Jesus is the only source of permanent life.4
- If we respond to Jesus now, he will raise us to permanent life when he returns.5
It looks like every story that John chooses to relate in his Gospel magnifies that theme “Christ offers to raise believers to permanent life.” All the narratives seem to point us to a series of discussions that Jesus has with people like Nicodemus and the Samaritan well-woman, and each comment by John seems focused on the theme as well.
Today’s passage is no exception. I want us to focus on the discussion Jesus has with the antagonistic crowd at Capernaum in John 6:24-59. This crowd consisted of thousands who had only recently experienced the miracle of the miraculous feeding.6 After Jesus escaped their attempt to take him by force and make him their king, he relocates to Capernaum. They follow him there, and when they find him, they ask when he got there. It was an important question for them, because they knew that there had only been one boat that fought the storm to cross the Tiberius, and Jesus was not on it when it was launched.
Jesus refuses to even respond to their question because it was irrelevant. We make a great deal of Jesus having walked on water, but in the grand scheme of things, that miracle does not compare with the miracle of granting billions of people permanent life. So, Jesus stays on point.
“Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Don’t work for the food that perishes but for the food that lasts for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set his seal of approval on him.””7
Jesus had performed five major sign miracles, as recorded by John in his Gospel so far. In Cana, he had turned water into wine,8 and healed an official’s son from a life threatening illness.9 At the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem, he healed the man who had been disabled for 38 years, and got into trouble for doing so, because it was on a Sabbath.10 Back in Galilee, he fed the 5000, and walked on Lake Tiberius at least part of the way back to Capernaum.11 These sign miracles were very important for Jesus, because they revealed who he was as creator and only Son of God. The sign miracles, together with the I AM (Ἐγώ εἰμι) statements, reveal that Jesus is more than a mere prophet. He is the ultimate revelation of God among us, God’s Logos (λόγος). The crowds’ refusal to pay attention to that revelation (particularly the sign miracles) made Jesus frustrated with them. So, he tells them that the only reason they are seeking him is that they had been given a free meal back on the other side of the lake.
Next, he tells them (as I translate it) “Don’t work for the consumable that perishes but for the consumable that lasts for permanent life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set his seal of approval on him.”12 I thought it interesting that the word John uses here (the word I translate “consumable”) is not the normal word for food or bread, or a meal, but brōsis (βρῶσις) the word that can be translated “rust.” Moths and rust are things that consume.13 But Jesus uses the word here for something that is consumed.
The apostle Paul often uses the word this way. He told the Romans that “the kingdom of God is not eating (βρῶσις) and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.”14 He instructed the Corinthians who wanted to know if “eating food” (βρῶσις) sacrificed to idols was permitted.15 Encouraging those Corinthians to be generous in their giving, he reminded them that God is the one who provides seed for the planter, and bread “for eating” (βρῶσις).16
Consumables (like ordinary bread) are eaten and then disappear. They offer temporary maintenance of life, but do not last. Even the miraculous bread and fish the 5000 had experienced was like that. But here, Jesus offers a consumable that lasts for permanent life (εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον). That is his promise to those who believe in him. Like the living water he offered to the woman at the well, Jesus is talking about food that will last – sustenance that will sustain forever.
But his audience was not tracking. They appear to have only heard some words of his sermon, as if they had bad hearing and only picked up part of the message. They appear to have heard only “Don’t work for… but for…” They replied, “What can we do to perform the works of God?”17 Jesus replied, “This is the work of God– that you believe in the one he has sent.”18 As I said, Jesus stays on point. He is not talking about works righteousness here. He does not want to create a new batch of Pharisees. He is offering to raise believers to permanent life. But that offer is conditional. He will not raise unbelievers to permanent life. He plans to raise them so that they can experience judgement, punishment, and die a permanent death. So, in answering their question, Jesus told the crowd that God’s “work” is believing in him.
This is when that clueless crowd goes back to the miraculous sign question. They ask Jesus what sign he is going to perform to prove that he is worth believing in. Remember, John has already recorded five significant sign miracles, including the feeding of the 5000. The crowd seems fixated on that sign, because they kind of hint to Jesus that it would be OK for them if he repeated that sign. They quote an ancient psalm that celebrates the giving of the manna, when God gave the Israelites bread from the sky to eat.19 So, it appears that the crowd is willing to accept that Jesus could be a new Moses, offering a new celestial snack.
“Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, Moses didn’t give you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.””20
For Jesus, God does not want to just prove his benevolence by sating the hunger of this crowd, as he had done in the time of Moses, and as he did when Jesus fed them from the loaves and fishes. No, God has something else in mind. The bread from God,21 also known as the bread of life,22 is Jesus himself, who has come down from the sky to give life to the world.
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus told them. “No one who comes to me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in me will ever be thirsty again. But as I told you, you’ve seen me, and yet you do not believe. Everyone the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. This is the will of him who sent me: that I should lose none of those he has given me but should raise them up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”23
We have seen that Jesus’ consistent teaching in the Gospel of John is that he offers to raise believers to permanent life. Here, in the context of the manna metaphor, Jesus says the same thing again. He is not talking about some spiritual communion with God, or snacking on him like some Judaeo-Christian form of ambrosia. No, he explains that to eat this bread is to believe this saviour. The result of believing this saviour will be that he will raise the believer up on the last day. Jesus is preaching the gospel promise of the resurrection.
Probably at this time, even some of those morons in the clueless crowd were starting to get it. Some were even starting to complain, because they knew Jesus came from a family in Nazareth, and they could not accept that he came from the sky before that.24 Jesus tells them to stop complaining, and explains that only those whom the Father draws to Jesus will actually come to believe him.25 Now, when I first read that word “draws” I pictured something like magnetism, where people are converted through some irresistible force. But John later uses the word helcō (ἕλκω) to describe Peter drawing a sword.26 The idea here is extraction. The Father extracts believers from the kingdom of Satan, and makes them citizens of the kingdom of Christ.
“Truly I tell you, anyone who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that anyone 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. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”27
Jesus had already explained his metaphor by saying that anyone who believes has permanent life. In this passage, Jesus ties that teaching to an Old Testament type which prefigured his ministry. That type was the manna. Eating the living bread means believing in Christ, who sacrificed his flesh on the cross for us.
The Jews arguing among themselves missed the point completely. Just like their ancestors, who questioned the gift of manna, these unbelievers would rather have an explanation than a salvation.
“So Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves. The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day, because my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven; it is not like the manna your ancestors ate– and they died. The one who eats this bread will live forever.””28
The antagonistic Jewish audience had refused to accept Jesus as the new manna from the sky. Now, he goes on to an even more difficult metaphor. He compares himself to the Old Testament sacrifices, particularly the ones that were to be consumed by the worshippers. These sacrifices were like sharing a meal with God the king, and symbolized the shared relationship and covenant with God.
The referent does not change with this new metaphor. Gnawing on (τρώγω) the flesh and drinking the blood of this new sacrifice still means believing in Jesus (6:47). But Jesus changes the metaphor because gnawing on the flesh and drinking the blood are actions tied to the covenant aspect of the consumable sacrifices in the ancient near-east. The Mosaic law, however, prohibited the consuming of blood.29 Jesus appears to use it as a metaphor here precisely because it would take an act of faith to even imagine drinking his blood.
Believers celebrate that covenant relationship every time we partake of the symbolic meal that commemorates Christ’s death on the cross. When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, or Communion, we are remembering Christ’s sacrificial death. The meal is a testimony to our faith in him as God’s substitute for our sins, God’s way out of our mortality.
This entire passage highlights the Johannine theme of “Christ offers to raise believers to permanent life.” But it also speaks of the epistemological courage that we must have as believers. If we have the resurrection as our life’s goal, we must be willing to believe that Christ and only Christ is the divine bread which sustains human life, and that Christ and only Christ is God’s acceptable sacrifice to atone for our sins, making permanent life in God’s new creation possible for us.
7John 6:26-27 CSB
12John 6:27 (my translation).
14Romans 14:17 CSB.
151 Corinthians 8:4.
162 Corinthians 9:6.
17John 6:28 CSB.
18John 6:29 CSB.
20John 6:32-33 CSB.
23John 6:35-40 CSB.
27John 6:47-51 CSB.
28John 6:53-58 CSB.