We continue through our careful reading of John 6 as an intermission from Mark’s gospel, and on Trinity 9 in Year B the gospel reading is John 6.24–35. Having romped through 21 verses last week, which include the Fourth Gospel’s lengthier version of the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus walking on water (though in a brief summary), we are slowing down to consider the first 11 verses of the ‘bread of life’ dialogue that, uniquely, follows the feeding in this gospel.
For some reason, the lectionary omits the connective verses John 6.22–23. They begin with a characteristic temporal marker τῇ ἐπαύριον ‘on the next day’, which Matthew and Mark only use once each, but the Fourth Gospel uses particularly in chapter 1 to count through the first seven symbolic days of Jesus’ early ministry. (The work does not occur anywhere in Luke, but frequently in Acts as it tracks the activities of the Peter and Paul.)
These omitted verses also give some careful geographical detail, again characteristic of this gospel, which would have been impossible to include by someone not familiar with the region on first-hand terms (see the section on topography from p 95 in The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple by Richard Bauckham). The repeated references to ‘the other side’ (John 6.22, 25) refer to the north-eastern and north-western shores, rather than suggesting anyone has crossed the centre of the lake, and as well as pointing to topography also assume that we have read Mark’s account of these events.
In the synoptics gospels, Jesus is portrayed as dynamic and active, travelling around and actively seeking out ‘the lost’, especially in the first half of his ministry, in Galilee (‘The Son of Man has come to seek and save the lost’, Luke 19.10). By contrast, in the Fourth Gospel Jesus doesn’t seek people out, but remains a centre of stillness, and at times even elusive (‘You will seek me but you will not find me’ John 7.34), as others seek him.
This question—”Whom do you seek?“—runs through the Gospel of John like a light red thread…The thread started running with the very first words Jesus spoke in this Gospel, which formed a question directed at the disciples of John the Baptist that started to follow after him. To them, Jesus said, “What do you seek?” (1:38). When Jesus utters an even more personal form of this question to Mary Magdalene, it is not the second but rather the third time this basic question has appeared. In between the first and the last is the question of Jesus not to his would-be disciples, not to this first witness of his Resurrection, but to the band of soldiers his betrayer has gathered. To them, too, he asks, “Whom do you seek?” (18:4).
When they find him, there is no suggestion that they thought he had arrived there miraculously. Just as only a few were aware of how the water became wine in John 2, so only the ‘insiders’ knew he had walked on the water.
Jesus is addressed as ‘Rabbi’ (literally, ‘my great one’ in Hebrew) seven times in this gospel (John 1.38, 49, 3.2, 4.31, here in John 6.25, 9.2 and 11.8), and additionally John the Baptist is given this title in John 3.26. It functions as a title of respectively address, often in the context of those using it not understanding what Jesus is doing or what is happening; there is no suggestion that it was a formal title implying training and recognition; Jesus is not a member of the scribal elite. On the first occasion of its use, the writer explains its meaning (John 1.38), reminding us that this gospel is both rooted in a particular cultural, geographical and linguistic context and that this needs translating for a different and wider world. Translation is always central to the task of missional proclamation.
Once again, the enigmatic Jesus of the Fourth Gospel refuses to give an answer to a direct question. Instead, he responds with one of his ‘Amen, amen…’ sayings which pepper this gospel 25 times. The singular form ‘Amen I say to you…’ occurs frequently in Matthew, often in Mark and occasionally in Luke; like other uses of Aramaic terms in the gospels, it suggests an account of the ipsissima verba, the actual words of Jesus in Aramaic (alongside ‘Talitha cumi’ in Mark 5.41, Jesus’ address of God as ‘Abba’, and his cry from the cross ‘Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani’ in Matt 27.45). The Fourth Gospel doubles the term, and it is impossible to know whether this is a faithful account of Jesus’ actual use which has been simplified elsewhere, or a drawing out of Jesus’ concern for truth which forms a key theme in this gospel.
It might be rather surprising that Jesus uses this stern introduction to what appears to be a mundane saying, essentially, ‘You have not yet understood the meaning of the feeding of the 5,000’. But in this gospel, there is a repeated contrast between the mundane and the spiritual, expressed most frequently in the double meanings of so many words and sayings. Light, dark, seeing, bread, night—all these have a symbolic significance pointing to spiritual reality, and the crucial division in the narrative is between those who can see it and those who cannot. Although the crowds saw that Jesus provided bread and fish, they did not see this as a sign pointing to who Jesus really was. The theme of seeing and not seeing will be picked up and developed in detail in chapter 9, the healing of the man born blind.
The contrast between the mundane and the eternal is expressed by Jesus in the contrast between the ‘food that perishes’ with the ‘food that abides to eternal life’. These terms are loaded with significance; in John 3.16 those who believe in God’s only son do not ‘perish’, and whoever wants to live must ‘abide’ in the true vine in John 15.4. In this sense, you are what you eat: eat food that perishes, and you will perish; eat food that abides to eternal life, and you will have eternal life.
Jesus uses the term ‘work’ as a metaphor for seeking or striving, and, again characteristic of this gospel, the next response of the people doesn’t follow on logical from Jesus comment so much as hangs on the repetition of a particular term, ‘What must we do to be doing the works of God?’ Since eating food is closely connected with believe in the only Son of God, it is not surprising that Jesus transforms the language of ‘work’ in the language of ‘belief’. There is here a quite strong connection with Pauline theology; as John Ziesler has commented (Pauline Christianity) for Paul faith is not a ‘thing’, but simply an acceptance and receiving of what God has offered, not in any sense something we ‘do’.
The title ‘Son of Man’ occurs 13 times in this gospel in 12 verses. It ultimately derives from the vision of Daniel 7, when a figure ‘like a son of man’ is lifted up to the throne of God and given an everlasting kingdom. It begins its life as a Hebrew and Aramaic idiom for a vulnerable human figure, and signifies personified Israel. But the term has now taken on a life of its own (whilst not leaving this origin behind) and is used by Jesus in the gospels both to signify his own vulnerable humanity (‘they will hand over the Son of Man to be crucified…’) but also to claim he is the true Israel, who after suffering will be exalted to the throne of God in the Ascension. The Fourth Gospel again appears to assume that we will be familiar with this term from its frequent use in the Synoptics. But within this gospel it is associated with access to God’s heavenly presence (in John 1.51 and John 3.13, 14), Jesus being glorified and lifted up, but paradoxically by his crucifixion (John 8.28, 12.23, 34, John 13.31) and bringing life to others by his death (John 6.53).
The idea of Jesus being ‘sealed’ by God is slightly unusual, though it has already occurred in a metaphorical sense in John 3.33. The NIV and other ETs interpret the meaning as ‘a seal of approval’, suggesting God’s affirmation of Jesus. ‘The term is found in commercial documents among the papyrus where it denotes the sealing of letters and sacks to guarantee that no-one tampers with the contents’ (Kruse, TNTC, p 134). It is clearly used in this sense (both literally and figuratively) in Matt 27.66, 2 Cor 1.22, Eph 4.30, Rev 20.3 and (negatively) in Rev 22.10. But it is hard to completely separate this from the language of sealing in Eph 1.13 and Rev 7.3, where there seems to be a broader sense, and the language of Jesus as the ‘image’ of God, who reflects the nature of his character (‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’, John 14.9).
It seems odd, in narrative terms, that his interlocutors then ask for a sign—given that Jesus has just fed 5,000 people! This fits within the Fourth Gospel as pointing to the obtuse nature of ‘the Jews’ (often meaning those who refuse to believe in him, or those Judeans in the south, or the leaders of the people) who will not recognise the miracles/signs that Jesus does, and will not believe the claims Jesus makes. But it also fits with the dynamic in the synoptics where the people ‘demand a sign’ which Jesus refuses to give (Matt 12.39). Again, the repetition of the term ‘work’ for such a sign links this comment with the previous exchange on both sides.
There is no surprise with the link to the Mosaic episode of manna in the wilderness. As we noted last week, connections with Moses and the wilderness abound: Jesus has gone up on a mountain; the people are gathered in a desert place (according to the parallel we have read in Mark); there is a need for feeding, and no obvious way to provide; and Jesus is recognised as a ‘prophet like Moses’.
The quotation from the Scriptures (‘As it is written…’) appears to be a paraphrase of a combination of Ex 16.4, 15 and Ps 78.24. The language of ‘food’ (βρῶσις) has now been replaced with the term ‘bread’ (ἄρτος), demonstrating (contrary to our assumption) their equivalence. This is confirmed by the description of ‘manna’ (which originally simply meant ‘What is this?’—manna is literally ‘What do you call it’) as ‘bread’, which is clearly isn’t, unless bread is a broad reference to food in general.
Andrew Wilson highlights the way we need to translated the idea of Jesus as bread from the first century into our culture.
In some ways the biblical word bread corresponds more closely to our concept of food than our concept of bread. It was not just an important part of a meal, or even the most popular one, but the essence of all meals. Bread was life.
When a waiter asks if we would like a bit of bread for the table, we might say no, seeing it as an appetiser before the real food comes out, and then we read that sort of take-it-or-leave-it approach into our Bibles. In the biblical world, on the other hand, bread is essential. It is life-giving, and without it you starve…
When Jesus says “I am the bread of life” it is not an appeal to taste. Jesus is not saying that he is a savoury appetiser or a side dish or a popular choice among people who like their spirituality nutritional and fresh from the oven. He is claiming to be essential, life-giving, one upon whom human beings are entirely dependent and without whom we cannot function properly. (God of All Things, pp 142–144).
Jesus’ emphatic response (‘Amen, Amen…’ once more) is to make two shifts. First, Moses was not the source of this ‘bread’, but only the means by which God provided it, and God himself is the origin. Secondly, the bread that God will now give is ‘the one’ (contra NIV, ‘the bread’) that comes down from heaven. This echoes the language of John 1; the light has come into the world in the form of the word who has become flesh, and he brings life to the whole world. This bread will not just feed the people of Israel, but all who will receive him.
As in previous episodes (and ones that follow) in the dialogue Jesus sets up an expectation which his interlocutors then want to fulfilled—to which Jesus replies that he is the answer. Compare John 4.15 ‘Sir, give me this water’ with John 6.34 ‘Sir, give us this bread’ and John 9.36 ‘Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?’ Jesus himself becomes the climactic answer to the heightened question that has been given urgency by the tantalising promise of God that the hearers long to be fulfilled.
We can see, now, why Jesus is addressed as ‘Rabbi’, teacher. We do not live by bread alone, but by the very word that comes from God; Jesus is the word of God who has come down; therefore it is Jesus, in both his person and his teaching, who is the bread of life with which God feeds us.
In the Fourth Gospel, there are seven occasions where Jesus declares simply ‘I am’, without adding a predicate, and seven occasions where Jesus declares ‘I am [something]’, with a predicate, of which this is the last. Felix Just notes how all these images are rooted in the OT, and primarily refer to God’s relationship with Israel:
- Bread of Life / Bread from Heaven – see Exod 16; Num 11:6-9; Ps 78:24; Isa 55:1-3; Neh 9:15; 2 Mac 2:5-8
- Light of the World – Exod 13:21-22; Isa 42:6-7; Ps 97:4
- Good Shepherd – Ezek 34:1-41; Gen 48:15; 49:24; Ps 23:1-4; 80:1; 100:3-4; Micah 7:14
- Resurrection / Life – Dan 12:2; Ps 56:13; 2 Mac 7:1-38
- Way – Exod 33:13; Ps 25:4; 27:11; 86:11; 119:59; Isa 40:3; 62:10
- Truth – 1 Kings 17:4; Ps 25:5; 43:3; 86:11; 119:160; Isa 45:19
- Vine / Vineyard – Isa 5:1-7; Ps 80:8-17; Jer 2:21; Ezek 17:5-10
The general nature of bread as food and sustenance is again emphasised by Jesus’ use of parallelism: ‘who comes to me/shall not hunger/who believes in me/shall never thirst’, the latter of which connects us back to the woman at the well in chapter 4. It also makes clear what began this dialogue: that ‘feeding’ on Jesus is primarily a metaphor for believing in and trusting him. If and when we eat bread and drink wine as a sign of this, it is a sign of our receiving him, of ‘feeding on him in our hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving’.