Proper 13 · John 6:22-35 · August 2, 2009
By David I. Lewis
Today’s Gospel is the first of a series of three lessons taken from the so called “Bread of Life Discourse” of John 6:22-71. Here Jesus engages in an extended dialogue first with the crowd (6:25-59) and then with his disciples (6:60-71). At several points, this dialogue shifts to monologue/short speeches (e.g. 6:35-40). It is in this dialogue that Jesus identifies himself with the first of seven statements in John introduced by εγω ειμι—”I am the Bread of Life” (6:35, 48— see also 6:51). The end result of this dialogue will be that the crowd and most of Jesus’ disciples desert him because of his hard words, and that even among the twelve who remain one is identified as “a devil.” The difficulty of the way in which this entire episode ends with a mass rejection of Jesus and the challenges this presents for the preacher not to soften Jesus’ words for the sake of hearers today is only slightly mitigated by eliminating w. 70-71 from the final pericope of this series (as the present lectionary does).
In John’s narrative this dialogue takes place after Jesus has performed two miraculous signs, the feeding of the 5000 (Jn 6:1-15) and walking on water (Jn 6:16-21). In Series Β the three readings from John 6 also follow these same two miracles (but as they are recorded in the Gospel of Mark!). For the crowd as characters in the narrative, this dialogue takes place especially in light of Jesus’ multiplying of the loaves: Because of that miracle they tried to make Jesus king by force (6:15) and it is the reason for why they are still seeking him when today’s lesson begins.
Verses 22-24. These verses provide the immediate set up for the dialogue/discourse that follows. The same crowd that was fed miraculously comes to realize that Jesus is no longer on that side of the lake, and this even though they saw that he did not depart in the boat with his disciples. Note that even though they do not know how Jesus has disappeared (but the reader/hearer does!), it is evident that something unique has taken place. They go to Capernaum to search for Him.
Verses 25-27. The crowd finds Jesus. (It will be noted later in v. 59 that he is in a synagogue.) Note that Jesus does not answer their “when?” question from v. 25 but instead speaks directly to the reason for why they have been looking for him: it is not because of the miraculous signs that they witnessed—thus perhaps indicating that this crowd’s understanding is inferior even to the “faith because of signs” found in Jerusalem (2:23)—but because they ate bread and were satisfied. Note again their desire to force Jesus to be king for this same reason. Their understanding is not sufficient: the miraculous signs are meant to point to Jesus as the One who is sent by the Father to do the Father’s will, but this crowd does not believe in Jesus (see 6:36) and only sees him as someone who can feed them with “food that perishes”—even if through miraculous means. In place of this “temporal food” Jesus admonishes the crowd to work for “food that remains for eternal life,” food which “the Son of Man will give” them.
For the Son of Man was sealed by God the Father. God has made Jesus His agent to give this “eternal food.” This took place at Jesus’ baptism (see 1:32-34).
Verses 28-29. Since Jesus has told them to work (εργαζεσθε) for eternal bread, the question of the crowd in v. 28 appears legitimate. Jesus gives a straightforward answer—”This is the work of God, to believe in the One whom he sent.” The genitive “the work of God” (το εργον του θεου) is best unpacked as “the action that God is expecting from you” (versus “the work God does”) as this fits the context of Jesus admonishing them to work. Note also the present/focus-on-connection subjunctive πιστευητε—”that you would continue to believe.” Jesus’ response in v. 29 gets to the heart of this discourse. What God seeks from mankind is enduring faith in his Son. This is the proper response to the ministry and proclamation of Jesus, what Paul would call “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5). Later in the dialogue Jesus will show that the origin of such faith itself is in divine action (6:37, 44).
Verses 30-33. The crowd’s request for (yet another) sign may seem exasperating—and ultimately it is evidence of unbelief—but it can be explained and so Jesus does give a response. When comparing the miraculous sign Jesus performed the day before with the manna provided in the wilderness, Jesus’ miracle—though wondrous—could arguably pale in comparison. Jesus miraculously fed them one meal with bread from an earthly source; God (through Moses) provided their forefathers with a full day’s sustenance every day for nearly 40 years with bread from heaven. In response Jesus points them to himself—he who comes down from heaven—as the true bread which God is providing. Faith would see in what Jesus has accomplished that there is a divine work greater even than that of the manna provided in wilderness: those who ate the manna still died; through his Son the Father gives eternal life.
Verses 34-35. The crowd’s response to Jesus’ appears sincere. Jesus’ response is thus again straightforward—”I am the Bread of Life! Whoever comes to me will certainly not hunger and whoever believes in me will certainly never thirst.” The nominative pronoun έγω, makes this statement emphatic—”7 am the Bread of Life!” At this point in the dialogue the idea of “eating this bread” has not been directly introduced. Instead Jesus speaks here of “coming to me.” Still, with talk of “bread,” “hunger,” and “thirst,” one would naturally think of “eating and drinking.” At this point in the dialogue the activities of coming, eating, and drinking are metaphorical: one does these things through faith, by believing in Jesus—which, as noted above, is the response that God is expecting from his people.
Note that the pericope ends with Jesus’ statement in v. 35. This is a false place to end the pericope, however, as this statement introduces the first short speech (6:35-40) in this episode. What is more, in the verses that follow Jesus explains that this crowd’s problem is and continues to be unbelief. Perhaps the intention is to close the present lesson on a more “upbeat” note, but the preacher should still interpret v. 35 in light of the larger whole, noting especially the unbelief of the crowd.
Considerations for Preaching:
1. The arrangement of John 6:22-71 into three parts might suggest that the preacher present a three week series on this dialogue/discourse.
2. There are several maladies that are suggested by this periscope. One central problem is that of unbelief. This is the problem evidenced in the crowd’s misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry (and made clear later by Jesus in 6:36). The old stereotype which says of Israel that all they wanted was a “bread king”—though not always applicable—is nevertheless still true of this crowd in John 6. They seek Jesus out because “they ate and were satisfied.” The miraculous signs identify Jesus as the Son of Man sealed and appointed by God to bring eternal life; the crowd does not see or believe this. Various contemporary forms of Christianity that have mass appeal emphasize faith as a means toward temporal life and temporal blessing over and against eternal life. These fall into this same pattern and so amount to other forms of unbelief. Yet another malady is suggested by the fact that God must send his Son to give life to the world in the first place: this fallen world no longer has this immortal divine life but is instead subject to death.
3. It is for the purpose of giving and sustaining eternal life that God sent his Son, here self-identified as “the Bread of Life.” Bread (though not Atkins approved) was the basic source of daily sustenance and life in first century Palestine. It was through miraculous bread that Yahweh fed and sustained his people in the wilderness. And it is now through Jesus that God will supply eternal life both to his people Israel and to the world that lost this life in the fall. John’s Gospel has already shown in 3:14-16 that it is in Jesus’ death on the cross that his life-giving work will reach its climax and fulfillment. This life is now given to those who believe in Jesus Christ.
4. Please beware of the false exegetical move of using John 6:29 to interpret Ephesians 2:10 and so please avoid the antinomian move of dismissing talk of sanctification with the idea that “all God really wants is for us just to believe.” John 6 indeed identifies faith as the proper response to Jesus’ ministry and the means through which God gives eternal life. But in Ephesians 2:10 Paul is assuming such faith exists when he speaks of the “good works which God prepared for us to do.” Jesus’ exhortation in John 13-16 also shows that the Christian life is evidenced through good works. The exhortations of Jesus and Paul assume saving faith in those addressed.