Doing the Work of God
“Therefore, they said to him, ‘What shall we do in order that we shall be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you might put your faith in this one whom God sent’” (John 6:28-29, my translation).
When “believing” comes up in a text in John, we must remember the purpose for which the gospel account was delivered to the community. “But these things have been written in order that you might put your faith in the fact that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus, and in order that as you put your faith [in him], you would have life by means of his name” (John 20:31, my translation). The Bread of Life Discourse is not an abstract theological discussion. It is presented to us in order to provoke a response – putting our trust in Jesus as the Bread of Life.
The crowd finds Jesus and pushes him for more bread. “Don’t work for the food that perishes,” he replies to them. “Rather, [work for] the food that endures into the life of the New Age, that which the Son of Man shall give you” (John 6:27, my translation). Jesus introduces the verb form of “to work” into the dialogue, so the question of the crowd is quite appropriate.
They ask Jesus what “works” they should do in order to get this enduring bread. They are likely thinking of the works they do as faithful Jews to keep the commandments. We should immediately exercise great care in our (probably Protestant) thinking here. The crowd is not a bunch of works-righteousness fanatics as might have been imagined in the Reformation period. We should not work out sixteenth century issues at the expense of first century people.
Instead, they know that living according to the Torah was the proper response to God’s grace and mercy, God’s blessing and peace. The fact that they use the plural, “works,” indicates that this is precisely their perspective. Jesus, on the other hand, uses the singular “work” in his reply to them.
“Rather than presenting them with a list of ‘works’ to do, Jesus speaks in verse 29 about a single ‘work of God,’” Brian Peterson writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “That phrase presents a wonderfully, theologically provocative ambiguity. Is the ‘work of God” that which God desires but we must accomplish (as implied by their question),” Peterson asks, “or is the ‘work of God’ that which God accomplishes, ‘the work which God does?’ Later in John 6, we hear that no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws them (verse 44). The ‘bread of God’ is that which the Father must (and does) give (verse 33).”
In grammatical terms, Peterson wonders if this is a subjective genitive (the work God does) or an objective genitive (the work directed toward God). Often in the Christian scriptures – especially but not exclusively in Paul’s writing – the answer is that it is both. This is called a “plenary genitive,” and I think that’s the intention of the Gospel writer in this place. Putting our faith in Jesus as the Bread of Life is both God’s work in us by the power of the Spirit and our work of accepting that gift into our hearts.
Peterson comes to that place in his next sentences. “There is holy mystery here about faith,” he writes. “The depth of the gospel is not measured when we contrast our own working with our own believing. It is closer to the heart of the matter when we hear our own efforts, whether belief or some other activity, compared to what God has lovingly accomplished in the incarnation of the Son. The ‘work of God’ is belief, which is made possible only by giving the Son, the bread from Heaven. Faith,” Peterson concludes, “is always the gracious and surprising accomplishment of God.”
The reason we read and/or hear this Discourse is so that we may come to put our trust in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. What we encounter is intended to provoke a response. We as witnesses stand with the crowd who seek bread but get a whole lot more. Will they understand what they have seen and heard? Will they resist the radical good news that Jesus proclaims? Will they put their faith in him and access the New Life of the Age to Come?
More to the point, will we?
“That the crowd wants or needs a sign exposes their inability to recognize the meaning of the sign and therefore the necessity of Jesus’ discourse,” Karoline Lewis writes. “Even witnessing the sign itself will not necessarily result in belief” (page 87). It seems that the crowd tries to fit Jesus into a framework they can understand. Wilderness, hunger, bread, abundance – by golly, that sounds the story of the Manna in the desert! Is that what’s going on here?
I have often heard, and sometimes preached, sermons that frame the wonderings of the crowd as resistance and lack of faith. But what if their scriptural interpretation is something else? What if they are groping for a hook upon which to hang what they have just experienced? It was a lot to take in, after all.
The hook they found appears to be Psalm 78, a retelling of the wilderness sojourn following the Exodus rescue from enslavement. Even when the quoted text is on the lips of someone other than Jesus (or Paul), it’s worth applying the rule, “small text, big context.” The psalm reminds us that in the face of the rescue, the people still rebelled and doubted. The cloud and fire, the water in the desert, were not enough to sustain the people’s trust in God’s leading.
“They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved,” the Psalmist writes. “They spoke against God, saying, ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Even though he struck the rock so that water gushed out and torrents overflowed, can he also give bread, or provide meat for his people?” (Psalm 78:18-20, NRSV) This creates a crisis for God because the people “did not trust his saving power” (verse 22).
Rather than destroy the people for their lack of trust, however, God fed them with abundance. Verses 23 through 29 describe that shower of bread and birds in the wilderness. “And they ate and were well filled,” the Psalmist writes in verse 29, “for he gave them what they craved.” Yet, the rebellious lack of trust did not go unnoticed. God took the leaders from the people. It took some time to get their attention, but eventually, according to the Psalmist, they repented.
This is the background to the questions of the people in this part of the dialogue. They wonder if they have witnessed a reprise of the wilderness feeding. If so, then this is a really big deal. “That God is the source and possibility of the feeding of the five thousand is the only logical theological answer,” Lewis concludes. “John 6:31 acknowledges that truth on which then Jesus builds his discourse” (page 88).
Susan Hylen, in her workingpreacher.org commentary, notes that the NRSV translation of verse 32 can mislead us. She notes that Jesus is not criticizing the idea that Moses gave the manna from heaven to the people in the wilderness. This understanding seems unlikely, she notes, “because it is implausible that Jewish people of John’s time viewed Moses as the ultimate source of manna.”
We should read verse 32, rather, as an interpretation of the text the people quote (probably a loose allusion to Psalm 78). The “he” in “he gave us bread from heaven to eat” should be God rather than Moses, Jesus teaches them. Hylen notes that Jesus changes the tense of the verb from a completed past action to an ongoing present action. “The changes bring out the point of Jesus’ interpretation,” Hylen argues, “manna is not simply a story that resides in Israel’s past, but is an on-going gift of God in the present. It is available to Jesus’ listeners even now.”
The purpose of the gospel account is to put us in a place where we might come to and continue to trust that the Messiah, the Son of God is Jesus. In experiencing and embracing that trust, we might then continue to have life in his name. Perhaps in our preaching, we could capture some of the wondering and wonder of that first crowd.
As we come to the Eucharist, for example, could we be wondering – could Jesus really be here with us now? How cool would that be! Am I ready to meet Jesus here and now in the bread and wine? He says he’s ready to meet me once again. Am I willing to be changed by the bread of God’s word and the word of bread which is the sacrament – changed in ways I cannot anticipate or control?
Can I come to God’s abundant table with a simple prayer? Do your work on me and in me, whatever that will be. Lord, give me this bread always. The Discourse isn’t meant to be history. It’s given to do God’s work here and now.
References and Resources
Bojer, Johan. The Great Hunger . Kindle Edition.
William T. Cavanaugh. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Kindle Edition.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.