Jesus continues his interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures in verse 33. “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world,” the NRSV translates. The Greek is ambiguous, as the footnote in the text reminds us. The phrase “that which” can just as readily be translated as “the one who.” Thus, the bread of God can be Jesus himself. In verse 35, Jesus makes that identification explicit.
An additional ambiguity rests in the genitive construction, “bread of God.” Is this a plenary genitive – both subjective and objective? That is, does Jesus describe this bread as both coming from God and, in some sense, being God’s substance? As Daniel Wallace reminds us, we often want this question resolved one way or the other.
“Almost universally,” Wallace writes, “commentators begin their investigation with the underlying assumption that a decision needs to be made. But such an approach presupposes,” he continues, “that there can be no intentional ambiguity or pregnant meaning on the part of the speaker” (page 120). We should not deprive the writers of Scripture of the practice of including double meanings, puns, and ironic twists in their language. That is especially the case in John.
In John’s gospel, Jesus is certainly the bread that comes from God. But he is also the bread that is God – the way in which God feeds the world, gives life to the world. He is claiming much more than happened with Moses and the manna. Moses was a “broker” for the divine gift of bread. Jesus is both the Giver and the Gift.
“As a result,” O’Day and Hylen write, “this verse tells the listener to understand the Scripture as something that is currently happening in their presence. The gift of manna,” they conclude, “is present now in Jesus” (Kindle location 1613). They note that this assertion could be understood in a number of complementary and interlocking ways by the hearers of John’s gospel.
For example, A new gift of manna would indicate a second go-round for Moses. The gift of manna was also a metaphor for Torah, such as we can find in the words of Deuteronomy 8:3 (living not by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God). “By connecting Jesus with the manna and its associations with Wisdom,” O’Day and Hylen suggest, “the Gospel identifies Jesus as manna, the miraculous substance that sustained Israel in the wilderness” (Kindle Location 1628).
It is worth holding on to this translation moment for a bit. The gift of the bread is an ongoing grace rather than merely a past action to be brought to remembrance. “Jesus’ words continue to identify manna as a present-tense gift from God, Hylen writes, “a life-giving power that originates in heaven.” The crowd gets the ongoing nature of the gift, even if they don’t comprehend the “substance” or content of the gift as Jesus himself. “Keep it coming!” is their urging to Jesus.
“Like the Samaritan woman at the well in chapter 4, the people respond with a request that indicates their lack of understanding,” Brian Peterson writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “Just as the Samaritan woman thought that Jesus had been speaking to her about physical water and thirst, so too the crowds respond as though Jesus has been offering physical bread that will forever fill their stomachs. In a sense, the crowds say the right words,” Peterson continues, “but with the wrong understanding. To have properly heard Jesus’ words would have prompted faith, not a fixation on bread.”
Well, that will preach. In what ways do we fixate on the gift rather than the Giver? In what ways do we focus on the commodity rather than the Connector? And how can we communicate that the Giver is the Gift – and the Gift is the Giver?
Hylen suggests that John puts us in the position to ask, “What does it mean for Jesus to be manna?” Or we may ask, she says, “How is Jesus like the manna?” Hylen notes some interesting answers. “The Israelites experienced God’s salvation in the Red Sea crossing, but they still failed to trust God to take care of their needs,” she observes. “Faced with hunger, they immediately thought to turn back to Egypt. Similarly,” Hylen concludes, “John’s recently-fed crowd misunderstands the nature of what Jesus has offered them and its implications for the present time.”
Those are fruitful avenues for reflection. But it seems to me that John puts the questions the other way around. What does it mean for the manna to be Jesus? How is the manna like Jesus? The manna doesn’t tell us what Jesus is like. Jesus comes to tell us what the manna in the wilderness really meant in the first place.
I’m not making a Supersessionist argument here. Jesus is not somehow saying that the Hebrew scriptures get the interpretation of the manna in the wilderness “wrong.” The opposite is the case. Instead, as throughout John, the argument is that the manna points to Jesus as the fulfillment of what God has been up to all along.
David Lose notes that Jesus’ claim is disturbing and destabilizing for the crowd. That’s why they ask for another miracle, for more proof. They want to make sure that this feeding business wasn’t a one-off, a flash in the pan. But the unhinging of our assumptions, the turning our world upside down and inside out, is precisely the nature of God’s mission to us in Jesus. For a moment we find ourselves back in the conversation with Nicodemus – being challenged to see the whole world anew.
The question is not, for example, whether it is possible in this world for five loaves and two fish to feed thousands of people. That question comes from a worldview that has not been changed by Jesus. The question is, rather, what sort of world is it where five loaves and two fish can and do feed thousands of people. The Feeding in the Wilderness doesn’t “prove” Jesus’ divinity in John’s account. The fact that it happens challenges everything we think we know for sure about the world.
That’s a much bigger deal.
“This is the heart of the faith,” Lose writes, “the faith we are privileged to proclaim: that the Eternal Word who was with God and is God from the beginning and participated in the creation of the heavens and the earth is the same Lord who cares so desperately for us that he gave his life for ours on the cross and gives himself still in the bread and wine.” Don’t ask how this is possible. Ask instead, what sort of world is it where this is possible? And if we live in that world, how must our lives and hearts be changed?
What does this text incite us to do as preachers? Lose suggests that we can lead our congregants to the kind of shocked surprise, the sort of destabilizing realization that shook up the crowd. What if Jesus really is who he says he is? And what if that’s the One who comes to us and feed us with himself for the life of the world?
The crowd gives the right response for the wrong reasons. “Lord, always give us this bread!” (John 6:34, my translation). They clearly don’t know what they’re asking. They keep talking about bread, but they don’t get past the dough. In the words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Perhaps this is as close as the writer of John’s gospel gets to the petition in the Lord’s Prayer – “give us this day our daily bread.” Lord, give us this bread always! It’s the right request. It’s the proper prayer. But when we pray it, do we know what we’re asking? The bread that fed the crowd was only possible because the Bread of Life was in their midst. So it is for us. It’s not the bread that was changed but rather the cosmos!
Lord, feed us with your life all the time and at all times. That’s the “applause line” for this passage, to use a category from performance criticism. As the gospel writer enacted the story for the audience, verse 34 would end with a pregnant pause. Perhaps the listeners responded with cheers. Perhaps they shouted out, “Yes, Lord! Us too!” In any event, as I come to the end of these reflections, I think that line is really the end of the pericope for this week. I would save verse 35 for next week.
Can I as a preacher bring my congregants to the place where they proclaim the same desire? That would be a sermon I’d like to preach. Here’s the Bread of Life from heaven. The Giver is the Gift – the very presence of God that gives real life to a world in bondage to death. That life is abundant, never-ending. That’s not just about the quantity of life but rather it’s quality. Jesus is giving that life to us in the here and now just as he was giving it to the crowd by the sea.
Is that the life you’ve come to receive once again? Lord, give this life to us always and in all ways!
And then lead us to share that life with a hungering world! But more on that in the next few weeks…
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.
Wallace, Daniel. An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament.