There are many foods in this world of ours that are available only to a few people because of their cost or because of their scarcity or seasonal nature. But bread is the universal food of mankind. It is found on every table – rich or poor, king or peasant. Whether it is made of wheat, corn, rye, oats, rice, or some other grain, it is bread, the cheapest and most nourishing food. Bread represents all the elements needed to sustain life. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, gives the following description. “Bread is a staple food prepared from a dough of flour and water, usually by baking. Throughout recorded history it has been popular around the world and is one of the oldest artificial foods, having been of importance since the dawn of agriculture.”
Here in John’s gospel, Jesus has been described in terms of the basics of physical life. He is called “light” in chapter 1, and describes Himself to Nicodemus, in chapter 3, as the “light that has come into the world.” Jesus also describes the work of the Spirit of God by using the wind, the movement of air, as an illustration of spiritual birth. When speaking to the woman at the well, in chapter 4, Jesus identifies Himself to her as the Source of “living water”, and now He is referring to Himself as the “bread of life”. Putting those descriptions together, we have the basics for sustaining physical life in human beings: light, air, water, and bread. His purpose for all these illustrations is to transition from “physical basics” to “spiritual basics”, and so far He has been very successful in doing so. There is more to be said about bread. In this passage of Scripture we’re going to see how this information about Himself is received by this small crowd of people who crossed the Sea of Galilee in boats that morning, and found Jesus and His disciples in Capernaum.
I. JESUS RESTATES HIS CLAIM (verse 48)
Verse 48 contains these words of Jesus: “I am the bread of life”. He just said those very same words to them several minutes earlier in verse 35. I think there is more to His words than just repetition for the sake of remembrance. In Matthew’s gospel we find that Jesus spent quite a bit of time in the synagogues of the Jews. It was His practice to visit the synagogues in Galilee when He was in that region. Matthew 4:23 says, “And Jesus was going about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues . . . “. Since a small portion of the 5000 crossed the Sea of Galilee in the early morning and found Jesus and His disciples, I personally think that Jesus was on His way to the synagogue in Capernaum when they joined Him, and Jesus spoke to them about the bread of life while they were walking into town. As they approached the synagogue, bystanders along the way may have joined the crowd, and they followed Jesus into the synagogue. Inside there were more people, gathered for the time of instruction. I think Jesus may be repeating His earlier statements for the sake of the people in the synagogue, who were watching them enter the building and were, no doubt, curious about what they were discussing. This may not be the first time that Jesus taught in their synagogue. John 6:59 confirms this. It reads, “These things He said in the synagogue, as He taught in Capernaum.”
I’m sure they all wondered what Jesus meant when he walked into the synagogue, waited for everyone to sit down and listen to Him speak, and then said those words, “I am the bread of life.” Jesus was saying that in Him are all the elements for a healthy, growing spiritual life. The famous missionary, Jonathan Goforth, had preached a series of messages in a chapel in southern China in the early 1900’s. Afterward, a man asked to talk to him. The man said, “I have heard you speak three times, and you always have the same theme. You always speak of Jesus Christ. Why?” The missionary replied, “Sir, before answering your question, let me ask, ‘What did you have for dinner today?’ ” “Rice”, replied the man. “What did you have yesterday?”
“The same thing.” “And what do you expect to eat tomorrow?” “Rice, of course. It gives me strength. I could not do without it. Sir, it is . . .” (the man hesitated, as if looking for a strong word). Then he added, “Sir, it is my life!” The missionary responded quickly, “What you have said of rice, Jesus is to your soul. He is the “rice” or “bread of life”.
There may yet be another reason why Jesus keeps repeating that He is the bread of life. The Jews in Judea had grumbled saying that Jesus and His family were from Nazareth, and no prophet was supposed to come from Nazareth. They didn’t ask Jesus where He was born and they didn’t do any research for themselves, or they would have learned that He was born in Bethlehem. Did you know that the name “Bethlehem” literally means “House of Bread”. Jesus was speaking to them in Hebrew, and the word He was saying was “lehem”, the second half of the word “Bethlehem”. He’s saying, “I am lehem” over and over again. Wouldn’t you think that the town of Bethlehem might come to the minds of some of His listeners? “I am ‘lehem’ from ‘Bethlehem’.” “I am bread” from the “house of bread”. I certainly wouldn’t rule out that possibility, and that’s a new insight for me.
II. COMPARISON TO THE MANNA RESTATED (verses 49-50)
Once again, Jesus also compares Himself to the manna for the sake of all the people who are present, many of whom did not hear the first statement in verses 28-32. But this time Jesus changes the wording slightly to emphasize a different perspective. Earlier, in verses 28-31 the crowd asked Jesus to show them a sign as proof that He came from God. Then they describe the kind of a sign they want Him to perform. To paraphrase, they said, “Give us a sign like the one Moses gave the people of Israel. Send us manna from heaven to eat.” The crowd wanted another free meal; only this time they wanted it catered from heaven!
The Lord Jesus responds to them by telling them about the long-lasting effects of the bread He has to offer them. In verse 35, He says, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.” Jesus is speaking spiritually, but they are taking it literally. They want this bread, just as the woman at the well, in John 4:15, wanted that “living water”! He also states, in verse 33, that the bread He offers is not exclusive to the Jews, but inclusive of the whole world. He “gives life to the world”. So the bread Jesus offers in Himself is long-lasting and inclusive of all peoples without distinction.
A. THE MANNA WAS PHYSICAL FOOD (verse 49)
In verse 49, Jesus once again begins to compare Himself to the manna, but this time He emphasizes that He is the bread which will prevent death. He says, “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.” The manna sustained physical life but it didn’t prevent death. All who ate the manna eventually died. There would be no argument among the people listening to Him concerning that statement. They were probably nodding their heads silently in agreement. The Scriptures were clear that the manna was given to sustain the lives of their ancestors until they died or until the next generation entered the promised land and could eat the fruit of that land. However the next sentence from the mouth of Jesus is going to raise some eyebrows and start the grumbling again! This is especially so because He is now inside the synagogue where there are probably priests, Pharisees, and Sadducees among those who are listening to Him speak. The crowd isn’t friendly anymore!
This is not the Sabbath day. They apostle John is very diligent about letting his readers know when it is a Sabbath or a feast day of the Jews. The previous Sabbath was just a couple of days earlier, when Jesus healed the lame man at the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem (John 5:1-17). If it’s not the Sabbath, why would Jesus be going to the synagogue on a weekday? This synagogue was a busy place during the week also. It served as a community center, school, court, and place of study. There was never a dull moment in the synagogues of that day.
B. THE BREAD OF PERPETUAL LIFE (verse 50)
In verse 50, the Lord Jesus once again makes a comparison between the manna and the bread He has to offer them. He says, “But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die.” So far, the crowd has been thinking that Jesus is talking about physical bread, so they are naturally going to deduce that He is talking about physical death. Two people from the Scriptures must have immediately come to their minds. Their names were Enoch and Elijah, and they are the only two people in the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings who did not die. (Genesis 5:22-24; II Kings 2:1-15). It’s also obvious from the Scriptures that it wasn’t bread that kept these two men from dying. What is Jesus talking about? Why is He making such a claim?
To begin with, I think the Lord Jesus wants to bring the subject of death to their minds. The children of Israel were given the manna in answer to their fear of starving. Jesus is going to give them an answer to their fear of death. It’s a subject about which there was a considerable difference of opinion among first-century Jews. Each of those present in that synagogue had ideas they were taught as children, along with their own personal ideas about death and the after-life, referred to in Hebrew as the Olam Ha-Ba (the World To Come).
A cemetery in Indiana has a tombstone that is over a hundred years old, and it bears this epitaph:
Pause, Stranger, when you pass me by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you will be,
So prepare for death and follow me.
An unknown passerby had read those words and scratched this reply below them:
To follow you I’m not content,
Until I know which way you went.
The passerby was right. The important thing about death is what follows. Where are you going?
One sizable group of Hebrew people during the first century were the Sadducees. They didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. One of my professors in Bible college said something that I’ve never forgotten. We were studying the Gospels and he said, “The Sadducees don’t believe in the resurrection from the dead; that’s why they’re ‘sad,you see’.” If I didn’t believe in a resurrection from the dead, I’d be sad too; wouldn’t you?
From what I’ve read about first-century Judaism, the greater focus of attention appears to be on the here and now, rather than on the there and then. If you have a computer, you probably get notifications of updates that need to be installed. Some of those updates take quite a bit of time to install. Usually you are given the option of three buttons to choose from. You can click “install now”, “set a time”, or “remind me later”. If you’re like me, you don’t want to be bothered by the interruption and so you click the “remind me later” button. I’ve been clicking that button several times over the past weeks, putting it off again and again. I need to stop and let the developers of my operating system get the job done! First-century Judaism probably wasn’t much different from our society today when it comes to the issue of death. It wasn’t a subject that they liked to discuss, so they often ignored it or kept putting it off until later. Evangelist Billy Graham made the following comment: Much of the world pretends that death does not exist. We like to speak of the dead as “departed”, or persons who have died as having “passed on” or “expired”. We do not like the word “death”. It seems so final, so irreversible, so hopeless.
Do the Old Testament scriptures talk about the death and the afterlife? Yes, in many places. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and others are spoken of as being “gathered to their people” after they died. By contrast, the wicked were described as being “cut off from their people.” Daniel 12:2 speaks of a conscious life after death in one of two places, and both are everlasting. It never ends. Many passages of Scripture use the word Sheol to refer to the place of the dead (in the Psalms, Job, Ezekiel, Lamentations, Jonah, Isaiah, I Samuel, and others). Add to that the teachings of the Rabbis that were collected as part of the Mishnah and Talmud. In these writings it seems that each of the rabbis had a different teaching about the afterlife. This added confusion to the minds of the people, and increased their fear of what’s in store for them beyond the grave.
With that background in mind concerning death and the afterlife, the people’s ears must have been tingling and their attention focused on the Lord Jesus after He said those words in verse 50: “This is the bread which comes out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.” Everyone there was wondering, “What is He going to say next?” “How can this be possible.” I think Jesus is teaching His disciples, and us as well, a principle for sharing the Gospel message: Sometimes, in order to awaken in people a desire for eternal life, you’ve got to put the fear of death into them! By putting the fear of death into people, we may also be putting the fear of God into them: “If there is a God, what’s He going to do to me when this life is over?” “I’ve tried to be good, but so far I haven’t been very successful!”
Is death a subject that you don’t like to think about or talk about? Do you sometimes worry about your own death and what might await you on the other side? Would you like to put an end to those worries and have a genuine relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, the Bread of life? If so, please go to my sermon on John 1:12, entitled “What Does It Mean To Receive Christ”, and consider what God wants you to do, and what He gives you in exchange for your act of obedience and faith. May you allow the Bread of Life to be the One who satisfies the deepest hunger of you souls both now and for eternity.
CONSTRUCTION SITE: COMPLETED
Let’s feast on the Word of God, which describes for us the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Bread of life.