Recent Sermons
“The Bread of Life”
John 6:25-71

Bob DeGray

Preaching Date: February 16, 2003
Key Sentence: The good news is hard until we grasp who Jesus is and what he has done.

Outline:
I. When did you get here? (John 6:25-29)
II. What will you do? (John 6:30-40)
III. How can he say, ‘I came down from heaven’? (John 6:41-52)
IV. How can this man give us his flesh to eat? (John 6:52-59)
V. This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it? (John 6:60-71)

Message:
        Last Sunday evening I did an Awana council time that was a little over the top. We’re learning a Scripture time line in Awana this spring, and we had reached Abraham’s son Isaac, and his sons Jacob and Esau. I described Isaac’s birth and how God tested Abraham by commanding that Isaac be sacrificed as an offering. Then, when I told the kids how God provided a lamb to be offered in Isaac’s place, I actually took this cute little stuffed lamb and cut it open from top to bottom. That was a little extreme, but I knew I was going to use the same stuffed lamb to be the lamb skin Jacob wrapped around his arm and the stew he made when he went to Isaac to steal Esau’s blessing. This illustration brought comments like “you’re completely gross.” To some slight extent I shocked or grossed out these elementary age kids.

        In John 6 Jesus does the same thing to the people of Galilee. He didn’t use visuals, as far as we know, but his words grossed out his hearers, so that many refused to follow him any more. Yet his words were the plain truth about the good news. He was communicating who he was and what he would do, but they found his teaching hard, even harsh. And they were right: the good news is hard news until God makes it plain to your heart. The good news is alien to most who hear it. This morning let’s listen as if hearing this kind of thing for the first time. We’ll see that this good news of ours is hard until you grasp who Jesus is and what he has done.

I. When did you get here? (John 6:25-29)

        This long dialog, John 6:25-71, is punctuated by repeated questions and reactions from the crowd, and we’ll use those breaks as our outline. Their first question grows out of the event we studied last week. Jesus had been on the other side of Galilee, and fed multitudes with bread and fish from a little boy’s basket. This made a tremendous impression on the crowd. They wanted to make him king. So he sent his disciples away in a boat, dismissed the crowd and went away to pray. Later he joined his disciples by walking on the water, but the crowd didn’t know about that, so when they found him in Capernaum their first question was natural: John 6:25-29 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, "Rabbi, when did you get here?" 26Jesus answered, "I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval." 28Then they asked, "What must we do to do the works God requires?" 29Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent."

        You may have noticed that Jesus often doesn’t answer the question he’s asked. It’s not that he’s like a politician who avoids hard questions, it’s that he isn’t content with surface questions or answers; he wants to take conversations to a deeper level.

        They ask, ‘How did you get here?’. He addresses their motives: “You’re looking for me because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” They saw the surface of the miracle - a supernatural way of getting a food supply, but Jesus tells them not to work for the food that spoils. The bread they’d eaten the day before, though miraculous, was merely physical, digested and gone. People shouldn’t make temporary things their priority. Instead, they should pour their energy into pursuing food that endures to eternal life. There is something - rather someone - that can feed you at the soul level with an unending supply of what you need, sustaining you into eternity.

        But do the people understand this? No. Like many today, they were more concerned about the belly than about the soul. They were attracted to Jesus because they thought he would meet their needs. Even today the thing that attracts people to Jesus is the is the hope of getting their needs met, which does happen, but not always on the level of security or relationships or peace or prosperity or comfort. Even this crowd sensed that there must be more to life than these temporary satisfactions. They ask “Well, then, what must we do to do the works God requires?” They want bread, but they’re willing to listen if Jesus will tell them how to get ahead spiritually, to satisfy God’s checklist. Too bad eternal life isn’t gained by a checklist. It’s gained by faith. Jesus says “the work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” The faith required by God is faith in a person, it’s entrusting yourself to Jesus.

II. What will you do? (John 6:30-40)

        So when Jesus says ‘believe in the one God sent’ he’s saying ‘entrust yourself to me.’ This prompts the next question. Verses 30 to 40: So they asked him, "What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" 32Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world." 34"Sir," they said, "from now on give us this bread." 35Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. 36But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. 37All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day."

        One would think the feeding of the multitude would have justified trust in Jesus. But the crowd wants more proof - proof that Jesus is the prophet like Moses and greater than Moses. Jesus gave bread once, but Moses gave his people bread every day. In a not very subtle way they’re telling him ‘do it again’ – they are refusing to focus on the spiritual that endures and emphasizing again the physical that decays.

        This is a universal trait: we can be distracted by the spiritual, but our focus swings back to the physical. All around us people who don’t know Jesus yet get twinges of concern about the eternal - as when a space shuttle disintegrates or a terrorist attack takes place - but soon the focus becomes a narrow calculation of how this will be a liability or a benefit to me. So Jesus tries to put the focus where it belongs, on him. He’s not being egotistical in this: he knows that he really is what they need. He says ‘God has given you true bread from heaven and this bread is a person who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. The manna Moses provided wasn’t the true bread God wanted to give - it was only a picture of Jesus. But even when he says this, they don’t get it. They say ‘give us this bread’.

        Finally Jesus says clearly “I am the bread of life.” Bread was the most important food in the ancient middle east, the thing that sustained life and held off death. So Jesus is saying “I am the essential stuff for life.” That’s what he continues say to you and me and anyone who investigates his claims. It may be that the crowd around us is more skeptical of this claim than that ancient crowd. They were at least looking for a provider and a political savior to rescue them. But for us the idea that we need any person, even Jesus, goes straight against our culture and training. We’re supposed to be independent, self sufficient. We don’t want to depend on somebody else for the stuff that makes life meaningful - we want to find it in ourselves.

        What does Jesus say? “He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” Only the person who comes to Jesus in faith finds the real needs of their soul met. There is a core emptiness in all of us that only Jesus can satisfy. This emptiness is called hunger and thirst, but behind the metaphors lies the simple truth that Jesus offers to meet the real, deep needs of our lives. Behind the metaphors of eating and drinking lies the simple response of coming to him and believing. God had already used the same images in Isaiah 55: “Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. . . Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live.” Jesus makes the same plea: “you have seen me and still you do not believe.” He calls us to entrust ourselves to him.

        Notice in this passage the twin elements of human responsibility and divine sovereignty. Let’s take a brief rabbit trail into these things. In verses 35 and 36 the responsibility is ours: to come to him with our hunger, to believe in him when we are thirsty. There is no question, as we study Scripture that we have a responsibility to believe. It’s everywhere. No one is saved without making a decision to trust Jesus, to entrust themselves to Jesus. No one. From one point of view human choice is the whole story. But at the same time God is sovereign, and chooses those who will be saved. In verse 37 Jesus says “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” We are given by God the Father to Jesus Christ for salvation. It is not you who has chosen, but God has chosen you.

        If you ever feel like you have to somehow earn salvation by your behavior or piety or hard work, comfort yourself with this thought: God the Father has given you to God the Son for salvation. And what God saves stays saved. Those who come will never be cast out. When we view salvation from the point of view of God’s sovereign choice, we can be sure that he will not change his mind and unsave someone he has saved.

        In verses 39 and 40 human responsibility and divine sovereignty are even closer together. “And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." The Father chooses us; he gives us to the Son; and the Son keeps us, without losing one. But in the same breath Jesus says that we must look to him and believe. Jesus is not embarrassed to put these two truths together. He doesn’t skip a beat, he doesn’t stop to explain, he simply affirms both.

        The whole Bible affirms God’s divine sovereignty and man’s personal responsibility. Both are true. Furthermore they are not contradictory, though most debates over free will and predestination presume they are. What it takes for both to be true is a God who is wise and powerful, who controls events so our free choices are honored at every moment, yet his sovereign will is done. His infinite wisdom orders the universe so that we’re not compelled to be puppets without choices, yet neither are we able to thwart God’s sovereign plan. He weaves our choices into his design. This view is called compatibilism: divine sovereignty and human responsibility are compatible.

III. How can he say, ‘I came down from heaven’? (John 6:41-52)

        So, coming back to the text, Jesus answers the crowd who want a sign by telling them he is the sign: he’s the bread of life. But they find this metaphor hard. They don’t understand it - maybe they don’t want to. People today have the same problem. We hear the good news about Jesus, but we don’t want to understand. How can a man who lived two thousand years ago change my life? How can someone I’ve never seen be what I need? Isn’t this all just too absurd to believe? The crowd is asking the same questions. Verses 41 to 51: At this the Jews began to grumble about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." 42They said, "Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, 'I came down from heaven'?" 43"Stop grumbling among yourselves," Jesus answered. 44"No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. 45It is written in the Prophets: 'They will all be taught by God.' Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. 46No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. 47I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. 48I am the bread of life. 49Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. 50But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. 51I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I give for the life of the world."

        The leaders of this Jewish crowd grumble because they’re sure they know where Jesus came from, who his parents are, who he is. They’re offended he’d claim something else, something as radical and mystical and just plain offensive as being the one who came down from heaven. Normal people don’t make supernatural claims. Most people in our day think they know who Jesus was: a great teacher, or a poor Jewish revolutionary, or a myth made up by a bunch of religious zealots, but not God.

        But Jesus tells them they won’t figure him out if they continue to think on a merely earthly level. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him . . . It is written in the Prophets: 'They will all be taught by God.'” God is at work drawing even skeptical people to himself, revealing himself and teaching them through his word. Human debate and testimony are used by God in this process, but are never the primary ingredient in salvation. We are saved when the Holy Spirit convinces us that Jesus is telling the truth, that he is no mere man, but God incarnate, and that trust in him is the right response. Ultimately this good news can only be taken hold of by faith. Verse 47: “I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life.”

         Jesus is the bread of life, essential to our lives, and he continues to develop this metaphor. “Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. 50Here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die.” The manna Moses gave in the desert, heaven sent though it was, could not impart eternal life. Jesus is claiming to be greater than that manna, because to eat of him, that is, to come to him by faith does impart eternal life. Jesus is living bread. Jesus came down from heaven. Jesus offers eternal life. At its core this hard gospel message is simple.

        But in the last part of verse 51 Jesus adds a phrase that in some ways makes this Gospel harder, but in other ways, easier. “This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Back in the prologue of John we learned that the Word became flesh, the same word that the Greeks used both for the human body and for meat. Now Jesus is saying “I’m giving my body, my meat, in a sacrificial sense, for the life of the world.” Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world by his sacrifices of himself. In one sense this makes things easier. We understand now what ‘the bread of life’ means. He himself is what he gives in death that we might live. He is the one who by dying gives us life.

IV. How can this man give us his flesh to eat? (John 6:52-59)

        But the Jews had tremendous trouble with the idea that this bread was his flesh. Verses 52 to 59: 52Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" 53Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. 57Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever." 59He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

        
The Jews are appalled by these words. Most must have seen that Jesus wasn’t speaking literally; He wasn’t seriously advocating cannibalism and offering himself as the first meal. But if his language is figurative, what does it mean? “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” In response, Jesus makes it worse, saying “unless you eat the flesh of the son of man and drink his blood you have no life in you,” Notice that he calls himself ‘the Son of Man’. We’ve already seen that Jesus uses this phrase when thinking of his death, resurrection and exaltation. It is the Son of Man as man’s representative who gives his flesh for the life of the world. Second, Jesus add a new metaphor, that of drinking his blood. If, for the Jews, the first metaphor was hard to understand, this second metaphor is positively gross. The law of Moses forbade the drinking of blood, even eating meat with blood still in it. To drink the blood of the Son of Man was a scandalous thought, disgusting and unlawful.

        But it’s really no less so today, is it? We cringe at the thought of disemboweling a stuffed sheep. We’re revolted at the thought of eating flesh and drinking blood. This is hard stuff. Why does Jesus say stuff like this? The gospel is hard until we figure out who Jesus is and what he’s done. When Jesus tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, the metaphor is a parallel to verse 35: “He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” Eating his flesh is a metaphor for coming to him. Drinking his blood is a metaphor for believing in him.

        On another level, there is also an obvious connection to communion. Jesus said of the bread ‘This is my body.’ He said of the cup ‘This is my blood.’ So if he tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood, isn’t he telling us to take communion? As an application, yea, I think that’s perfectly fine. I don’t think Jesus had communion in mind, specifically, when these words were spoken, and I don’t think John meant to teach about communion, specifically, when these words were written. Rather, as Colin Brown says in a recent commentary: “John 6 is not about the Lord’s Supper, rather the Lord’s supper is about what is described in John 6'. In other words these verses we are studying and the Lord’s supper which we celebrate both use the same metaphor to point us to the fact that Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins, that his body was broken and his blood shed for us. The eating and drinking we do in the Lord’s supper are not the most significant thing. It is the coming and believing that are really important. John 6:35 really is the key: “He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”

V. This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it? (John 6:60-71)

        So behind the metaphor Jesus has made this simple, but if we stumble over the metaphor, it can be very hard. That’s what happens in our text. John 6:60 On hearing it, many of his disciples said, "This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?" 61Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, "Does this offend you? 62What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! 63The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life. 64Yet there are some of you who do not believe." For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. 65He went on to say, "This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him." 66From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. 67"You do not want to leave too, do you?" Jesus asked the Twelve. 68Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." 70Then Jesus replied, "Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!" 71(He meant Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, who, though one of the Twelve, was later to betray him.)

        
The people who stop following Jesus here are called disciples, but they are not the twelve who were most closely identified with Jesus. They are a larger group of followers who either literally followed Jesus from place to place or attempted to follow his teachings. Most had not believed and entrusted themselves to him, and now they are finding his words hard. The adjective doesn’t just imply hard to understand; it really means they found his words harsh and offensive. They were just there looking for miracles, looking for bread, but Jesus claimed to be the bread of life who came down from heaven, so that responding to him required eating his flesh and drinking his blood. For most of them this was an offensive stumbling block.

        Jesus is aware of this struggle. He knows the real problem these crowds have struggled with throughout the chapter and which many continue to struggle with today: they see physical signs and listen to physical metaphors and miss the spiritual intent of Jesus’ words. In the other Gospels Jesus tells parables and then says the people hear but don’t understand, they see but don’t perceive. That’s virtually the same thing he says here: “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life.” Do you see it? The hard things of this gospel, the man who claims to be from heaven, and to be bread, and who claims your allegiance and requires your faith, you’ll never get these things right until you accept them as supernatural, take hold of them by faith, believe. And even faith is a gift from God - you can’t manufacture it yourself. Jesus says “this is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.”

        On the one hand God gives faith, for he is sovereign. On the other hand, belief is a choice because man is responsible, and in this crowd there are many who choose, because these truths are hard, to walk away from Jesus, to forsake their original interest in him. This is common when people are exposed to the claims of Christ and have some interest, but never respond from the heart to who he is and what he has done.

        The crowd around us - in our workplaces and neighborhoods and hopefully here at church includes those intrigued by Jesus. Even in our culture he’s famous – his name is known to most; and he’s attractive – his compassion is known to many. But people who start to think about the Gospel find it is hard. First we have to believe there is a God. Then we have to believe there is sin, that people are separated from God and in need of a Savior. Then we have to buy into God’s plan - which is entirely supernatural and makes sense in spiritual rather than earthly terms. God’s plan was to send his only Son to die. The one whom he had loved from eternity past would become flesh and that meat would be offered as a bloody sacrifice to pay for the sins of others. The very earthiness, the very bloodiness, the fact that substitution is required to pay for sins, all of these can be road blocks that make it hard. The claims of Jesus - to offer forgiveness and restoration and life and eternal life can make it doubly hard because they are too good to be true but too spiritual to verify.

        So the Gospel is hard. How do you get past it? Only by faith. You simply have to trust that he was who he said and did what he promised. That was true for his closest followers and it is true for us. At the very end of the chapter, as most of the others who had followed him were walking away, Jesus turns to the twelve whom he had chosen and he says “How about you? You do not want to go away also, do you?". And Simon Peter, who is always the spokesman, and who is just as perceptive in this Gospel as he is in the others, answers him: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.” Peter gets it. What’s the key verse of the section? Verse 35: ‘He who comes to me will never go hungry’, and Peter says ‘where else would we go?’ ‘He who believes in me will never be thirsty’, and Peter says “we believe.”

        That’s the bottom line. The Gospel is hard. But where else are you going to go for eternal life? Who else can really deal with your heart as you know it and your life as you live it? No one. Taking hold of Jesus means recognizing there is nowhere else to turn to find life, and no work that will earn what you seek. He is the Holy One, sent from God, sent to be the bread that gives us life through his body broken and his blood shed. This good news may seem hard until we grasp who Jesus is and what he has done. When we do, it is transformed into the most simple and the most beautiful thing we’ll ever know.