Although many will not believe Jesus or his teaching because they seek earthly instead of heavenly nourishment, those whom the Father gives to Jesus will believe in him by feeding on him, and thereby gain eternal resurrection life.
Introduction – There are actually two “hard sayings” of Jesus in the lengthy chapter of John 6. This time we will examine verse 53 (“unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”). Before we begin let’s get the context of this story. The crowds who experienced the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 followed Jesus to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. When they began talking with him, Jesus answered three crucial questions about eternal life. Our temptation as Christians will be to look down on the Jewish unbelievers who seem to be so thick-headed in understanding Jesus. But that would be wrong of us to judge them, because as we’ll see we are a lot like them. When it comes to the subjects of religion or spirituality, most people want eternal life but not the Life Giver. We want God to intervene when we need help, but to leave us alone otherwise. But Jesus says we will never gain eternal life on our terms.
I. The Work of God: What does God want us to do to gain eternal life?
A. Don’t seek earthly nourishment by working for that which perishes (vv. 25-27a)
Jesus knew the motives of those who sought him. They appeared religious and pious, for they were the ones who followed him to the other side of the lake. Many others surely stayed behind, content to see Jesus pass through their neck of the woods. But Jesus can see right through us. He knows why we follow him. He can see our hearts. There is no fooling him because he is God. Jesus knew the people were seeking him for more food. He exposed them for what they were: not spiritual seekers, but crass materialists. Jesus says don’t labor for food (or any other treasure) that perishes (Mt 6:19-21). That kind of work will never satisfy because the things of this world are perishable. They aren’t designed to last, and they aren’t adequate for the task of satisfying your spiritual hunger pangs.
B. Do seek heavenly nourishment by believing in the one God has sent (vv. 27b-29)
1. So the crowds ask a reasonable question: what is the “work” of God that Jesus is alluding to? They expect a reasonable answer: something to do. There are rabbinic sources that say heavenly food symbolizes the Torah (the Law). This line of reason may be behind the Jews’ question linking food that endures to eternal life with keeping the Law.
Every religion of the world (except Christianity) accepts the question of the Jewish crowd as legitimate: “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Every religious teacher (except Jesus) answers this question with a list of do’s and don’ts. There is no exception. Islam: Faithfully obey the “Five Pillars”. Buddhism: Follow the “Eight-fold” path. Hinduism: Practice mystical yoga and other eastern spirituality techniques.
2. Note that Jesus changed their question regarding the “works” of God (plural) with his answer of the “work” of God (singular). Jesus gives a radical answer: believe in me. No respectable religious teacher ever required belief in a person instead of good works. He even claimed God set his seal of authenticity and approval on him. God’s seal proves that Jesus will provide the food that endures to eternal life. This is the spiritual meaning of the feeding miracle Jesus performed. It is the divine interpretation of the sign. Eternal life is not something achieved through work, but received by faith in Jesus. They missed this critical detail: the food Jesus provides for eternal life is a gift from the Son of Man. The crowds emphasized the works of the law, which proved (then and now) to be the gospel stumbling block for Jews (Rom 3:20, 27-28; Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5, 10; Phil 3:6, 9). They stumbled on the rock of offense, trying to gain salvation through the law (Rom 9:31-33). Work merits wages, but the reward of faith (which is salvation) is a free gift (Rom 4:4-8). The most valuable thing Jesus offers is not an unending food supply, but eternal life. He doesn’t sell it, but gives it freely to all who believe in him (cf. Isa 55; Rev 3:18).
Most Christians believe this in their head, and they confess it to others, but they struggle to believe it in their heart. You can see this in the way we disciple others, especially our children. Wait a few days (to allow for this sermon to wear off) and ask your kids what God wants them to do to have eternal life. Listen for moralistic do’s and don’ts. Then ask your Christian family and friends what work God requires of you to have eternal life. Listen for the law where the gospel should be. And then ask your non-Christian friends the same question and listen carefully. Ask them for clarification, compare all their answers, then ask yourself whether the way you explain your faith in Jesus with words and adorn your faith by your life is actually consistent with the uniqueness of Jesus or the ordinariness of the world’s religions. I suspect many of us will need to adjust our life and doctrine to the “work” God requires.
II. The Sign of God: Who is Jesus, and how does he give eternal life?
A. Jesus is the sign of God, the true bread from heaven (vv. 30-32, 58)
1. The crowds were seeking a sign greater than Moses giving manna to their Israelite forefathers in the wilderness (cf. Dt 18:20-22). The spiritual descendants of these skeptics want Jesus to prove his claim. Apparently the miracle of feeding the 5000 was not impressive enough for them to believe Jesus. Whereas Jesus had fed 5000, Moses fed an entire nation. Whereas Jesus fed a crowd once, Moses did it for 40 years. Whereas Jesus provided earthly bread, Moses provided bread from heaven (manna). They wanted Jesus to outdo Moses, or they would not believe.
2. The Jews expected that God would once again provide manna from heaven in the messianic age through the Messiah’s ministry. So when they ask Jesus for a sign, they quote from Psalm 78:24, a psalm ironically that records Israel’s unbelief and rebellion against God. Thus the entire “Bread of Life” passage is presented as fulfillment of the Exodus and Passover events. Obviously the crowds had missed the point of Jesus’ miracle: a sign to fulfill the symbolism of Moses’ miracle. In this way Jesus is greater than Moses.
3. Jesus contrasts true bread from heaven with the manna given to the Israelites in the wilderness. He does not mean that the wilderness manna was “false”, but that it was temporal, physical, material and a shadowy/typological reflection of the eternal and spiritual bread from heaven that by comparison is the “true” bread. The manna anticipated and pointed to the true bread from heaven: Jesus Christ the Bread of Life. The manna in the wilderness did not come from Moses. Jesus correctly pointed them to the true source of manna: the Father in heaven. Jesus as the Bread of Life is better than the manna that came to the Israelites in the wilderness. The forefathers ate the manna from heaven and died. It was not the source of life; it only sustained nourishment in the wilderness. The manna pointed to the bread that truly gives eternal life. The fulfillment is Jesus, the Bread of Life from heaven. That is the contrast. Jesus is better than the OT manna.
B. Jesus comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (vv. 33-35)
Let’s think about bread and eating for a moment. (1) Eating is vital if the bread is going to help me. I can analyze it, admire it, sniff it, wax eloquent about it, get emotionally overwhelmed by it, handle it, and even taste it, but if I don’t eat it, it will bring me no nourishment. It is the same spiritually. (2) Eating is something we do frequently and regularly, but not constantly. Eating is a felt need. Eating is most enjoyable and fulfilling when I’m hungry, when I’m empty. I might eat bread when I’m not hungry, but it won’t bring me the same feeling of satisfaction. But I won’t eat bread if I’m stuffed. Bread is not appealing at the end of a feast. In fact, the very thought of it is repulsive (at least for the next couple of hours!). It is the same spiritually. When our lives are stuffed full of sin, when we’ve eaten our fill of the flesh and the world, then we artificially satiate our hunger for Jesus. The Bread of Life will look disgusting to a stuffed sinner who never lets himself feel hungry for spiritual life. But to the one who has eaten all the world and flesh have to offer, and still feels that nagging hunger for lasting satisfaction, Jesus, the Bread of Life, takes on a new attraction. (3) You are what you eat. Your body appropriates whatever food you feed it. You take it in and it becomes a part of you. Bread is food that feeds your body what it needs and provides life. It is the same spiritually. Unless you take Jesus in, appropriate him, feed upon him, only then will he become a part of you. He dwells in you and becomes a part of you. And because Jesus is the Bread of Life, he gives you that life, eternal life, when he becomes a part of you when you feed on him spiritually.
How does Jesus, the “Bread of Life,” give life to the world? He nourishes people spiritually and satisfies their spiritual longing/hunger. Their deep spiritual longings and needs, rooted in the desire to know God, will be satisfied in him. “Bread of life” is an apt image because it communicates our daily need for Jesus. We need food every day. Yesterday’s meal will not satisfy today or tomorrow. Just as we need to eat food often to live, we need to feed upon Jesus often by believing in him daily.
If your feeling of needing Jesus has not yet risen to the level of needing daily food, then you need to preach the gospel to yourself. In other words, you need to believe the gospel more deeply. Tell yourself that you will slowly starve to death if you cannot feed on the Bread of Life. Remind yourself that just as going without food will eventually kill your body, so also going without Jesus will kill your spirit. Practice the spiritual discipline of fasting to remind yourself that you cannot live by bread alone, but by the Word of God (Mt 4:4), the living bread come down from heaven to give you satisfaction, abundance, and eternal life. Pray to Jesus, begging him to feed you of himself, of his precious promises, of his love and compassion, of his mercy and forgiveness, of his transforming power given that we might be like him. You must invite Jesus into your daily walk, your daily routine, your daily decisions, your daily conversations, your daily relationships, your daily work, to sustain your spiritual life. For the person who has been born again, eternal life has already begun. To live for eternity we will always need to feed upon the Bread of Life.
C. Jesus gives eternal life to believers as they “feed” on him (vv. 53-57)
1. A hard saying of Jesus. On the face of it, Jesus’ words are offensive, and many in the crowd are offended at this carnal way of speaking. But of course Jesus didn’t mean people must eat his flesh and drink his blood cannibalistically, for no one has ever done that. Furthermore, the law of God forbad the eating and drinking of blood, let alone human blood (Gen 9:4; Lev 7:26-27; 17:10-14; Dt 12:23-24), hence their offended response. In the OT, blood is viewed as the seat of life. Life is in the blood (Lev 17:11).
2. So what does Jesus mean by “eat the flesh of the Son of Man”? Verse 35 shows Jesus is speaking metaphorically and spiritually. To “eat” Jesus is to satisfy spiritual hunger. The words for “whoever feeds” (ho trōgōn) are striking in this context. It doesn’t mean just to eat, but to munch or crunch in a drawn-out fashion, as one would chew gum or eat a lollipop. By using this word Jesus says we must feed on him by faith continuously all day and all night. Similarly, the same verse shows to “drink” Jesus’ blood is to satisfy spiritual thirst, meaning to trust in what Jesus’ blood spiritually accomplishes for believers, namely the atonement of sins. Jesus is explaining and expounding the message of the gospel in the language of OT worship. By “flesh and blood” Jesus means his sacrificial atonement for sin. By “eat and drink” Jesus means believe. Jesus’ sacrifice (his broken body and shed blood) is the real and true spiritual food and drink. It is important to recognize that both Jesus’ sacrificial atonement for sin, and its spiritual benefits apprehended and grasped by faith, are at the heart of true Christianity.
How do we feed on Jesus, and how does this relate to eternal life? How do you labor in your faith? J.C. Ryle contends that “We must labor in the use of all appointed means. We must read our Bibles, like men digging for hidden treasure. We must wrestle earnestly in prayer, like men contending with a deadly enemy for life. We must take our whole heart to the house of God, and worship and hear like those who listen to the reading of a benefactor’s will. We must fight daily against sin, the world, and the devil, like those who fight for liberty, and must conquer, or be slaves. These are the ways we must walk in if we would find Christ, and be found of Him. This is ‘laboring.’ This is the secret of getting on about our souls.” But all of this will be for naught if not done from a believing heart. You must give up trying to find eternally satisfying bread through your own effort, instead trusting Jesus alone to give it to you. Only from this position of faith can we rightly “labor” for the bread that will spiritually satisfy.
III. The Will of God: Why did God the Father send his Son into the world?
A. Jesus will secure eternal resurrection life for all his Father has given to him (vv. 37-40)
The will of God is for the salvation of everyone who believes. Jesus is in complete agreement with the Father’s will. They are united in purpose. Jesus will not lose a single person who has been given to him by his Father. No true believer will ever lose his salvation. This is the will of God, and it is certain. This is not a doctrine of cheap grace, but of God’s active preservation to produce the perseverance of the saints. Everyone who looks to Jesus and believes in him will have eternal life, both now and eternally when believers will be raised up by the power of Christ on the last day. In other words, death cannot destroy the kind of life that Jesus gives. This is a reference to the resurrection of believers on the day when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. The dead in Christ will rise to eternal life. Not even death will be able to keep believers apart from Jesus! The God who began the work of redemption in our hearts will complete it (Phil 1:6).
B. Many will not believe in Jesus, and will grumble against him (vv. 36, 41-42, 52, 59)
1. Many in the crowds closed their hearts to Jesus and refused to believe in him as the Son of Man, sent from the Father in heaven as the Bread of Life. Many people “marveled” at Jesus during his ministry. But the only thing the Bible records Jesus “marveling” at is man’s unbelief (Mk 6:6)! Listen carefully to Jesus’ question: “Why have you seen me, and yet you still don’t believe in me? Why have some seen me and believed, while others who have also seen me do not believed?” The short answer is that the Father has not given those who persist in unbelief to the Son (the doctrines of election and predestination). That is what Jesus said!
2. This entire dialogue was a synagogue sermon in Capernaum. As Jesus talked with Jewish unbelievers, we are reminded that religious people too can be blind to spiritual things. It is as if John has narrated this long verbal tussle between Jesus and these Jewish unbelievers who in the end refuse to believe in him, and then John concludes, “Oh, yeah, this happened at a worship service.” Christians would do well to see themselves in that synagogue listening to Jesus.
Do you find yourself arguing with Jesus’ hard teaching about himself? Do you feel your stomach rumbling or your throat parched, and are distracted by thoughts of lunch or coffee? Or do you feel your spirit pulled toward Jesus, sensing that your deep longings for peace, fulfillment, happiness, and security are met in this Bread of Life come down from heaven?
Conclusion – Do you see that “feeding on Jesus” is a personal and daily act of faith that requires hard work on your part? No one can eat or drink for you. In the same manner, no one can believe for you. As you need to eat every day, so you must exercise faith in Christ every day. The gospel is for the daily walk of Christians. Exercised daily, faith in Christ strengthens us, encourages us, nourishes us, refreshes us, and even now brings us into the mystical realm of eternal life. Listen to Jesus when he says, “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” if you believe in him by feeding on him. Come, all who are spiritually hungry, and feed on the only one who satisfies.