We are in our series, Jesus Unfiltered, and a couple of weeks ago we heard John the Evangelist’s version of the Feeding of the 5000. They are out in a wilderness area with people who were chasing after Jesus because of all the healings they heard about him doing. Jesus feeds the people with the five loaves and two fish that a small boy had. John describes this not as a miracle but a sign, a sign of what? (John 6:14)
Following this is the beginning of what is called the “Manna Discourse,” which we started last week. Here Jesus compares himself with the manna that the Israelites ate wandering around in the desert. This manna, this “bread from heaven,” fed the Israelites for 40 years. Jesus says that he is the bread that has come down from heaven and is even better than the manna. In effect, he is the sign. He gave them bread that satisfied their hunger for a day, but he will be able to give them much more. Jesus, himself, is the bread from heaven. All of this connects with Israel’s ancient past, their time in the desert, the exodus.
The Israelites had been rescued from their slavery in Egypt. They escaped the Egyptian army by crossing the dry land of the Red Sea and found themselves cut off from civilization in the desert. There was no place to buy food or water. There was nowhere to get fresh supplies, and they start grumbling among themselves. *grumble, grumble, grumble* At least as slaves in Egypt we had plenty of food to eat. We might be forgetting that the Egyptians tried to make us kill all of our newborn sons, but at least we had plenty of food.
They complain to Moses and Aaron about this state of affairs and grumble some more. *grumble, grumble, grumble * They never ask God for any help because they don’t trust God yet, but God hears their grumbling and does something about it. He gives them a sign. He delivers quail as protein in the evening and manna rains down from heaven and is found like dew on the sand each and every morning. They could not save and store any of this food from one day to the next, except in anticipation of the Sabbath when they were to collect a double portion. For forty years, the Israelites had to do this. God gave them a sign that they could believe God, to rely upon and trust God for their needs every single day. (cf. Exodus 16:2-15) In our passage for today, when it says believe or believes, it means more than that really. Think to rely upon or to trust.
As the Israelites’ journey in the desert was coming to an end, God reminded them how they had learned to trust and rely on God. In Deuteronomy 8, God says, “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (vs. 2-3)
Now, we continue with our Scripture passage for today. Jesus, the disciples, and the crowd that Jesus fed in the wilderness are now back across the Sea of Galilee in Capernaum. We will start with the last verse of last week’s passage to remind us where we were in this Manna Discourse at John 6:35. Then, we will move down to verses 41-51.
John 6:35, 41-51 (NIV)
35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty…
… 41 At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They 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 them, and I will raise them up at the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God. Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. 46 No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. 50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
In our narrative, we are no longer in the wilderness. We are back in town, and more people have come to see what is going on. The crowd from the feeding are not the only ones listening and questioning Jesus now. John refers to a part of the group as “Jews.” In John, this term is almost always used in hostility. That has caused some to see this gospel as an anti-sematic book, and it has certainly been interpreted that way by anti-sematic people. However, we are looking at Jesus unfiltered, and our purpose is to look at what Jesus is saying here through John’s perspective. The first thing that you have to understand is that everyone in attendance in this passage is Jewish, including Jesus. This includes all the disciplines, which of course includes John. When John is referring to the Jews, he is not referring to all people who practice Judaism. He is referring to the Jewish people in power. This could include Pharisees, teachers of the law, scribes. Depending on the location it could be at the local or national level. These were people who would see Jesus’ teachings and growing power as a threat.
And, why would John refer to them as “the Jews”? Many scholars believe that this gospel was written to a community that had recently been expelled from the synagogue. In the book of Acts, there are several places where the disciples (now apostles) went to the temple and synagogue as a part of their regular worship. (eg. Acts 3:1; 5:42; 13:14-15) So, while they were followers of Jesus, they remained actively practicing Judaism. They remained Jews.
However, John’s community was rejected by the local Jewish leaders. They were expelled from the synagogue. This would likely mean that they were shunned by their families, or their families would also be expelled from the synagogue regardless of whether they followed Jesus or not. Being cut off from the synagogue meant being cut off from the community. So, in John’s gospel “the Jews” may represent all of those that would have been responsible for this schism.
Another part of this passage that seems harsh, exacting, exclusionary is the assertion by Jesus that “No one can come to [Jesus] unless the Father who sent [him] draws them.” (John 6:44) There are two parts of this that I would like to talk about. One has to do with this Jewish community that has been expelled from the synagogue. Their question through their pain and suffering of loss of community and rejection of their spiritual family is “why.” Why didn’t the people of their local community get it? Why did others reject Jesus when it seemed so clear to them? Why doesn’t everyone follow Jesus? It is a question that we can still ask today. Some of you here today may still be asking yourselves whether you should follow Jesus. I did that for a long time, for years, even as I was attending church. If this is you, don’t think that you are unusual or strange. But, I digress. We are looking at the question that John’s church had. Why doesn’t everyone believe in and follow Jesus?
A popular answer today is that it doesn’t really matter because “all paths lead to God.” But, in John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way…” These days, we can have a hard time with that because to be tolerant and understanding, we want to say that Jesus is a way, but that’s not what he says. He is the way. It’s just a little three letter word, but it messes with us. I am the way. And we say, “But that sounds so exclusive!”
In today’s culture, we try to be inclusive, welcoming, understanding, but this feels excluding. It does. But when you read about Jesus, who he hung out with, who he helped who he taught, Jesus was the most including person that ever way. He says, you have a problem? Come here. Feel like everybody hates you, and nobody wants you? Come here. Feel lost and alone? You can’t get your life back together? Come here. I’ll show you the way. “It feels exclusive, unless it’s true. Nobody argues about the chemical composition of water. It is H2O, two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. You cannot have 12 parts hydrogen and 16 parts oxygen, or 7 parts hydrogen and 300 parts oxygen and still have water. It is two H’s and one O. That’s what brings life. That’s what it is. It just is.” (Dick Forth)
The leaders of the other world religions claimed to be way showers or sign posts pointing away from themselves to something else. Jesus is the only one who says believe, trust, rely upon me. John Stott said, “Jesus was not just another sign post but the destination to which the sign posts had led.”
The Apostle Paul puts it this way, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Col 1:19-20)
What I can say definitively is that Jesus is the One who reveals God uniquely and fully. As one of my professors said. If the God the disciples know from their Scriptures and their worship were to come to earth as a person, he would look just like Jesus.” So, the Christians in John’s community asked, why can’t everyone see that? Why can’t the people who are shunning us, see that Jesus is their savior too? I personally could ask that question every day. Of course, there are all the people over the centuries that have twisted Christianity to use and abuse all kinds of people groups for all kinds of reasons, but really that is a separate issue from following/believing in/relying upon, trusting the unfiltered Jesus.
The answer that we are given here in John’s Gospel is that God draws them. (c.f 6:44) It is not our own initiation, our own effort. Through God’s grace, God’s gift, we are given the ability to say yes to God. We are given the ability to see God’s goodness, and all that God’s done to save us from ourselves. We are given the ability to learn how to live as God created us to live. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, called this prevenient grace, the grace, the gift that God gives us before we ever come to believe.
Think about your life before you began trusting and relying on Jesus, relying on God, and you can see people that were put into your life, experiences that you had, books you read, questions that you had that needed answering. You may not have realized it was the Holy Spirit at work in your life at the time, but looking back you can see a pattern that shows God at work in your life, at work before you are aware or accepting of it. The journey is different and unique for each person. It is one of the things that I love most about God. The God that knows us so well, knows just what we need and how long it will take.
For everyone it is different. That is why some people come to know, trust, and rely on Jesus when they are ten years old, others when they are 27 (like me), or it could be 63 or 103 or anything in-between. We can’t know why it can vary so much from person to person. It’s one of those things that we can’t know until we see God face to face. (cf. 1 Cor 13:12)
But, until that happens, everything having to do with salvation through Jesus will seem like foolishness. As the Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” If it looks like a foolish proposition, why would someone say yes?
However, in today’s passage, Jesus also says, “But here is the bread that comes down from heaven [in other words, Jesus, himself], which anyone may eat and not die.” (John 6:50, emphasis mine) The offer is made to all. He continues, “This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51b, emphasis mine) Here he is referring to the sacrifice of his life for the world. Anyone may eat.
Isaiah 55 also connects directly to this. You’ve heard me reference it before,
“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.
2 Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
3 Give ear and come to me;
listen, that you may live.
The invitation is open to all. Anyone may eat of this bread of life, this bread from heaven, but not everyone will. They will go another direction. They may even choose a dangerous, even evil lifestyle where they take pleasure in harming themselves or others. We see those things in the news every day, but there are so many more that don’t make the news. Some will choose something innocuous or benign. Others may still be thinking, pondering, or praying, perhaps not even sure to whom they may be praying.
You know what? In any or all of those cases, God could still be working on them, and they may go in a different direction towards God. Moses was a murderer. Paul was actively pursuing and persecuting the followers of Jesus … until one day, he went in a different direction. None of us know when, why, or if. Only God knows, and what a relief that is if we really think about it. Our job is to love people and tell people about the love God has for people through Jesus. After that it is out of our hands.
The bottom line is that on our own, we are all evil, grumbling, sinful people. It is only by God transforming us teaching us through the Holy Spirit that we are even capable of believing, trust, relying upon Jesus.
We are helpless. We can’t do this on our own. Just like the Israelites were helpless of rescuing themselves out of slavery in Egypt, feeding themselves in the desert. It is only through God’s grace that we have anything. God does it for us.
Jesus, the bread of life, will feed us if we go to him. Praise be to God!