Drive through any major intersection in town and you will see them there – folks who, for one reason or another, have resorted to asking for handouts from passers-by. Some of them hold cardboard signs on which they’ve scribbled their circumstances or hardship, and some (though I’ve noticed, not as many as there used to be) have signs that say “Will Work for Food.” Obviously, these mean to imply that they are not merely seeking a handout (though most would gladly receive one), but that they are willing to do something – to labor – in exchange for food or for money that they intend to use to buy food. Now, there have been a number of exposés done by various investigative reporters that indicated that some of these were unwilling to actually work, and some who work and get money turn around and use that money to buy drugs or alcohol, but that is not the point. Let’s just assume, for argument’s sake, that they mean what they say, and that they are willing to work for food. Now, essentially, if you work at all, in whatever kind of job you do, you are working for food. You are working to earn an income that you will use to meet the needs of your life, including the food that your body needs to have the energy to continue to work, so that you can continue to eat. It’s a cycle. You work to eat, so that you can work to eat. We may not all hold cardboard signs on street corners, but we all have to work for food in one way or another.
Now, in our text today, Jesus talks about working for food. He talks about two kinds of working, and two kinds of food. And what He says here is a promise to be savored and a warning to be heeded, not only by the crowd that sought Him on that day, but by all of us as well. But before we get to that, we need a reminder of the context – how did we get here to this point in the text? You recall that the first 14 verses of this chapter recounted how Jesus was surrounded by the massive crowd – 5,000 men, plus women and children, maybe 20,000 people in all – and the hour was getting late and the people were hungry, but the only food on hand was five loaves of barley bread and two small fish that had been offered up by a boy in the crowd. And with that small amount of food, Jesus miraculously fed the entire crowd, and they ate as much as they wanted, and they were filled. Now, the next morning, they were looking for Jesus but they couldn’t find Him. Maybe they were hungry again, and were hoping that He would provide the breakfast in the same way He had provided the supper the night before. But they did not realize that Jesus had walked across the stormy waters of the
Sea of Galilee to join
His disciples. Now when they came across to Capernaum, they found Him with His disciples
– and verse 59 says He was in the synagogue – they were puzzled and asked Him,
“Rabbi, when did you get here?” Now, verse 26 says, “Jesus answered them and
said ….” We might translate this a little better this way: “Jesus answered them
by saying ….” Because really, He doesn’t answer the question they asked.
He didn’t answer when, or even how, He got there. Instead, He lays into them about their motive for seeking Him. He says, “Truly, truly I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.” That’s confusing, isn’t it? Because, they saw the sign, didn’t they? Well, actually no. They saw what Jesus did – they saw how He miraculously made the food, and they ate it, but they did not see the sign; they did not perceive the significance of what He did. He did what He did so they would see who He is. And that’s the part they missed. How do we know they missed it? Easy – Jesus said they missed it! But they demonstrate how badly they missed it, because in spite of what they have seen, they turn right around in verse 30 and say, “What then do You do for a sign, so that we may see, and believe You? What work do You perform?” That question ought to leave you absolutely dumbfounded! How on earth could they ask that? They just ate the food the night before! When their mouths and bellies were full, they were calling Him the promised prophet who was to come, and ready to install Him as their King. But now, they are hungry again, and so they are basically asking him, a la Janet Jackson, “What have you done for me lately?” That’s why, when they say, “Do something for us so we can see and believe,” Jesus responds by saying in verse 36, “You have seen Me, and yet you do not believe.” They are not looking for Jesus because they realize that He is God in the flesh, even though that is what His miracle should have revealed to them. They are seeking Him because, when they were hungry (last night), He fed them; but now it’s a new day, and they are hungry again. What was the question? “When did You get here?” What was the answer? “You sought Me out for all the wrong reasons!”
So, here is where He begins to speak about working for food. There’s two kinds of work, and two kinds of food. And what Jesus says about this is a promise and a warning – a glorious promise to those who do the right work for the right food; and a severe warning to those who do the wrong work for the wrong food. Your joy in this life, and your eternal destiny hangs on getting this right. It’s a big deal. It’s the difference between coming home satisfied at the end of the day, no matter what circumstances you find yourself in, or coming home in frustrating despair. Moreover, it’s the difference between eternity spent with Jesus in heaven, and eternity spent separated from Him in hell. This stuff matters that much. So, let’s get into the text and hear these words of Jesus and apply them to our hearts and lives.
I. There’s a severe warning to be heeded: Don’t spend your life doing the wrong kind of work for the wrong kind of food. (v27)
The alarm goes off, you roll out of bed. You shower, dress, have a bite to eat, and head out the door for your job. You work hard all day, you come home exhausted, you have a bite to eat, and you go to bed. Tomorrow, you will do it all over again. And you’ll do that over and over again, and after a while, you will get a paycheck. And you’ll take that paycheck, and you’ll pay your bills, give your offerings, and you’ll buy your groceries. Maybe you have a little money left over to put away in savings or give some away to some away, or do something nice for yourself, but the money vanishes eventually. The food you buy tastes good, but it doesn’t last long, and you’re hungry again, and you run out of groceries, and more bills come in. So you keep on working, keep on paying bills, keep on buying groceries. It goes on an on. And Jesus says if that is all there is to your life, then you are at risk of missing what matters most.
Jesus gives a severe warning here in verse 27: “Do not work for the food which perishes.” Now, what does He mean? Well, let’s consider a few things that He most certainly doesn’t mean. First, He doesn’t mean “Don’t work.” No, you were created to work. That’s not something that you have to do because sin has corrupted the world. Before sin ever entered in, God gave Adam and Eve work to do. Idleness and laziness are not God’s plan for your life. It’s one thing to be unable to work; it’s another to be unwilling to work. So, He doesn’t mean that. And He also doesn’t mean, “Don’t work for food.” God created our bodies so that they need food to survive, and He has created food so that it provides our bodies with nutrients and energy, and He has given us work to do to earn that food. When you work, you are doing something God created you to do. When you earn an honest living, you are being provided for by God through the abilities He has given you. And when you buy food to eat, you are fueling your ability to keep doing what God created you to do so that He will keep meeting your needs through your labors. There’s nothing wrong with that – it is how life works. You eat so that you can work, and you work so you can eat. That’s why Paul said in 2 Thessalonians, “if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either. For we hear that some among you are leading an undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread” (2 Thess 3:10-12). See, there are these people who are unwilling to work, they are idle, and because they aren’t being productive with their time and energy, they get into sin (Paul says they act like busybodies), and they have to depend on others to eat. No, Paul says that God’s intention is that you work, and that by your work, you earn your food, or the money that you use to buy your food. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s not what Jesus is warning us against here.
What Jesus is warning us against here is “working for the food that perishes.” Now, certainly, all food is going to perish. It might go bad before we eat it. But if not, we eat it, and after our body is finished using it for nutrition and energy, it becomes waste. So, we might say that all the food that we work for is food that perishes. But, that’s not the warning. The warning is making this the entire focus of our lives. We are not to be consumed with the pursuit of breakfast, only to then turn our attention to lunch, and then to supper, and so on and so on all day, every day, for our entire lives. And it’s not just food that perishes. It might be stuff. It might be entertainment, a hobby, an experience, whatever. If the goal of our life is to labor to have money so we can have it, and that’s all we’re consumed with, then we are laboring for the food that perishes.
Well, what’s wrong with that? First, there’s no end to it. Eat a meal, you will be hungry again. Jesus said nearly the exact same thing to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. He said, “Everyone who drinks this water will thirst again.” But second, if all you are living for is the satisfaction of your physical needs, what will you do about your greater needs? You may say, “Well, I’ve got a roof over my head, food on the table, the bills are getting paid every month, and there’s gas in the tank.” Or you may have much more than that – a lucrative financial portfolio, every tangible item you’ve ever desired, and all that the world prizes. So, you might wonder, “What more do I need?” Well, do you not know that all of those things will perish? They can disappear in an instant, and then what are you left with? Moreover, one day your life will come to an end, and I have yet to see a hearse with a trailer-hitch and a U-Haul behind it. You won’t take any of it with you when you die, but you will stand before God, and what will you have to show for your life? A lot of things? An investment portfolio? A well-stocked pantry? You have labored for the food that perishes.
This is not the only place where Jesus warns us against this. In Matthew 6, Jesus warned against storing up for ourselves “treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19). In Luke 12, He told a story about a rich man whose land was so productive that he ran out of room to store all of his crops. So he decided to build bigger barns, and boasted to himself, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink, and be merry.” But here is what Jesus said of that man: “You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?” He says that the man “who stores up treasure for himself” is “not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21). Maybe rich in the eyes of the world; maybe impressive to every person you meet; but not impressive to God; not rich in the things that matter most. Are we beginning to understand the severity of this warning? Surely the point is driven home in Mark 8:36: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world …?” We hear that and scoff! “Why, it profits that man a great deal” we would say. But Jesus said, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” Ah, now there is the warning! If you have pursued all these things, but have neglected the greater need of your soul, then you have labored for the food that perishes. What good would it be to be rich in hell? What good would it be to well fed in hell? Would it not rather be better to be poor and in heaven, or hungry and in heaven? That’s not to say that only the poor and hungry will gain heaven. No, not at all. But it is to say that the accumulation of things to the neglect of our greater spiritual need – the filling of our bellies to the neglect of the gaping hole in our soul – is working for the food that perishes. And Jesus warns us severely that we must not do that.
Do not work for the food that perishes! Of course you have to work. Of course you need food, even food that perishes, and many other perishable things. But don’t make the pursuit of your entire life the accumulation of these things and the satisfaction of your physical, material needs only. Heed this severe warning.
II. There’s a glorious promise to be savored: “He who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in me will never thirst.” (v35)
Remember the warning, “Do not work for the food that perishes.” And then Jesus says that we should work “for the food which endures.” How long does it endure? You know some food kind of stays with you a little longer than others. Do you like pancakes? I love pancakes, smothered in maple syrup. I’m a Baptist, so I don’t believe in sprinkling the pancakes; they’ve got to be immersed. Sometimes I feel like I can eat my own body weight in pancakes, and then I feel like I need someone to roll me out in a wheelbarrow. But a couple of hours later, I feel like I am starving! But there are other foods that are more enduring. We call that kind of food a “stick-to-your-ribs” meal. It stays with you a while. But at best, what are we talking about? A five, six hours, maybe eight? And then you are going to be hungry again. Why? Because this is food that perishes. But Jesus is saying that there is another kind of food that doesn’t perish. It endures, and for longer than a good stick-to-your-ribs meal. This food that Jesus is talking about endures to eternal life. Both the bread and the body that eats it never perishes, but endures forever.
Well, what kind of magic beans to I have to plant to have this kind of food? No, it doesn’t come from magic beans. So how do we get this food that endures to eternal life? Jesus says that He gives this food to us, because the Father has set His seal upon Him (v27). This means that God the Father has consecrated Him for this purpose and certified with His own authority that Jesus Christ, God the Son, has the power and right to give this food. But just a moment before that, He said, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.” So first He says we should work for it, and then He says He gives it. Now, if it is a gift, we don’t have to work for it; and if we have to work for it, it isn’t a gift. So, which is it? Well, you notice that in verse 28 the people ask, “What shall we do so that we may the works of God?” – that is, what are the works that God requires for us to earn this food that endures to eternal life?
That’s sort of a universal question, isn’t it? There’s an awareness in our souls that things are not right between ourselves and God, and we resort to thinking that there must be something we can do, some work we can perform to earn His favor. Every religious system except one in the world has a prescribed system of rituals and deeds that a person must do to placate the deities, because our minds cannot fathom any other way of remedying the problem. That one exception, among all the beliefs in the world, is Christianity. And Jesus makes the difference clear here in verse 29. He says, “This is the work of God (or the work that God requires of us): that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” So, the work is to not work, but believe. The food that endures to eternal life is a gift given by Christ to those who come to Him by faith. Notice, that the solution is not to believe nebulously in any old thing. Some people talk about having faith, but it becomes clear that there is no specific object of their faith. It’s nothing more than faith in faith, which is foolish and unfounded positive thinking. Jesus doesn’t just say believe, and neither does He say “believe in God.” There are multitudes who believe in a higher power, a divine being or beings, but they have not yet received the gift of eternal life. This belief, this faith, of which Jesus speaks is very specific: it is belief in Him whom He has sent; belief in the one whom God has sent – namely, Jesus Christ. You want to work for this food? You can’t. God the Son, our Lord Jesus has been consecrated and commissioned by His Father to give this eternal life as a free gift to those who cease their striving and rest in Him by faith.
As we mentioned before, the people find these words hard to swallow, as most people do. We are warped by our sin nature to believe that there must be a deed to do; we cannot fathom the riches of His grace. It runs counter to our nature. So, they ask Jesus to prove it. Some of you, or people you know, have such a hard time believing the promises of God’s grace in Christ, that they are always seeking for proof that His promises are true! Their demand is for Jesus to do something that they can see and then they will believe. Of course, He’s already done more than necessary to convince them by the feeding of the multitude, and it’s not that they have forgotten that. It’s just that their stomachs are growling again. They say, “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread out of heaven to eat.” What they seem to be indicating is that they are willing to follow Jesus, to believe Him as the promised prophet who was to come in the spirit of Moses, and the King who would reign over them and lead them, but He’s got to keep providing the food. After all, they are thinking, Moses gave our ancestors bread from heaven every morning for forty years! Do You think you will convince us with just one meal?
Jesus’ response is two-fold. First, He corrects a misunderstanding about the source of that food they ate in the days of Moses, the manna that miraculously appeared on the ground every morning during the wilderness wanderings. He says, “Truly, truly I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven.” Moses didn’t have the ability to provide that bread; it was God Himself who was providing it for them. Notice also that Jesus shifts the tense of the verbs. The Father has given them bread to fill their stomachs in the past, and He gives them the true bread out of heaven even now, in the present. And this bread is not just for the Israelites. Jesus says that the true bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven and gives life to the whole world. There’s so much grace in that promise that we must savor it for a moment – the whole world! That includes you and me, does it not? The true bread of God, this food that endures for eternal life, has come down out of heaven to give life to you. You can just write your name in there. The true bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to _____________. Savor that gracious promise.
You know, I’ve discovered one downside to our church building being right down the street from Stamey’s. At a certain time of day, the air is filled with the aroma of barbeque cooking. And if I’m already a little bit hungry, one sniff of the air moves me from being a little bit hungry to thinking, “You know I think I need barbeque, and quickly.” Well, think about that here: we are a hungry people. We have an insatiable hunger for God and for eternal life in our hearts, if we are willing to admit it. These people talking to Jesus were no different. But now, it is as if He has wafted the aroma of the all-satisfying food of eternal life before their spiritual noses, and their mouths are watering for it. They say, “Lord, always give us this bread!” I mean, this guy’s got bread that will fill us up so that we never have to eat again, and it will keep us alive forever! Hand it over, and let us have some! And then comes this watershed moment of divine revelation, as Jesus tells them that the bread is not something He has, but something He is!
He says, “I am the bread of life.” I am that true bread of God that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. I am the food that endures to eternal life. When the gave the food from heaven, He gave Me! I give it, and what I give is Myself! You can’t work for this bread, but you can come to Me and believe in Me. He says, “He who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.” They will be satisfied forever with Him. The need of the soul is met, and met for all eternity. Savor the glory of this promise! What must you do to work for this food? No, your doing and your working will never get it. You must humble yourself and come to Him with open hands to receive it as a gift – to receive Him as a gift, for He is this bread. You may think, “But surely something must be done! I have sinned against God, and surely I must do something to make that right!” Well, there is something that must be done, but nothing you can do. You see, He has done it all for you. Christ has come for you as a man, God-in-the-flesh, and He has lived the life you cannot live. He has satisfied all of the righteous works of God on your behalf, fulfilling all righteousness in God’s Law. And because the life He lived was lived for you, the death He died was for you as well. You see, as He died, He took all of your sins upon Himself, so that He might bear all the punishment, all the judgment, all the wrath and condemnation that your sins deserve, as a substitute dying in your place. And He has conquered sin and death for you through His resurrection, and ever lives to receive you and save you. In exchange for your sins, placed on Him in His death, He promises to place upon you the perfect righteousness of His life, so that you stand before God, not covered in the filth of your sin, but in the splendor of His holiness. And it is for that reason that Christ, and Christ alone, is able to rescue you from sin and death, to reconcile you to God, and to grant you abundant life through all your days of earthly living by the power of His Holy Spirit, and eternal life with Him forever in heaven when these days come to an end. There is a doing to be done, but it is His doing, and not yours. Your doing is to cease trying to do, in order to earn His favor, and merely to come to Him with open hands outstretched to receive this wondrous gift of His grace. Otherwise, all of our efforts to work our way to Him only add to our condemnation. They are dead works because they cannot save us; and they are deadly works if we think they can.
What work must you do to earn the food that endures to eternal life? Cease your working, and come to Him believing that His work has accomplished it for you. Then you will have Him, and He is the bread of life that comes down from heaven and give life to you, the true bread of God that endures to eternal life, the bread of life that satisfies the hunger and thirst of your soul forever. If you spend your whole life laboring for the food that fills your belly but doesn’t satisfy your soul, then you’ve wasted your life with the wrong kind of work for the wrong kind of food. But if the need of your soul is filled with the bread of life that is Jesus Christ, then you will be forever satisfied in His presence. Wouldn’t it be better to enter heaven, with Christ, with an empty belly, than to be separated from Him forever in hell, though you died with a full belly? And wouldn’t it be better to see to it that others have this bread of life, this food that endures, as well? There is no labor you can do to earn it, but once you have it, you will want to labor until all the world is fed with this bread as well.
Weary, working, burdened one, wherefore toil you so? Cease your doing; all was done long, long ago.
Till to Jesus’ work you cling by a simple faith, “doing” is a deadly thing—“doing” ends in death.
Cast your deadly “doing” down—down at Jesus’ feet; Stand in Him, in Him alone, gloriously complete.