Monday, April 22, 2013

The Bread of Life (John 6:48-59)

Audio 

Today, we are sometimes surprised by the number of wild accusations that people make against Christians. They say that we are unloving, hate-filled, intolerant, narrow-minded, ignorant, bigots. And those are some of the more polite things that are said about us. But, wild accusations are nothing new for the Church of Jesus Christ. Had you been a Christian in the first 250 years of Church history, you might have been accused of unimaginable things by your neighbors. They were charged with all sorts of gross immorality, including incest, because of people misunderstanding the reference of Christians to one another as brothers and sisters, the frequent use of the word “love,” and the practice of greeting one another with a holy kiss. Christians were also charged with being anti-family, because they maintained their allegiance to Christ even when threatened with being cut off from their families. Early Christians were called atheists because they refused to worship the gods of Rome, including the Emperor. Add to that the idea that the one being they did worship was someone known as a man, Jesus Christ. And, if you had been a Christian at that time of history, it may well have been that your neighbors might have reported you to the authorities on the charge of cannibalism. Since Christians often met in secret places under a cloak of darkness, there was a lot of mystery and speculation about what went on in these gatherings. Imagine one of these curious neighbors overhearing something being said between believers about eating the flesh or drinking the blood of Christ. Of course, among Christians, we understand very clearly that this would be a reference to the Lord’s Supper, but to one who had no understanding about this, it would be an alarming thing to hear.[1]

The idea of eating human flesh and drinking human blood is particularly repulsive to all of us. For those who live under strict regulations about eating and drinking, there are often very explicit requirements about blood. For instance, in the Old Testament law, God said, “As for the life of all flesh, its blood is identified with its life. Therefore I said to the sons of Israel, ‘You are not to eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood; whoever eats it shall be cut off.’” (Lev. 17:14). So, imagine the shock of this Jewish crowd gathered at a synagogue in Capernaum as they heard Jesus talking about eating His flesh and drinking His blood. It would have been a scandalous statement, at once offensive and repulsive. And yet to be offended at the presumably cannibalistic language of this statement is to miss the bigger truth, which may perhaps be even more offensive to them, were they to understand it.

It is apparent at just a casual reading that at the heart of this passage is the idea of the “bread of life.” Terms having to do with “bread,” “eating,” and “food” occur in every single verse in this passage, often more than once in every verse. So, the questions that arise are, “What is the Bread of Life?”, “Why should I eat the Bread of Life?”, and “How do I eat this Bread of Life?” Those are the questions we will seek to answer as we move through this text.
I. What is the Bread of Life?

One of the most glaring differences between life in America and that in many other parts of the world is the overwhelming number of choices that we have available to us every day. For example, suppose you want some bread, so you go to the grocery store and make your way to the bread aisle. Not only are there various brands of bread, but there is white bread, whole grain bread, wheat bread, white-wheat bread, and all kinds of other bread. There is bread that is high in fiber, low in gluten, enriched with vitamins and minerals, and all sorts of other things. But Jesus talks about a kind of bread that is not available at the local grocery store. He talks about a “living bread,” a “bread of life,” that enables the one who eats it to live forever.

He says that this bread “comes down out of heaven.” That language is reminiscent of the manna that the Israelites ate in the wilderness. When the Lord began to provide that manna following the Exodus, He said to Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you” (Exo 16:4). It is a divinely provided bread that comes down to the earth from heaven. But, Jesus says that there is a qualitative difference between the bread of which He speaks and that which the fathers ate in the wilderness. Namely, they ate the manna, and they died. But when a person eats of the bread that Jesus is talking about, they do not die, but rather they live forever. So, He isn’t talking about manna. This is something better.

In verse 48, Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Life.” He is this bread that enables one to live forever. And then specifically, He says in verse 51, “the bread which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” So, Jesus is the bread of life, and more specifically, it is His flesh – His body. You recall from that glorious first chapter of this Gospel those familiar words, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” God became a man, He took upon Himself human flesh, as He came down from heaven to dwell among us. And He did this in a town called “Bethlehem,” which means “House of Bread.” This bread – this flesh – Jesus says He will give for the life of the world. This tells us two things about this bread. First, that Jesus will give it; and second, that He will give it “for the life of the world.” This tells us that He is speaking of something sacrificial and something substitutionary. He is going to give His flesh – that’s a sacrifice. And He’s going to give it for the life of the world – that’s a substitutionary sacrifice. Thus, in referring to Himself as the Bread of Life, Jesus is speaking of His death on the cross for the sins of humanity. This is the reason He has come down from heaven – to be our substitute in giving away His life in exchange for ours. And yet, even though He speaks of His own dying, He can still refer to Himself as “living bread,” for His life cannot be extinguished by death. Thus, in His subsitutionary sacrifice, His flesh becomes for us, as v55 says, “true food,” and His blood “true drink.”

So, in answer to the question we asked, “What is the Bread of Life?”, we can answer that Jesus points to Himself, and specifically to His body, His flesh, which was given in His death on the cross for the life of the world. Now, that brings us to the second question that this text raises:
II. Why Should I Eat this Bread of Life?

Over the last few years, several food companies have been forced to change the labels on their products because of grossly exaggerated claims. So, for example, oatmeal can no longer be claimed to “actively find cholesterol and remove it from the body.” Yogurt products cannot be claimed to keep one regular or serve as a cold or flu remedy. [2] Some of the claims of the food we eat are simply outlandish. But nothing comes close to the claims that Jesus makes for the Bread of Life.

Notice first of all the claim that this Bread will allow those who eat of it to live forever. It is kind of hard to miss this here in the passage, because it is repeated so often. In verse 50, He says, “One may eat of it and not die.” In v51, “if anyone eats of this bread he will live forever.” In v54, “”He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” And finally in v58, “he who eats this bread will live forever.” Now, lest we be mistaken and think that there is some sort of magical quality here, like the Fountain of Youth or something, that one taste of it will preserve us in our present state forever, Jesus clarifies the nature of this future, endless and eternal life in verse 54. “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” He is talking about a life that goes on beyond death. There will be a raising up – just as He has at various times spoken of Himself, that He will die and rise from the dead – so He says that He will raise those who eat of the bread of life on the last day.

What an astounding claim! Jesus is facing His contemporaries – they know Him, they know His family, they’ve watched Him grow up – and He says to them, “I am the one who will raise the dead to everlasting life on the last day.” This is nothing less than a claim to be God. And if that is not clear enough, He goes on to say, “As the Living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he will also live because of Me” (v57). The eternal life that this living bread offers to those who eat of it is only possible because of the Lord Jesus. He is the exclusive way to eternal life, just as He Himself says in John 14:6, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.”

But notice also that Jesus is not saying that one has to wait until death, or until the end of time, to enjoy the benefits of the Bread of Life. He says in verse 56 that he who eats His flesh and drinks His blood “abides in Me and I in Him.” These are present tense verbs. There is a union with Christ that begins at the moment that this Bread of Life is eaten, a mutual abiding, whereby we abide in Him and He in us. This idea of the believer’s union with Christ is going to become a major theme in John’s Gospel, but here it is introduced for the first time. It means essentially that Christ has come to dwell in us, and that we have been placed in Him. From the moment at which we partake of the Bread of Life, He lives in us in the person of the Holy Spirit. This indwelling of Christ sets us apart as God’s own possession, it identifies us with Christ and seals us to Him in an unbreakable covenant. Additionally, it means that we have the unlimited supernatural power of God Himself at work within us to transform us daily into the likeness of Christ. This is why Paul speaks of Christ in us as the hope of glory (Col 1:27). Our hope of glory is to be in the presence of Christ. And that hope is a present tense reality because Christ is in us. And we are in Him. Because we are in Him, we stand before the Father, not stained by the foulness of our sin, but radiantly covered with the resplendent holiness of Christ Himself. You could spend the rest of your life exploring the treasures of all that the Bible promises about us being “in Christ,” and still not exhaust the riches. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”

What wondrous things are promised to those who eat of the Bread of Life! And we know that these are not false claims because they were made by the Lord Jesus Himself. When He says He will raise us up on the last day, we can believe it because He Himself has been raised up. As 2 Corinthians 1:20 says, “For as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes; therefore also through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us.”

So, what is the bread of life? It is Christ, and particularly His flesh, given in substitutionary sacrifice for the life of the world in His death on the cross. And those who eat of this bread receive life eternal, and they abide in Christ and He in them. So that begs the final question we’ll address today, one that was asked by those who heard Jesus when He originally said this.

III. How do we eat the Bread of Life?

The thought of taking a bite of Jesus’ flesh and drinking His blood is certainly less than palatable. The original audience even broke out into an argument over the expression, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” The Greek wording indicates that they were arguing bitterly with one another about this. Surely no one, or at least very few, assumed He was speaking literally. But they just could not figure out what it was the He meant by this. Had they been paying attention to what Jesus had been saying, it would have been more clear. In verse 54, Jesus says, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Compare this to what He had just said in verse 40: “everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.” So, verse 54 is saying figuratively what verse 40 was saying literally. To eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ is to behold Him by faith and believe upon Him.

But why would Jesus liken believing in Him to eating Him? Well, in a number of ways, there is great similarity between believing in Him and the act of eating. First, food is useless unless it is eaten. It doesn’t do you any good if it is just sitting on a shelf or in the fridge. You have to personally appropriate that food into your mouth and your digestive system to derive any benefit from it. And the same is true with Christ. Your belief or unbelief in Him does not affect Him so much as it affects you. He is still there whether you believe in Him or not. But you are not gaining any spiritual benefit by His presence unless you have appropriated Christ into your life by faith. You must transfer your trust from yourself and other things over to Him and begin a personal relationship with Him.

Second, we eat food when we are hungry. We recognize that we have a need that we must satisfy, and we turn to the kitchen to satisfy it. Of course, nothing that we eat can satisfy us forever. We get hungry again. And when we do, we eat again. But the Lord Jesus offers a living bread to us that He says in v35 will cause us to never hunger again. But we must recognize our need. Just as all of us experience hunger, so all of us have a need in our lives because of our sin. We say that we have a message of good news, and that good news includes the fact that we are sinners. You say, “That doesn’t sound like good news, that sounds like bad news.” Well, the good news is that Jesus came to save sinners. So, unless you are willing to recognize yourself as a sinner, Christ can be of no benefit to you. If you aren’t hungry, you won’t go seeking food. If you aren’t a sinner, you have no need for Christ. But, we are all sinners, and we all need Him. The question is, are you willing to recognize and admit your need for Him.

Third, the food we eat becomes a part of us as we absorb and digest it. The nutrients and benefits of that food are transferred to our bodies in a way that could never happen unless we eat the food. So it is with Christ. Many people focus on the benefits that Christ can bring them – blessing, grace, forgiveness, provision, etc. They may admire Him and appreciate aspects of His life and teaching. But the benefits and resources of Christ are not internalized within us until we appropriate Him by faith, in a way not dissimilar to eating food. As we come to know Him, we become one with Him.

Then also, eating food involves a deep level of trust. You see, we can admire how food looks, how it smells, and how it has been prepared. We can have a fondness for every ingredient included in the recipe. But this requires no commitment on our part. Eating, on the other hand, requires a commitment of trust. We believe that if we eat it, it will bring good to us. No one ever knowingly eats food that they know is poisoned, spoiled, or contaminated. We eat food believing that it will not make us sick, but in fact help us physically. Now, most of us have had experiences where we did get sick from something we ate, but we didn’t know or think that would happen when we ate it. We ate it with complete confidence that this was good and good for us. So, friends, when we come to Jesus, we must believe that He is good, and that He loves us, and that if we believe in Him, He will save us and impart life to us. This must be a deep level of personal trust. And unlike the food we eat, which sometimes disappoints us, Jesus never will.

And then finally, eating is a personal task that you must do for yourself. No one can eat for you. You have to put the food into your own mouth and digest it for yourself. And the same is true of Christ. I cannot believe in Him for you, nor can anyone else. Just as you must eat your own food, so you must personally come to appropriate Christ into your life by exercising your faith in Him. When Jesus says you must eat of His flesh and drink of His blood, He is inviting you to do something that no other person can do for you. He is inviting you to come to Him and know Him personally and intimately in a faith relationship. He has made this possible because He is the Bread of Life and has given His flesh for the life of the world. And He is inviting all of us to come and receive Him as such.

If you never have before, I pray that you would come to see the Lord Jesus Christ as the all-satisfying Bread of Life that has come down from heaven to give Himself for the life of the world. I pray that you would see Him as the satisfaction of your every longing, and know Him as Your Lord and Savior. And for those of us who have come to know Him in this way, I pray that day in and day out we would grow in our understanding and experience of being in Him, and He in us, until the day comes when He raises us up to life everlasting.

Appendix

Believers in Christ are often mistaken about what this passage is teaching. Because we are accustomed to observing the Lord’s Supper, in which we refer to the bread as a symbol of the body of Christ and the cup as a symbol of His blood, we are quick to assume that Jesus is speaking of the same thing here. Thus, we understand His words to mean something like, “He who receives the Lord’s Supper has eternal life and I will raise Him up on the last day.” This is most certainly NOT what Jesus is saying, and we know that for several reasons. Most simply, we can know that Jesus did not refer to the Lord’s Supper here, because the Lord’s Supper had not been instituted yet. How could He be telling them that their eternal life was conditioned upon something that did not yet exist? As it was, He was telling them that their eternal life was conditioned upon their response to Him – He is the Bread of Life – and their faith in the promise He was making to give His flesh for the life of the world. Additionally, Jesus was addressing unbelievers here, whereas the Lord’s Supper is something to observed only by believers. To say that the Lord’s Supper offers eternal life to those who partake of is nonsensical when only those who already possess eternal life are welcomed to receive it (see 1 Cor 11:23ff, et al.). Thirdly, the eating and drinking that Jesus speaks of here is something that leads to eternal life, and we know that there are no works that can be done, no rituals that can be performed, that can merit salvation, for it is a free gift of God’s grace received only by faith (Eph 2:8-10). Finally, the Greek word that Jesus uses here for “flesh” is the word sarx, which is not the same word that is used more commonly in reference to the Lord’s Supper, soma (translated “body”).

As pointed out in the main body of the foregoing message, the key to understanding Jesus’ words lies in a comparison of verses 54 and 40. In verse 54, Jesus says, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Previously, in verse 40, He had said, “For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.” So, in both verses, Jesus is saying that ___________ leads to eternal life and being raised up on the last day. In verse 40, we can fill that blank in with “beholding and believing in the Son”, while in verse 54, we can fill in the blank with “eating His flesh and drinking His blood.” Thus, it appears that verse 54 is saying metaphorically what verse 40 was saying literally. To eat the flesh of Christ and drink His blood is to behold Him and believe in Him as Savior and Lord.

Thus, the words of Jesus do not point to the Lord’s Supper here, though these words and the Lord’s Supper are both pointing to the same ultimate reality. Jesus’ words are pointing to the reality that He is the sacrificial substitute who, as the Bread of Life, gives His flesh for the life of the world. The Lord’s Supper points to the same reality. So, as Carson says, “None of this means there is no allusion in these verses to the Lord’s table. But such allusions as exist prompt the thoughtful reader to look behind the eucharist, to that to which the eucharist itself points. In other words, eucharistic allusions are set in the broader framework of Jesus’ saving work, in particular His cross-work. … In short, John 6 does not directly speak of the eucharist; it does expose the true meaning of the Lord’s supper as clearly as any passage in Scripture.”[3]




[1] David Calhoun, Lecture transcript “The Persecutions: The Martyrs Who Lived” from course Ancient and Medieval Church History, Covenant Theological Seminary. http://www.covenantseminary.edu/media/pdf/ CH310_T_031.pdf. Accessed April 19, 2013.
[2] http://cspinet.org/new/200704171.html; http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2010/12/dannon-pays-21-million-for-yogurt-dairy-drink-claims/#.UXHGGbWmgYs. Accessed April 19, 2013.
[3] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991),297-298.

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