Sunday, August 26, 2012

God with Us (The Absence of the Ascension Report in Matthew) [Matthew 28.18-20] (1 May 2011)

The saying goes, “One must not lose sight of the forest for the trees.” Perhaps holds true for me, someone who likes to zoom in and analyze parts of scripture. But there are times when one must zoom out and take in and understand the big picture.

If you read the four Gospels carefully, trying to read as though this were the first time you were reading this wonderful story of Jesus, you will realize that the four Gospels are quite different from each other. In Mark, for example, Jesus’ manner of speaking is abrupt while in the other three Gospels Jesus often speaks at great length. Only John records the raising of Lazarus, surely one of the most remarkable of Jesus’ signs. Only Luke tells us that Jesus met two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

Today let us consider one way in which the Gospel according to Matthew is different from the others. This is no academic exercise, but an exploration of Matthew’s purpose. So do bear with me. Mark ends his Gospel in 16.8 with no human having seen the resurrected Jesus. Luke explicitly tells us about Jesus’ ascension, while John, having dotted his Gospel with indications that Jesus would return to the Father, ends the Gospel with talk about Jesus’ coming back, which obviously implies Jesus has gone.

Matthew, however, has nothing of the sort. You can search all you want but you will not find a clear reference to the ascension. And at the end, Jesus is still speaking to the disciples.

Why? Why would Matthew miss such an important event? We Christians wait for Jesus to return, which implies he has gone. Why has Matthew not mentioned or even alluded to this remarkable event?

Those who would like to ridicule the bible would speak of contradictions in the Gospels. And even Christians sometimes try to iron out the differences. But these are not contradictions. They are differences of perspective indicating different purposes. 

Just recently a book was published about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Whatever your take on it, would you expect it to be the same as previously written books? Just suggesting that is bizarre. Every book written on any person would be different if the writing were done honestly. It is when we are dishonest with the facts that we end up regurgitating what we have seen elsewhere.

John tells us in his Gospel that he has not written everything he could have written. This is not simply a statement of fact, but recognition of the limits of the very human process of writing about another human. We cannot write everything about a person. We have to pick and choose. And we pick and choose according to our purposes, according to our agendas.

And so we understand Matthew’s Gospel better not just by paying attention to what is contains, but also by trying to answer the question, “Why did he not include this?”

So why did he not mention the ascension? Why does Matthew end with no indication that Jesus was taken up? In order to understand, let us travel back through the Gospel. We will halt briefly at key places where Matthew differs from the other Gospels, either by including something that the others exclude or vice versa.

Our first pit stop is in the upper room during the Last Supper. John’s account is so remarkably different that comparison is pointless. But Mark and Luke give accounts that are very close to the one Matthew gives. But Matthew and Mark do not say that Jesus told us to eat the bread and drink the wine as a remembrance. Did Matthew not know that Jesus said this? Unlikely! Paul’s writings, easily the earliest of the New Testament writings already tell us that Jesus mentioned remembrance. So Matthew has chosen to exclude this. Something about his purpose precluded the inclusion of the command to remember Jesus while participating at the Lord’s Table.

Our next halt is in chapter 18, where Jesus is telling his disciples about church discipline. He says, “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven. Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three are assembled in my name, I am there among them.” The other three Gospels do not include this passage on church discipline. Only Matthew has included it and we know that this passage has been misused and abused in church history by those who clamor after power. The possibility of misuse and abuse is evident even on a single reading. Despite this Matthew includes the passage that the other Gospel writers chose to omit. Something about his purpose must have indicated that this passage should been included.

Our trip back through Matthew’s Gospel takes us to Caesarea Philippi. Matthew, Mark and Luke report this incident. However, Matthew includes something that both Mark and Luke choose not to. Between Peter’s confession and the first time Jesus foretells his death, Matthew introduces the idea of the church. There Jesus says, “I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Matthew’s Gospel is the only one that speaks about the church directly. The two passages we just mentioned are where Matthew reports that Jesus spoke about the church. Were it not for these two passages, we would not have known that Jesus spoke about the church. The fact that Matthew has included both these passages indicates that he considered the church to be central to Jesus’ mission.

And so we must necessarily ask ourselves, “What does this word evkklhsi,a, normally translated with the word ‘church’, mean?” Why, for instance, does Luke use it 23 times in Acts but not in his Gospel? Why does this word occur 114 times in the New Testament but in the Gospels only in these two passages?

It is clear from the rest of the New Testament that the early Christians made a distinction between a Jewish gathering, which they called synagogue, and a Christian gathering, which they called evkklhsi,a. VEkklhsi,a referred to the community formed by and centered around Jesus after his crucifixion and resurrection.

There is one more stop we need to make. And here we will understand why Matthew diverges from the other Gospels as we have seen. Mathew’s Gospel is known for its scripture fulfillment passages. The first one we encounter is in the passage where the angel appears to Joseph in a dream. Matthew tells us that Jesus’ birth fulfills the Emmanuel prophecy. Jesus was to be God with us.

In the 1997 movie Air Force One is a remarkable clip that has gripped me because of the simple way in which it tells us a truth we have just touched on. So let us watch the clip.

“Liberty Two Four is changing call signs. Liberty Two Four in now Air Force One.” Did you get that? What happened? How did a simple refueling plane become the flagship? Did it suddenly become as luxurious as the original Air Force One that went down? Did it develop superior speed or range or greater maneuverability? “No”, to all of those. It remained the same in every way except one. The President had boarded the plane. And that made all the difference.

In the same way Matthew certainly knew that Jesus had ascended. However, recording the ascension would be tantamount to saying that Jesus was not with us. You see, both John and Luke, who report extensively about Jesus’ leaving the earth, can do so only because they also have reported strongly about the Holy Spirit. But Matthew does not do that. Rather, he reports that in Jesus God is with us. To now report that Jesus has ascended would upset his applecart and make his story empty. No! Matthew does not record the ascension because, in his version of the Gospel, Jesus is God with us.

And if you asked Matthew why he used evkklhsi,a in two places in his Gospel when he refers to the community formed by and centered around Jesus after his crucifixion and resurrection, he would say, “Once Jesus is in a community, it must change call signs. As soon as Jesus comes on board a simple gathering becomes the church.”

In other words, without Jesus we would be just another of millions of gatherings of humans. But with Jesus we are the church. When Jesus is with us we can no more be just a gathering or synagogue, but become an evkklhsi,a or church.

At the start of his Gospel, Matthew tells us that Jesus is God with us. And he punctuates his Gospel with that affirmation.

At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus tells his disciple that he would build his church. Even though he says that Peter is the rock on which the church is built, it is Jesus who does the building. Only someone who is actually around can do the building! You see for Matthew Jesus is not speaking metaphorically, but is claiming that in a very real manner it is he who builds the church because he is God with us.

In chapter 18 Matthew tells us that Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there in their midst” not because he is being fanciful but because for him Jesus is God with us.

At the Last Supper, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says nothing of remembering him because for Matthew Jesus is God with us. He is here now. You don’t remember someone who is in the room! And so he tells us nothing about remembrance.= because Jesus is God with us.

And Matthew ends his Gospel with Jesus telling his disciples, “I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” And only a pathetic storyteller would ruin all this buildup by including a report about the ascension.

All of this leads us to a remarkable conclusion. For Matthew Jesus is not just God with us. Rather, for Matthew the church exists because Jesus is God with us.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Mission Accomplished [John 19.30] (22 April 2011)

The four Gospels do not give us the same perspective or provide the same information about the moments leading to Jesus’ death. Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus cried out loudly and then breathed his last. Luke tells us that he gave his Spirit to the Father. John, however, tells us that Jesus said, “It is finished” before yielding up his life.

“It is finished.” By itself, quite an ambiguous statement. What does the word “it” refer to? What exactly has been finished? And as soon as we have answered that another question crops up: What does the word “finish” mean?

Is Jesus saying, “The wine is over?” Or is he saying, “My life is finished, my body is now broken, my spirit is crushed.” V. 30, by itself is a verse without hope. For Jesus could well be saying, “My hopes are now done for, they are finished, there is nothing to look forward to, God has abandoned me. I had hoped he would come to my rescue, but he hasn’t. And so there’s nothing more to do than die. It is finished.” If we take v. 30 by itself, we have no way of refuting these claims. V. 30, by itself, would seem to be the final statement of a gory defeat.

But we do not have only v. 30! Thank God for that! And we have in John an artist, a wordsmith who knows how to direct our attention where it needs to go simply by his choice of words. Many of you may have heard that the Greek word Jesus uses here is “tetele,stai” and that it is used only here and in v. 28. We must, however, consider two things. First, Jesus probably spoke only Aramaic and Hebrew, not Greek. So “tetele,stai” is John’s choice rather than a recollection of what Jesus had said. Second, to say that the word is used only here and in v. 28 is misleading. Would we consider “complete”, “to complete”, “completing”, “has completed”, “to be complete”, “has been completed”, and “completion” different? No! They are different forms of the same word, that would function differently in different sentences. In the same way, the root “tele,” is used as a verb, noun, adverb, adjective and participle no fewer than 90 times in the New Testament and 8 times in John’s Gospel.

Once we divest ourselves of the assumption that one particular form of the word, in this case “tetele,stai”, carries meaning, we open ourselves up to what John is telling us. For now we can answer the initial questions: “What does ‘it’ refer to?” and “What does ‘finish’ mean?”

There are two groups of words which the Gospels use to convey the ideas of fulfilment or completion. One is words with the root “plhro,” which the other Gospels use when talking about fulfilment of scripture. John also follows this practice, with one exception, here in v. 28 where, while mentioning scripture, he uses the second word. The second is the group of words we have here, with the “tele,” root, which the other three Gospels mainly use for phrases like “when Jesus finished talking” or “then comes the end”. In other words, they use it in a matter of fact way.

But John uses the words in the “tele,” group differently. Let us consider the uses other than “tetele,stai” in vv. 28, 30. The first time he uses it is in 4.34 where Jesus tells his disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” Then in 5.36 Jesus again says, “The works that the Father has given me to complete testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.” In his prayer in 17.4 he says, “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.” Again in his prayer in 17.23, while praying for us he prays, “that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me.” And finally here in v. 28 John tells us that Jesus said, “I thirst” “in order to fulfill scripture.” Since this last use is the exception we saw earlier, let us look at the other instances.

“My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.” 
“The works that the Father has given me to complete testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.”
“I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.”
“That they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me.”

Each of these instances of a word from the “tele,” group links the word to the task the Father had given Jesus. They are all about Jesus completing the commission he had received from his Father.

So, according to John, when Jesus says, “It is finished” or “It has been completed” he is saying that he has completed the task for which his Father had sent him. And that task is not limited to what happened on the cross. To the contrary, his entire life was one which involved completion of his Father’s commission. And we can now see that the exception in v. 28 points not to a simple fulfilment of one verse of scripture. Rather, John is telling us that in Jesus’ death even his fulfilment of scripture is complete. 

You see, we make the grave mistake of thinking that Jesus’ only work was dying on the cross for us. That is important, critical, and absolutely necessary. But Jesus’ work was much more than that. We focus on the forgiveness of our sins because we are self centred. We want to know only how this man’s death benefits us. This is revealed in many of our catechisms. Indeed none of our creeds mention anything between his birth and his suffering under Pilate – an omission of 78 of the 89 chapters in the Gospels! Would we even be interested in this remarkable man were it not for the fact that his death benefits us?

Some preachers have gone even further and drawn up formulas for why Jesus had to be on the cross for a specific amount of time and that Jesus died only after he had paid for each and every sin I and you have ever committed or will ever commit. We make a fetish of the cross when we do this. Jesus’ obedience to the point of death is what is important and crucial. The time of day and the duration of his sufferings, do not really count. He could have said “it is finished” after fifteen minutes or fifteen hours. He could have said “it is finished” at noon or at sundown. As soon as the nails were driven in, as soon as backing out was an impossibility, he could have said, “it is finished”.

You see, according to John, when Jesus says “it is finished” what is at the front of his mind is obedience to his Father. Forgiveness of our sins, so important and crucial to us, and central to John, was like a corollary for Jesus. Its truth, important though it is for us, is only of secondary and derived importance. For John, the axiom, the unquestionable, irrefutable truth, the solid foundation on which that corollary rests, was his obedience.

Because, you see, it is not just the fact of ending up on the cross that is important. Two others managed to do it the very same day and place as Jesus. Getting crucified was not a big deal really. The Jewish historian Josephus reports that during the reign of Augustus many thousands of Jews were crucified in the Palestine region. No, it was not the fact of crucifixion that was important. Rather, it was the road that led Jesus there that was the important factor.

You see, Jesus ended on the cross not because he was a sinner, but precisely because he was not a sinner! He died precisely because he was obedient, precisely because he had done no wrong. He was obedient to the point of death on the cross. It was his obedience that put him there. You see, for John, the cross is not primarily about us and our sins. It is the crowning act of Jesus’ obedience to the Father for without that his death would have been empty – for him as well as for us. 

And so “it is finished” is not said to us, but to the Father. We can certainly draw out all the benefits that pour out for us from Jesus’ death. But for John “it is finished” is the completely obedient Son telling his Father, “I have obeyed you all my life. And it has put me here on this cross. I have obeyed you to the point of death. I am going to die now. Mission accomplished.”

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Being Human by Imitating Christ [Philippians 2.5-8] (8 April 2011)

Now don’t get me wrong, I really don’t care for the product, or for the advertisement itself. But the recent TV ad for luminous inverters and batteries makes an important point. If you don’t remember the ad, allow me to jog your memory. Sachin Tendullar is at the crease, taking strike, but he has in his hands a hockey stick. The tag line insists on there being a match. Sachin and his bat go together, just as Luminous inverters and Luminous batteries go together. A very valid point. Some things are meant to go together.

Paul says much the same thing in his letter to the Philippians. Before we read the scriptures, let me ask you some leading questions: “Would you reprimand a dog for not having feline traits?” “Would you ask a penguin to fly?” “Would you insist that a whale breathe through gills?” One does not ask the ridiculous. One asks only what can reasonably be expected.

To carry this further, if I were to go up to a dog and say, “You should be more like a cat!” or to a penguin and say, “You should fly like other birds” or to a whale and say, “You should breathe like fish do” I should be locked up well and good – and not simply for speaking to animals, but for asking the ridiculous. We can reasonably expect from a being only what is appropriate to the nature of that being.

I don’t know about you, but I’m inclined to think two things: First, Paul was not a stupid person, asking people to do things against their nature. Second, the scriptures are given to us so we may live in light of their instructions. And so we come to Paul’s words to the church at Philippi.

[Read Philippians 2.5-8]

Paul begins by saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” This should have been a key verse in St. Thomas à Kempis’ devotional work “The Imitation of Christ.” After all, that is exactly what Paul encourages. He wants us to imitate Christ. And so, the lack of a reference to this passage in a book titled “The Imitation of Christ” seems strange.

But if we go by the common interpretation of the passage, this exclusion is understandable. The common interpretation goes like this: Jesus was God, but did not think equality with God should be held on to. Rather, he emptied himself of his divine privileges and became human. He then humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death on the cross.

But this interpretation leads to two conclusions: First, if this is speaking of what Jesus did by virtue of being God, then it cannot apply to us! After all, you cannot ask a person who is not God to imitate a person who is God. It would be like asking a dog to meow! Second, if Paul expects us humans to imitate the divine Christ, he must have been off his rocker! Who but a madman would ask a person who is not God to imitate a person who is God?

This common interpretation reveals why Thomas à Kempis, though writing a book about imitating Christ, ignored the only passage in the New Testament that not only issues a direct call to such imitation, but also gives us a concrete example of what imitating Christ would look like. For à Kempis and many others, this passage is just not relevant for discipleship because it speaks of what someone who is God did. And we know that we are not God!

But as I said, I like to think Paul was not stupid and that the scriptures are given to us for our discipleship. So let us take a look again at the passage. Our critical verse is v.6. If we were to translate it word for word without bothering about it being proper English it would read: “Who in the form of God being, not something to be seized he considered to be equal with God.” Let me repeat: “Who in the form of God being, not something to be seized he considered to be equal with God.” That is horrible English so let us straighten it a bit to get: “Who, being in the form of God, considered equality with God was not something to be seized.”

Paul is drawing a contrast between Jesus and someone else, someone about whom it could be said, “Who, being in the form of God, considered equality with God was something to be seized.”

In Genesis we read about Adam, who was in the image of God. The words “image” and “form” are synonymous. And so we can say that Adam was in the form of God. But he did consider equality with God was something to be seized. And so he took what God had forbidden. He wanted to be equal with God. After all, that is precisely what the snake promises. But that was the way to death. And so elsewhere Paul says, “As in Adam all die.” That is, if we follow Adam’s example, we follow the trail that leads to death.

And to understand what Paul says about Jesus next, we need to turn to Psalm 8.4-6 where the Psalmist asks, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them; mortals that you care for them? Yet, you made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.” The Psalmist has a lofty view of human beings. They are only just below God himself. Great though Adam’s fall was, this fact does not change. Human beings are still the stewards of God’s creation. They are still responsible for how they treat God’s creation. And unfortunately, they are still in a position to dominate creation.

But Paul tells us that Jesus emptied himself. Not of his divine prerogatives. That may be the case, but that is not Paul’s focus. Paul tells us that Jesus emptied himself of the prerogatives he has by virtue of being a human being. Jesus’ way recognizes that rule does not mean ruthlessness, that dominion does not imply domination.

When Paul says that Jesus took the form of a slave, it cannot refer to Jesus’ being born as a human, for humans are not slaves. Rather, it refers to his unflinching obedience to God. Though being a human, Jesus did not try to assert himself independently of God. You see, this makes sense because the only creatures who have asserted independence from God are humans! In fact, all of us have. Paul is telling us that Jesus, though being a human like all of us, chose instead to obey in the same manner as that in which a slave would obey – completely, totally, unreservedly, ungrudgingly.

And then Paul expresses a conundrum in the latter part of v.7. Jesus’ attitude was so strange for a human that many early Christians thought he had simply descended from heaven. Paul dispels this view by pointing to the fact that Jesus was born and that every interaction people had with Jesus showed that Jesus was truly human. His point is precisely to ward off thinking that would make Jesus’ divinity the reason for not following him. We cannot say, “Jesus is God. So he could do all of the things he did. I am not God. And so I cannot.” No! Paul will have nothing of that kind of thinking.

Paul, rather, insists that Jesus did all of this precisely because he understood what it means to be human. To be human is to obey God. Jesus obeyed God not because he was divinely empowered to do so. Rather, he obeyed God as a human being. Or more to the point, he obeyed God because he was a human being. Being human and obeying God go together just like Sachin and his bat!

For Paul, Jesus’ humbling himself and taking the form of a slave is not something extraordinary. No! For Paul humility and obedience to God are the quintessence of what it means to be human. Jesus’ obeying God is not to be viewed as some kind of aberration. Rather, our refusal to obey God is the aberration. Like Sachin trying to bat with a hockey stick.

Once we realize that Paul is not focusing on Jesus’ divinity but on his humanity, we can recover the purpose of this passage. Paul can only tell us humans, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” if he tells us humans about Jesus the man.

And Paul tells us about the man Jesus, who obeyed God so completely that he went all the way to the cross. We should not be morbid here and conclude that all of us should be nailed to crosses. That would be foolish. Paul is not making death or crucifixion compulsory when you imitate Jesus. But he does say that imitation of Jesus might lead to death.

As we move through this Lenten season and focus on the death of Jesus, it pays to ponder what the breaking point of our faith might be. How far will we go before we say, “No further”? At what point will our obedience waver? We all know that our obedience falters all too quickly. We all know that we capitulate with the slightest pressure. We know that we are more like Adam than Jesus, wanting to do our own thing rather than submitting daily to the will of our loving Father. And we might get discouraged. We might use our frailty as an excuse for seeing this passage as being relevant for us.

However, just as one does not ask a dog to behave like a cat, one also does not ask an obedient dog to obey! One does not command a diligent worker to work diligently. One does not exhort an honest labourer to labour honestly. The existence of a command presupposes the breaking of the command. In other words, Paul’s words, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” are addressed precisely to and for the benefit of those who do not yet have the mind of Christ. Precisely to those who habitually imitate Adam is given the call to imitate Christ.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sustenance for Life [John 6] (6 March 2011)

The Gospel of John ends with the words, “There are many other things that Jesus did. If every one of them were written down, I suppose the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” We could say that this is hyperbole or exaggeration or bring out all sorts of obscure grammatical terms. But at the bottom of it all is the statement of someone absolutely besotted by Jesus, someone who had experienced Jesus’ love and who in response grew to love Jesus deeply. For the writer you can see is being pulled in two ways: On the one hand by the desire to tell people about Jesus; on the other hand by the desire to tell it all. You can imagine this writer thinking, “Just one more thing, just one more thing” but then being stopped by the thought, “If I don’t finish this soon, no one will get to hear about my Jesus.”

And so it is with anyone who reads the Gospel of John. It is infectious, the passion of the author remarkably contagious. And within each episode of the Gospel we find layer upon layer, link upon link that draws us, in the words of C.S. Lewis in another context, “Further up and further in.”

And so it was with me as I was preparing for today. The question was not, “What can I say?” but “Where do I stop?” So I must make a disclaimer. I will be considering the passage from only one point of view, disregarding all the other contexts that draw us further up and further in. Fortunately, even this one context will draw us further up and further in.

Let us first recapitulate the backdrop of our passage. Chapter 6 of the Gospel begins with the only miracle – sign in the language of the fourth Gospel – that is recorded in all four Gospels – the feeding of the 5000. You all know the story. A large crowd had come to hear Jesus speak. And he spoke for a long time. And the people were growing hungry. So Jesus asked them to sit down. And starting with what he had – 5 barley loaves and 2 small fishes – he provided a meal for the crowd.

John in v. 14 tells the reader that the feeding of the 5000 was a miraculous sign. It never ceases to amaze me how some people try to debunk the miracles in the bible. Just recently, as I was preparing for today, I came across a website in which the person said that Jesus had hidden a lot of food in the tall grasses that grow in the region. Then he had the people sit down and then picked up the food he had hidden and began distributing it. This is ridiculous for two reasons.

First, it would indicate that Jesus knew before hand that he was going to feed a crowd. And that would indicate prescience – or in other words, a miracle in itself!

Second, it betrays the view of technologically advanced people to think that the possession of technology indicates the possession of wisdom. The people of the first century were not as gullible as we think. They may not have had cars and iPods, but in many ways they were probably wiser than we. If Jesus bent down to pick up loaves of bread, they would have eaten but not tried to make him a king!

But anyway, John tells us that feeding the 5000 was a sign. And we will take his word for it!

Then John tells us about the episode in which Jesus walks on the water. And finally we come to the passage for today. The people who were fed the previous day, have come looking for Jesus and they find him. There is a short exchange in which Jesus tells them that they have come not because they saw the sign, but because he filled their tummies. He then tells them to believe in the one whom God has sent. The people correctly understand that Jesus is referring to himself and so they ask him, “What miraculous sign will you perform, so that we may see it and believe you?”

Come again? When Jesus said that they had seen a miraculous sign, no one objected. They all accepted that they had seen a sign. Why then are they asking for a miraculous sign now? Jesus normally looks down upon the attitude of seeking for signs. Why then does he not do this here? And why does he not say, “I just performed a miraculous sign for you yesterday. How dare you ask for another sign?” In fact by responding the way he does, Jesus actually encourages their asking him for a sign.

So the questions we must ask ourselves are: Why was the feeding of the 5000 not enough of a sign? What exactly were the people expecting from Jesus? And how does Jesus meet their expectation?

The focus of the entire discussion between Jesus and the crowd is the provision of manna through Moses. So what were Moses’ raw materials? Nothing! All he had was a bunch of grouches according to the bible! We can understand. Don’t we also getting grouchy and irritable when hungry? And what did Moses do? He went to God who then provided the Israelites with manna. Moses did not so much as touch the stuff! Every morning the ground would be covered with the sweet white flakes.

Jesus, on the other hand, had raw materials. He had five small loaves and two fishes. While making food multiply is in no way a small thing, he did have something to work with. It was not a provision from out of thin air.

The provision of manna was one that referred back to God’s original act of creation in which he made something out of nothing. Jesus did nothing of the kind. Out of something, Jesus made more of the something! Impressive, but not conclusive. It was not simply a difference of quantity, but of quality.

What were the people expecting? In Deuteronomy 18.15, Moses says, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you.” This prediction of a prophet like Moses led to a saying common in the first century, “'As was the first Redeemer, so shall be the final Redeemer; as the first Redeemer caused the manna to fall from heaven, even so shall the second Redeemer cause the manna to fall.” The provision of manna was considered to be the non-negotiable in many quarters of Jewish thinking in the first century.

After the sign of feeding the 5000 the people wanted to enthrone or anoint Jesus as king. They were sort of convinced. Now they asked for the proof. Perhaps they were saying, “If you can multiply bread, maybe you can provide bread out of nothing!” They had seen a sign – the feeding of 5000. Now they were asking for the sign – bread from heaven.

How does Jesus respond? In quite an astounding manner to say the least. ‘I am the bread of life, the living bread, the true bread from heaven.’ I’m sure had I been there I would have been completely bowled over. What does it mean to say that a man is bread? The metaphor wrenches the listener apart. If you take it literally, as Jesus’ audience proceeds to do, you cannot help but be scandalized, for it would mean nothing short of cannibalism.

I feel sorry for Jesus’ audience. Had I been there I would have taken him literally and would have gotten scandalized. But the thing is, Jesus speaks the metaphor and immediately tells the audience how to interpret it. He says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never become thirsty.”

What is clear is that Jesus links the consumption of this bread with approaching him and believing in him. And a closer look at v. 35 reveals more of what Jesus had in mind.

The verbs ‘come’ and ‘believe’ in the phrases ‘whoever comes to me’ and ‘whoever believes in me’ have a form that indicates continuous or repeated action. So we could translate the verse as ‘whoever keeps coming to me will never be hungry and whoever keeps believing in me will never be thirsty.’

However, the words for ‘hungry’ and ‘thirsty’ differ in form. The first suggests a possibility that was averted while the second suggests a certainty that will be achieved. The first focuses on the past while the second focuses on the future. We could attempt to translate the verse as ‘whoever keeps coming to me would have, since the first instance, never been hungry and whoever keeps believing in me will never ever be thirsty.’

Jesus, in this one verse, covers the entire span of the life in Christ. From the moment a person first approaches Jesus to the undefined future, hunger and thirst are eliminated.

But here we must be careful. Jesus is not talking about having our stomachs filled and our throats wet! He makes this clear when he says, “Do not work for food that perishes.” Jesus is not stupid! He knows that many of his disciples will experience physical hunger and thirst.

He also demands a lot from his audience. He expects them to be steeped in their scriptures. He expects them to remember key elements from the Old Testament. He is alluding to that powerful passage in Isaiah 55 which begins with the themes of hunger and thirst. The prophet calls out, “Hey, all who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come! Buy and eat!” Later, through the prophet, God asks, “Why do you toil for that which does not satisfy?”

All of this, of course, begs the question, “What then does satisfy?” What can fill the deepest human need? What can quench our deepest longing?

Jesus gives the answer to these questions, but we need Isaiah to provide us with the lenses we must wear in order to see clearly what Jesus is saying. Through Isaiah God says, “My ways are higher than your ways.” That is, my solution to things will be something you will never be able to even dream of.

Isaiah talks about the rain watering the earth and accomplishing things. And he begins to draw an analogy. The rain is to the ground as God’s word is to…and then he is unable, unready, unprepared for God’s higher ways. And so he completes it with … God’s purposes.

But here Jesus completes the analogy. The ground will dry up and be unfruitful and fallow without rain just as humans will wither and be ever unsatisfied, crying out for more, yearning to be filled, craving for things, without him.

Through his higher, incomprehensible wisdom God has made us in such a way that we can only be satisfied by a person, his Son. 

John’s entire Gospel can be seen as an extended commentary on Isaiah 55, on the Word that comes from God to accomplish God’s purposes before returning to God.

The very nature of the purposes and the manner in which God accomplishes them reveal how incomprehensible his wisdom is to us were he not to reveal it to us.

And the purpose of God according to John’s Gospel and revealed in our text today is to satisfy the yearning of the parched human heart. Alienated from God, we yearn for something we are unable to comprehend or apprehend. And try as we might we cannot satisfy that need with the things of the world.

Only a relationship with the living God, through his Son Jesus, can satisfy us. Not a once and for all satisfaction. Like any living vibrant relationship this one must also be nurtured daily. We keep coming. We keep believing. While Jesus encompasses the entire Christian life from past to future in one remarkable verse, the Christian life is neither a past to be cherished nor a future to dream of but a present reality to be lived and experienced and enjoyed daily.

And so just as God daily gave the Israelites manna in the parched desert, so also God daily gives us the true bread from heaven, his Son Jesus.