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.