Several thousand years ago, there was another (very unofficial) Bread Week. I want to tell you about it. It’s mostly going to be in my own words, so if you find yourself wondering, “Did Jesus really use contractions??” – well, that’s where I’m paraphrasing. 😉 Also, I mainly used John’s gospel account (chapter six, to be exact) as a framework and then did some research using J.W. McGarvey’s excellent commentary of the gospels: The Fourfold Gospel. I cannot highly recommend this book enough. So interesting and insightful and super well-researched – and it merges the four gospel accounts together. It’s a must-read!
O.K., a little background: Jesus had been performing miracles…telling a long-time invalid (38 years, to be exact) to get up and walk. The man walked. (John 5:1-9)
Jesus had touched many others, the gospel accounts tell us, and made them well from their various diseases; he had brought people back from the point of death (John 4:46-54). He was astounding the crowds and they started following him wherever he went, grasping for physical healing at the hands of this Jesus of Nazareth.
Now it was Passover time and Jesus took his disciples to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, up onto a mountain. This would have been after John the Baptist’s beheading and Jesus probably felt the need to spend time only with his closest friends in prayer.
The crowds continued to follow him, though. McGarvey notes: “Pilgrims on their way to the Passover would gladly go several miles out of their way to see the great Prophet perform a miracle. The excitement, due to the mission of the twelve and the death of the Baptist, also tended to swell the crowd.”
Jesus looked up and saw this huge crowd heading towards them. At some point when it was getting late in the day, the disciples started becoming concerned about the physical needs of the people. They were in a desert location – what would these people eat? Where would they all sleep? They advised Jesus to send the people away to neighboring villages to look for lodging and provisions. But he said, “They have no need to go away.” He had a plan.
He asked Philip, “Where are we going to buy bread for these people?” The Bible tells us that Jesus was testing Philip…he already knew what he was going to do to fix this problem. But would Philip depend on Jesus or fall back on worldly knowledge of supply and demand?
Philip did some quick calculations in his head and replied, “Two hundred denarii wouldn’t buy enough bread for each of them to get only a little of it.” And so it was that Philip’s very first thought was of a completely natural way to feed this crowd. Even though he had been witness to the supernatural workings of Jesus in the days before.
But then Andrew noticed a boy in the crowd with a picnic lunch of five barley loaves and two fish. He calls Jesus’ attention to this, but also notes that this is not nearly enough for so many people. (John tells us it was a crowd of 5,000 men. There were some women and children, too, but McGarvey thought it unlikely that many women and children would have traveled to such a remote location. They did not make up part of the 5,000 in number.)
It was only enough for a boy’s lunch – McGarvey says that these would have been small, thin loaves…maybe something akin to large crackers.
Jesus asked his disciples to tell the crowd to be seated in the grass, in groups of fifty or a hundred each. He wanted to be orderly and efficient about this. “By thus arranging them in orderly companies, Jesus accomplished several things. He saved his apostles much time and labor in distributing the food. He insured that each one should be fed, and that the reality of the miracle could not be questioned, and he ascertained definitely how many men were fed.” (McGarvey)
He took the five loaves from the boy, looked up to heaven, and gave thanks to the Father for it…then they distributed the bread to everyone. Same with the fish, “as much as they wanted.” (John 6:11)
And then Jesus requested that his disciples gather up the leftovers. They filled 12 baskets full. Twelve baskets…with only the leftovers. Everyone had their fill and there were still that many leftovers from a boy’s lunch of five barley loaves and two fish.
This miracle wasn’t lost on the crowd. They were certainly amazed and started calling him the Prophet – and Jesus realized that they “were about to come take him by force to make him king.” (John 6:15) So he stole away to hide in the mountain. It wasn’t in God’s plan for Jesus to become an earthly king.
The next day, the crowd tracked him down in the synagogue at Capernaum. He immediately calls them on it. “You’re looking for me because I fed you with bread.” He wants them to seek him for another reason, though. “Don’t work for the food that perishes, but for the food that leads to eternal life. I can give you that. God has set his seal on me.”
So they asked, “What are we supposed to do, to be doing the works of God?” (“They wished to know what to do in order to earn the abiding food; that is, by what works they might so please God as to obtain it. Humanity, in seeking to answer this question, has invented pilgrimages, penances, fasts, mutilations, and many other methods of self-punishment; not heeding the plain and decisive answer of Jesus.” –McGarvey)
“This is the work of God,” Jesus said. “Believe in him whom he has sent.”
But then they asked for signs (as if they hadn’t already seen miracles of healing and of multiplying bread and fish): “What sign do you do? What do you perform? Our fathers ate manna in the wilderness. Moses gave them bread from heaven to eat.” Here they were, questioning if this man was greater or less than Moses. They are supposing that Moses was greater. After all, “he” fed the Israelites for 40 years as they wandered in the wilderness. This Jesus only fed 5,000 men some bread and fish for one day.
“I’m telling you the truth – it wasn’t Moses who gave you bread from heaven…my Father gives you the True Bread from heaven. The bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
That sounded like some excellent bread – the crowd wanted to know how to get that bread. “Sir, give us this bread always.” Yesterday’s barley loaves had been miraculous, and they might have been having visions of free bread appearing each time they got hungry – for the rest of their lives. It would have been an exciting thought!
But of course, Jesus had something even better in mind, as he always does…
“It’s me. I’m the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me won’t hunger and whoever believes in me won’t ever thirst. But you’ve already seen what I can do – and you still don’t believe. The Father has given me the power to save you – whoever comes to me, I will never cast out. For I came down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And here it is…here’s the Father’s will: that I keep all of the power he has given me and raise it up on the last day. Because he wants everyone who looks on the Son and believes on him to have eternal life. I will raise him up on the last day.”
This statement caused some consternation among the crowd of Jews. They started grumbling to each other, “Isn’t this Jesus, the son of Joseph? We know his father and mother. How is he now saying, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”
At this point, we can know that these Jews are disbelieving. They’ve seen the signs and miracles of Jesus, but keep testing him and asking him for even more signs. And now they’re rudely murmuring against him.
But Jesus answered them. “Don’t grumble among yourselves. The Father draws people in before they can come to me. And I’ve told you – I’ll raise them up on the last day. I tell you the truth: whoever believes has eternal life. Remember? I’m the Bread of Life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they eventually died anyway. But this bread, the living bread, also came down from heaven, so that you can eat of it and not ever die. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The Jews were even more confused and about to get up in arms. “How can this man give us his own flesh to eat?”
They were still overlooking the main point. God had given his law “as a tutor” (Galatians 3:24) and then he sent his prophets to predict the coming of the Messiah. The Jews who had paid attention and learned these lessons were actually ready to receive Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. Many in this crowd of Jews were not.
McGarvey makes a good point about Jesus’ final sentence above: “He had declared himself to be the bread of life, but bread must be assimilated. The assimilation of natural bread requires eating, but Jesus, the spiritual bread, is assimilated by believing on him. But he was not then perfected as the bread of life. It was necessary that he should sacrifice himself for our sins before sins could be forgiven, and it was necessary for sins to be forgiven before men could have life with God. By his sacrifice on the cross he opened the fountain of forgiveness. By raising his humanity from the dead and by taking it with him in his ascension into heaven, he showed the results which men may expect to accrue to them by his death upon the cross.”
Jesus continues with the same train of thought – his flesh being the bread. “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day. Those people will live in me and I will live in them. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, whoever shares my flesh and blood, he will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven…it’s not like the bread your fathers ate. It’s better. Whoever eats this bread will live forever.”
What bread and drink is he referring to? Obviously, it’s a foreshadowing of the Lord’s Supper. But first, his body will have to be broken, like someone tears off a piece of bread. His blood will have to be spilled in order that we may partake. He talks of his upcoming death. And those Jews who didn’t believe, even those who had previously followed him, walked away after this conversation (John 6:66)
Jesus compared himself to bread – something that nourished and kept alive, but for a relatively short time. He offered them more – he offered a spiritual feast that would lead to eternal life. Some turned him down. Some will always turn him down. But then there are those of us who believe.
True belief in Jesus as the Bread of Life will change your trajectory. You’ll turn away from your sins; you’ll find yourself confessing that he’s the Son of God. You’ll be baptized to wash away your sins. You’ll want to know more about him. You’ll read; you’ll study; you’ll pray. You’ll live your life, constantly aware of grace and mercy…and eternally thankful to him who saved you. You’ll grow in love with your church family. You’ll commune with him and them each week over the Lord’s Supper. You’ll yearn for heaven, as you go about your work here on earth, spreading the good news of Jesus everywhere you go. And someday, you’ll be raised to meet him on that last day.
All because of belief in the Bread of Life. Now, that’s some game-changing bread.
P.S. For those who look at the gospel account above, see that it records Jesus as saying, “whoever believes has eternal life,” and then balks at that last paragraph that contains more information about salvation: I hear you. We have to remember, though, who he was talking to in this instance….it was a crowd of Jews who followed him and were interested in his miracles – but they didn’t really believe he was the Messiah. So that’s what he focused on. He knew they weren’t even able to move past the unbelief to truly follow him.
Also, let’s not separate this account from the rest of Jesus’ and the apostles’ teachings. Jesus had not been sacrificed on the cross yet, meaning the New Covenant was not in place while he was still alive. (The whole chapter of Hebrews 9, but especially verses 11-22, is helpful here.) After he was crucified and raised again on the third day, Luke follows up his gospel account with the book Acts of the Apostles. I recommend that as an in-depth study about salvation and the early church, which was now under the New Covenant.