John 6:35, 41-51
JOHN 6. BACKGROUND
“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will not be hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (v. 35). Jesus has just fed five thousand people (vv. 1-15), but the crowd failed to see the significance of the miracle and cared only for the free lunch. Jesus has offered to meet their deepest needs, but they cannot see beyond their bellies.
Jesus responded, “Most certainly I tell you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled. Don’t work for the food which perishes, but for the food which remains to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For God the Father has sealed him” (vv. 26-27).
The crowd asks, “What must we do, that we may work the works (plural) of God?” Jesus answers, “This is the work (singular) of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (vv. 28-29). The crowd asked how to fulfill the requirements of the law (“the works of God”), but Jesus responds with the simple requirement that they believe in him.
The crowd, sensing the radical nature of Jesus’ answer, asks Jesus to validate his claims. “What then do you do for a sign, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you do? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness. As it is written, ‘He gave them bread out of heaven to eat'” (vv. 30-31). While stating that Moses status was validated by his role in feeding the Israelites in the wilderness, they fail to acknowledge the fact that Jesus has just fed five thousand people, using only a schoolboy’s lunch.
Jesus corrects them. It was not Moses, but God, who gave the Israelites bread from heaven, “but my Father gives you the true bread out of heaven” (v. 32). Unlike the manna that sustained physical life only—for the Israelites only—and for a short time only—the bread of God “gives life to the world” (v. 33). The people respond, “Lord, always give us this bread” (v. 34).
JOHN 6:35. I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE
35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will not be hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
The crowd failed to understand when Jesus spoke of “the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world” (v. 33), so Jesus makes his meaning clear. “I am the bread of life,” he says (v. 35).
This is the first of a series of “I AM” (Greek: ego eimi) sayings in this Gospel that remind us of the burning bush story. When Moses asked God his name, God replied, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’ ” (Exodus 3:14). The phrase “I am,” therefore, became associated with God’s identity. “I am,” of course, can be simple self-identification, but in John’s Gospel it clearly means more. The “I AM” sayings in this Gospel are as follows:
• “Ego eimi he” (4:26)
• “Ego eimi the bread of life” (6:35).
• “Ego eimi the living bread” (6:51).
• “Ego eimi the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5).
• “Before Abraham came into existence, Ego eimi“ (8:58).
• “Ego eimi the sheep’s door” (10:7).
• “Ego eimi the door” (10:9).
• “Ego eimi the good shepherd” (10:11).
• “Ego eimi the resurrection and the life” (11:25).
• “Ego eimi the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6).
• “Ego eimi the true vine” (15:1).
These “I am” sayings show us the many facets of the Jesus-gift.
“He who comes to me will not be hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (v. 35b). In their forty-year trek through the wilderness, God fed the Israelites manna, teaching them to rely on God for their sustenance. The deeper lesson was “that man does not live by bread only, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of Yahweh” (Deuteronomy 8:3). Now Jesus makes a similar claim for himself. He will provide for the deepest needs of those who believe in him.
JOHN 6:41-42. THE JEWS MURMURED CONCERNING HIM
41The Jews therefore murmured (Greek:gonguzo) concerning him, because he said, “I am the bread which came down out of heaven.” 42They said, “Isn’t this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How then does he say, ‘I have come down out of heaven?'”
“The Jews therefore murmured (gonguzo) concerning him” (v. 41a). In this Gospel, the phrase, “the Jews,” most often refers to Judeans in opposition to Jesus (2:18 ff; 5:10 ff; 6:41 ff; 7:11 ff; 8:31 ff; 9:18 ff; 10:19 ff; 11:8, 54; 18:31 ff; 19:7ff; 20:19). However, in this story, Jesus is in Capernaum (6:24-25), so “the Jews” could be Galilean religious leaders.
They “murmured” (gonguzo) (v. 41a). This is the same word used in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) of the Israelites who complained about God’s apparent failure to provide adequately for them in the wilderness (Exodus. 15:24; 16:2, 7-17; Numbers 11:1). Given the mention of manna in this passage (v. 31), the parallel between those who complained about manna and these who complain about Jesus’ “bread of life” comment is clear. Jesus’ critics manifest the same lack of faith as the critics of Moses (and God) so many centuries earlier.
The Israelites were famous complainers, but they are hardly alone. We are all tempted to feel abandoned when life becomes difficult—and to challenge the scriptures and historical Christian beliefs when they run counter to popular culture—and to complain when God fails to meet our expectations.
“Isn’t this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” (v. 42a). Jesus is in Galilee—in the city of Capernaum, his home as an adult (Matthew 4:13). The local folks can hardly contain themselves when Jesus claims to be the “bread of life” (v. 35) who has “come down out of heaven” (v. 38). They know his father and mother (v. 42), and think of him as just another local boy—one with unusual promise if the tales told about him prove to be true—but a local boy nevertheless.
“How then does he say, ‘I have come down out of heaven?'” (v. 42b). These people can remember when Jesus moved from Nazareth to Capernaum. How can he claim to have “come down out of heaven” (vv. 38, 42)?
Some scholars accuse the Capernaum people of misquoting Jesus here, but these people have pieced together what Jesus said in verses 35 and 38 reasonably well.
We should not wonder that these people would question Jesus’ claims:
“A man who was merely a man
and said the sort of things Jesus said
wouldn’t be a great moral teacher.
He’d either be a lunatic—
on the level with a man who says he’s a poached egg—
or else he’d be the Devil of Hell.
You must make your choice.
Either this man was, and is, the Son of God,
or else a madman or something worse”
(C. S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity).
Paul speaks of the offense (Greek: skandalon—stumbling block) of the cross (Galatians 5:11), and the cross is surely a skandalon to anyone who expects God to behave in keeping with his stature. But the incarnation is also a skandalon—perhaps an even greater skandalon.
This Gospel leaves the nativity story to the Synoptics and, instead, tells us Jesus’ true origins in 1:1-18. He is only incidentally from Bethlehem and Nazareth and Capernaum, but is more fundamentally the Son of God from heaven. In their focus on what seems obvious about Jesus, these people miss that which is most significant about him.
JOHN 6:43-47. UNLESS THE FATHER DRAWS HIM
43Therefore Jesus answered them, “Don’t murmur among yourselves. 44No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up in the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who hears from the Father, and has learned, comes to me. 46Not that anyone has seen the Father, except he who is from God. He has seen the Father. 47Most certainly, I tell you, he who believes in me has eternal life.”
“Don’t murmur among yourselves” (v. 43). Jesus does not address the crowd’s complaints directly, but simply tells the people not to complain. Then he continues his discourse in an even more provocative tone—one that even his disciples find difficult to accept (vv. 60-66).
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (v. 44a). This fits with his earlier words, “All those whom the Father gives me will come to me” (v. 37a) to show that salvation depends on God’s initiative. In 12:32, Jesus will say, “I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”—but in 6:44 he says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” How can we reconcile the universal quality of 12:32 with the more selective quality of 6:44? Carson says that 12:32 refers to ‘all men without distinction’ (i.e. not just Jews) rather than to ‘all men without exception'” (Carson, 293).
This word, “draws,” has inspired debate between those representing Calvinist and Armenian theologies. The former, favoring predestination, emphasize the power of God to draw people to himself. The latter, favoring free will, emphasize the necessity of belief on the part of those drawn to God. Perhaps a middle position would be best—a position that acknowledges God’s initiative in drawing us to him—and the importance of our response.
Barclay notes that this word “draws” suggests resistance—the kind of resistance that a fisherman would experience drawing a net to the shore. God draws people to himself, but allows us to resist—and even to defeat his best efforts (Barclay, 226).
“and I will raise him up in the last day” (v. 44b). This is the great promise—and is the third of four instances in this discourse in which Jesus promises resurrection to believers (vv. 39, 40, 54).
“It is written in the prophets, ‘They will all be taught by God'” (v. 45a). The quotation paraphrases Isaiah 54:13, where the prophet assures the people of Jerusalem, newly returned from the Babylonian exile, that God will instruct their children (see also Jeremiah 31:31-34). Later in this Gospel, Jesus will tell his disciples that “the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and will remind you of all that I said to you” (14:26)—and that “when he, the Spirit of truth, has come, he will guide you into all truth” (16:13).
The word “all” is important. The time will come when the church will be open to Jews and Gentiles alike, but that time has not yet come. This verse gives these people a peek into that future—when “all” will be welcomed into God’s kingdom.
“Therefore everyone who hears from the Father, and has learned, comes to me” (v. 45b). Jesus states again the role of the Father’s initiative in the salvation enterprise. The operative principle is that “all will be taught by God” (v. 45a), and those who learn will come to Jesus (v. 45b).
“Not that anyone has seen the Father, except he who is from God. He has seen the Father” (v. 46). Exodus tells of Moses hiding his face, because he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3:6)—and being permitted to see God’s back but not God’s face (Exodus 33:22-23). Looking on God’s holiness is too much for mortals. It is different, however, for the Word, who was in the beginning with God, and was God (1:1). This “Word became flesh, and lived among us” (1:14) to make known the God whom no one else has ever seen (1:18).
“Most certainly, I tell you, he who believes in me has eternal life” (v. 47). Jesus has emphasized the role of the Father’s initiative in salvation (vv. 44-46), but now he emphasizes the role of the believer. Even though the Father draws (v. 44) and teaches (vv. 45-46), the drawing and teaching require a believing response.
The reward of belief is eternal life (v. 47). The believer has (present tense) eternal life. In this Gospel, eternal life is a quality of life that we possess in the present (3:36a) and will possess even more fully in the future. In his High Priestly Prayer, Jesus defines eternal life in terms of relationship with the Father and the Son: “This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ” (17:3). Eternal life is the opposite of eternal condemnation (3:14-18; 5:29) and includes the promise of life free from death (6:50-51; 10:28).
JOHN 6:48-51. I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE
48I am the bread of life. 49Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, that anyone may eat of it and not die. 51I am the living bread which came down out of heaven. If anyone eats (Greek: phage—aorist of esthio) of this bread, he will live forever. Yes, the bread which I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Greek: sarx).
Jesus reiterates, “I am the bread of life” (v. 48; see also v. 35), and contrasts this bread with the manna eaten by the Israelites in the wilderness (v. 49).
The people spoke of “our ancestors” in verse 31, but Jesus speaks of “your ancestors” (v. 49), drawing a distinction between himself and these people. The Israelites are Jesus’ ancestors too, because he is from the house of David. This Gospel, however, leaves such language to the Synoptics. Jesus’ emphasis here is that it is God who provides the bread of life.
“Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died” (v. 49). The manna sustained Israel for a while in the wilderness, but then they died. Because of their lack of faith, they died in the wilderness without ever seeing the Promised Land (Numbers 14:22-23).
“This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, that anyone may eat of it and not die” (v. 50). Jesus contrasts the bread that he offers, which leads to eternal life, with the bread of their ancestors, who died in the wilderness without having seen the Promised Land. The death that the Israelites experienced in the wilderness was physical death, but some rabbis thought that the ancient Israelites might have forfeited their hope of the life to come. Jesus promises that those who eat of the spiritual bread that he offers will never die.
“I am the living bread which came down out of heaven” (v. 51a). This “living bread” parallels the “living water” that Jesus offered the Samaritan woman (4:10).
“If anyone eats (phage) of this bread, he will live forever” (v. 51b). Phage is the aorist of esthio (to eat), and therefore represents an action that occurs and then stops. To eat of this bread, in this instance, is a metaphor for the once-for-all-time acceptance of Christ.
“Yes, the bread which I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (sarx) (v. 51c). This is sacrificial language—the gift of one’s flesh is the greatest and most personal of all sacrifices. In this instance, Jesus makes his sacrifice in behalf of the world—not just Israel (see also 3:16-17). His sacrifice is both voluntary and vicarious.
• The sacrificial language recalls John the Baptist’s earlier reference to Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29)—which, in turn, brings to mind the Passover lamb, sacrificed for the lives of the Israelites in Egypt (Exodus 11-12).
• It also recalls the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, who “bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).
The word, “flesh” (as compared with “body”) is earthy and provocative:
• “Flesh” (sarx), used in this verse, is more graphic than “body” (soma), which is used in the accounts of the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 10:16; 11:24). Some have concluded that “flesh” in this verse has no eucharistic overtones (Morris, 331-332), but I find that less than persuasive.
• Torah law prescribed that Israelites should eat the flesh only of clean animals, which the law defined in great detail (Leviticus 11:1-3). Any mention of eating flesh would immediately raise the issue of the ritual cleanliness of the flesh in question.
• At the time of the writing of this Gospel, the Gnostic movement, which considered flesh (and all physical matter) as evil, was a substantial threat to the church. This Gospel’s claim that “Word became flesh, and lived among us” (1:14) is intended, in part, to refute Gnosticism.
• However, in his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus said “That which is born of the flesh is flesh. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (3:6), emphasizing that physical birth must be succeeded by spiritual birth—and Jesus will also say, “It is the spirit who gives life. The flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and are life” (6:63).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Bruce, F. F., The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983).
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R. and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Carson, D. A., The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991).
Craddock, Fred R.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; and Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
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Hoyer, Robert J., Lectionary Bible Studies: The Year of Mark, Study Book
Lincoln, Andrew T., Black’s New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Saint John (London: Continuum, 2005)
Morris, Leon, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995).
O’Day, Gail R., The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995)
Sloyan, Gerald, “John,” Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988)
Smith, D. Moody, Jr., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: John (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999)
Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan