Tuesday, June 8, 2021

The Bread of Life (Notes on John 6:26-58)

Jesus is speaking to the crowd that has been following him back and forth across the Sea of Galilee. He has recently fed 5,000 of them miraculously in the Golan Heights and encounters them again in Capernaum. Not knowing that he got there by walking on water, they ask, "Rabbi, when camest thou hither?"

[26] Jesus answered them and said, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled.

This seems unfair. These people had already been following Jesus around for some time before he fed them, and many of them very likely came from as far away as Jerusalem. We are told that originally they "followed him, because they saw his miracles which he did on them that were diseased" (John 6:2; emphasis mine) and it seems unlikely that their motivation changed after the feeding of the 5,000. If they just wanted bread, surely there were easier ways of getting it than following Jesus around, over seas and up mountains, in the hope that he would happen to work that particular miracle.

What did Jesus mean to convey by making what, taken literally, is an unjust accusation? I suppose his purpose was to make the people ask themselves why they were following Jesus around. They started following him after seeing him effect paranormal healings, but why? It seems unlikely that any of them literally thought, "This guy can heal the sick; I bet he can produce food out of thin air, too!" but perhaps they were thinking something like that. Perhaps some were sick and wanted to be healed. Perhaps some had sick relatives or friends and wanted them to be healed. Perhaps others, seeing that Jesus had preternatural powers, hoped that he would be able to grant them some other material benefit. They were interested in the miracle-worker, not because the miracles were evidence of his divinity, but because they hoped to be the beneficiaries of some particular miracle. In essence, Jesus is asking whether their following of him is disinterested.

How many of us do follow Jesus disinterestedly, at least in the beginning? Don't people generally turn to God because of some urgent need? Not in my own case, I think. I was quite happy as an atheist and have embraced Christianity only because I find it interesting and true. Oddly, I feel a little bad about saying that, as if it could only be a pose, as if I must really have some deep need that I am ashamed to admit. Or, if it is true, how dare I not need religion? How dare I take up Christianity as if it were geometry or something? Blessed are they that do hunger and thirst! Nevertheless, here I am, with such motives as I have. God knows if they deserve credit or blame.

[27] Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed."

As always in the King James Version, meat means "food," not specifically animal flesh. No material benefit lasts and is thus not worth working for; only eternal life is of ultimate consequence. This may also prefigure the references to manna which follow, as manna was proverbially perishable.

The "son of man" is, as usual, spoken of in the third person, but Jesus makes it fairly clear later in this chapter that he is referring to himself: "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life" (vv. 53-54).

This is the only occurrence of the phrase "God the Father" in the Gospels.

What is meant by the statement that God has "sealed" the Son of Man? There are no other references to people being "sealed" in the Gospels or in the Old Testament, though the expression does occur in some of the Epistles of Paul and, most famously, in the Revelation of John. (In Mormon usage, sealing refers to ceremonially making familial or spousal relationships permanent, but it is hard to read the Bible as using the word in that sense.)

Paul writes that Abraham "received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised" (Rom. 4:9). Apparently this means that circumcision was outward or visible sign "certifying" Abraham as faithful and righteous, just as an official seal serves to certify the validity of a legal document. Elsewhere, Paul writes "Am I am not an apostle? am I not free? have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? are not ye my work in the Lord? If I be not an apostle unto others, yet doubtless I am to you: for the seal of mine apostleship are ye in the Lord" (1 Cor. 1:9). Again, seal seems to refer to a sign or certification. Paul's status as an apostle is disputed, but the Christians of Corinth -- apparently taught and led by Paul -- are living proof that his claim to the title is legitimate. In both of these instances, seal seems to mean something like "visible proof."

Elsewhere, Paul speaks of God sealing people, coming closer to the language of Jesus: "Now he which stablisheth us with you in Christ, and hath anointed us, is God; Who hath also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts" (2 Cor. 1:21-22). The meaning of sealed is not entirely clear here, but "marked us as his own" (as if with his signet ring) seems a probable reading.

This connection between sealing and the "earnest of the Spirit" (earnest meaning something like "down payment" or "security deposit") occurs again in Ephesians. "Christ . . . in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, Which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory" (Eph. 1:12-14). "And grieve not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption" (Eph. 4:30). These passages suggest that when 2 Cor. says "sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit," the meaning is "sealed us, that is to say, given the earnest of the Spirit." The expression "sealed unto the day of redemption" possibly alludes to Daniel: "But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end" (Dan. 12:4). However, if so, there must be some shift in meaning; Daniel is speaking of sealing a scroll (with sealing wax) so that it cannot be opened until "the time of the end," and it does not make much sense to apply that to a person. What Paul appears to be saying is that God has marked us as his own by putting his Spirit in our hearts, and that this is a sign that we will be saved in the end.

Finally, there is the famous sealing of the 144,000 in Revelation: "And I saw another angel ascending from the east, having the seal of the living God: and he cried with a loud voice to the four angels, to whom it was given to hurt the earth and the sea, Saying, 'Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees, till we have sealed the servants of our God in their foreheads'" (Rev. 7:2-3). The context suggests that seals are to mark the faithful, much as lamb's blood marked the doorposts of Moses' people, so that they may be spared the destruction about to be unleashed on the world.

If Paul and John of Patmos are any guide, then, Jesus likely means that God has marked him as his own, possibly (but not necessarily) in some way that would be visible to others. Given the context, in which Jesus seems to say that the people should have sought him simply because he worked miracles (rather than for the results of those miracles), it may be that Jesus' miracles are the "seal" referred to. By miraculously effecting physical healings and multiplying physical bread, Jesus demonstrated that he had the power of God and could therefore do far more significant things than that.

[28] Then said they unto him, "What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?"

[29] Jesus answered and said unto them, "This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent."

Jesus has just told the crowd to "labour . . . for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life" (v. 27). When they ask how they might "work the works of God," they are using the same Greek word -- which Thayer says "is opposite to inactivity or idleness."

Jesus answers that the work of God is to believe in Jesus. How is that work, though? We think of belief as the passive having-of-opinions, scarcely "opposite to inactivity or idleness." Real belief involves thinking, though, and that is work, as the painter Joshua Reynolds said in his 1784 address to the Royal Academy:

In the practice of art, as well as in morals, it is necessary to keep a watchful and jealous eye over ourselves; idleness, assuming the specious disguise of industry, will lull to sleep all suspicion of our want of an active exertion of strength. A provision of endless apparatus, a bustle of infinite enquiry and research, or even the mere mechanical labour of copying, may be employed, to evade and shuffle off real labour, -- the real labour of thinking.

(Ironic, isn't it, that I should present Reynolds's words here undigested, by means of "the mere mechanical labour of copying"!)

Jesus calls us to active, not passive, belief. (See Bruce Charlton's post on this subject.) That is the work of God.

[30] They said therefore unto him, "What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work? [31] Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'"

Wait, "What sign shewest thou?"? Seriously? Aren't they following him because they've already seen him work miraculous healings in Jerusalem and then magically feed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread? I wasn't exaggerating when I wrote (and the end of this post) that the Jews and Samaritans had a very specific set of expectations, above and beyond a generic demand for "miracles." The Prophet like unto Moses was supposed to "produce the omer of manna which our fathers ate, while in the wilderness, for forty years," and if Jesus couldn't do that, he wasn't the Prophet. Sure, sure, lots of nice miracles, very impressive, but where's the manna?

Manna was, as I have said, proverbially perishable, which was part of the point of this promised miracle. As a Samaritan high priest of the early 20th century put it, "When our ancestors, in the days when manna used to fall, would keep some of it till the morrow, it would become rotten and wormy. Therefore, it would be a proof none could deny if it should appear sound after this long interval and remain in its sound state."

The scripture they refer to about "bread from heaven" could be Nehemiah 9:15 or Psalm 105:40, both of which refer poetically to manna in that way. Real manna was not much like bread at all, but is described as being "like coriander seed, white" (Ex. 16: 31), "a small round thing, as small as the hoar frost on the ground" (Ex. 16:14). Various theories as to its identity exist, many of them involving insects.

[32] Then Jesus said unto them, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. [33] For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world."

[34] Then said they unto him, "Lord, evermore give us this bread."

Jesus is telling them that he's not going to do what Moses did, except in an ad hoc metaphorical sense. While he poetically appropriates the Messianic prophecies and draws some of his key metaphors from them (the good shepherd, for example), Jesus fundamentally offers new wine in new bottles and is not interested in shoehorning himself into a precast role. Those who seek to validate his mission by ticking fulfilled prophecies off a checklist are sure to be disappointed, and those who fight this disappointment will drift further and further from the path of intellectual honesty.

In the King James Version, Jesus seems to be saying clearly that the "bread of God" is a person ("he which cometh down"), implicitly himself, which makes the response ("give us this bread") sound stupid, but the original Greek does not imply that the bread is a person and can also be translated as "that which cometh down." The people's response shows that they still understand Jesus to be talking about some improved Manna 2.0 he's going to produce, not about himself. He hasn't dropped that bombshell yet.

What distinguishes the True Bread from mere manna is that the former "giveth life unto the world." Moses' manna gave life, or sustained it anyway, so the distinguishing feature seems to be that "unto the world" bit.

[35] And Jesus said unto them, "I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.

This clearly ties in to Jesus' statement to the Samaritan woman at the well, "whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life" (John 4:14).

In that earlier episode, Jesus never explains what this "living water" is, instead changing the subject and never returning to it. Here, he seems to say that "drinking of the water" Jesus gives means believing in Jesus himself, and that he himself is the living water, a title that apparently has the same significance as "bread of life."

Drink the living water, and it will become a well inside you; that's why you will never need water from an external source again. In the parable of the sower in Mark 4, "the sower soweth the word" (v. 14), symbolized as corn. Those who receive this corn do not eat it, though, but plant it in their hearts, where it grows up to "bring forth fruit, some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred" (v. 20). This directly parallels the water that becomes a wellspring in the one who receives it. In Mark, what is sown is "the word" -- which can mean either Jesus' teaching or (as in John 1) Jesus himself as the embodied Logos. Elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus says, "He that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth me" (John 13:20), but the Greek word translated as whomsoever does not necessarily refer to a person; whatsoever would also be a possible translation.

Those who truly receive Jesus do not merely accept him as an authority and give passive assent to his pronouncements. They do the work of believing -- the work of God. They internalize Jesus' word and thereby Jesus himself. They receive the Holy Ghost. Instead of merely eating the bread and drinking the water they are given, they create within themselves a field of corn and a well.

[36] But I said unto you, That ye also have seen me, and believe not.

As I have already noted, the Gospel is rather unclear on whether and to what extent these people did believe in Jesus. We are told that they started following him because of the miracles he worked, and Jesus accuses them of being after a free meal, hoping for a repeat performance of the feeding of the 5,000. They seem to view him as a religious authority, asking "What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?" -- but when Jesus answers that the work of God is to believe in him, Jesus, they say, "What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee?"

It is to this ("that we may see, and believe thee") that Jesus is perhaps responding here: "Ye have seen, and yet believe not." Although they have seen him work miracles, they still demand further signs -- some proof that will overwhelm them and make doubt impossible. They are passively waiting to be wowed. Although they "believe" in a sense, it is not the sort of belief Jesus is trying to elicit, the sort that -- precisely because it is active and not passive -- he called "the work of God."

[37] All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.

Jesus' followers are those who actively come to him -- and yet in the same breath, they are also described as being passively given to him by the Father. Both divine grace and the personal exercise of free will play a role. Choosing to follow Jesus is sufficient; no one who makes that choice will be rejected.

[38] For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. [39] And this is the Father's will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. [40] And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day."

I'm not why such emphasis is put on this distinction between Jesus' own will and that of the Father who sent him. Surely they want the same things?

The expression "the last day" is unique to this Gospel (with the exception of Nehemiah 8:18, where it refers to the last day of a seven-day feast), and the intended meaning is not obvious. Does it mean the end of the world? Each individual's dying day? Does it just mean "in the end," a generic way of referring to the final result?

Most of the "last day" references are here, in the Bread of Life discourse, but another prominent occurrence is in this dialogue between Jesus and Martha, in the lead-up to the raising of Lazarus (John 11:23-26):

[23] Jesus saith unto her, "Thy brother shall rise again."

[24] Martha saith unto him, "I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day."

[25] Jesus said unto her, "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: [26] And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?"

[27] She saith unto him, "Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world."

The most natural reading of this is that Martha misunderstood Jesus' first statement as a reference to the Jewish belief that the dead will be raised in the future, when the Messiah comes. (According to Acts 23, this was accepted by the Pharisees but not the Sadducees. Later it became a universal Jewish tenet and was included in the Jewish "creed" formulated by Maimonides.) This is reinforced when Jesus says, "I am the resurrection," and she replies, "Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ" -- the beginning of a dawning realization that Jesus is the Messiah, that this is the Messianic age, and that the resurrection of Lazarus can occur now.

But if "the last day" is used by Martha to mean the future Messianic age, and if Jesus corrects her and points out that their own time is the Messianic age, then what can the expression mean here, in John 6? Is this a reference to the "second coming" (a doctrine of which I am skeptical, and which I do not find clearly expressed in this Gospel) or to the end of the world?

Anyway, whatever time frame is intended by "at the last day," the thrust of this passage is that all those who believe in Jesus will be resurrected, because they have been "given" to him by the Father. I am not sure what exactly this "giving" refers to, or what the Father's role in this is.

[41] The Jews then murmured at him, because he said, "I am the bread which came down from heaven." [42] And they said, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? how is it then that he saith, 'I came down from heaven?'" 

 [43] Jesus therefore answered and said unto them, "Murmur not among yourselves. 

There is no hint of a virgin birth in the Fourth Gospel. Jesus is simply "the son of Joseph."

What is the answer to this question of the Jews'? If Jesus was born in the ordinary human way, why did he say he "came down from heaven"?

Well, if you accept the doctrine of the premortal life (as I do), then every human being is a spirit which came down from "heaven" to incarnate in a mortal body. Perhaps Jesus had gained access those premortal memories and remembered coming down from heaven.

Another possibility is that this has to do with John's statement that "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him" (John 1:32). If a Spirit from heaven came down and remained on Jesus, permanently, becoming part of him, then there was an aspect of him that came down from heaven rather than being born.

Jesus' only response to this is "Murmur not among yourselves," and then he goes right back to what he was saying, offering no answer at all to their question. He is being deliberately provocative here, saying things that sound impossible and refusing to explain himself. (This will become even more obvious shortly, when starts talking about cannibalism and alienates even many of his own followers!) The method appears to be akin to that of a Zen master, whose koans -- seemingly absurd riddles -- force the student to engage his own thinking and intuition rather than passively accepting the pronouncements of the teacher.

[44] No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day. [45] It is written in the prophets, 'And they shall be all taught of God.' Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me.

Again, no response to the "murmuring." Jesus picks right up where he had left off at the end of v. 40.

The quotation, attributed only to "the prophets," is apparently a paraphrase of Isaiah 54:13, "And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children." In both texts, the use of of in the King James is archaic and potentially confusing. The meaning is not "taught about God" but rather "taught by God." Similarly, "hath learned of the Father" means "has learned from the Father."

Those who come to Jesus have been "taught" to do so by God himself (perhaps because it is the divine spark within that responds to Jesus?). Therefore they have been "given" to Jesus by the Father, and Jesus cannot reject them.

[46] Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father.

This reads like an interpolation -- or rather two successive interpolations -- added to grind theological axes that were not Jesus' own.

[47] Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life. [48] I am that bread of life. [49] Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. [50] This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. [51] I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."

[52] The Jews therefore strove among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"

[53] Then Jesus said unto them, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. [54] Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. [55] For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.

The "bread of life" metaphor becomes more graphic and upsetting now, as Jesus tells people they must eat his flesh. When the Jews ask, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Jesus offers no explanation and makes no concession to their sensibilities, instead repeating the offending statement and adding that they must also drink his blood!

I don't have any deep insight at this point on the intended meaning of this symbolism. It's easy to say it refers to Communion, but that's not really an answer. What does the symbolism of Communion really mean? (Also note that there is no Last Supper in the Fourth Gospel.)

[56] He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.

If you eat and drink Jesus, then Jesus is in you -- but why are you also in Jesus? This has the same paradoxical nature as a couplet attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas (Saying 7):

Blessed is the lion which a man eats, making the lion human.
Cursed is the man which a lion eats, making the lion human.

If a man eats a lion, the lion becomes human, because the matter that had been part of a lion is now part of a man instead. If a lion eats a man, the lion also becomes human, because human matter is now incorporated into the body of the lion.

By the same logic, if you eat Jesus, you are transformed by incorporating Jesus into yourself, and Jesus is transformed by becoming part of you. (Or Jesus could eat you, of course -- but assuming Jesus is the "lion" of the Thomas saying, this Soviet-Russia version of Communion is to be avoided.)


[57] As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me. [58] This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever."

This seems to refer back to Jesus' earlier statement, "My food is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work" (John 4:34). Does "eating" Jesus just mean doing his will, then, and finishing his work? Certainly I think we are meant to connect these two passages, especially given the reference in vv. 38-40 to Jesus' doing the Father's will.


HomeStadter said...

In your response to your opening bit about Jesus accusing them of seeking bread:
They are expecting Jesus to be a new Moses, leading a new camp of Israel to victory. And of course, that would include logistics support - manna. I read his accusation as neatly popping that bubble, a way of saying, my kingdom is not of this world, I'm not going to do again what Moses did.
It touches on this again at the end of the sermon, which I haven't yet read your take, so apologies if you've already covered that point.

Bruce Charlton said...

Useful again - thanks.

The feeding of the five thousand echoes one of Elisha's miracles

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