(Part 1 of a series – my thoughts on some of the unusual ways that Jesus describes Himself. I have not researched how theologians think about these passages, but their influence may appear implicitly nevertheless since I have attended church for years, heard a lot of preaching, and read a lot. If a citation is needed, I’m happy to insert it and will do so honestly if I am aware one is needed.)
“I am the bread of life,” Jesus told them. “No one who comes to me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in me will ever be thirsty again.” John 6:35
This verse comes on the heels of a major miracle described in John 6, commonly referred to as the feeding of the five thousand (though v.10 indicates there were 5000 men, so there very well may have been even more people in total). Armed with no food of their own and not nearly enough money to purchase enough food to feed everybody, Jesus’ disciples gather a small amount of bread and fish from a boy in the crowd. He thanks God and distributes the food to the crowd. Remarkably, not only is there enough food to feed everybody “as much as they wanted” (v.11), but there is enough left over to fill 12 baskets. The leftovers alone exceeded the original quantity!
To live, one needs sustenance. Bread represents sustenance. Without food as sustenance, life is not possible. What does sustenance do for us? It gives us energy and vitality, it allows us to function, and if we have gone without it for some time it provides renewal and refreshment. The word for “life” used in the Greek is the word used to describe one’s spiritual existence (eg. the same word used when Jesus is speaking of eternal life). So Jesus is the sustenance for our spiritual living. Without Him, we cannot have spiritual life. He gives us energy to function for his kingdom’s purposes, vitality so that our work is efficacious, and spiritual renewal when the burdens of life and oppression of evil bear down on us.
The only way that Jesus can provide this kind of life is if He is God. In v. 38 He says “I have come down from heaven”, a reference to Exodus 16:4 where God says to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you.” The bread mentioned in Exodus is the manna, mysterious food that appeared every morning and sustained the Israelites for 40 years while they wandered in the desert after leaving Egypt. But such bread, even from God, did not give the Israelites life – nor was it intended to. The people needed physical sustenance, and God provided it for them.
In John 6, the crowd again needed physical sustenance, and Jesus provided it for them. The miracles in the Bible are never done frivolously, but are always done with a spiritual purpose. In Exodus, God was proving Himself to His people, a people who had not heard from Him in centuries. God was proving that He would sustain them and that He was what they needed. In John, Jesus builds upon that miracle with another miracle, followed by a message: this bread you have eaten is temporary and you will hunger physically again, but if you come to me (Jesus) for spiritual sustenance then you will never hunger for it again (v.27).
Later, in verse 10:10b Jesus says, “I have come that they may have life, and have it in abundance.” While bread (in the modern era) may seem like the bare minimum we need to be satiated, perhaps even boring, bread as a generic term can include all things from loaves of bread for dipping or making sandwiches to cereal, cakes, cookies, muffins, cupcakes, brownies, tortillas and taco shells, crackers, and even pasta. What an exciting and diverse selection! Bread crumbs can even be used to revitalize other types of food, like breading on chicken or fish, or crushed crackers on a casserole. Bread lends itself to an abundance of preparation modes, and keeps our meals interesting and engaging.
Similarly, the spiritual sustenance given by Christ to our spiritual lives is not a one-note “bare minimum” kind of support, just enough to keep us going. The bread of life that Jesus provides is exciting and engaging – exceeding the minimum and filling us to the max (we will “never be hungry [or] thirsty again”). Jesus doesn’t just restore our lives, but renews it. Think ‘rejuvenation’ and ‘replenishment’, exceeding what we barely need and being capable of overflowing into all parts of our lives.
Just as bread can be introduced into any meal of the day in different and interesting ways, wherever in our lives we allow the spiritual sustenance of Christ to enter we will find that part of our lives rejuvenated and replenished and renewed for the work for the kingdom of God. If we have a skill or passion and allow Christ’s heavenly bread to build it up, those skills and passions can be used to build up God’s kingdom on this earth. If we have a sin in our lives that we struggle with, allowing Christ’s heavenly bread into that part of ourselves can give us the strength to overcome that sin which cannot be found in ourselves alone. In any way that we might feel dead inside due to past pains or mistakes, Christ’s heavenly bread brings new life and growth by grace and forgiveness.
Jesus Christ, the bread of living, doesn’t simply sustain – He renews.