14. I Am the Bread of Life (John 6:22-71)

Audio (44:12)

James J. Tissot, 'The Gathering of the Manna' (1896-1903), gouache on board, 11-7/16
James J. Tissot, 'The Gathering of the Manna' (1896-1903), gouache on board, 11-7/16"x 9-5/16", The Jewish Museum, New York
Jesus has fed the five thousand, with twelve basketfuls of pieces left over. But in John's Gospel this is more than a miracle of compassion for people who are hungry. It is a "miraculous sign" (6:14), sēmeion, a sign that points people to see something beyond the miracle itself.

This miracle was a sign pointing to who Jesus is -- the Bread of Life that God has sent down to quench our spiritual hunger and give us Life.

In Lesson 13 we examined the Feeding of the 5,000. Now we look at the effect of this miracle on those who had witnessed it. As we'll see, their motives for pursuing Jesus weren't out of spiritual hunger, so much as physical hunger -- Jesus as a means to feed them physically.

Looking for Jesus for the Wrong Reasons (6:26)

"22  The next day the crowd that had stayed on the opposite shore of the lake realized that only one boat had been there, and that Jesus had not entered it with his disciples, but that they had gone away alone. 23  Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24  Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus. 25  When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, 'Rabbi, when did you get here?'" (6:21-25)


Galilee in Jesus' Time
Galilee in Jesus' Time, Larger map.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand appears to have occurred on a mountainside above the city of Bethsaida (Luke 9:10) in the area known today as the Golan Heights. They find Jesus across the top of the lake in Capernaum and ask how he got there. Jesus doesn't answer their question, but goes immediately to the real reason for their quest.

"Jesus answered, 'I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.'" (6:26)6)

There is a difference between faith in Jesus because his miracles point you to him and a desire to have someone meet your physical needs.

The Bread of Life Discourse (6:27-71)

This lesson contains Jesus' lengthy Bread of Life discourse, which can be divided into four general sections:

  1. Jesus, the True Manna (6:27-34)
  2. Jesus, the Bread of Life (6:35-51)
  3. Partaking of the Son of Man (6:52-59)
  4. Reactions to Jesus' Teaching (6:60-71)

But Jesus doesn't really use an outline. Rather this is a running dialog between Jesus and his hearers.

Food that Endures to Eternal Life (6:27)

"Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval." (6:27)

Food that spoils

Natural food

Food that endures to eternal life

Spiritual food

"Endures" is the common verb menō, "remain, stay," here, in the sense of "to continue to exist, remain, last, persist, continue to live."[12] It's the same verb that is key to Jesus' discourse on the Vine and the Branches -- the necessity for the branch retaining its connection to the vine -- "abide in me, and I in you" (15:4). Food that isn't eaten spoils. But spiritual food, Jesus says, lasts for, endures for (eis, "until") eternity.

You'll see several close parallels between the Bread of Life discourse and the Woman at the Well. Jesus is making the same point there as here.e.

"Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (4:13-14)

Living water quenching thirst eternally corresponds to bread of life satisfying spiritual hunger forever.

Jesus uses his title of the Heavenly Man -- "the Son of Man" -- in making this promise of enduring food.

"Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval." (6:27)

"Placed his seal of approval" (NIV), "set his seal" (NRSV, ESV), "sealed" (KJV) is sphragizō, "to mark with a seal as a means of identification, mark, seal."[13] When did this sealing take place? We're not told, but probably at Jesus' baptism, where the dove marked the presence of the Holy Spirit and the Father spoke words of authentication:

"You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." (Luke 3:22)

Or perhaps on the mount of transfiguration, God's words:

"This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!" (Matthew 17:5)

Q1. (John 6:26-27) Why were some of these "believers" following Jesus? What were their selfish motives? For what motives do true disciples seek Jesus?

The Work of God -- Believe (6:28-29)

Jesus has said:

"Do not work[14] for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life" (6:27)

So the crowd follows up on this idea of working. They wonder what kind of work is necessary to get this everlasting food?

"28 Then they asked him, 'What must we do to do the works God requires?'
29  Jesus answered, 'The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.'" (6:28-29)

The same verb, ergazomai, "to work" (verse 27) occurs in verse 28, along with its corresponding plural of the noun, ergon, "works."[15] The Jews were used to the idea of meritorious works that would bring them favor from God. What should we be doing? they ask naively, as if they can perfectly perform what God requires if they just know what it is. Jesus answers with one work -- faith, "to believe in the one he has sent" (6:29).

Paul says the same thing in different words as he combats "works righteousness" in his letter to the Galatian church.

"We know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ." (Galatians 2:16a)

Eternal life isn't earned; it is a gift, appropriated by faith -- as it simply says in John 3:16.

Q2. (John 6:28-29) What kind of "works" do people sometimes pursue to please God? According to Jesus, what is the most important "work" that God requires of us?

  Requiring another Miraculous Sign (6:30-31)

The crowd doesn't seem to have a clue. Jesus has performed many miraculous signs in their presence, most recently feeding 5,000 people.[16] But now they want Jesus to prove by still another sign that they should put their faith in him.

"30  So they asked him, 'What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31  Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: "He gave them bread from heaven to eat."'" (6:30-31)

Here's their reasoning -- faulty though it might be. Moses told us to expect another Prophet we should believe in (Deuteronomy 18:15-18). You want us to believe in you. Moses fed us with bread. So what miracle will you do to prove you're the Prophet?

The True Bread from Heaven (6:32-34)

First, Jesus corrects them. The verse they quoted doesn't say that Moses fed them, but that God fed them.

"32  Jesus said to them, 'I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33  For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.'
34  'Sir,' they said, 'from now on give us this bread.'" (6:32-34)

Jesus identifies himself as the "true bread" -- another use of John's style of using "true" to differentiate from the inferior. The true bread comes down from heaven (like the manna did), but it doesn't spoil quickly like manna did if it wasn't consumed immediately (Exodus 16:20). The true bread doesn't just give physical life, but eternal life.

The crowd responds, "Sir[17], give us this bread always" (6:34, NRSV), but as the dialogue continues, we see that they are too spiritually dull to understand what Jesus is talking about. The woman at the well had responded in similar fashion, "Sir, give me this water so that I won't get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water" (4:15). At that point she was as clueless as the crowd is here.

I Am the Bread of Life (6:35-36)

Jesus senses their unbelief.

"35  Then Jesus declared, 'I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. 36  But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe.'" (6:35-36)

Again, Jesus' words sound much like his promises of living water to the woman at the well (4:13-14). But they don't believe.

The "I AM" Passages

"Then Jesus declared, 'I am the bread of life.'" (John 6:35a)

This is the first of seven "I AM" passages in John, that include two Greek words egō eimi, "I am," together with a predicate or object.[18] "I am," of course, is a rather unveiled reference to the name by which God revealed himself to Moses as Yahweh -- "I AM THAT I AM" (Exodus 3:14).

In saying "I am" in this way, Jesus is declaring his divinity and oneness with the Father. It is no coincidence that John emphasizes Jesus' "I AM" statements. He wants his readers to believe in Jesus as the Son of God and have eternal life (20:31). See Appendix 4. The 'I Am' Passages in John's Gospel.

A Passage of Promises (6:37-40)

Now we enter a section of the Bread of Life discourse where Jesus speaks in terms that clearly suggest both predestination and the perseverance of the saints, two very controversial doctrines argued over by Calvinists and Arminians. First, let's look at Jesus' assertion that he won't lose any whom the Father sends him. After that, we'll consider the matter of predestination.

How does this idea fit here? Jesus has just offered tremendous promises to a spiritually dull, unbelieving crowd. But Jesus assures them -- and the readers -- that not all will disbelieve. There will be people the Father sends who will believe and will continue or abide in that faith in spite of the unbelief of this crowd. This isn't about the workers in the harvest! It is the Father's harvest and he will not fail to bring it in.

"37  All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. 38  For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. 39  And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. 40  For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." (6:37-40)

First, those whom the Father gives to Jesus will come to him (6:37a), a verse that strongly suggests predestination at work. We'll consider that when we look at 6:44 in a few moments.

Second, Jesus offers assurance. "Whoever comes to me I will never drive away" (6:37b). He is inviting people, not pushing them away.

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28)

Third, Jesus says he will "lose none" the Father has given (6:39), a promise of Jesus' power to protect his disciples. A similar verse, often quoted, follows the analogy of protecting sheep from theft, says, "no one can snatch them out of my hand" (10:28). We'll discuss the doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints when we discuss 10:28. For the moment, suffice it to say, we can have assurance that Jesus takes care of his own disciples as his charge from the Father. We can trust him to keep us.

Fourth, is a wonderful promise -- "Everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day" (6:40). What we must do is to look at Jesus as our Savior -- like Jesus' example of the bronze snake in the wilderness (6:14-15; Numbers 21:6-9). If we look with faith, we live!

Fifth, twice Jesus promises to raise believers from the dead at the Last Day. We're talking about resurrection. The Pharisees believed in it, but the Sadducees did not. What is bold and blasphemous (if it weren't true), is that Jesus here claims to be the one to personally raise believers from the dead. Such a claim must have angered Jesus' enemies no end.

What wonderful promises crammed into just four verses!

No One Can Come Unless the Father Draws Him (6:41-47)

Predictably, Jesus' enemies bristle because of his amazing claims. We know his parentage, they say. His claims to be the bread come down from heaven are preposterous!

"41  At this the Jews[19] began to grumble about him because he said, 'I am the bread that came down from heaven.' 42  They said, 'Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, "I came down from heaven"?'

43  'Stop grumbling among yourselves,' Jesus answered.

44  'No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day.

45  It is written in the Prophets: 'They will all be taught by God.' Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. 46  No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. 47  I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life." (6:41-47)

Jesus is recognizing that not everyone can see spiritual things. It is a gift from God (6:44). Certainly, his enemies are blind to who he is, even though they pour over the Scriptures (5:39). In the Synoptic Gospels following the Parable of the Sower, Jesus quotes Isaiah to indicate that the spiritual blindness of some is to be expected.

"You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
For this people's heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts and turn,
and I would heal them." (Matthew 13:14-15)

However, Jesus, says (quoting Isaiah 54:13), "They will all be taught of God" (6:45) Those who truly seek the Father will recognize Jesus as speaking God's truth -- and in believing Jesus they will find everlasting life.

Predestination and Prevenient Grace

We need to look carefully at three verses in Jesus' discourse on the Bread of Life that strongly indicate God's sovereignty.

"All that the Father gives me will come to me." (6:37a)

"No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws[20] him." (6:44a)

"No one can come to me unless the Father has enabled[21] him." (6:65b)

In certain corners of the evangelical movement there has been a long-standing insistence that anyone can come to Christ, based on the idea, "whosoever will may come." People must make a decision. They're responsible to respond with faith. It is up to them. That's one side of the coin. And, make no mistake, personal responsibility to obey God has plenty of backing in Scripture.

But the other side of the coin is that God is behind the scenes making it possible for us to come. The truth is that we are not free moral agents in a neutral world. There is an enemy who captures and ensnares many, who blinds the eyes of unbelievers (2 Corinthians 4:4). And there is the Holy Spirit who convicts and draws us (16:8). There is an ongoing spiritual battle for the souls of men and women.

This involves what followers of John Wesley call "prevenient grace" or "preceding grace," God's grace that comes before or precedes our human decision. It exists prior to and without reference to anything humans may have done. Calvinists follow St. Augustine who taught that prevenient grace cannot be resisted -- "irresistible grace," the I in the TULIP acronym of 5-point Calvinism. Wesleyan Arminians, on the other hand, believe that prevenient grace enables, but does not ensure, personal acceptance of the gift of salvation. 

This involves a whole series of arguments that I don't want to sidetrack us now -- I just wanted you to be aware of it. The bottom line is that God is at work in our salvation. Unless the Father draws you, according to 6:44, you won't (or can't) really come to Jesus with your heart. Be thankful! (Matthew 13:16-17).

How do I resolve this? I don't fully. It's a mystery we can't know fully this side of heaven. Our assurance comes from believing the strong promises of God's drawing and keeping. But our preaching comes from obedience to the command to preach the gospel to every creature, regardless of the response (Mark 16:15-16). If we aren't willing to work with that kind of passion, we might become like the hyper-Calvinist who responded to William Carey's passion to bring Christ's gospel to India -- "Young man, sit down; when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid and mine." We must be obedient to preach the gospel to all nations and leave the results to God. When we get to heaven the mystery will clear!

Q3. (John 6:37, 44, 65) What is the significance of Jesus' teaching that only the ones the Father "draws" to him can come to him? In what way does this sound like predestination? How does the Holy Spirit prepare people to put their faith in Christ?

The Bread of Life that Comes Down from Heaven (6:48-51a)

Now Jesus repeats his claim that he is the Bread of Life he had spoken of earlier (6:33, 35).

"48  I am the bread of life. 49  Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died.
50  But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. 51  I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever." (6:48-51a)

"Bread of Life" and "Living Bread" mean bread that brings life, just as "Living Water," in the spiritual sense, means water that brings life. It is not physical life that physical bread and water sustain that he is talking of here, but eternal life. Jesus contrasts himself to the manna that came down from heaven in the wilderness (Exodus 16:13-36). People ate the manna, but eventually died. But those who eat of the Living Bread will have eternal life.

Eat My Flesh (6:51b-52)

Notice that in 6:51b, Jesus switches metaphors, from eating bread that brings life to giving his literal, physical flesh -- that is, his body on the cross -- to bring life to the whole world, that is redeem it from sin.

"51b This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

52  Then the Jews[22] began to argue sharply among themselves, 'How can this man give us his flesh to eat?'" (6:48-52)

Their question about eating Jesus' flesh, has continued as a controversy to our day, since the following verses use language that reminds Christian readers of partaking of the Lord's Supper, Communion, the Eucharist.

"53 Jesus said to them, '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. 54Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. 57Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58  This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.'" (John 6:53-58)

Is Jesus Speaking of the Lord's Supper Here?

The big question is this: Is Jesus speaking about the Lord's Supper in this passage? His audience, remember, is primarily those he is trying to bring to faith in Christ, but John knew that Christians would read these words too -- and that they couldn't help but think of the Lord's Supper. What is Jesus saying here? Jesus has been going back and forth between three metaphors:

  1. Manna, "bread from heaven" (6:31-34, 38, 41-42, 49-50, 58)
  2. Bread of Life, that is, bread that brings about eternal life (6:35-42, 51, 58)
  3. Flesh and blood as "food" (6:51b-56)

These metaphors are related in that they all refer to eating and nourishing. These are the elements Jesus uses to weave a beautiful and powerful teaching on faith and eternal life. Of course, he is speaking spiritually here, not physically, following the tradition of Isaiah 55:1-2.

So what does the metaphorical language "eating" the "Bread of Life" mean?

  • verse 47: He who believes | has eternal life

  • verse 51a: If anyone eats of this (living) bread | he will live forever

It is quite clear that "believing in Jesus" corresponds to "eating the Bread of Life," since these are used as parallel statements in the same context and with the same result -- everlasting life. This theme weaves itself through this discourse, and is said first one way and then another throughout the passage (6:39-40, 47, 57, 63, etc.). St. Augustine put it this way: "For to believe on Him is to eat the living bread. He that believes eats; he is sated invisibly...."[23]

Q4. (John 6:35-51) What does the metaphor of "eating the Bread of Life" mean in practical terms? To extend the same metaphor, what do you think might be the difference between nibbling the Bread of Life rather than actually making a meal of it?

Flesh Given for the Life of the World (6:51b)

In verse 51b, Jesus now moves from the analogy of the Bread of Life to a new analogy: the sacrifice of his body on the cross. This is the transition verse:

"This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." (John 6:51b)

Notice the words here that point to a physical sacrifice:

  • "Flesh" (sarx) here means "physical body."[24]
  • "Give, given" (didōmi) means "to dedicate oneself for some purpose or cause, give up, sacrifice."[25]
  • "For" (hyper) means, "in behalf of, for the sake of someone or something."[26]

The purpose of Jesus' gift of his body is "the life of the world," that is eternal life, the theme Jesus keeps coming back to in this passage.

The Bread of Life Discourse and the Lord's Supper

Each of the Synoptic Gospels includes the Lord's Supper, and what theologians call "the Words of Institution," in some form or another. Here's Matthew's account:

"26  While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, 'Take, eat; this is my body.' 27  Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, 'Drink from it, all of you; 28  for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.'" (Matthew 26:26-28)

 The Apostle Paul states the Words of Institution in a similar way:

"23b The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24  and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, 'This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.' 25  In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.'" (1 Corinthians 11:23-25) 

Joos van Cleve (Dutch artist, 1485-1540), detail 'The Last Supper,' oil on wood, 45 x 206 cm,  Musée du Louvre, Paris, Predella of 'Altarpiece of the Lamentation' (c. 1530).
Joos van Cleve (Dutch artist, 1485-1540), detail 'The Last Supper,' oil on wood, 45 x 206 cm,  Musée du Louvre, Paris, Predella of 'Altarpiece of the Lamentation' (c. 1530).

John, however, is unique in that he does not include a description of the Lord's Supper. He records an extended Farewell Discourse given the night Jesus was betrayed (chapters 13-17), but there is no mention of the Lord's Supper there. Why? We're not sure.

But it seems like this is another instance of the Synoptic writers giving the facts of an account, while John probes the meaning of the account. John assumes that his readers, at least his Christian readers, are familiar with one or more of the Synoptic Gospels. So he is free to take us deeper. Jesus' teaching on the Bread of Life serves as a kind of parallel teaching to the Words of Institution.

Literal or Figurative? (6:53-57)

Jesus' metaphor shifted from eating bread to eating flesh. And there is an immediate reaction to Jesus' words, due to a revulsion in Judaism and most other cultures against cannibalism:[27] Instead of backing off when he saw this reaction (6:54), he makes it more specific yet.

"53Jesus said to them, '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. 54Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. 55For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. 56Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. 57Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.'" (6:53-57)

Though some believe he is speaking literally of his own flesh and blood in the Eucharist, I see this as an example of Jesus' use of hyperbole to make his point powerful and unforgettable (such as in Matthew 5:29-30; 19:24; Luke 6:41-42; 14:26; 1 Corinthians 9:27).

In my book Lord's Supper: Meditations for Disciples on the Eucharist or Communion (JesusWalk, 2011), I consider in greater detail the arguments of Roman Catholics, for example, who take Jesus' words literally with respect to the Eucharist, to the effect that partaking of the Eucharist is essential to obtaining eternal life.

However, I believe this is a continuation and intensification of that same metaphor Jesus was using earlier in the discourse comparing manna to the Bread of Life. That was clearly figurative; it is unlikely that verses 53-57 should be taken literally, especially since Jesus sums up in verse 58 with a clearly figurative idea:

"This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever." (6:58)

What Does Jesus Mean by Eating His Flesh and Drinking His Blood?

If this is figurative language, as I believe it is, then what is Jesus saying? Observe in 6:53-59 the consequences of eating Jesus' flesh and drinking his blood. Let's look at these verse by verse, examining the consequence as well as similar sayings elsewhere:

Verse 53 -- "Having life in oneself." The consequence of believing is to have life in his name, according to 20:31. In 1 John 5:10-12, having life is associated with believing in the Son of God.

Verse 54a -- "Has eternal life." Eternal life is the consequence of believing in 6:40a, as well as in 3:15-16; 3:36; 5:24; 1 Timothy 1:16; 1 John 5:13; etc.

Verse 54b -- "Resurrection on the last day." Resurrection on the last day is the consequence of believing according to John 6:40b. Jesus also connects believing in him with resurrection and eternal life in the raising of Lazarus (11:25-26).

Verse 56 -- "Remains or abides in Jesus." This is also a consequence of believing Jesus' words according to 15:7. His word remaining or abiding in us is connected with eternal life (1 John 2:23-25), being true disciples (8:31-32), and bearing fruit (15:5).

Verse 57 -- "Live because of me." Eternal life is the consequence of believing in the "I am the resurrection and the life" passage (11:25-26).

Verse 58 -- "Live forever." This is the consequence of eating of the "living bread" in 6:51b above. It is another way of saying one "has eternal life" (see 6:54a above). In 11:26 Jesus connects believing in him with never dying.

It is clear that the consequences of putting one's faith in Jesus -- believing in Jesus -- are the same as the consequences of "eating his flesh and drinking his blood." This is a strong, even extreme, metaphor for faith.[28] As F.F. Bruce puts it: "To believe in Christ is not only to give credence to what he says; it is to be united to him by faith, to participate in his life."[29]

Q5. (John 6:53-59) What is "eating the Bread of Life" a metaphor of? What is "eating Jesus' flesh and drinking his blood" a metaphor of? How are these metaphors similar to each other? Why do you think Jesus used such a vivid and repugnant metaphor?

The Vivid Metaphor Causes an Uproar (6:59-66)

The metaphor was so vivid, so extreme, in fact, that it caused an uproar. Many "disciples" left and no longer followed Jesus.

59  He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. 60  When many of his disciples heard it, they said, 'This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?'

61  But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, 'Does this offend you? 62  Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63  It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64  But among you there are some who do not believe.' For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. 65  And he said, 'For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.' 66  Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him."

As I reflect on the reaction to Jesus' vivid metaphor, Jesus' response seems very unlike what a modern politician would do. A politician would immediately have his press office issue a statement saying he was misquoted and then detail what he meant to say.

But Jesus' reaction in verses 61-62 to the complaining "disciples" (distinguished from the Twelve in 6:67) is to say, "If this offends you, then you'll be even more offended when I ascend to heaven." Jesus says something curious:

"It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life." (6:63)

In other words, Jesus seems to be saying, to take these words literally, as if I was talking about literal bread and flesh, is pointless. I am speaking of spiritual things. The Spirit inspires Jesus' words, and these words, taken in their true sense, bring eternal life to those who believe.[30]

John reminds his readers that Jesus had said not all would believe -- and that Jesus knew Judas would betray him in the end, as John quotes Jesus in verses 70-71.

"70  Jesus answered them, 'Did I not choose you, the twelve? Yet one of you is a devil.'
71  He was speaking of Judas son of Simon Iscariot, for he, though one of the twelve, was going to betray him." (6:70-71)

We would be very upset to lose big numbers from church attendance. But Jesus knew that losing unbelievers from following him was no great loss. In fact, pruning dead limbs back to the living wood helps the health of the tree -- and the vine (see chapter 15).

Will You Also Go Away? (6:67-69)

"67  So Jesus asked the twelve, 'Do you also wish to go away?' 68  Simon Peter answered him, 'Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. 69  We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.'" (6:67-69)

There are some "hard sayings" in life that cause the faint of heart to let go. There are those who assent to Jesus' words, but when there is a crisis of faith, those who continue to feed on Jesus, who continue to believe, who abide in him, they are his true disciples; the others walk away. This entire passage is about Jesus having "the words of eternal life," that is, the words, which, when believed, result in eternal life.

Q6. (John 6:61-66) What was the difference between the Twelve and the crowd of "disciples" that turned away from Jesus? What is the mark of true disciples according to John 8:31-32?

As indicated earlier, while I don't believe Jesus deliberately gave this teaching with reference to the Sacrament of the Eucharist, I do believe that John, as he composed the Fourth Gospel, included this discourse knowing that his readers would read it with the Lord's Supper in mind. The Bread of Life passage and the Lord's Supper have parallel teachings.

The Lord's Supper deliberately uses elements intended to remind us of Jesus' body and blood: chewy bread to remind us of flesh, red wine to remind us of blood. The act of partaking of the Lord's Supper certainly is one of feeding on Jesus -- a physical symbolic act that speaks of a much deeper communion indeed:

  • To feed on the Bread of Life is to believe Jesus' words and trust in him as the source of our life.

  • To eat Jesus' flesh and blood means to utterly depend upon him and the truths he teaches for sustenance and life itself.

When we partake of the Lord's Supper we are commanded to remember Jesus' death for our sins. Our mind also turns to the Spirit of God who raised him from the dead, the same Spirit that gives spiritual life to us and will ultimately raise our bodies from the dead on the Last Day. The Lord's Supper is an act of remembering, reflecting, believing, trusting -- this indeed reenergizes us as food to our souls and life to our faith. As the Anglican service directs as the bread is given to the recipient:

"Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving."

Feeding on Jesus' words and basking in his presence are the essence of trust, of true belief in him. Yes, partake of his body and blood in the Lord's Supper as a sign that you indeed feed on him in your heart -- and so grow in your faith. Amen.

Lessons for Disciples

John's Gospel: A Discipleship Journey with Jesus, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Entire study is available in paperback, Kindle, and PDF formats.

This has been a long and complex lesson. But several lessons stand out for us disciples to ponder and obey.

  1. Sometimes people follow Jesus for merely selfish reasons (because Jesus gave them physical bread, for example), but true disciples must look beyond the physical blessings to hunger for spiritual life, eternal life (6:26-27).
  2. Eternal life is gained by faith, not by certain works of righteousness (6:28-29).
  3. Jesus is the Bread of Life who nourishes people spiritually and gives them eternal life (6:35).
  4. We can't come to Jesus independently on our own terms and at our own time. We are only able to come as the Father draws us through prevenient grace -- grace that comes prior to our salvation (6:44, also 6:37, 65).
  5. Eating the Bread of Life and eating Jesus' flesh/drinking his blood, are vivid metaphors for putting our whole faith in him (6:53-59).
  6. Not all who have the name of disciple will continue with Jesus. Those who have only a selfish or surface belief will fall away when Jesus tells them hard sayings or asks difficult things of them (6:61-66).


Jesus, please teach me how to feed on you more than I do. I do believe in you; increase my faith, my willingness to obey, and the effectiveness of my ministry on your behalf. In your holy name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verses

This lesson has many quotable verses that are worth memorizing:

"Then they said to him, 'What must we do to perform the works of God?' Jesus answered them, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.'" (John 6:28-29, NIV)

"Jesus said to them, 'I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.'" (John 6:35, NIV)

"Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away." (John 6:37, NIV)

 "This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day." (John 6:40, NIV)

"No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day." (John 6:44, NIV)

"I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh." (John 6:51, NIV)

"Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." (John 6:55, NIV)

"The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life." (John 6:63, NIV)

"Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." (John 6:68b, NIV)


[12] Menō, BDAG 631, 2b.

[13] Sphragizō, BDAG 980, 3.

[14] "Work" (NIV, NRSV), "labor" (KJV) is the common verb ergazomai, "to engage in activity that involves effort, work" (BDAG 389, 1).

[15] Ergon, "that which displays itself in activity of any kind, deed, action," here, "deed, accomplishment" (BDAG 390, 1cα).

[17] "Sir" (NIV, NRSV), "lord" (KJV) is kyrios. In the mouths of disciples, it means "Lord/Yahweh," but here it seems to be used in its secular sense, as a title of respect: "one who is in a position of authority, lord, master," as in 12:21 and 20:15 (BDAG 577, 2a).

[18] There are more verses in John translated, "I am," but in most cases they don't include the pronoun egō, which can be implied by the verb eimi itself, since in Greek the distinctive inflection of the verb tells us gender, tense, and voice. When the pronoun appears with the verb, it is emphatic -- there to make a point.

[19] For John's use of "the Jews" to refer to Jewish leaders, see Appendix 2. 'The Jews' in John's Gospel.

[20] "Draws" in 6:44 is the verb helkō, "to move an object from one area to another in a pulling motion, draw." It can refer to someone who is dragged into court (James 2:6), drawing a sword (John 18:10), or hauling a net (John 21:6, 11). Here it is used figuratively, "to draw a person in the direction of values for inner life, draw, attract."[20] Jesus uses it in this sense when he says, "When I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (12:32).

[21] "Enabled" (NIV), "it is granted" (NRSV, ESV), "given" (KJV) is the perfect passive participle of the common verb didōmi, "to give," here, "to grant by formal action, grant, allow" (BDAG 243, 14 or perhaps 17b).

[22] For John's use of "the Jews" to refer to Jewish leaders, see Appendix 2. 'The Jews' in John's Gospel.

[23] Augustine, Homilies on John, 26, 1.

[24] Sarx, BDAG 914-916, 2a.

[25] Didōmi, BDAG 242, 10.

[26] Hyper, BDAG 1030-1031.

[27] For Jews to drink blood would have been morally repugnant because of the strong prohibitions against drinking blood (Genesis 9:3; Leviticus 7:26; 17:14; 19:26; Deuteronomy 14:4-5; Acts 15:29). Even the priests who partook of the flesh of the sacrifices in the tabernacle and temple didn't drink the blood. Though Jews could eat the meat of clean animals, to eat human flesh was especially repugnant to them (Talmud, Chulin 92b). The only times we hear of it in the Bible are during wartime sieges that mothers might eat their dead infants in order to keep from starving themselves (Leviticus 26:29; Deuteronomy 28:53-57; Isaiah 9:20; Lamentations 4:10; Ezekiel 5:10), and then with a sense of repugnance and revulsion.

[28] Other Bible references to drinking blood are Isaiah 49:26 and Revelation 16:16.

[29] F.F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus (InterVarsity Press, 1983), p. 21. St. Augustine (354-430 AD) gave guidelines on how to determine whether an expression is to be taken literally or figuratively. On 6:63 he comments: "If the sentence is one of command, either forbidding a crime or vice, or enjoining an act of prudence or benevolence, it is not figurative. If, however, it seems to enjoin a crime or vice, or to forbid an act of prudence or benevolence, it is figurative. 'Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man,' says Christ, 'and drink His blood, ye have no life in you.' This seems to enjoin a crime or a vice; it is therefore a figure, enjoining that we should have a share in the sufferings of our Lord, and that we should retain a sweet and profitable memory of the fact that His flesh was wounded and crucified for us" (On Christian Doctrine, III, 16, 24).

[30] There has been lots of controversy about the exact meaning of this verse. The central question is what does "flesh" (sarx) refer to? (1) The most natural reference would be back to Jesus' previous paragraph -- eating his flesh and drinking his blood. If we take "eating my flesh" figuratively as "believing in Jesus," as I have argued, the meaning would be: The Spirit gives life, believing in me counts for nothing. But that doesn't make any sense. This is rather a contrast between Spirit and flesh. (2) If we take "eating my flesh" literally of the Eucharist, the meaning would be: The Spirit gives life, eating the sacramental flesh counts for nothing. Zwingli argued along this line against Luther's view of the Real Presence. But this assumes that Jesus in this discourse in Capernaum was speaking directly concerning the Lord's Supper which would take place later, an assumption we just don't have evidence to make. (3) More likely then, Jesus is not referring to the flesh of 6:53-56, but rather contrasting flesh and Spirit, much as he did in his discussion with Nicodemus in John 3:6: "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." In this case "flesh" would mean, "the natural principle in man which cannot give eternal life" (Brown, John 1:300).  So the meaning of Jesus' words in 6:63 is probably: The Spirit gives life; what man can understand and achieve on his own counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you -- spiritually discerned and believed -- bring spiritual life, eternal life.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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