Lectionary Commentaries for August 5, 2018
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 6:24-35

Susan Hylen

John presents Jesus as manna, the miraculous bread God provided and through which Israel learned to trust God’s word.

The crowd introduces the story of manna, which becomes central to John’s development of Jesus’ identity as “bread of life” in this chapter. They ask Jesus to perform a sign like Moses did when God provided the Israelites with a miraculous food in the desert.

It is ironic that the crowd doesn’t already associate Jesus with Moses. This is part of the same group of people that was present at the beginning of the chapter. By including the details of Jesus going up a mountain at the time of Passover (John 6:3-4) alongside a miraculous meal, John has already given the reader reasons to associate Jesus with Moses from the Exodus story. Even though the crowd acclaimed Jesus as prophet and sought to make him king (John 6:14-15), they seem not to have really understood the significance of what happened in the feeding miracle (John 6:1-14).

Now the crowd seeks Jesus across the sea, asking him for a sign like Moses did (John 6:31). It seems strange for them to say this, since Jesus has just performed a sign like the one they require. Yet their words also confirm what Jesus has said. They have not “seen signs” (John 6:26). That is, they did not understand the meaning of Jesus’ actions in the feeding miracle.

Even though the crowd conveys little understanding, Jesus takes up their request to perform a sign like the manna. He goes on to explain how the manna God gave previously is now available to them. Jesus’ words that follow — really all of John 6:32-58 — interpret the scripture quoted by the crowd, “he gave them bread from heaven to eat” (John 6:31). He begins by interpreting the manna as a story about what God is doing in the present.

It is common to read these verses in John in a way that distances the bread Jesus offers from the manna story. Part of this decision stems from a translation problem. The English, “it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven” (John 6:32, New Revised Standard Version) can sound like Jesus is rejecting a false assumption that made Moses rather than God the giver of manna. This seems unlikely, however, because it is implausible that Jewish people of John’s time viewed Moses as the ultimate source of manna.

Instead, Jesus’ words represent a way of interacting with scripture that was common at the time. He says, don’t think of the scripture as saying “Moses gave” the bread, but as “my father gives” it (compare with John 6:32). Jesus defines and slightly alters the terms of the scripture. The cited text in verse 31 stated, “he gave us bread from heaven to eat.” Jesus says, don’t interpret the subject, “he” as Moses, but as God. Furthermore, he changes the verb tense from “gave,” the past tense, to “gives.” The changes bring out the point of Jesus’ interpretation: manna is not simply a story that resides in Israel’s past, but is an on-going gift of God in the present. It is available to Jesus’ listeners even now.

Jesus’ interpretation would not have been objectionable to Jesus’ Jewish listeners. They already understood God as the giver of manna, as I mentioned above. Jewish people of the time also tended to think of the Exodus story as something that defined their current identity. That is, the story of God’s liberating power was not something confined to the past but claimed as a present action in the remembrance of Passover.

Jesus’ next statement continues this line of thinking. “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). Grammatically, verse 33 leaves open the possibility for the bread to be Jesus. The Greek words, “that which comes down from heaven” are masculine singular, following the grammatical gender of the word bread (artos). These words do not necessarily point to a male person, Jesus, but they leave room for Jesus’ later self-identification as bread in John 6:35. First, however, Jesus’ words continue to identify manna as a present-tense gift from God, a life-giving power that originates in heaven.

The crowd seems to understand Jesus’ words in this way, and they find his teaching appealing. They respond, “Lord, give us this bread always” (John 6:34). Their words convey not only that they desire the bread Jesus is speaking about, but that they see him as one (like Moses) who facilitates this gift. So they request this bread from Jesus.

At this point Jesus identifies himself with the present gift of manna God is giving to the world: “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). This is the first of Jesus’ seven “I am” sayings, each of which elaborates an important aspect of Jesus’ identity. These sayings most often draw on Old Testament imagery to understand Jesus. The interaction between Jesus’ story and the Old Testament story can provide a rich resource for reflection on the meaning of Jesus’ life.

John positions readers to ask the question, “What does it mean for Jesus to be manna?” Or “How is Jesus like the manna?” These questions can still be fruitful starting points for sermons on this passage. The manna story resonates broadly with the story John is telling here. The Israelites experienced God’s salvation in the Red Sea crossing, but they still failed to trust God to take care of their needs. Faced with hunger, they immediately thought to turn back to Egypt. Similarly, John’s recently-fed crowd misunderstands the nature of what Jesus has offered them and its implications for the present time.

Yet the benefits of eating the bread Jesus provides are the same. Like the Israelites, Jesus’ bread provides life to those who trust enough to follow God’s word. God provided both water and food where none was available, and Jesus also satisfies those who hunger and thirst. As manna, Jesus is the trusted source of life. Just as eating manna for years in the wilderness taught Israel to trust and follow God’s word (Deuteronomy 8:3), so also John portrays Jesus as one who imbues trust and life in those who partake of his bread.

First Reading

Commentary on Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

Sara M. Koenig

What does it mean to know God?1

Depending on the individual, the congregation, or even the denominational tradition, knowing God can sometimes be reduced to an intellectual exercise.  This text tells us that the knowledge of God is connected to an experience of God, and especially experiencing God’s provision.  Knowing God is also expressed in obeying God, an act that can cycle back to a deeper knowledge of God.

The topic of knowing, experiencing and obeying God in this account is set within the story of the Israelites’ “murmuring” against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and God’s provision of quail and manna.  As is typical for Hebrew syntax, the verb begins the verse, setting the stage for what will happen, “and they murmured.”  This word only occurs in the wilderness wandering texts of Exodus 15-17 and Numbers 14, 16-17, and Joshua 9:18, and can also be translated as “grumble,” or “complain against.”

Though the object of their complaint is Moses and Aaron, their human leaders, in verses 6-8 (which are not in the lectionary reading) Moses acknowledges that they are really complaining against God.  It is important to remember that these texts — where the Israelites murmur — are not merely critiques of people who voice their concerns to God.  The Psalms are full of laments, which list out complaints to and even about God in very specific ways.  Additionally, the content of the people’s murmuring at this point is legitimate: they are hungry and need food.  Thus, the problem is not that the people murmur; the problem is that they do not believe. 

God responds to the people’s murmuring with the promise that bread will be rained from heaven — a remarkable, direct response to their need.  But verse four also lets us know that with the gift of bread comes a test.  God will see if the people will obey God’s instruction or not, instructions which include the command to only gather as much as they need to eat (verse 16), and not to leave any for the next day (verses 19-20).

Of course, they do not obey, and their lack of obedience tests the patience of both Moses and God.  But it would seem that the disobedience is not only stubbornness or recalcitrance: they do not know God enough to trust God.  This problem is foreshadowed in their song of praise from the previous chapter.  They acknowledged that the Lord is a God like no other (Exodus 15:11).  They do not fully understand who the Lord is, or what God is able to do.  Even if they remember that God is their deliverer, they have not yet experienced again and again that God is also their provider. 

By skipping from verse 4 to verse 9, the lectionary moves immediately from God’s words to Moses about the promise of bread to Moses and Aaron assembling the people to draw near (qirbû line) to the Lord.  Brevard Childs explains that this is a technical term referring to an encounter at a sanctuary (cf. Exodus 27:21, Numbers 16:17, etc.), probably meaning the tent of meeting.2  But while Aaron is still speaking to the people, the glory of God suddenly appears in the cloud.

God, who is made manifest, says three significant things to Moses.  First, God confirms what Moses told Aaron to say in verse 9, that God heard their murmurings.  Second, God tells Moses to tell the Israelites what Moses had previously indicated (in verse 8, not in our lectionary selection), that God will provide meat in the evening and bread in the morning.  In the full text of the chapter, then, the content of God’s speech to the people has already been anticipated by what Moses has told them, and God confirms that which Moses had promised.  Third, God tells Moses that it is when the people’s bellies are filled with the food that God provides them that they will know who the Lord is, their God.

We do not have to wait at all for the fulfillment of God’s promise of bread and meat, made in verse 12, for verse 13 explains that quail comes in the evening, and manna comes with the dew of the morning.  Verse 14 gives a brief description of the manna, comparing it to frost.  Its name is related to the Israelites’ question, “what is it?” or, man hû? in Hebrew.  Moses responds to their confused surprise by spelling out that it is God’s promised gift of bread.

Numbers 11 also tells about God providing manna and quail to the Israelites in the wilderness, but in that chapter, the gift of food is bracketed by stories about God’s anger with and judgment against the Israelites (Numbers 11:1-3, 33-35).  Psalm 78:30-31 describes the occasion in Numbers vividly: “But before they had satisfied their craving, while the food was still in their mouths, the anger of God rose against them and he killed the strongest of them, and laid low the flower of Israel.”

In this chapter, and in the lectionary’s selection of verses, the main point is that God provides food in the wilderness in the form of bread from heaven.  Of course, in the gospel reading from John, Jesus makes it clear that the manna from heaven in the wilderness is not the true bread from heaven that gives life to the world.  Instead, Jesus himself is the bread of life, and as he identifies himself as that bread, he promises that whoever comes to him will not go hungry (John 6:35).  Many see Jesus spiritualizing the food from the Old Testament.  But perhaps his promise connects with the Exodus text more directly by affirming that knowledge of God is connected to the way God provides for specific needs.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Aug. 5, 2012.

2 Brevard Childs, Exodus. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1974, 287.


Commentary on Psalm 78:23-29

Jerome Creach

Psalm 78 is the second longest psalm in the Psalter (next to Psalm 119) and by far the longest psalm that rehearses Israel’s history (Psalms 105 and 106 are two other examples).1

The events of the past are presented as a lesson for the present generation. The period of wilderness wandering is the focus. God rescued the Israelites from Egypt (verses 12-13) and led them safely through the wilderness (verses 14-16). The psalm is for “teaching” (verse 1), a “parable” (verse 2) of what God has done for Israel’s ancestors so members of the present generation may “set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God” (verse 7).

The section of the psalm set apart in the lectionary reading has a distinct place in this poetic report of Israel’s past. Verses 23-29 appear within a larger section that reports God’s anger over Israel’s rebellion and lack of faith (verses 21-22 and the larger account in verses 9-22). In fact, the psalm in some ways is dominated by this theme. As the account of the ancestors unfolds, it goes quickly to their rebellion so the present generation “should not be like their ancestors” whose “heart was not steadfast” (verse 8). The Israelites of the past “refused to walk according to his law” (verse 10). The entire psalm is thus punctuated by this characterization of the forebears in faith who failed in their walk with God: “they tested God” (verse 18); “they spoke against God” (verse 19); “they had no faith in God” (verse 22). After the lectionary section there will be more of this: “they tested God again” (verse 41); “they did not keep in mind his power” (verse 42); “they tested the Most High God, and rebelled against him” (verse 56). Thus, the upshot of the historical recollection is that the ancestors were faithless and those reading the psalm now should see the ancestors as a negative example and live differently.

Despite this extensive denunciation of the Israelites from the past, the psalm as a whole accents God’s grace and faithfulness. The larger point is really that the present community of faith should remember God’s goodness. Indeed, the ancestors’ lack of faith is set in contrast to God’s constant faith and continuous acts of salvation, and this is the focus on verses 23-29.

Verse 23 in Hebrew begins with a conjunction-verb combination that communicates simple action in past time and action that follows upon the action of the previous verb. The relationship of the opening verb of verse 23 to the previous verb is rightly communicated by NRSV: “they had no faith in God, and did not trust his saving power” (verse 22); “yet he commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven” (verse 23).

The verses that follow rehearse the story of God’s provision of manna and quail in the wilderness reported in Exodus 16. Although verses 23-29 are inspired by the Exodus story, however, the psalmist describes the food provided and the manner in which it came to the Israelites with poetic flourish. The manna “rained down” (verse 24), and “mortals ate the bread of angels” (verse 25). Similarly, the psalmist declares concerning God’s provision of the birds that “he rained flesh upon them” (verse 27). The psalmist also emphasizes the abundance of what was provided. God sent them “food in abundance” (verse 25); “he rained flesh upon them like dust, winged birds like the sand of the seas” (verse 27). The constant unfaithfulness of the Israelites is matched by God’s superabundant provision for them. The impact of verses 23-29 therefore is an overwhelming sense of Israel’s foolishness on the one hand and of God’s goodness on the other hand.

In order to capture fully the message of verses 23-29 it is crucial to acknowledge what comes immediately after, in verses 30-31. Following the report of God giving bread and flesh in the wilderness the psalmist recalls that “while the food was still in their mouths” (verse 30) “the anger of God arose against them and he killed the strongest of them” (verse 31). Although this may sound like a contradiction to God’s earlier provision, it actually reinforces the point about God’s care for the Israelites. God’s purpose with the Israelites in the wilderness was not just to feed them, but to make them a faithful and obedient people. God’s punishment of them was, like the provision of food, meant to draw them back into relationship with the one who brought them out of Egypt. This is apparent in two ways in Psalm 78. First, Israel’s response to God’s punishment was ultimately the same as it was to God’s provision of food: “they still sinned” (verse 32). Second, the remainder of the psalm (after verses 30-31) reinforces the message about God’s grace that appears in verses 23-29. While the Israelites repeatedly fell away from God’s grace (for example, verses 36-37), God time and again responded with compassion. Verses 38-39 captures well the overarching mercy of God: “yet he, being compassionate, forgave their iniquity, and he did not destroy them” (verse 38). Indeed, “he remembered that they were but flesh” (verse 39).

This highlight of God’s grace also pervades the rest of the psalm and forms the real point: “he remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and does not come again” (verse 39). The lectionary reading nicely encapsulates this point about the nature of God and of the humans God calls into covenant. Humans are “but flesh,” and are bent toward sinning and toward rejecting the One who saves them, but God is merciful and gracious and offers the rebellious creatures every good thing. This message is particularly suited to the season after Pentecost when the church celebrates being empowered by the Spirit to proclaim the good news. Psalm 78:23-29 expresses the good news as profoundly as any Old Testament text.


1 Commentary first published on this site on Aug. 2, 2015.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 4:1-16

Brian Peterson

Ephesians 4:1 is a major hinge in the letter. Here the author turns from describing all that God has done for the cosmos, the church, and Paul himself to consider the kind of life that is the fitting response.

As the author turns toward exhortation, the preacher will need to be clear and careful so that this text does not lose its moorings in God’s grace. Fortunately, this passage is rich with reminders that the life being described comes as God’s gift. Three aspects of that divine giving are particularly highlighted.

First, the exhortation begins with a reminder that God is the one who has called us. This “worthy” life must begin there. The calling referred to here is not some particular activity or occupation, but is the entirety of our life in Christ. This life within God’s grace has always been God’s plan.

Ephesians has already made the astounding claim that God chose us not only before we did anything to deserve or even desire it, but before the creation of the world (Ephesians 1:4). The life which we are to live in response is “worthy” (Ephesians 4:1) not because it can ever deserve such overflowing grace, but because such grace both calls for and calls forth a life that is in line with God’s intent for all creation.

Second, since we have already heard how God intends to bring everything to unity in Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10), it is unsurprising to hear that the worthy life nurtures the unity of the church. Verse 3 calls us to “maintain” (or “guard”) the unity given by the Spirit. Though this unity is certainly central to the exhortations of this passage, it is first of all a gift from God rather than something we produce.

The author stresses this by naming seven (the number of completion) things that are “one”: one body of the church, called and sanctified by one Spirit; one hope which flows from God’s calling; one Lord Jesus whom we all confess and into whom we are growing up; one faith and one baptism which bind us to him and to each other.

Finally, the list comes to its climax in the one God and Father of all, whose saving activity fills the cosmos. In this remarkable proto-Trinitarian text, the unity of the church is rooted in the eternal unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit. We do not create this unity, but we are called to nurture and care for it in the way that we treat one another, with humility and gentleness, patience and love (verse 2).

Third, “bearing with one another” (verse 2) will be necessary because God has not only given the church its fundamental unity, but has also given the church a rich diversity of members. Each is a recipient of God’s grace (verse 7) as the Spirit calls, equips, and gives people to the church. The goal behind such giving is not uniformity, but a unity which reflects and serves God’s reconciliation of the whole creation in Christ. If we aren’t encountering and learning to love people who differ from us within the church, then something is wrong; this is not the healthy community that God desires.

Too often we act as though the purity of the church depends on dividing until only those who look, talk, think, and act alike are left together. But differences are not divisions, and Spirit-given differences within the church are not a problem but are God’s good gift so that together we can learn how to “speak the truth in love” (verse 15). That particular instruction sometimes becomes an excuse for abusive speech used to push down others and gain power for ourselves, all under the self-justifying banner of “truth-teller.” It reminds me of a colloquialism in the American southeast which goes “Bless your heart,” which usually means “Oh you poor thing, you don’t realize how idiotically wrong you are, but I’ll be glad to set you straight.” It is not a blessing at all. Such is not the “speaking the truth in love” to which this text calls us.

God’s calling, the unity of the church, and its diversity, are all affirmed as God’s gifts here, and yet they are gifts that we can distort and deny. This text should be painful to us. There are too many of God’s children with whom we refuse to work or worship. When we experience divisions in the church, we need to realize that we are getting the very thing that we have truly desired the most: being right in our own eyes, and not bothering to learn how to love those who are genuinely different, whether that involves our Hindu neighbor, or the congregation down the street, or our brother/sister in the next pew.

Yet this is not a text of despair. Verse 13 recognizes that we are still growing toward maturity. If that promised growth depended on ourselves, it would be a doomed project. But this text reminds us that we are held by the calling of God, we are given to one another by the Spirit, and we are united in the Lord who is head of the whole body.

The church’s growth into Christ (verse 15) is God’s gift and promise. We have not yet grown up, but it is happening as we continue to encounter one another at the Supper, at the hearing and singing of the Word, and in the ministries of the church. As Martin Luther once wrote:

This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.1


1 “A Defense and Explanation of All the Articles.” Luther’s Works 32, p. 24. Edited by George Forell. Augsburg, 1958.