Commentary on John 6:35-59
John 6:35-59 consists of teaching by Jesus centered on his proclamation, “I am the bread of life” (verses 35, 48).
“I am the bread of life” is the first of the seven “I am” statements in John’s Gospel. These statements are unique to John and in many ways encapsulate the distinctiveness of John’s presentation of Jesus. The “I am” beginning of these sayings is more emphatic in the Greek than can be expressed without awkwardness in English (Greek ego eimi).
“I am” often reminds readers of the revealed name of God from the burning bush story (Exod. 3:14), and, to be sure, from the opening verse Jesus’ divine nature is front and center in John (“ … the Word was God,” 1:1). The striking feature common to all of the “I am” sayings in John, however, is that they all express Jesus’ relationship to humanity. The other six are: “I am the light of the world” (8:12), “the gate for the sheep” (10:7), “the good shepherd” (10:11), “the resurrection and the life” (11:25), “the way, and the truth, and the life” (14:6), and “the true vine” (15:1).
John 6:35-59 is the central part of a series of conversations between Jesus and various others that follow the miracles of the feeding of the multitude (6:1-13) and walking on water (6:16-21). The pattern of miracle followed by teaching is a common one in John (cf. chapters 5, 9, and 11), where Jesus uses the nature of the miracle to provide imagery to teach about his identity and purpose.
Here the miraculous feeding of the multitude becomes of a symbol of Jesus’ provision of life for his followers, hence the central claim, “I am the bread of life.” While 6:35 is a natural enough beginning point for the passage, it actually continues a conversation begun in verse 25 started by a group who sought Jesus based on his performance of the feeding miracle, following which Jesus had fled to escape an attempt to anoint him king (6:15).
Our passage has three parts to it: Jesus’ initial assertion of being “the bread of life” (verses 35-40), Jesus’ response to some questioning about this claim (verses 41-51), and an expansion of the bread imagery using more graphic “flesh and blood” language (verses 52-59). The larger section concludes after this with a conversation between Jesus and his disciples (verses 60-71).
What does Jesus mean by proclaiming himself “the bread of life”? At one level, the answer can be put simply: Jesus means that he is the source of eternal life for the world, an explanation expressed straightforwardly in verses 47-48. If the meaning were this simple, however, there would be little reason for Jesus to have used the symbolism in the first place.
In its first century context, the symbol was a provocative invitation for Jesus’ fellow Jews to re-think the history on which their understanding of God was based, and hence an invitation to re-think the nature of their own relationship to God and of Jesus’ place in that relationship. It also provided a fundamental symbol for understanding the central remembrance of Jesus and the celebration of his continuing, living presence, particularly as experienced in the Lord’s Supper.
For Christians today this passage should likewise serve both these ends: It should inform our understanding of our own relationship to Jesus — and, in fact, of life itself — and it should inform our own practice of celebrating the Lord’s Supper.
The invitation to rethink the history on which their understanding of God is based comes in Jesus’ comparison of his status as bread of life with the bread given to the Israelites in the wilderness. Jesus’ seekers had themselves set the context for the bread symbolism by asking for a sign from Jesus equivalent to Moses’ provision of manna in the wilderness (6:30-31). Jesus’ reply had been to refer them instead to the “true” bread given by God (6:32-33).
Thus Jesus’ opening assertion of being the bread of life is made in the context of understanding God’s provision for the covenant people. Twice more Jesus makes the comparison (verses 49-50 and 58), with both times the point being the contrast with the death experienced by the people then, after eating the manna (no doubt referring to the numerous divine punishments for the people’s sins), to the eternal life available now through Jesus.
The contrast is further highlighted throughout the first two parts of the passage (verses 35-40, 41-51) by Jesus’ references to himself as having come down from heaven (verses 38, 41, 50, 51; also in verse 58), just as was the case with the manna. Any temporary sustenance given to God’s people in the past is thus now eclipsed by the eternal life given through Jesus. Jesus is himself the provision of God for life.
Jesus initially uses two expressions to describe how the provision of the bread of life is accessed. The more familiar is that of believing in Jesus (verses 35, 40, 47), with the simple yet wondrous result being eternal life for the believer (most familiar, of course, from John 3:16). Perhaps more evocative is the expression of “coming to” Jesus (verses 35, 37, 44), for this expression links more clearly to the eating symbolism of the “bread of life” idea itself, a link manifested by Christians in the Eucharistic action of coming to the table (or, at the very least, to the church) in order to partake of the elements. Our belief in Jesus, then, is expressed by visible actions of worship in our lives.
At the end of the second section of our passage, Jesus provokes his hearers with a graphic assertion: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (verse 51). His hearers are baffled by it (verse 52), but Jesus’ response (which forms the third section of our passage) is to build on it with further provocative claims, beginning with, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (verse 53).
Interpreters have differed throughout Christian history (sometimes vehemently!) over whether this language should be understood merely as further symbolism of faith in Jesus or instead as referring directly to actions involved in the Lord’s Supper. In favor of the former is the fact that the benefits here associated with eating Jesus (eternal life, abiding in Jesus) are elsewhere in John associated with less ritual-centered acts like believing in and obeying Jesus (for abiding in Jesus, see 15:1-17).
On the other hand, it is difficult to see why Jesus would use such graphic language if he meant nothing more than what he had already said about belief, and why language would be chosen that so obviously reflects Eucharistic practice. In any case, while the precise relationship and importance of this passage to the understanding and practice of the Lord’s Supper may be varyingly understood, any good understanding and practice certainly ought to take these words of Jesus into account. Jesus is the bread of life, and our partaking of the Lord’s Supper is a testimony to that fact. That Jesus is the bread of life, however, bears significance far beyond that — it is a claim of Jesus’ fundamental live-giving relationship to the world.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of sustenance,
Provide us with your living bread daily so that we might be brought to eternal life. Help us share your living bread with all who will receive it. Amen.
One bread, one body ELW 496, UMH 620
For the bread which you have broken ELW 494, H82 340, 341, UMH 615
Taste and see ELW 493
Eternal Grace, Peter Aston
February 16, 2014