Commentary on John 6:24-35
The text for this week sets up in much the same way as last week’s. The crowd is looking for Jesus.
This time they have trailed around the lake to the new location on the other side. The new location is going to provide a new context for the interpretation of the miracles from the previous text. The crowd is still struggling with what happened. The prophet/king understanding of who Jesus is will now be stretched.
It is now time for Jesus to unpack, to deconstruct, the sign. The sign was not about having a belly full of food. The sign is about who Jesus is.
The bread that filled their stomachs now becomes the primary extended metaphor Jesus uses to stretch their understanding. The tricky part for the preacher is that s/he will be “driven” to deal with the bread image at every turn. Even as I write this article, the pull of “explaining” the bread metaphor is overwhelming.
It is important to remind ourselves that this is not where we need to go. John’s language is more poetic than prosaic. It is not the individual parts that need point-by-point explanation; the whole of the bread metaphor needs to be held in the foreground.
This conversation about food (verse 27), manna (verse 31), and bread (verses 26, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35) provides an interesting parallel to the enigmatic, multi-level conversation about water with the woman at the well (chapter 4).
- Both include references to “ancestors” — Moses (6:32) and Jacob (4:12)
- Both include the identical “command” to Jesus: “Lord/Sir give” — (6:34, 4:15)
- Both share the desire for a permanent supply of bread/water — (6:35, 4:14)
Just as the conversation with the woman at the well was about water, but was not, this conversation is about bread, but is not.
It is important to let the tension of the “is” and “is not” of the conversation dwell with the hearer. Can the sermon allow the whole of the story to explain itself and build on the Christological theme of “Who is Jesus”? The hearer needs to answer that for him/herself. The preacher need not give an unequivocal answer since the story itself is enigmatic.
Entering the enigmatic pattern of the conversation
It is interesting to look at this text from the pattern of question and answer — what the crowd wants to know and what answers Jesus provides.
Verses 25-27: The crowd wants to know when Jesus came to the other side of the lake. Jesus’ answer is a convoluted response about their not seeing the signs but being filled with food. It dissolves into something about working for food that endures for life.
Verses 28-29: The crowd wants to know what they can do to work God’s work? Jesus’ response is about believing rather than working.
Verses 30-33: The crowd asks for a sign from Jesus so they can believe. Jesus comes back with a proclamation about “My Father” and bread that gives life.
Verses 34-35: The crowd demands (rather than asks for) the bread. Jesus claims to be the bread (egō eimi the bread of life).
The questions and answers provide a pattern of incongruity. The crowd wants to know something, and Jesus answers with a different kind of information. They are trying to sort out who Jesus is in light of what they just experienced. Their questions don’t seem to be leading them in that direction so Jesus provides different answers than the questions demand.
It might be interesting to point out this incongruous pattern and then help the congregation identify what questions the church today asks in trying to figure out who Jesus is. Are they the best questions to be asking?
“Hearing” Jesus’ answers
An important element of hearing Jesus’ answers to the questions raised by the crowd is, to put it bluntly, listening. It is hard to listen to the answers if one is trying to translate all the details of the metaphors. The answers are about who Jesus is in relationship to the miracles/signs that are reported in the text from last week.
Jesus’ answers provide key words that are informative for identity.
Verse 27: “stop working”
Verse 29: “the work of God”
Verse 29: “God’s work results in [them] believing in the one God sent.”
Verse 35: “the one believing in [Jesus] will never be thirsty”
Verse 33: “Bread . . . gives life to the world”
Verse 35: “I am the bread of life.”
Putting it together
Another warning is timely. It is important not to give too much away yet. Chapter 6 holds together as a unit and is an evolving revelation of who Jesus is through encounter. Read ahead in the chapter to see how the material is building through metaphor and discourse and stay in the moment. If the preacher tries to say too much too soon, there will be no choice but to turn to the epistles or the Old Testament before the four weeks are complete.
What can we say at this point?
In this text, Jesus is trying to repair the faulty understanding the crowd took away from last Sunday’s text. The defective question/answer pattern we uncovered shows that the crowd did not interpret what just happened from the perspective that Jesus wishes. Understanding ensues from appropriate questions.
Bread is the metaphor. Jesus continues to use the image that comes from the “feeding” miracle. Bread (and fish) is what filled their stomachs. They have become so focused, though, on being full that they have lost what really happened. Jesus uses the bread as an extended metaphor for who he is — someone capable of truly sustaining life.
The egō eimi of verse 35 where Jesus says not just “I am” but “I am the bread of life” is a very different claim than the egō eimi statement in verse 20. In this verse, it is a Christological claim, a culmination in the present text of the extended metaphor. The only food that can last for all time is the bread that Jesus himself is, the true gift from God, Jesus’ own Father.