Commentary on John 6:24-35
Our narrator hints that even though the crowd “finds” Jesus, they don’t comprehend who he is: “Rabbi,” they ask, “when did you come here?” (John 6:25).
Is this a coarse understanding of Jesus? Sure, why not, let’s say it’s coarse. But we might not want to be too hard on immature understandings in John or, for that matter, in ourselves—the narrator has a way of turning those “dull” moments into dazzling insights.
Consider that gem of a story, the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-39). Raymond E. Brown sees a nearly “perfect parallel” between the dialogue in this text and Jesus’ playful interaction with the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-39):
- Bread Discourse: “Do not work for the food that perishes” (John 6:27);
- The Woman at the Well: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again” (John 4:13);
- Bread Discourse: “Sir, give us this bread always” (John 6:34);
- Woman at the Well: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (John 4:15). 1
Like chapter four, this chapter will also culminate in testimony.
Jesus uses the double amen (NRSV: “Very truly, I tell you”) four times in chapter six (see verses 26, 32, 47, and 53). Maybe one could run with an emphatic expression, something like, “The fact of the matter is,” or Brown’s “Truly I assure you,” or “Let me firmly assure you.”2 None of these translations do the phrase justice. On Jesus’ lips it speaks to an assurance that his message is guaranteed by God: “[Jesus] is the Word of God; he is the Amen.”3 Maybe that helps us to hear the double-amen of chapter six as it leads to the declaration that our work is to believe in Jesus. For John, there can be no confusion: Jesus is the bread of life and life itself. Not even our lives, which most of us love and enjoy, are complete in themselves. “My life,” writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “is outside myself, beyond my disposal. My life is another, a stranger; Jesus Christ.”4 In John, Jesus is life itself (John 1:4) and has come so “that they may have life” (John 10:10).
When we read the narrator’s “Father” language in verse 28 and elsewhere, it is helpful to remember that this is not an endorsement of patriarchy or hierarchy. John speaks in an egalitarian, personal, and communal key, and often in ways that elevate women’s testimony in an androcentric society. If it is not an endorsement of patriarchy, what is it? It goes to the writer’s way of talking about intimacy with God and Christ. While acknowledging the text’s language, feel free to experiment with other forms of God-talk that speak to the contemporary context and help listeners grasp the function of “Father” talk in John.
Those who hear Jesus want something that they can do: “What must we do to work the work of God?” (verse 28, see also John 4:15). At least initially, some prefer action from Jesus rather than remaining with him. While it is tempting to think that those who don’t “get” Jesus are slow or dull (and Jesus’ comments sometimes lead us to conclude that they are), in John these misunderstandings frequently lead into some of the most memorable and beloved teachings of Jesus. Many of us have come to love John’s Gospel precisely because we didn’t “get” Jesus—and when we did “get” Jesus it was because Jesus got us!
An Alcoholics Anonymous slogan exhorting the practice of the 12-steps comes to mind: “It works if you work it.” Maybe there’s something of a meeting point between the crowd and Jesus on this point since he does not give work instructions but rather faith instructions: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (verse 29). What if the act of believing is kind of like the “work” in AA of surrendering to our Higher Power? Faith or trust in Jesus, the one who has come down from heaven, is the work of God for the believer: it works if you work it!
In that light, it makes sense that John never uses the noun for faith (pistis) but always its verbal form, pisteuein (“believe,” “have faith,” “come to faith,” or “put faith”). Brown defines its use in John as denoting an active commitment to a person, especially Jesus. Significantly, 74 out of 98 uses of pisteuein in John are in the Book of Signs where Jesus invites people to have continuing and active trust in him.5
The second emphatic corrects the crowd’s exegetical conclusions (our ancestors ate manna from heaven, given by Moses, etc.). Jesus’ exegetical move attunes his listeners to God’s faithfulness today. They demand, “Sir, give us this bread always.” What they demand is what they already have in the presence of Jesus: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (35).
In December 2020, we moved from the U.S. to the United Kingdom to be closer to family. On arrival, we went into a mandatory two-week quarantine. Pandemic-England didn’t feel the same without walks up Pendle Hill, a local landmark; our kids visited with their grandparents, whom they hadn’t seen for over a year, through a window. There were no hugs. It was a strange sensation to have come so far and yet at the same time feel so distant.
We were not alone in that feeling. It extended to our neighbors, Nancy and Mike, who live opposite us in a neighboring house. We had waved to each other a few times, but that’s all. But one day as we stepped out of the cottage, Nancy came out of her front garden, calling out to us. In her hands, she held a freshly baked sourdough, still warm from the oven. It was for us, she said. No, it wasn’t possible to visit as she would have liked. Yet maybe this is a sign of a future table that we can share as neighbors. The future still hasn’t arrived, but it feels closer than it did before.
This experience comes to mind as I reflect on this text. Nancy was saying more than the 500-grams of flour, more than the 75-grams of starter, more than the water, the folding, the rising, the sleeping, more even than the joyful eating. Instead, the gift was almost vow-like: “With this bread, I do pledge ….”
Maybe our narrator would approve of the analogy. But perhaps our narrator would remind us that we don’t eat analogies.
“We can believe in justice as a thing,” says artist and theologian, Elizabeth Gray King. “We can believe in love and care and kindness and humility. But until we start living and acting as love, living out that care, graciously spilling over with kindness and working with others in humility as compared to power, a belief is just a belief, almost an object to be admired … Believing in resurrection is ok. Living resurrection is quite another thing.”6
- Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John: Introduction, Translation, and Notes in The Anchor Bible (Garden City: Doubleday & Company Inc., 1966), 267.
- Brown, 260, 281.
- Brown, 84.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics in Ilse Tödt, Heinz Eduard Tödt, Ernst Feil, and Clifford Green, trans. and ed., Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works: Volume 6 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 250.
- For a detailed exposition of the verb, “believe” see Brown, The Gospel According to John, 512-15.
- Elizabeth Gray King, “Sermon” (Didsbury: Didsbury United Reformed Church, 11 April 2021) accessed on 21 April 2021.