Commentary on John 6:35, 41-51
Something very important happens in verse 41, something that is easily overlooked.
The identity of Jesus’ interlocutors “changes” abruptly. Until this point in the chapter, it is the crowd who has been engaged with Jesus. Now the identification of the crowd is stated. The crowd is “the Jews.”
The Jews are highly significant in John’s Gospel. The Jews are Jesus’ primary opponents. Verse 41, therefore, creates a sense of conflict. No longer is this just an enigmatic conversation between Jesus and a crowd. Now we come to know why the conversation is so dense, why it is so highly enigmatic.
Conflict now frames how we interpret the conversation. Has there been a simple sense of misunderstanding? Or is the dialogue willfully misconstrued on the part of the opponents? When we are obtuse about matters of faith and theology, are we simply imperceptive? Might it be that we sometimes don’t want to accept what is capable of being understood? Are we sometimes fighting the obvious? These are good questions to pursue in preparation for the sermon and, perhaps, in the sermon itself.
Nature of the Conversation
The lectionary reading includes the final verse from last week’s text where Jesus unequivocally identified himself with the statement “I am the bread of life.” We read this interpretively as signifying that it is Jesus who is capable of sustaining life. This is in contrast to the crowd’s sense that it was the bread from the miracle that filled them up.
In verse 41 the Jews quote Jesus, but in fact, Jesus has not yet said these words: “I am the bread who came down from heaven.” The Jews have put onto Jesus’ lips his words in verses 35 and 38 and are complaining about this conflation. They know who Jesus is. They know his parents Mary and Joseph. This is Jesus, and he did not come down from heaven. These words are not just complaints. They are argumentative.
Jesus, in effect, tells them to “shut up” (verse 43). The language is “stop grumbling among yourselves.” It has the logic of “stop talking and listen to me.” These words decisively indicate that the Jews have not yet understood anything that Jesus has said. This point in the conversation is a rich juncture — the breakdown of understanding could not be any more distinct.
Establishing a Choice
The remaining portion of the text for today (verses 44-51) introduces entirely new material, though the words may seem familiar. Jesus begins to call his conversation partners to a real decision about who he is. He talks about “coming to me” (verses 44-45).
The first time, it is stated negatively: “No one is able to come to me unless drawn by my Father” (verse 44). The verb translated as “drawn” could be translated as the more intensive word “dragged.” No one comes to Jesus without the Father’s pull.
In the next verse, Jesus refers to scripture (Isaiah 54:13) and states it positively: “All who heard from the Father and learned from what they heard will come to me.” Here, the teaching from God and the learning from that teaching will result in coming to Jesus.
Different church contexts have different understandings of what it means “to come to Jesus.” John’s own context and community had different layers of meaning for this also. It may be important to invoke some of the options. For the Jews in Jesus’ context, it would be to choose the messianic understanding of their own tradition. For the Jews in the context of the Gospel of John, it would mean choosing to step outside the Jewish tradition and moving into the Christian context. In today’s context, it might mean moving outside the typical pattern of our own culture and choosing a radical Christian understanding of the world.
Whatever this choice involves, Jesus is clear that it cannot happen individually. It is dependent upon God’s beckoning, the Father’s instruction, and the disciple’s learning. One cannot come to Jesus on one’s own.
Declaration from Jesus
In verse 51, Jesus states about himself what the Jews stated in verse 41 — only this time Jesus inserts a crucial and revealing word, zōā. Jesus declares “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.” He uses the prior words of the Jews against them to correct what they think they already understood.
Their grumbling was because they were trying to fit Jesus into their frame of reference. Bread equals manna in the wilderness. The miracle of the feeding equals the food that filled their ancestors. Anything outside that context is not available for consideration. Their tradition is all that can provide the context. Jesus had to shut them up to provide a different context from the one that was clouding their hearing and understanding.
Now Jesus inserts a “living” context, himself. This is not about their ancestors. It is about his Father. This is not about food. It is about living bread. This is not something that has already happened. It is about something that will happen.
So What’s New
Jesus’ final words “The bread I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” are both a revelation and a promise. This sentence reveals what is to happen before this gospel story is complete. Jesus will give his body literally. The promise is that this giving up will be for the life of the world.
John’s entire gospel moves towards this truth. It is the culmination of the Nicodemus encounter in chapter 3. John 3:16-18 echo here in 6:51. Jesus is speaking to the Jews (verse 41) near the time of the Passover (verse 4). The context of that tradition has been turned completely upside down. What in the context of our own congregations needs turning upside down before we can hear and understand and be drawn to Jesus’ words?