Commentary on John 6:35, 41-51
The reading begins with one of the most well-known “I am” sayings from the Gospel of John: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (verse 35).
The narrator adds “to see” alongside the verb “to believe.” The Johannine Jesus drives home the significance of what it means to come to Jesus and believe using a chiasm around seeing and believing:
A (verse 36) seeing and not believing
B (verse 37) Jesus will not drive away those who come to him
C (verse 38) I have come down from heaven
B’ (verse 39) Jesus will lose nothing of all that God gives him
A’ (verse 40) seeing and believing.1
In sum, it is not enough to see glancingly (for example, verses 19, 25, 34, 42, and 52). Seeing Jesus rightly leads to believing in Jesus deeply.
For the first time in John 6, the narrator singles out “the Jews” as being the source of conflict for Jesus (verse 41). John is of course in the middle of a conflict and we can understand how conflicts lead to distortions, but we don’t need to bless them. In terms of clearing the sightlines for communication, it seems best to translate the narrator’s “the Jews” as “the religious authorities” or “religious leadership.”
Jesus’ words in verse 35 spark controversy among the religious leaders: “They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?’” (John 6:42). Jesus doesn’t address the complaint as such but instead begins with God’s action (verses 44-46): God sends, draws, raises, and teaches. In turn, Jesus’ coming and being sent by God the Father gives rise to healthy verbs of receptivity: seeing, believing, hearing, and learning.2
It is not unusual to experience John as almost unbearably repetitive. Maybe the present chapter is especially heavy on repetition. Even so, it is not fair to say that John is just a repetition of Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Gail R. O’Day calls our attention to how recurring themes contribute to the cohesiveness of John’s theological perspective. When Jesus repeats the crowd’s exegesis of “our ancestors” in verse 31, it becomes “your ancestors” in verse 48, thus putting distance between Jesus and the crowd. Then Jesus takes the bread image one step further—before, in verse 35, those who came to Jesus would be satisfied; now, in verse 51, those who eat the living bread, Jesus, will live forever. The language that had been metaphorical shifts: “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”3
But why go after theological cohesiveness in this peculiar way? Is there something in the medium of John that can help us grasp its message?
Mulling this over, perhaps we notice the contrast between those who show a “glancing” acquaintance with Jesus and the narrator’s insistence that we see Jesus repeatedly. See Jesus as the One sent, and as the One to whom people come, and from whom people learn, and by whom people will be raised on the last day. See Jesus who sees and knows the Father. See Jesus who gives his flesh for the life of the world.
Living in John’s world as a disciple feels like enchantment, or perhaps being held in the steady gaze of the Word. But stand for a minute in the shoes of those who shake their heads in disbelief. Is the complaint of verses 41-42 anything worse than the way we might “glancingly” evaluate a loaf of bread? It is good or bad or neutral … but from heaven? Really?
“Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (verse 42).
Imagine, for a moment, the agitated atmosphere of Jesus’ day, when hungry eyes searched for the one who would glow in the dark of this age. Consider the promiscuous gaze, always looking elsewhere, until, at last, it cannot look away. Or, in not looking away, decides to linger in the gaze of the one who lingers with us.
The “I am” sayings hold our gaze on a person who seems and is very human, maybe the first real human being. Maybe we wonder what it means to believe in Jesus whom we have not seen. It seems to be a problem. And yet, even if we do not “see” Jesus, we do “see” the symbols of the “I am” sayings: “I am the bread of life” (verse 35); “I am the living bread that came down from heaven” (verse 51); “I am the gate for the sheep” (John 10:7, 9); “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14). The sayings point to commonplace images: shepherd, bread, vines, a viticulturist, a gate, and a gatekeeper.
But is there anything really “common” about the human experience? Or, what’s there to see that we haven’t already seen?
When we left the U.S. for England, we weren’t able to take much with us. For complicated reasons, our family pictures ended up with my parents in California, some 5,000 miles away. However, as we were packing, we did take along some pieces of art made by family members, especially our children. We also packed some of the sketches my mom has sent us over the years. We’ve framed them, and they are now hanging in our living room. Each picture consists of a few quick brushstrokes. The pictures include animals that you see in nature: a hummingbird, a school of salmon, a dragonfly, a wading bird, a deer.
It was only a few days ago when it dawned on me that we don’t have any pictures of my mom. We’ve been living here for five months at the time of my writing. Why hadn’t I missed her picture? As I looked again at those sketches, I knew the answer: when I see those paintings, I see them, but I “see” my mom. Or perhaps I see through my mom’s eyes, and I “see” her, almost as if she were here, in this place.
- Xavier Leon-Dufour, “Trois Chiasmes Johanninques,” NTS 7 (1960-61), 251-53, quoted in Gail R. O’Day, “John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: Luke and John, volume 8 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), 512.
- O’Day, “John” in New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015), 513.
- O’Day, “John” in New Interpreter’s Bible, 514.