This text is used for the Lectionary Year B on August 2, 2015.
In 6:24-35 an encounter occurs between Jesus and a Judean crowd, and it revolves around Jesus’ previous feeding of the 5,000 (6:1-15). One characteristic of this encounter is the use of questions. The Gospel of John is filled with probing questions directed towards Jesus. The Judean crowd and their questions are perfect examples of those seeking to know more about Jesus. Note the various questions put to Jesus by the crowd in these verses: (1) “Rabbi, when did you come here?” (v. 25); (2) “What must we do to perform works of God?” (v. 28); (3) “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?” (v. 30a); and (4) “What work are you performing?” (v. 30b).
The answers Jesus gives to the questions, far from simple and straight forward, are often Zen-like in nature. They contain double meanings, sub-texts, and nuanced reflection. In the Gospel of John, a reader or listener can never just take Jesus’ words on a surface level of meaning. For this reason, one of the best interpretive rules to remember comes from John 7:24 when Jesus says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” Not everything is as it seems.
Instead of answering the initial question the crowd asks, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” by giving a timetable of his boat trip, Jesus provides a different answer: “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of loaves” (v. 26). Jesus indicts the crowd because it focused on the wrong objective. The people saw a miracle, the multiplication of bread and fish, but they missed the sign to whom it pointed. Their seminar of questions to Jesus will be one more opportunity for them to grasp the significance of the Sign-Maker in their midst.
To help the crowd grasp the meaning of the sign, Jesus takes their literalistic understanding of food and deepens its meaning. The crowd understood the simple formula work = food, and Jesus starts with this premise by instructing them not to work for perishable food but rather for food that “endures for eternal life” (v. 27).
In a sense Jesus gave them a riddle to see if they could figure out this type of “food” and how to get it. In describing this food, Jesus uses the phrase eternal life, which is a frequent and key phrase in John’s Gospel (used twenty-one times). John presents eternal life not as something just in the future or a length of time but as a quality of life one experiences within the present.
The crowd is working on the riddle and knows Jesus is suggesting a different type of work other than plowing a field “by the sweat of their brow.” They question what type of work needs to be done (v. 28). Jesus’ response in v. 30 is the heart of this passage and also the entire Gospel of John. Jesus defines the work not as lifting a finger but of opening their hearts to “believe in him whom God has sent.” He pushes them to move beyond their stomachs to their hearts.
To believe in Jesus is the highest vocation in John. Conversely, for the Gospel of John, the greatest sin is just the opposite, to not believe in Jesus. John makes this point with poignant symbolic imagery in the climax of this passage, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (v. 35).
After Jesus’ response, the muddled thinking of the crowd is reflected in their demand for a sign. A perceptive reader will catch the irony in their request since breadcrumbs are still on their chins and fish on their breath. They have not only witnessed a sign, but they have consumed it. Yet still they demand a sign in order that they might “see it and believe you [Jesus]” (v. 30). Their demand to see and then believe reflects a shallow perspective and an obsolete path to faith. The climatic beatitude of John illustrates the way of discipleship and followship, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (20:29b).
This crowd scene has much in common with Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (4:4-26). In both stories, questions are presented to Jesus to explain his words, questions are raised about how to gain something, Old Testament theology is brought into the discussion, and focus is placed upon eating and drinking. While chapter 4 is oriented to the Samaritans, here the focus is upon the Judeans.
Especially in verses 31-35, one hears several of these echoes from chapter 4. The crowd turns to theological argument about Moses and manna in order to provoke Jesus to a sign. Jesus corrects their Old Testament theology with a theocentric view of the manna in the wilderness (Exodus 16). God is the source of the true bread and this “bread of God” gives life. Again, misunderstanding Jesus’ deeper understanding of bread, the crowd begs Jesus, “Sir, give us this bread always” (v. 34). The Samaritan woman utters almost the same words about water, “Sir, give me this water” (4:15). Jesus’ reply to the crowd is one of the descriptive “I am” statements: “I am the bread of life” (v. 36a). This reply echoes the one uttered by Jesus, “I am he” (4:26), to the Samaritan woman when she insists the Messiah will one day come and provide all answers.
One can engage this passage from several different angles. The repetition of questions in these verses is a reminder that probing questions are good and helpful when one is seeking insight. Giving people the permission to ask questions is a helpful pastoral task. With all questions, however, they need to be framed well and addressed to legitimate teachers, and individuals need to be willing to hear the answers.
Evangelism can certainly be a focus of this passage. Even when all questions are answered, believing is not just an intellectual experience but a relational one. For this reason, John helps reframe believing in Jesus as an intimate experience of eating and drinking. Followers are called inwardly to digest Jesus for nourishment in life. John’s call is for a relationship and not just or only mental assent.
Dr. David M. May
Professor of New Testament
Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Shawnee, KS
Tags: Bread of Life, manna, questions, Jewish crowds