Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

95. “Bread of Life” (John 6:22-36, 41-43, 48-59)*

In this intensely busy time in the ministry of Jesus, the reader is sometimes left wondering when he found time for sleep or any kind of rest. Consider this sequence — a busy morning beset by crowds (Mk. 6:31), crossing Galilee, more teaching and healing throughout the afternoon (Mt. 14:15), the feeding of the multitude, he goes into the hills for prayer (did he snatch an hour or two of sleep also?), before dawn he walks three or four miles across the water to join the disciples, from the time of arrival in port (just about daylight?) he is beset with people who seek to be healed, and now (later the same day) he spends what must have amounted to a considerable time teaching and reasoning in the synagogue at Capernaum. As feats of physical stamina, apart from anything else, these days of Jesus take one’s breath away.

Of the great multitude who had been fed by him on the other side of the lake, many had probably continued their Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem, many more must have found their way to their own homes, but a considerable number had got back to Capernaum almost as quickly as Jesus. The overnight gale had forced many boats from the vicinity of Tiberias (not far from Capernaum on the western shore) to seek shelter on the eastern side. Thus they were available next morning as ferry boats for considerable numbers of people who, finding that Jesus had gone away, wanted to get home to Capernaum.

The Crowd puzzled

Many of these, crowding into the synagogue because they heard that Jesus had already gone there, openly expressed their mystification as to how he had crossed over from the eastern shore. They had seen the disciples go off without Jesus. They knew there had been no other boat to pick him up. They were sure he had not been ferried over during the morning, as they had been. Surely he had not walked round the northern shore in record time! How had he done it? “Rabbi, when earnest thou hither?” Surely not a passage through the water, like Moses and Joshua! They scented another miracle, and this made them keener than ever in their desire to see him King of the Jews.

Two Discourses?

From this point John frames his narrative as though reporting a long discourse by Jesus in the synagogue, interrupted by questions and objections from his hearers. Careful scrutiny reveals, however, that there are two sections which plainly belong to each other and which are altogether different in theme and style from all the rest. Omitting these, one is left with a continuous coherent discourse on the theme: Bread of Life. At the same time there is little doubt that these two paragraphs belong to the same occasion. This is shown by their common use of the refrain: “and I will raise him up at the last day “ (v. 39, 40, 44, 54).

It seems not unlikely, then — though, of course, one cannot be sure about this — that in the synagogue Jesus delivered a formal discourse which John reports in the two parentheses (v. 37-40, 44-47), and that during another part of the service members of the congregation had opportunity to ask questions and put their point of view (it is known that this was a feature of some synagogue services in ancient days).

An alternative view is that the parentheses were actually spoken to the twelve when the encounter in the synagogue had concluded. They have much that could be appropriate to such a situation. But, then, the words are also very appropriate to the attitude of the crowd in the synagogue, and this would explain why John chose to insert these two sections where he did.

In this review, for convenience, consideration of the parentheses will be omitted here and instead will be dealt with separately in the next study.

Unspiritual Attitude

Jesus ignored the people’s enquiries about his crossing the lake and addressed himself instead to their motive: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles (signs, emphasizing the meaning of them), but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled”. Of course they had seen his miracles. Indeed, by this time they had seen many of them. But they did not see them as anything but wonders. To the spiritual significance of them, as signs, they were blind.

There is both rebuke and a hint of scorn in the way Jesus put this, for he used a word normally applied to the foddering of animals, thus implying that they were interested in him only because he had filled their bellies.

It was the first of about ten allusions in this discourse to Psalm 78 (see note at end of this study) and its withering censure of the unspiritual attitude of Israel to the marvels of God’s providence in delivering them from Egypt (the first Passover) and caring for them in the wilderness.

This theme — Moses, Passover, manna in the desert — became the dominant theme in the Lord’s lengthy discourse this day. From the very first his tone was austere and reproving. The previous day’s experience had come as a mighty shock to him. It had startled him to find that the higher appeal of his teaching had made no impression on the multitude whatever. Apparently it had gone right over their heads. All they could think of was the immediate material gain which could accrue to themselves from the miracles of Jesus, and the political revolution (again material advantage!) which was bound to succeed if only they could get him to lead it.

Manna and manna

So Jesus tried hard to lift their aspirations and their attitude to himself on to a higher plane. They had just enjoyed God-given food in the wilderness. Israel’s similar experience of manna in their wilderness provided a splendid illustration: “Do not keep working or striving for the food which perishes, but for that food which lasts, continuing even to eternal life. I, the Son of man, will give you that, for I have been sealed by the Father” (6:27). The manna which Israel gathered did not last, it “bred worms and stank” (Ex. 16:20). But there was other manna which never corrupted — that which was laid up before the Lord in an earthenware jar covered with gold.

The purpose behind this incorruptible manna was “that they may see the bread wherewith I fed you in the wilderness” (Ex. 16:32). How they were to see it is explained in “Exploring the Bible” (H.A.W.), p. 91. Jesus echoed that key word in his discourse (v. 36). The lintel of the door of that Capernaum synagogue (or, just possibly, its successor) has been found. Carved on it is a representation of the pot of manna which was “sealed” before the Lord. The LXX version uses “sealed” as an equivalent for “laid up in store before God” (Dt. 32:34).

That manna and its container both represented Jesus, a man with ordinary human nature which was not ordinary, the mortal and corruptible soon to become immortal and incorruptible in the presence of the Father (and hence, of course, “the hidden manna” of Rev. 2:17). The allusion to “the Son of man” was designed to take their minds also to Daniel’s picture (7:13) of a Son of man brought to the heavenly glory of the Ancient days to share His immortality and then giving his people deliverance and an indestructible kingdom of heavenly glory (contrast Jn.6:15). “Which the Son of man shall give you” was designed to look back to Daniel 7:27: “And the kingdom and dominion... shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High”-in striking contrast with their own intentions to win freedom for themselves (Jn. 6:15).

The Works of God

But the key phrase in the Lord’s challenge was the first: “Work not...” Self-justification before God through one’s own work and efforts was ingrained in the Jewish outlook, as indeed it always has been, and still is. They were and they continue to be, “children in whom is no faith”, except for faith in their own power to redeem themselves.

In spite of Jesus’ allusion to the Messianic kingdom to be given them by their Messiah (himself), they thought only in terms of taking the kingdom from the Romans by their own efforts, just as Israel under Joshua had defeated all Gentile efforts at resistance: “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?’ — such works as were done in those ancient days.

In reply Jesus laid down the first necessary condition. Just as in Egypt the first essential was unquestioning acceptance of the authority of first Moses and then Joshua-Jesus as their God-sent leader, so now: “This is the work of God, that ye believe and go on believing (Gk) on him whom he hath sent”.

Here, and not for the first time, Jesus was presenting a new definition of righteousness which the human mind assimilates only with difficulty. It is ingrained in all human thinking, and especially in Jewish thinking, that good works are essentially unselfish activity on God’s behalf or unselfish beneficence to one’s fellow-men. Jesus, and after him the apostles, had to insist over and over again that what, more than anything else, makes a man acceptable to God is faith in Christ and in God’s Purpose centred in him. Such a faith is, in the sight of God, and therefore intrinsically, a higher righteousness than acts of pious service or humanitarian goodness can ever be.

In the more restricted context in which these words were first spoken Jesus probably meant: The first condition for national redemption is unfaltering acceptance of my authority and leadership.


They took him up on this immediately: “What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee?” After the miracle of the feeding of the multitude they had compared him to Moses: “This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world” (v. 14). Now, less sure of the truth of this, they screwed up their demands for unshakable proof. Any doubts about Moses’ authority from God had been stifled by a series of shattering plagues on the land of Egypt and a mighty theophany at Sinai. Let Jesus do the same against their Roman overlords and in their presence, and they would follow him readily enough. They had had from him lots of unostentatious spiritual signs. Let him give them one massive national political sign, and they were behind him to a man.

After all, by itself the feeding of five thousand people once was hardly comparable with the marvellous provision in the time of Moses, when all Israel had been fed more than ten thousand times: “Our fathers did eat manna in the wilderness; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat”. They quoted (and misused) Nehemiah’s enthusiastic summary of Israel’s great experience (9:15), thus hinting at another deliverance from captivity, such as happened in Nehemiah’s day.

The True Bread

Jesus responded to their challenge in startling fashion; ‘It was not Moses who gave your fathers the bread from heaven, but my Father. Your Nehemiah passage says so. And that provision of food was only a type of something greater. He is now giving to you the true Bread from heaven. For this true Bread is of divine origin, as the manna was, and he is offering Life to all Israel’ (v. 32, 33).

“Bread of God” was a designedly ambiguous expression. In this context those hearing Jesus would inevitably take it as allusion to the manna in the wilderness, but in the Law the same phrase was used repeatedly for the sacrifices offered in the sanctuary (e.g. Lev. 3:11; 21:6, 8, 17, 21, 22; 22:25), and-in harmony with this idiom — the altar was spoken of as “the table of the Lord” (Mal. 1:7, 12). Thus, the discourse of Jesus was taking on overtones of sacrifice — a theme which was to come out much more strongly before he was done.

But the ingrained materialism of the people would not allow them to go beyond the most literal meaning. They had asked for yesterday’s miracle to become a permanent institution. Now, still thinking only of their bellies, with incurable unspirituality they pressed once again for unceasing bread and circuses: “Lord, evermore give us this bread”.

Two Similar Discourses
There are marked resemblances here to the conversation with the woman of Samaria. Jesus had said to her: “Whosoever drinketh of this water (from Jacob’s well) shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst” (4:13, 14). Here he had already warned them “Labour not for the meat which perisheth (such as Moses gave to your forefathers), but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life...“ She had begged: “Lord, give me this water, that I thirst not, nor come hither to draw”. Similarly, they insisted: “Lord, evermore give us this bread”. In reply to which he promised an appetite which was self-assuaging: “He that cometh to me shall never hunger” — just as he had assured the Samaritan woman: “The water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life”. Doubtless John framed his reporting of these discourses specially to stress these similarities, and thus to demonstrate that spiritually the Jews were no better than Samaritans. Indeed the synagogue would soon demonstrate that they were a lot worse (6:60, 66; 4:40-42).

Greater than Moses

The Lord’s attempt to wean their attention from material advantage to the spiritual blessings he could offer, now brought about a dramatic change in the people’s attitude: “/ am the bread of life: he that keeps on coming to me shall never hunger (v. 41, 51), and he that believeth on me (as the smitten Rock) shall never thirst”. It was a point blank claim to be greater than Moses, providing superior benefits to manna in the wilderness and water from the smitten rock. Jesus brought in here what was to become one of the great words of John’s writing: alethinos, which means “true”, not in contrast to what is false or a lie, but which distinguishes between the type which foreshadows and the greater intrinsic truth to which the type points (e.g. 1:9; 15:1; 1 Jn. 5:20; Rev. 3:7, 14). The bread given by Moses, that marvel of power and loving-kindness, was only a type. The true Bread was now being continuously offered (like daily manna) by a provident heavenly Father — if only they would gather it.

Yet even as he made these claims Jesus knew that there was no hope that he would be accepted for what he truly was. Their vision of the Messianic kingdom was too mundane, too materialistic, for they had no thought of regeneration, the personal fitness qualifying them for Messiah’s blessings. So, very sadly, he added: “But I said unto you, that even though ye have seen (my miracles) ye do not believe”. The past tense “said” may be an allusion to his disapproval of their attitude, already expressed in verse 26, or — more probably — to what he had said to them the previous day because of their unsatisfactory reaction to his feeding of the multitude. It was the same reproach which he had addressed to the rulers in Jerusalem (5:37-44) because of their stubborn determination to reject or misinterpret the evidence of his miracles.

However the blunt warning left them untouched, for in their hopelessly inadequate unspiritual attitude they were reinforced by their religious leaders. At this time it was evidently the policy of these Pharisees and legalists to keep Jesus under continual supervision (Mt. 15:1; Mk. 7:1 follow on immediately from this). Possibly they even saw to it that frequent opportunity came his way to teach in the synagogues because they were confident that sooner or later his own words would so thoroughly condemn him that they would have a watertight case against him before the Sanhedrin or the Roman authorities.


Now they felt they had something to fasten on to. “I am the bread which came down from heaven” reminded them of the extravagance of his earlier claim to be the Son to whom the Father had committed all judgment (Jn. 5:22) How could they let this go without censure? So they “murmured at him”. It is the same word which the LXX uses to describe the murmuring of Israel against Moses before they were given manna for the first time (Ex. 16:6-9; Num. 11:4, 10). To the people the Lord’s assertion had meant no more than a claim to have a divine mission. The Scripture they had quoted to him: “He gave them bread from heaven to eat”, was not taken to mean that the manna had been literally brought from some heavenly storehouse by angels, but simply that by divine provision the manna was made to appear when it was needed. Similarly, the fourfold claim (6:38, 50, 51, 58) to be “bread from heaven” meant a mission and a message with God-given authority. The present tense in v. 33 is also worth noting: “He which is (now) coming down from heaven” (cp. v. 50). But Jesus as a man had been amongst them for thirty years and more. When orthodox contemporaries argue from these words for a personal pre-existence of Jesus in heaven, this is now their error may be exposed.


But to these men of consequence, bent on pressing home a damaging criticism, Jesus was apparently claiming to be greater than Moses. By what right dare he say, “Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father is (now) giving you the true bread from heaven”? Every separate phrase here horrified them. Who did he think he was? “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?” They had taken good care to investigate his origins (as far as they could!). Then why should he talk as though he had some specially close relationship to God in heaven? It had been the same with the manna in the wilderness. There was, and still is, a commodity called manna produced in the wilderness — an exudation from the tamarisk tree — and Israel, seeing the heavenly food for the first time, had promptly confused it with this natural product: “It is manna (which we are already familiar with)” (Ex. 16:15). And later they were to complain; “Our soul loatheth this light bread” (Num. 21:5). Now, with the true Bread set before them, they were more than willing similarly to denigrate the gift of God. “How is it then that he saith, I came down from heaven?” They did not ask “Why?” but “How?”- was this mighty claim made by divine inspiration or as a wicked fraud? They had their own confident answer to this ready.

Bread of Life

Jesus rebuked their carping attitude with a reiteration of his claim: “I am the bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and they died”. The curt phrase would quickly remind these critics why they died — because they rejected the call to faith which came to them from Jesus-Joshua (see Num. 14:7-9). With the scornful expression: “your fathers”, Jesus now rejected these faithless descendants of faithless men.

He was, he repeated, offering them true bread “which a man may eat thereof, and not die... if a man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever” (cp. Ps. 22:26). At this point they would surely realise that he alluded to his own teaching. Yet there were some among them so perversely literal-minded that they were resolved to make nonsense of what he said. When Jesus went on: “and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world”, he meant, as in many other places (e.g. 7:4, 7; 12:19), the saving of the Jewish world; and he must have been so understood, or there would have been uproar in that synagogue (as at Nazareth) at mention of a mission to Gentiles.

Mention of my “flesh” in the sense of “the flesh I will provide” (v. 52) sent their minds to Israel glutted with quails in the wilderness (Num. 11:18, 31). “How can this man give us flesh to eat?”


At this point contention actually broke out amongst the Pharisees present: “The Jews strove among themselves”. It is the first of a series of indications that the work and claims of Jesus had split the party of the Pharisees down the middle (e.g. Jn. 9:16, 40; 10:19-21; 12:42; 8:31; 3:2; 7:12; Lk. 13; 31?). The word “strove” normally implies physical fighting. It was probably used here by John to remind his readers that it was “two men of the Hebrews striving together” (Ex. 2:13) which led to Israel’s rejection of Moses so that his experience foreshadowed “the reproach of Christ” (Heb. 11:26).There is an acute appropriateness about the inclusion of this detail here, for — as the rest of this Passover record goes on to make very clear-this discourse on Bread of Life proved to be the turning point in Christ’s ministry.

“Flesh and Blood”

In his reply to their niggling objections Jesus pulled them abruptly away from an over-literal interpretation of his words: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you”. None of them could be such a fool as to take him literally now. But the words jarred on their minds, for had not the Law dinned into them that God would “set his face against that soul that eateth blood”, for “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev. 17:10, 11)? Yet four times over Jesus insisted that eating his flesh and drinking his blood is the only true life (v. 53-56). What did he mean?

The expressions “the flesh” and “flesh and blood”, both of which were used by Jesus in this discourse, occur often in the New Testament in a non-literal sense. “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven”, Jesus was to say to Peter after his confession (Mt. 16:17). “Immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood... but I went into Arabia”, wrote Paul in reminiscence of his early days in Christ (Gal. 1:16). Here allusion to literal flesh and literal blood is out of question. ‘Human nature’ is what is meant.

Similarly, “the flesh”, by itself, often signifies the weakness and frailty of human nature (cp. 1 Jn. 4:2, 3). Romans 8 is a chapter with lots of clear examples; “Them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the spirit...they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh...the mind of the flesh is enmity against God...we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh...” and so on.

So, when Jesus appropriated these expressions to himself, he was first of all declaring the wonderful truth that, although Son of God, he truly and fully shared fallen human nature with all its innate propensity to evil. In this way he took the curse of Adam’s race upon himself (Heb. 2:14, 18; 4:15).

But yet there was a difference, for in Christ’s human nature — his flesh and blood — sin met its match. His was a flesh and blood where righteousness triumphed. And in his resurrection flesh and blood became transformed into incorruptible divine nature.

Against this background of ideas, the idiom used by the Lord to his wilfully blind critics clearly meant that the only way to life is to forsake ordinary flesh and blood for Christ’s flesh and blood — to let go the nature one is born with in exchange for the new nature which he offers. As Jesus was born of both human and divine parentage, and was called to live a life in which flesh and Spirit were always at odds, so also the new-born disciple of Christ finds himself with a comparable double nature. From the time that he is born again, flesh and spirit contend for the ascendancy.

Then, for a man to “eat Christ’s flesh, and drink his blood” is to assimilate and share the kind of flesh-spirit life which he himself lived (cp. the idiom in Ez. 3:3; Jer. 15:16; Pr. 9:5; Rev. 10:9, 10). That was a life in which the Spirit was victor. This too is a life of similar victory — what Jesus himself called “eternal life”, such as is assured of resurrection at the last day (v. 54).

The True Life

There is no other way to “eternal life” and resurrection. “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you” (v. 53). It is not sufficient that Jesus shall have “taught in our streets” (Lk.13:26). It is not sufficient to have eaten the symbol of his flesh countless times and to have drunk the token of his blood. It is not sufficient to belong to the right community — Israel were the Covenant people, but “your fathers did eat manna, and died: it is he (the individual believer) that eateth this bread that shall live for ever” (v. 58).

A man eats food for one of two reasons. Either he is in desperate need of it to keep himself alive, and he craves it above all else; or he eats out of pure enjoyment, because the food is so pleasant to his palate. Both of these have their place in the proper partaking of the Bread of Life. As is the natural, so also is the spiritual. The first motive dominates, but graduates into the second.

“These things said he in the synagogue, as he taught in Capernaum” (v. 59), and thereby bade farewell to present success in his ministry. The decision was taken. The crowd wanted him for his wonders and miracles and the physical benefit they got from them. But there must be an end to futile appeal to superficial multitudes. From now on he would concentrate on the faithful remnant who were willing to take his message to themselves with intense personal seriousness. They would learn to “eat his flesh and drink his blood” by appropriating to themselves the life of self-denial which becomes life indeed.

The strange phrase just quoted was used by Jesus four times in quick succession (v. 52-56); and “meat indeed...drink indeed” means true spiritual reality by contrast with symbol or type, such as the manna or the smitten rock.

There can be little doubt that Jesus chose to use this figure which he employed with such eloquent repetition because he now foresaw that the outworking of his ministry could have only one result—failure, rejection, shame and death. His flesh was to be given for the life of the world.

By one simple device John bade his readers see the miracle of the feeding of the multitude, and this discourse springing out of it, as carrying deep sacramental significance. In his account of the Last Supper he has omitted any record of the actual institution of the memorial rite, which the synoptists all give in detail. Thus he bids his readers go back for its equivalent to “the place where they did eat bread, offer that the Lord had given thanks” (v. 23).

Psalm 78

John 6
The works of God
The works of God
spirit not steadfast...went back
Many...went back and walked no more with him
Forgot his wonders
Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles
Asking meat for their lust. . Can God furnish a table?
What sign shewest thou?...Manna in the desert
Bread...can he provide flesh?
I am the Bread of Life...How can this man give his flesh to eat?
Believed not in God
Ye also have seen me, and believe not.
Opened the doors of heaven
He which cometh down from heaven
Manna...the corn of heaven
Manna...the true bread from heaven
They did eat, and were well filled
Because ye did eat...and were filled
The wrath of God upon them
Your fathers...died
They lied unto him...
Lord, evermore give us this bread
Flesh...a wind (spirit) that passeth away
The flesh profiteth nothing... the words that 1 speak they are spirit and they are life
They turned back...and limited the Holy One of Israel
Many went back
(A prophetic parable of the selection of “David” and the casting off of Israel)
RV. The Holy one of God

Notes: Jn. 6:22-59

After that the Lord had given thanks. The phrase became a kind of technical term in the early church for the

Breaking of Bread. Here it prepares the way for v. 53-56.

The Lord. In John this title is used only in 4:1; 6:23; and the Resurrection record. Why? Were the two earlier places seen as foreshadowing Baptism and the Breaking of Bread, both of which have their roots in the Resurrection?
Rabbi. They were in the synagogue; v. 59. But note the deterioration of the people’s attitude to him — from v. 25, 34 to v. 41, 42, 52, 60, 66, 71.
Labour not (cont. v.) for the meat which perisheth. They were already hungry again.

Shall give unto you; v. 32, 51; 4:14.

Sealed. The word also carries the meaning consecrated; Rev. 7:3; 9:4.
Believe thee. There is a subtle difference between this and the normal phrase: believe into.
He which cometh down from heaven. The Gk. is ambiguous. It could read: “that which”, with reference to the manna; hence v. 34; cp. v. 31, 50.
Seen me. This verb very commonly refers to the experience ot seeing divine power at work.
We know. This present tense sorely implies that Joseph was still alive.
Bread of life. Note the sequence:


Bread from heaven

Bread of God

v35, 48
Bread of life

The living Bread

Cometh down from heaven. This continuous present tense strongly disallows of any “pre-existence argument being based on this verse or its context: cp. v. 33.
The living bread. Here there is sharp contrast, of course, with the corruptive manna.

My flesh, cp. 1:14. The synoptists’ equivalent is “body, blood”.
No life in you; 15:4; 20:31.
Eateth my flesh. Here and in v. 56, 57, 58b Jesus switches to a different word for “eat” to indicate a sacramental partaking of Bread and Wine, which otherwise goes without specific mention in John’s gospel. Only in this way is the omission to be explained. A contrasting word for “eat” is used in v. 58a.
Dwelleth in me, and I in him. One commentator over aptly says: “We abide in him because we are his members: but he abides in us because we are his temple”. See 1 Jn. 3;24; 4:15,16 — both places referring to the Breaking of Bread (see “First Epistle of John”, by H.A.W.).
The living Father. The heavenly Father has eternal life, and therefore I have eternal life; so whoever abides in me has eternal life.
Sent me. See on 1:6.

Live by the me. In both places, “because of”; i.e. because of the redeeming Purpose initiated by the Father and being fulfilled in the Son.
In the synagogue. Probably a mid-week assembly, for would such a crowd have crossed Galilee on a sabbath?

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