The Bread of Life Discourse is the Apostle John’s account of the conversation between Jesus and the Jews as recorded in chapter six of his gospel. In His discourse with the Jews, Jesus plainly conveys what they must do to be saved; believe in Him. However, the Jews were more interested in the miracles Jesus performed then they were in what He preached. They were convinced that if He was the messiah, He would lead them to victory over the Romans and establish the everlasting kingdom.
Jesus exclaimed no less than seven times during this discourse what was required of a person to be saved; believe in Him. Every instance echoes Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” [i] The message of the Bread of life discourse is no different except that it gives perspective to those words. The Jews knew only the Law, but Jesus was conveying something the Law could not; grace. And by contrast, the Law, which is true and righteous, could only condemn, but Christ, who is truth and righteousness, was the fulfillment of the Law; the true Bread from heaven that gives life everlasting.
The discourse was about grace, fulfillment of the Law and prophets, and the purpose of Messiah. The discourse was not about physically eating the Lord’s flesh and drinking His blood. The discourse does not provide proof for, or in any way support, the Catholic doctrine of real presence. It is, however, an invitation to discover the Good News; the Gospel of Christ as summed up in John 3:16.
The Bread of Life
John chapter six is where the rubber meets the road for the disciples of Jesus as they listen to the discourse between Him and the Jews. Many of the Jews were watching Jesus, trying to discern if He truly was the Messiah. When they saw the miracle of the multiplying of the loaves, they desired to take Him by force and make Him king with the goal of reclaiming Jerusalem. This is what they thought the messiah was going to do. Jesus, perceiving their intentions, escaped out of their presence.
The following day the Jews discovered Jesus in the synagogue at Capernaum and asked Him how He came to be there. Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled.”[ii] Jesus exposed their motives for seeking Him. The Jews sought Jesus for their own ambitious agenda, but Jesus challenged them by confronting their lack of faith. He said this not only for them to hear, but also for those disciples who were following Him for the same earthly reasons.
Jesus tells the Jews, “Labor not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed.”[iii] This they couldn’t understand; they were too carnal minded. Jesus was telling them by parable to labor for spiritual food, which is the work of God, not carnal food, which is the work of man.
During the time Satan tempted Jesus with bread because He was hungry, Jesus replied, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”[iv] Because Jesus said labor for that meat which endures unto everlasting life; it prompted them to challenge Jesus with this question: “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?” [v]
It is not clear from the context of the discourse whether or not the Jews were sincere or if they were testing Him like the Pharisees did in Mathew 22. But one thing is clear, in the minds of the Jews there was only one correct answer. If Jesus did not assert the Law as the work of God, they would condemn Him as a fraud. If, on the other hand, He affirmed the Law, they might have attempted once more to take Him and declare Him king.
The question was posed and Jesus answered it, but not exactly as they were expecting. “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.”[vi] The Jews suspected Jesus might be the Messiah, but they were no doubt stunned at His response claiming to be exactly that. No one knows how many people were actually at the synagogue, but one can imagine the collective gasp as both followers and skeptics processed those words.
Now they sought to test Him, to make Him prove He was sent from God. They said, “What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? What dost thou work?[vii] Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”[viii]” Jesus replied, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world.“[ix]
Certain Pharisees also asked Jesus for a sign and Jesus replied to them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall no sign be given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas: For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”[x]
The answer Jesus gave the Jews in this discourse is no different than the answer He gave the Pharisees in Mathew’s gospel. Even His closest disciples wouldn’t understand Jesus’ purpose until they see the sign He was referring to; the empty tomb. He gave life unto the world by giving His life for the world. This is what He is telling them but it is not possible for them to conceive it.
It’s obvious they didn’t understand what Jesus was telling them because by there response; “Lord, evermore give us this bread.”[xi] Jesus repeated what He said before, but more specifically by saying, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.”[xii]
John records another discourse similar to this one with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. In that discourse Jesus told the woman, “Whosoever drinketh of this water (from the well) shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.“[xiii] In both discourses Jesus illustrates the difference between our physical needs and the spiritual rewards of one who is born of the Spirit.
The Bread of life discourse, the discourse with the woman at the well, and the discourse with Nicodemus are all recorded in John’s Gospel, and all three have the same common thread; salvation is obtained by believing in Christ.
Jesus continued with the Jews, “But I said unto you, that ye also have seen me, and believe not.“[xiv] This is key to understanding the position that the Jews held and also the hopeless state they were in. When Thomas, one of the twelve, saw the resurrected Christ, he fell to his knees and said, “My Lord and my God.”[xv] Jesus replied, “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”[xvi] There were those disciples who were with Jesus because they believed in Him, and there were, and are, many people who have not seen Him and yet believe.
“All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day.”[xvii] This is the first of two consecutive times Jesus said “the will of the Father.” In this instance, Jesus is referring to the twelve. Compare this to Jesus’ words when He prayed to the Father, prior to His arrest at Gethsemane. “While I was with them in the world, I kept them in thy name: those that thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost, but the son of perdition; that the scripture might be fulfilled.“[xviii] Jesus confirmed in that prayer that His disciples were given to Him by His Father. This is further collaborated in Mathew 16:17: “And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.”
As the discourse continued the twelve are there with Jesus along with the Jews to whom He is conversing. The other disciples who believe in Him are not left out as Jesus continues discussing the will of the Father: “And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.”[xix] This is the fifth time in this discourse that Jesus conveyed the plain truth about salvation. This is the common thread throughout John’s Gospel. Jesus said nothing different here than what He said to Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”[xx] This is the simple gospel message in a nutshell.
The Jews have no concept of Jesus being the Son of God; they only know Him as the son of Joseph and Mary. They knew Jesus was referring to Himself, and because Jesus said, “every one which seeth the Son” they murmured at Him and said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? how is it then that he saith, I came down from heaven?“[xxi]
In response to this, Jesus proclaimed his divinity: “It is written in the prophets, and they shall be all taught of God. Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me. Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father. Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life.“[xxii]
One such prophet was Isaiah who prophesied, “All your children shall be taught by the LORD, and great shall be the peace of your children.”[xxiii] And Jeremiah prophesied the following: “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”[xxiv]
Jesus paints a clear picture of who He is in His response to the Jews. Not only does He claim to be Messiah, He claims to have come from the presence of God. But to the Jews He could not have been Messiah. The message that fell upon the ears of the Jews was essentially one of rebellion. Where was the Law; where was the sin offering, the priesthood, the scribes and Pharisees; where was all that in Jesus’ proclamation? Didn’t God institute the Law? What did Jesus mean by He that believeth on me hath everlasting life?
This is not hard to understand from a Christian perspective, but try to understand it from a Jewish perspective. It makes absolutely no sense at all. That is why Jesus said, “Every man therefore that hath heard, and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me. Not that any man hath seen the Father, save he which is of God, he hath seen the Father.” Nobody can learn of the Father except through Jesus, and, as Jesus said earlier in the discourse, nobody can come to Him unless the Father draw him or her in.
Jesus plainly told the Jews what they needed for eternal life no less than seven times, but they didn’t listen nor were they able to understand because of their unbelief. Now He will tell them again but this time in a way that the will repulse and confuse the carnal mind and will cause many to leave in disgust and disappointment.
Jesus tells them He is the bread of life and goes on to say: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.“[xxv] The Jews were thrown into frenzy over this saying. “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?“[xxvi] They didn’t understand what He was saying. Jesus was saying He would give His life, according to the flesh, at the cross so that the world might be saved, as many as who will believe. “Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.“[xxvii]
Just as their fathers ate manna, which was given to them by God, for the sake of their physical lives, Jesus gave His flesh at the cross for our eternal lives. Remember, their fathers complained and hated the manna God gave them, foreshadowing their rejection of Christ.[xxviii] Jesus was the only One who ever lived a sinless life. He was born sinless because he was begotten of the Father and obeyed the Law perfectly. Therefore, only He could be the perfect sacrifice in the flesh for our sins — the Lamb without blemish or spot. Because the Jews did not believe in Him and because Jesus said He was the bread from heaven and He would give His flesh for the life of the world, they thought He was telling them to eat His flesh. This testifies to what Jesus told them before that they were seeking Him because they ate of the loaves and were filled. They had no spiritual discernment and could only understand Him carnally. Therefore, Jesus is now going to speak according to the Spirit, and whosoever hears these sayings by canal means will be offended because of their unbelief.
“Then Jesus said unto them, 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. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.“[xxix] Compare this with what He said in verse 40: “And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.” The message never changed, only the way Jesus presented it. He did this so that those who didn’t believe in the truth might stumble by the truth. “Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the corner, And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed.“[xxx]
Jesus continued, “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him.“[xxxi] John, the author of this gospel, explained this saying in his first epistle when he said, “And this is his commandment, that we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment. And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us.“[xxxii] Hasn’t Jesus been saying this throughout the discourse, “Come unto Me, and believe in Me and I will raise you up at the last day? Jesus said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.“[xxxiii] He then promises to give us the Holy Spirit so that He can abide in us. And by that Spirit we know He abides in us and we in Him.
After saying these things, many of His disciples complained to each other because they could not understand. Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said to them: “Doth this offend you? What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before (referring to the resurrection)?“[xxxiv] They saw Him perform many miracles, yet failed to see Him for who He is. The Father did not reveal Him to them because they did not believe. Jesus told Nicodemus: “If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man, which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up (at the cross): That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”[xxxv] Only those who are born of the Spirit can comprehend the things of the Spirit. Likewise, only those to whom God has revealed His Son can come to Him.
Jesus then says, “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.“[xxxvi] Jesus is saying that the body without the spirit is nothing. This teaching is spiritual, not physical. His flesh is spiritual food and His blood is spiritual drink, which profits the spirit greatly, and profits not the body at all. Paul best explained this when he said, “And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.“[xxxvii] If Christ is in you, it’s because you love Him and keep His commandments, and thus are born of the Spirit – “it is the spirit that quickens” – not because you ate His body – your flesh profits nothing from these words. If we say we feed the spirit by the physical act of eating something, we are fooling ourselves.
As we read on, we see that the unbelieving disciples left Him, and He turned to the twelve and asked if they will also go away. But Peter answered Him saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.“[xxxviii]
[i] John 3:16[ii] John 6:26[iii] John 6:27[iv] Mat 4:4
[v] John 6:28
[vi] John 6:29
[vii] John 6:30
[viii] John 6:31
[ix] John 6:32-33
[x] Mat. 12:39-40, See also Mat. 16:1-4
[xi] John 6:34
[xii] John 6:35
[xiii] John 4:13-14
[xiv] John 6:36
[xv] John 20:28
[xvi] John 20:29
[xvii] John 6:37-38
[xviii] John 17:12
[xix] John 6:40
[xx] John 3:16
[xxi] John 6:42
[xxii] John 6:45-47
[xxiii] Isa. 54:13
[xxiv] Jer. 31:34
[xxv] John 6:51
[xxvi] John 6:52
[xxvii] Mat. 20:28
[xxviii] Num. 21:5
[xxix] John 6:53-55
[xxx] 1Pet. 2:7-8
[xxxi] John 6:56
[xxxii] 1John 3:23-24
[xxxiii] John 14:15
[xxxiv] John 6:61-62
[xxxv] John 3:12-15
[xxxvi] John 6:63
[xxxvii] Rom. 8:10
[xxxviii] John 6:68-69