The Gospel according to St. John, 6:24-35:
When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus. 25And when they found him across the sea they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” 26Jesus answered them and said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. 27Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.”
28So they said to him, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” 29Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”
30So they said to him, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? 31Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat. 32So Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34So they said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” 35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”
The Gospel reading for this Sunday entails several exchanges of dialogue that work toward a unified purpose: to direct hearers to Jesus as the object of our faith, the giver of life, and the source of true and enduring contentment.
John 6:24-35 follows upon two significant miracle events or, as the Evangelist calls them, “signs”: the feeding of the five thousand men and their families (6:1-15), and Jesus’ walking upon the sea (6:16-21). Both stories reveal significant things about who Jesus is: “the prophet who is to come into the world” (v. 14), and one with authority to say “I am,” echoing God’s self-designation in the Exodus narrative (Ex 3:14; so also in John 4:26; 8:24). Building on these acts that reveal Jesus’ glory (see 2:11), the dialogue exchanges in 6:24-35 further clarify Jesus’ identity and purpose.
John 6:24-35 may be broken down to three separate exchanges of dialogue—vv. 24-27, 28-29, and 30-35—each highlighting different aspects of Jesus’ identity and role. The dialogue partners are Jesus and “the crowd” (see v. 24), a group that is presumably neither as small as the twelve nor as massive as the many thousand fed in vv. 1-15. The entire series of dialogue is interconnected both grammatically (oun, “So…”, vv. 28, 30) and thematically, under the general idea of God’s provision of bread (esp. vv. 26-27 and 31-35; cf. Exod 16:1-2, 12-15). More specific commentary on each section follows below:
Section 1 (vv. 24-27): Crowds make the journey from Tiberias (presumably, see v. 1) to Capernaum and immediately ask Jesus when he arrived. Uninterested in their question (“Rabbi, when did you get here?”), Jesus responds by telling them that their motivation for seeking him has been no deeper than their stomachs (“you are looking for me…because you ate the loaves and were filled,” v. 26). Then he advises them to work not for perishable bread but for sustenance that “endures for eternal life,” which Jesus alone—the one on whom “the Father, God, has set his seal”—can give (v. 27). Similar to the modern expression “Give someone a fish, and you feed someone for a day; teach someone to fish, and you feed someone for a lifetime,” Jesus’ logic contrasts momentary sustenance with a kind that endures without limit. Whatever his hearers’ memory or fascination with his earlier “sign” of providing bread (6:1-15), Jesus bypasses any such interest for the sake of drawing attention to the “bread that endures for eternal life.” As to how one “works” for such bread, however, Jesus responds in the next exchange of dialogue.
Section 2 (vv. 28-29): In view of Jesus’ emphasis upon “work” (v. 27), his hearers ask “What can we do to accomplish [lit. “work”] the works of God?” (v. 28). Despite their reference to plural “works,” Jesus responds by highlighting one solitary “work of God”: “that you believe in the one he sent” (v. 28). As Jews, Jesus’ hearers naturally may have assumed that any “works” which God requires would be “works” of the Torah—that is, covenantal obligations of the Jewish religious Law. Jesus corrects this assumption, clarifying that no “work” of God is superior to that of believing in God’s Messiah. In stating this, Jesus identifies faith as the central component of a relationship with God. At this juncture, the words of John’s Jesus resonate very much with St. Paul’s emphasis in his letter to the Galatians upon “faith” over and against doing the “works of the law” (see Gal 2:16; 3:2, 5).
Section 3 (vv. 30-35): Jesus’ hearers, apparently skeptical of Jesus’ presumptuous claims, request him for a “sign” like that which Moses gave: manna in the desert (v. 31). Jesus clarifies that it was not Moses who gave this sign, but God. Furthermore, Jesus states that God still gives bread from heaven—“the true bread,” in fact (v. 32)—which gives life to the world (v. 33). Jesus’ switch to the present tense may imply his messianic role. Jewish writings held the belief that the Messiah at his coming would restore to Israel the manna it once received (“As the first Redeemer [Moses] brought down the manna. . . so will also the last Redeemer cause the manna to come down,” Midr. Qoh. 1:9). That Jesus here speaks of God still providing heavenly bread may mean to insinuate that the Messiah has now come (see John 4:25-26). Finally, at his hearers’ request for this bread, Jesus responds: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst” (v. 35). Earlier Jewish tradition uses similar language to describe wisdom and the Torah as sources of spiritual or metaphorical nourishment (wisdom, Prov 6:5 and Sir 24:21; the Torah, Philo, Mut. 253-53; Mek. Exod. 13:17), but Jesus’ words in John 6:35 describe a sustenance superior to these. All who partake in this sustenance, Jesus says, will never, ever lack (the Greek constructions of ou mē and ou mē…pōpote in v. 35 are particularly strong; cf. Sir 24:21: “Whoever feeds on me will be hungry for more, and whoever drinks from me will thirst for more”). Jesus identifies himself as the true sustenance from heaven, which God has sent to give life to the world. All who partake will never know need.
Through these exchanges of dialogue, John’s Jesus identifies himself as a heavenly provision that is superior to the manna so famously given to Israel’s ancestors in the Exodus narrative. The Gospel here proclaims that Jesus is not merely momentary nourishment, but rather a source of unfailing provision. Jesus’ language implies that this provision is not bodily (at least simply), but rather spiritual in nature: the kind that “endures for eternal life” (v. 27). This kind of sustenance satisfies needs that no bodily provision is able to fulfill.
Jesus’ words are rich with meaning. For starters, preachers and Bible study leaders do well to reflect on three particular theological ideas.
1. The contrast between that which is temporal and that which “endures for eternal life.” In the opening exchange between Jesus and “the crowd” (John 6:24-27), Jesus accuses them of aiming their sights too low, on temporal realities (i.e., bread). Instead, Jesus pushes them to expend their energies upon matters that endure eternally (“food that endures for eternal life”). This is a lesson upon which Americans do well to dwell. The average citizen of the developed world spends far more time and money on recreational activities, home improvement, and entertainment than anything remotely spiritual. In general, the more a people has, the more they focus upon the here and now. Jesus words, then, are not merely for dimwitted crowds; they are for us. To paraphrase Jesus words: “Do not waste your life worrying about passing pleasures; spend your energies concerned with eternal values and eternal priorities, for these alone have enduring value.”
2. The “work” that is not actually our work. In response to the question “What must we do to perform the works of God?” (v. 28), Jesus clarifies that there is only one “work” that must be done: “that you believe in the one [God] has sent” (v. 29). Ironically, Jesus directs his hearers’ eagerness to an act that does not finally rest upon human initiative: faith. Earlier in the dialogue, Jesus has already pointed out that eternal life—the byproduct of faith (see v. 40)—is a gift of “the Son of Man” (v. 28), and later in the chapter he states that no one “can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me” (v. 44). Throughout the Fourth Gospel, a relationship with God and his Messiah Jesus boils down to a trust that does not originate from human initiative, but from divine grace.
3. Communion. Jesus’ self-description as “the bread of life” needs little prompting to reflect upon these words’ significance for receiving the Eucharist. Truth be told, the average worshiper may or may not be able to articulate very precisely the significance of receiving the sacrament. Jesus’ words offer a metaphor that directly associates his very self with bread, and the upshot of partaking it eternal life. Even more, despite his focus on the substance of bread, Jesus adds that not only will the one who “comes to me” never be hungry, she or he will also “never be thirsty.” Here Jesus associates trusting in him with partaking in both food and drink that satisfy forever all need. Bearing these words in mind, the worshiper who partakes in the Eucharist participates directly in the passage itself: “Sir (or “Lord,” kyrie), give us this bread always.” And “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (vv. 34-35). The Eucharist, then, not only gives forgiveness and life and salvation, as Christians have historically believed; in this case it offers Christians the opportunity to embody and enact physically (i.e., by receiving his body and blood) the very faith that Jesus here describes.
The Rev. Dr. Troy Troftgruben is a pastor at Calvary Lutheran church (E.L.C.A.) in Grand Forks, ND, and an Adjunct Instructor of Religious Studies at the University of North Dakota.