top of page
  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

The Bread of Life


“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die.I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. John 6:48-51

This chapter contains the first of the ‘I am’ statements of Jesus, where he gives us a picture of his character and his mission, by comparing himself to things from everyday life. This chapter is about bread. It starts with the very well-known account of Jesus feeding more than five thousand people with the contents of a boy’s sandwich box. This context is really important if we are to understand the words of Jesus here. Jesus says, ‘I am the bread of life’ and ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven’.

Also helpful to our understanding is the wider context of this time period. We need to transport ourselves back to the Roman Empire, to a small province named Israel. Nowadays, bread is still a popular food. We can go to the supermarket and choose from a great selection of different loaves. Your choice of bread may differ greatly from my choice of bread. Some people are unable to eat bread due to certain health conditions. Some don’t particularly like it, and choose to get their carbohydrates from other sources. This was not so in the Roman Empire. At that time, put simply, if you didn’t have bread you died. It wasn’t just popular, or even just important, it was vital. This was recognised by the successive governments in Rome itself. Rome had something called the ‘Grain Dole’. It was a very early example of a social safety net. At times, up to 1 in 5 of its approximately 1 million population, so 200,000 people, received either free or subsidised grain, so that they could make bread and not die.

When the gospel writer, Luke, introduces the public ministry of John the Baptist, he tells us that John, ‘went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.’ We find this in Luke 3 verse 3. But Luke likes detail. He wants to identify the time period that this took place in, and verses 1 & 2 are taken up with those details. Luke mentions the Jewish religious leaders, and the Roman provincial governors, and the emperor himself. Luke 3:1 says, ‘In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar...’

In the first verse of our chapter today, we also find this emperor’s name, which has been used to name a town and nearby lake in his honour. Outside of the bible account we have a record of something that this man, Tiberius, said in 22AD (according to Wikipedia). So, within a decade of the words of Jesus that we are considering today. Tiberius said that if the Grain Dole was neglected then it would lead to such poverty, and consequent unrest and lawlessness, that it would lead to, ‘the utter ruin of the state.’ That is the context that we need to understand. Bread was so important then, that without it, the Roman Empire would collapse. It is hard for us to imagine. Sometimes, in my household, when the ‘Kingsmill 50/50’ is exhausted, there is a bit of unrest. People ask me why I only put one loaf on the shopping list, rather than two. But I never feel that my wife and children are going to carry me out of the front door, and dump me on the lawn, as the locksmith arrives to change the locks!

This figure of speech, which Jesus used about bread, is powerful but, if we can get our minds back to 2000 years ago, when these words were spoken, then I trust that our sense of this can be magnified. The setting is the day after the day before, much like any other day. Except the day before this one, wasn’t just like any other day. The miracle that Jesus had performed highlighted his extra-ordinary nature. After Jesus had given so much, to so many, there was more left over than there had been to begin with (v.12-13). Verse 14 tells us that, ‘after the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.”’ This is very close in language to what Moses spoke in Deuteronomy 18:18, where he mentions another ‘prophet’, that God had promised would come to Israel.

So these people were at a ‘threshold’ moment. They appear to be about to walk into the ‘kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 4:17). They are genuinely considering that Jesus is this person promised by God. They are pursuing Jesus. They are seeking him. This all sounds so good on the face of it. Looking at this, we could be encouraged. But we are just ‘people’. 1 Samuel 16:7 tells us this, ‘The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’ This is similar to what Hebrews 4:12 tells us about ‘the word of God’, which it says is ‘alive and active’ and that ‘it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.

When Jesus said, ‘I am’, he was linking himself totally with the Old Testament, Yahweh, God (Exodus 3:14). He was claiming God-ness, the God nature and character. And, here, Jesus does not judge superficially, but looks at what is below the surface. In verse 26 of John 6, he tells those who had come to him, a sad truth. ‘Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.’ As we have considered already, bread was vital for life in those days. Yesterday, these people had been fed bread by Jesus.

In his compassion (as Mark 6:34), he had provided for their physical need in that moment. Now they saw him as a kind of material saviour. In their minds they were reducing this ‘prophet’ to something akin to the Roman Emperor with his grain handouts. They had experienced free bread yesterday. They wanted free bread today. They had fundamentally misunderstood the purpose of the mission that God’s promised ‘Messiah’ (Mark 1:1) had come to complete. The vast majority of the Israelites were in this category. They believed that their God was sending a prophet who would be a leader of men, just like any other leader.

That is why, in verse 15, we read that their intention was to forcibly ‘make him king’. They believed that this leader would empower the nation of Israel in a corporeal way; that Israel would be freed from Roman occupation, and would have an abundance of land and crops, and be constantly well fed. Jesus had not come to do this. Yes, there were good reasons why these people were focusing on their physical needs. These were hard times. Poverty is no joke. Their need was real and their need was pressing. But they had a need that was far greater than their physical poverty. They were spiritually empty, like us all.

But like us all, they found it far easier to focus on material needs than they did on the needs of their souls. Their greatest need could be brushed aside in favour of their lesser need. The way they approach Jesus is like this: Let’s say I have an illness. I have excruciating pain in my belly and have lost my appetite. I’m being constantly sick and am rapidly losing weight. There is something seriously wrong. When I go to the doctors' and shuffle into my GP’s room when called, she asks me what she can do for me. I think about how to phrase it, and say, ‘I don’t like the size of my ears, can I have an operation to correct them?’ This would be madness. And so it is with these Israelites. At the end of this chapter, many from this crowd have become so uncomfortable with the ‘home truths’ that Jesus has told them that they, ‘turned back and no longer followed him’ (verse 66).

It is as if we can hear the pain in the voice of Jesus as he turns to the twelve men that are still with him, that core group of followers. Jesus asks them, ‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Simon Peter gives a truly wonderful answer. ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ Yes, Jesus had in his possession the words of eternal life. He had asked this crowd what they wanted from him, and their sad response was to ask him for lunch. Jesus instructs them to change their focus. Verse 27 reads, ‘Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.’ ‘Food that spoils’. This means possessions, material things. I buy a house that is perfect. Within a few years the roof is leaking and threatening everything inside the property. I buy a car that runs sweetly. Within a few years it’s producing more black smoke than the sausages on my barbeque. We don’t need to transport our thinking back 2000 years to around 30AD to understand this.

A decade ago, the singer, Jessie J, released her popular song, ‘Price Tag’. It contains social commentary in its words. She said, ‘Why is everybody so obsessed? Money can't buy us happiness’. It is a truth that has been universal through every age of humankind. We know that it’s true, but that doesn’t stop us. It is extraordinary the number of times that we have conversations at work about the competitions that run daily on the radio. Someone wins thirty thousand pounds. I’m asked what I would do if that amount dropped into my lap. It is so difficult not to be carried away into thinking of the difference that this could make to my life.

This line of thought can easily undermine the claims of Jesus. He has already transformed my life, not just today, but forever. In the moment, this can easily be lost sight of. It’s poor judgement. I already belong to a group of people who are the richest people alive. I’m not a member of some millionaires club. I’m ‘part of’ (1 Corinthians 12:27) the church of Jesus Christ. I’m a Christian whose eternal future is secure. Jesus tells me so. He says, ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever’ (John 6:51).

After Jesus has rebuked the crowd and told them to think and ‘work’ differently, ‘for food that endures to eternal life' (v.27), they have a question for him: ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’ (v.28). This idea of working and therefore earning is, again, pretty much universal. There is another story that we learn as children that is about bread. It’s called, ‘The Little Red Hen’. It has an underlying moral message. Little Red Hen finds some grain. She decides to make bread but needs help from the other farm animals, first to collect the grain, then to mill it into flour, then to knead the dough, then to light a fire, then to watch over the baking process. At each time of asking, the other animals make excuses as to why they cannot help. At the end, Little Red Hen needs help to eat the loaf, but decides that, as nobody else helped in the ‘work’ of making bread, they cannot be allowed to help in the eating of the bread.

Its message is so simple that we grasp it at the youngest of ages. Work equals reward. It is a universal principal. Except it isn’t. The good news, of eternal safety in Jesus, turns the whole world upside down. These Israelites come with the question of what ‘work’ they must do to earn God’s favour. Jesus, in effect says, ‘No work whatsoever’. Verse 29 contains the phrasing of his answer. ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’ From Matthew’s gospel onwards, in our Bibles, we have the commencing of the New Testament. It is the account of the emergence of a new covenant, or new agreement between God and people. It’s a truly wonderful agreement. It contains the promise of eternal life; that we will ‘live for ever’ (v.51). How can I, how can you, be included in this ‘marvellous’ (Psalm 118:23) agreement.

The only work God requires is for us to ‘turn’ (Acts 26:18) around, and ‘believe in the one he has sent.’ Our sin has earned us death. Our sin is the ‘work’ that we performed, that has an awful, fatal, wage-type reward. But to secure safety from that terrible consequence of our sin, we have to stop ‘working’ and believe in the ‘gift’ of the ‘bread of life’ that God has given to us in his own Son. Romans 6:23 tells us that, ‘the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is part of a letter written by the apostle Paul. We have considered already some things about that great ancient city of Rome. The emperor, Tiberius, was worried about grain, and the provision of bread. He worried about the utter ruin of that state’s existence. Well, Rome did fall, and its empire went the same way that all earthly kingdoms eventually go. But while it was in existence, Rome was magnificent. Wikipedia informs me that, ‘after Rome's decline, no city in Europe would assemble the transportation network required to feed a million inhabitants until the 19th century.’ There was a time when, within that huge city, there were a few people that regularly met together. They had a common interest. It was the ‘bread of life’. They were Christians. Paul wrote his ‘letter to the Romans’, to them; to the believers who lived in Rome. He wanted to make sure that their faith stood firm. He wanted to make sure that they never started to think that their relationship with God depended on their own good efforts (or ‘works’) to please God. He pointed them to Genesis 15 and the account of Abraham and what that man ‘discovered’ (Romans 4:1-5) about the weighty matter of how we might please God. Paul said, ‘If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about – but not before God. What does Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’

Abraham was made right in God’s eyes, not by earning, but by believing. Paul goes on to say, ‘Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.’ What a glorious hope is held out here. God views ‘ungodly’ characters as just and right, simply because they believe in ‘the living bread’, God’s free provision for their souls. This is a social safety net that surpasses that of Tiberius. It’s a safety net like no other. It is the most abundantly free handout that has ever been heard of. The lowest of society; drop-outs, failures, low-lifes; those who seem to have the opposite of God-ness and goodness in their lives; the ‘ungodly’, they are all welcome to come and partake, because Jesus has already earned what God required of us, but which we couldn’t manage ourselves. He gave the God-ness and goodness of his own life. He paid the price of our sin, to balance God’s accounts, when he died on the cross at Calvary. He says as much in our chapter: ‘This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world’ (v.51).

In his famous Sermon on the Mount, recorded in Matthew 5-7, Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 5:3). This is not referring to those who are just actually spiritually poor, because we all are. It means those who really recognise the depths of their poverty. Why do we go to the bakery to buy bread? Usually, it’s because we are hungry. Why would we choose this ‘bread of life’? Because we ‘hunger and thirst’ for a rightness, that we do not possess in ourselves. Matthew 5:6 contains another promise of Jesus, to those who hunger like this. It’s rather short (only 4 words), but it’s incredibly sweet. ‘They will be filled’.

I’ll finish with that wonderful invitation of the Lord, found in Isaiah 55:1-2. ‘Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.


bottom of page