The Bread Come Down from Heaven
Topic: Gospels Passage: John 6:41–6:59
“THE BREAD COME DOWN FROM HEAVEN”
41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’? 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me-- 46 not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
52 The Jews disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue as he taught at Capernaum.
Jesus Christ is not only the most complete Revealer of God; He is also the most complete revelation of God. He did not come merely to show us what God is like; He came to show us God. John affirms this quite plainly in the prologue that introduces his Gospel. It is there that we read,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father...grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Fathers side, he has made him known” (John 1:1, 14, 17-18).
Today’s passage not only affirms that truth, but adds detail to it. The 6th chapter of John may just be the most theological of the entire book. It contains two of the seven “sign”-miracles of Jesus recorded by John, one of Jesus’ seven “I AM” statements, and one of teachings most difficult teachings.
The chapter began with Jesus supplying food for a crowd of thousands by multiplying the meager contents of a young boy’s lunch. On the evening of that same day, Jesus demonstrated His authority over nature by rescuing His disciples from a life-threatening storm, coming to them—walking on the water—in the middle of the Sea of Galilee. As word about Him spread and His reputation grew, many followed after Him so that His moments of rest and solitude became few. The common folk pursued Him because of His works, but the religious elite were more interested in His words...namely, who from where He said He had come and who it was He claimed to be.
Verses 41 through 59 comprise two paragraphs in most English Bibles. You will notice that both begin with somewhat similar statements: in verse 41, “the Jews grumbled about him,” that is, Jesus; and in verse 52, “the Jews disputed among themselves.” Both paragraphs illustrate the mounting discontent and division that the Jewish leaders were experiencing over their perception of Jesus’ presence and activity. Specifically, He was posing a threat to their self-appointed status as spokesmen for God and the nation’s religious authorities.
Their animosity toward Him had been building since Jesus cleared the Jerusalem Temple of the money-changers at the time of the Passover a couple of years earlier. Since then, He repeatedly challenged the leaders with the most powerful weapon in His arsenal: truth...truth that despite all of their ancestral pedigree, theological training, and highly-regarded status as experts of the Law, these leaders were unable to comprehend. That truth declared Him to be the One who was “sent from God” (cf. John 6:29) and as “the bread come down from heaven” (cf. John 6:33).
Such claims seemed outlandish, and would have been if they were being made by any other. By as we shall see, Jesus was unlike any other. Looking at the passage we read a moment ago, and beginning with verse 41, we notice...
The Jews’ displeasure over Jesus’ origin (6:41-51).
Although the setting does not shift from where we left off a week ago, Jesus’ audience appears to change in today’s text. In the preceding verses, He is addressing the crowds that had followed Him to Capernaum. Up to this point “the Jews”— a designation that John always applies to those religious leaders who opposed him—have been standing on the periphery on the conversation as observers. In this passage, however, Jesus draws them into the discussion and will address them directly.
The “Jews” had been listening in and critiquing His every word, especially that He had said, “I am the bread of life that came down from heaven.” The word that is translated “grumbled” (“γογγυζω”) in verse 41 means “to quietly murmur with discontent” or “to complain,” as if to mutter under one’s breath. In other words, they were whispering about Jesus behind His back. Nevertheless, He was aware of what they were saying, namely, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven?”
They were right, of course, as far as their knowledge and understanding took them. Yes, Jesus was the legal son of Joseph, and it was clear that His family had settled in the region of Galilee near Capernaum. Nazareth lay but twenty miles away. Perhaps they had seen Him on occasion while He had grown from a boy into a man. There was nothing necessarily remarkable about Him that would have caused Him to stand out from others. It was quite likely that He had even attended services in the same synagogue in which this conversation was now taking place. He was familiar to the, but not overly so. But now this...what is this that He is now saying about Himself?
Perceiving their displeasure and hearing their every word, Jesus lifts His eyes toward and responds, saying, “Do not grumble among yourselves.” And then He adds words that enter into a subject that introduce a subject that would have shaken the theological foundations...just as they continue to do with many today...including those within the Church. As we walk through these verses, allow them to challenge your own presuppositions and presumptions about who Jesus is and how a person comes to know Him as Savior and Lord.
Jesus begins in verse 44 with an astonishing declaration: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” Notice, first of all, the breadth of Jesus’ statement: “No one can come to me.” It is an acknowledgement of the inability of man to respond to the message of the Gospel apart from assistance outside of himself. That assistance—or, more accurately, that enabling—comes from God, for Jesus adds, “unless the Father who sent me draws him.” The word “draw” (“ελκυω”) literally means “to pull” or “to drag along.” John uses it in other places to speak of the “drawing of a sword” (cf. John 18:10) and the “drawing in of a net of fish” (cf. John 21:6, 11).
Not a single one among us—not you, not me, nor anyone else—has the innate ability to come to Jesus Christ on our own. This text tells us that we are “drawn” to Him as a result of God granting us “ears to hear,” “eyes to see,” and wills to respond. The Apostle Paul expressed it in crystal-clear terms when he wrote in Ephesians 2:5, “Even when we were dead in our trespasses, (God) made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.”
Of course, not everyone has been granted this grace. If they had been, then everyone would be saved and no one would go to hell. And that is certainly not what the message of the Bible teaches. But for the one who has been granted grace to believe and has been irresistibly drawn to Christ, Jesus here promises, “I will raise him up on the last day.” In other words, the result of regeneration—or what Jesus called “the new birth” in His conversation with Nicodemus back in chapter 3—always results in resurrection. New birth, new life.
In support of this amazing statement, Jesus references a passage from Isaiah 54(:13), when He says, “And they all will be taught by God.” When we look at the context in which Isaiah wrote, we are able to conclude that the “they all” of whom Jesus speaks is not universal. Isaiah’s original words read, “All your children shall be taught by the LORD.” Not everyone is a “child of God.” It is a relationship that entered into by faith, whereby the believing sinner is adopted into the family of God and becomes His child. This promise is one that God makes for His people, and them alone. That is why Jesus adds, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” It was a statement directed primarily to the religious teachers, as if to say to them, “If you really understood the Old Testament Scriptures, then you would respond to me. You would show yourself to be children of the Heavenly Father,”
Jesus further insists on His Divine authority in verse 46 when He declares that He alone among men “has seen the Father.” Remember, John had earlier made that same claim in his prologue: “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18). He can speak with unique authority, because as God the Son—the second member of the Trinity—He possesses this exclusive relationship with the Father.
Other New Testament writers support Jesus’ claim to Deity. Colossians 1:15 says that “He is the image of the invisible God,” and Hebrews 1:3 adds that “He is the radiance of the glory iof God and the exact imprint of his nature.” Those are lofty claims indeed, and would be blatant blasphemy were they not true. But the Scriptures time and again testify to that truth. “Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:11). Therefore, Jesus can offer the assurance declared in verse 47, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.”
As we have seen several times before in John’s Gospel, “belief” in the proper object—namely Jesus Himself—is the what separates those who inherit eternal life from those who do not. But let us remember, it is God who “draws” to Himself those whom He will. “Faith”—or the ability to respond to God’s truth and believe it—is “the gift of God” (cf. Ephesians 2:8). We do not merit salvation, and we cannot accumulate and preserve it in any way. It is something freely given by God to those who have been given the faith to believe. The Scriptures remind us that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). As we think about “giving” at this time of the year, let us center our thoughts on the greatest Gift of all. And may we boldly declare in an age of rampant unbelief, “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Corinthians 9:15).
William Hendriksen’s comments are helpful in understanding this perspective of God’s eternal plan of salvation. He writes,
In showing how sinners are saved Scripture never merely places side by side the divine and human factors, predestination and responsibility, God’s teaching and man’s listening. On the contrary, it is always definitely indicated that it is God who takes the initiative and who is in control from start to finish. It is God who draws before man comes; it is he that teaches before man can listen and learn. Unless the Father draws, no one can come. This is the negative side. The positive is: everyone who listens to the Father and learns of him will come. Grace always conquers; it does what it sets out to do. In that sense it is irresistible.
I once had a professor who would begin class everyday with a ten-minute review of the previous day’s lesson. He would often tell us that “repetition is the mother of learning.” He may have gotten that from Jesus, because Jesus often did that very thing. We find Him repeating His declaration—“I am the bread of life”—in verse 48. We first saw it in verse 35, where He said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” But as we have just learned, “No one can come to (Christ) unless the Father...draws him.” So, Jesus once again dips back into the Old Testament and extracts an illustration with which these Jewish teachers would have been well familiar.
Verse 49: “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.” It’s interesting that this paragraph began by telling us that “the Jews grumbled about” Jesus, because there was a time when the early Israelites “grumbled” about the manna as well (cf. Numbers 11:18). Earlier in this chapter, Jesus had declared that He—not the manna—was “the true bread from heaven...(who) gives life to the world” (cf. John 6:32-33). The manna, that early form of “bread” was a temporary provision; but “the Bread” He offered would satisfy them forever.
Jesus builds upon that thought in verses 50 and 51, adding words that caused further grumbling by the religious elite. Referring to and possibly pointing to Himself, He declares, “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of eat and not die, I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” Four times in this paragraph, Jesus has made reference to His heavenly origin. That had been enough to cause the “Jews” to murmur about His claims. But what He added next would have taken their disapproval of Him to the next level.
Jesus’ words in verse 51 prepare us for the paragraph to follow. After saying, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” He adds, “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” These are hard words indeed. How are we to understand them?
I want to dig a little deeper into these few verses in our later service following this afternoon’s fellowship meal, but let me give you a reason or two for believing that Jesus is not referring to the Lord’s Supper here, as many suppose.
The Catholic doctrine of the “Mass” is largely built upon the words Jesus speaks here. Whenever they celebrate the Mass—or their version of “Communion” or the Lord’s Supper—Catholics believe that a miracle occurs that is called “transubstantiation.” When the priest offers “the prayer of consecration,” both the Bread and the Cup are transformed supernaturally into the substance of the body and blood of Christ. It still looks like bread and wine, smells like bread and wine, and tastes like bread and wine. But it has been supernaturally transformed, so that each time the Mass is observed, they understand Jesus to be sacrificed again (and again) in payment for man’s sins.
We disagree with that for two main reasons. In the first place, the tense of the verb “give” indicates that the offering to which Jesus refers is a one-time offering. As Jesus drew His final breaths on the Cross, He confidently declared, “Τετελεσται”, “It is finished” (John 19:30). His was the full and final sacrifice acceptable to the Father because it was sufficient to turn away the wrath of every believing sinner.
A second reason that Jesus is not speaking of Communion in this text is that when He links “eating the bread” with His “flesh”—He is speaking metaphorically, not literally. Both “bread” and “flesh” are figures of speech that Jesus employs for the purpose of illustrating and illuminating the our responsibility for appropriating through faith the life He came to give as a ransom for our sins. Christians are never called to “eat Christ’s flesh” and “drink Christ’s blood” in a literal sense.
But Jesus’ audience that day was made up of “wooden literalists” who simply could not comprehend what He was saying. When they heard Jesus insist that those who came to Him must “eat His flesh,” their displeasure grew to rage. It led to...
The Jews’ dispute over Jesus’ offering (6:52-59).
At first “the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’” Now we are told in verse 52 that “The Jews disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” We can give them credit for hearing the words Jesus used, but they lacked the ability to “connect the dots” in terms of what He meant. If anyone should have been able to piece together what the prophets had foretold with the words they were now hearing it would have been these men. Standing before them was the very Messiah of whom they had often taught...but they missed Him. Rather than acknowledging Him for who He was—“bread come down from heaven,” God become flesh—they argued among themselves.
The word for “dispute” (“μαχομαι”) means “to quarrel,” “to wrangle,” or “to fight.” Even in their common opposition to Jesus, they were divided in opinion as to who He was and what to do about Him.
Sensing their disunity, Jesus presses harder as if to drive the wedge between them even deeper. Have you noticed how various opinions about Christ tends to separate people? He says in verse 53: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” One can sense their angered response to this bold and brazen statement. It would have been a slap in the face to those held so tenaciously to the Mosaic Law. In Leviticus 17(:10) the Lord had warned His people, “If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people.”
But now here is Jesus, saying in verse 54, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day.” God had also stated in that same Leviticus passage, “The life of flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 18:11), and here is Jesus declaring in verses 55 and 56, “For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” Understandably, Christians were frequently accused of cannibalism by heathen rulers in reaction to this difficult statement.
There is a footnote in the ESV Study Bible that reminds us that none of Jesus’ followers have ever taken these words in their full literal sense. The footnote reads:
As Jesus has done frequently in this Gospel, he is speaking in terms of physical items in this world to teach about spiritual realities. Here to “eat” Jesus’ flesh has the spiritual meaning of trusting or believing in him, especially in his death for the sins of mankind...Similarly, to “drink his blood” means to trust in his atoning death, which is represented by the shedding of his blood.
I again find William Hendriksen’s explanation helpful here:
It is clear, therefore, that when Jesus speaks about eating his flesh and drinking his blood he cannot have reference to any physical eating or drinking. He must mean: “He who accepts, appropriates, and assimilates my vicarious sacrifice as the only ground of his salvation, remains in me and I in him.” As food and drink are offered and accepted, so also is Christ’s sacrifice offered to believers and accepted by them. As those are assimilated by the body, so is this sacrifice assimilated by the soul. As those nourish and sustain physical life, so this nourishes and sustains spiritual life. Here is the doctrine of the voluntary shedding of Christ’s blood as a ransom for the salvation of sinners.
In verses 57 and 58, Jesus resasserts His shocking declaration in answer to their original question in verse 52. They had asked, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” And Jesus again answers here: “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died.”
Manna had been a temporary provision for those early Israelites who wandered in the wilderness for a generation. But “the bread that came down from heaven”—Jesus Christ—is able to sustain and satisfy forever. The New Covenant that Christ would seal with His own blood would replace the Old Covenant made with “the blood of bulls and goats” (cf. Hebrews 10:1-10). Those offerings atoned for or “covered” one’s sin, but “the blood of Jesus (God’s) Son cleanses us from all sin” (cf. 1 John 1:7).
We should notice that John has Jesus using two different words in reference to partaking of Him. Even our English Bibles capture this distinction by translating the two words, “eat” (verse 53) and “feed” (verses 54 and 55). In Greek, the word for “eat” (“εσθιω” or “φαγω”) means “to consume” or “to devour,” whereas the word for “feed” (“τρωγω”) means “to chew.” The switch in John 6 from “eat” to “feed” appears to be for the purpose of emphasizing the ongoing process of “feeding” on Christ. I think of it this way: the fare He offers to those who are hungry is not something to be rapidly consumed in a moment, but it is rather to be slowly savored and enjoyed for one’s eternal satisfaction.
The theological dividing line between the message of Jesus and the prevailing religious teaching of His day has now broadened to the point where open conflict appears to be inevitable. It is clear that Jesus is the One “pushing the envelope” and the Jewish religious leaders are being forced to either mount a strong defense for themselves or submit to His authority. This was not merely an argument over whose interpretation of Scripture was the correct one—although it was that—but it was a battle over people’s eternal destinies and the honor of God Himself.
A person’s response to the Word of God and its teaching—and ultimately to the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ—is in the end linked to how one receives what is taught in this passage. To “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,” in a word, means to “believe” in Him. Augustine made this connection when he said, “Believe, and you have eaten.” That is the proper response to our Lord’s claim that He is “the bread of life”...”the bread...come down from heaven,” and to His teaching that salvation is purely a work of Sovereign grace.
There should be no greater joy in our lives than in knowing that the weight of one’s sin has been lifted from us and carried far away, borne by the precious blood of God’s Son and confirmed by His resurrection from the dead. My most sincere prayer is that you have experienced that cleansing and are walking in His forgiveness today. If that is not the case with you, then I pray that you will hear His voice and harden not your heart against Him (cf. Hebrews 3:7). “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8).
If you haven’t yet discovered, “The LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 100:5). “The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth” (Psalm 145:18).
Throughout this chapter, Jesus has insisted that salvation is the work of God. As a pastor, I am well aware that people responding in faith to Christ cannot be hurried along or brought about by stronger appeals, persuasive arguments, fancy power points, better illustrations, or an appealing pulpit presence. On the other hand, I recognize that it can be hindered by dull thinking, lifeless personalities, and dry sermons that can hinder the working of the Holy Spirit through the preacher and the hearer. I pray that has not been the case this morning. I am accountable to God for how I have spoken His truth, just as you are equally accountable for how you have heard it. At the end of the day, we must both remember that “Salvation belongs to the Lord” (Psalm 3:8), and that He will accomplish at any time and in any way that which is consistent with His character and harmonious with His nature.