Bread of Life
November 22, 2007
“Jesus said unto them, I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.”
Here we are on Thanksgiving, which is one of the biggest feast days on the calendar of most Americans. We are talking turkey and gravy and stuffing and cranberry sauce. We are talking ham and green beans and mashed potatoes. We talking cakes and pies. Thanksgiving is primarily about eating and overeating and stuffing ourselves. Thanksgiving is about gluttony.
So you probably came to church today thinking I am going to preach on how we should be thankful for all that. And I just read you a verse where Jesus turns bread into a metaphor about his role in our spiritual lives. He said: “E̓γώ εἰμι ὁ ἄρτος τῆς ζωῆς.” Or, in English, “I am the bread of life.”
Bread itself is not primarily a holiday food. It has its place on the Thanksgiving table, but really bread is an everyday food. It is a basic staple of meals all year long. In fact, in the prayer Jesus taught us to pray, we ask, “Give us this day our daily bread.”
But, in John 6:35, Jesus converted bread into a symbol of what he is to us. Typically when we think of bread in the NT, we think of Holy Communion. Jesus is the bread broken for us.
Perhaps we need to put our verse today in context. We have been studying John’s gospel in our Wednesday Bible study. John is concerned about “signs” that show us that Jesus was who he said he was. John records these “signs” to demonstrate that Jesus was messiah.
For example, earlier in chapter 6, Jesus miraculously fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. And we are told in v4 that this happened around the time of Passover. The implication is that Jesus has replaced the Passover meal. He is the lamb of sacrifice. And v14 says, “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world”" (ESV). When they say this miraculous feeding, they thought Jesus was a prophet like Moses. But Jesus knows that they do not really understand what he is saying and doing. They do not understand the signs or the words. so he withdraws from them first by going up a mountain and then by a miraculous escape across the lake.
But they followed him and caught up with him on the other side of the lake. Jesus says that they are following him for the wrong reasons. V26: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”. The crowds are looking for deliverance from physical difficulties (hunger, disease), but Jesus wants them to see beyond physical need to their spiritual needs.
There is this constant misunderstanding throughout the chapter with Jesus trying to help them spiritually and what they are wanting is a hand-out. They are willing enough to believe in Jesus, if he will just hand out a few more loaves of bread and baskets of fish.
But thinking this way means that they are never going to be satisfied. We read in v30: “So they said to him, ‘Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?’” In other words, forget about the miraculous bread and fish a couple of days ago, what have you done for us lately? It’s a wonder Jesus did not throw up his hands in despair and give up on them entirely.
But he did not. He patiently and lovingly explained that he was not like Moses or Elijah or any other prophet of Israel. He is the one who can uniquely speak of God as “my Father.” He is the one who brings life to the world. He is thus, as he says in v35, “ὁ ἄρτος τῆς ζωῆς,” the bread of life.
Today, we are thinking about Thanksgiving. Having bread to eat, let us be thankful. Having bread, let us be content. I don’t suppose that not many people are going to pray that for a thanksgiving prayer. We want a feast on thanksgiving, not just bread. So what did Jesus mean when he said that he was our ἄρτος or bread.
Bread is the foundation of civilization. Our scientists tell us that it was impossible for us to develop food surpluses and cities and writing and armies and all the other stuff we associate with civilization until we learned to farm, and what the first farmers raised was primarily wheat. They made bread. So bread is literally the foundation of civilization and of most of what we now call the good life.
Jesus applies all this spiritually. Jesus is the spiritual foundation of civilization. Applied to us as individuals we must have food to live. And we must have spiritual food to live.
But is bread alone enough, or is Jesus alone enough? The very question sounds a little blasphemous to Christian ears, but let us think about it a little. Nancy Clark, a sports dietician, says that “bread provides only the foundation for a healthy diet.” [“Loafing around: Bread and cyclists.” Adventure Cyclist, September-October 2006, 30-31] She implies that much more is needed in one’s diet than bread. And Jesus once retorted to the devil, “Man shall not live on bread alone.”
So the question for the day is, if Jesus is the bread of life, do we need more in our lives besides Jesus? Could Jesus be suggesting that while faith in him is the vital foundation for the spiritual life, a healthy spirituality needs some other ingredients as well?
I am reminded of story a preacher friend told me. As a teenager he went to a church camp, and he learned to sing a prayer chorus.
He’s all I need, he’s all I need,
Jesus is all I need.
He’s all I need, he’s all I need,
All I will ever need.
Well, this preacher was only a new Christian in those days, and he had not yet had much life experience, but he said that even then, that chorus struck him as unrealistic. At the time, he had just began to notice girls, and sitting across from him was this beautiful girl whom he was dying to meet. Don’t misunderstand. He believed in Jesus. His faith was sincere. But he decided even then that no matter how close a relationship he had with Jesus, there would always be room for a relationship with a girl his own age. Incidentally, he never even met the girl he was admiring, but that is not the point.
The point is that Jesus is not the only relationship, but Jesus is the foundation of relationships. No matter what our age, no matter how deep and vital our relationship with Jesus and no matter how committed we are to following his example and trusting his teaching, that does not mean that we are to have no other relationships. And if we really consider the implications of Jesus’ statement about being the bread of life, we can surmise that he never intended to be all we ever need.
In the first century, of course, all the actual bread was whole grain. The refining process that yields white bread had not yet been invented, but neither had the capacity to enrich bread either, so the whole-grain bread of Jesus’ day was even less nutritionally complete than our bread today. So we can assume Jesus’ bread-of-life statement meant that faith in him is the essential foundation of a spiritual life, but is not everything we need in this life.
That is why from the time of the early church, Christians have found it essential to meet together for worship and fellowship. The author of Hebrews told his readers to not neglect to meet together, because they needed to encourage one another and to “provoke one another to love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24-25).
Jesus is not all that we need. We need each other. Jesus told us that. Love one another. If we would just do what Jesus said when it comes to loving one another and cherishing one another, we could avoid a ton of sin. If we love one another, we are accountable to one another and responsible for each other. Christians are a connected people. We are connected in Christ. We need to recognize those connections and treat one another as we want to be treated. So we don’t just have Jesus. We have each other. We have the church.
But Christ is the foundation of the church and we certainly cannot do without him, just as civilization cannot do without bread.
You may be familiar with the Adkins diet. The Adkins diet cuts out all bread and almost any carb-bearing foods. But the Atkins diet does not work for athletes.
Stan Purdum, author of two books about bicycling (Roll Around Heaven All Day and Playing in Traffic). He was trying to lose some weight a few years ago, so he tried the famous Atkins diet. A few days into the diet, he set out to ride his bicycle his usual fifteen this was a route that he had ridden many times before, but not this time. He tells what happened:
“From the first push on the pedals, I noticed that I felt drained. In fact, in the first mile of this ride I felt the way I normally feel at the end of a 50-mile jaunt. Nonetheless, I persevered, thinking my energy might kick in, but after about three miles, riding seemed like a terrible idea, and I took a direct path home, logging a total of less than five miles for the entire excursion. To use a car metaphor, I felt as if I were hitting on only two cylinders instead of the usual eight. I had similar experiences on two more rides I tried during that diet; long rides were out of the question and even short ones were enervating. I soon gave Dr. Atkins the boot” [Purdum, Stan. “Cycling with Dr. Atkins.” The Spokin’ Word, June 2002.]
So let us make an application. Some folks try to be spiritual or religious without Jesus, without the bread of life. Such spirituality tends to be limp, unfocused, and lacking in the kind of energy that Jesus provides. Certainly one thing Jesus did mean when he said he was the bread of life is that our most basic and important human longings are met in him. He is the foundation for a healthy, spiritual diet.
To be a Christian, we need Jesus. That is a nobrainer. Christians need Christ. But you would be surprised at how many people would love to be Christians without having to deal with Jesus. I am talking about the real Jesus. They may say a few good things about Jesus, but they do not want to deal with Jesus as Son of God and savior. But the whole NT says that there is no other way to deal with this Jesus. He is ὁ ἄρτος τῆς ζωῆς, the bread of life. And if you don’t have this bread, you don’t have any spiritual life.
Sometimes people destroy their souls by trying to live on spiritual junk food. They are not deliberately trying to avoid bread, but they fill up on so much empty calorie junk that they have no room for truly nutritional things. Thus, they eat too much, but they starve for the kind of food they actually need.
People say, I don’t need to go to church, I will just hook up with the latest religious fad on TV. I don’t need to hear the word preached, I will just buy the latest self-help book. I don’t need prayer or Bible reading. I don’t need the sacraments. I will just fill up on other stuff, and so they are bloated with all the wrong stuff. They need to get back on the bread of life diet. Jesus is God’s nourishment to sustain us in this life and the next.
So here is why we talk about this on Thanksgiving Day. We will sit down at tables laden with all sorts of delicious things to eat. We give thanks for all of it. But we’re not going to be eating turkey every day for the rest of our lives. For the next two weeks, maybe. But not the rest of our lives. We’re not going to be eating cranberries again for perhaps another six weeks at Christmas, or maybe not until next Thanksgiving.
So we’re thankful for all of these things. But we’re thankful most of all that we have daily bread, both in a physical sense, and in a spiritual sense. We get blessed in countless ways, and that is good, but the most important blessing we have is Jesus, our daily bread. Jesus is our spiritual foundation not just at Thanksgiving, but everyday. Our relationship with Jesus Christ is not our only relationship, but it is the most important relationship we have.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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