English Service - June 20, 2021 Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
"I Am the Bread of Life" John 6:35
If you have a good memory, you may recall that some years ago we went through a message series on “The ‘I Am’ Sayings of Christ.” We learned several stories in which Jesus actually used the name of God (“I Am”) when talking about Himself. For example, in talking to the Samaritan woman He met at a well one day, He said about the Messiah, the Son of God, “I am He” (John 4:26). When He came walking on the water to His disciples in the middle of a storm and they thought He was a ghost, He relieved their fears by saying the same words (ego eimi, translated “It is I” in this case). This story appears in John’s gospel, just as in Matthew’s, right after the story of Jesus’ making bread for thousands of people.
This happens right before the “‘I Am the Bread of Life’ Discourse,” which we have before us today. It is one of seven particular parts of the Gospel of John which are separate from the “I Am” sayings we learned before but are traditionally called the “I Am” sayings of Christ in the Gospel of John. The others are:
“I am the light of the world” (John 8).
“I am the gate. . .” (John 10).
“I am the good shepherd” (John 10).
“I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11).
“I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14).
“I am the vine” (John 15).
You notice that most of these are metaphors, and others are more in the category of teachings. Most are words taken from everyday life that not only people of Jesus’ Jewish background but of many cultures know very well. They are like “water” and “lamb” and other vocabulary that John uses—very simple yet deep in meaning.
Jesus actually uses the words “I Am” well more than seven times in the gospels and shows some important things about Himself in many of these instances. But these seven “I Am” sayings are central to His life and message, so I’d like to explore them with you beginning today.
Christ’s teaching about Himself as the bread of life starts with something a lot smaller and more specific, but He uses it as a take-off point and soon is soaring to great heights. It begins, as we’ve noted, with people who were with Him the day before. They have now found Him after crossing the Sea of Galilee in an eager search. They want to know things like “Jesus, how did you get over here from the other side of the lake?” They no doubt would like to ask, “How did You do that really cool miracle yesterday? And could we maybe get some more of that free food? In fact, would you consider doing that all the time? That would really open up some great possibilities for us. Think of all the free time we could have, not having to work for our own food! Or we could open a business selling all that bread with no production costs and probably get rich! Even better, if you can make bread out of nothing, what else could you do? Is there anything you couldn’t do? You’re the kind of man we need running our government. If you were king, we could finally kick those Romans out of our country and be free.”
Jesus does not look at their concerns as unimportant. After all, it is estimated that most people in this country were so poor that they had to spend about 85% of their income on food. If He didn’t care about their physical needs, He would not have done the miracle of making bread. But He knows that their deepest happiness will not come from having more food or no responsibility to work for a living. And even their political needs are not their greatest ones. So He tells them (v. 27), “Do not work for food that spoils. Work for food that lasts forever.” He points out that even in the famous Old Testament story of God’s providing bread from heaven (manna) for the people of Israel (Exodus 16), the bread only helped them for a short time. They soon got hungry again, and eventually they got old and died (v. 58). Food is good, but God has something better. It’s not just enough to give our bodies strength for another several hours but the greatest gift of all—eternal life. “. . . Those who feed on this bread will live forever.”
If that is available to you, it makes no sense spending your time all concerned about getting more physical food. That’s letting the good become the enemy of the best. Christ has bigger dreams for His people. He doesn’t want us putting so much time and energy and concern into things that will not last. If we do, we are in danger—at risk of coming to the end of our lives someday with very little that truly remains. We’ve already spent our days on things that came and went like fashions and trends. We’ve let worry over daily necessities blind us to the greater purposes and opportunities that God has had in view for us. We’ve been so wrapped up in what was urgent that we never got around to what was important. A busy but empty life is not what God wants for His people.
So Jesus lifts His listeners’ eyes to higher things. The questions He brings into the conversation are ones like these:
Who is Christ, and who is God? What are they like?
What is their home like?
What do Jesus’ miracles mean?
What does God want from us?
How can we be acceptable to Him?
How can we go to heaven?
How does God’s will relate to our free will as humans?
It seems awfully brave of Jesus to take on such big questions with this particular group of listeners. They are pretty much challenging Him to do a miracle to prove that He is who He claims to be. “What miraculous sign will you give us? What will you do so we can see it and believe you?” (v. 30). They suggest that if He is someone great like Moses, He will produce a huge amount of food for them as Moses did for the Israelites. It wasn’t actually Moses but God that gave them the food, Jesus has to remind them (v. 32). “Show us something special so we’ll have a reason to believe you are from God.” Really? He just did that yesterday. And, as John presents it, these are some of the people there when Jesus performed the miracle.
What more proof do they need? This sounds a lot like Pilate in John 18 asking Jesus “What is truth?” He was staring truth in the face—the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Like him, the people asking for a miracle when they just received one have something in their hearts other than honest questions and desire for a reason to believe, it seems.
But Jesus teaches them anyway. He gives them the truth and a chance to receive it. We can take a lot of hope from that. We can’t claim to come before God with pure motives and willing spirits, eager to grow in faith every time we come to His house on Sundays, can we? We may be poor students in His school of faith. Yet His kindness and wisdom are greater than our self-centeredness and weakness of faith. He patiently keeps providing what we need, trusting that we will be ready to receive it at the right time.
That’s the way it works with bread, isn’t it. It is given. After the grain has been grown, harvested, and processed, then the bread prepared and cooked, someone calls the others to the meal, telling them it is ready. In a Jewish family in Palestine when Jesus is teaching, the grain is usually wheat or barley, and normally a woman the one who prepares it. When it’s ready to eat, the bread is torn or cut and made available to those who will eat it. They can reach out and take a piece, or a host may hand a piece to a guest (as Jesus did to Judas in the Last Supper story in John 13:26). Cramming bread down someone’s throat, of course, is not part of the process. Bread is prepared lovingly and carefully and given to those who are ready to receive it.
God is like the woman who prepares and gives the food, Jesus suggests. As she wants to care for the people in her family with nutrition, good flavor, and an enjoyable time together, Jesus says that God wants to provide life for His people. “My Father wants all who look to the Son and believe in him to have eternal life. I will raise them up on the last day” (v. 40).
We want that, too, don’t we. We pray and work to spread the gospel of Christ in the places we live, as He commanded us to do. And we believe that it makes a world of difference whether people spend their lives in this world and enter eternity with or without faith in Jesus. So we want as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, to know God through faith and receive His gift of eternal life. We set up programs and spend money, time, and effort so that we can lead more and more people to a saving faith. But it’s not easy work, is it. Even over many years of gospel ministry, the results in numbers of people, activities, and so on can seem discouragingly small, can’t it.
To Christians in situations like this, Jesus gives an important reminder. Work to spread His gospel is not just difficult. In fact, He says (v. 44), “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me brings him.” Yes, faith is a gift of God, from start to finish. We must labor faithfully to plant the seed by telling the gospel. And as we do, God will enable it to grow into strong, healthy plants—in His time and way. “Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me,” Jesus promises (v. 45). But we cannot manufacture faith or pressure or manipulate people into it. It doesn’t work that way, and God never tells us to do that. If we feel pressure to produce results that are measured in numbers, it comes from some other place than our Lord. Christ makes a wonderful promise in v. 47: “Everyone the Father gives me will come to me.” That word is enough to hang onto when we struggle to see visible results in Christian ministry. Let’s be active and faithful in serving, yet with the assurance that we can leave the results in God’s hands.
In the end, matters of salvation and condemnation, death and life, heaven and hell, are in God’s hands. We can rest in that truth. But there’s more to it than that alone. Jesus does not finish His teaching in v. 37 with “Everyone the Father gives me will come to me.” He also continues, “I will never send away anyone who comes to me.” Yes, God is in control. His will in running the world is what counts far more than anything. Maybe that is why Jesus emphasizes so many times that as the bread of life, He has come “from heaven.” That phrase comes into John 6:25-59 10 times. Yet in His deep love, He gives amazing freedom to us as human beings to decide how we will live. That includes our responses to His offer of life through Jesus, the bread of life. His rule as King does not in any way cancel out our freedom.
There is a little mystery there, a paradox. We may not be able to grasp with our human, limited minds exactly how this works. But God allows His will and human free will to exist together, in tension with each other. Bridge-builders know something about this. To have a safe bridge, one of the key forces is tension. The Munich Bridge in Sapporo, for example, is firmly set on one side on the east bank of the Toyohira River and likewise set solidly in place on the west side. If one of these sides were to come loose, the whole bridge would be in serious danger. Like all bridges, it depends largely on tension to exist as it does. In the same way, God’s choice to save people is a spiritual reality. Yet so is our freedom of choice to receive this gift. The two truths exist in tension. One does not cancel the other out—they are different but not contradictory. You need them both to clearly understand how people can be saved, Jesus teaches.
What else does Jesus say about how people can be saved? It’s not by doing enough good works to earn it, He says. “God's work is to believe in the One he has sent,” He says (v. 29). (His listeners, with a very strong Old Testament Law background, were confused, it seems, when He told them (v. 27) to work for something that lasts longer than bread.) Salvation comes through faith, Jesus explains. “No one who comes to me will ever go hungry. And no one who believes in me will ever be thirsty” (v. 35). Our lives, most of all our spiritual lives, come from God, and you and I have to receive them the way we receive bread with our hands and put it into our mouths—willingly and freely, with thanks. We need to understand that we did not create ourselves but have the chance to receive life and through that continue enjoying the gift of God’s goodness.
To sum up what we’ve heard from Christ so far, bread is given. That’s God’s side of the process of salvation. But there is a side for us as humans, too, as we’ve already begun to see. Bread is also received. You choose to put it in your mouth. Accepting Christ as the bread of life means willingly welcoming Him into your heart and life. Bread is eaten in response to hunger. The Holy Spirit creates the desire in the hearts of people who hear the message of Christ to want to know and be joined to Him. He draws us to God in a way that only He can. Don’t ask me to explain exactly how that works. I couldn’t analyze it any more than I could put into words why people fall in love. But it happens. We know that from our own experience. And as a key part of it, we have to take the step of faith toward Him, even as He approaches us. Put another way, the train is prepared and waiting at Sapporo Station, but we have to choose to get on board. Only then does faith in Christ begin to become the life-changing reality that He intends for it to be in us.
What does it mean to play our role in the process of being saved? Jesus’ words point us to three simple but meaningful steps, so let’s look at them just a bit more. Yet before we do, let’s take the warning not to make the mistake of thinking that the simple vocabulary Christ uses is a sign of simplistic, shallow teachings. They are deep and powerful if and when we apply them to our daily lives and let them guide our thoughts, words, and actions. They come to be real in us as they lead us into deeper relationship with God Himself.
The first step is to come to Christ. He talks about this in verse 35 (“No one who comes to me will ever go hungry”), then again in 37, 44, and 45. Like the other steps in the process of salvation, these are ones that each person is to take in order to follow Jesus. As I noted in the youth message earlier, bread brings people together, and life in Christ is life in community. That is very important in Christian faith, but here the Lord focuses on what each person needs to do for faith to come to life. He does not say, “No one who comes to church” or “to religion” or “to cultural traditions.” Christ invites people to come to Him. Of course, when you do, He will put you in a church, Christianity is a religion, and we have traditions. But we must never mistake these for the source of our life and salvation. They are in Christ alone.
Then Jesus teaches us (v. 40) to “look to (Him).” There were people looking for Him (v. 26) to see a miracle or whatever, but He wants people to look to Him. That is different. It is a key step in coming to “have eternal life” (v. 40). It goes beyond just becoming very curious and gathering a lot of information about Christ. It is taking Him seriously and considering what changes will come into your life if you make the commitment to follow Him in faith.
Then there is that next, crucial step—believing in Jesus Christ. He talks in v. 40 about people who “believe in (Him).” (He also does in 29 and 35. “Believe” appears three more times in this passage, too.) That is not simply believing things about Christ, even very important things. It is believing in Him, becoming linked with Him. It means saying yes to beginning a relationship of love and trust with Him that will be the center of your life from then on. It is actually choosing to become a Christ-follower.
And that is what Jesus is still inviting people all over the world to do today. He continues to call us to know Him more personally as the bread of life and to join Him in offering the chance to many other people to join us as His disciples. Let’s ask the Lord now to help us do that. Will you do that with me?
Heavenly Father, thank you for caring about us deeply enough to send your Son, Jesus, into our world to be the bread of life for us. God, we confess that too often we are like the prodigal son in Jesus’ story, who wanted to fill his stomach with pigs’ food. If we don’t fill them with what they really need, we still try to fill them with something to satisfy our hunger. We fill our minds and schedules and bodies with so many things that do not lead to life. But you offer us the bread of life. Help us to receive that gift from you and learn to take from you the satisfaction, the strength, the enjoyment, the provision—all that we need. Enable us to live by the promise of Jesus (v. 35): “No one who comes to me will ever go hungry. And no one who believes in me will ever be thirsty.” Grow us into human beings fully alive—fed, formed, sustained, and enriched each day by the bread of life and joyously looking forward to being raised up on the last day to eternal life. This is our prayer, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Carson, D. (2015, July 8). I am the bread of life. Katoomba Christian Convention. Retrieved June 15, 2021 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvLqKT0 W1yQ&t=1260s