On the next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 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’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. 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— not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 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.”
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 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. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 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. 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. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.
When preaching, one of my favorite examples to use is a study I read about pigeons several years ago. An experiment was conducted in which two levers were placed in front of the birds; one lever would immediately give a single piece of food, while the other would give a large amount of food after a delay of several seconds. Which do you think the birds went for? Unsurprisingly, they went for the former option repeatedly. The desire for instant gratification is apparently just as prevalent in birds as it is in human beings. Even knowing that something greater awaits if we simply exercise some patience, it’s a rarity that we choose the path with the greater rewards.
We are often content with the option which results in immediate gratification, but the Christlike mind is not satisfied with the things of this world. The deepest desire of those who are in Christ is the pursuit of that which has eternal value. Just as the woman at the well left behind her water jar and found the fulfillment of her desires in Christ Jesus, so we must abandon that which does not truly satisfy and instead chase after that which matters most.
Jesus uses language here which those hearing Him find difficult to understand. It appears fairly common to the reader in the modern era, given 2,000 years of Church history and our familiarity with the Communion ritual. How could they not understand what Jesus meant by saying those around Him needed to eat His flesh and drink His blood? Quite easily, it turns out. Christ might as well be speaking in an entirely alien language. Problematically, though, our own interpretation of this passage might actually have suffered due to our familiarity with the language of Communion, for Christ does not seem to be referring to this here. He has not yet instituted Communion as a lasting ordinance. To say that this refers to Communion in the strictest sense is something of an anachronism, placing onto the text a meaning which is inconsistent with the timing of the events in question. Rather, it is the content of this passage which will go on to inform our understanding of what takes place theologically in Communion.
Jesus is, of course, speaking of a spiritual reality which informs our practices in the everyday. We cannot find life in the temporal things of food and drink but must find in Christ the eternal life we desire. Life comes through Him. But we also recognize that Jesus is not speaking of a literal, physical ingestion, just as Jesus’ words on being “born again” a few chapters ago were not literal. He makes this much clear by contrasting the literal gift of manna received by their forefathers with the “bread” which He offers – literal bread, even if it has a supernatural origin, still results in death; the spiritual food which He freely gives brings eternal life. He speaks of spiritual truths in terms of physical reality so that we have a framework within which to understand His words.
What is made clear once again is that belief results in eternal life (v. 47). Jesus goes on to clarify this: the bread which He offers results in eternal life, “and the bread that [He gives] for the life of the world is [His] flesh” (v. 51). To receive eternal life is to believe in the crucified and resurrected Messiah. It is He who sustains, His sacrifice which proves sufficient, and the life which is in Him which is without end.
Let us not look to temporal things in the hopes that they will satisfy but look instead to the One who provides bread of life and living water which wells up from within.
You have always been faithful to make provision for Your people. In the wilderness, You provided manna and quail. You ensure that the oil and the flour do not run out in our times where scarcity is rampant. When there was no other way, You provided hope to a people in despair through the gift of Your Son, Jesus Christ. Thank You for the gift of bread which does sustain and water which does quench our thirst. Thank You for true food and true drink. May we lean not on ourselves, looking for abundance where we truly need You; may we lean instead on our Savior to provide our daily needs and to meet our eternal needs.