John 6: 22-71 – Bread-of-Life Discourse

The discourse may be divided into four sections. They are:

John 6: 22-34              –           Introduction

John 6: 35-50              –           Bread of Life

John 6: 51-59              –           Living Bread

John 6: 60-71              –           Conclusion

There are three streams in the development of the discourse. They are:

  1. Jesus reveals himself. As the self-revelation progresses, Jesus speaks more and more clearly. The following are noteworthy: – John 6: 35, 46, 50, 51, and 53.
  2. The second stream consists of the reactions of the Jews who come in search of Jesus and express their desire to have the imperishable bread (Jn 6: 34). They are very negative and the negative character gets more and more intense in the course of revelation. It begins with murmuring (Jn 6: 41), becomes a dispute (Jn 6: 52), then a decision (Jn 6: 60), and finally execution of the decision (Jn 6: 66).
  3. The third stream consist of the response of the disciples which is expressed in the confession by Peter.

It is relevant to note at this junction that the spatial movement of Jesus in John 6 is important. The multiplication takes place on the hills, near the Sea of Galilee (Jn 6: 1). Later in John 6: 5 we find Jesus withdrawing on the hills again. In John 6: 16-21, Jesus is walking on the sea. So there is a movement from the plains to the hills and to the sea. Jesus reveals himself through the multiplication; but he is not understood. Then he goes back to the source of revelation (Father… hills) and reveals himself walking on the water and declaring, “I am” (Cf. Jn 6: 20). This is further interpreted and confirmed through the discourse.

What is meant by “Bread”?

“Bread” is a key word in John 6. In the Jewish tradition Manna or Bread was understood as “teaching” or “revelation”. Deuteronomy 8: 3 reads: “And he humbled you and let you huger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.” Wisdom 16: 20-26 is equally relevant: – “Instead of these things thou didst give thy people food of angels, and without their toil thou didst supply them from the heaven with bead ready to eat, … So that thy sons, whom thou didst love, O Lord, might learn that it is not the production of crops that feeds man, but that thy word preserves those who trust in thee.” We may read also Nehemiah 9: 20, in the same vein, “Thou gavest thy good Spirit to instruct them, and didst not withhold thy manna from their mouth, and gavest them water for their thirst.”

Bread-of-Life Discourse

The background of the teaching of Jesus is, “I am the bread of life; … come down from heaven”(Jn 6: 35-38). The means proposed to experience life after this teaching is “to believe” (Jn 6: 40). When the bread is the “revelation” which God gives through and in Jesus, it is by believing in him that life can be experienced.

It is pertinent also to remember that there was expectation of the provision of Manna in the final days, thus repeating the prodigy of the Exodus. To this effect the rabbinic teaching interprets Exodus 16: 25. They believed that Messiah would come on Passover and Manna would fall again because Joshua 5: 10-12 says that Manna fell for the last time on the morrow after the Passover. The dialogue between Jews and Jesus pivots around this theme. Jesus demands straight that they seek “imperishable bread”. This is attained by ‘believing in the Son who Father has sent’ (Jn 6: 40). The imperishable bread is Jesus himself as the revelation of the Father or the revelation Jesus gives through signs and discourses.

Theological Message of First Three Events

The multiplication of loaves was a miracle through which Jesus revealed himself as God. The previous revelation that helps us come to this conclusion is the event of Manna during Exodus. Jesus who is the revelation of God is feeding the new people. The Gospel of John has interpreted this event in the new context, from the Eucharistic perspective which was otherwise implied. But it is a preparation for presenting indirectly the institution of the Eucharist in a new dimension. It is the eschatological banquet God prepares on the mountain as prophesied by Isaiah 25: 6-10.

When people misunderstood his identity, Jesus withdraws to the hills, to the very source of his mission. Jesus came from the Father and he goes to the Father as the source of energy for the mission. This withdrawal of Jesus is the expression of his renunciation of the glory and power of the world as in the third temptation of Jesus according to Gospel of Matthew (Mt 4: 1-11) and second temptation of Jesus according to Gospel of Luke (4: 1-13).

It is from the mountain that Jesus comes to walk on the water. The action reveals that Jesus has authority over the universe. He is the sovereign creator as well as the liberator. Psalm 77: 19 is the background: – “Thy way was through the sea, thy path through the great waters; yet thy footprints were unseen”. The scene evokes the words of Psalm 29: 3 too: – “The voice of the Lord is upon the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, upon many waters”. The Psalmist depict the way God saved his people with a mighty hand, especially in the context of the “Passover”. By walking on the water, Jesus is revealing himself as God who says, “Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool” (Is 66: 1) and as the liberator who saves. The statement “I am” is verbal articulation of the revelation that Jesus is God both as creator and liberator. This Jesus is coming down from the mountain, from the source of his revelation and so his revelation is created as authentic.

Eating Flesh and Drinking Blood

Coming to the discourse in John 6 we could say, the first part is on revelation (Jn 6: 35-50), and the second part is on the theme of the Eucharist (Jn 6: 51-58). In John 6: 51-58, the bread has Eucharistic significance, especially in terms of “authentic presence”. How to experience this? “Eat my flesh and drink my blood”.

“Flesh and blood” in the Hebrew cultural background signifies the “person”. The theme is union with God. Whatever we eat or drink gets digested, assimilated and becomes part of us. This is the perfect natural union the human beings can experience in their daily life. Such a union is expected from the disciples of Jesus with his very person.

“Eating and drinking” are means for perfect union. What is eaten and drunk lose their actual existence and becomes part of life of “the eater and drinker”. Through such a union, the believer lets Jesus’ life and Spirit flow through his/her veins. Ultimately, eating and drinking refers to believing and knowing (Jn 6: 35-45) and to the union resulting from the same.

This is experienced as life (Jn 6: 51, 53, 54, 57) through the breathing of the Spirit by Jesus into the disciples. Second, this experience results in mutual indwelling (Jn 6: 56). Third, it refers to the final resurrection (Jn 6: 54).

Reaction of the Jews: Negative

The reaction of Jews who came eagerly searching for Jesus is now very negative. Their reaction is comparable to the attitude of Israelites in the wilderness: murmuring against Moses and Yahweh, engaging themselves in disputation to return to Egypt, being a rebellious and stiff-necked people. They do not understand what Jesus reveals because they are using the categories of senses and reason. Jesus is speaking on the level of the Spirit. The attitude of murmuring, arguing, absolutizing one’s understanding and rebelliously deciding to desert Jesus are all expressions of rational – sensual level of thinking and acting. They want tot understand and then to believe. They do not understand and therefore they refuse to accept. They leave Jesus as everything looks clumsy and unclear to them.

Reaction of the Disciples: Positive

The response given by the disciples is different. They do not murmur, dispute, or argue. They listen in silence. And Peter said: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6: 68). Peter (Peter’s response to Jesus in plural “we” shows that he is acting as the spokesperson for the whole disciples of Jesus) recognized Jesus as the source of life because he recognized that Jesus’ words were emerging from the heart and that there was perfect correspondence between heart and the tongue. Jesus’ words are life because they interpret his very being, his inner life and nature. Peter also stated how he comes to know the divine identity of Jesus as the Holy One of God: “we have believed, and have come to know…” (Jn 6: 69). It is through faith that authentic knowledge is attained. This is the faith – experiential knowledge of God. A mere human approach cannot lead us to this experience of eternal life, but openness to the Spirit in faith alone can.

Thus, the whole discourse interprets the multiplication of loaves, prayer on the hills, and walking on the water, both in term of revelation and Eucharist. They are inseparable. Eucharist is the real, substantial presence of God just as Jesus is the authentic presence of the Father.

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