Read John 6:22–59.
When I was just three years old, I ran away from home. My adventure into the unknown didn’t come about because of some dangerous situation at home. Neither my parents nor my older sister had done anything to upset me. My rebellious spirit was driven by something else. I walked out the front door of our house and took to the streets, driven by a force bigger than myself. Something had a hold on me.
You see, there was a retired couple who lived down the street from us. All the kids in the neighborhood knew them, especially the wife. She had earned a reputation and a nickname. In fact, I don’t think I ever knew her real name. To us, she was simply The Lollipop Lady. Whenever she saw us kids out playing, she would bring out a container of suckers—the good kind—and let us take our pick.
So, one morning, thinking about the sweet taste of cane sugar and artificial fruit flavoring, I made a break for the front door. My parents found me about an hour later in The Lollipop Lady’s driveway, trying to sweet talk the kind woman into handing over her magic container.
The temporary joy that accompanies good food (or candy) can be a powerful motivator. It got me to leave behind the life I knew in search of another hit of sugar, and it got the crowds who ate the bread and fish Jesus multiplied to get into boats and cross the Sea of Galilee.
When these hungry folks arrive in Capernaum, they find Jesus teaching in the synagogue (John 6:59). He apparently uses their arrival as an opportunity to take his preaching in another direction, telling them, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him the Father has placed his seal of approval” (John 6:27). They’re chasing after the wrong bread.
Reading this passage, you might begin to wonder why bread is such a big deal. It certainly was a nice gesture when Jesus earlier multiplied the fish and loaves, but why does the crowd want more? As we’ve already seen, the background to the miracle and all that follows is the exodus account. The people have begun to believe that Jesus is the Prophet like Moses God promised, the Messiah (v. 14).
One of the expectations of the Messiah that had sprung up over the centuries was that, like Moses, He would cause manna to come down from heaven. Jesus doesn’t say they’re wrong to expect such a thing; He simply tells them they’ve got their minds fixated on the wrong bread: “It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…. I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (vv. 32–33, 35).
I am the bread of life. This is the first of seven metaphorical “I am” statements in John’s Gospel. We’ve already seen how Jesus spoke the words ego eimi to His disciples as He walked on the water (v. 20), but now He’s attached a colorful descriptor to that divine title. The wandering Israelites who followed Moses needed bread from heaven to keep them alive in the desert. Jesus is now claiming that they must have His flesh and His blood to survive the curse of sin and death: “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (v. 53).
It’s a disturbing metaphor, as far as metaphors go. The image of cannibalism is unsettling to say the least. But it is a deep truth that we cannot avoid if we are to take Jesus on His own terms. We need Him like we need our daily intake of food.
Jesus came to rescue us from the darkness and bring us into His kingdom of light. He came to wake us from death and make us truly alive. Jesus gave His flesh and blood “for the life of the world” (v. 51). On the cross, the bread of life was broken for us. For those who receive Him, He gives eternal life.
The crowds that day weren’t wrong to crave bread. We all should crave a fix for the hunger inside of us. But the true hunger within—the deep, lasting hunger that has been with us since the day we were born—cannot be satisfied by any earthly meal. We need spiritual food. We need Jesus. If we try to satiate our ache with anything or anyone else, we’ll find we’ve ingested poison. Jesus is the only one who offers real life.