Jesus was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. A large crowd had gathered.
Many of these people had been there a day or two earlier when Jesus fed 5,000 people with five barley loaves and two fish. Jesus slipped away from that gathering into the hills, and they had been searching for him.
Now they have found him.
A little background will help us to understand this situation.
The Jewish people were expecting the Messiah. They were expecting a prophet like Moses. They wanted to follow someone who would give them free food and political deliverance – another Moses. They did not understand the central thrust of Jesus’ mission.
Free food was also a tool used by emperors, for example, to keep people subdued and to gain political advantage. Jesus fed them once, but they want more. They expect more.
They want Jesus to act in the way they imagine Moses would act, because they see Jesus as the second coming of Moses. Many of the Jewish people at that time actually thought that when the Messiah came the manna would also return. They remembered that Moses gave the people bread every day, not just once. If Jesus is a prophet like Moses, he should provide bread every day. They demand it.
That’s what they say in verse 34.
“Sir,” they said, “give us that bread every day.”
They tell Jesus that the Bible says Moses gave the bread, but he knows their misunderstanding and he tries to correct it. He points out to them that Moses didn’t give them bread. It was God who gave the bread. They can’t really disagree with this since it is what Scripture says in Exodus 16:4.
And then Jesus tells them in verse 32 that God is again giving bread this very day, but it is a different kind of bread. It is the bread of heaven. It is the bread of God.
And he explains that what God is giving right now is not manna or bread that goes mouldy. It is not bread to be eaten. It is a person who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.
In fact, the bread is Jesus. Jesus is the bread of life.
They still are thinking in a worldly way. They still don’t understand.
So they tell Jesus they want to eat some of this bread. They want it supplied to them free for breakfast, lunch and supper.
The Jewish teachers had long said that the manna was a symbol for spiritual food, by which they usually meant the Torah or Wisdom or Word.
In the book of Sirach, called Ecclesiasticus in the King James Bible, in chapter 24 Wisdom says:
Come to me, … and eat your fill of my fruit.
(Come vnto me all ye that be desirous of mee, and fill your selues with my fruits.)
Eat me, and you will hunger for more;
drink me, and you will thirst for more.
(They that eate mee shall yet be hungry,
and they that drinke me shall yet be thirstie.)
Jesus is comparing himself to divine wisdom, and contrasting himself with it. Those that eat wisdom will still be hungry, but those who eat the bread of heaven will have their hunger satisfied. So in verse 35 he says this.
“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again.
Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
In Exodus the children of Israel grumbled and complained in the desert before God gave them manna. Those who were demanding that Jesus feed them three free meals a day were still complaining after they had eaten his bread.
He is clearly telling them about eternal life, but they insist on misunderstanding him and talking about real loaves of bread to fill their bellies. So he makes the same point again in verse 49.
“Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, but they all died.
Anyone who eats the bread from heaven, however, will never die.”
In the desert, they had the Ten Commandments. In the desert, they had the Law. In the desert, they had manna. In the desert, they all died.
And still they stubbornly fail to understand his words, arguing with each other how they can eat his actual body. It was a shocking idea. Not just the Jews, but all of the people in the Greek and Roman world abhorred cannibalism. Many people more recently have been disgusted at the idea that the celebration of Hoy Communion is really about eating the body and drinking the blood of Jesus. This misunderstanding has caused more than a little persecution of Christians over the years.
It is of course true that we see Jesus as the passover lamb, but never did the Jews drink the lamb’s blood. That was forbidden. It is only in a figurative sense that Jesus is a lamb or that he is eaten. Jesus is not asking the people to literally eat him.
What did Jesus mean then when he said we should eat his flesh and drink his blood?
“My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.
Anyone who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.”
His disciples were utterly confused. Many must have also been disgusted. The crowd was in an uproar. Many of his disciples said, “This is very hard to understand. How can anyone accept it?” At this point many of his disciples turned away and deserted him.
Jesus explained what he meant when he said: “The Spirit alone gives eternal life. Human effort accomplishes nothing. And the very words I have spoken to you are spirit and life.”
He said that it is God’s will that all who see God’s Son and believe in him should have eternal life. Jesus said that on the last day, on Judgement Day, he will raise them up.
He will raise up all who believe in him. Not those who have tried hard to live good lives. Not those who have tried hard to do good deeds. Those who believe. And God wants all of us to believe, but we have free will to decide for ourselves.
The first disciples were free, and many decided not to follow Jesus.
Jesus is bread and water, and we have to come to him to receive the bread of heaven and water of life. We do this spiritually. We open up our hearts and minds to receive the holy spirit. We let the holy spirit change and direct our thoughts. We let the holy spirit change and redirect our hearts.
The eating and drinking we do is all about the spiritual act of becoming one with Jesus in heart and mind and action. We spend time talking to him and listening to God. We obey what he says and what is written in the Bible. Jesus is spiritual food that gives spiritual life.
We are challenged to truly accept that Jesus is who he says he is. And then to live out that believe in love. We want to do the work that God wants us to do. That work is believe in the one whom God has sent, listen to him, follow him, deepen your relationship with him.
Then that revolution will take place within you and more and more, each of us will become like Jesus and we will be filled with the food that gives us everlasting life. The food of the spirit that Jesus can give us will revolutionize each of us and will change our world. We pray that we can hear God’s word and take it into ourselves and follow it.
Let’s all eat and be changed by Jesus. Take in, absorb, digest all the words Jesus has spoken, because they are spirit and life.