The Two Mannas
“I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Several years ago I heard a story about a Scotsman who was coming to America. He had purchased passage on one of the great ocean liners. He did not have much money, so he decided to save on food by stocking up on crackers, cheese, and fruit before his departure. The ship sailed, and he began to eat his Spartan meals. This went fairly well for the first four or five days. But as the ship drew closer to New York the crackers became increasingly stale, the cheese became moldy, and the fruit spoiled. Finally there was nothing left that was fit to eat. The Scotsman decided that he would go to the dining room and have one last, good meal before the liner docked in Manhattan and he went ashore. Imagine his surprise to discover that nothing in the dining room cost anything and that all that he could ever have eaten had already been included in the price of his ticket before he left the British Isles!
Unfortunately, this is the way in which thousands of men and women act toward the true bread of life that is offered to us without price in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is there for all. But the sad fact is that many would rather feed upon the dry crackers of human philosophy or the spoiled fruit of good works than come to him.
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:48–51). We will enter into the full meaning of these verses when we recognize that in them Jesus Christ voices a great claim, makes a requirement, and offers a wonderful promise.
The claim that the Lord Jesus makes in these verses is, quite simply, to be the “bread of life.” It is the second time in this chapter that he has described himself by this image, and the image itself constitutes the first of the great “I am” sayings that are a characteristic of this Gospel. Here Jesus is portrayed as the bread of life. Later he will say: “I am the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5), “I am the gate” (10:7, 9), “I am the good shepherd” (10:11, 14), “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25), “I am the way and the truth and the life” (14:6), “I am the true vine” (15:1, 5). By these images he shows that he is all that men and women need and that he is the sole way to come to God the Father.
Another way of setting the context for this saying is to notice that it is the third great Old Testament image that has been appropriated as a description of who Jesus Christ is and what he does. In chapter 1 Jesus has used the figure of Jacob’s ladder upon which the angels of God were ascending and descending from heaven. This suggests that Jesus is the One through whom God the Father is revealed to men. In chapter 3 he is the brazen serpent that Moses lifted up in the wilderness. Here the crucifixion is portrayed, that work by which men and women are healed from the serpent bite of sin. Now he is the bread of life, the new manna, by which the new people of God are fed during the years of their desert wandering. There are two mannas, of course. There is the manna upon which the Jewish people fed in the wilderness under the direction of Moses. This manna sustained physical life for a time; but even this physical life did not go on forever, and eventually all who had eaten this literal manna died. There is also the manna that Jesus gives. This bread imparts and sustains that kind of life that will go on forever.
What does it mean when Jesus claims to be the bread of life? It means that he is able to satisfy the deepest needs and longings of the human soul. He is able to satisfy your needs, your longings, whatever they may be.
This does not mean that Jesus is going to satisfy every want or desire you may have or think you have. It means that he will satisfy that which you most deeply need. You say, “But aren’t those two the same thing?” No, I do not think so. Let me give an example. Take a child who is beginning to grow up with a highly sharpened sense of what he “needs,” as most children do. He thinks he needs candy—about every hour or so throughout the day. He thinks he needs to stay up to watch the late, late show on television. He thinks he needs to be able to set his own schedule—get up when he wants to, go in and out with his friends when he wants to, come to dinner when he wants to. He thinks he needs leisure time, particularly when he is asked to straighten up his room or help his mother with the dishes. All these items are “needs” from the child’s point of view. But if the parent indulges the child in these, all he will produce is an unruly and obnoxious brat. What is more, when he grows up the child will attempt to inflict his unrestrained desires on everyone else and may well end up in jail.
What is it that the child needs? It is not what the child thinks he needs. Actually, the child needs discipline. He needs a standard of right and wrong conduct and someone to insist on that standard. He needs to be loved, to have goals, guidance, and encouragement.
In the same way, our real needs often differ from our imagined needs, and it is our real needs for which Jesus Christ is the answer. We find salvation in him. In him we have eternal life. We also are loved, receive goals and guidance, and are encouraged in life. “I am the bread of life,” said Jesus. The implication is that we should feed upon him and grow.
In this chapter Jesus gives what would be called in theology a “progressive revelation” of himself as the bread. It is as though he held the mystery of himself as the bread in his hand and then slowly opened his hand one finger at a time so that those who were listening to him would see the truth gradually. First, he spoke of a bread from heaven that the Father gives to men (v. 32). This was the opening of the first finger. After the curiosity of the crowd had been aroused Jesus opened another finger by pointing out that he was the bread about which he was speaking (vv. 35, 48). Finally, in the verses that we are considering, he opens his hand the whole way and shows that the bread is his body that will be given up in death for men and women. He says, “And the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (v. 51).
I am glad that Jesus went on to speak of the cross, because Christ without the cross is of no use to us. We can look to his example, to the way he led his life. We can admire it. But the life alone does not help. We can admire the life, but we cannot live it. Besides, we are condemned by that life, for it is the standard of what God would require of us as his creatures. A Christ without the cross is of no use to us. He condemns us. Fortunately, there is more. For Jesus went on to speak of the cross and eventually to die upon it and rise again. Now there is hope. He died for our sin. The chastisement of our peace is upon him, and with his stripes we are healed. In his resurrection life we now have life. In his righteousness, through his death, we are now reckoned righteous in the sight of a holy and loving God.
To understand these things is to understand not only why Christ is truly the bread that came down from heaven but also why he is necessary for spiritual life.
These verses not only contain Christ’s claim, which is a great claim; they also make a requirement. The requirement is that we feed upon him. This means to believe on Jesus, commit your life to him, take him into yourself so that he becomes a part of you and you of him. It is precisely the same act that is spoken of in verse 37, where we are encouraged to “come” to Christ, knowing that those who come to him will never be cast out. Have you come? I do not mean, do you know about Christ? Many people know about Christ but have never come to him. The devil knows about him but hates him. I mean, have you committed your life to him so that now your life, properly speaking, belongs to Jesus? If not, you need to say, “Lord Jesus Christ, I want you to know that I accept all the things said in Scripture about my sin and my need of you. I know that I am not holy. I recognize that I cannot please you by my own efforts. At the same time, I recognize that you died for me on the cross two thousand years ago, and I want that death to stand for my death. I want to be yours. Receive me now as one of your followers, as your child.”
Men and women have used many different words as they have prayed along these lines. Many who read this have come in different ways and have said different words as they have come. Still, at its heart the experience is the same. It is the experience of letting go of anything that you might present, in order that your hands might be empty to receive that righteousness that Jesus Christ gives. There is no substitute for that. If you have not done that, you are not a Christian, no matter how much you may know about the Christian faith. On the other hand, if you have done that, then you are already a Christian and know that God has placed his eternal life within you and will keep you until the last day.
What I have been saying is born out in a forceful way by this imagery of eating. Think what eating involves. First, it is necessary. Other things are necessary too, but not to the same degree. A person might argue that exercise is necessary. Yes, it is good for you. But if you do not eat, before long you are not going to be able to do your exercises. Someone else might argue that the life of the mind is necessary. I agree. But if you fail to eat, pretty soon you will not even be able to sit up and read or think clearly. You must eat to live. So, spiritually, you must eat of the Lord Jesus Christ if you are to come to life spiritually and grow strong.
How do you feed upon Christ? It is through studying the Bible. That is one reason why I place such a strong emphasis upon a systematic study of the Word of God on the Bible Study Hour. It is why in my church I comment upon the Scripture readings at each of the services, as well as preach the sermon. It is why I encourage area Bible studies in which people can meet informally to learn and grow together as they eat and digest the Word. These are tools by which you and I can feed upon Jesus. There is no substitute for them.
If we use the Word, God will bring us into contact with Jesus. He will use it to bring to our minds what we most need to know; he will reveal sin in us and correct it; and he will most certainly lead us in the way that we should go.
Then, too, eating is always a response to a need that is felt. In physical terms the need is for nourishment and the feeling of the need for nourishment is hunger. It is the same spiritually. When does a person come to the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior or for daily feeding after he has believed on him initially? It is when he has recognized his need. If you consider yourself all-sufficient spiritually—sufficient for this life and for the next—then it is not likely that you will come to the Lord Jesus Christ. However, if you have tried the allurements of this world and have found them to be empty, as many have, then there will be within you that sense of inner need and hunger that will drive you toward Jesus. If you have been reading the Bible, God will show you that need for holiness that will turn you to him.
At one point in my ministry I was talking with a number of young people who had seen other young people turn to sexual indulgences as a means of satisfying the hunger they felt in their hearts. It had a hold upon them, as sin always does. They enjoyed it. They did not see how they could possibly stay away from this style of life. It was everything to them. But the interesting thing is that they were not happy. They were miserable. There is an old saying, “If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?” We could also say, “If sex is the way, why aren’t you happy?” These young people needed to recognize that any way that is not God’s way—that is divorced from Jesus Christ—is empty. They needed to see that Jesus is the bread that satisfies.
How I wish I could make that clear! Jesus is the only One who satisfies. You will never have to go far to find those who say the opposite. Madison Avenue exists for no other reason than to say the opposite. It says it all the time. Buy a car; you’ll be happy. Take this vacation; you’ll be happy. Use a detergent; you’ll be happy. But it is not so. Do not permit yourself to be sold a bill of goods spiritually. Real joy comes from knowing the great God of the universe in Jesus Christ and from glorifying him forever.
Third, eating involves appropriation. Knowledge is not enough. It is possible to sit down at a banquet and identify all the dishes and even be able to address them by their French names—all the way from the potage de légumes to the crêpes suzette. But if you do not or will not eat of them, they do you no good whatsoever. In the same way, it is possible to understand Christian doctrine so well that you can tell where everyone else is wrong—where Barth is wrong, where Brunner is wrong, where Boice is wrong—but you are still lost unless you appropriate Jesus Christ personally.
That, of course, leads to the last significant point about eating. It must be personal. You must eat. No one else can do it for you. It also is true in regard to your relationship to the Lord Jesus. You cannot get along by saying, “Well, my husband believes … my wife believes … my children or my parents believe.” The question is: Do you believe? Are you feeding on Jesus? I hope that you will never cheat your wife or husband or children or parents by asking them to do something that you refuse to do personally, but rather will give them the best of yourself by allowing God to make you into the kind of person he has always planned for you to be.
Life or Death
The last point is involved in all that has been said previously. It has to do with believing or not believing in Jesus. What are the issues? They are “life” and “death.” It is not just a matter of a little bit of happiness versus more happiness or partial satisfaction versus greater satisfaction. It is life versus death. To know Jesus is to live—now and eternally. To refuse him is suicide.
There is no greater issue to be faced by anyone in the course of a normal human existence. Will you have life? God is the source of life; he gives it abundantly. Or will you choose that eternal death that comes from making yourself, rather than your Creator and Redeemer, the center of your spiritual horizons?
Do not do what the prodigal son did. He thought that he was going to find life when he left his father to enjoy himself in the city. We would say in today’s jargon that he was determined to “live it up.” So he took his inheritance and squandered it on riotous living. Did he find life? No, he found a life that to a Jew was a symbol of death. He was feeding unclean animals. When did life begin for the prodigal? Only when he saw his need, left his willful past behind him, and returned to his father. I covet that for you if you are one who has never really surrendered your will to Jesus and returned to him. Will you not come to him? Jesus is wonderful. He really is. He wants the best for you. Why do you not walk in that way willingly?
47–48 Verses 47–48 restate the truth that the person who believes in Jesus has, as a present possession, “everlasting life.” The present tense of the participle “he who believes” (ho pisteuōn, GK 4409) stresses the continuing necessity of faith. Faith is not a onetime event that covers all exigencies of the future but an ongoing trust in God that transforms the life and conduct of the believer in the here and now. Everlasting life belongs to those who are allowing faith to become the controlling factor of their existence. “I am the bread of life,” said Jesus, “and everlasting life belongs to those who receive me and make me their spiritual nourishment.”
6:48–51. Jesus offered the gospel of himself as the bread-eating metaphor persisted. Israelites who ate the manna in the desert died; it was only physical bread designed to sustain their lives on earth a bit longer. But the living bread is not like that; it provides eternal life. And then the bombshell: This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. Certainly this is not a reference to the Lord’s supper for there was no “Lord’s Supper” as yet. Furthermore, participating in any religious ritual does not produce eternal life; only faith in Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection can accomplish that.
By this time, mental assent—agreement with the truth of the Gospel—was giving way to spiritual appropriation, the voluntary and personal application of Christ’s death to oneself. Yes, the manna came from God, but it was temporary, and those who ate of it still died. Spiritual appropriation of the life of Jesus leads to eternal life—and that is what they should have been seeking, not another free lunch.
The constant repetition of the concept of bread as life seems to roll upon the shores of our minds like breakers from the sea. Surely the Holy Spirit intends John to repeat in print what Jesus emphasized in word. We need constant reminders that an eternal relationship with God surpasses any food necessary for physical life.
Imagine the shock verse 51 must have had on the ears and minds of the hearers that day in Capernaum. One can talk in general terms about eating the bread of life; it is quite another matter to say, this bread is my flesh. The word for flesh is different from body or self because it focuses on physical death and clearly points to the cross. There the bread of life was offered by Jesus universally—for the life of the world.
It is crucial for us to understand the significance of spiritual appropriation in these verses. Jesus claimed that his death and its atonement for sin are effective only when people reach out and apply that substitutionary sacrifice to themselves in a spiritual sense.
It is interesting that a short verse like this can consist of three complete sentences. And there is an order or design to the sentences. The first states the source of the living bread; the second discusses the manner in which the life is received when one eats the living bread; and the third focuses on how that eating is available through the vicarious death of Christ on the cross. As Morris declares, “It is a strong word and one bound to attract attention. Its almost crude forcefulness rivets attention on the historical fact that Christ did give Himself for man. He is not speaking simply of a moving idea … The last words of the verse bring before us once more the truth that the mission of Jesus is universal. He had not come to minister to the Jews only. When he gave his flesh it would be ‘for the life of the world’ ” (Morris, p. 376).
47–51. But the knowledge which one does attain by listening to the Father and learning of him is not to be disparaged. It results in the greatest possible blessing: I most solemnly assure you (on this see 1:51), he who believes has everlasting life. (For the verb to believe and on everlasting life, see on 3:16.) Note: the believer already has it; he has it here and now. This life is the gift of Jesus as “the bread of life.” Hence, this thought is repeated: I am the bread of life (for which see 6:35). This bread does what no other bread, including even the manna from heaven, has ever done or can ever do: it imparts and sustains life, and it banishes death. It imparts and sustains spiritual life; it banishes spiritual death. However, it even affects the body, raising it up in the last day so that it may be conformed to the glorious body of him who is the bread of life (cf. Phil. 3:21). In sharp contrast with this is the manna which the (fore)fathers had gathered: Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and died. This (did Jesus point to himself as he spoke this word?) is the bread which comes down out of heaven (see 6:32), in order that a man may eat of it and not die. Not only is Jesus the bread of life (imparting and sustaining life) but he is this because he is the living bread (cf. 4:10), having within himself the source of life (5:26): I myself am the living bread which came down out of heaven. If anyone eat of this bread, he will live forever. For ὁ ἐξ οὐρανοῦ καταβάς see on 6:41. One must eat this bread, not merely taste it (Heb. 6:4, 5). To eat Christ, as the bread of life, means to accept, appropriate, assimilate him—in other words, to believe in him (6:47)—, so that he begins to live in us and we in him. One who does this will live forever (the truth of verse 51 now stated positively). The words will live forever clearly indicate that one cannot dissociate the quantitative idea from the concept of “everlasting life.” When one has ζωὴν αἰώνιον, he actually ζήσει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα. Of course, the meaning of “everlasting life” is not exhausted in this quantitative concept. (See on 3:16 and cf. 1:4).
A new thought is now added. Up to this point Jesus has been stressing the fact that not the manna but he himself is the true bread from heaven. He now gives a further definition of the term bread, showing in which sense he is the bread: And the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh. (On the meaning of the term σάρξ see 1:14; also the note at the bottom of that page.) What Jesus means here is that he is going to give himself—see 6:57—as a vicarious sacrifice for sin; that he will offer up his human nature (soul and body) to eternal death on the cross. The Father gave the Son; the Son gives himself (10:18; Gal. 2:20; Eph. 5:2). Note: “the bread which I myself—in distinction from the Father—shall give!” The future tense—“I shall give”—clearly indicates that the Lord is thinking of one, definite act; namely, his atoning sacrifice on the cross, which, in turn, represents and climaxes his humiliation during the entire earthly sojourn. This, and this alone, is meant when he calls himself flesh. The meaning cannot be that Jesus is for us the bread of life in a twofold sense: a. entirely apart from his sacrificial death; and b. in his sacrificial death. On the contrary, the words are very clear: “And the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.” To believe in Christ means to accept (appropriate and assimilate) him as the Crucified One. Apart from that voluntary sacrifice, Christ ceases to be bread for us in any sense. That Jesus actually thought of his death is clear from 6:4, 53–56, 64, 70, and 71, which should be studied in this connection.
This bread is given “for the life of the world.” Its purpose is, accordingly, that the world may receive everlasting life. The concepts life and world are used here as in 3:16. (See commentary on 3:16.)
6:48, 49 Now the Lord Jesus states that He is the bread of life of which He had been speaking. The bread of life means, of course, the bread which gives life to those who eat it. The Jews had previously brought up the subject of the manna in the wilderness and challenged the Lord Jesus to produce some food as wonderful as that. Here the Lord reminded them that their fathers had eaten the manna in the wilderness and were dead. In other words, manna was for this life only. It did not have any power to give eternal life to those who ate it. By the expression, “Your fathers,” the Lord dissociated Himself from fallen humanity and implied His unique deity.
6:47–48. These two verses summarize Jesus’ teaching in the debate. I tell you the truth occurs here for the third of four times in this passage (cf. vv. 26, 32, 53). He who believes is in Greek a participial construction in the present tense, meaning that a believer is characterized by his continuing trust. He has everlasting life, which is a present and abiding possession. Jesus then repeated His affirmation, I am the Bread of Life (see comments on v. 35).
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 1504–1505). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.