Jesus’ message about being the bread of life is one of the most convicting and revealing in the Gospel accounts. People who are confronted by this message cannot stand in the middle and they cannot pretend which side they are on – at least for long. We all must either recognize that we have nowhere else to go but to Christ or that we are unwilling to relinquish our hold on our illusory autonomy.
In John’s Gospel account, each of Jesus’ seven “I am” statements revealed something about His person and work, allowing John’s readers to know Him more intimately, clearly, and personally. These statements are designed to bring us back to the foundation of our faith, which is the Lord Jesus Christ.
The first of these statements occurs in John 6, where Jesus twice declares, “I am the bread of life.” By human standards, the message here could be categorized as the worst sermon Jesus ever preached. When the chapter begins, Jesus is being followed by crowds of possibly more than 20,000 people. At the end, He is left with 12 followers – one of whom is, in Jesus’ words, a devil.
In the modern church today, if a teacher loses 99.94% of his audience, he would be deemed a failure. That’s why by the world’s standards, this message Jesus gave in John 6 was a complete disaster; but by Jesus’ standards, it accomplished exactly what He intended it to do – and so it was a roaring success.
The tension of this passage is due to the crowd’s refusal to understand and accept Jesus’ true meaning when He called Himself the “Bread of Life.” Members of the crowd following Jesus were hungry, and they wanted our Lord to provide them with sustenance. Jesus, who was perfectly capable of such an earthly minded miracle, had a spiritual focus with His statement, knowing that their eternal destinies mattered exponentially more than the state of their empty stomachs. More than two thousand years have passed since this interaction between Jesus and the crowd, but the same tension and truth remains with us today.
John includes two scenes at the onset of this chapter to provide context for the forthcoming conversation and to demonstrate that Jesus is God. Only God can create bread to feed 20,000 people out of five crackers, and only God can overrule the way water and density normally work so that He can walk on water. John’s point in the inclusion of these stories is to force us to grapple with this question: ‘Who is Jesus?’ Is He a human bread factory, ready to meet our temporal needs and submit to our whims and desires? Or is He God in human flesh, the sovereign ruler of all?
As the crowd gathers around Jesus after His miraculous stroll across a stormy sea, the Savior confronts their worldly motives in seeking Him by highlighting their real reason for coming: they didn’t want spiritual truth or eternal life; they wanted physical food. This is how many people in this world search for Jesus. In fact, the entire seeker-sensitive movement in the church is built on this premise, that they want to attract a crowd by appealing to their fleshly desires.
Not only does Jesus understand the crowd is only interested in a resolution for their temporal problems, but He also knows they mistakenly believe they have some stake (i.e. works) in the things that only God can do. This crowd only wants to come to Jesus on their terms.