“Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the Bread of Life. He who comes to Me will never go hungry, and he who believes in Me will never be thirsty”‘ (John 6:35).
Eight times during His final year of earthly life, Jesus startled His listeners by using a mysterious phrase beginning with the words “I am …” Only the Apostle John records these cryptic, self-revealing declarations in his Gospel.
John vividly describes the occasion when Jesus made His first pronouncement: “I am the Bread of Life” (6:35, 48 and 51). It was in spring—Passover time—one year before His death that Jesus “crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee … and a great crowd of people followed Him because they saw the miraculous signs He had performed on the sick” (John 6:1- 2).
John sets the stage for Jesus’ declaration by meticulously recounting the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels: the feeding of the 5,000. The apostle provides details that enliven the scene. He notes that it was the spring of the year (v. 4), there was “plenty of grass” in the area (v. 10) and it was to Philip, from nearby Bethsaida, that Jesus posed the seemingly absurd question, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” (v. 5).
After Jesus fed and addressed the multitude, He retreated to the nearby hills known today as the Golan Heights. His disciples sailed back to Capernaum. When a storm almost capsized the boat in the middle of the lake, not only did Jesus come to the disciples’ rescue by walking on the water, but “immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading ” (v. 21).
JESUS MOVED THE
CONVERSATION FROM THE
CROWD’S DESIRE FOR
PHYSICAL NOURISHMENT TO
THEIR NEED FOR SPIRITUAL
Word spread swiftly through the nine villages surrounding the Sea of Galilee. By foot and by boat the people followed Jesus to Capernaum (vv. 22-24), where they cornered Him in the synagogue (vv. 25 and 59). Jesus ignored their shallow questions and bluntly challenged their motivation: “I tell you the truth, you are looking for Me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life …” (vv. 26-27). With these piercing words Jesus moved the conversation from their desire for physical nourishment to their need for spiritual sustenance.
Jesus’ popularity had soared that day. The multitudes followed Him (v. 2). Some in the crowd considered Him a prophet (v. 14) and a number were ready to make Him king (v. 15). Others were asking the right questions: “What must we do to do the works God requires?” (v. 28) and “What miraculous sign then will You give that we may see it and believe You? What will You do?” (v. 30). After Jesus described the spiritual bread that He offered, the crowd pleaded, “Sir … from now on give us this bread” (v. 34).
The throng’s approval plummeted when Jesus declared that He alone was the Bread they were seeking. Jesus proclaimed, “I am the Bread of Life. He who comes to Me will never go hungry, and he who believes in Me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen Me and still you do not believe” (v. 35-36). It did not take long for the fickle crowd to turn on Jesus. The Jewish leaders “began to grumble because He said, ‘I am the Bread that came down from heaven”‘ (v. 41). Some asked, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can He say, ‘I came down from heaven ‘?” (v. 42).
The crowd came looking for bread, and Jesus offered them Himself—the Bread of Life. The cost of discipleship was simply too high for many to pay. Jesus illustrated the sacrificial cost with an unforgettable, startling metaphor: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. This bread is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world … I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you … For My flesh is real food and My blood is real drink. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me, and I in him” (v. 51-56).
Sadly, this discourse ended with many followers leaving Jesus. “‘This,’ they concluded, ‘is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’ … From this time many of His disciples turned back and no longer followed Him” (vv. 60-66).
Thankfully, this is not the end of the story. It was Peter who had the right answer. Peter did not always act in the proper manner, but he never failed to answer Jesus’ questions correctly. “‘You do not want to leave, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that You are the Holy One of God”‘ (vv. 67-69).
Jesus’ penetrating question resounds throughout the ages to all who would follow Him. His faithful disciples must ever follow Peter’s example and respond: “We believe … we know …we gladly receive and follow the Bread of Life .”
Commissioner William W. Francis is a retired officer. He is also the author of The Stones Cry Out (USA Eastern Territory, 1993) and Celebrate the Feasts of the Lord (Crest Books, 1997), and is a frequent contributor to the War Cry and other Salvation Army publications.