Jesus Challenges the Jews to Believe in Him (6:41-51)

This crowd, now called the Jews (v. 41), fails to respond with faith in Jesus. Jesus does not reject them, but he challenges them to stop grumbling and believe in him. He repeats his claims but now clearly refers to himself as the bread of life (v. 48). He also continues his teaching about the divine will, clarifying the relation between the will of the Father and the human response of faith. This section of his dialogue concludes with Jesus' deepening the scandal by saying that this bread is his flesh.

The description of the people grumbling recalls the response the children of Israel in the wilderness had to the Lord's salvation (Ex 15—17; Num 14—17; 21:4-5; Deut 1:27; Ps 106:25; Sirach 46:7). Now they grumble because of Jesus' claim to be the bread of life. As with Nathaniel (1:46), their problem is with where Jesus is from. They know Joseph and Jesus' mother (6:42), and they judge Jesus' claims on the basis of what they think they already know. It seems they believe that a being who has come from heaven would not have earthly parents. This helps highlight the central claim Jesus is making, his divine origin (6:33, 38, 41, 50-51, 58), and also the fact that the divine has come amongst us within humanity. Here, in the incarnation, is the supreme example of matter as spirit-bearing.Jesus calls upon them to stop grumbling (v. 43), to not repeat the pattern of their ancestors but instead to respond in faith. It is, in effect, a call to repent. But the only way they could stop grumbling would be to become receptive of his teaching about himself. This they are incapable of doing.

Jesus says that by their response they are judging themselves. Their rejection of him reveals their relationship with God, for no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him (v. 43). In putting it this way Jesus indicates that he and the believer have the same origin, the Father. The Father sent the Son and the Father draws the believer. Earlier he said all that the Father gives me will come to me (v. 37). Now he restates that teaching from the point of view of his Father's work in the believer.

By repeating his promise to raise the believer at the last day (v. 44; cf. v. 39) Jesus is claiming to be the one who fulfills the promises of resurrection in the age to come. This future hope is combined in this discourse with a present fulfillment, for Jesus will shortly say that those who eat the bread of heaven will not die but will live forever (vv. 50-51).

Jesus confirms and explains his teaching about the role of the Father with a quote from Isaiah 54:13—It is written in the Prophets: "They will all be taught by God" (v. 45). Isaiah 54 speaks of God's future restoration of Jerusalem to intimacy with himself. By applying this text to his own ministry, Jesus is claiming that the eschatological blessings of the last day are already being experienced in his ministry; God's promise to Jerusalem is being fulfilled now. Those who know Jesus' real identity understand how this is so, for they realize that those hearing Jesus are themselves being taught by God! But the point Jesus makes is different. He is explaining the way the Father draws people. He does so by teaching, as the rest of the verse makes clear: Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. To listen and to learn require humility, a key characteristic of disciples in this Gospel. The one who listens to God and learns will be taught by God and be drawn to Jesus, for Jesus is the one who speaks God's word and manifests his presence. Here we have a very profound reflection on the mystery of the roles of the divine and the human in a person's coming to faith. Indeed, faith itself includes receptive openness to God. Thus, the drawing by God and the reception of the person are intimately interwoven (cf. Bultmann 1971:231-32).

Jesus' claim that everyone who listens and learns from God will come to him is both a comfort and a challenge. It is comforting because it says no one who is really open to God will be left out. But it is also a challenge because it is another one of Jesus' claims to unique, supreme authority. God has indeed not left himself without a witness. General revelation has made something of the truth about himself known, and certainly the Scriptures have done so more clearly. But all such knowledge of God is partial and finds its fulfillment and point of reference in Jesus. All revelation before or outside of Jesus leads one to come to him. When a Jew or Muslim or Buddhist or other religious person who has really learned from God sees Jesus in truth (not as he is too often revealed by Christians' poor witness) they will recognize in him the fullness of what they have already learned. Thus, we once again find in this Gospel the scandal of the Christian claims of Jesus' exclusive supremacy.

Jesus' supreme authority is further established in the next verse when he explains that no one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father (v. 46). Jesus' shift from hearing God to seeing him is probably significant. The Old Testament is saturated with references to people who have heard God, but it is more ambiguous about those who have received a vision of God (see comment on 1:18). The emphasis in this Gospel is that no one has seen God (1:18; 5:37; cf. 1 Jn 4:12), yet those who have seen Jesus have seen the Father (14:8-9). Thus, John again denies the claims of the mystics (cf. comments on 1:18 and 3:13). So the exalted claims about Jesus are matched by the claims John makes for the believers. He claims they have eternal life (v. 47), which goes beyond what the rabbis or the mystics claimed for themselves. The believer not only encounters God but actually comes to share in his life, a thought that will be developed in the Jesus' farewell discourse (13:31—17:26).

Jesus now concludes this section of his teaching by returning to the story of God's provision of manna in the wilderness (vv. 48-50; cf. vv. 32-35). He repeats his claim to be the bread of life and draws out the significance of the word life. This bread he speaks of is a food that keeps one from dying, in contrast to the manna eaten by the wilderness generation, who nevertheless died. Obviously, any food keeps one from dying for a period of time; it sustains life. Jesus, however, is talking about food that is much more powerful than regular food, for the one who eats this bread will live forever (v. 51). It is God's own life that is shared through this bread.

What sort of bread could give eternal life? Jesus' teaching comes to a head as he declares, This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world (v. 51). The Word that became flesh (1:14) now says he will give his flesh for the life of the world, so that the world may have life. Giving of life to the world (v. 33) requires that he give his flesh. This giving is in the future, so it refers to more than his teaching. It is also on behalf of (hyper) the life of the world, which suggests sacrifice (see comment on 10:11). Christ's death is indeed a sacrifice on behalf of his flock (10:11, 15), the Jewish people (11:50-51), the nations (11:52) and his disciples (17:19; cf. Beasley-Murray 1987:94).

This crowd has now received the interpretation of the sign as they had requested (6:30). Earlier the Jews had asked for a sign to legitimate Jesus' action in the temple, and he had spoken of the temple of his body and of his death and resurrection (2:18-21). Now this crowd has received teaching about the manna of his flesh and about how the divine gift of eternal life will be given through the Messiah's death. Here is a cryptic saying indeed! His reference to his flesh only heightens the scandal, as we see in the next scene.

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