Jesus has finally succeeded in directing the people's attention to himself and to the necessity of faith in him. Now that their attention is fixed, he reveals himself to them as the bread of life. Jesus speaks of a bread superior to the bread that was provided for Israel in the desert, and the crowd says it wants to receive this bread (vv. 30-34). Jesus then grants their request by revealing that he himself is that bread (vv. 35-40). He speaks of the role of the divine call and the human response in people's coming to faith, thereby challenging them to believe in him, if indeed God is their God.
Jesus focused their attention on the importance of believing in the one sent by God (6:29). As good Jews they are already aware of how important such faith is. This is quite in keeping with their loyalty to Moses as the one sent from God (5:45; 9:28-29). But they realize that Jesus is talking not about Moses, but about himself (6:27). So they ask, What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? (v. 30). These are amazing questions, for this crowd is actually willing to entertain the possibility that Jesus is in the same league as Moses. The Samaritan woman was willing to consider the possibility that Jesus is greater than Jacob, and in this faith she was brought closer to him. This crowd seems to have a similar willingness, but the results will not be as good.
The NIV, and the interpretation of most commentators, understands these questions as a request for a sign, with the assumption that the crowd goes on to suggest something along the lines of Moses' provision of bread in the desert (v. 31). But this is strange since they have, in fact, just been given bread in the desert. It could be that they are extremely dense or that they are suggesting Jesus' feeding was inferior to Moses'. Yet they had seen in this last sign reason to make him king (6:15), so the questions in verse 30 are puzzling. Indeed, a number of scholars suspect that they are evidence of a patchwork of more than one source.
However, a more satisfactory interpretation is found when we take the verbs in the sentence, which are in the present tense, as referring to the present rather than the future: "What sign therefore are you doing, that we may see and believe you? What work are you doing?" The crowd is not asking for another sign to be given, but rather they want an interpretation of the feeding that has just occurred. Verse 31 then follows quite naturally, for the feeding reminds them of what happened through Moses in the desert. The quote from Scripture cited by the crowd is not an exact quote of a particular verse. It is a summary of several passages, including Exodus 16:4, Nehemiah 9:15 and Psalm 78:24-25. Given the fact that some Jews viewed Moses as a king (see comment on 6:15), the questions in verse 31 would seem to be the crowd's way of seeking confirmation from Jesus that their interpretation of the miracle was correct. They are suggesting that Jesus should allow them to get on with the coronation.
Jesus' response (v. 32) follows a pattern familiar in rabbinic teaching styles (Borgen 1965:61-67). Jesus corrects what he understands to be their interpretation of the Scripture just cited. He who gave them bread was not Moses but my Father, and the giving of the true bread was not past (has given) but present (gives). The claims implied in these changes are astonishing. He is not claiming to be a giver of bread like Moses. Rather, he focuses their attention of the real giver, God. But he identifies God as my Father, thus making himself and his relationship with God the defining expression of God. Such an enormous claim is then backed up with the focus on the present: his Father is giving them bread. This bread is the true bread from heaven (v. 32), the real bread that is the source and standard of all else that can be called "bread from heaven." God is the one who always provides bread, but now in the person and ministry of Jesus, the Father is doing a unique work. Jesus is far more than the giver of bread like Moses was; he is the bread itself, as he is about to make clear.
This style of interpreting Scripture is very typical of the way Christians in the New Testament understand the Old Testament (see comment on 2:22). Jesus is the interpretive key. As the Word and Wisdom of God, he is the fount of all revelation to begin with. It all points to him and coheres in him. This way of interpreting Scripture differs from many modern forms of interpretation, but is not incompatible with them. Unless we interpret the Scriptures in the same way that the authors of the New Testament did, we will miss the great organic beauty of the revelation and its coherent truth.
Jesus continues by explaining (gar, translated for) more about this bread his Father is giving them (v. 33). The language used here is subtle. It could refer to a person coming from heaven, as the NIV takes it: he who comes down from heaven. Or the reference could be more general: the bread of God is "that which" comes down from heaven. Jesus is, of course, referring to himself, as he makes clear in the next section. But the crowd hears it in the more general sense, and they say, from now on give us this bread (v. 34). The phrase from now on translates pantote, which simply means "always." The crowd wants an unending supply of this bread, perhaps like the Samaritan woman wanted a continuous supply of water so she would not have to go to the well again (4:15). Once the crowd realizes he is referring to himself, however, they become far less receptive (6:41)!
Jesus continues to correct their thinking about Moses and the bread as he explains that this bread of God gives life to the world (v. 33). The scope of God's concern is not just Israel, as it was in the wilderness, but the whole of the world (cf. 3:16). And the need is not just for sustenance, but for life itself. The world, apart from God, is dead. Our need is extreme and radical. We need a new birth (cf. 3:3), for apart from Christ we have no real life and are under God's wrath (cf. 3:36). By telling this Jewish crowd that the Father gives you this bread and then saying that it gives life to the world, Jesus includes this Jewish crowd in "the world." Salvation in Jesus does indeed come from the Jews (4:22), but it is also for the Jews. Recent "two-covenant theology," which asserts that God saves Jews through his covenant with them apart from Jesus the Christ, is not in accord with the truth as it is in Christ Jesus.
Jesus grants the crowd's request to receive this bread (vv. 35-40). This request for bread from heaven is met by a revelation similar to that received by the woman of Samaria: when she requested the water, Jesus responded by revealing himself to her. As always, Jesus' revelation of himself means a revelation of his relationship with the Father. Here the revelation of the relation of the Father and the Son is centered on the work of redemption, developing further what was revealed in the keynote address (5:19-30).
Jesus claims, I am the bread of life (v. 35). Seven times in John the phrase I am is used with a predicate, including the passages on bread of life (6:35, 51); the light of the world (8:12; 9:5); the gate (10:7, 9); the Good Shepherd (10:11, 14); the resurrection and the life (11:25); the way, the truth and the life (14:6); and the true vine (15:1, 5). "The predicate is not an essential definition or description of Jesus in himself; it is more a description of what he is in relation to man" (Brown 1966:534). In these sayings Jesus' own identity and the salvation he offers are brought together (cf. Witherington 1995:158). It is in union with him that believers receive his salvation.
He is claiming to be that which one needs in order to have life and continue to live. What he said earlier about the one sent from God (v. 29) and the bread coming down from heaven (v. 33) is now clearly identified with himself. Here is the revelation of the significance of the feeding of the five thousand: it was a sign of who Jesus is—the fount of life (5:26) who gives life (5:21).
Jesus as bread is a very rich image in which we can see connections with God's Word. We are not to "live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD" (Deut 8:3). The idea of the Torah as bread was common in Jewish thinking. At times it is combined with the Wisdom motif, as when Wisdom says, "Those who eat me will hunger for more, and those who drink me will thirst for more" (Sirach 24:21). This Wisdom is identified as "the book of the covenant of the Most High God, the law which Moses commanded us as an inheritance for the congregations of Jacob" (Sirach 24:23). Jesus' claim (Jn 6:35) thus makes his teaching superior to the Torah. Jesus later makes this point more explicit: "The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life" (6:63).
Jesus, the bread of life, promises, He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty (v. 35). He expands the promise he made to the Samaritan woman (4:10, 13-14), vowing to satisfy not just thirst but hunger. He makes this promise not privately to an individual, but openly to a crowd. What is required of us is that we come to him and believe. Jesus had chastised the Jewish opponents for refusing to come to him and receive life (5:40), but now he is talking to a crowd that has indeed come to him, even at the cost of some effort (6:22-25). So something more than coming to Jesus is needed, and that something more, as our verse indicates, is faith. But even this is not the whole story, since we have already seen people professing to believe in him who do not do so in truth (2:23-25).
What, then, is needed in order to come to Jesus and actually receive what he offers? In this central section of chapter 6 we have one of the major teachings on why some receive and some do not. There are two sides to this mystery—the divine and the human. On the human side, 6:35 says we need to come and believe, and later it is said we must hear and learn from the Father (v. 45). But behind the human is the divine (v. 45). Those who come and receive have been given to Jesus by his Father (v. 37); they have been drawn by the Father (v. 44). The divine will is fundamental, for "no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him" (6:65; literally, "it is granted him by the Father").
Thus, the will of the Father is fundamental. Jesus has asserted this to be true in his own life (5:19), and he repeats this in 6:38. What is true for Jesus is also true for his disciples. It is God's gracious action in our lives that saves us from beginning to end. God's choice has been fundamental from the beginning, starting with the act of creation itself and continuing through the acts of redemption from the Fall through the call of Abraham, Jacob/Israel and so forth. The biblical teaching is not, however, mere determinism. For example, Jesus has chosen the Twelve, but one of them was "a devil" (Jn 6:70).
Along with the revelation of God's sovereignty is the revelation of his desire that all be saved (1 Tim 2:4). He is the savior of all, though only those who receive him benefit from that salvation (cf. 1 Tim 4:10). Indeed, we have one of the universal invitations in chapter 7: "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink" (Jn 7:37).
It is a mystery how salvation can be open to all yet dependent on the will of God. Several explanations have been offered over the centuries (cf. Browne 1998: 401-42), but they all seem to collapse one side of the mystery or the other. In practical terms, this dual teaching of Scripture leads us to two responses. The first is a life of praise and joy in the revelation of a gracious heavenly Father who is utterly good and completely for us. The second is a life of real effort, taking seriously our Lord's call to enter the narrow gate (Mt 7:13) and to persevere to the end (Mt 10:22; Mt 24:13 par. Mk 13:13 par. Lk 21:19). We heed the warnings in Hebrews about drifting, hardness of heart and rebellion (Heb 2:1-4; 3:7—4:13; 5:11—6:20; 10:26-39; 12:14-29), and we obey the risen Lord's call in Revelation to be one who conquers (Rev 2—3).
These two responses are not separate from one another, because we can only do our part by relying on God's grace. We work out our salvation because he is at work within us "to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil 2:12-13). Without Christ abiding in us we can do nothing (Jn 15:5). All is of grace. It is not so much a matter of just living for him, but a matter of living from him as we abide in him.
After revealing the truth about himself Jesus proceeds to reveal to this crowd the truth about themselves: But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe (v. 36). They saw his sign (v. 26), but it did not function as a sign for them. They saw him with their physical eyes, but they did not have the faith that sees the revelation of the Father in what Jesus was doing. Therefore, they do not qualify for the benefits Jesus has just spelled out (v. 35). By revealing their condition to them Jesus is exercising the judgment that is part of his job description (5:22). The light comes and reveals not only God's presence but also the state of the human heart.
Jesus goes on to explain why they do not believe. The Father is the God who wills salvation, and Jesus is the agent of that will (vv. 37-40). Jesus begins with God's grace, that is, his act of giving: All that the Father gives me will come to me (v. 37). We just heard of the Father as the one giving them true bread from heaven (v. 32), and now the Father gives disciples to Jesus (cf. 17:2, 6, 9, 24). We are the Father's gift to his Son (cf. Loyd 1936:89)! Again the Father is seen to be the source of all. In one sense believers come to the Father through the Son (cf. 14:6), but in another sense they were already the Father's before they became disciples of Jesus. At this point we are at the edge of a great mystery, peering into the ineffable realms of eternity. Here we have a clear affirmation of divine sovereignty. If this text were all we had in this Gospel on this topic, then we would be confronted with pure and simple determinism. We have already noted, however, that the teaching in John's Gospel is more complex than that.
This text also affirms that no one who is to come to the Son will fail to do so. Yet deeper comfort is conveyed when Jesus adds, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away (v. 37). The combination of all in the first part of the verse and will never drive away in the second part of the verse (very emphatic in the Greek; cf. Wallace 1996:468) has made this text the source of great comfort to many believers. Some, however, have misused it, as though a someone's one-time decision for Jesus guarantees a ticket into heaven, assuring salvation no matter how ungodly a life one then lives. We are not to sin that grace may abound (Rom 6:1)! Salvation is a matter of sharing in God's life through an intimate relationship with him. The one who has such a relationship will not live a life characterized by contempt and rebellion, even though we all have pockets of resistance as we live out the war between flesh and Spirit (Gal 5). Our assurance is not in our decision to follow Jesus, but in the graciousness and faithfulness of the Father and the Son who hold fast to those who are of God.
But how do I know whether or not I am one of those who are of God? Any number of people have been driven to despair by this question. The teaching of the Bible on assurance is many sided, but at the end of the day it comes down to trusting God for our salvation. Since we know he wills all to be saved we can be sure that we are included. The only way for that salvation to be effectual in a person's life is by God's grace. So we trust him for that grace, and we live our lives accordingly. In this way our assurance is complete because our confidence is entirely in him. Our job is to receive, trusting him for both the ability to receive and the obedience that is part of the life of salvation. The Christian life is both a resting in God and a supreme effort.
The reason Jesus will not drive away any that the Father gives him is because he has not come to do his own will but the will of him who sent him (v. 38). Jesus' complete obedience is fundamental to his relationship with the Father. In this he is the model of true discipleship.
He then expands further his message of assurance: And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day (v. 39). Not only will he not drive them away, but nothing else will be able to tear them from him. The security is complete. As Paul says, nothing can separate us from the love of God (Rom 8:35-39). Neither an evil impulse from within God (as if such a thing existed) nor evil forces from within or without ourselves can thwart God's gracious gift of eternal life in the Son.
This gift is already experienced in this life, but is not for this life only. Jesus adds a reference to the believer's resurrection, another indication that Jesus is expanding on his keynote address (5:27-29). Jesus concludes this section by combining both the present and the future aspects of salvation: For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day (v. 40). In this one statement the major themes of this section are brought together—the Father's will, human seeing and believing and the gift of eternal life.
Here is the antinomy of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. If we only had verse 40, then the teaching of this Gospel regarding salvation would be based in human decision. When we put the determinism of verse 37 alongside the decisionism of verse 40 we see the two parts of the antinomy, both of which are brought together in Jesus. Our response to him reveals the truth about ourselves in relation to God and thus whether or not we share in God's eternal life.