When Jesus was asked to prove Himself with a sign like the manna God gave ancient Israel, He declared, “I am the bread of life.” What does that mean for us?
It must have been shocking to see so many fellow disciples turn away from Jesus, but that’s what the 12 apostles witnessed (John 6:66). This tense moment came in Capernaum at the climax of a lengthy conversation in which Christ had proclaimed, “I am the bread of life” (verses 35, 48).
What led up to this disillusionment? Why did Christ call Himself the “bread of life”? What is the meaning of this statement for Jesus’ followers today?
“I am the bread of life” in context
This was the first of seven “I am” statements recorded in the Gospel of John. (To learn more about these statements, see our article “The Seven ‘I Am’ Statements of Jesus.”)
Jesus made this statement in response to the people’s request for a sign that would prove He was who He said He was—the Son of Man, the Messiah (verse 30).
Ironically, when they asked Jesus for this sign, only a day had passed since He had performed a wondrous miracle. With just five barley loaves and two small fish, Jesus had fed a crowd of 5,000 men, as well as the women and children who had accompanied them (verses 5-14).
Yet somehow, the people who pressed Christ for some kind of sign seemed oblivious to this very miracle—a miracle they had witnessed!
Jesus saw through these individuals. The real motivation for so many of them, as Christ pointed out, had to do with their stomachs!
“Most assuredly, I say to you,” Jesus candidly told these people, “you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled” (verse 26).
Bread from heaven
Those who sought a sign from Jesus were not content to leave it up to Him to determine how He would respond. Instead, in their conversation with Him, they brought up one of the greatest miracles of the Old Testament (verse 31).
That miracle was God’s provision of manna, or “bread from heaven,” for the 12 tribes of Israel. The nation ate manna for 40 years! This miraculous bread kept them alive as they wandered in the wilderness (Exodus 16:35). The leaders demanded an equivalent sign from Jesus before they would believe Him.
Christ’s reply would have been surprising to them: “Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but My Father gives you the true bread from heaven” (John 6:32).
The miracle of the manna had indeed fed Israel, and it had demonstrated God’s loving concern for His people, in spite of their grumbling (Exodus 16:2-3). No one went hungry, but “he who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack” (verse 18).
And yet, as great as this Old Testament miracle was, Christ unequivocally declared that manna was not “the true bread from heaven.”
The bread of God
Before Christ declared that He is the bread of life, He explained that manna was not the true bread of God. A physical substance that looked like white coriander seed and tasted something “like wafers made with honey” (Exodus 16:31) could not be the true bread from heaven.
Rather, the “bread of God” is the One “who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). This bread is not physical. Instead, it is the heavenly source of life.
The life Jesus offered then was everlasting life (verse 40)—and it is the life He offers today to all who truly hear His voice. Manna, though it kept the people of Israel alive during 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, didn’t give them eternal life.
That’s why Jesus reminded the group that had asked Him for a sign, “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead” (verse 49). This contrast between the physical and the spiritual is evident throughout this passage.
It is also found in a preceding chapter. Using a different symbol—water—Jesus made the same distinction between the physical and the spiritual when He spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well.
“Whoever drinks of this water,” Christ said in reference to ordinary well water, “will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life” (John 4:13-14).
Physical versus spiritual
In some ways, it’s not surprising that the people with whom Jesus spoke were so focused on the physical. As humans, we all depend on food and water to survive.
Ever since God told Adam that, because of sin, the ground itself would be cursed (Genesis 3:17-18) and in the sweat of his face he would eat bread (verse 19), humans have struggled to feed themselves and their families.
What about you? Do you hunger for the bread of life? Are you willing to listen to the words of eternal life?However, as shown elsewhere in Scripture, bread means more than bread, even on a physical level. As a staple of the diet, bread came to represent all the food needed to sustain life.
For example, when Jesus instructed His disciples to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11), He was speaking of all their dietary needs. Jesus used the term daily bread as a symbol of all human needs.
Also in His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught them about spiritual priorities. He told them not to worry about physical food or clothing because “your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things” (Matthew 6:31-32).
On the contrary, true followers of Jesus are to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” relying on God to provide for all their physical needs (verse 33).
“My flesh is food indeed”
In John 6, Jesus made some truly shocking statements, taken literally.
And many in His audience thought only in literal, physical terms. This is clear from their dialogue with Jesus. After Jesus told them, “The bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world,” many in the crowd asked, “How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?” (John 6:51-52).
They couldn’t seem to consider Jesus’ spiritual intent in making this statement.
At this point, Jesus became even more graphic in His description. Four times in rapid succession He spoke of their need to eat His flesh and to drink His blood (verses 53-56).
On a purely physical level, this would have been repugnant and gruesome. On top of that, it would have violated God’s dietary laws. But that was not what Jesus meant.
Unfortunately, many of those listening to Jesus could not shift their thinking from the physical to the spiritual, and ultimately, this resulted in many disciples completely turning away from Him.
Toward the end of this momentous discussion, Christ reiterated the distinction between flesh and spirit. “It is the Spirit [that] gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (verse 63).
“Take, eat; this is My body”
The same imagery in this discussion reappeared during the final Passover meal Jesus shared with His disciples. Knowing that He would be crucified for the sins of the world, Jesus taught His closest followers that the bread and wine at the New Testament Passover had a profound meaning.
Just as He had told the mystified crowd in John 6 to eat His flesh and to drink His blood, here again, Jesus taught His disciples that the Passover bread represented His body (Matthew 26:26) and that the wine represented His “blood of the new covenant” (verse 28).
And just as Christ had spoken to the crowd in Capernaum about eating His flesh, He commanded His disciples to “take, eat; this is My body” (Matthew 26:26).
Passover connects the sacrifice of Christ to our need to spiritually eat His flesh and drink His blood. Study more about this in our article “Passover in the New Testament.”
Why the bread of life?
Other symbols, such as the Passover lamb, also convey this concept. Why, then, did Jesus use bread as a symbol of His role in salvation? Why did He call Himself the bread of life?
The answer lies in the role that bread played in the lives of the people He addressed. Bread was a staple of the first-century diet. It was a necessary part of their daily life.
In the same way, Christians are to have an ongoing relationship with God.
Christians are to experience a transformation throughout life. This is clear from the apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth. Paul directed these members to “present your bodies a living sacrifice” and to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:1-2; see “Present Your Bodies a Living Sacrifice”).
Spiritual transformation is a lifelong process, not a momentary decision.
The bread of life for Christians
When Christ called Himself the “bread of life” and directed His followers to eat His flesh and drink His blood, He was offering eternal life. He was also indicating the path through which eternal life was being offered.
To eat His flesh and to drink His blood does not just mean to accept His sacrifice, but to take on His character. The metaphor of “eating His flesh is to be interpreted as meaning complete spiritual appropriation of Christ by faith for salvation” (Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 1, p. 651).
Unlike the men and women of the first century, we cannot walk with Christ or talk with Him or witness His miracles. So how do we take on His character if we do not have the same type of access to Him?
Since the first century, most Christians have looked to and relied on the Bible to develop an understanding of the character of Jesus—the character we must be building.
Will you eat of the bread of life?
When so many of Jesus’ disciples “went back and walked with Him no more,” the 12 were undoubtedly shocked (John 6:66-67). Those who left were people who had witnessed stunning miracles!
And yet they still walked away.
These individuals found it impossible to reconsider their preconceptions, presumptions and prejudices.
As the disillusioned among the crowd left Him, Jesus turned to His closest disciples and asked whether they, too, would abandon Him (verse 67).
The response of Peter is significant: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (verse 68). Peter, representing Christ’s core disciples, understood that the gift of eternal life came with responsibility.
Modern followers of Christ must also learn that:
- The true disciple remains. It does not matter how difficult the path becomes. What matters is an unrelenting commitment to follow Jesus Christ.
- The true disciple listens. Sometimes a Christian may struggle to understand, but he or she always remains willing to listen to the “words of eternal life.”
- The true disciple does not sit idle. Instead, the true disciple strives to learn and grow (2 Peter 3:18).
What about you? Do you hunger for the bread of life? Are you willing to listen to the words of eternal life? Do you know the real meaning of life?
To learn more, read our Life, Hope & Truth article “What Is the Real Purpose of Life?”