The heart of Jesus’ message moves to the forefront of the narrative in John 6, as we read Jesus’ discourse with the same crowd that had recently been fed by the miracle of loaves and fishes.
They asked for more food; he offered himself as the Bread of Life.
They pressed him for more signs; he knew they would not believe.
They asked, “What can we do to perform the works of God?” He replied, “This is the work of God—that you believe in the One He has sent” (6:28-29.) This is the crux of Jesus’ ministry and the theme of John’s gospel—if we are to know God, we must believe that Jesus was (and remains to be) the One and Only Way. This message challenges me continually and I believe it to be the crucial point for the church today. If we “get” everything else but miss this, the other stuff won’t matter.
Just as the crowd in John 6 asks Jesus for a list of things to do to please God (“works”), things that could easily be labeled as moral, spiritual, and good, we also get distracted by all of the need around us. But Jesus’ answer is just as poignant today as it was when he first spoke it—our singular “work” is to believe on Him for our life, our satisfaction, and our eternal reward.
As author and NT professor Alan Culpepper explains,
“Jesus subordinates the doing of good works to the priority of the one good work, believing in him (v. 29), just as later we will see the individual sins are subordinated to unbelief, the foundation of all sin.”
But is this enough? When we look around at our modern world, we can easily get overwhelmed with the desperation that so many people face daily, of physical and spiritual proportions too great to even comprehend. How can Jesus say that our only work is to believe?
Jesus’ communication becomes less veiled and he begins to answer in a more direct, concrete way. The crowd continued to press Jesus for a sign, asking for something akin to Moses calling down manna from heaven for their ancestors. But Jesus rightly points out, “Your forefathers are the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (6:49-51.)
He knew that the desire of the crowd was to produce something from their own effort…to earn their salvation. To do enough good things to impress God and get a pass into heaven. Is this motive any different from our own?
But Jesus was offering them something so much better. He was offering them real life, the kind that bubbles up like a spring of fresh water that will never run dry. He was saying that the only way to truly live in this world, surrounded by so much suffering and pain, and also in the world to come, is to be connected to the one, eternal, divine, life-force that is God. And the only way to achieve this connection, is by believing in the One who was sent by God, as God, for the sake of us, the world. Jesus directly tells the crowd that He was sent to be given “for the life of the world,” as a ransom on our part, in order that we might know God. If we do not believe that this is true, that Jesus was (and remains to be) The Plan of God to save humanity, then we are operating in unbelief. There is no middle ground.
Jesus knew that this question of belief vs. unbelief is the bedrock question for all of us. It challenges our assumptions about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. It makes us ask questions about our identity and purpose. Most of all, it confronts our desire to be ruler over our own life. When I first came to knowledge of God’s love for me, and of his plan of salvation through Jesus, I was a child. It required a measure of faith that I gladly offered, because I had not tasted the idols of autonomy and individualism yet. But as I grew up, and became an adult, this was the hallmark struggle of my twenties. God allowed me to experience the pain and consequence of living according to my own selfish free-will (and limited reason) and I am so glad that He did.
Because I exercised my “right” to live the life that I wanted to, I also experienced epic failure. This, graciously, led me to understand my true need for Christ’s redemptive life. Until that moment, I had only seen glimpses of the light in my own life and in others. But when I was at my lowest point, the light of Christ dramatically broke through and gave me a new life. It was only by His life that I could stand up, begin walking a new path, and eventually see real fruit of the Spirit come forth.
When Jesus tells the people that He is the “living bread,” He is inviting them to participate in the life of God. He is asserting that the things of this world—the food that fills our bellies and the good deeds we may do—will never deeply satisfy and cannot absolve our sinful state before God. We need a perfect mediator, Christ the Son of God, who is capable and willing to continually sustain us through His Spirit. This is what Jesus means by drawing a picture of water, and of bread, and of wine. We need the on-going and continually sustaining work of grace that He offers—His very self for all mankind.
This week: Read Romans 8 in the Amplified translation and spend time with the Lord in prayer. If you are like me, you might be asking, “Well if I shouldn’t DO anything for God, what should I do?!” (lol, I know, the irony.) Start here. Meditate on verse 26 & 27 and open your heart to the God who knows you and loves you completely:
“In the same way the Spirit [comes to us and] helps us in our weakness. We do not know what prayer to offer or how to offer it as we should, but the Spirit Himself [knows our need and at the right time] intercedes on our behalf with sighs and groanings too deep for words. And He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because the Spirit intercedes [before God] on behalf of God’s people in accordance with God’s will.”
 Alan R. Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 161.