What did Jesus mean when he said in John 6:53–55, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day, for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink”?1 Taken literally, it would appear that Jesus is speaking about cannibalism. As such, it is an off-putting statement to say the least, which is exactly how the Jewish crowd took it. Their response was to reject him and his teaching, saying, “This word is offensive; who is able to hear it?” (v. 60).
The aim of this article is to understand the bread of life discourse in context. In so doing, we will consider the historic, literary, and biblical-theological dimensions.
The Bread of Life Discourse in Historical Context
While it is difficult to date John’s Gospel with precision, there is evidence pointing to a time frame after AD 70: it was written sometime after the destruction of the Jewish temple, but before AD 100. For example, throughout the Gospel, Jesus presents himself as the embodied fulfillment of primary Jewish festivals, including the temple (the place in which these festivals took place; cf. John 2:13–17). Commenting on this, Johannine scholar Andreas Köstenberger writes: “The destruction of the Jerusalem temple left a gaping void in Jewish life, especially in Palestine, but also in the diaspora [the dispersion of the Jews after the temple’s destruction].”2
Importantly, three of Israel’s major festivals figure prominently in the background (that is, Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles). It is significant to note further that these are pilgrim festivals in which faithful Jews and proselytes (Gentile converts) would make their pilgrimages to the temple in obedience to God’s word (cf. Deut. 16). If the historic context in which John writes is after AD 70, then it follows that he is writing to fill the void left by the destruction of the temple-city. Rather than making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Jews and proselytes are now encouraged to come to Jesus, “the Messiah who fulfilled the symbolism embodied in the temple and the Jewish festivals. For John, the temple’s destruction thus becomes an opportunity for Jewish evangelism.”3
The Bread of Life Discourse in Literary Context
John highlights seven prominent signs that Jesus performed throughout his earthly ministry, so that his audience would believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and so believing, they may have life in his name (John 20:30–31). Since the signs function to authenticate the nature and person of his work, it is not surprising to find that the first part of the Gospel is structured around seven particular signs—seven representing the number of “completion” or “perfection” (1:19–12:50). In the first (2:1–11), Jesus turns water into wine, and in the seventh, climactic sign (ch. 11), he raises Lazarus from the dead!
Part two focuses on Jesus’ pending death and preparation of his new Messianic community (chs. 13–20), with the prologue (1:1–18) and epilogue (ch. 21) framing the entire work. In addition, John features seven “I am” sayings of Jesus (6:35–59; 8:12; 9:5; 10:7, 9, 11; 11:25; 14:6; and 15:1). In the first, Jesus presents himself as the true bread of life (ch. 6), and in the seventh, as Israel’s true vine (ch. 15; cf. Isa. 5).4
The Larger Literary Context of John 6
John 6 opens with the feeding of the five thousand (vv. 1–15), and the first “I am” saying of Jesus appears within the frame of this particular sign (vv. 22–59).
In this chapter, Jesus arrives in Tiberias with a large crowd following him because they had seen the signs he performed in healing the sick (ch. 5), and John provides the parenthetical comment that the Passover was near (6:4). In response to the gathering multitude, Jesus asks Phillip (one of the Twelve) where they might buy bread to feed the crowd. John explains that Jesus did this in order to test him, because he did not know what Jesus was about to do (vv. 5–6).
Importantly, the Greek word for test appears also in the Septuagint (LXX, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament) in significant passages—such as Exodus 16:4, when God provided manna in the wilderness in order to test the children of Israel, and in Deuteronomy 8:16, when Moses explained its meaning and purpose. Thus John’s parenthetical comments suggest that the exodus and wilderness sojourn loom large as the backdrop for the feeding of these five thousand and the discourse that follows.5
The Bread of Life Discourse (John 6:26–59)
The next day, when the crowd finds Jesus in Capernaum on the other side of the sea, they ask him when he arrived (vv. 22–25). Jesus ignores their question and immediately gets to the point: They aren’t interested in him because of the signs, but because they ate the bread and were filled. He tells them not to work for food that perishes “but for the food which remains for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to [them]” (vv. 26–27). They respond by asking what work they should perform, to which he replies, “Believe in him whom [the Father] has sent” (vv. 28–29). They request yet another sign and refer to Moses’ provision of manna in the wilderness (v. 31; cf. Exod. 16:4, 15, 21). Jesus corrects their misunderstanding, stating that it was not Moses but his Father who provides the true bread from heaven that gives life to the world. They reply, “Lord, give to us always this bread” (vv. 32–34).6
Jesus responds by explaining the significance of believing and receiving him. He is the bread of life. All who come to him will never hunger or thirst. But sadly, they have seen him and do not believe. Yet, this is not surprising, since only those whom the Father has given him are able to come, and the promise for those who do come is that he will raise them up on the last day (vv. 35–40).
The crowd responds by grumbling, and they make reference to his physical (rather than heavenly) lineage (vv. 41–42). Jesus rebukes their grumbling, highlighting the fact that no one can come to him unless the Father enables them (vv. 43–50). He cites Scripture, referencing the new covenant and, by inference, the need to be born from above (v. 45; cf. Isa. 54:13; Jer. 31:34; John 1:12–13; 3:3–8). Jesus continues by contrasting himself with the manna their fathers ate in the wilderness. They ate and died, but he is the living bread. If anyone eats from this bread they will live forever, and the bread he also will give is his flesh for the life of the world (vv. 48–51). The Jews, not knowing that Jesus was speaking about his coming death, dispute among themselves, asking, “How can this one give his flesh to eat?” (v. 52). It is within this context that Jesus’ strongest statements emerge about eating his flesh and drinking his blood (vv. 53–58).
The Crowd’s Response (John 6:60–71)
Many disciples turn back because they cannot bear what they heard (v. 60). And Jesus, knowing that his disciples are grumbling, asks if this teaching also makes them stumble (vv. 61–62). More disciples turn away (vv. 64–66), until all that remain are the original Twelve. He then asks them, “Do you want to go away as well?” (v. 67), to which Peter replies, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that you are the holy one of God” (vv. 68–69; emphasis added).
The Bread of Life Discourse in Biblical-Theological Context
In considering the bread of life discourse within its biblical-theological context, several points stand out. First, Jesus is the bread of life in the sense that by believing and receiving him, one has eternal life (6:35–40). Thus he is speaking about reality by use of metaphor (a figure of speech that refers to one thing as the equivalent of another). When comparing this discourse with Jesus’ discussion with the woman at the well in John 4, we clearly see that Jesus is not speaking in the literal sense (that he is actual bread and water). Bread and water may sustain the temporal body for one’s earthly sojourn, but they are of no use when a person is dead. What humanity needs is spiritual food and drink that will issue forth in resurrection life. This is the point Jesus is making.
Second, seeing that the crowd persists in unbelief, Jesus drives the point home by use of hyperbole (an exaggerated statement not meant to be taken literally). Its purpose is similar to Jesus’ use of parables (a story that highlights a principal lesson). As biblical theologian Greg Beale observes,
[Jesus used parables] to get the attention of his believing listeners who had grown spiritually sleepy and might not have paid attention otherwise. But for unbelievers (including pseudo-believers), parables made no sense, and rejection of the parabolic message was simply a further evidence of the hardening of the heart which refuses to listen to God. In fact, one can say that when the prophets used parables in Israel, they were indicating that judgment was coming on the anesthetized majority, though a remnant would be shocked out of their spiritual malaise. How much more was this true of Jesus’ use of parables?7
It is within this context that the biblical-theological significance of the bread of life discourse is given its interpretative meaning. Jesus says, “It is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh benefits nothing; the words which I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (6:63; emphasis added). In spite of this, the majority of his disciples turn away except the Twelve. When asked if they want to leave too, Peter responds with a confession of faith, indicating that the disciples have—at least in part—understood the significance of Jesus’ words (6:68–69). They have passed the test, because they are among those whom Jesus has chosen—those whom the Father has given him—with the exception of Judas Iscariot, who would later betray him (6:70–71; cf. 6:45).
Third, in light of the above, it is hearing and believing the words of Jesus that bring eternal life. This emphasis brings us back to the prologue and John’s purpose for writing (cf. John 1:1–18; 20:30–31). Speaking about this, Köstenberger highlights the significance of the term “Word” in John’s Gospel as a whole. He explains that, although it appears in the prologue as a title (1:1, 14), it serves
as a Christological umbrella term for his entire gospel. By characterizing Jesus as “the Word” he means to encompass Jesus’s entire ministry as it is narrated in the remainder of the account. All of Jesus’s “works” and “words” flow from the eternal fount of Jesus’s eternal existence as “the Word.” Everything that Jesus does is therefore revelation, his works (in particular his “signs”) as well as his words, because everything Jesus says and does points beyond mere external appearances to who Jesus is.8
The prologue, therefore, functions to provide John’s audience with “the privilege of omniscience: they are given the interpretive clue to the unfolding events by the ‘omniscient’ narrator. Thus they can learn the spiritual lessons God has for them.”9
What spiritual lessons might be learned from this? First, the exodus generation perished in the wilderness because of unbelief—even though they were firsthand witnesses to God’s extraordinary signs and recipients of his bountiful provision. In Deuteronomy 8, Moses explained God’s purpose for the wilderness sojourn, as he spoke to the second generation of Israelites who were about to enter the Promised Land.
“You shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that he might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would obey his commandments or not. He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.” (Deut. 8:2–3 NASB; emphasis added; cf. Deut. 8:16–20)10
According to John’s prologue, that Word, which proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord, is none other than Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God in the flesh, God’s full and final revelation (cf. John 1:17). Indeed, Isaiah 55:9–11 provides the Old Testament background for this concept.11 When contrasting the ways of heaven with the ways of earth and comparing the fruitful effects of the rain and snow with the sent word, he says, “So will my word be which goes forth from my mouth; it will not return to me empty, without accomplishing what I desire and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11 NASB; see the entire chapter). Jesus is the eternal Word and Son of God who came in the flesh to accomplish the redemptive purpose for which God sent him: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16 NASB).
Second, the feeding of the five thousand and the bread of life discourse teach us that Jesus is the embodiment of the Passover lamb, who gives his flesh for the life of the world. He is the true bread that has come down from heaven. All who come to him will never hunger or thirst. All who believe and receive him will have everlasting life, and Jesus himself will raise them up on the last day!
Rita F. Cefalu is currently teaching courses in biblical theology at Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee. She is a graduate of Queen’s University Belfast (PhD, Old Testament), Wheaton College (MA, Biblical Exegesis), and Westminster Seminary California (MA, Theological Studies). She previously lectured in theology and religious studies at the University of San Diego, San Diego State University, and several local community colleges. Her areas of expertise include the Old Testament, the New Testament, and biblical theology.
- All translations mine, unless otherwise indicated.
- Andreas Köstenberger, Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective, ed. Walter Elwell and Eugene Merrill, Encountering Biblical Studies (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 9.
- Köstenberger, 10.
- As Köstenberger writes, John is not teaching “replacement theology,” but rather he is saying that Jesus is now “the new Israel that becomes the focus of God’s plan of salvation, with the implication that faith in Jesus is decisive for membership in the people of God.” Köstenberger, 149.
- So also the crowd’s response to the sign of multiplying the five loaves and two fish and their perception that Jesus was the prophet like Moses (John 6:14; cf. Deut. 18:15).
- The astute reader will observe that earlier the woman at the well made a similar request when Jesus offered her living water that would issue forth in eternal life (4:15; cf. 4:10–15).
- G. K. Beale, Revelation: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 16.
- Köstenberger, 38–39.
- Köstenberger, 37.
- Cf. Matt. 4:4, where Jesus quotes from this passage in the temptation narrative (cf. Luke 4:4).
- Köstenberger, 43.