Posted by: mattcolvin | April 17, 2015

Bread and the Messiah in John 6


I haven’t been blogging much, but I have written many GNT notes and preached a lot of sermons in the last two years. Here are some thoughts on John 6.

John 6:5 – Jesus as so often, introduces his teaching by setting it up with a question, this time to Philip:

πόθεν ἀγοράσωμεν ἄρτους ἵνα φάγωσιν οὕτοι;
Where shall we buy loaves, that these may eat?

The question is highlighted in the memory of the witness (John’s memory or the memory of his source) because it sets up the problem that Jesus will go on to solve by His teaching. It is, on the surface, a straightforward question about providing food for a large number of people.

Jesus’ solution to this practical problem is immediately understood by the multitude. What conclusion do they draw? Surprisingly enough, not a practical one. They draw a conclusion about Jesus’ identity and His role in the story of Israel; and thus also a conclusion about where or at what point in the narrative of Israel’s eschatology they therefore find themselves:

οἱ οὖν ἄνθρωποι ἰδόντες ὃ ἐποίησεν σημεῖον ἔλεγον ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν ἀληθῶς ὁ προφήτης ὁ ἐρχόμενος εἰς τὸν κόσμον.
So the people, seeing the sign which He had done, started saying, “This is truly the prophet, the one Coming into the world.”

(I capitalize “Coming” to indicate that this was a word denoting a figure from Jewish eschatological expectations.)

Jesus is also aware that they have drawn a second conclusion:

…Ἰησοῦς οὖν γνούς ὅτι μέλλουσιν ἔρχεσθαι καὶ ἁρπάζειν αὐτὸν ἵνα ποιήσωσιν βασιλέα…
…so Jesus, knowing that they were about to come and snatch him to make Him king…

All this, simply from the sign: the eschatological Prophet like Moses has arrived to bring about the new Exodus accompanied by miraculous food, and the time has arrived, they think, to restore the kingdom to Israel (cf. Acts 1.6)

And yet, when Jesus finds them again on the other side of the sea (6.25), He accuses them of not understanding, and of treating the miraculous feeding in a crassly greedy manner:

ζητεῖτε με οὐχ ὅτι εἴδετε σημεῖα, ἀλλ’ ὅτι ἐφάγετε ἐκ τῶν ἄρτων καὶ ἐχορτάσθητε…
You seek me not because you see the signs, but because you ate the loaves and were satisfied

This is probably a verbal allusion to an OT narrative of the miraculous feedings during the Exodus. Since the manna and quail were both given in response to Israel’s ungrateful complaining, the OT tends to emphasize the “satisfaction” or “fullness” of the Israelites after their eating. We see this detail in Psalm 78.25 and 78.29:

[He] had rained down manna on them to eat
And given them of the bread of heaven
Men ate angels’ food;
He sent them food to the full. (78.24-25)

Or again, the miraculous quail:

So they ate and were well filled,
For He gave them their own desire.

Cf. Exodus 16.8 (LXX):

ἐν τῷ διδόναι κύριον ὑμῖν ἑσπέρας κρέα φαγεῖν καὶ ἄρτους τὸ πρωὶ εἰς πλησμονην…
When the Lord gives you flesh to eat in the evening and bread early in the morning, to fullness

Tellingly, the result of these two miraculous feedings is not faith and loyalty:

In spite of this they still sinned
And did not believe in His wondrous works (LXX: οὐκ ἐπίστευσαν ἐν τοῖς θαυμασίοις αὐτοῦ). (Ps. 77.32 LXX (78.32 ΜΤ))

By taking Psalm 78 as a grid for understanding His present situation, Jesus is making a pointed response to His audience in John 6, who are asking, “What sign will you perform then, that we may see it and believe you? What work will you do?” (6.30) This is an outrageous request, given that Jesus has already fed them with 5 loaves. They want something like the manna, but first, they have already received a miraculous feeding, and second, Jesus asserts that they are blind to the typological nature of the manna:

Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives/is giving (δίδωσιν – present tense!) you the true bread from heaven.

The central question concerns the identity of Jesus and His superiority to the types of the Old Covenant. It is the same question that the Jewish redactors of the Passover seder also stumbled over by expunging the figure of Moses and by prohibiting the christological exegesis of the rituals of the meal. “We do not conclude (sc. typologically interpret) the Pascha with afikomen” – i.e. with the Messiah as the antitype of the lamb.

We recall that after the episode with the Samaritan woman at the well, when Jesus’ disciples brought Him food, He replied by defining His food “of which you do not know”:

My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to finish His work.

This understanding of metaphorical bread is taken up again in John 6, and in light of John 34, we may be entitled to link 6.33 and 6.38:

For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. (6.33)

For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. (6.38)

There is nothing here about transmogrified bread; not even anything about “setting bread apart for holy use.” That is simply not what John 6 is about. It is about recognizing the Messiah, understanding where in Israel’s story you are, and not responding to the generosity of God with unbelief and rebellion.

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