July 14, 2013

Jesus' Life-Giving Bread Is His Flesh

Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: The Gospel According to John Passage: John 6:48–59

Sermon on John 6:48-59 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on Sunday, July 14, 2013

Jesus' Names Reveal Who He Is For Us

This is the second week in a row that our sermon text begins with Jesus identifying himself as the Bread of Life. We saw him do it the first time in verse 35—“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst”—and now we see him do it a second time in verse 48—simply, “I am the bread of life.” Jesus takes on many names in the Gospel of John. For example, to this point he’s been identified as the Word made Flesh (1:1, 14), the True Light (1:9), the Lamb of God (1:29), the Messiah (1:41), the Son of God, the King of Israel (1:49), the Son of Man (3:14), the Bridegroom (3:29), and the Savior of the World (4:42). John will have even more names attributed to Jesus later on, like the Good Shepherd (10:11), the Resurrection and the Life (11:25), and the True Vine (15:1). And even those names really only scratch the surface of seeing all that Jesus really is for us.

We could also include the various Old Testament themes John says Jesus fulfills such as the Passover, or the tabernacle, or the temple, or the new age of the Spirit, or the in-breaking of God’s kingdom, or the Suffering Servant who dies in place of sinners, or the true worship that extends to Jew and Gentile alike, or the Sabbath rest from sickness and sin, or the new creation where God himself dwells with man—all of these themes find their goal and fulfillment in Jesus Christ. And John brings them up—together with the various names—to reveal Jesus’ person and his mission, to spell out for us who Jesus is and why Jesus came. And so when we encounter a name like the Bread of Life, we need to remember that such a name is meant to reveal another piece in the portrait John is painting of Jesus’ person and work. In this case, Jesus is the Bread of Life—that’s who he is; and the rest of Jesus’ words reveal exactly why he came as the Bread of Life—they spell out something particular he accomplishes in his mission to save us.

The Superiority of Jesus’ Bread

Jesus has already set some of the landscape for us. His reference in verse 49 to “your fathers” takes us back to verse 31. In verse 31, the Jews are very skeptical of Jesus—they want him to prove himself with another sign—and so they tell him, “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness.” They don’t believe Jesus is offering them anything superior to heavenly manna—I mean after all, manna was heavenly food. It wasn’t something they produced on their own; it was a miraculous food that came with the morning dew, Exodus 16 tells us. It wasn’t even something that was at their disposal. If they kept it more than a day—except for the Sabbath—the Lord caused it to rot and grow worms. Jesus gave them enough bread to feed five thousand, but could he feed all Israel with something greater than what their fathers ate in the wilderness?

Jesus’ answer is a resounding “Yes!” Part of his answer comes in verse 32: “My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” In other words, “Yes, it’s way better than manna in the wilderness, because the bread I’m talking about gives life not just to five-thousand and not just to Israel as a nation, but to the entire world—Jews and Gentiles alike.” So that’s part of his answer—it’s superior to manna because it’s sufficient to feed the world without distinction. It’s a bread that feeds conservative Jews and liberal Gentiles; it’s for classy business men and for poor prostitutes; it’s for self-righteous church-goers and for lawless street people. Its life-giving ability has no ethnic, social, political, economic, familial, or religious boundaries. It gives life to the world.

Another part of his answer began in verse 35 where Jesus identifies himself the first time as the Bread of Life and then explains the effects of feeding the world with his bread. He says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” So, if any sinner—people like you and me—if any of us come to Jesus and believe in Jesus, the effect of that relationship will be that we no longer hunger and we no longer thirst. Our spirit will not starve, our soul will not shrivel up from a lack of true life with God, which we’ve suffered since the Fall. We’ll actually experience an abundance of life in a relationship with God when we approach him through God’s Son. So that’s another part of his answer—Jesus’ bread is superior to manna because it’s effective to satisfy our souls completely in a life with God and that’s true for everybody the Father gives to the Son.

Now, in verses 49-51, Jesus gives them yet another taste of his superior bread: Jesus’ bread actually has the power to keep people alive forever. Verse 49, “Your fathers [cf. 6:31] ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.” And in case they missed it the first time, he says it again in verse 58: “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” So that’s yet another way Jesus’ bread is superior to the manna—when you partake of it, it has the power to keep you alive forever. His point is that if manna is the only bread you eat, you’re going to perish like your fathers. Jesus is directing them again to the superior bread he provides.

If the last two points Jesus made about the superiority of his Bread didn’t grab you, this one should. We’re all going to die because we’re all a bunch of sinners. “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom 5:12). Death threatens all of us, because all of us sin. All of us have rebelled against God and the consequence is death—physical death that brings our bodies to the grave and spiritual death that separates us from a life with God. I don’t know about you, but when I hear Jesus saying he has bread to solve that problem, he’s got my attention. And here he tells me that “if anyone eats of this bread—the bread Jesus gives—he will live forever.

Jesus’ Bread Is His Flesh & Passover

Now the obvious question is, “Well, then, where is it? Where shall I look to find such bread? What does it look like?” Jesus tells us at the end of verse 51: “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Whoa. You can see why the Jews responded the way they did—disputing among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” But again, as we’ve seen throughout this passage—and this entire Gospel—not understanding Jesus’ words, sometimes even being put-off by them like they are here, isn’t merely an intellectual problem; it’s a moral problem. The Jews don’t understand Jesus because the Jews don’t believe Jesus. What have they done the last two times Jesus has attempted to teach them what he’s talking about? They’ve grumbled about him among themselves (6:41-42) and they’ve disputed among themselves (6:52). They think they know better than the One who’s come down from the bosom of his Father in heaven. “How does he now say? How can this man give?” They’re not confused because they’re not smart; they’re confused because they’re spiritually blind.

It’s even the Passover celebration (6:4)—a time to observe God’s gracious deliverance of Israel through the sacrificial lamb. Remember the lamb in the great exodus deliverance? Exodus 12 tells us that God chose to deliver his people from captivity through the blood of an unblemished lamb. Each household was to take an unblemished lamb, sacrifice that lamb, and smear the lamb’s blood on the doorposts of their homes. And if you stood under the protection of the Passover lamb’s blood, which was painted on the doorposts of your home, the Lord would spare you his judgment and rescue your household from death. These Jews talking to Jesus were gathered for the annual Passover Feast to remember God’s special deliverance through the Passover lamb. And you know what that feast included? Exodus 12 tells us it included eating the flesh of the Passover lamb with readiness, waiting for God to bring their final deliverance. Numbers 9:13 even says that no participation in the Passover Feast meant that you’d remain in your sin—the point of the whole Feast being no lamb, would mean no blood; and no blood would mean no forgiveness of sins; and no forgiveness of sins would mean no deliverance from death.

And here comes Jesus at Passover in their synagogue telling them, “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh…Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” He’s trying to get them to see that the way he’s the Bread of Life is that he comes down from heaven to be sacrificed like the Passover lamb—to give his flesh for the life of the world. That’s how the bread he offers—which he just called his flesh—gives life: just like the Passover lamb in the exodus, Jesus is slaughtered, his flesh is torn, his blood is spilled to deliver us from death—a death that haunts us because of our sin. If you need more help making the connection, remember that in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ earthly mission has two book ends—one is where John the Baptist cries out “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29); the other is where the soldiers don’t break Jesus’ legs on the cross, and John says that happened to fulfill the Old Testament Scriptures about the Passover lamb (19:33, 36). John eventually saw with the eyes of faith what these Jews do not see.

Notice also that Jesus gives his flesh for the life of the world. The last time the word “flesh” applied to Jesus in this Gospel was when John told us the eternal Word of God became flesh—1:14, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” God’s Son took on our humanity. What John clarifies with 6:51 is that the whole point of the Word of God becoming “flesh” was to give it up. That is to say, the Son of God came to give himself up to death. He took on flesh to make himself killable, murder-able, and then deliver his physical body over to the hands of evil men on a cross. And he did so not merely for the purpose of setting a good example, but for the expressed purpose of giving life to the world. “The bread I will give is my flesh,” and he will do this he says, “for the life of the world.

The clear implication is that the world is already dead and in need of life. As I mentioned before from Rom 5:12, we suffer not merely from physical death, but our physical death points to the much deeper problem, namely, our spiritual death before God. We die because we are sinners and separated from God. Eph 2:1 says that without God acting favorably toward us in Christ, we are “dead in [our] trespasses and sins.” This is why throughout John’s Gospel the world is characterized by darkness; it is only Jesus, and Jesus alone, who comes into it as the Light. The world of humanity also sits under God’s wrath. John 3:36, “Whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” Wrath doesn’t just wait for him, wrath remains on him already; eternal death under God’s judgment looms over his life already. This is the natural state of the world; this is how the world is on its own; this is how you are without Christ as your help. You are spiritually dead and have no hope for any good life beyond the grave, but only the experience of tortuous wrath. To put it negatively, you are without life on your own; with no relationship to Jesus happening, you’re a walking dead man.

But in verses 51 and 53, Jesus states this is why he came down from heaven—to give his flesh in a way that would deliver you from that death; and that way is pictured for us well in Jesus dying as our Passover lamb. That might sound strange to say that through his death we’re delivered from our death, but that’s precisely what makes the message of the cross such good news to tell you and others. Jesus death on the cross—the place where he gave up his flesh—delivers us from death because his blood takes away our sins. As long as sin keeps us separated from God, death remains a threat—death “stings” as Paul says in 1 Cor 15:56; it keeps dealing its poisonous blow again and again and again. When sin remains, death only prepares us for more death in the lake of fire. But if somehow sin is removed—if our transgressions against God’s law are forgiven in total—then death has lost its power. In fact, with sins taken away our physical death can only prepare the believer for eternal glory instead of eternal destruction.

That’s what God achieves when Jesus gives up his flesh for you as the Passover lamb. He identified with your flesh because that is the state in which you rebelled—in your flesh. And innocent though he was in his flesh, Jesus still offered himself up in your place that you might be forgiven of all your sins, that God’s wrath would be absorbed in his flesh instead of yours, and that his blood would settle your deliverance from death forever.

The Condition of Eating & Drinking

But as he says repeatedly throughout our passage, these blessings are only true for the one who eats Jesus’ flesh and drinks Jesus’ blood. Verse 50, “so that one may eat of it and not die.” Verse 51, “I anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.” Verse 53, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Verse 54, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” Verse 56, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me.” Verse 57, “Whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.” And lastly, verse 58, “Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”

Now, there’s no need to read anything more into those statements than what the context clearly suggests. Some of our Catholic neighbors and others have suggested that the eating and drinking in these verses must refer to the sacramental participation in the Eucharist. That means, some people think that in order for us to have eternal life, eternal life must be infused to us through our ongoing participation in the Eucharist, what they call the Mass. But several things in the context stand against that interpretation. For starters, the entirety of chapter 6 is held together by the theme of unbelief among the Jews and belief among Jesus disciples. It’s only in verses 51-58 that Jesus stops talking in terms of belief and starts talking in terms of eating and drinking. Also, verse 35 has already prepared us for how we should understand eating and drinking. Eating—so that you don’t hunger—and drinking—so that you never thirst—parallels coming and believing. So to come to Jesus is to eat of Jesus. And to believe in Jesus is to drink of Jesus. On top of that, the whole point of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood is part and parcel to his identity as the true Passover lamb.

What I mean is that in John’s Gospel, the language of faith hinges on the identity of Jesus. So, for example, whenever Christ is identified as the glory of God, seeing is believing. Whenever Christ is identified as God’s superior revealer and teacher, hearing is believing. Whenever Christ is identified as God, honoring is believing; he’s the True Vine, abiding is believing; he’s the Good Shepherd, following is believing; he’s the Jewish Messiah, receiving is believing; he’s the Light of the World, coming is believing; he’s the Living Water, drinking is believing; he’s the curse-bearer on a cross, looking upon is believing—and on and on we could go. The point is that if Jesus is revealing himself not only as the Bread of Life—and that life is tied to what he achieves as the true Passover lamb—then it only makes sense that the language for believing would be eating his flesh and drinking his blood.[1. Two points of clarification. First, I do not want you to think I am collapsing seeing, hearing, abiding, drinking, etc., into the one category of faith such that we turn John’s faith categories into a kind of “easy believe-ism” or a kind of mental assent to Jesus’ identity. Actually, it is the other way around. By using many different terms to describe what our relationship to Jesus ought to be, John proves to have a very rich understanding of the nature of genuine faith. Genuine faith is never a mere intellectual assent or reduced to “easy believe-ism,” but always accompanied by a glad-hearted acceptance of the person of Jesus himself, a yielding of everything to his rule, an ever-deepening affection for his glory, and a casting of ourselves at his feet for life and mercy. Second, I also do not want you to think that John links these various faith-words to this or that explanation of Jesus’ identity in an very strict and exclusive manner. For example, even within 6:56 he uses both feeding and drinking and abiding. What we gain from this is that throughout his Gospel, we are dealing with learning to trust and follow the same Jesus in whom all the various Old Testament themes and promises are coming to fruition. Thus, when we eat and drink of the Son of Man, who is the Bread of Life and true Passover Lamb, we simultaneously abide in the True Vine. Thus, as you read the Gospel of John, and he continues mounting theme after theme and title after title upon Jesus, the faith-relationship to Jesus becomes richer and richer and all the more attractive in those the Spirit is at work.]

The point is that whenever you bank on Jesus’ sacrificial death to deliver you from sin and death, you will gain the eternal life Jesus is speaking of. If belief is lacking—as it is in these Jews—you will only experience death the rest of your life and in the age to come hell. But if you believe—if you eat and drink, if you cast yourself upon Jesus as your only hope for deliverance from death—then you have eternal life in full. Not in part, such that you have to keep coming to a ceremony, performing another ritual for more and more and more. You gain it all at once when you’re united to Jesus by simply trusting him. And that eternal life—which you gain through Jesus’ sacrificial death—includes at least two things in our passage: resurrection life in the future and spiritual communion with Christ in the present.

Eternal Life as Resurrection Life in the Future

Let’s look at the first—resurrection life in the future. Verse 54: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” That means that when you’re united to Christ’s death—when you share in his flesh and blood deliverance—you’re life is secure until the resurrection of the just. Jesus gives you the blood-bought promise to raise you up on the last day; and we know we can take it to the bank because God already raised Jesus from the dead on the third day.

Now, let’s be clear: Jesus will raise everybody from the dead, whether you believe in Christ or not. John 5:28-29 say that “an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear [Jesus’] voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.” The point Jesus is making, here, is that when you’re united to Christ’s death through faith, you will participate in the resurrection of life. You won’t be raised to be condemned because there’s no condemnation remaining for you—that condemnation was all absorbed in Christ’s suffering on the cross. You will be raised to reign with Christ in his kingdom. Rev 20:6 says, “Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.”

That’s a great promise to preach to yourself when the fear of dying creeps in to your soul—perhaps as you’re persecuted for your faith or as you attend the funeral of a loved one or as you experience an illness shutting down your insides or as you’re wrestling against the fear of man in sharing the gospel with a neighbor. If we truly belong to Christ, we don’t have to fear dying. Jesus’ promise of resurrection sets all my confidence in the power of God, so that my strength in whatever I’m doing for Christ comes not from me, but from the God who raises the dead. Jesus said “the gates of Hades will not prevail against the church.” We stand on the victory of Jesus Christ and threats from the grave cannot stop us in our preaching and ministry efforts. Jesus’ promise grants us such assurance for eternal life and our Savior’s ultimate victory over death that we are also freed to lay down our lives for the sake of the nations knowing Jesus.

So let me encourage you not to grow fainthearted in your work—whatever that may be; instead, “Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor 15:58). Jesus partook of flesh and blood, so “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb 2:14-15). If God is for us, who can be against us? So, that’s the first thing we gain through Jesus’ sacrificial death—resurrection life in the future.

Eternal Life as Spiritual Communion with Christ in the Present

The second thing we gain through Jesus’ sacrificial death is spiritual communion with Christ in the present. So, the eternal life we gain from eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking Jesus’ blood is not merely a future expectation, but also a present blessing. Look with me at verses 56-57: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.” A couple things come together here. The self-existent life of the Godhead—the Father is the living Father and the Son lives because of the Father, which doesn’t mean the Son’s life had a beginning (cf. 1:4); it just means it’s granted him from the Father, eternally. The self-existent life of the Father and Son then comes into the believer by virtue of the believer’s union with Christ. “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” That means part of gaining eternal life is having the living Christ in you as you relate to him. How does that happen?

Well, John shows us later that happens through the Spirit. That’s why I’ve called it spiritual communion with Christ—not to be esoteric—but because our communion with Christ is made possible only by the Spirit. Our communion with Christ is spiritual in that it is caused and sustained by the Spirit. I get this from John 14:15-20: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you…In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you [just like in 6:56].”

So whenever Jesus is speaking of us abiding in Christ and Christ being in us to give us life, what he’s referring to is life in the Spirit. To put it another way, the life of Jesus Christ is personally present in the believer by the Spirit. It’s nothing short of what Paul says in Rom 8:9-10: “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to [Christ]. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.”

So what does that life look like from day to day? A few things. For starters it means that Christ is with the believer such that we never need to worry being forsaken by God. Difficult times and circumstances will come in our lives, even severe temptations from the enemy, and it will be the temptation of our flesh to start believing that God is far away. There are even times that we will sin and will think this or that particular sin has made us castaways. But Jesus’ promise to be in the person who feeds on him tells us differently. This promise reminds us God is never far from desperate beggars who come to him for true food and true drink. The whole point of feasting on his flesh and drinking his blood is to remember that it was Christ who drew near to us in the first place, despite all our sin. When you come to him, banking on his death to accomplish for you what we could never accomplish for yourself, Jesus says he will be in you. By his Spirit, he will be in you—and not in you to leave you as an orphan, but in you for fellowship with God.

Something else we might consider is that whenever Christ abides in us by the Spirit, he will not let us keep living according to our own desires. The whole point of the Passover lamb was not only deliverance from death, but it provided the decisive break with Israel’s slavery in Egypt. Christ’s death does the same thing between us and our sin—his death provides the decisive break with the power of sin. And if he dwells in us, we now have the ability and the grace to fight sin, overcome its temptations, and cry out to God when we are weak. Paul puts it this way in Rom 8:13-15, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” Just think, the fight against sin is now possible for us if you believe. At one time, sin was savory to us. But now our feasting on Christ himself has changed your spiritual taste buds, so to speak, so that sin has grown sour and unsatisfying. If you’re a Christian, give thanks to God this morning for making sin sour to your soul; and ask him to fill you with more of Christ.

One more thing to consider: if Christ is in us, we will learn that to live truly is to humble ourselves for the eternal good of others. Notice in verse 53 that we are feeding on the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of Man. Dan 7:14 says that “this Son was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” And how amazing is it that this Son of Man came down from heaven like manna in order to give his life as a Lamb. That’s how he wins peoples, nations, and languages—he lays his life down for their eternal good. How much, then, should we look like him, if he dwells inside us by the Spirit? True life is not found in climbing to the top of the corporate ladder or in striving to have the most popular ministry; but in identifying with Jesus in laying our lives down for others.

other sermons in this series