This chapter of John’s Gospel opens with Jesus traveling to Galilee, then to Tiberias on the western shore. The crowds from the area had been following Him around, since they saw Him with His disciples and recognized this as the man who performed miracles.
The average Jewish peasant was looking for the Messiah to come any day now, and they figured Jesus was Him. But the problem is what they thought “Messiah” meant; they were expecting a hero who would conquer by mighty miracles and restore the ancient glory of David’s and Solomon’s reign. That it was near the Passover stirred people’s emotions about such things, as they were celebrating the Exodus and reviewing that period in their national history, as well.
Jesus climbed up on the hillside above the city there and sat down with His disciples. Eventually a crowd made their way to them. This is where Jesus fed the five thousand men and anyone who came with them. The crowd began talking about making Him king, by force if necessary, so He sent them away. He withdrew higher into the craggy hillside and sent His disciples ahead of Him back to Capernaum. During the night they fought against a storm and He walked on the water, nearly passing them by. But they cried out to Him and He climbed into their small craft, and suddenly they were on the northern shore at Capernaum. The crowd from the previous day noticed that He had not left with the Twelve, but couldn’t find Him, so they got into boats and rowed over to Capernaum, where they knew He had been residing.
They found Jesus there and were quite puzzled how He had crossed the sea. No doubt their heads were filled with fanciful nonsense about it, but the truth would have been even more stunning. Things were reaching a crisis point, as His miracles seemed to provoke the worst of such behavior, and yet He kept escalating the miracles. Still, His Kingdom had nothing to do with their dreams. His would be a kingdom of hearts, and He was about to sift them severely so that only those who were truly committed to the truth would stick around.
Jesus knew what they were thinking. He accused them of petty materialism, not impressed by the miracles, but just happy their bellies were filled. So He lowered the boom on them: Stop worrying about full tummies and start seeking a full heart. Jesus called on them to start considering issues of the Spirit Realm. Obviously the physical bread that would digest and be forgotten was not much of an issue with Him, but they should be asking Him how to work for the Bread of Life.
What kind of work would that be, they wondered. English translations of this passage vary, and some miss the point entirely. He told them they must submit to Him as the Messiah, the Heir of Heaven. And how did He propose to convince them that He was sent by God? This was almost Passover, celebrating how the nation in the wilderness were fed fresh manna from the sky every day. Could Jesus match that miracle that Moses did?
He replied that manna was not the Bread of Life. His Father had given them eternal bread in the form of the Son. Whoever embraced the claims and message of the Son would find the substance of life itself. But they still didn’t get it, because it probably sounded like not having to work any more, which was close enough to manna for them. Sure, they’d be glad to eat bread and stop working for food. And Jesus, “Here I am. I’m the Bread of Life. Submit to me and your problems will be solved.” Of course, they had seen His physical form and His miracles, but they still didn’t believe anything He said. He spoke plainly how He knew that only those moved by the Spirit of God would be able to claim Him as Messiah.
And whom the Father gave to Him as His inherited kingdom would become His precious treasure. Jesus was dispatched from Heaven, and He had no separate human plans, only the divine mission. That mission was to seal with the Holy Spirit those whom the Father gave Him and equip them for eternal life. They would die, but then be resurrected on Judgment Day as family members of God’s household. But only those who discerned the true nature of the Son would receive that seal.
Now among this crowd of people were some Pharisees and such. They murmured among themselves about how this Jesus of Nazareth was just a builder’s son and they knew His family. They got the symbolism enough to understand Jesus was claiming to be the Son of God, and they just didn’t see how that could be, with Him coming from such humble and well-known circumstances. Jesus told them not to waste their time with such questions. If His claims didn’t register in their hearts, then they weren’t among those God gave Him for His kingdom. They wouldn’t be raised up to eternal life on the Day of Judgment. Without that mighty voice of the Spirit in their souls, there was no way they could swallow all of this.
Granted, no one had seen the Father either, but Jesus claimed to have met Him face to face. But whomever had the wherewithal to accept His message would become members of the Father’s household. Jesus was the sole source of the Bread of Life. Being Jewish didn’t mean anything. The people who ate manna died in the wilderness, and everyone knew it was because they didn’t have faith, either. Jesus was something far superior, and anyone who could figure this out would not miss out like that.
Using an established Hebrew symbol, Jesus said His flesh was the Bread of Life. It meant that the substance of His human behavior and teaching was a manifestation of ultimate truth, of divine revelation. He was ready to sacrifice His human existence to establish an eternal covenant. The Pharisees were being obtuse, wondering how Jesus could let them take a bite of His body. That wouldn’t be kosher! Plowing ahead, Jesus confirmed that they should eat His flesh and drink His blood, the true provision from the Father for eternal life. If they couldn’t figure this out, there was no way they could go to Heaven. It was symbolic of embracing everything He represented. They must accommodate His divine nature in their own bodies.
He reminded them that eating manna didn’t bring eternal life to anyone. It was a subtle way of asserting that His authority was higher than Moses. Jesus was God’s heir.
John slips in a note at the end of this passage to point out that some of this teaching took place in the synagogue, signaling to his readers that this thing went back and forth over a period of a couple of days, at least. Then John goes on to tell us that this challenging parable was just too much for the crowd to swallow and most of His followers dropped out. The Twelve stayed on, and just a few others, people who seemed to have the heart to understand all of this.