Jesus was one of the most controversial and misunderstood men who ever lived. We’d already seen Him stir up trouble among the religious leaders. Now He brings the controversy to the level of the common people. Jesus provided bread for the 5,000 in a dramatic retelling of the exodus. He would provide freedom, He would provide nourishment for the journey ahead. Having crossed the sea the previous night, the crowd is confused to find that He arrived ahead of them. Verse 6:58 tells us that at least part (maybe even all) of this lengthy speech happened in a synagogue at Capernaum. It was there that Jesus’ massive following revealed their underlying motivation: they were after another miracle:
John 6:25-59 25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
They want bread. More bread. In the 1700’s, a great movement of religious revivals swept the country—or at least the original thirteen colonies. One of the most prominent leaders was a revival preacher named Jonathan Edwards. Edwards believed that “the grace of God may appear lovely and beautiful in two ways: as bonum utile, or what is most useful or profitable to me…[or] as the bonum formosum, which is a goodness and beauty in itself.”
The crowds that surrounded Jesus worshipped Him as bonum utile. Jesus was useful. He provided bread. An impressive miracle. They would return home with stories to tell. Even today there are times when we worship God for being “useful.” We serve a God who best serves us. I am most content in God when He helps me with my finances, my relationships, my day-to-day problems. For me, He’s not a Savior, but a sidekick. Edwards goes on to explain why this can be so damaging:
“If we merely serve God as the ‘Bonum Utile’ or for what He can do for us…then we are not truly living consistently with ‘Thy will be done’ and so we can undermine His sovereignty. This may be the reason why many who profess Christ cannot fathom a God who is completely holy and sovereign.”
Imagine if you only loved your spouse, your friends, or your kids when they served you best. That’s not real love; that’s just another form of selfishness. “Give us this bread always,” the crowds demand. The gift was more important than the Giver, and the same could be true of you and me.
35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. 39 And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me– 46 not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Jesus now gives voice to His earlier action. Moses provided bread. Jesus is the bread. Moses pointed Israel to God. Jesus is God. The religious leaders had objected to such claims on theological grounds. The crowds are a bit more practical. They knew His family; they knew where He came from. He wasn’t fooling anyone with this claim to be God.
To follow Jesus is to actually feast on Him. It’s easy to think He’s referring to the bread and wine of communion—but surely we can see the whole scene as symbolic. Jesus is saying that to follow Him means to digest His teachings. To let Him become a vibrant, living part of us. In Edwards’ terms, to love Him not just for being “useful,” but for being truly beautiful:
“If we serve God as the ‘Bonum Formosum’ or for Who He IS as the holy and beautiful and sovereign God…then there is nothing he cannot ask of us. We must recognize that God is Most Holy, Beautiful, and His Sovereign will is the best for us, come what may, as hard as it may seem, because we can confidently cry: ‘Thy will be done!’” (Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections)
No wonder the crowds are growing weary of Jesus’ cryptic metaphors. Beauty isn’t terribly useful. “What’s to be done with all this useless beauty?” sings rock star Elvis Costello. But beauty needs no use; beauty is its own reward. And that’s what Jesus is saying: Don’t follow me expecting me to be a means to your ends. I am the end. I am the true Bread. Don’t come to me expecting more blessing. Come to me expecting more of me.
52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “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. 54 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. 55 For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. 56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 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. 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.” 59 Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.
Are you satisfied with God? Do you find that you love Him more when He does what you want? Our spiritual lives become transactional: we ask for things, and thank Him for things He gives us. When was the last time we thanked Him not for what He does, but for who He is? Take some time today to do just that. Take some time to encounter a God of tremendous power and useless beauty.