February 25, 2024

The Bread of Life Sermon

The Bread of Life Sermon, given by Jesus, was a turning point for many followers of Christ. The Savior’s words were considered highly controversial and caused many to no longer follow him. To eat the flesh and blood of another person, as Jesus taught, shocked his listeners to say the least. So what did Jesus mean when he declared himself the “bread of life” and that we must partake of him to receive the gift of eternal life? And how does this powerful sermon help us to partake of the atonement of Jesus Christ with greater clarity and understanding?

Before we examine the Bread of Life Sermon, let’s first set the stage. It was springtime, just before the season of Passover. Jesus was traveling in Galilee. Large crowds now followed him, having heard about his many miracles. “Is this the promised Messiah?” they asked. Would they see more miracles? They gathered around to find out.

According to John, Jesus saw the massive crowd and, without hesitation, asks his disciples “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” (John 6:5 NIV). The disciples respond that even a half year’s wages will not buy enough food for such a multitude! Jesus simply asks for all they have. A young boy offers his own five barley loaves and two fishes. Jesus takes the loaves and fishes, offers thanks to heaven, breaks the bread, and instructs the disciples to distribute the food. Miraculously, the multitude is not only fed, but twelve baskets of food are left over!

The Miraculous Feeding by Jan van 't Hoff

Imagine what must have been going through the minds of not only the multitude, but the Savior’s disciples! For ancient people, bread was an essential part of every meal. It was readily available and inexpensive compared to other food, especially meat. Despite its low cost, women of the household spent many hours each day making bread for the family. This helps us understand why when Jesus offered the Lord’s prayer, he spoke of the need for “daily bread.” Witnessing this miracle, the people said among themselves, “Truly this is the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14 BSB).

When Israel was freed from Egyptian bondage, the Lord provided manna in the wilderness as they wandered for 40 years. The miracles Moses performed through God’s power, were foundational for their faith. At the end of Moses’ life, as he gathered the people to hear his final message, he prophesied, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must listen to him.” (Deuteronomy 18:15 BSB). For hundreds of years, the people had been waiting for this chosen leader who would be like Moses. What more could they be waiting for? Moses had fed Israel manna and performed great miracles. Now Jesus had miraculously fed the multitude! This must be the promised Messiah, the anointed one!

That evening, Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee to the village of Capernaum. The following day the people gathered to hear Jesus in the synagogue in Capernaum. Ancient synagogues were generally rectangular in shape with stone benches along the sides. The roof was supported by large columns leaving the center open for the speaker or reader of the Torah scroll to stand. It is with this setting Jesus delivered a powerful discourse.

Jesus first began by rebuking the crowd, proclaiming that the only reason they came to hear him was because they wanted a free meal. Still, the Jews implored Jesus for a sign that would give them a reason to believe his message. If Moses could provide manna from heaven, what would Jesus do to show he was the great prophet of which Moses had foretold? They had seen him feed the multitude the day before, he could do the same today!

Jesus reminded them that it was not Moses who provided manna from heaven, but God the Father, and that only the Father can provide true, eternal bread. Hearing of this bread from heaven, the people exclaimed that they wanted to eat of this eternal bread!

Israelite family with their two baskets of manna from heaven

With the stage set, Jesus made this powerful claim, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35). While the Jews were only asking for bread, Jesus appears to harken back to another miracle, when the Lord commanded Moses to strike a rock to bring forth water to quench the thirst of ancient Israel. Not only is Jesus claiming the power to feed and nourish the Jews, but to give them drink.

At this point many of the Jews murmured at his claim to be manna from heaven. Jesus reminded them that ancient Israel did eat daily manna in the wilderness, but they were all dead. In the end, the miracle of manna from heaven could not give them eternal life. Ancient Israel only survived from day to day because of the manna.

With power and emotion, Jesus declared, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live forever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:51). Jesus then continued adding even more clarity, “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.” (John 6:53). For ancient Jews, this was outrageous and appalling. The law of Moses forbade the drinking of blood, especially the blood of another human! And to eat the flesh of another person? For many, this was the breaking point. 

Before we continue with the sermon, let’s ask the question: Why would Jesus teach something like this? Eating another’s flesh to gain eternal life? The Savior’s audience well understood the law of sacrifice. Each year, Jews gathered at the temple for three annual feasts, and offered various sacrifices. As they brought their animal to the altar, they would lay their hands on the animal’s head, symbolically transferring their sins to the sacrifice. Most often it was the person seeking forgiveness that would slit the throat of the animal. The blood was caught in a dish and splashed on various parts of the altar while the meat was burned. Of the five types of sacrifices, only the burnt offering was entirely consumed in the flames. For Peace, Sin, and Trespass offerings, only a portion of the animal was offered to God, while the remainder was eaten by the priests or the family who brought the offering.

The Tabernacle of Moses 3D model

Before we continue, it will be helpful to first understand why eating the flesh of the sacrifice was such an important part of the temple ritual. In ancient times, when two enemies sought to establish peace, it was not by signing a peace treaty like today. Instead it was by breaking bread together and sharing a meal. This symbolic act of inviting one's enemy into the home demonstrated that a former enemy had been forgiven. Mutual feelings of friendship, trust, and peace were established.

This same theme of healing applies to God and his people. As ancient Israel came to the Tabernacle or temple, they came as enemies to God, because of their sins. Paul wrote that “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The Lord wanted his people to understand that only after repentance and the sacrifice of an innocent animal could reconciliation with God be achieved. As the Lord invited his covenant people into his house, the Tabernacle or temple, forgiveness was shown through a symbolic meal. Part of the meat was burned on the altar for God while the remainder of the meat was shared with Israel. This sharing of a meal in the temple symbolized that God’s forgiveness and peace was renewed.

Every Sabbath we have the opportunity to enter the Lord’s house of worship and partake of the sacrament or communion of the Lord’s supper. We enter as enemies of God because of our sins. Yet, God teaches us a powerful lesson each week. As the priest breaks the bread, we are asked to ponder the broken flesh and blood of Christ. We remember that it is only through his eternal sacrifice that we can be at-one with God again. As we receive of the bread, everyone shares in a communal meal in remembrance of his infinite sacrifice.

The disciples gathering the uneaten loaves of bread

So we might ask, why would the Savior use bread to symbolize his flesh? As mentioned, for ancient people, bread was a critical part of every meal–their daily source of sustenance, nourishment and strength. Whatever we consume becomes part of our very being. Similarly, as we partake of the sacrament or communion, we have the opportunity to allow the Savior to become a part of us, to daily nourish and strengthen us. In addition, as we internalize the sacrifice of Jesus’ flesh and the shedding of his blood, we are given new life. We become a new person. We experience a mighty change of heart and receive his image in our countenance (see Alma 5:12, 14). His actions become our actions.

At the end of the Savior’s powerful discourse on the bread of life, many no longer followed him. His teachings were too hard. They came to be fed, but failed to see beyond the idea of physical nourishment. Jesus wanted them to understand that the way to have eternal life was through daily partaking of his sacrificial Atonement. Just as the Israelites under Moses had relied upon daily manna, we must rely upon the daily nourishment of the good word of God through Jesus, the Bread of Life. By so doing, as God has promised, we receive salvation and eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.

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