Saturday Series: John 6:22-59

John 6:22-59

This week we will follow-up on the previous study, in which we examined the Johannine version of the Miraculous Feeding episode. That episode is one of the rare instances where a distinct historical tradition has been preserved in both the Synoptics and the Gospel of John. Last week’s study looked especially at the episode as it was developed within the Johannine Tradition. One special aspect of the Johannine version involves the relationship between the Feeding Miracle tradition itself (6:1-15) and the Bread of Life discourse (6:22-59) that follows in the Gospel narrative. This was mentioned in the previous study, but is deserving of a more extensive treatment.

There are three motifs from the Miracle tradition which are developed in the Bread of Life discourse:

    1. The Passover setting—which is unique to John’s account, though Mk 6:39 could also indicate springtime.
    2. The eating of Bread, and
    3. The Eucharist (on these allusions, cf. the previous study)

These three themes run through the discourse, but it may be said that each dominates one of the three main sections. Verses 22-24 serve as the narrative introduction to the discourse, and are transitional, joining the discourse with the Feeding Miracle, etc, in vv. 1-21. Each of the three main sections builds on the dialogue/discourse format used in the Gospel—

    • Saying of Jesus
    • Reaction/question by the people, indicating some level of misunderstanding
    • Explanation/Exposition by Jesus

In addition, the three sections are joined together, forming a larger discourse, by way of a step-parallel thematic technique:

    • Miracle of the bread-loaves —>
      • Passover: manna / bread from heaven —>
        • Eating bread: Jesus the “bread from heaven”, Bread of Life —>
          • Jesus the Living Bread —>
            • Eucharist: eating his flesh/blood leads to (eternal) Life

Section 1 (vv. 25-34)

    • Principal saying by Jesus—verse 27: “Do not work (for) the food th(at is) perishing, but (for) the food remaining into (the) life of the Age(s) [i.e. eternal life]…”
    • [Explanation by Jesus]—v. 29
    • Reaction/question by the people—vv. 28-31
    • Explanation by Jesus—vv. 32-33
    • Theme: transition from the Feeding Miracle (v. 26) to the Passover motif (i.e. the manna, “bread from heaven”, vv. 31-33)

Section 2 (vv. 35-50)

    • Saying by Jesus—verse 35: “I am [egœ¡ eimi] the Bread of Life—the one coming toward me (no) he will not (ever) hunger, and the one trusting into me (no) he will not ever thirst. …”
    • [Explanation by Jesus]—vv. 36-40
    • Reaction/question by the people—vv. 41-42
    • Explanation by Jesus—vv. 44-50
    • Theme: Eating Bread—Jesus as the “Bread of Life”, the Bread come down from Heaven

Section 3 (vv. 51-58)

    • Saying by Jesus—verse 51a (parallel to v. 35): “I am [egœ¡ eimi] the Living Bread stepping down [i.e. coming down] out of Heaven—if any one should eat out of this bread he will live into the Age (to Come)…”
    • [Explanation by Jesus]—v. 51b
    • Reaction/question by the people—v. 52
    • Explanation by Jesus—vv. 53-58
    • Theme: transition from Bread (of Life) to the Eucharist motifs (vv. 53-56ff)

I will not here discuss the rich texture and theology of the discourse; this has been done in some detail in an earlier note (however, see the section below on John 6 and the Eucharist). The outline above is meant to demonstrate how the Gospel writer has developed the Feeding Miracle tradition, by making it part of the larger Bread of Life discourse, much as he did with healing miracle (and Sabbath controversy) episode in chapter 5. The Discourses of Jesus in John are complex and difficult to analyze, due to the sophisticated way that authentic historical traditions have been adapted and interpreted within the Johannine literary style/format (i.e. of the Discourses). This compositional style can be seen at many different points in the Gospel. Compare, for example, the close similarity of structure, language and ideas, between Jesus’ exchange with the Samaritan woman (4:9-15) and that of 6:25-34 (above, cf. also Brown, p. 267). The parallel between Jesus as the living water (ch. 4) and the living bread (ch. 6) is unmistakable, and is clearly intentional within the context of the Gospel.

Also most difficult is the relation between the Bread of Life and Eucharist symbolism in second and third sections (vv. 35-58) of the discourse. As challenging as these passages have been for Christians throughout the ages, Jesus’ words must have been completely baffling to the first hearers, if we accept the essential historicity of the discourse (v. 59). Indeed, this is a prominent theme of the Discourses in John—the misunderstanding of his words by the people who hear him. The explanation by Jesus, within in the discourse format, expounds the true (and deeper) meaning of his words, much as we see him, on occasion in the Synoptics, explaining his sayings and parables to the disciples in private (Mk 4:10-20 par, etc).

John 6:60-65ff

As it happens, John records a similar sort of “private” explanation by Jesus to the disciples in vv. 60-65. This comes in addition to the exposition(s) within the discourse proper; as such, vv. 60ff functions as an epilogue or appendix to the discourse. There is a loose parallel, perhaps, to this in 4:31-38. Verses 60-65 have greatly complicated interpretation of the discourse (particularly the eucharistic motifs in vv. 51-58), since they contain a distinctly spiritual explanation of Jesus’ words. This section may be outlined as follows:

    • Reaction by the disciples (i.e. to the discourse)—v. 60 “This account [i.e. word/discourse] is hard/harsh; who is able to hear it?”
    • Explanation by Jesus—vv. 61-65, which is framed by a question and a statement directed toward his disciples: “Does this trip you (up)?” (v. 61b) “But there are some of you that do not trust (in me)” (v. 64a)

The explanation in vv. 62-63 is comprised of three sayings, which must be taken together:

“Then if you should look upon the Son of Man stepping up to where he was at (the) first(, how will you react)?” (v. 62) “The Spirit is th(at which) makes (one a)live; the flesh does not help (in) anything” (v. 63a) “The utterances [i.e. words] which I have spoken to you (they) are Spirit and Life” (v. 63b)

The first saying (a rhetorical question) emphasizes the divine origin of the “Son of Man” (Jesus), and foreshadows his departure back to the Father. It is at the time of his departure that the Spirit will come to the disciples (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26; 16:13-15; 20:22-23; cf. also 8:39). The second saying clearly states that the Spirit (of God, and Christ) is that which gives life; the flesh plays no role, or is of no use in this. In the third saying, Jesus identifies his words with the Spirit and with the life the Spirit gives. The disciples, at this point in the narrative, could not possibly understand the significance of these things, since they foreshadowed events which had not taken place. They simply had to trust Jesus. This is the emphasis of verses 64-65, and in the tradition which follows (vv. 66-71). Not all of Jesus’ disciples truly trust in him, but only those chosen and given to Jesus by the Father (i.e. the Elect believers). Here the author seems to have joined to the discourse a separate tradition, with similarities to several found in the Synoptics—i.e., the calling of the Twelve (cf. Mk 3:13-19 par) and the confession by Peter (vv. 68-69; cp. Mk 8:29 par). On the latter point, compare Peter’s words in Mk 8:29/Lk 9:20 and Jn 6:69 respectively:

“You are the Anointed One [Christós] of God” “You are the Holy One [Hágios] of God”

It is another example (among many) of how the Synoptic and Johannine traditions are so very similar, and yet, at the same time, so very different.

More on John 6 and the Eucharist

One of the most peculiar features of the Passion Narrative in the Gospel of John is the lack of any mention of the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper, the bread and cup) in the Last Supper scene (chap. 13). Many critical commentators believe that this detail has been transferred to an earlier location in the Gospel (the Bread of Life Discourse, 6:51-58), the precise reason for which remains uncertain. This interpretation is easier to maintain for critical scholars who tend to view the Discourses, etc, as primarily the product of early Christians, rather than representing the authentic words/sayings of Jesus himself. At the historical level indicated by the narrative setting of the Bread of Life discourse, for example, allusions to the Eucharist, while obvious to early Christian readers, would have been completely unintelligible for Jesus’ Galilean contemporaries (the people with whom he is said to be speaking in the Discourse). The same is true of the supposed references to (Christian) baptism in 3:5ff, and so forth.

There is certainly a similarity between 6:51ff and the words of institution in the Synoptic Lord’s Supper tradition; the saying in v. 51 forms the core statement of Jesus in the sub-discourse of vv. 51-58:

“I am the living bread, the (bread hav)ing stepped down out of heaven; if any (one) should eat out of this bread, he shall live into the Age, and the bread, indeed, which I will give is my flesh, over [hypér] the life of the world.”

The reaction (misunderstanding) of the crowd follows immediately in verse 52, and the exposition by Jesus comes in vv. 53-57, along with a restatement of the initial saying in the closing v. 58, bringing it line with the context of the discourse as a whole:

This is the bread (hav)ing stepped [i.e. come] down out of heaven, not as the fathers ate and (then) died off—the (one) munching this bread will live into the Age.”

By combining the italicized portion of v. 51 above with the basic idiom of the exposition in vv. 53ff (i.e. eating and drinking Jesus’ flesh and blood) we can approximate the Eucharistic tradition of Mark 14:22-24 par:

“And (with) their eating, (hav)ing taken bread…he gave (it) to them and said ‘Take, [eat,] this is my body’. And, (hav)ing taken the drinking-cup…he gave (it) to them and they all drank out of it. And he said to them, ‘This is my blood…th(at is) being poured out over [hypér] many’.”

The force of the instruction in Jn 6:53-57 involves a contrast between those who eat/drink Jesus’ flesh/blood and those who do not:

“Then Yeshua said to them: ‘Amen, amen, I relate to you (that), if you should not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not hold life in yourself’.” (v. 53)

“The (one) munching [i.e. eating] my flesh and drinking my blood holds (the) life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]…” (v. 54)
“The (one) munching [i.e. eating] my flesh and drinking my blood remains [ménei] in me, and I in him.” (v. 56)

Clearly, “holding life” is here synonymous with “remaining” in Jesus, both idioms being essential to the Johannine theological vocabulary and found repeatedly in the Gospel (and Letters). The verb ménœ (“remain”) is of special significance in the way that it defines the identity of the believer in Christ.

Some commentators would view the Vine instruction/illustration in 15:1-8 as a similar Eucharistic reference, with the vine (i.e. wine/cup) as a complement to the bread in the chap. 6 discourse. In point of fact, however, the main parallel between 6:51-58 and 15:1-8 lies in the use of the verb ménœ, and the idea of “remaining” in Jesus. Consider the words of Jesus in 15:4:

“You must remain [meínate] in me, and I in you. Even as the br(anch) broken (off) is not able to bear fruit from itself, if it should not remain [mén¢] in the vine, so also you (can)not if you should not remain [mén¢te] in me.”

The same language is repeated in vv. 5-7, and again, by way of exposition, in vv. 9-10. According to a sacramental (eucharistic) interpretation of these passages, the believer initially comes to Jesus through faith/trust in him, but remains in relationship with Jesus (his life-giving power, etc) by partaking in the ritual meal (sacrament of the bread and wine). While this would make perfect sense, I am sure, to many early Christians, there is precious little support for it in the Johannine Gospel (or Letters). The basis for “remaining” in Jesus, from the standpoint of the Johannine theology (and Christology), is two-fold:

    • Trust in Jesus—that he is the Son who manifests God the Father, and
    • Union with him—being united with both Son and Father—through the Spirit

This is further reflected in the two essential characteristics marking the true believer in Christ:

    • Obedience to the dual-command: of trust and love
    • The abiding and guiding presence of the Spirit

The former is clearly expressed in 15:9-10, where the “remaining in Jesus” of the vine-illustration, is explained precisely in terms of the ‘command’ (entol¢¡) of trust/love (for an explicit definition of this dual-command, cf. 1 John 3:23-24). As for the presence of the Spirit, while this is central to the entire Last Discourse (chaps. 14-16), it applies more directly to the eucharistic language in 6:51-58. Indeed, in the explanation of Jesus that follows in vv. 61ff, we read:

“Does this trip you (up)? Then if you could look at the Son of Man stepping up (to) where he was (at) first, (would that help)? The Spirit is the (thing) making [i.e. bringing] life; the flesh is not useful, not (for) one (thing)—(and) the utterances that I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life. But there are some out of you that do not trust.”

Does the flesh/blood of Jesus in 6:51-58 refer primarily to the Eucharist or to trust in Jesus? The explanation in verses 61ff, within the overall setting of the Johannine theology, clearly indicates the latter. It is our trust in the revelatory message about Jesus—who he is (Son of God the Father) and what he does (his sacrificial death)—which allows us to “hold” life within ourselves and to “remain” in him. Moreover, this message is identified with the Spirit, which is the source of the life we hold, and the presence of the Spirit is what unites us with Jesus the Son (and God the Father).

However, the message of Jesus does center upon his sacrificial death, which brings us around to the Passion setting of the eucharistic language. The “bread”, further described as the “body and blood” of Jesus, which he gives, is given “over the life of the world” (6:51; Mk 14:24 par “…over many”). This alludes to the covenant context of the ritual in Exodus 24:5-8—particularly the action involving the blood in verse 8 (parallel to v. 6). Blood is thrown on (i.e. over) the people as part of the ratification of the covenant (note the declaration of faith/obedience to the covenant in v. 7). Obedience to the covenant leads to life and blessing for Israel.

This idea is taken much further in early Christian thought. As a result of Jesus’ sacrificial death (and resurrection) those who believe in him are freed from the power of sin and evil, and rescued from the coming Judgment of God on the wickedness/evil in the world. We are never told exactly how this is accomplished, though the symbolism and imagery involved offer some clues. Paul, in his letters, provides rather more theological exposition in this regard, but ultimately it remains one of the great mysteries of Christian faith. Jesus’ death brings (eternal) life to all who believe (“…the life of the world”, cp. Jn 3:16 etc).

* * * * * * *

Next week, we will turn our attention to the Transfiguration scene in the Synoptic Gospels. This is another example of the “Triple Tradition”, but it is also particularly instructive for understanding the many subtle (but significant) ways that the individual Gospel writers shaped the historical tradition. It is also a fitting passage to study in celebration of the Lenten season, in preparation for the coming Holy Week. I hope you will join me here…next Saturday.

References marked “Brown” above are to R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 29 (1966).

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