XIII. THE BREAD FROM HEAVEN.
[Lincoln's Inn, 5th Sunday after Easter, April 27, 1856.]
St. John VI. 35.
And Jesus said to them, I am the bread of life: he that comes to me shall never hunger; and he that believes on me shall never thirst.
In general, the signs or miracles of Christ which St. John records are not the same with those which the other Evangelists have recorded. The exceptions are found in this chapter. Here, as in St. Matthew, St. Mark, and St. Luke, we have a narrative of the feeding of the five thousand; here, as in St. Matthew and St. Mark, we have the narrative of Jesus walking on the sea. There is no doubt that the events described in all the Gospels are the same. In time, place, numbers, and in most of the circumstances, they exactly correspond. The variations in St. John, however, are very instructive as to his own design. We may learn from them why he repeats his predecessors, as well as why he so commonly introduces topics which they have not touched.
'After these things, Jesus went over the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a great multitude followed Him, because they saw His miracles which He did on them that were diseased. And Jesus went up into a mountain, and there He sat with His disciples. And the Passover, a feast of the Jews, was nearly.' The addition to the story is in the last verse. It has puzzled the harmonists. It does occasion serious difficulties in the chronology of this Gospel. Yet I hesitate to call it an interpolation. The Jerusalem feasts are continually present to the mind of St. John. Even when he leads us into Samaria and Galilee, we are never allowed to forget them. I own, however, that this notice of the Passover does not prepare us for a visit to the city; and that it is quite unnecessary as an introduction to the following discourse, which, as we all know, was suggested by an event which took place near Capernaum.
'When Jesus then lifted up His eyes, and saw a great crowd come to Him, He said to Philip, Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat? And this He said to prove him: for He Himself knew what He would do. Philip answered Him, Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little. One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to Him, There is a lad here which has five barley-loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?' The force of the sign is often, as I said before, to be discerned in these incidents, quite as much as in what we call the miraculous part of it. We see how our Lord uses events as an education of His disciples; how part of an event serves to bring out the character of one man, part of another. And what was true then, according to the doctrine that goes through the book, is true always. As the Teacher does not change — as, in essentials, the learner of the West is not different from the learner of the East — the same method of discipline belongs to both. We may understand, from the specimens of it which St. John gives us, how our thoughts are awakened — how we are made conscious of doubts, that they may be satisfied.
St. John follows strictly the former Evangelists till the 14th verse. There the effect of the sign upon the multitude is given in words which we have not elsewhere. 'Then those men, when they had seen the miracle which Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that Prophet which should come into the world. When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take Him by force to make him a king, He departed again into a mountain Himself alone.' Two names are brought together which are quite distinct, but which have mingled with each other in all the world's history. 'He is a Prophet; God has sent Him.' That is the natural feeling of a crowd which has been conscious of a wonderful power exerted on its own behalf. Then comes another: — 'How shall we exalt this Prophet? How shall we show our sense of His might, and our gratitude for His benefits? Let us make Him our King. None is so worthy to reign over us. He may not be willing to put Himself at our head; why should not we take the matter into our own hands?' It was no new thing. Many a champion had arisen before in Galilee to rid the people of their oppressors. Each had come in the name of God. The desert was the ordinary scene of their exploits. Was it not the very place for an insurrection in favour of this Galilæan Prophet to begin? If some compulsion were used, the mysterious power which had fed them would, of course, be ready to support His own claims.
Unless we remember this wild excitement among men who had been hungry and who had eaten, and the voice of command with which He sent them away to their houses — the kingly might coming forth in His resolution that they should not make Him a king — we can scarcely enter into the stillness and awfulness of that night-scene which is brought before us in the following verses: — 'And when even was now come, the disciples went down to the sea, and entered into a ship, and went over the sea toward Capernaum. And it was now dark, and Jesus was not come to them. And the sea arose by reason of a great wind that blew. So when they had rowed about five-and-twenty or thirty furlongs, they see Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing nearly to the ship: and they were afraid. But He said to them, It is I; be not afraid. Then they willingly received Him into the ship: and immediately the ship was at the land where they went.'
I believe the conscience of men has received the right impression from this story. It has come to them in dark oppressive hours as the witness of a Presence that had been with them, though they knew it not, — of a calm power in which they might trust. This might not be their notion of a miracle. If they had been asked to define its nature and its purpose, they would carefully limit it to the time in which Jesus dwelt on earth; they would say it was a departure from the laws of nature to attest His divine mission. They would explain away the faith they had expressed unawares; they would say they had only been making a moral or personal improvement of the incident. No, brethren, it is not so. They discovered the true meaning of the sign at first. The other is the cold intellectual misinterpretation of it. They feel in their hearts that it is not a violation of the laws of nature, for the Son of Man to prove that the elements are not man's masters. They feel that when He raised up His disciples' hearts to trust in Him, He was teaching poor, weak, ignorant men the true law of their being, and thereby teaching them to reverence and not to despise the laws which He had imposed on the winds and on the waves. They feel that the whole beautiful narrative is not an argumentative assertion of a divine mission which can confute disputants, but the practical manifestation of a divine kinghood to meet the cravings and necessities of human beings. What does a debater care for 'It is I; be not afraid?' What else does a man tossed about in a tempest care for? The words were not spoken to Scribes and Pharisees, and were not heard by them. They were spoken to fishermen out in a boat at night; and by such they have been heard ever since.
St. John tells us this in the next paragraph. If we attach the modern notion to miracles, we shall, of course, conclude that so singular a witness of the Messiahship of Jesus must at once have been declared to those who were hesitating about it, and half ready to believe it. The occasion for announcing it was given. 'The day following, when the people which stood on the other side of the sea saw that there was none other boat there, save that one into which His disciples were entered, and that Jesus went not with His disciples into the boat, but that His disciples were gone away alone; (however there came other boats from Tiberias nearly to the place where they did eat bread, after that the Lord had given thanks): when the people therefore saw that Jesus was not there, neither His disciples, they also took shipping, and came to Capernaum, seeking for Jesus. And when they had found Him on the other side of the sea, they said to Him, Rabbi, when camest You here?' Here were the excitement and astonishment all ready. These people had said the day before, — 'This is of a truth that prophet which should come into the world.' What strength would that conviction gain, if they heard that He did not cross the lake as other men crossed it! He says nothing of this. 'Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say to you, You seek me not because you saw signs, but because you did eat of the loaves, and were filled.' They did seek Him because they had seen miracles or wonders; for it was a wonder that they had eaten and been filled; it was one which might be repeated. But they did not seek Him because they saw signs. The signs had not told them who He was; they had not come because they wanted Him, but because they wanted something which He could give them. He did not then announce any other sign of His power; it could have done them no good. But He proceeded to draw out the signification of the first sign; to show them what there was in it beyond the satisfaction of their immediate hunger.
Here, even more than in the case of the woman at the well, we may wonder at the deep mysteries which He revealed to what we should call ignorant sensual people. That they were a crowd of such people, St. John tells us plainly. And yet to what Jerusalem doctors had He spoken of a Bread of Life — of a bread of which a man might eat and not die? But let us begin where He begins. Each sentence, each clause, even each word, that He addressed to this rabble at Capernaum, is meant for the ears and hearts of the wisest among us. 'Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man shall give to you: for Him has God the Father sealed.'
To the woman of Sychar He spoke of water, for she had come to draw water. To these Galilæans He spoke of bread, for they had been eating of the loaves. Neither to one nor the other would He speak of the spiritual gift without speaking of the sensible gift, — without making them feel that that also was from God. He addresses the people of Capernaum as men working for their food ordinarily, though for once they had received it without working for it: and He bids them believe that there is another nobler work which is appointed for them, — a work, however, which does not prevent the fruit of it from being a gift. They were earning, by the sweat of their brow, a food which sustained their lives from day to day, — God endowing them with both the power to toil and the reward of toil. They might toil for a bread that would sustain another different kind of life in them, — a life not of hours and instants, but eternal. This bread, He says, the Son of Man will give. After what I said last Sunday of His use of this title, — of His assertion that the Son of Man must be the judge of men, must be the life-giver to men, — I have no need to dwell upon it here. I would only lead you to notice how exactly this application of it accords with that in the dialogue at Jerusalem, and yet how suitable it is to the Galilæans whom He is teaching. In both cases we find men brought directly into contact with One who knows them, who reads their hearts, who is the source and the standard of all that is human in them. In both, this Son of Man leads them to a Father from whom He has proceeded, from whose life His is derived, who has given Him His authority, whose will He has come to do. The words, we saw, were most provoking to the Pharisees of the holy city. Their inhumanity made it impossible for them to enter into the revelation of a Son of Man; their sense of distance from God, and their conception of Him as a mere Lawgiver, made the name of Father monstrous and incredible. With these ignorant labourers it was otherwise. A Son of Man, — a King who was yet a Brother, — they secretly longed for; half their wild acts were done in the struggle to find such a one. The thought of God was more terrible; — oftentimes they would have wished to hide themselves from Him under any hills and mountains; oftentimes they might have been glad to be told that there was no such Being. But there was that in them which owned Him as the Giver of all that they had; as worthy of the trust which their fathers put in Him; as associated with the graves of their parents and the faces of their children. To hear Him called a Father, — however little they might understand in what sense He could be a Father, — to hear that there was One whom He had sealed as a giver of Life to men, — this answered to some of the dreams which they had dreamed in their happiest hours: to some of the necessities which had been awakened within them in their saddest hours.
But these were vague, half-realized thoughts. The word 'labour,' or 'work,' was familiar to them. Jesus meant, they thought, that God would not give them anything which they did not earn. 'What shall we do,' said one, who was the spokesman of the rest, 'that we may work the works of God?' As often happens, the language was accurate beyond the conscious intention of the person who used it. He desired to know what work they should work for God, whereas it was really a work of God that was demanded. 'Jesus answered, This is the work of God, that you believe on Him whom He has sent.' God was working upon them; He was calling them to trust their King and their Friend; to give up their hearts to the Lord of their hearts — to Him who could alone quicken them to any good and fruitful work.
Of course, they understood by the expression, 'Him whom He has sent,' that Jesus was claiming to be Messiah, — the sent from Heaven. 'They said therefore to Him, What sign shewest You then, that we may see, and believe You? What do You work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'
Jesus had fed them in the desert when they were fainting. That was a strange and great act, no doubt, worthy of a Prophet, perhaps of a King. But the manna had actually dropped from heaven out of the clouds. If He came from Heaven, would He have merely taken the bread in His hands and blessed it? Would there not have been a sign like that which showed Moses to be indeed the messenger of God? Would there be no appearance in the sky? It was the question of people whose minds were perplexed about Heaven, and who, happily, had not found out seemly phrases in which to veil their perplexity. A material heaven — a heaven of sky and clouds — was what they saw and confessed. They had a dim vision of something beyond this. Their hearts yearned for a Heaven as calm as that upon which their eyes gazed; as full of light, as productive of life, but yet altogether different from that. What it was, where it was, they could not tell. Do you think we should have helped them if we had talked to them about an intellectual Heaven or a subjective Heaven? Do you think such nonsense can be of much help to ourselves?
'Then Jesus said to them, Verily, verily, I say to you, Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.' They had a feeling that, in some way, the manna was a gift from above. They had an equally strong feeling that, in some way or other, it came to them from Moses. The impressions were confused; yet each was right in itself. The records in the Book of Exodus encouraged each. Those records taught them to regard the water which started from the rock, when it was struck by the rod, as presented as an honor by an unseen Giver. If the manna was found upon the trees, that book would teach them that it was just as much a gift as if it fell from the clouds. Our Lord brings this sense out of the old story. 'Moses,' He said, 'gave you not that bread from heaven.' And then He pronounces the higher Name — the new Name, the Name which He had come to reveal — 'My Father.' It was He who gave that bread in the wilderness, and it was He who was giving them, then and there, 'the true bread from heaven.' What that Bread is, He goes on to explain. It is a Person whom they want to connect Heaven with earth, — themselves with God. The glory they gave to Moses showed they needed a Man to bring God nearer to them. Their eagerness to assert that the manna came from Heaven, showed that this was not enough for them — there must be a direct connection between them and the higher world into which Moses ascended; their food must denote it. The name of Father told them that it was even so. That Name turned the material heaven into a spiritual Heaven, more real than the material heaven — a Heaven from which the best good could come, not to lawgivers or prophets, but to hungry Galilæans; for they could not really enter into that name of Father without acknowledging a Son who came to them as their Brother. They could not receive Him in these characters without believing that He had come to bring life — common life and the highest life — not to a few select men, but to the world.
'Then said they to Him, Lord, evermore give us this bread.' The parallel words to this, in the dialogue with the woman of Samaria, were spoken, I thought, with the levity which characterised her till she discovered that Jesus knew all things that ever she did. I do not perceive a similar levity in these words. The people may have taken in very little of His meaning; but I think they were serious and awed. And surely the words in which our Lord answers them are very different indeed from those which He spoke to the woman; very different, also, from those in which He spoke afterwards to people who had none of her frankness, and who had a crust of intellectual and spiritual pride to break through. Before I quote His words, I will explain why I think that they wind up one division of this chapter, and that the remainder of it, though a continuation of the subject, introduces us to new topics and new persons.
It is evident that the conversation commences on the border of the Lake of Tiberias, with the people who had just crossed and found Jesus there. But it is said in the 59th verse — 'These things said Jesus in the synagogue, as He taught in Capernaum.' There must be a break, therefore, somewhere. I can have no doubt that it occurs at the 41st verse. In it we are told that the Jews murmured at Him. The word Jews we have not met with before; the moment it occurs, the character of the narrative changes. Instead of the simple, confused observations of a crowd, 'which did eat of the loaves and were filled,' we have murmurs and reasonings of such men as were sure to be found in the synagogues — men who represented the sentiments of the Scribes and Pharisees of Jerusalem. They are evidently, I conceive, discussing a strange phrase which had been reported to them as having proceeded from the lips of the Nazarene teacher. All the controversies which have been raised about this chapter, arise directly out of the latter part of it. I shall not enter upon any of them to-day. We shall be far better qualified to consider them, if we dwell for a few moments upon that wonderful Gospel to the poor which is contained in the reply to their half-unconscious prayer — 'Lord, evermore give us this bread.'
'You ask me to give it to you: it is given already. The Father has given Me to His creatures. I spoke of a Son of Man whom the Father had sealed. I, that Son of Man, am that bread of life. But how can such bread be eaten? He that comes to Me shall never hunger; and He that believes on Me shall never thirst.' If coming to Him was going to Him on their feet, they had done that already; if believing on Him was acknowledging Him as the Prophet that should come into the world, they had already fed on Him in the sense that He intended. Yet it was clear that their hunger was not satisfied — that it was only beginning to be excited. He goes on — 'But I have said to you, That you also have seen Me, and believe not.' If Jesus was merely a Prophet of Nazareth, who could be shown by visible miracles to be sent from God, the distinction of seeing and believing is incomprehensible. Let a sufficient amount of probative evidence be addressed to the eye, the act of believing must follow. But if He was the Word who had in all times been the Light of men; if those who judged by the sight of their eyes had resisted this Light, and become idolaters; if those who received it, received it into their hearts, and so rose to the stature of Sons of God; — then it was certain that He would speak to another organ than the eye, or than any of the senses; as much when He stood before them in an actual body, and spoke with fleshly lips, as when He was only their invisible Teacher and Reprover. It must be their faith, not their sight, which must now, as ever, see Him and answer to Him. They might touch Him, and yet not come to Him.
But He proceeds: — 'All that the Father gives to Me shall come to Me; and him that comes to Me I will in no wise cast out.' The apparent advantage of being on earth at the time of His appearing — of being in the streets in which He walked, of sitting with Him, of conversing with Him — would be nothing. All these privileges might belong to those who would reject Him, hate Him, betray Him. But all that the Father of spirits gives to Him — all that yields to the Father's will — shall confess Him as its true Lord; and him that so comes, in one place or another, in one age or another, He will not thrust away. 'For I came down from heaven, not to do Mine own will, but the will of Him that sent Me.' 'I have not come forth to save some choice favourites of Mine, but to fulfil the will of Him who created the universe — of that Father to whom I said your spirits are yielding when they turn to Me.'
'And this is the Father's will which has sent Me, that of all which He has given Me I should lose nothing out of it (ἵνα πᾶν ὃ δέδωκέν μοι, μὴ ἁπολέσω εξ αὐτοῦ), but should raise it up at the last day.' I dare not paraphrase these words. They are too large and too deep for any conception I can form of them. The adjective and the pronoun, you will perceive, are in the neuter, as if the promise was to include not only humanity, but all that is related to humanity — the body through which the spirit speaks and acts — the whole frame of nature, which has shared man's decay and death. The final day cannot come till all that the Father has redeemed is raised to its proper life. But yet the neuter could not satisfy the intention of Jesus. He was speaking to distinct persons; He must add — 'And this is the will of Him that sent Me, that every one that sees the Son, and believes on Him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.'
Thus we are brought back to the original proposition; only it has gained immeasurably in strength and fulness. To each man in that crowd who had eaten of the loaves and been filled, and had followed Christ for no better reason than that, — to each man upon whom His light shined in the days before His incarnation, — to each man who has been born into the world since, — to each ignorant peasant of this land, — to every miserable dweller in the streets and alleys of this city, — to each one of us who may have been tempted by wealth, luxury, false philosophy, false religion, to seek some food that cannot nourish us, does He say: 'It is the will of My Father that this man should triumph over all the enemies that are drawing him down into death, and that he should be raised up at the last day by the might of Him who died and rose again; that he should enter into that eternal life of righteousness and truth, which was with the Father, and which has been manifested to us in His only-begotten Son.'
From the Gospel of St. John by FREDERICK DENISON MAURICE, M.A, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Combridge. Published by MACMILLAN AND CO in 1882; Produced by Charlene Taylor, Julia Neufeld and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
Insights of the past for the present
Gospel of St. John - F.D. Maurice
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your insights be worthy.