The I AM Statements in John: The Bread of Life

The building blocks for our first metaphorical statement are unearthed in the quarry of Jehovah’s dealings with Israel after the exodus from Egypt. In their haste to leave, they brought only a limited supply of unleavened bread, which seems to have lasted them a month. While the journey would be affected by a lack of bread, what they did bring along may have affected them even more. We are told that “a mixed multitude went up also with them” (Exo 12:38),[1] implying a blend of non-Israelites being mingled with the sons of Jacob. This term serves as an ominous foreshadowing of their influence on the people of God toward dissatisfaction and rebellion in the face of God’s grace and goodness.

Throughout the journey between the Red Sea and Canaan, there would be one constant in these wanderers – a hunger that only God could fill. And, as always, Jehovah would not only supply for their physical need but would also foster communion and closeness with His people through this provision. God’s spiritual purpose in giving the manna from heaven was to test them (Exo 16:4), humble them (Deu 8:3), and teach them that “man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord” (v3). The test would see if they would obey the Lord’s Word. The humbling brought them to understand their dependence on Jehovah. And the teaching pointed them to the principle that beyond the necessity of the physical lay the eternal and spiritual realities that can only be obtained and enjoyed by faith.

John 6 opens with the only sign recorded in all four Gospels. The feeding of the 5,000 is included in its chronological order in this chapter, showing that the Bread of Life discourse was given to men who had experienced supernatural provision in a desert (Mat 14:15). As a result, both those present to hear the Lord’s words and we who read the words today are already thinking about the manna before the Lord speaks. When we notice that the Lord’s words to Philip before the miracle are designed to “prove” the disciple, the picture is complete; bread miraculously provided for a multitude in a wilderness is once again connected with a test of faith and dependence on God. Now, in a synagogue in Capernaum (see Joh 6:59), we are about to get the eternal, spiritual teaching: Everlasting life is obtained by partaking of the true bread from heaven, the Bread of Life.

We know more about the audience in the synagogue than we sometimes allow for and, considering the following list, it’s clear that they were not that different from their fathers in the time of Moses:

  • They were a mixture of believers and unbelievers (v64).
  • They were more interested in physical blessings than spiritual ones (v26).
  • They sought after God by works instead of by faith (v28).
  • They murmured at His words (v41).

These characteristics underpinned their adverse reaction to the Lord’s grace and goodness presented in the Bread of God.

The Lord’s statement, “I AM the bread of life,” provides us with the basis for seeing the manna as a type of Christ Himself, so we do well to consider the manna for devotional and practical lessons. Its diminutive size and descent from heaven to earth would speak to us of Christ in His humility and humanity. If, in fact, it was round,[2] we would be caused to consider His eternal existence. Its colour reminds us of His purity, and putting an omer in the golden pot to lay up before Jehovah points to the exaltation and glory of the resurrected Christ. As they gathered it daily, we learn about the importance of regularly appreciating Christ in the Scriptures. Also, the mixed multitude’s discontentment with the manna warns us of the spiritual danger caused when we long for the world in our affections.

However, the typical teaching is less important than the immediate interpretation. Far from being a discourse on the Lord’s Supper (a view that has led to much religious error), this instruction is not about literal bread. To be clear, the Lord says, “The bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (v51), showing that the sacrifice of His own body would be necessary for this provision. One does not make flour and bread out of living grain but from grain that has been plucked, crushed and sifted. So there can be no Bread of Life without the death of the Lord Jesus.

The mindset of the listeners in the synagogue was similar to that of Nicodemus when, as he listened to the Lord speak about the new birth, he immediately connected it with a physical impossibility. The question, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (v52), may have indicated their ignorance of the spiritual, but it did show their understanding of the Lord’s suggestion. They knew what “this man” was declaring: In order to receive eternal life and experience the resurrection of life, one must partake of this Bread personally.

They should have noted the keys to interpretation that the Lord Jesus gave throughout the conversation. Along the way, spiritual equivalents were given to help them overcome the difficulty of the sayings. While they struggled with the phrase, “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life” (v54), they missed the words in verse 47 which are the spiritual parallel – “He that believeth on me hath everlasting life.” Had they not been so ready to protest, they would have seen that eating His body and drinking His blood were an allusion to believing on Him (vv35,40). Through an act of faith, something would be accomplished that could never be earned by working the works of God; they could receive eternal life.

As with every I AM statement, this saying carries layered and nuanced teaching that engages those on every level of spiritual understanding. However, in its simplest form, we see how the God who gave manna to millions in a wilderness now fills the need of the multitudes of earth with the True Bread from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ. Just as an Israelite had to gather and eat the manna to benefit from it, one must come to the Saviour and believe on Him to become a possessor of everlasting life. May those of us who have already become partakers continue daily to gather, feed on and enjoy the Bread of Life.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV.

[2] The Hebrew haspas, translated “round,” could mean “scale-like.” See Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament edited by R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr. and Bruce K. Waltke (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 309.