I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that anyone may eat of it and not die. — John 6:48-50 (CSB)
In John 6, Jesus performed perhaps his most iconic sign, the feeding of the 5,000. The result of which was predictable if we understand what the Bible says about human nature – the fed crowds wanted to take Jesus and forcibly make him their king, they wanted to follow him around. Why? Because they knew they would get hungry again and they thought that they had finally found the solution to their recurring hunger. Someone who could give them endless bread.
The problem, we find out from Jesus, is that they were missing what their hunger was really telling them. Knowing the people wanted to take him as their endless bread-dispenser and make him into a king, Jesus withdrew to the other side of the lake, but the crowds, now hungry again, found him the next day. And it is there that Jesus tries to get their attention, but in doing so ultimately ends up losing most of them. Jesus tells them, “You are looking for me not because you saw the signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”
Like us all, they were hungry. They toiled to simply satisfy that hunger. But in doing so they missed what that hunger told them about their real need.
They missed the mercy in their hunger. Because what Jesus goes on to show them is that while the perpetual problem of hunger seems to say that what I need to be satisfied is bread, actually the recurring emptiness in our stomach is to show us that life is notfound in bread. This is what Jesus emphasizes when he reminds them that through Moses God gave their fathers bread in the wilderness daily, and yet they all still died!Bread could satiate them for awhile but in the end it could not give them life. Hunger was always meant to point beyond bread.
We know this is the case and the point Jesus is trying to make because in Deuteronomy 8:3, Israel is reminded that “God humbled you by letting you go hungry; then he gave you manna to eat, which you and your fathers had not known, so that you might learn that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” — Deuteronomy 8:3 (CSB)
God allowed ancient Israel to experience hunger, to know deprivation, the futility of an empty stomach once full so that when he gave them this strange bread from heaven, a bread unfamiliar to them, something that was different than they thought they needed, they would know that at the end of the day it was not bread in of itself that they needed rather what they needed was the creating, sustaining, unfading, word of the Lord.
This immediately brings to mind the book of Ecclesiastes, where the writer has had wealth, wine, and women and found perpetually that the money gets spent, the buzz gets killed, and the lust is unsatiated. He concludes that everything is vapor, striving after wind. We eat, we get hungry again. Futile.
This is something everyone has experienced and can identify with – futility. It seems cruel. Which would lead us to assume that this is judgment and in a way that is true! Genesis 3 seems to make that clear. The created things we have rebelliously turned to for life will turn out to be incapable of satisfying us. And yet in this judgment we see the creation of a longing – a merciful longing. A gracious futility that Paul picks up on in Romans 8 when he says that “ the creation was subjected to futility— not willingly, but because of him who subjected it — in the hopethat the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage to decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children.” — Romans 8:20-21 (CSB)
This hopeful futility is shown throughout scripture to be God’s gracious way of creating a longing for redemption, a longing that only he can fill. When Noah is born to Lamech, the day-to-day toil Lamech experienced caused him to hope that his son would be the one to finally bring rest.In Hosea, God tells a rebellious Israel that he is going to cause her to experience deprivation so that he can tenderly remind her that wealth, crops, and military protection is not what she ultimately needed – she needed him. But the tragedy, as we see in the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, as is that we constantly misinterpret our perpetual longings. We fail to see that our hunger points beyond bread. The fact that we eat and a few hours later we are hungry again is supposed to point us beyond food. The fact that we can eat bread daily and still die is supposed to cause us to not settle for bread. And this merciful deprivation doesn’t end with our need for food.
We sleep and a few hours later we are exhausted again. We spend an evening of fun with friends, but then they all go home and we are lonely again. Our natural inclination is to think this means we just need more sleep or we just need to get to the weekend so we can fellowship with friends again. But the reality is that our hunger, exhaustion, and loneliness points us beyond the simple fix which will wear off again when the food is gone, when the day is done, and when our friends go home. To take the picture Jesus uses we see that we go to bed again, but eventually we will wear down and our bodies will give out. We see our friends again, but one day they will die and so will we.
It seems cruel and depressing, to think that the hunger always returns and then we die. The exhaustion always returns and then we die. The loneliness always returns and then we die. But here is the truth…
There is mercy in these things, because what they show us is that food, sleep, and friends can’t give us life. They are wonderful gifts, good things, even necessary, but they are terrible as ultimate things. They are good gifts but they make cruel masters, impotent gods, and empty goals.
Returning to John 6, this feeding of the 5,000 and the response of the bread-seeking crowds, is really a great picture of humanity. Everyone wants to fill their proverbial belly and they will serve whatever and whoever they think will do that.We will serve, we will give our lives, to whatever we think will give us life – whatever will give us food, rest, and relationships.
But in the end, it was never bread, or sleep, or friends that we needed for life – it was for God to speak, for God to show us himself, because it is there that we would see what alone can satisfy and delight in a way that will never end and never fade. It is there alone we see and know unending life.
It is because of this that Jesus pled with the crowds looking for more bread, “Don’t work for the food that perishes, but for the food that lasts for eternal life.”And what is this food, this bread that lasts forever – always satisfying and never running out? “I am the bread of life,” Jesus told them.“No one who comes to me will ever be hungry, and no one who believes in me will ever be thirsty again. — John 6:35 (CSB)
Jesus, the ultimate Word from the Father, the one who reveals the glory of the Father, the one who is the eternal life, which in its essence is knowing God intimately, he stands and says, “I am what your hunger is all about! I am what your weariness and your loneliness is all about. It is all to point you to me! Bread can’t give you eternal life, but I can. Sleep can’t give you eternal rest, but I can. Friends can’t be with you forever, but I can give you eternal fellowship that even death cannot interrupt.”
I just ate lunch but in a few hours there will be a pit in my stomach, even now I am tired and prepared to warm up a cup of coffee to get me through the day, and in a few weeks I will get on a plane and experience the pain of loneliness as I jet away from my family for three weeks. But these sensations, if I will but see it, are mercies. They remind me that my soul was made to be satisfied by God, that my being was made to rest in his care, that I was made for uninterrupted friendship with my Creator.
The bread Jesus fed the crowds was never about Jesus’ ability to create bread, it was about Jesus being the bread. Bread is necessary, sleep is essential, friends are good, but all of these things point to greater realities. But we miss this constantly and this is because we have made these things ends in of themselves. That is why we need to experience hunger, exhaustion, and loneliness, so that we can be awakened to hunger for God, restless till we find rest in him, to be brought to the place where we are able to stare death in the face and say, “To be with Christ is far better.”
Let us listen to this merciful futility! And let us not live for what cannot satisfy. We must eat, we must sleep, we were made for community – but all of these things point to what is ultimate, to Christ who made God known and opened the way for us to be satisfied with his goodness, to have eternal rest in his Fatherly care, and to experience eternal fellowship in his presence. Without the cross the futility experienced in hunger, exhaustion, and loneliness would have no merciful function. The sane would simply be led to cynicism as they recognize the hamster-wheel of life that ends in death. But the cross changes everything. Because Jesus doesn’t just show us the God we were made for, he brings us to him. Our sin made a separation between us and the One we were made for, but Christ suffered for our sin – our sin of ultimately looking for life in what we crave – so that he could bring us to God. Jesus does not stand far of and cruelly show us what we need only to leave us in our deprivation. No. He uses this futility to awaken us, he shows us what we need -himself- and then he does everything that is necessary to be brought in where our soul’s hunger, exhaustion, and loneliness can be forever overcome.
So maybe when we get hungry today, maybe when we yawn, maybe when we wave good-bye, we will release a sigh of satisfaction and praise God for the bittersweet mercies that direct us to our forever food, our unending rest, our ever-present Immanuel.
The prosperity preachers capitalize on this reality. Whereas Jesus fled across the lake from his bread-crazed constituency, prosperity preachers and corporations embrace the willingness of the masses to crown the dispensers of what their bellies crave.
1 John 1:2
“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Confessions, St. Augustine