And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know; that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD. (Deuteronomy 8:3, emphases added)
Certain verses from Scripture offer us such vivid imagery that we easily remember the texts. These also tend to become frequently quoted and sometimes that familiarity causes us no longer to pay attention to the detail. We like the text but in some strange way cease to really see it or allow it to enter our heart. Deuteronomy 8:3 is quoted by Christ in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels as he refutes Satan who is testing him in the desert. … man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD. Believers embrace the text as it reminds us of our spiritual nature and need to nourish our souls even more than our bodies.
What we may lose sight of in this text is that it cannot be read literally. According to the Hebrew text we live by every thing that proceeds out of God’s mouth (the LXX says every word – Greek: remati, which is the version Jesus quotes). And here we can stop and think: what is the meaning of the mouth of God? God is not a material being and so doesn’t have a mouth as we know it. The immaterial and invisible God has no body at all. God has no vocal chords or tongue.
Now, most of us probably don’t really read the text literally: we know what it means – God somehow speaks to us. It’s not really suggesting that God has a mouth or that any thing could come out of God’s mouth. This is pure imagery to help us understand something about God, but its meaning is symbolic and we have to lay aside the literal in order to understand what the text is claiming. We live by what God communicates to us, in whatever manner God uses – dreams, angels, voices, written text, wind, fire history, miracle or an ass. But if we think the text is describing God’s anatomy, then we are in theological error.
That God doesn’t have a physical mouth with lips, tongue and vocal chords seems obvious enough in Orthodoxy. That biblical texts cannot always be read literally should also be obvious. And all this is just an introduction to a few comments I want to make about the Gospel of John 6:26-59 in which Jesus engages his listeners in a thought experiment.
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal.”
These words of Jesus to the people are meant to sting, and this might seem surprising. Jesus had just fed this very multitude by miraculously multiplying the few fish and loaves He had. It was an act of love and a sign of the presence of God’s Kingdom. But now, as the crowd comes to seek Jesus, He confronts them and criticizes their motivation for seeking Him. They have misunderstood Him – He is showing them a sign of the presence of God’s Kingdom in their midst, and they are just thrilled to get a free meal. He is offering them a priceless gift, and they are completely fixated on the wrapping paper. The crowd has failed to see what is right before their eyes: Who is this man that He can multiply food and feed thousands in the wilderness?. By focusing on the bread which satisfied their hunger, they were missing a revelation from God. All they wanted was for their stomachs to be fed, they were not very interested in nourishing their spiritual lives. They wanted food for the day, Jesus is offering them the food of eternity. In so doing, they were trading away eternal life, so they could have one day’s worth of food.
What Jesus did was miraculous and was a sign of God’s love for these people. The miracle really happened, the people were fed and satisfied. Yet by focusing on their stomachs, they failed to see the Kingdom of God in their midst.
One is reminded of Psalm 78:18-31 which refers to the miraculously feeding that ancient Israel experienced in the desert when they fled from Egypt – the manna from heaven. God becomes wrathful with His people Israel – after miraculously feeding them in the wilderness, they do nothing but complain to and about God. As the Psalm says, before they even swallow their food, God punished them, allowing many of the same people He had rescued out of Egypt to die right on the spot. All those people cared for was to be sated with food, they did not see God in their presence. Eat the food of this world and be fed for a day, but that does not prevent death from taking away life. Christ’s bread however may not give enough daily nutrients for the body, but it will grant everlasting life.
It seems to me that Jesus may have had the manna story on his mind as He tries to get the people to think beyond their worldly experience and needs. Although, Christ isn’t wrathful just incredibly disappointed in His people. God provides for us in this world in order to help us to both see and seek the Kingdom beyond this world. Christ is trying to get them to think beyond history, beyond this world, beyond physical needs, to see the awesome and wonderful things which God is offering to us in this world which are intended to bring us to the Kingdom which is to come. “You shall see greater things than these.” (John 1:50)
Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'”
The people at least are thinking about the Exodus story, but have missed the connection to themselves – they are in the same role and position as their ancestors. They have been fed in this world (and in the wilderness!), and so want more of the same rather than looking for God’s promises and Kingdom beyond this world. They clearly have not seen the miracle as a sign of the Kingdom of Heaven. They have not understood that God is in their midst! They were miraculously fed by Christ in the wilderness and now they demand a sign – clear indication that they have missed what God is revealing to them as their forefathers had.
Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Lord, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me; and him who comes to me I will not cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me; and this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up at the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in him should have eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Jesus reminds the people to look beyond Exodus’ miracle worker Moses and understand what was being given to ancient Israel was opportunity to encounter the living God. Now He openly attempts to get them to think outside of their own box: bread is not merely a nutritious substance to sustain life. It is symbolic – it is a sign of something more because both for ancient Israel and for the crowd with Christ, the food given them – manna, bread, the bread of angels – was meant to put them in communion with the Lord God. Jesus presses them to get beyond their literalist thinking, to open their eyes to see God’s own presence and activity in their life. Being fed for free is wonderful, use the eyes of your heart not just the pangs of your stomach to see God. God feeds us not just for life in this world, but nurtures us for life in the world to come. Why are we so willing to settle for less?
The Jews then murmured at him, because he said, “I am the bread which came down from heaven.” They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not murmur among yourselves. No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’
As John writes it in his Gospel, the crowd clearly was not able to think or see beyond this world. So they are disillusioned with Jesus who shows no interest in giving them another free meal.
Every one who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that any one has seen the Father except him who is from God; he has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
Jesus now lays before them all the truth they have just experienced – He is the bread of life. The events of Exodus with the miraculously manna and the food Jesus gave the crowd in the wilderness both had the purpose of revealing the Messiah and how we become united to God. The manna in the wilderness was a foretaste of God’s Kingdom. So too the bread which Jesus gave them. Both the manna and the bread were given for the people to receive the Christ.
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live for ever.” This he said in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.
Jesus presses His point – He is the bread of Heaven and we must dine on Him to have eternal life. But again, He is speaking in terms which require us to be able to understand symbol and sign – to see beyond the mere physical, to understand there is more to life than being fed. He is not telling the crowd – if you take a bite out of me you will see I’m baked dough. He clearly means nothing silly at all. But now we have to get beyond our literal and limited thinking and open our hearts and minds to the Kingdom which is to come. Otherwise, we too will be looking just for more in this world, and failing to see Heaven in our mist.