Several months ago, our family was watching the Disney movie “Tangled”, which is the Disney retelling of the classic Rapunzel fairy tale. As we were watching, a peculiar parallel to a Biblical story jumped out at me — a parallel that I had not expected to find in a fairy tale.
In the Biblical story of the Exodus, God provides manna — a miraculous bread from heaven — to physically sustain the Israelites as they wander the desert for forty years. The appearance of the bread itself is amazing, but its qualities pose some questions: couldn’t a bread from heaven have a shelf life longer than one day? And couldn’t a bread from heaven sustain an appetite for longer than one day — say, 2 weeks, or 2 months? Why couldn’t a miraculous bread from heaven not, well, do more than bread from earth?
The interesting thing is that, even in a fairy tale — a story where the writer has seemingly endless possibilities for development — the problem of short-term sustenance doesn’t go away. In Tangled, Mother Goethel (one of the main antagonists in the story), is centuries old. Yet she is able to maintain a very youthful appearance and physique because of the discovery of a magical flower in the forest, the powers of which extend her life and maintain her youth. But even though it is magical, the duration of its effect is limited, and she must continually visit the flower to harvest its magical properties. Eventually, others (protagonists) discover the flower, and her singular access to it is lost.
The question arising from these phenomena is, if real, miraculous bread from heaven won’t keep anyone alive forever, and if a magical flower even in a fairy tale won’t keep anyone alive forever, then is there anything that will? This is very much the question that Jesus addresses in his discourse in the latter half of John 6.
The discourse begins when the crowd, who had seen and profited from Jesus’ miracle of feeding the 5,000 from the previous day, find Jesus the following day in a region that is a fair distance from where the miracle happened. Apparently out of breath, they ask Jesus in vs. 25, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” However, in Christological fashion, Jesus doesn’t answer their question. Instead, and by way of his supernatural knowledge of people’s hearts, he addresses the matter of their appetites. In vs. 26, he says, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” In other words, “You all have scrambled across the countryside to find me today because you are more enchanted with the idea of a free lunch than with the miraculous or the spiritual.”
Jesus continues in vs. 27 by saying, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Certainly there are echoes in this statement of Deuteronomy 8, which contains the well-known verse, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.” But already in John 5 Jesus has intimated that life comes not merely by the words of the Lord, but by what they ultimately point to. In an earlier heated debate with the Jewish religious elites, (in John 5:39-40) Jesus said, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
What Jesus is saying is that the appetite of life- and for life – is ultimately satisfied by a regular diet of Jesus himself. Back in chapter 6, Jesus goes on to say, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” In fact, he goes on to be so emphatic about this point — that it is he who sustains life unto eternity — that he later puts it in very explicit, graphic, and controversial language: in vv. 53-54 he says, “…“Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
What is Jesus saying here? Let me suggest two things:
We Are Not Just Hungry for Food; We Are Hungry for Life
Inasmuch as we have an appetite for food — or relationships, or art, or material provisions, and even sex — we have an appetite for life. But too often we set our sights too low, and we miss the greater significance of these appetites, especially when the appetite resurfaces day after day. Now, of course, there are proper and improper ways of feeding these appetites, but here’s the thing: even the proper and moral ways do not necessarily satisfy the appetite forever. In no way does that categorize these appetites as inherently bad; on the contrary, many of these appetites are good gifts from God (though that doesn’t mean that they aren’t subject to the distortion of the fall). But as Jesus says about the manna in vv. 49 and 58, “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died.”
Yet what we often miss is that our real need is not just another piece of bread, another song or another anything. Jesus basically calls his followers fools for spending so much energy just for food, and thereby reducing the significance of his ministry to just another free lunch. They were working to fulfill the temporal life, when the temporal life so frequently points to eternal life. What Jesus is getting at is that, after feeding ourselves so many times, we really ought to get to the point where we ask, “Does anything satisfy for longer than this? Is there not life beyond my last meal?”
Did you see what Jesus said? “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” Jesus promises to feed us in such a way that we will live forever. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, along with the gift of his Holy Spirit, these satisfy and nurture our longings for real life. Jesus calls it eternal life and speaks of it as something that begins in this life and then extends to next.
Even Though We May Find The Taste Unpalatable, We Must Eat All of Jesus
The second point is that we must feed on all of Jesus. Jesus was speaking metaphorically to explain how his followers must approach his ministry: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.”
Shortly after Jesus said these words, John records that many disciples found this teaching offensive, and stopped following him. Indeed, this is very graphic language, and there is a sure parallel here to what we practice in the Lord’s Supper. The likelihood is that, if the crowd was shortsighted about Jesus’ miracles, they were also likely undiscerning about Jesus’ words. But all is not lost, for the Twelve declare, in a glimmer of insight in vs. 68, “You have the words of life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”
A thread running through John’s gospel is the connection between faith in the miracles of Jesus and faith in His words. Jesus exhorted his followers to believe in him on the basis of his miraculous signs and went on to connect these to faith or confidence in the things that he said. The power implied by His words were demonstrated by miraculous signs. The signs in turn pointed to the reality – explained by the words of Jesus. Yet there were many who did not make that connection. As late in the ministry of Jesus as the Passover, even the 12 found it hard to stomach what Jesus had to say.
Yet neither their subjectivity nor ours are the standard for that which is “real food” and what is “real drink”. This is put in place by the origin of the words themselves — the Father in heaven – and He is the one who determines their goodness and truth. The result is that, like learning to eat our broccoli and brussel sprouts when we were children (or adults!), we may run into propositions or commands from Jesus that are bitter or unpleasant, but which are nonetheless what we need to consume.
He promises to feed us and to give us life, often in ways that we do not expect. But because of His omniscient knowledge, we need to be willing to trust that he is feeding us with the spiritual food that we actually need, and which will satisfy our inner being.
The apostle John relates a beautiful example of this in John 4, when Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well. At the beginning of their interaction, the woman held the words of Jesus to be suspect and perhaps even an annoyance. But Jesus persisted, revealing to her not just truths about the kingdom of God, but truths about her own private life. Eventually, she came to the conviction that if Jesus was able to speak openly about these hidden parts of her life, then he must know other hiddent truths as well, including spiritual ones pertaining to God’s kingdom. What began as a seemingly unwelcome encounter ended with a woman of faith hurrying back into town to tell her friends about Jesus. She had been fed and was overflowing with joy. Though she still had yet more to discover about Jesus and what he could mean for her life, the seed had been planted was already transforming her life.
If we consider our own lives in light of John chapters 4 and 6, we ought to ask ourselves: “where is our bread coming from?” Our temporal appetites should alert us to the need for that which is eternal. And if we are to live eternally – our spiritual lives must begin now. The eternal life that the Lord gives, depends on a steady diet of the Bread of Life…Jesus of Nazareth. May we never go hungry again.