The Living Bread from Heaven (Jn. 6:1-59)
Four statements are made prior to the discourse and interchanges regarding the living bread from heaven (in Jn. 6:25-59; cf. loaves, v. 26 w/ this bread, v. 58). First, the subject of bread is introduced by Jesus (6:5, "where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?"). Second is the phrase, "Have the people sit down," 6:10). Third is "Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost" (6:12). The fourth is found in verse 20, "It is I; do not be afraid." At first glance, these statements seem unimportant; some of them may even seem trivial. But on closer examination they will give us both a remarkable summary of the discourse on the bread from heaven and an inviting introduction to the new covenant communion/Passover meal.
With those statements in mind, I have three points this morning: 1) Anticipation of the new covenant meal, 2) Participation in the new covenant meal), 3) Consolation through the new covenant meal. This is grounded in the fact that Jesus is the living bread from heaven and as such He is the focal point of communion.
1A. Anticipation of the new covenant meal
The narrator, John, tells us that it was the nearness of the Jewish Passover that led Jesus to feed the five thousand (Jn. 6:4-5, cf. the ESV indicates the logical connection between the Passover and the theme of bread). If you combine this with what Jesus did (v. 11) then it is easy to see how the miracle of the loaves anticipates the Lord's Table. Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them (v. 11). This is the pattern that Paul cites in 1 Corinthians 11 where he summarizes the institution of communion by our Lord (23-24). The giving of thanks, the breaking of bread, and the distribution mentioned in John 6 (cf. "for you," in 1 Cor. 11:24 implies distribution) direct us inescapably to the institution of the new covenant meal.
He followed this pattern repeatedly in the course of His ministry and crystallized it when He instituted communion observance. It became embedded in the memories of the first disciples. Thus it was at the point of breaking bread, blessing it, and distributing it that the travelers on the road to Emmaus recognized Jesus (Lk. 24:30-31). Accordingly, when they reported what happened on the road they explained "how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread" (v. 35).
So what then do we learn about communion?
The meal is not just a meal. It is not eating for eating sake. It is a meal of fellowship. That must be a point being made by the seemingly insignificant statement, "Have the people sit down" (Jn. 6:10). Of all the things that one might recall when looking back at this miracle in which thousands were fed with five loaves of bread and two fish (6:9), John records the fact that Jesus insisted that the people sit down. Jesus had stopped and sat down with His disciples "on the mountain" (6:3), and looking up (lifting up His eyes) He saw the large crowd coming toward Him, He introduced the subject of the bread and how the people might be fed. Then He had the crowd sit down on the grass. There is an obvious contrast between coming to stand in the Lord's presence and sitting with Him and His disciples (6:5, 10). The crowd of sinners (6:2, 26) is invited to sit with Him in the breaking of bread.
Furthermore, this is a meal of fellowship with our risen Lord. When the risen Lord Jesus appeared to the disciples "by the Sea of Tiberias" (Jn. 21:1), "He took the bread and gave it to them" (v. 13). On the road to Emmaus, remember, it was the risen Lord that broke bread with them. Why are these accounts important? They show us that the risen Lord is pleased to break bread with us in a special way here today. He is sight unseen (the Emmaus experience is transitional to His presence with us by Spirit though now unseen in the flesh).
We sit down together with the risen Lord. He is present with us at the table by the mediation of the Holy Spirit. We have therefore an anticipation of the welcome of our Lord as He brings sinners into fellowship with Himself, a welcome that we hear. Our Lord says to us, to you and to me, "Come and eat with me in the breaking of bread." Come sinners come; this is a word of welcome. He puts us at ease. We are brought into fellowship with the Lord and His disciples. To sit is to assume a comfortable and natural posture for eating. It signifies nearness and acceptance versus the distance of standing outside the circle of fellowship. This table is for sinners, saved sinners.
Therefore, it is important to accent the point that this is the Lord's Table. It is His institution. In the miracle of the loaves of bread, the living bread from heaven anticipated the Christian Passover meal. He is the one who brings us together as His new covenant people in communion observance. And, most important of all, He is with us. He is present with us in a special way in the breaking of bread like He sat with His disciples back there on the mountain side (6:3).
2A. Participation in the new covenant meal
Another detail of interest is the other statement recorded by John: "Gather the leftover fragments that nothing be lost" (6:12). What I hope to show is that this statement puts one of the main lessons of the bread discourse before our very eyes.
We can only begin to imagine the amount of bread that was needed to feed more than five thousand people. In the distribution process fragments were broken off. And we have to say that for some reason Jesus commanded that they be gathered into baskets. This has nothing to do with some magical power that might be attributed to the bread. Some think this way today and fear that the actual body of Christ will be trampled on if pieces of the communion bread are scattered about in the process of normal eating. Therefore, they like to present the bread in discrete solid wafers that the priest inserts directly into the mouths of the participants (it reminds one of the feeding of little children or worse of the feeding of dogs). In this context, the ritual is reduced to some kind of magic and participation is an exaggeration of externals. However, the text runs in a totally different direction from that of magic and externality.
1) On one hand, the point of gathering the fragments (6:12) is to arrive at the number twelve and to thus symbolize that the bread of life will bring nourishment and life to a new Israel. We have a hint here of participation by the people of God as one people joined together in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16-17). We do not want to over press this detail. But it has to strike us that this is said, while many other things are left unsaid. It is an important detail that transcends the historical account in anticipation of the breaking of bread that will become part and parcel of the new covenant sign and seal of communion. We see a glimpse of the co-union of the new covenant family with one another and with the Savior. For surely the mention of twelve baskets by each Gospel writer (Matt. 14:20; Mk. 6:43; Lk. 9:17; Jn. 6:13) alludes to the fact that our Lord as the bread of life will gather out from old Israel a new covenant people (for further study, what then is intended by the gathering of seven baskets in the account of the feeding of the four thousand, cf. Mk. 8:8?) . Consider how the analogy moves between Christ as bread and His people pictured as fragments of bread. The twelve apostles make up the nucleus of the new Israel. As the new Israel we sit together with our risen Savior in the breaking of bread.
2) On the other hand, the last phrase, "that nothing be lost" (Jn. 6:12b) hints at the efficacy of the work of Christ (the Savior sees to it that the remnant of leftovers is gathered by His disciples). He brings starving sinners to a place of participation in the living bread of heaven. This has the context of people who do not seek after Jesus because what they seek is food that perishes (Jn. 6:27). Jesus calls for faith but they are unbelieving (vs. 35-36). So how can there be a new Israel? The Israel of Jesus' day is a complaining and grumbling people like their fathers of old (6:41). The answer reaches back before the creation of the world into the eternal covenant of redemption. Reference to the covenant is all through this narrative.
a) Jesus is the living bread that came down from heaven (6:51) on a mission for which He was sent (6:38). He has come to do God's will. In other words, the incarnation of Christ as "God with us" in the flesh (Jn. 1:14) is a matter of covenant fulfillment. There is an agreement between the Father and the Son that is being worked out in time by means of the incarnation, life, and death of Christ.
b) This agreement involves the giving of a people to Christ by the Father. To our amazement, it is the will of God that the remnant of fragments be gathered in "that nothing may be lost" (6:12 w/ v. 39, "that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me"). This is such an important point that our Lord does not want us to miss it. So although many things are said in the discourse on the living bread, we should not miss this highlighted fact. Participation in the communion meal is brought about for the new covenant people of God by the effectual drawing of the Father (6:44; cf. the parallel with v. 39 on the resurrection). In the context of unbelief, grumbling, complaining, and the love of darkness, Jesus will certainly and efficaciously form a new covenant people with whom He will break bread to the end of the age.
3A. Consolation through the new covenant meal
Building on these things and not isolated from them is the recorded word of our Lord to the disciples on the boat. John simply tells us that the Sea became rough because there was a strong wind blowing (6:18) but Mark tells us that Jesus came walking on the water because he saw the disciples distressed in rowing against a contrary wind (Mk. 6:48). His appearance on the water at first added to their stress (Jn. 6:19, they were frightened). But then He spoke to them and said these marvelous words of consolation, "It is I; do not be afraid" (6:20, then they gladly received Him into the boat, v. 21).
His walking on the water is not to be separated from the miracle of the loaves on one hand or from the discourse on the living bread from heaven on the other. What we have here is the gospel in a nutshell. When the Lord Jesus stands in the midst of the stormy seas, He stands there with us. There He speaks to us and says, "It is I, don't be afraid." This represents the confirmation, comfort, and consolation of the gospel as a whole. And it is just this gospel that is reiterated to us in the communion sign and seal. In a nutshell, this is what Jesus says to us when we gather with Him in the breaking of the bread: through all the storms of life and death, I am with you, do not be afraid.
Therefore, communion is a sign that God uses to point us to the work of Christ on our behalf. By this means in a special way He says that Christ is the true and living bread from heaven that gives nourishment unto eternal life. He is appropriated by faith and nourishes both body and soul unto eternal life (vs. 27, 35, 40, 47).
When you put it all together, our looking is given very specific direction. We are pointed to Christ in the physical bread placed before our eyes. And we look to Him knowing that we are saved by faith. However, we must refine this point. Our faith has no saving efficacy in it. Faith is not some kind of personal power that saves. Rather, it is Christ who saves us through faith. Faith is His gift to us. So we do not look to our faith as if it is some kind of condition on which our salvation depends. That would not be a consolation. The consolation of faith is found in the object of faith to which we are pointed by the physical bread that we partake of. Our comfort is in the Lord Jesus Himself, the author and finisher of our faith.
Thus we are called to see faith in light of the covenant of redemption in which all the members of the triune God have an agreed upon work to do. By perfectly fulfilling the work given to Him to do, the Lord Jesus secured for now and forever the salvation of those given to Him by the Father. Now we are given this word from God the Son in covenant with the Father and the Spirit: "it is I; do not be afraid." Thus he says, "in the storms of life and death, I am with you and I will protect you. I will nourish you with life giving bread and give you life that is eternal."
Finally, then we must end with the fact that the Lord gives us these tokens of His love in order that all contradiction may be ended and that we may firmly believe that we belong to that covenant that stands as a rock (cf. Berkouwer, Sacraments 55).
We should sit here awhile and bask in the comfort and consolation of the gospel given to us in the sign and seal of communion. It is the gospel of the risen Lord Jesus who gave His life to give us life and give it to the fullest extent. He will do so until the day it is completed in glory. Therefore, we sing or wish to sing of "His matchless worth" because He is the true and living bread from heaven.
What should we then say in response?
1) I need Him. I would starve in my sin and need without Him. I acknowledge my need of Him. I have no right to be here. I should stand at a distance but you encourage me to sit down with you at the table: "I need you, O Lord."
2) I own Him as my very own. I appropriate Him in taking these elements. I own Him as my prophet, priest, and king. So in all of my life in whatever I eat, or drink or whatever I do, I will live for my risen Lord seeking His glory above all else. Because it is you, my risen Lord, that says, "It is I," then I do not need to be afraid to venture out in obedience as I face the storms of life. I do not need to be afraid to obey you. "O Lord I own you as my very own."
3) I own His brothers and sisters as my brothers and sisters. There is only one loaf; so, we being many are one body. I commit to and own the "one anothering" principle of love where we are all at some time or another unruly, fainthearted, or weak. We all need to sometimes give and sometimes receive admonition, encouragement, and help. "O Lord I commit myself to your brothers and sisters to love them as you love me and I cling to you for the strength to do it."