I Am the Bread of Life -- Jesus' difficult words in John 6:25-40 (also, can you lose your salvation?
Updated: Jan 20
You can't dabble in Christianity and be saved.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for John 6:25-40
Jesus confronts the crowd with their hypocrisy -- they want a free show and food from Jesus; they don't care what He has to say. But that's not how salvation works! Jesus isn't just a guru of a religion, He is true salvation itself, the fulfillment of the heavenly manna God gave the grumbling Jews in the wilderness. Jesus is your God, or you are nothing.
6:29 “This is the work of God—that you believe in the one he has sent.”
When thinking about this passage, two big topics and one big doctrine came to mind. Based on your time and the interest level of your group, you would pick one and develop it as an opening discussion.
Getting Started: Things to Think About
The Staples of Your Diet
A "staple food" is simply the dominant part of a diet. Rice, maize, and wheat are the staple for 80% of the world's population (other staples include tubers and animal products (meat, milk, etc.). What are the "staples" of your diet?
It's worth pointing out that the Standard American Diet (SAD; uh oh) is pretty unhealthy. Our primary sources of calories are (1) desserts, (2) breads, (3) chicken, (4) sugary drinks, (5) pizza. Look, I'm just focusing on the "bread" part of that list, not giving a healthy eating illustration (although if you want to talk about healthy eating, that's always a good idea) because Jesus called Himself the Bread of Life.
Based on the number of times the Bible mentions bread (more on this below), we know that bread was a staple of the Hebrew people in Bible times. By calling Himself the Bread of Life, Jesus was illustrating how foundational He is to life.
I think there's one important clarification to make if you use this topic -- good bread has important health value. It is filled with carbohydrates, critical energy for an active agrarian society (again, more on this below). Modern bread tends to be heavily processed, which reduces its nutritional value. That's why the smart aleck in your group can't get away with joking that the modern Jesus would say "I am the french fry of life". The bread that Jesus had in mind was a staple of a healthy diet for everybody He encountered.
The Importance of Having Something to Live for
I find this to be an interesting topic, but it might be too out-there for your group. In a week filled with "big global news", I think the most important headline was this:
We've talked about falling birth rates before and what they indicate. If you were to use this topic, you would carefully introduce it with a question like "Why do you think people are having fewer children today?" and mentioning the news out of China as the reason why you bring the topic up.
You'll get answers such as how expensive it is to raise children, how ill-equipped they feel to raise a child, how dangerous the world has become, how "inconvenient" couples have been trained to think of children, and more. The birth rate is declining around the world, which means that couples in our communities are likely struggling with these same factors. (And for the love of all things, do not put anybody in your group on the spot.)
But I read a perspective in the NYT article that I hadn't paid attention to -- the couples interviewed did not have a reason to have a child. In fact, the only reason given in favor of having children was a "citizen responsibility" to the People's Republic of China.
I'm about to make a leap of application that you may not agree with. If you don't like this, just don't use this idea ☺
I wonder if what's happening in China is symptomatic of what's happening around the world -- we just see it more pronounced in China. As you know, China is communist, which means they are atheist. To their government, people are commodities to be used. Young people in China have the example of their grandparents to see what happens at the end of a long life in that regime -- poverty and loneliness. And thus young people have decided that because they have one life to live, they had best live it for themselves. And children don't fit into that self-centered, materialistic focus.
[Note: "religion" is not the simple solution! South Korea is a very religious country, and they have a lower birthrate than just about anyone. Cost of living is so high in South Korea that young people simply don't think they can afford to have children.]
Here's where I would want this discussion to go: think back to the reasons given above why couples might have fewer children today than in the past. I think we can divide them into two categories: external pressures (like the cost of raising a child, the fear of being a bad parent, the fear of youth violence, etc.) and motivations that come from a self-centered worldview (I would rather spend my money on myself, spend my time for myself, etc.). In your circles, which reasons are more prevalent?
In full disclosure, in our Georgia Baptist church, I feel like we consistently emphasize the value and importance of children as blessings from God. But I wonder if maybe that's not as common as I hope. Do young couples around here feel pressured into not having children because children don't fit into a promoted lifestyle?
If not, then great, and this topic has nothing to do with what Jesus says in our passage.
But if so, then Jesus' words are very helpful.
In a nutshell, Jesus says that we are to live for more than self-gratification, that life is more than just today.
One example of a decision that is affected by this way of thinking is attempting to have children. If you are a parent, you know that you also have to live for your children's futures, and that you have to put their needs ahead of your own. If you have nothing to live for but yourself, I have to imagine that it would be hard to want to have a child.
But like I said, I think the birthrate is just a symptom. What are other decisions that are affected by the Christian belief that we should live for more than ourselves?
This Week's Big Idea: The Doctrine of Eternal Security
Also "Perseverance of the Saints" and "Assurance of Salvation"
Have you ever wondered "can I lose my salvation?" A lot of Christians have; it's a big deal! And there are a lot of churches that say you can lose your salvation (including Methodist and Catholic, and even a few Baptist). Because there are so many opinions, it's confusing and discouraging.
Here are some passages that people will use to frighten young Christians:
Matt 24:10 Then many will fall away, betray one another, and hate one another.
1 Cor 10:12 So, whoever thinks he stands must be careful not to fall.
Heb 6:4 For it is impossible to renew to repentance those who were once enlightened, who tasted the heavenly gift, who shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 who tasted God’s good word and the powers of the coming age, 6 and who have fallen away.
But then here are some passages that I use to encourage young Christians:
John 3:16 For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
Rom 8:1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.
Phil 1:6 I am sure of this, that he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
The most important passage of them all is what we study this week:
John 6:39 This is the will of him who sent me: that I should lose none of those he has given me but should raise them up on the last day.
Truly, I believe that this week's passage so strongly teaches the "eternal security of the believer" that I don't think there's an argument against it.
So, what's the problem? What's going on here?
Really, I think it's as simple as this: we all know people who have declared themselves to be Christian, but then drift away and show absolutely no evidence of being "born anew". That's really easy to explain if you believe you can lose your salvation.
Theologically, it works like this: if you believe that humans have a responsibility to participate in their own salvation, then you must believe that humans also have a responsibility to keep their salvation. Thus, more Arminian-leaning churches (like Methodists) tend to teach that you can lose your salvation.
But wait! This blog is very vocal about human responsibility in salvation! Shouldn't that mean that I also believe that you can lose your salvation?
In a word: no.
Yes, I believe that we have a responsibility in salvation -- the word "believe" in John 3:16 is an active verb. In our passage this week, Jesus even calls believing in Him the "work" that God requires. BUT, I also believe that the Bible is very clear that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. I can add nothing to my salvation; I cannot earn my salvation through belief.
Salvation is a mystery beyond our comprehension, an intersection of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. I would not be saved had not God graciously offered me the free gift of salvation which had been accomplished entirely by Jesus and made known to me by the Holy Spirit. I did nothing other than believe. Therefore, if I did nothing to earn my salvation, then I can do nothing to keep my salvation.
But wait, what if I stop believing? (Well, "Don't Stop Believing", but I digress.)
That's the scenario people believe Hebrews 6 describes. We studied that passage in 2014, and I haven't gotten that far back in the archives. I'll try to put those online this season. Here's what I said then:
"There are real teeth to these words [in Hebrews 6], but it is highly debated exactly what they mean. First, realize that he is definitely talking about true Christians. (1) They have been “enlightened.” This word does not refer to anything intellectual, but felt in the heart. In fact, it is often used with respect to conversion. (2) They have “tasted” the heavenly gift. This means “experienced” (as Jesus “tasted” death for us), and the heavenly gift refers to the Holy Spirit, which is the next descriptor. (3) They are “companions” of the Spirit, which is never used of a non-Christian. (4) they have “tasted” God’s word and power. “Word” refers to either Jesus or the gospel message (or both), and “power” refers to the miracles associated with the gospel. It is possible that one can observe those miracles without believing, but again “tasted” means to experience. (5) They have “fallen away.” This is the hard one. It sounds like one has left Jesus.
Options given as to what "fallen away" means:
“Fallen away” means that the hearers were once saved but have since lost their salvation and are on their way to the fires of hell. Lots of groups believe this, but the Bible clearly says otherwise.
“Fallen away” refers to the loss of rewards but not salvation. What does Paul say about the person who builds his life with wood, hay and stubble? His house/life will be burned up, but he will be saved. The problem with this interpretation is it avoids the meaning of the word “cursed” which is never used of a Christian in the Bible.
“Fallen away” refers to his Jewish readers who had come close to becoming Christian but had not quite taken that leap. Because they had been so exposed to the gospel, they were in danger of being hardened to it. I believe there is truth to this fear (just look at people in our community who are so used to the gospel they seem immune to it), but that’s not what’s being taught here.
“Fallen away” was intended to frighten his readers into looking for proof of their salvation. This has actually been a problem in the sense that some Christians are paranoid about their behavior rather than trust their soul to God, and they act out of fear, not faith.
"There are [also] a lot of people who interpret these verses to mean that someone has appeared to trust in Jesus, but in reality has not. They appeared to taste Jesus, but it was just a show. That is fine, but I don’t think that’s what it means. Remember in our last warning passage (3:12), we observed that “departs from” meant to stand away from, not abandon. And remember that in our first warning passage (2:2), we observed that “drift away” and “neglect” were used as a hypothetical.
"I am most likely to claim this passage as hypothetical. If someone could fall away from Jesus, it would be better if he had never been born. BUT someone cannot fall away from Jesus. I think there is merit to the interpretation that the author is referring to a “backslidden” Christian, or one who no longer lives in obedience to Christ. That person will receive no blessings from God in this life. In fact, the fruit of his labor (his life) will actually be cursed. His soul will be saved, but the work of his hands will burn (this is similar to (2) above). It is remotely possible that the author is referring to people who thought themselves Christian but were not (like the parable of the four soils). (There is another possibility—that the author is referring to the church as a whole. Like the Church in Laodicea, if they are lukewarm toward God, God will eventually spit them out of His mouth.)"
The warning passage used to teach that a Christian can lose his salvation is a hypothetical. It reminds us of the severity of our beliefs, and that people are foolish to think they can just dabble in Christianity.
Otherwise, the Bible is very clear that we cannot lose our salvation. We didn't find it in the first place! God found us with His free offer. In fact, a few verses after this week's passage is Jesus saying, "44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day." Do you think Satan is strong enough to take us away from God? To steal us from God? Of course not! (We will study that passage in John 10 in a few weeks.)
If we are saved, we will always be saved.
As for the person who appears to have abandoned his faith? Sadly, I think the Bible teaches us that such a person was never truly saved in the first place. Jesus talked about that in His Parable of the Sower:
This Week's Little Idea: Bread in Jesus' Day
So, will we ever get to the passage? Maybe, maybe not. Ancient breadmaking is such a fun topic! Plus, it's a great opportunity to bring in some flatbread as an object lesson!
There are 7 Hebrew words and 3 Greek words for bread that appear almost 500 times in the Bible, and more than 150 of those times refer to "food" in general. This indicates that bread was the staple food of most people in the region (i.e., "man does not live by bread alone").
Common crops were wheat and barley. Crops would be harvested, grain would be separated from chaff, and then the grain would be ground into flour. Barley was cheaper than wheat, so it was more common among the poor. They would mix the flour with water, maybe some salt, maybe some oil, and maybe some other cereals and knead it into dough. The dough would be heated on a flat rock or on a clay "pan" in an oven. Almost all bread was flat.
Our Context in John
Here's the Visual Bible clip:
Jesus' miracles and reputation has led to larger and larger crowds. This week's passage is set up by a famous event at the beginning of chapter 6 -- so many people have come to hear and see Jesus that they need a miraculous provision of a meal. It's called the "Feeding of the 5,000", but that number is of men -- the whole crowd could easily have been 20,000!
We have several currents in the crowd:
People who want to see miracles
People who want to get free food
People who want to turn Jesus in a conqueror
People who want to be healed
People who want to listen to His teachings
That's a tough combination, wouldn't you say? Jesus withdraws from that crowd before they can get out of hand, and he sends the disciples across the Sea of Galilee for Capernaum. In rapid succession, He walks on the water, calms a storm, and transports them to their destination. I have many questions, but I think the was John the author's way of winking at us that life with Jesus was more of an adventure than we could possibly imagine.
Anyway, the setup for our passage is brilliantly ominous:
22 The next day, the crowd that had stayed on the other side of the sea saw there had been only one boat. They also saw that Jesus had not boarded the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone off alone. 23 Some boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus. 25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
The crowd is evolving into what we might call a mob as the "legend of Jesus" evolves with it.
And then we find out that Jesus has brought all of this together for the purpose of turning the tables on the crowd. Jesus did not come to be their "bread and circus" -- He came to give the most difficult teaching the world has ever heard. And then the crowd will be faced with the most important decision they could ever make: will they believe Jesus or walk away from Him?
Part 1: Wants? (John 6:26-29)
26 Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled. 27 Don’t work for the food that perishes but for the food that lasts for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set his seal of approval on him.” 28 “What can we do to perform the works of God?” they asked. 29 Jesus replied, “This is the work of God—that you believe in the one he has sent.”
Jesus immediately calls the crowd out. They aren't here for Jesus, they are here for what they want Jesus to do for them.
This opens so many discussions you might have time for. My favorite it this: why might people go to church?
They like how the sermon makes them feel.
They like the good show.
They like the stuff for their kids.
They hope it helps them deal with guilt.
What other reasons? Obviously, those are all very self-motivated reasons. The follow-up question is this: why should people go to church, and why should Christians go to church?
That's what Jesus says -- we should be working for food (bread) that lasts for eternal life, not food that perishes.
What does that mean? What is food that lasts for eternal life? My favorite illustration of this is in the Sermon on the Mount:
Matt 6:19 “Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
Food that lasts for eternal life is "treasures in heaven", and food that perishes is "treasures on earth". So again, what does that mean?
Certainly, the people didn't get it (which is kinda funny because they were their own illustration of what Jesus was saying). They were fed the day before, and now they're hungry again.
You remember the exchange Jesus had with His disciples back in chapter 4:
4:31 In the meantime the disciples kept urging him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said, “I have food to eat that you don’t know about.” 33 The disciples said to one another, “Could someone have brought him something to eat?” 34 “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work,” Jesus told them.
The crowd has somewhat advanced beyond the level of misunderstanding of the disciples. They get that "food that lasts" must have something to do with the will of God. But they have a different kind of misunderstanding, similar to the "rich young ruler" from Matthew 19:
16 Just then someone came up and asked him, “Teacher, what good must I do to have eternal life?”
This was a foundational part of the Jewish religion -- for God to love us, we must do what He wants us to do. ("The work of God" basically means "the work God requires".) "Fine, teacher sent from God, then tell us what to do."
And Jesus does! Notice that they ask Him about plural "works", but He answers with a singular "work". And that work? Believe in Jesus. That's it! For whatever reason, people don't want a simple answer to "what must I do to be saved". They want to somehow justify themselves through their actions.
[This is our first hint to the question of if we can lose our salvation -- how can we lose what we did nothing to gain? Salvation isn't a "thing" that we can misplace like our keys.]
Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Some people have tried to argue that "faith is a work" or "believing in Jesus is a work". I think the easiest way to explain this is to see how Paul describes it in Romans 3:
28 For we conclude that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.
It's all about the "of the law" modifier. Faith/belief is not a work like that. Jesus used that word here to echo what the people had asked. If you need to set aside the word "work" to make this easier to understand, then reword verse 29 to say "What God requires of us is to believe in the one He has sent". If God requires it of us, it cannot be a "work" that "earns" salvation.
This is still a huge roadblock to Christianity today. It used to be that people thought it was too easy. Now, I think people more complain that they want to make their own rule to be saved. Why else do you think people today reject the free offer of salvation in Jesus?
Part 2: Manna (John 6:30-34)
30 “What sign, then, are you going to do so that we may see and believe you?” they asked. “What are you going to perform? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, just as it is written: He gave them bread from heaven to eat.” 32 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, Moses didn’t give you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 Then they said, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
This has to be the most disingenuous thing anyone said to Jesus (and that's a long list). Jesus just miraculously fed 20,000 people (and walked on water), and the people ask for a sign (like manna from heaven??).
By this point, the people have willfully rejected the signs Jesus has performed. This is what Jesus hinted at in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus:
27 “‘Father,’ [the rich dead man] said, ‘then I beg you to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house— 28 because I have five brothers—to warn them, so that they won’t also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said. ‘But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’31 “But he told him, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”
And Jesus calls the crowd out again. Did they really believe that Moses brought manna from heaven? Of course not! God sent the manna. (Read Exodus 16. See also Nehemiah 9 and Psalm 78.)
But this is where Jesus pushes the teaching to its most difficult form. Was the story about manna from heaven really about food? So far, just about every encounter we've studied in this Gospel has been a person misunderstanding Jesus because they couldn't look past the wooden/literal meaning of what Jesus said. This might be the most extreme example of that.
The manna from heaven more than anything else pointed the people to a "true bread from heaven" (just like the bizarre story of the bronze serpent actually pointed the people to someone else who would be lifted up).
What did the Samaritan woman say when Jesus offered her living water?
4:15 “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and come here to draw water.”
Who does that sound like? Because we know how chapter 4 turns out, we know that the woman was genuinely interested in Jesus' offer (if a bit incredulous). I see that here. The crowd uses the same respectful term ("sir"), and I believe they genuinely want what it is that Jesus offers. But they want it on their terms and for their own purposes. And that's not how God works. Remember what we said about the lame man in last week's lesson? He wanted to tap into God's power to take care of his own needs.
Part 3: Satisfied (John 6:35-40)
35 “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. 36 But as I told you, you’ve seen me, and yet you do not believe. 37 Everyone the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will never cast out. 38 For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. 39 This is the will of him who sent me: that I should lose none of those he has given me but should raise them up on the last day. 40 For this is the will of my Father: that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him will have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Then Jesus pushes it to an 11. What is the true bread from heaven? Jesus is. The lesson cuts off before Jesus' teachings get really difficult --
51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live forever. The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” 52 At that, the Jews argued among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 53 So Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life in yourselves. 54 The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day, 55 because my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 56 The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. 57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven; it is not like the manna your ancestors ate—and they died. The one who eats this bread will live forever.”
What was the result?
60 Therefore, when many of his disciples heard this, they said, “This teaching is hard. Who can accept it?” 66 From that moment many of his disciples turned back and no longer accompanied him.
Think about what Jesus is saying here and how hard that would have to be to hear it for the first time. What other leader says something like this (who isn't an absolute sicko)?
This is the first of 7 I Am statements:
I am the bread of life (6:35)
I am the light of the world (8:12)
I am the gate (10:7)
I am the good shepherd (10:11)
I am the resurrection and the life (11:25)
I am the way the truth and the life (14:6)
I am the true vine (15:1)
Jesus isn't just a teacher, and Christianity isn't a set of rules to learn and obey. Jesus is life itself, and we must be born anew in Him and drink His living water and eat His living bread. Say that out loud and it's just ... weird. Christianity isn't like religions with a central guru. Jesus is salvation itself. He is truth and life. He doesn't just show us the way to heaven, He is the way. Our human terms break down when we try to understand everything that Jesus is.
Note: I believe these verses clearly teach that a Christian cannot lose his salvation. See the Big Idea above for more detail.
But also note: I believe these verses clearly teach that God "takes the initiative" in salvation; we cannot "find it" on our own. The term "prevenient grace" refers to how the Spirit is at work all over the world in all people (we will talk about that later in John), but God (who knows everything) knows who will respond in faith. Those are the ones the Father "gives" Jesus -- they are the "whoever believes in Him" from 3:16. Salvation is the intersection of God's sovereignty (to give) and human responsibility (to believe). No, I don't understand how that works, but it is what the Bible teaches us.
Jesus repeats the phrase "I will raise them up at the last day". At first blush, this might be as simple as Jesus explaining that there is a resurrection from the dead (remember that not all Jews believed that). But I think this is mainly meant as a further explanation of the "food that lasts for eternal life". Jesus isn't saying that figuratively (as we might now be conditioned to think) -- He literally means that those who believe in Him will live forever in an existence that is a continuation of this one, in a resurrected body that will never perish.
This has gone so far beyond "mind-blowing". Jesus is calling the people out for all of their layers of unbelief and hardness of heart. In the very next verse, John the author develops this a little more when he says that the Jews "grumbled" against Jesus because of what Jesus said. Who else grumbled? The Jews! Against Moses! In the very context of receiving manna from heaven! And what happened to those Jews?
This passage is about salvation -- particularly how it links God's initiative and our responsibility. The fact that God is sovereign over salvation means that we cannot lose our salvation. But the fact that we have responsibility to believe also means that we cannot be "kinda" a Christian. We have to be fully committed to Jesus as our very Lord and God.
I see this as a great lesson to camp out on what it means to be a Christian. By all means, encourage everyone that they cannot lose their salvation. But challenge everyone that "walking the aisle and saying a prayer" isn't the sum of salvation. People "turn their back" on their church and religion later in life if they were never truly saved in the first place. We don't want to take any chances with anyone -- have you truly been born again?