BREAD has been a basic and integral part of man’s diet since ancient times. The dictionary even defines bread as “Food…regarded as necessary to sustain life.” Scripture first mentions it in Genesis 18, where we see Sarah baking “bread cakes.” The origin of the word “bread” is unknown, but it is possibly derived from the root of the word “break,” since bread was always pulled apart or broken when eaten, never cut. Man’s pursuit of bread is a result of our continual hunger, driven by the need to provide fuel for our bodies. This basic human need is the catalyst for the scenario we see unfolding as the sixth chapter of John opens. Jesus, finding Himself surrounded by thousands of hungry people, miraculously feeds them all with just five small loaves and two fish. This, in turn, sets the stage for the events that follow. John tells us what happened on the day after this miraculous event:
Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the lake they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” (John 6:24-26)
The people looking for Jesus were concerned only with their selfish, temporal needs. They wanted a king who could magically provide them with food and drink and create a kind of utopia; but Jesus sees through them and goes straight to the heart of the matter. In response to their request for a set of instructions to follow (v. 28), Jesus instead emphasizes believing by faith. In response to their request for a sign (as if the feeding of the five thousand wasn’t enough of a sign!), Jesus offers Himself.
Jesus answered them, “…it is My Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is He who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread.” Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me will never go hungry, and he who believes in Me will never be thirsty…I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” (John 6:32-35, 51)
The crowd is uncomfortable. What could this strange teaching mean?
We’ll come back to that in a moment; but first let’s take a look at another picture of bread that we see in in the Old Testament. These instructions to the Israelites relate to the use of bread in their worship of God:
You must bake twelve flat loaves of bread from choice flour, using four quarts of flour for each loaf…Every Sabbath day this bread must be laid out before the LORD as a gift from the Israelites; it is an ongoing expression of the eternal covenant. The loaves of bread will belong to Aaron and his descendants, who must eat them in a sacred place, for they are most holy. It is the permanent right of the priests to claim this portion of the special gifts presented to the LORD. (Leviticus 24: 5-9, NLT)
It was called the “shewbread,” or literally “Bread of the Presence,” (Exodus 25:30) and it was received from the people each Sabbath day as an “expression of the eternal covenant.” The twelve loaves were a constant reminder that it was God who provided for the daily needs of the twelve tribes of Israel, His chosen people. It was holy food that was broken and eaten by the priests in a sacred place; a permanent right of the priests and the means of providing their nourishment. It was also a foreshadowing of Christ and the new covenant.
The New Testament shows us the important link we have to that office of the priesthood:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light. (I Peter 1:4, emphasis mine)
Peter tells us that we who are believers in Christ are His chosen people, His royal priests; and therefore we are entitled to partake daily of the Living Bread of the Presence, who was broken for our sins. Material bread must be eaten and digested; it temporarily becomes a part of us but has no lasting effect. The Israelites had to replace that holy bread week after week to remind themselves of God’s sustaining Presence; but we have the privilege of being filled daily and eternally with the true Bread of Life. It is not only our privilege, it is also our “eternal right" and the means of providing our nourishment, just as it was for the priests of old.
The feeding of the five thousand was in one sense a parable of physical sustenance, pointing to the reality of Jesus as the true spiritual sustenance. Jesus’ words about “eating” (literally “chewing”) His flesh are meant to illustrate the need for a full, continuing participation in the life of Christ by faith. He is the only Bread that can satisfy the deep hunger of our souls for a life that lasts forever.
This, then, also behooves us to extend that Bread of Life to the poor and hungry who daily surround us, even though they may not be aware of the depth of their hunger.
One final thought...
Something we can learn from bread is that it remains appetizing only as long as it retains its freshness, and quickly becomes stale when allowed to dry out. That raises some questions worth pondering:
Is the Presence of Jesus within me fresh and appetizing to the surrounding culture?
What steps can I take to keep nourishing my heart with the Bread of Life?
We are called to be contemplatives in the heart of the world—
by seeking the face of God in everything, everyone, everywhere, all the time,
and His hand in every happening;
seeing and adoring the presence of Jesus,
especially in the lowly appearance of bread,
and in the distressing disguise of the poor.