In the last post, I talked about Jesus’ use of figurative language in his teaching. Figurative language, because it is not concrete, forces the listener to think. We know this from fables. In a fable, there may be animals – like the tortoise and the hare – doing and saying things that humans do and say. But the storyteller doesn’t really expect you to believe literally the dialog and the behavior of those animals. What he expects is that you will “get it’; that you will make the connection between what the animals do, and the patterns of behavior of humans (listener included); and then, from the outcome of the story, get the intended moral lesson. And it works, especially with children…
Children enjoy using their imagination to make make sense of fables. Now, you could say it would be a lot easier (take less time) to tell them the moral of the story in concrete language. Give them the rule of behavior you want them to follow and be done with it. But does that always work with children?
The parable, the story, works best because it gets children engaged in thinking about the lesson. And thinking is the way all of us break through from old assumptions into fresh knowledge. I think Jesus’ use of figurative language is trying to do that in our lives, in an even deeper way.
When figurative is not make-believe
The characters in fables, like Aesop’s tortoise and the hare, are fictitious, they are make-believe. But when Jesus uses fictitious language, it isn’t necessarily make-believe. Aesop was using tools of this world to teach us lessons about how to live life in this world. But Jesus is using tools of this world to teach us how to live life beyond this world, in the Kingdom of God. Aesop was a man. Jesus is the god-man, that unfathomable reality of God – Infinite creator of the Universe – entering into our human finite reality by becoming human himself.
Only such a One could teach us about things that transcend our finite reality. Only such a One could reveal to us that this world in which we live in is a very poor imitation of the true Reality for which we were made. Therefore, it follows that the Words He uses to describe that Real Reality, the Kingdom of God, must themselves transcend the concrete meaning they have when we use them to describe things of this world.
In Jesus’ lips, what seems figurative language can be infinitely more real, more concrete, than anything we could imagine in this world.
He hints at this in his conversation with Nicodemus, the Pharisee that came to talk to him by night.
John 3.7-13 Do not wonder that I said to thee, It is needful that *ye* should be born anew. The wind blows where it will, and thou hearest its voice, but knowest not whence it comes and where it goes: thus is every one that is born of the Spirit.
Nicodemus answered and said to him, How can these things be?
Jesus answered and said to him, Thou art the teacher of Israel and knowest not these things! Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that which we know, and we bear witness of that which we have seen, and ye receive not our witness. If I have said the earthly things to you, and ye believe not, how, if I say the heavenly things to you, will ye believe? And no one has gone up into heaven, save he who came down out of heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven.
In this one-on-one conversation, Jesus uses the simile of the wind to tell Nicodemus that just because he thinks he understands something (like the wind) doesn’t mean he truly does. (Where does it come from? Where does it go?) In the same way, Nicodemus believed in the reality of the spirit, but he did not really know all that that spirit was made to be: that it could be in actual communion with the Spirit of God.
And then Jesus ends by saying something that is concretely, humanly, impossible: No one has gone up to heaven (past tense) except the One that came down for heaven (again past tense), namely the Son of Man (Jesus) who is in heaven (present tense) – and not only is He in Heaven now, Nicodemus, He is here sitting next to you talking to you at the same time.
This is not meant to be a paradox that somehow hides some deeper philosophical meaning. Jesus is stating it as fact; an important fact, because it is proof that when He speaks about Heaven, He knows what He is talking about. It is because He has been there and has not ceased from being there (in a sense that transcends human physical ability) that Jesus is uniquely qualified to reveal to us God the Father’s will, in real time. To Jesus, the reality of the spirit not only transcends human physical limitations, it supersedes them.
When He speaks like this, it isn’t just figurative language. He is not using simile and metaphor to clarify some worldly concept. He is using worldly human language to describe the humanly impossible. And the surprising thing is that, if we truly listen, we can understand it.
But how can we understand something that transcends our humanity? The answer is, because there is a part of us that transcends our human body: namely, our spirit.
And that spirit can hear and understand the voice of the Almighty Spirit.
That is why I like to think about Jesus’ words in those occasions as being Spirit Words. And whenever He speaks that way is precisely the time when we need to pay closest attention, because He is then revealing to us things that no worldly teacher could ever reveal to us. Still, it isn’t going to be easy. We are flesh, and we are used to listening with organs of flesh to words that have only fleshly meaning.
Nowhere in the gospel is this dynamic more clearly displayed than in John Chapter 6.
Sometimes it is easy to misunderstand
After Jesus did the miracle of multiplying a few rolls of bread and two fish to feed 5000 families, the people who witnessed it were amazed. They decided that Jesus had to be the prophet that Moses had told them would come one day; and they wanted to make Him King then and there. But Jesus, knowing what they had in mind, sent his disciples away on their boat, across the Sea of Galilee, and then He dismissed the crowds and turned around and went up on the mountain to pray. In the middle of the night, the disciples are still trying to make headway against strong wind, they are only halfway there, and Jesus walks on the water to them. Suddenly they get to their destination.
The next morning the crowd comes back looking for Jesus…
John 6:24 when therefore the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, *they* got into the ships, and came to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. And having found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, Rabbi, when art thou arrived here? Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say to you, Ye seek me not because ye have seen signs, but because ye have eaten of the loaves and been filled.
I have underlined the word “seek” both times, because it is a good word; it is the right reaction we should have to experiencing a move of God. John the evangelist uses the word “sign”, throughout this gospel, to refer to miracles. Kierkegaard loved that word because it made perfect sense to him. A miracle is meant to be a sign, like a signpost on a fork on the road that tells you if you go left, you get to Town A, but if you go right you get to Town B.
You don’t have to believe it, but you can’t claim that you didn’t see it. You may want to go all the way down the road on the left to verify that it indeed takes you to Town A, and then, finding it not to your liking, turn around and choose to go to Town B. But the point is, you were warned. You were shaken awake. The road you were on, stopped and presented you with two choices. You were told, “make a choice.”
In the same sense, seeking Jesus is the right response to a miracle because it proves that I have seen the sign, I have noticed that there is more to life than human limits, than human viewpoints. I should be seeking Him precisely because I want to understand what those things beyond this life are that He wants to offer me. But the people in this crowd didn’t come seeking Him for things beyond this life, they wanted more of this life! “Give me more bread and fish.” They did not get the point. They did not understand the sign. So, Jesus goes on:
John 6:27 Work not [for] the food which perishes, but [for] the food which abides unto life eternal, which the Son of man shall give to you; for him has the Father sealed, [even] God.
In this response, I have underlined the word “work” because it is different and yet a companion to the word “sign”. Other evangelists, other writers use the expression “works of power” to denote miracles. But not John. To John, sign is miracle; miracle for the express purpose to announce to this world that the Kingdom of Heaven is here.
Work is different: Work is purposeful; it is the will exerting effort; it is the Son carrying out His commitment to the Father by completing the Work for which He was sent to us. Our salvation is the Work of God. That is the purpose for which Jesus became one of us. He didn’t come here to do miracles. He came to save us. And just as the Son has a Work to do, we all have a work to do. Just as the Son is responsible to the Father to carry out His purpose. We have a responsibility to carry out the purpose for which we were made.
Jesus is telling the crowd (and us) that we tend to spend a lot of energy on pointless efforts… We work hard on things that will not last. Because we want things in this world, we want pleasures, we want power. For all those things, we can practically kill ourselves. But are they worth it? Jesus’ point is that this life is finite. It will be over. This body will die. Yet there is life beyond this body. And we were made for that life. Therefore, we should be working for that life.
Because the crowd was thinking about food, Jesus used the word food, but with a new meaning: a meaning that makes sense in the reality of the spirit. Physical food gives us the energy to carry out physical work. In the same way, then, spiritual food will give us the energy to carry out the work of God.
But they don’t get his use of figurative language. They hear the words “work” and “God” and think Jesus is talking about “works of power,”about the ability to do miracles in this world.
John 6:28 They said therefore to him, What should we do that we may work the works of God?
I think if Jesus ever slapped his forehead in exasperation, this would have been one of those times. I mean, this is a complete misunderstanding. He could have stopped there and said: “You don’t get it. It’s not your job to do miracles! That’s not why God made you… Much less to do miracles just to display your power in this world!” But instead of rebuking them like that, He continues to explain in terms of the spirit:
John 6:29 Jesus answered and said to them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom *he* has sent.
Now, I have underlined the word “believe” because it completes the whole chain of logic: The sign is supposed to drive me to seek an answer. And I am supposed to work to get that answer. But the work required is nothing like any worldly work: It is not like chopping a tree down, it is not like carrying a sack of grain up the hill, it’s not like keeping that plough straight and carving through the rock-hard ground. The work required is to believe.
Now, if you already know what it is to believe, then you know how hard that spirit work was. I know the preconceptions that had to be chopped down, the burdens that I had to be willing to let go, the grudges and past angers that had to get broken out of my heart so I could learn to love with the love of Jesus. If I already believe, then Jesus’ words make perfect sense. And then, His work, the work of God, has been accomplished in my life. Because that is why he came… that I might believe in Him and be saved.
But, in their case, Jesus’ figurative language does not get through to them because He has just used the word work – which they understand to mean exerting effort, sweating, physical labor – but He applied it to accomplishing a task that they do not associate with any real effort: belief. It sounds like nonsense to them.
And that is precisely the point. That paradoxical combination of words should have made them stop and say, “Huh?” That disconnect was itself a sign, that they were meant to see, to notice that he was taking the conversation in a different direction. But they don’t necessarily like this new direction. Remember, they came looking for him because they wanted food and power.
The Bread of Life
John 6:30 They said therefore to him, What sign then doest thou that we may see and believe thee? what dost thou work?
They challenge Him because they do get one thing: that He is asking them to believe, to trust in Him. But their challenge is not entirely logical. They decide that they are able to judge the quality of miracles, even though they are mere humans, even though they cannot perform any miracles themselves. They tell Him, ‘What miracle are you going to do to prove to us that you are worthy of being believed in?’
As soon as those words crossed their lips, some of them must have realized: ‘Wait a minute; this guy just fed over 10,000 people with a few loaves and fish. What’s more spectacular than that? We need to up the ante?’ And they turn to their tried-and-true confidence: the fact that they are God’s chosen people: the fact that God sent them Moses.
John 6:31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, as it is written, He gave them bread out of heaven to eat.
In their eyes that is more spectacular. The people of Jesus’ day assumed that the number of Israelites that came out of Egypt must have been in the million plus range. There are reasons today to believe that that number was more likely between 20,000 and 60,000 people. Regardless, that number was surely larger than those Jesus fed the previous day; and they were fed every day for 40 years! ‘Now, that is a miracle!’
There is also a second aspect to their challenge, revealed in the quote: ‘He gave them bread out of heaven.’ Apparently, just as the Pharisees would do on more than one occasion, the crowd here is of the opinion that to prove your credentials your miracle had better come ‘out of heaven’. They wanted signs in the heavens…
Now, Jesus could try to steer the conversation back to the original path He was headed in, but their challenge is not a bad alternative. After all, they are accepting the miraculous. Yes, manna was food but certainly not like any other worldly food; and its source was no earthly power.
John 6:32-33 Jesus therefore said to them, Verily, verily, I say to you, [It is] not Moses that has given you the bread out of heaven; but my Father gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down out of heaven and gives life to the world.
So, Jesus proceeds, using their example; but staying focused on the spiritual meaning of the words. ‘Yes, manna was food from heaven, in one sense; but there is an even more important food from Heaven, right here in front of you. Just as physical food sustains your physical life, the whole world (not just the Israelites) needs spiritual food to receive eternal life. And I am that food.’
Again, Jesus’ answer veers into “Huh?” territory. But they don’t get it.
John 6:34-35 They said therefore to him, Lord, ever give to us this bread.
[And] Jesus said to them, I am the bread of life: he that comes to me shall never hunger, and he that believes on me shall never thirst at any time.
And this is as direct as Jesus’ answer can get.
He is explaining how we partake of this bread that gives life eternal and how we drink of the water of life. He has been using these images in His teaching from the very beginning. If we go back to the Sermon on the Mount, we remember that He told us ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled’.
Hunger and thirst are powerful human motivators. Water keeps us alive. Food gives us the strength to use that life to do work, to accomplish what we want. But as He went on to teach in the Sermon, there is a deeper life than a life lived for this world. And its work is for a treasure greater than any of the treasures this world offers. In fact, this is what Jesus has been teaching ever since He started teaching. To the Samaritan woman at the well, in John 4, He said the same thing:
John 4:10-14 Jesus answered and said to her, If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that says to thee, Give me to drink, thou wouldest have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water… Every one who drinks of this water shall thirst again; but whosoever drinks of the water which I shall give him shall never thirst for ever, but the water which I shall give him shall become in him a fountain of water, springing up into eternal life.
It is the same message, over and over again. Eternal life is what we were meant for, and the way in is the same every time:
(1) Come to Jesus.
Coming to Him, asking Him for help, is accepting Him, accepting he is what I need. It is like getting up in the morning in the wilderness and picking up that manna from the ground. In the act of eating that bread I know that that is what my Father in Heaven has sent to give me life.
Believing in Him is like drinking the water from the Rock in that wilderness. It is knowing that the waters of this world will ultimately fail us; knowing that sooner or later we will see the world for what it is: a desert that offers no hope, no life, no way to quench our thirst for meaning, for righteousness, for things to be the way we know they should be.
In the middle of that desert, when the people cried out in agony, even in rebellion, God supplied water with one condition: It had to come out of the rock: a rock that had to be broken.
The first time it was broken by Moses striking it with his staff. The second time, a word would have sufficed… The rock would have obeyed and broken itself so that the water of life would flow. You see, the same images, the same figurative language accompanied the Israelites in their journey from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. Those events stand as figurative language for us today: To point for us the way out of the slavery of this world into the Kingdom of Heaven.
Once we eat and drink, we have willingly received. And that means we are no longer in this world. We have become citizens of the Kingdom of God, and agents of its purpose in this world.
Once Jesus lays it all out, it is hard to misunderstand. The choice becomes one of two: either believe or be offended.
Sometimes the problem is we don’t want to understand
John 6:36-40 But I have said to you, that ye have also seen me and do not believe. All that the Father gives me shall come to me, and him that comes to me I will not at all cast out. For I am come down from heaven, not that I should do *my* will, but the will of him that has sent me. And this is the will of him that has sent me, that of all that he has given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up in the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son, and believes on him, should have life eternal; and I will raise him up at the last day.
There is no escaping this either-or. Once I have seen Jesus, that means, once I have heard of Him, heard His word, there is no going back. There is no excuse. If I reject Him, I do so on purpose.
Now, this might seem harsh because we are used to changing our minds so easily in this world. We say we believe things but, really, we mean that we hold opinions. And opinions are not binding. They are, most of the time, matters of convenience, of preference, of what works in the moment. Today I may be a capitalist. But if tomorrow my business is in dire straits and the government offers to bail me out, hey, I can be a socialist for a little while.
But Jesus is reminding us here that real life, eternal life, is a matter of the spirit. And all of us have a spirit given to us by the Father. And that spirit knows the sound of the voice of the Spirit of the Father. There is no pretending here. When we hear His voice, we know who is speaking. The question is, do we want to listen?
Everyone has the power to see the Son. And when that happens to us, we are thrust into the middle of that either-or. We are faced with a choice that demands to be made. If we choose to believe, the Father takes care of everything else, and we step from death into life.
Is there only one chance to see Him?
No. Thank God for His mercy. Saul of Tarsus lived His whole life zealously for the Father. If anyone ought to have known His voice, it was him. Yet, when Stephen, the disciple, was brought to the Sanhedrin and there preached to them the gospel, we know Saul was present. We know because when they carried him out to stone him, Saul was in the crowd taking care of their cloaks. Saul heard the voice of God from Stephen’s lips and he made a choice: To persecute all those that believed like Stephen did.
God will never force us to understand. He will never force us to make the right choice. Yet God had another plan for Paul’s life. And Paul had a second chance to hear the voice of God again, this time directly from Jesus. And that time, he believed.
Here in John Chapter 6, Jesus has brought a whole crowd to that either-or moment. Believe or be offended…
John 6:41-42 The Jews therefore murmured about him, because he said, I am the bread which has come down out of heaven. And they said, Is not this Jesus the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we have known? how then does *he* say, I am come down out of heaven?
They, like Paul originally, chose to be offended. But Jesus did not give up.
Without the Incarnation there could have been no Salvation
This might sound obvious: If Jesus had never been born that day in Bethlehem, he wouldn’t have been around to teach us about God’s love or die on the cross. Yes, that’s true, but the reality is a bit deeper than that: If He had never been born that first Christmas day, we would not have been able to believe in Him. That is what the Incarnation accomplished.
John 6:43-51 Jesus therefore answered and said to them, Murmur not among yourselves. No one can come to me except the Father who has sent me draw him, and I will raise him up in the last day. It is written in the prophets, And they shall be all taught of God. Every one that has heard from the Father [himself], and has learned [of him], comes to me; not that any one has seen the Father, except he who is of God, he has seen the Father. Verily, verily, I say to you, He that believes [on me] has life eternal.
I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness and died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which has come down out of heaven: if any one shall have eaten of this bread he shall live for ever.
But the bread withal which I shall give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.
Can you imagine being there as part of that crowd? You are having trouble believing what Jesus is saying, and then instead of making it easier to swallow, gentler, He makes it even harder. On the surface He sounds like He is talking about cannibalism… to Jews! Nothing could be more repulsive. Why do that? How can that be fair?
Again, there is no excuse. The people in that crowd considered themselves believers, that is believers in the God of Israel. And Jesus is telling them: ‘If you really believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, if you really listen to Him, then you would believe me. No matter how outlandish my words sound to the world, if you love the Father, if you hear His Voice, you have ears that hear the Spirit. You can understand. And when I speak those words with my human lips to your human ears, it is that Spirit that speaks.’
God the Father made the ultimate revelation of His Love, the ultimate appeal to all His children, in the one way that it could never be ignored. It came through one just like us.
That doesn’t lessen the mystery because the spiritual reality revealed is still dealing with a scope that staggers the mind: that spans eternity and that encompasses every human being ever born and ever to be born. What certainly makes sense is that to accomplish that kind of Salvation will take extreme measures…
‘I am the food this world needs; I am the only way to receive eternal life. And just as food gets chewed when eaten, gets destroyed to give you life, I will be destroyed to give, anyone who wants it, eternal life.’
That is the message of the cross.
Christmas always points to Good Friday and then Resurrection Sunday. You can’t have one without the other.
I wish you all a Merry Christmas: merry, happy, because it rests in the unfailing Love of the Son of God whose human birth we remember at Christmas.