The Training of the Twelve

SECTION III. THE SERMON

John vi. 32-58.

     The task now before us is to study that memorable address delivered by Jesus in the synagogue of Capernaum on the bread of life, which gave so great offence at the time, and which has ever since been a stone of stumbling, a subject of controversy, and a cause of division in the visible church, and, so far as one can judge from present appearances, will be to the world's end. On a question so vexed as that which relates to the meaning of this discourse, one might well shrink from entering. But the very confusion which prevails here points it out as our plain duty to disregard the din of conflicting interpretations, and, humbly praying to be taught of God, to search for and set forth Christ's own mind.

     The sermon on the bread of life, however strangely it sounds, was appropriate both in matter and manner to the circumstances in which it was delivered. It was natural and seasonable that Jesus should speak to the people of the meat that endureth unto everlasting life after miraculously providing perishable food to supply their physical wants. It was even natural and seasonable that He should speak of this high topic in the startling, apparently gross, harsh style which He adopted on the occasion. The form of thought suited the situation. Passover time was approaching, when the paschal lamb was slain and eaten; and if Jesus desired to say in effect, without saying it in so many words, "I am the true Paschal Lamb," what more suitable form of language could He employ than this: "The bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world"? The style was also adapted to the peculiar complexion of the speaker's feelings at the moment. Jesus was in a sad, austere mood when He preached this sermon. The foolish enthusiasm of the multitude had saddened Him. Their wish to force a crown on His head made Him think of His cross; for He knew that this idolatrous devotion to a political Messiah meant death sooner or later to one who declined such carnal homage. He spoke, therefore, in the synagogue of Capernaum with Calvary in view, setting Himself forth as the life of the world in terms applicable to a sacrificial victim, whose blood is shed, and whose flesh is eaten by those presenting the offering; not mincing His words, but saying every thing in the strongest and intensest manner possible.

     The theme of this memorable address was very naturally introduced by the preceding conversation between Jesus and the people who came from the other side of the lake, hoping to find Him at Capernaum, His usual place of abode.[9.35 To their warm inquiries as to how He came thither, He replied by a chilling observation concerning the true motive of their zeal, and an exhortation to set their hearts on a higher food than that which perisheth.[9.36 Understanding the exhortation as a counsel to cultivate piety, the persons to whom it was addressed inquired what they should do that they might work the works of God, i.e. please God.[9.37 Jesus replied by declaring that the great testing work of the hour was to receive Himself as one whom God had sent.[9.38 This led to a demand on their part for evidence in support of this high claim to be the divinely missioned Messiah. The miracle just wrought on the other side of the lake was great, but not great enough, they thought, to justify such lofty pretensions. In ancient times a whole nation had been fed for many years by bread brought down from heaven by Moses. What was the recent miracle compared to that? He must show a sign on a far grander scale, if He wished them to believe that a greater than Moses was here.[9.39 Jesus took up the challenge, and boldly declared that the manna, wonderful as it was, was not the true heavenly bread. There was another bread, of which the manna was but the type: like it, coming down from heaven;[9.40 but unlike it, giving life not to a nation, but to a world, and not life merely for a few short years, but life for eternity. This announcement, like the similar one concerning the wonderful water of life made to the woman of Samaria, provoked desire in the hearts of the hearers, and they exclaimed, "Lord, evermore give us this bread." Then said Jesus unto them, "I am the bread of life: he that cometh unto me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst."[9.41

     In these words Jesus briefly enunciated the doctrine of the true bread, which He expounded and inculcated in His memorable Capernaum discourse. The doctrine, as stated, sets forth what the true bread is, what it does, and how it is appropriated.

     I. The true bread is He who here speaks of it--Jesus Christ. "I am the bread." The assertion implies, on the speaker's part, a claim to have descended from heaven; for such a descent is one of the properties by which the true bread is defined.[9.42 Accordingly we find Jesus, in the sequel of His discourse, expressly asserting that He had come down from heaven.[9.43 This declaration, understood in a supernatural sense, was the first thing in His discourse with which His hearers found fault. "The Jews then murmured at Him, because He said, I am the bread which came down from heaven. And they said, Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? how is it then that He saith, I came down from heaven?"[9.44 It was natural they should murmur if they did not know or believe that there was any thing out of course in the way in which Jesus came into the world. For such language as He here employs could not be used without blasphemy by a mere man born after the fashion of other men. It is language proper only in the mouth of a Divine Being who, for a purpose, hath assumed human nature.

     In setting Himself forth, therefore, as the bread which came down from heaven, Jesus virtually taught the doctrine of the incarnation. The solemn assertion, "I am the bread of life," is equivalent in import to that made by the evangelist respecting Him who spoke these words: "The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth."[9.45

     It is, however, not merely as incarnate that the Son of God is the bread of eternal life. Bread must be broken in order to be eaten. The Incarnate One must die as a sacrificial victim that men may truly feed upon Him. The Word become flesh, and crucified in the flesh, is the life of the world. This special truth Jesus went on to declare, after having stated the general truth that the heavenly bread was to be found in Himself. "The bread," said He, "that I will give is my flesh, (which I will give) for the life of the world."[9.46 The language here becomes modified to suit the new turn of thought. "I am" passes into "I will give," and "bread" is transformed into "flesh."

     Jesus evidently refers here to His death. His hearers did not so understand Him, but we can have no doubt on the matter. The verb "give," suggesting a sacrificial act, and the future tense both point that way. In words dark and mysterious before the event, clear as day after it, the speaker declares the great truth, that His death is to be the life of men; that His broken body and shed blood are to be as meat and drink to a perishing world, conferring on all who shall partake of them the gift of immortality. How He is to die, and why His death shall possess such virtue, He does not here explain. The Capernaum discourse makes no mention of the cross; it contains no theory of atonement, the time is not come for such details; it simply asserts in broad, strong terms that the flesh and blood of the incarnate Son of God, severed as in death, are the source of eternal life.

     This mention by Jesus of His flesh as the bread from heaven gave rise to a new outburst of murmuring among His hearers. "They strove among themselves, saying, How can this man give us His flesh to eat?"[9.47 Jesus had not yet said that His flesh must be eaten, but they took for granted that such was His meaning. They were right; and accordingly He went on to say, with the greatest solemnity and emphasis, that they must even eat His flesh and drink His blood. Unless they did that, they should have no life in them; if they did that, they should have life in all its fulness--life eternal both in body and in soul. For His flesh was the true food, and His blood was the true drink. They who partook of these would share in His own life. He should dwell in them, incorporated with their very being; and they should dwell in Him as the ground of their being. They should live as secure against death by Him, as He lived from everlasting to everlasting by the Father. "This, therefore," said the speaker, reverting in conclusion to the proposition with which he started, "this (even my flesh) is that bread which came down from Heaven; not as your fathers did eat manna and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live forever."[9.48

     A third expression of disapprobation ensuing led Jesus to put the copestone on His high doctrine of the bread of life, by making a concluding declaration, which must have appeared at the time the most mysterious and unintelligible of all: that the bread which descended from heaven must ascend up thither again, in order to be to the full extent the bread of everlasting life. Doth this offend you? asked He at his hearers: this which I have just said about your eating my flesh and blood; what will ye say "if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where He was before?"[9.49 The question was in effect an affirmation, and it was also a prophetic hint, that only after He had left the world would He become on an extensive scale and conspicuously a source of life to men; because then the manna of grace would begin to descend not only on the wilderness of Israel, but on all the barren places of the earth; and the truth in Him, the doctrine of His life, death, and resurrection, would become meat indeed and drink indeed unto a multitude, not of murmuring hearers, but of devout, enlightened, thankful believers; and no one would need any longer to ask for a sign when he could find in the Christian church, continuing steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking bread and in prayers, the best evidence that He had spoken truth who said, "I am the bread of life."

     2. This, then, is the heavenly bread: even the God-man incarnate, crucified, and glorified. Let us now consider more attentively the marvellous virtue of this bread. It is the bread of life. It is the office of all bread to sustain life, but it is the peculiarity of this divine bread to give eternal life. "He that cometh to me," said the speaker, "shall never hunger, and he that believeth on me, shall never thirst."[9.50 With reference to this life-giving power He called the bread of which He spake "living bread," and meat indeed, and declared that he who ate thereof should not die, but should live forever.[9.51

     In commending this miraculous bread to His hearers, Jesus, we observe, laid special stress on its power to give eternal life even to the body of man. Four times over He declared in express terms that all who partook of this bread of life should be raised again at the last day.[9.52 The prominence thus given to the resurrection of the body is due in part to the fact that throughout His discourse Jesus was drawing a contrast between the manna which fed the Israelites in the desert and the true bread of which it was the type. The contrast was most striking just at this point. The manna was merely a substitute for ordinary food; it had no power to ward off death: the generation which had been so miraculously supported passed away from the earth, like all other generations of mankind. Therefore, argued Jesus, it could not be the true bread from heaven; for the true bread must be capable of destroying death, and endowing the recipients with the power of an endless existence. A man who eats thereof must not die; or dying, must rise again. "Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die."[9.53

     But the prominence given to the resurrection of the body is due mainly to its intrinsic importance. For if the dead rise not, then is our faith vain, and the bread of life degenerates into a mere quack nostrum, pretending to virtues which it does not possess. True, it may still give spiritual life to those who eat thereof, but what is that without the hope of a life hereafter? Not much, according to Paul, who says, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable."[9.54 Many, indeed, in our day do not concur in the apostle's judgment. They think that the doctrine of the life everlasting may be left out of the creed without loss--nay, even with positive advantage, to the Christian faith. The life of a Christian seems to them so much nobler when all thought of future reward or punishment is dismissed from the mind. How grand, to pass through the wilderness of this world feeding on the manna supplied in the high, pure teaching of Jesus, without caring whether there be a land of Canaan on the other side of Jordan! Very sublime indeed! but why, in that case, come into the wilderness at all? why not remain in Egypt, feeding on more substantial and palatable viands? The children of Israel would not have left the house of bondage unless they had hoped to reach the promised land. An immortal hope is equally necessary to the Christian. He must believe in a world to come in order to live above the present evil world. If Christ cannot redeem the body from the power of the grave, then it is in vain that He promises to redeem us from guilt and sin. The bread of life is unworthy of the name, unless it hath power to cope with physical as well as with moral corruption.

     Hence the prominence given by Jesus in this discourse to the resurrection of the body. He knew that here lay the crucial experiment by which the value and virtue of the bread He offered to His hearers must be tested. "You call this bread the bread of life, in contrast to the manna of ancient times:--do you mean to say that, like the tree of life in the garden of Eden, it will confer on those who eat thereof the gift of a blessed immortality?" "Yes, I do," replied the Preacher in effect to this imaginary question: "this bread I offer you will not merely quicken the soul to a higher, purer life; it will even revivify your bodies, and make the corruptible put on incorruption, and the mortal put on immortality."

     3. And how, then, is this wondrous bread to be appropriated that one may experience its vitalizing influences? Bread, of course, is eaten; but what does eating in this case mean? It means, in one word, faith. "He that cometh to me shall never hunger, and he that believeth in me shall never thirst."[9.55 Eating Christ's flesh and drinking His blood, and, we may add, drinking the water of which he spake to the woman by the well, all signify believing in Him as He is offered to men in the gospel: the Son of God manifested in the flesh, crucified, raised from the dead, ascended into glory; the Prophet, the Priest, the King, and the Mediator between God and man. Throughout the Capernaum discourse eating and believing are used interchangeably as equivalents. Thus, in one sentence, we find Jesus saying, "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life: I am that bread of life;"[9.56 and shortly after remarking,: "I am the living bread which came down from heaven: If any man eat of this bread he shall live forever."[9.57 If any further argument were necessary to justify the identifying of eating with believing, it might be found in the instruction given by the Preacher to His hearers before He began to speak of the bread of life; "This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent."[9.58 That sentence furnishes the key to the interpretation of the whole subsequent discourse. "Believe," said Jesus, with reference to the foregoing inquiry, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?--"Believe, and thou hast done God's work." "Believe," we may understand Him as saying with reference to an inquiry, How shall we eat this bread of life?--"Believe, and thou hast eaten."

     Believe, and thou hast eaten: such was the formula in which Augustine expressed his view of Christ's meaning in the Capernaum discourse.[9.59 The saying is not only terse, but true, in our judgment; but it has not been accepted by all interpreters. Many hold that eating and faith are something distinct, and would express the relation between them thus: Believe, and thou shalt eat. Even Calvin objected to the Augustinian formula. Distinguishing his own views from those held by the followers of Zwingli, he says: "To them to eat is simply to believe. I say that Christ's flesh is eaten in believing because it is made ours by faith, and that eating is the fruit and effect of faith. Or more clearly: To them eating is faith, to me it seems rather to follow from faith."[9.60

     The distinction taken by Calvin between eating and believing seems to have been verbal rather than real. With many other theologians, however, it is far otherwise. All upholders of the magical doctrines of transubstantiation and consubstantiation contend for the literal interpretation of the Capernaum discourse even in its strongest statements. Eating Christ's flesh and drinking His blood are, for such, acts of the mouth, accompanied perhaps with acts of faith, but not merely acts of faith. It is assumed for the most part as a matter of course, that the discourse recorded in the sixth chapter of John's Gospel has reference to the sacrament of the Supper, and that only on the hypothesis of such a reference can the peculiar phraseology of the discourse be explained. Christ spoke then of eating His flesh and drinking His blood, so we are given to understand, because He had in His mind that mystic rite ere long to be instituted, in which bread and wine should not merely represent, but become, the constituent elements of His crucified body.

     While the sermon on the bread of life continues to be mixed up with sacramentarian controversies, agreement in its interpretation is altogether hopeless. Meantime, till a better day dawn on a divided and distracted church, every man must endeavor to be fully persuaded in his own mind. Three things are clear to our mind. First, it is incorrect to say that the sermon delivered in the Capernaum synagogue refers to the sacrament of the Supper. The true state of the case is, that both refer to a third thing, viz. the death of Christ, and both declare, in different ways, the same thing concerning it. The sermon says in symbolic words what the Supper says in a symbolic act: that Christ crucified is the life of men, the world's hope of salvation. The sermon says more than this, for it speaks of Christ's ascension as well as of His death; but it says this for one thing.

     A second point on which we are clear is, that it is quite unnecessary to assume a mental reference by anticipation to the Holy Supper, in order to account for the peculiarity of Christ's language in this famous discourse. As we saw at the beginning, the whole discourse rose naturally out of the present situation. The mention by the people of the manna naturally led Jesus to speak of the bread of life; and from the bread He passed on as naturally to speak of the flesh and the blood, because he could not fully be bread until He had become flesh and blood dissevered, i.e. until He had endured death. All that we find here might have been said, in fact, although the sacrament of the Supper had never existed. The Supper is of use not so much for interpreting the sermon as for establishing its credibility as an authentic utterance of Jesus. There is no reason to doubt that He who instituted the mystic feast, could also have preached this mystic sermon.

     The third truth which shines clear as a star to our eye is,--that through faith alone we may attain all the blessings of salvation. Sacraments are very useful, but they are not necessary. If it had pleased Christ not to institute them, we could have got to heaven notwithstanding. Because He has instituted them, it is our duty to celebrate them, and we may expect benefit from their celebration. But the benefit we receive is simply an aid to faith, and nothing which cannot be received by faith. Christians eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of man at all times, not merely at communion times, simply by believing in Him. They eat His flesh and drink His blood at His table in the same sense as at other times; only perchance in a livelier manner, their hearts being stirred up to devotion by remembrance of His dying love, and their faith aided by seeing, handling, and tasting the bread and the wine.


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