In 1877 Mary Lathbury, inspired by Jesus’ sermon on the bread of life which He preached in the synagogue in Capernaum, wrote the lyrics to the hymn we frequently sing “Break Thou the Bread of Life”. She had true perception of Jesus’ message when she wrote, “Within the sacred page, I seek thee Lord … Bless thou the truth to me dear Lord, to me, to me … Thou art the bread of life, O Lord, to me. Thy holy word the truth that saveth me. Give me to eat and live, with thee above, teach me to love thy truth, for thou art love.”
The sermon itself (John 6:32-58) is highly figurative and symbolic. However, His listeners, had they been listening and digesting His words, had no occasion to miss the symbolism with which He spoke. They were of the 5,000 who had been fed from five loaves and two fishes. They (and He) had discussed the nature of the manna which fell in the wilderness, and by which God had fed His people and then they heard Jesus exhort them “Work not for the food which perisheth but for the food which abideth unto eternal life” (John 6:27).
Jesus taught that the food He could and would give was “life to the world” (John 6:33). This bread would completely satisfy everyone’s hunger and thirst (John 6:35). He also taught that He would raise up on the last day those who ate that bread (John 6:40). This means that those who ate that bread would live forever, for there is no life apart from that bread (John 6:51, 53).
Even after the multitude had shown their dullness of mind by asking, “How can this man give his flesh to eat?” (John 6:52). Jesus continued His comparison by saying, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, ye have not life in yourselves. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life: and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood abideth in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father; so he that eateth me, he also shall live because of me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven: not as the fathers ate, and died; he that eateth this bread shall live for ever” (John 6:53-58). Then Jesus laid aside all figurative language: “It is the spirit which quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I have spoken unto you are spirit and are life” (Jn. 6:63). “Eating Jesus” was not literally eating His flesh. It meant to digest, believe, and obey His teaching. His words are the “words of life”.
Jesus told the multitude this in His sermon. Having introduced language which taught us to “eat and drink His flesh and blood”, He said, “No man can come unto me except the Father that sent me draw him and I will raise him up in the last day. It is written in the prophets And they shall all be taught of God. Everyone that hath heard from the Father, and hath learned, cometh unto me” (John 6:44-45, Isaiah 34:13). God draws men to Him through His word. And while the greater majority didn’t understand, not all the ears which heard His sermon that day were dull. Peter understood how one “eats the flesh of Jesus”. When Jesus asked His disciples, “Will ye go away also?” Peter responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
Jesus spoke to Nicodemus about the new birth in John 3:5: “Except one be born of water and spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God”. Compare “spirit” in John 3:5 with “spirit” in John 6:63: “The words which I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life”. Enlightenment floods in how one is “born of the spirit”. “Spirit” stands for “word” and “word” stands for “spirit” in John 6:63. Thus, when one is born of the spirit, he is born of the word. Add Peter’s words, “Having been begotten again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, through the word of God which liveth and abideth forever” (1 Peter 1:23), and once again the “word” is connected with being “born again”. Now, add Paul’s words from Ephesians 5:25-26, “Christ … loved the church and gave himself up for it; that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word” and Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, “Born of the water and the spirit” becomes perfectly clear. Jesus said to Nicodemus exactly the same thing He said to His disciples: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved …” (Mark 16:15-16).
When Jesus had been baptized and acknowledged by God to be His Son, He was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. After He had fasted forty days and nights, He hungered and Satan tempted Him, saying, “If thou art the Son of God command that these stones become bread”. Jesus answered, “It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 3:13-17; 4:1-4). Once more, physical bread and spiritual bread are contrasted. Physical bread, being temporal, perishes but “spiritual bread” (Jesus’ words) is likened to “food” or “bread”, by which we “live”.
The words of Jesus are the seed of the kingdom (Luke 8:11), and as physical seed germinates, sprouts, and grows, spiritual life germinates, sprouts, and grows by Jesus’ words. Faith comes through the preaching of the word (Romans 10:14). Salvation comes through faith as well: “Without faith it is impossible to please God for he that cometh to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him” (Hebrews 11:6). David said, “Oh, how love I thy law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97). So should we.