“I am the bread of life” (John 6:48), says Jesus, in the passage set as the Gospel selection in this coming Sunday’s lectionary offerings. “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (6:35), he had said, in the final verse of the section offered as last Sunday’s lectionary Gospel.
This claim about Jesus is a major element in the way that he is presented in the book of signs. This work not only contains a sequence of seven signs, or miracles, that give the name to the whole Gospel: “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples … these [signs] are written so that you may believe” (John 20:30–31).
It is also the Gospel in which significant statements about Jesus are offered, particularly in the series of seven I AM statements that it contains. “I am the bread of life” (6:48) is the first such instance in this series. The others are “the light of the world” (8:12), “the door of the sheep” (10:7, 9), “the good shepherd” (10:11, 14), “the resurrection and the life” (11:25), “the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6), and “the true vine” (16:1).
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (6:51), Jesus declares, in the opening verse of the reading for Sunday week. “This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died; but the one who eats this bread will live forever” (6:58), he says again in the passage for the Sunday after that.
Get the picture? Week after week, following the various sections of this long chapter within the book of signs, the lectionary presents us with insistent reminders of this central Johannine teaching of Jesus. Jesus is “the bread of life” (6:35, 41, 48, 50, 51, 58).
The context in which Jesus makes these claims is instructive. The scene at the beginning of the chapter introduces this motif, when the narrator writes: “Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?'” (6:5).
The motif of bread is thus established through this rhetorical question. The narrator explains, in 6:6–7, that this was said to test Philip; it opens the door for Andrew to report, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish” (6:9). So begins the account of the feeding of the multitude (6:10-14).
And so, this incident is used by the narrator to form the basis for some significant teaching by Jesus–a technique familiar in other chapters. Think of the encounter with Nicodemus (3:1–14), leading into a teaching about salvation and judgement (3:15–21), and the encounter with the unnamed woman in Samaria (4:5–26), the basis for another section focussing on salvation (4:27–42). These two scenes make use of a literary technique which is employed to good advantage by the author of the book of signs in subsequent chapters.
We might also think of the healing of the invalid man in Jerusalem (5:1–9) which leads into teaching about the work of the Son (5:10–47), and the multi-scene drama later in Jerusalem (9:41), in which the healing of the man born blind (9:1–7) leads to a dramatic playing out of the teaching provided earlier (8:12; repeated at 9:5), that Jesus is “the light of the world”.
A further example of the literary skills of the author of the book of signs is found in the series of scenes in and near Bethany (11:1–44), in which the narrative of raising of Lazarus from the dead contains teachings on the claim that Jesus is “the resurrection and the life ” (11:25).
Indeed, each of these scenes contain a climactic moment in which a significant Christological affirmation is uttered. Jesus is “God’s only Son”, given to the world in love (3:16). He is “the Saviour of the world” (4:42), confessed in a Samaritan township. He is the Son of Man with “authority to execute judgment” (5:27), the Holy One of God (6:69), a prophet (9:17) who is, by inference, the Messiah (9:22). And Martha makes the ultimate confession of faith in Jesus: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (11:27).
For the author of the book of signs, affirming the identity of Jesus shapes the whole narrative of this Gospel. Each sign points to the significance of Jesus: manifesting his glory (2:12), fostering belief (4:48), identifying him as “the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (6:14), the Son of Man (9:35), the Son of God and Messiah (11:27). And each interpersonal encounter illuminates his signal identity, as we have noted.
Then, each I AM claim undergirds the central role of Jesus in the plan being worked out in this Gospel. A number of these statements draw on scriptural terms and imagery in presenting Jesus in this way.
When Jesus describes himself as “the true vine” (John 15:1–11), he is drawing on a standard scriptural symbol for Israel (Ps 80:8; Hos 10:1; Isa 5:7; Jer 6:9; Ezek 15:1–6; 17:5–10; 19:10–14).
When Jesus calls himself “the good shepherd” (10:1–18), he evokes the imagery of the good shepherd as the true and faithful leader in Israel (Num 21:16–17; Ezek 34:1–31; Jer 23:4), and the people as the sheep who are cared for (Pss 95, 100; Ezek 34:31).
When Jesus calls himself “the bread of heaven” (6:25–59), he makes it clear that he is referring to the scriptural account of the manna in the wilderness (Ex 16:1–36; Num 11:1–35; Pss 78:23–25; 105:40). The discourse which develops from this saying includes explicit quotations of scripture, as well as midrashic discussions of its meaning.
Jesus, “the light of the world” (8:12; 9:1–5), evokes the story of the creation of light (Gen 1:3–5) and the light which the divine presence shone over Israel (Exod 13:21–22). The Psalmist uses the imagery of light to indicate obedience to God’s ways (Pss 27:1; 43:3; 56:13; 119:105, 130; etc.), and it is a common prophetic motif as well (Isa 2:5; 42:6; 49:6; Dan 2:20–22; Hos 6:5; Mic 7:8; Zech 14:7; cf. the reversal of the imagery at Jer 13:16; Amos 5:18–20).
The claim that Jesus is “the way” (14:6) may also owe its origins to scriptural usage. The term describes God’s activity in many Psalms 5:8; 18:30; 25:9; 27:11; 37:34; 50:23; 67:2, and so on. In Isa 40:3-5 (cited at Luke 3:4-6), the return from exile in Babylon is marked as a preparing of the way by the Lord, leading the exiled people back to their homeland.
The term is also appropriated in the Dead Sea Scrolls as a means of defining the Qumran community (1QS 9.17–18,21; 10:21; CD 1:13; 2:6). This most likely reflects competing claims for being the authentic keepers of Torah amongst Jewish sects. Jesus, in the book of signs, is clearly honoured as the Teacher supreme for the community of Jesus followers for whom this work was compiled.
And although it is not part of an “I am” statement, the description of the Spirit as “living waters” which flow from Jesus (4:7–15; 7:37–39) are reminiscent of the water which were expected to flow from the eschatological temple (Ezek 47:1; Joel 3:18; Zech 14:8), and, more directly, refer to the description of God used by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 2:13).
Of course, the very phrase I AM resonates directly with the name that the Lord God revealed in Exodus. When Moses asks, “What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”, God replied, “I AM WHO I AM. Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exod 3:13-14).
In addition, biblical scholars have noted that rabbinic symbolism has affinities with Johannine symbols; for example, the terms bread, light, water and wine are all used by the rabbis in connection with the Torah.
Thus, the distinctive set of Christological claims made for Jesus in the book of signs, the Gospel according to John, are both thoroughly grounded in scriptural images and familiar from the ongoing traditions taught by the rabbis. The role that Jesus plays is in fulfilment of scriptural ideas.
This is a key factor in the way that the author of the book of signs has shaped his distinctive narrative. And it is highlighted in the middle of the extended narrative that occurs in John 6, when Jesus declares: “it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven” (6:32). This is the role that Jesus fulfils in the book of signs; he has been sent by the Father, a gift of living bread, for those who hunger.