The Feeding of the Five Thousand and the Bread of Life Discourse

The Narratives

The Feeding of the Five Thousand

Matthew 14.13‑21 • Mark 6.30‑44 • Luke 9.10‑17 • John 6.1‑151

The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle the Lord Jesus Christ performed that is recorded in all four gospels.  It occurred about one year before the Lord Jesus was crucified, as John records that it happened on the Passover.2  Mark and Luke record that just prior to this event, the Lord Jesus had sent His twelve disciples, whom He also called apostles, on an evangelism mission “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal,” giving “them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases.” (Mk. 6.7‑13, Lk. 9.1‑6)3  While the apostles were away, or possibly while they were returning, disciples of John the Baptist brought Jesus the news that Herod the tetrarch had beheaded him (Mt. 14.1‑12, Mk. 6.14‑29).

When the apostles had returned to Jesus, where He had apparently been ministering to crowds of people, He invited them to join Him on a retreat.  So they boarded a boat on the Sea of Galilee and crossed to a desolate coast near a mountain.  However, the crowd to which He had been ministering followed them to this desolate place on foot, arriving before He did.  Here, the Lord Jesus had compassion on the multitude “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”  And so, He preached the Kingdom of God to them and healed the sick among them.

After a full day of ministry, the crowds had not departed.  The land was grassy but desolate, and there was no provision of food nearby.  The disciples complained that the hour was late and that there was no provision of food for the multitudes.  However, the Lord Jesus asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?”  Philip answered, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get (even) a little.”  The disciples took stock of what resources they had, and Andrew said, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?”  Jesus said, “Bring them here to me,” then He instructed the crowd of five thousand men plus many more women and children to sit down in groups of fifty and one hundred.

Once the crowds had been seated, the Lord Jesus offered thanks to His Father for the bread and asked His blessing on it.  The Jesus video shows that the loaves miraculously multiplied during the blessing, presumably while the crowd’s eyes were averted, and that there were suddenly many more loaves as a result.4  However, the text does not suggest that this is how they were multiplied.  Then Jesus broke the five loaves and two fish and distributed them to His disciples to distribute to the multitudes.  Luke is clear when he distinguishes between the twelve apostles and the larger group of disciples that followed Jesus, and here, he wrote that Jesus distributed the broken loaves and fish to the larger group of disciples and not just the twelve apostles.  This should not be construed as if the apostles were sidelined and did not participate in this ministry of distribution, for the larger group of disciples encompasses the twelve apostles.  Moreover, supposing that there were at least one woman and two children for each of the five thousand men in the crowd, the crowd would have numbered at least twenty thousand, and it is not reasonable to suppose that such a large number of people could have easily been served by only twelve men.

As the Lord Jesus distributed the broken loaves and fish to the disciples, and as the disciples distributed them to the multitudes, He worked a miracle: the broken pieces of bread and fish multiplied in order to satisfy the hunger of every man, woman, and child in the crowd.  This miracle is akin to the miracle by which the Lord multiplied the flour and oil in the jar and jug of the widow of Zarephath to preserve not only her life but also the lives of her son and the Prophet Elijah (I Kg. 17.13‑16).  It also correlates to the miracle by which the Lord provided bread (manna) six days a week for the forty years that the nation of Israel was in the wilderness (Ex. 16, Josh. 5.12), enough to feed a population of just over 600,000 men, not counting women, children, and Levites (Num. 1, 26), a correlation brought up during the Bread of Life discourse.

After the multitudes had been served, the disciples gathered up all the leftover fragments “and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten.”  Once the fragments had been gathered, Jesus sent His disciples ahead of Him by boat to Capernaum in the land of Gennesaret, while He dismissed the crowds.  As He was dismissing them, He perceived that they intended to take Him by force and make Him king, so He withdrew by Himself to the nearby mountain to pray.

Jesus Walks on Water

Matthew 14.22‑33 • Mark 6.45‑52 • John 6.16‑21

Sometime between 3:00-6:00 the next morning, while it was still dark, the disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee.  The sea was rough, and the winds were against them.  At this time, the Lord Jesus went out to them, walking on top of the surface of the water—yet another miracle,5 akin to the iron axe head that floated to the surface of the Jordan River at the behest of the Prophet Elisha (II Kg. 6.1‑7).  As the disciples watched Him come, they were frightened, believing Him to be a ghost.  He seemed to be about to pass them by when they cried out to Him.  He answered, saying, “Take heart; it is I.  Do not be afraid.”  The phrase translated, “It is I,” is the Greek phrase ἐγώ εἰμι, which is used to translate the “I AM” of Exodus 3.14 in the Greek Septuagint.  The word εἰμι normally stands by itself to mean, “I am”, without the need for the pronoun ἐγώ, which means “I”.  The phrase is used by Jesus here for the second time in an express revelation of His deity.6  Moreover, His appearance to the disciples shares much in common with the Old Testament manifestations of God in human form (e.g., Gen. 16. 7‑14, 18, 32.22‑32, Josh. 5.13‑15, Judg. 6.11‑27, 13).  Here, as in those cases, God appears manifestly in the flesh in a manner that makes His divine identity apparent, He expressly identifies Himself as God, those around Him are stricken with fear on account of His presence, and He tells them not to be afraid.

At this point, Matthew recounts that the Apostle Peter called out to Him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water,” to which the Lord Jesus bade him, “Come.”  Then Peter, in an astonishing act of faith, got out of the boat and walked on the surface of the water toward Jesus.  Then Peter’s attention was drawn from Jesus to the strong winds about him, and he became afraid and began sinking.  He cried out, “Lord, save me!”  At this, the Lord Jesus reached down and pulled Peter out of the water, chiding him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”  Then Jesus and Peter got into the boat, and the raging winds became still.

John records that the disciples were glad to receive Jesus into the boat, and Matthew says that the disciples worshiped Jesus, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”  However, Mark states that the disciples were utterly astounded because they did not understand the lesson of the loaves and fish, and what is more, the disciples’ hearts were hardened.

Ministry in Gennesaret

Matthew 14.34‑36 • Mark 6.53‑56

After this, Jesus and the disciples came to Capernaum in the land of Gennesaret on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus went into the local synagogue to teach and to heal.  The people of Gennesaret recognized Jesus, and they brought their sick to Him that they might be healed.  Matthew and Mark recount that anyone who touched the fringe of His garment was made well (cf. Mt. 9.20‑22, Mk. 5.25‑34, Lk. 8.43‑48).

The Bread of Life Discourse

John 6.22‑71

Meanwhile, the multitudes to which Jesus had been ministering the previous day noticed His absence.  And so, they boarded boats and crossed the Sea of Galilee, coming to Capernaum, where they found Jesus ministering.  And coming to Him, they asked, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”

But Jesus, knowing the thoughts and intentions of their hearts (cf. Jn. 2.25), chastened them, saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.  For on him God the Father has set his seal.”

The crowds were taken aback by Jesus’s rebuke and were not quite sure what He was telling them.  So they asked, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”  Jesus answered that the work of God consists in believing in the One whom He has sent.  At this, the crowds put two and two together and asked, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you?  What work do you perform?”  These were rhetorical questions, because they had seen Him work the miracle of multiplying the loaves and fish.  “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”  The verse they quoted was from Nehemiah 9.15: “You gave them bread from heaven for their hunger and brought water for them out of the rock for their thirst, and you told them to go in to possess the land that you had sworn to give them.”  The message they were telling Jesus was, “We don’t know why You are claiming that we aren’t seeking You because of the signs we saw—they were unmistakable.  Just as Moses gave our fathers manna from heaven to eat in the desert, You gave us barley bread to eat in the desolate place.  You must be the Messiah, and God must be calling You to lead us in battle to retake the land that God had sworn to give us.”

But Jesus, discerning the real intent behind their words, said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father 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.”  The crowds, still confused by what He was saying, said, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

Jesus’s answer to this request flabbergasted and alienated the crowds.  He said,

I am (Gk. ἐγώ εἰμι) the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.  But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.  All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.  For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.  And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.  For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.

From the moment Jesus said, “I am the bread of life”, the crowds began grumbling about Him.  Just as when He had preached at Nazareth (Mt. 13.54‑58, Mk. 6.1‑6, Lk. 4.16‑30), some in the crowd asked themselves, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?  How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”  Evidently there were those in the crowd from Nazareth who either were not present when Jesus had preached there, or had not participated in the attempt to throw Him from the cliff, or were at least willing to give Him a second hearing.  But just as His claim that the prophecy of Isaiah 61.1‑2 found its fulfillment in Him had offended the people of Nazareth, His claim to be the bread of life that comes down from heaven was offending the crowds at Capernaum.  Whereas the crowds were willing to accept a political leader from their midst who performed miraculous signs and wonders, they were quite unwilling to believe such a one to be God incarnate, especially when He called them out for their unbelief.

But Jesus was not finished offending the crowds.  He continued, saying,

Do not grumble among yourselves.  No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.  And I will raise him up on the last day.  It is written in the Prophets, “And they will all be taught by God.” (Is. 54.13)  Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me—not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father.  Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.  I am the bread of life.  Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.  This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.  And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

At this, the crowds grumbled even more, asking themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”  In this, as when they asked Jesus to give them the bread always that gives life to the world, they were interpreting His words literalistically, as did Nicodemus (Jn. 3.3‑4), the woman of Sychar (Jn. 4.10‑15), and the disciples (Mt. 16.5‑11, Mk. 8.14‑21).  Jesus, however, did not remonstrate with them as He did with the disciples when He asked, “How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread?” (Mt. 16.11)  Rather, He continued His message, using the analogy of food and drink to make His point.

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.  For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.  As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.  This is the bread that came down from heaven, not as the fathers ate and died.  Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.

During this discourse, one can visualize the assembled crowds starting to dissipate, finding Jesus’s words offensive and leaving in disgust.  The previous day, they had witnessed a great miracle when the Lord Jesus had multiplied the loaves and fish and provided temporal food enough to satisfy their physical hunger.  Yet now, as He was telling them that He was providing Himself as eternal food to satisfy their spiritual hunger, they were turning away in distaste.  They wanted Jesus on their own terms and were quite unwilling to accept Him on His.  He did not change His message even the slightest bit and absolutely refused to accommodate Himself and His purpose to the crowds’ expectation of Him.  Rather, He persisted in His message that genuine spiritual nourishment that leads to eternal life is to be found in Him alone and in absorbing all that He is into one’s soul and then living out His life in one’s own.

At this point, the Lord Jesus had managed not only to alienate the multitudes He had fed the previous day but also many of His own larger circle of disciples (not the twelve apostles) that had been following Him.  His own disciples now were complaining, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”  Indeed, the same unbelief and hardness of heart—which had characterized the crowds that had eaten the temporal bread that He had provided, intended to “take him by force to make him king”, and yet rejected Him at the end—was now revealed to be manifest in the hearts of many of those who had made themselves His disciples.

But the Lord Jesus did not accommodate Himself to them either.  He continued, saying,

Do you take offense at this?  Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?  It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail.  The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.  But there are some of you who do not believe. … This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.

At this, many of the larger circle of disciples forsook Jesus, despite all that He had taught them and did in their presence.  Then Jesus turned to the twelve apostles—the twelve men that Scripture records He had chosen Himself—and asked them, “Do you want to go away as well?”

Then Simon Peter, speaking on behalf of the apostles, as he would again in a few short weeks (Mt. 16.16, Mk. 8.29, Lk. 9.20), answered, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”  To be sure, Peter, like the others, had not completely gotten his understanding straight about Jesus’s identity and purpose in the world (Mt. 16.22‑23, 26.51‑56,69‑75, Mk. 8.32‑33, 14.47‑52,66‑72, Lk. 22.49‑51,54‑62, Jn. 18.10‑11,15‑18,25‑27).  Nevertheless, Peter and the other remaining disciples (except Judas) had been drawn by the Father and had truly come to know Jesus by the Spirit, who had given them life.

However, Jesus, rather than commending Peter, as He would do later (Mt. 16.17‑19), continued His message of rebuke, saying, “Did I not choose you, the Twelve?  And yet one of you (referring to Judas Iscariot) is a devil.”

The Feeding of the Five Thousand

The first thing to notice in Scripture’s account of the feeding of the five thousand is that, despite His grief, the Lord Jesus set His own emotional needs aside in order to minister to the multitudes.  He was grieved on account of John the Baptist’s death, and the apostles were returning, fresh from the emotional high of their first evangelistic mission.  He wanted to spend some time apart with the apostles so that they could share in His grief and He in their rejoicing (Rom. 12.15).  But He set this aside in order to minister to the multitudes.  Moreover, He did not begrudge the crowds His time and energy, for He discerned them to be “like sheep without a shepherd.”  And so He had compassion on them.  It was compassion, then, rather than a sense of duty or obligation that motivated Him to minister.

Likewise, it should be compassion rather than duty or obligation that moves us to minister to those in need.  And we ought not begrudge those to whom we minister of our time and energy, just as our Lord Jesus did not so begrudge the crowds.  When we are tired or grieved, our natural tendency is to withdraw and be refreshed.  But in the example set by our Lord, we see that He did not set His own needs above the needs of the multitudes to hear the Word of God preached and to be healed of their diseases.

But we must not miss the fact that once the crowds were dismissed, the Lord Jesus did withdraw by Himself to pray.  If the Son of God found it necessary to seek solitude and spend time with the Lord—especially after a long day of ministry and toil—how much more necessary it is for us!  Apart from the Lord, we can do nothing (Jn. 15.5).  It is by spending time reading and meditating on His Word and spending time in prayer that we come to know Him, to know His heart, His thoughts and counsel.  From this wellspring, we are spiritually nourished, strengthened, and renewed, enabled to go out and serve in His name and in His strength.

The second thing to notice is that Jesus exercised Lordship throughout His ministry to the crowds, and that the disciples followed His lead without complaint.  At the end of the day, the disciples were tired—and probably hungry as well.  And so, they asked Him to send the multitudes away “to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”  But Jesus told them to give something to the crowds to eat.  It is easy to read into the disciples’ response in the Synoptic gospels a weary complaint and an incalcitrant, “It cannot be done!”  But when we read John’s account, such an interpretation becomes untenable.  Jesus, to test the disciples (Philip, specifically), asked where they could buy bread for all the multitudes.  Philip, answering from a natural point-of-view, responded that two hundred denarii—half a year’s wages—would not be enough to feed them all.7  Another apostle—Andrew—mentioned that there was a boy among the multitudes who had five loaves and two fish, and from his natural point-of-view, he said that he did not see how so little could feed so many.  Yet in these responses, they remained open and obedient to Jesus’s leading, honestly reporting that they did not have the resources to feed the multitudes.  But they did not say that it could not be done.  And accordingly, the Lord Jesus did not chasten them for having too little faith, as He did elsewhere (Mt. 8.26, 14.31, 16.8, 17.20, Mk. 4.40, 8.21, 9.19, Lk. 8.25, 9.41).

In this, we should be like the apostles and honestly confess that we do not have the resources to do all that God calls us to do.  And likewise, we ought not say to Him that what He calls us to do cannot be done simply because we cannot see how it can be done.  “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Mt. 19.26)  Rather, we must look to Him to provide the resources to do what He calls us to do and to recognize that without those resources, we cannot obey His call.

Third, we notice the example of the boy who gave Jesus the loaves and fish when He asked for them, and we see in this example the lesson that God is able to accomplish much with the little we have when it is given in faithful obedience to Him.

Now there are some who would see in the boy’s example the primary message of this text.  They contend that there were others in the crowd who had brought food with them, and when they saw the boy’s example, they were moved to share the food that they had brought with those around them.  The real miracle, this interpretation claims, was the change in heart of the multitudes.8

However, such an interpretation cannot be supported by the text.  First, there is a complete absence in the text of any suggestion that anyone else in the crowd had brought any food, and a complete absence of any suggestion that anyone who might have brought such food shared it with anyone else.  This is a supposition predicated upon a rejection of the supernatural implication in the text that the Lord Jesus miraculously multiplied the loaves and fish that the boy gave Him.  It assumes that there must be a natural explanation for the event because it assumes that the supernatural interpretation is, at best, unreliable.

Second, this interpretation fundamentally depends upon the boy’s example of sharing as the inspiration for the crowds’ like response.  However, only John records that the origin of the five barley loaves and two fish was a boy who had brought them—Matthew, Mark, and Luke did not consider the matter of the boy’s action of giving Jesus his loaves and fish significant enough to mention in their accounts.  Moreover, John records that twelve baskets were filled specifically “with fragments from the five barley loaves.”  He does not mention any other bread from which fragments were added to the fragments from the five barley loaves in order to fill those twelve baskets.  This very clearly indicates that the bread in those loaves was miraculously multiplied, enough such that its leftover fragments filled twelve baskets.

Finally, John also contradicts this interpretation’s unsupported assertion that the hearts of the men and women in the multitudes were changed.  These same men and women that supposedly shared the food that they brought with others around them were offended the very next day by Jesus’s claims in the Bread of Life discourse and turned away from following Him.  If their hearts had truly been changed, they would not have done that.

The Lord Jesus miraculously multiplied the loaves and fish and gave them to the crowds as an illustration that He is the One who came from the Father to give Himself as spiritual nourishment that leads to and sustains eternal life.  The anti-supernaturalistic interpretation that the only “miracle” that happened was that men and women purportedly shared their food enough to satisfy the hunger of all those around them fundamentally robs Jesus of this miracle, for they purportedly shared their food because they were inspired by the boy’s example of sharing his rather than on account of anything that Jesus did.  Jesus cannot be said to have performed a miracle to change their hearts, because this very evidently did not happen.  Jesus, then, could not be credited for the feeding of the five thousand, even though John clearly states that Jesus beforehand “knew what he (himself) would do.”  Furthermore, robbing Jesus of this miracle undermines His claims in the Bread of Life discourse.  On the basis that He gave the multitudes physical bread to eat, thus sustaining the temporal lives of the men, women, and children in the crowds, He explains that He is offering Himself to us as spiritual bread to nourish our souls, thus sustaining our eternal life.

Mark records that the disciples “were utterly astounded” on account of Jesus’s miraculous walking on water because “they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”  Likewise, those who put forward the anti-supernaturalistic interpretation of Jesus’s feeding of the five thousand do not understand it either.

Jesus Walks on Water

The account of Jesus walking on the surface of the Sea of Galilee immediately follows the account of the feeding of the five thousand (except in Luke, where it is omitted), and it is an extension of the lesson Jesus was teaching in that miracle, directed specifically at the disciples.  In the feeding of the five thousand, the Lord Jesus was teaching that we ought not worry ourselves about our physical circumstances but rather ought to devote ourselves to Him, trusting in His provision for all our needs.  In walking to the disciples on top of the water in the middle of a windstorm, the Lord Jesus was giving them an opportunity to exercise that devotion and trust.

Earlier, the Lord Jesus had crossed the Sea of Galilee with the disciples when a great storm arose, threatening to swamp the boat (Mt. 8.23‑27, Mk. 4.35‑41, Lk. 8.22‑25).  In that earlier account, Jesus was sleeping through the tempest when the disciples woke Him, frantically asking, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”  Jesus bade the wind and waves to be still, demonstrating His mastery over the forces of nature before chiding the disciples for their lack of faith.

Here again, Jesus was demonstrating His authority over the natural forces, and He wanted the disciples to trust in that authority.  And Peter, at least initially, did demonstrate that trust.  He called out, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”  To be sure, Peter doubted his senses.  Jesus had just identified Himself to them, but a man walking on the surface of the water unsupported by solid ground was quite outside of the realm of the disciples’ experience.  Nevertheless, Jesus bade him, “Come.”  And so Peter, alone of all the disciples, had the temerity to get out of the boat and walk to Jesus on the surface of the water, demonstrating trust in Jesus’s authority over natural forces and His provision for his need—particularly, his need to not sink and drown.

But then, Peter’s trust wavered.  When he saw the strength of the wind, fear and doubt crept into his heart, and his faith in Jesus’s authority over the natural forces and His ability to provide for his every need faltered—and he began to sink.  At least he had the presence of mind to call out to Jesus to save him, and so Jesus pulled him out of the water, chiding him for his lack of faith.  To be sure, Peter’s faith was stronger than the other disciples’, who lacked the faith to even get out of the boat.  But it was still below the strength of faith for which Jesus had hoped from all the disciples.  The disciples “were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”

What, then, of our faith?  It is easy to say that Peter trusted Jesus as much as he did because he was present with the Lord and witnessed many of the miracles He performed.  But still he doubted, and although the other disciples witnessed the same miracles, they did not have enough faith to risk getting out of the boat.  Moreover, unlike the disciples during Jesus’s earthly ministry, we have the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, which is to our advantage (Jn. 16.7, Acts 2.1‑4, Eph. 1.17‑18).  Unfortunately, many of us do not believe that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is an advantage over the physical presence of the Lord Jesus.  But it was only with the power of the Holy Spirit that the apostles were able to perform the signs and miracles they did (Acts 3.1‑10, 5.12‑16, 8.4‑8, 9.32‑43, 13.4‑12, 16.16‑24, 20.7‑12, 28.1‑10).  “For we walk by faith, not by sight,” (II Cor. 5.7) and “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Rom. 10.17)  And as Jesus said to the Apostle Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (Jn. 20.29)

Our faith is sub-standard.  Jesus calls us to complete and unwavering faith in Him—faith that will enable us to perform great and mighty deeds on His behalf because they were done in complete reliance on His provision for all that He calls us to do (Mt. 17.20, 21.21‑22, Mk. 9.23).  Jesus Christ is mighty and able to accomplish all that He wills, and the one who has great faith in Him is able to accomplish all that the Lord Jesus calls him or her to do.

The Bread of Life Discourse

Prefiguring the Lord’s Supper

The Bread of Life discourse is Jesus’s explanation of the meaning of the feeding of the five thousand.  Its primary message is that Jesus Christ is God’s provision of spiritual nourishment to humankind for sustaining eternal life.  As such, it shares much in common with the Living Water discourse in which He engaged with the woman of Sychar (Jn. 4.1‑45).

The Lord Jesus said that He gives “the food that endures to eternal life,” just as He told the woman of Sychar that He gives “living water.” (Jn. 4.10)  Again, He told the multitudes that He gives Himself as “living bread”, and that whoever eats this living bread “will live forever.”  And, “whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”  And what is more, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.  For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.  Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”  Likewise, He told the woman of Sychar that “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever.  The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (Jn. 4.14)

First, we note that the Lord Jesus is making abundantly clear in these two discourses that our pursuit of sustenance should be for sustenance for eternal life rather than for sustenance for temporal life (cf. Mt. 6.25‑34, Lk. 12.22‑34), and that He Himself is that sustenance.  He is not, as He later reminded His disciples (Mt. 16.11), speaking literally.  He is, rather, speaking of His words and deeds, upon which we are to meditate and by which we are to order our lives (Jn. 8.31, 15.7‑8).

Moreover, the offering of Jesus’s body and blood points forward to the Crucifixion, in which He “offered himself without blemish to God,” in order, by His blood, to “purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Heb. 9.14)  This offering is embodied for our tangible reference and spiritual edification in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in which the bread represents Christ’s “body, which is given (or broken) for you” (Lk. 22.19, I Cor. 11.24), and in which the wine represents Christ’s “blood of the (new) covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt. 26.28)  To be sure, Christ is not here instituting the sacrament.  The full meaning of the sacrament depends on its union with Christ’s death, and He had not at this time explicitly foretold His impending death and resurrection (cf. Mt. 16.21, Mk. 8.31, Lk. 9.22), which was still one full year away.  However, the spiritual reality that the sacrament embodies is explained here, and the sacrament is certainly foreshadowed in this discourse and in the feeding of the five thousand.

In the Lord’s Supper, we eat the body of Christ broken for us when we partake of the bread, and we drink the blood of Christ shed for the remission of our sins when we partake of the wine.  But this must not be taken literally—the bread remains bread and does not become the body of Christ, literally understood, and the wine remains wine and does not become the literal blood of Christ.  Neither are blessings conferred indiscriminately when the elements are partaken, as if the blessings of Christ could be bestowed on an unbeliever simply by partaking the elements.  “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” (I Cor. 11.27)  Rather, the elements are infused with the spiritual presence and promise of the Lord, and the body and blood of the Lord are spiritually discerned in the bread and wine of the sacrament.  This is a mystery that cannot be fully comprehended.  When we partake of the bread and wine, we meditate upon Christ’s death represented in the elements and upon the benefits conferred to us by His death and resurrection.  And we eat the bread and drink the wine as a physical representation of our reception of the presence and benefits of Christ crucified and resurrected into our hearts—into the spiritual core of our being.  The Lord’s Supper is a physical representation of our spiritual union with Christ, and this is precisely the point that Christ was making in the Bread of Life discourse when He said that those who feed on His flesh and drink His blood—which are “true food” and “true drink”—have eternal life.  “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”  Put another way, to abide in Christ—that is, to know, love, trust, and obey Christ—and for Christ to abide in us—that is, for Christ to exercise Lordship in our lives—is to feed on His (spiritual) flesh and drink His (spiritual) blood, having union with Him through His sacrifice on our behalf on the Cross.  And this is eternal life, for the spiritual sustenance of Christ found in our abiding in Him and He in us sustains our souls for eternity.

Predestination

Second, we note here also Christ’s most explicit teachings on the doctrines of Predestination.  First, He said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.”  And again, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail.  The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.  But there are some of you who do not believe. … This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”  No human being has ever come to Jesus Christ on his or her own recognizance—no human being has the innate capacity to choose Him.  This is illustrated by how the multitudes and many of Jesus’s larger circle of disciples rejected Him—they appeared to come to Him by their own volition, but yet they did not truly believe in Him.  “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail.”  The crowds came to Him under false pretenses.  They thought Him to be there primarily for their benefit, to serve them as they saw fit.  They saw in Him one who would deliver them from this world’s ills.  They saw in Him one who would be a powerful this-worldly king that would throw off the rule of their earthly oppressors and rule over them benevolently.  But as He later told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (Jn. 18.36)  The crowds’ impressions and beliefs about Christ were informed by their observation and reason alone, and they lacked the life-giving direction of the Holy Spirit.  Their beliefs and actions were futile because they were not led—or drawn—by the Spirit.  They thought that they had chosen Him and come to Him on their own volition.  But they had not chosen but rejected Him because coming to Jesus had not been granted to them by the Father.  Their seeming “choice” was of no avail.

But those who did, in fact, come to the Lord Jesus came because they were drawn—because it was granted to them—by the Father.  Moreover, Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me.”  And again, “Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.”  God’s grace in calling His chosen disciples is one hundred percent effectual and irresistible.  Everyone chosen by God comes to Jesus—there are no exceptions.  The choice of who comes to Jesus is the Father’s, not the individuals’, and God’s choice cannot be thwarted.  Just as the will of those whom God did not grant to come to Jesus could not avail to believe in Him when the Spirit had not given them life, neither can the will of those whom God has granted to come to Jesus avail to refuse the summons.  God is sovereign, and His will cannot be thwarted by anything, let alone by the will of the individual.  The Apostle Levi (Matthew) came at the summons of Jesus, leaving everything behind (Lk. 5.27‑28), because it had been granted to him to do so by the will of the Father—he could not have chosen otherwise.  Those who refused to leave everything behind at Jesus’s summons (Lk. 9.57‑62) could not come to Him because it had not been granted them to do so by the will of the Father—they could not have chosen otherwise.  “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail.”

Moreover, just as those drawn by God cannot refuse the summons of Jesus, neither can they choose to abandon Him.  Again, Jesus said, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.  For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.  And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.  For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  And again, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.  And I will raise him up on the last day.  It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’  Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.”  As the Apostle Paul put it, “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8.38‑39)  And to be sure, “nor anything else in all creation” includes our own mutable, fallible human will.  No one chosen by God for eternal life in Jesus Christ can permanently fall away from Him.  God’s sovereign providence may allow genuine believers to wander in the futility of ungodly decisions for a time (e.g., II Sam. 11‑12), but no one chosen by God can ever permanently fall away from Jesus Christ, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”  And the will of God cannot be thwarted.  Those who finally reject Jesus Christ and/or fall away from Him permanently are like the crowds and disciples who rejected Jesus Christ at the conclusion of the Bread of Life discourse—they rejected Him because He did not choose them; they did not come to Him in faith, despite external appearances.  After all, Jesus did say, “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”  And, “This is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”

These doctrines are difficult for many in the Church to accept.  Such would rather the Bible teach unequivocally that Jesus holds out the offer of salvation to every man, woman, and child, and that everyone has the equal opportunity to come to Jesus.  The idea that God would predispose certain individuals—and not others—to want to seek Jesus on His terms is odious to them.  They want the choice of individual salvation to rest ultimately with the individual and not with God.  Such individuals seek to qualify God’s choice upon v. 64: “For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.”  Because God is omniscient, He knows in advance who will come to faith in Jesus and who will not.  Thus, He chooses men and women on the basis of foreseen faith.  These—and these only—He draws to Himself in Jesus Christ.  They come to faith, however, not because God drew them, but because God foresaw that they would come to Him.  Or else, He chose them on the basis of what He foresaw they would do with the faith He would implant in their hearts.  But this interpretation then becomes not God’s choice on account of foreseen faith but God’s choice on account of foreseen works, in contradiction of those passages that teach that man is saved from sin and sin’s penalty by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone apart from the works of the law (Rom. 3.24‑28, Gal. 2.16, Eph. 2.8‑9).

But the omniscience of God ultimately works against this interpretation: Not only does God know who will come to faith in Jesus Christ and who will not, He knows the deepest thoughts and intentions of every human heart (Heb. 4.12), and what is more, He knows how to move the human heart to believe in Jesus Christ.  “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” (Prov. 21.1; examples of this principle are seen in Pharaoh, Ex. 7.3, 9.12, 10.20,27, 11.10, Rom. 9.14‑18; David, II Sam. 24.1; Cyrus, Ezra 1.1, Is. 45.1; and Pilate, Jn. 19.10‑11, Acts 2.23).  And if the Lord can thus direct the heart of the king according to His agenda, then he can just as easily direct the hearts of all men, women, and children.

The Greek verb translated “draws” in v. 44 (Gk. ἑλκύω) is also translated as “dragged” in Acts 16.19, 21.30, James 2.6.  ἑλκύω (or ἕλκω in Acts 21.30, Jas. 2.6) has a connotation of irresistible force, that just as Jason was compelled by irresistible force by the crowd to appear before the magistrates, and just as Paul was compelled by irresistible force by the angry mob to be brought out of the temple, so too are men and women chosen by God compelled by Him to come to Jesus Christ.  The word “draw” is also used of bringing water up from a well (although the Greek verb ἀντλέω is used in New Testament passages that speak of drawing water: Jn. 2.9, 4.7,15).  Here, again, the word has a connotation of irresistible force—the water is an otherwise static object that is compelled by the force of the one pulling a bucketful of it by a rope or chain.  The water has no will to resist.

If it be objected that men and women, being volitional creatures, have a will to resist God’s call, it should be noted that God, who is omniscient and knows all things, including all the factors that determine our volitional choices—He knows precisely why we choose one thing and not another—and that He, being omnipotent and able to accomplish all that He purposes, is able to affect those factors so that our choices align with His purposes.

This principle appears in its rawest form in Joseph’s abduction and sale into slavery by his brothers (Gen. 37.18‑28).  As Joseph told his brothers after their father’s death, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Gen. 50.20, emphasis added)  The same word is used both of God’s role in what happened to Joseph as well as of Joseph’s brothers’ role—they both intended the same thing, albeit for very different reasons.

Consider that the brothers plotted to kill him.  Left to that decision, Joseph would be dead, and Israel would not have been preserved through the seven-year famine.  But Reuben convinced his brothers not to kill him but instead cast him into a pit, and his brothers were persuaded by his plea.  And so, Joseph’s life was spared.  However, Reuben also intended to release him, and if he had, Joseph would never have gone to Egypt and would not have interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, and Israel, again, would have perished in the famine.  But then Judah saw the opportunity to profit by selling Joseph into slavery, and his brothers were persuaded by his pitch.  And so, although Joseph’s brothers intended evil against him, God used—indeed, guided—their actions to bring Joseph into Egypt at the right time and place to interpret Pharaoh’s dream.

Behind every decision the brothers made was the super-intention of God.  God sent the dreams to Joseph that provoked his brothers to anger.  God could have tempered Joseph’s cockiness or softened his brothers’ hearts to prevent their attack on him, but this would not have accorded with His plan.  He also moved Reuben to desire to release Joseph, thus preventing Joseph’s death.  God could have hardened Reuben’s heart along with his brothers’ hearts, but He showed mercy to him, thus preserving Joseph’s life.  Again, God hardened Judah’s heart against Joseph, increasing Judah’s desire for gain at his brother’s expense, whereas He could have softened his heart, thus sending Joseph to Egypt.  And He also moved the brothers’ hearts to listen first to Reuben and then to Judah, thus ensuring Israel’s deliverance from the seven-year famine.  And so, Joseph, by God’s definite plan, was irresistibly compelled to go to Egypt.

Likewise, all who come to Jesus Christ, and thus are saved, are irresistibly compelled to come to Him by God, who works all things after the counsel of His own will (Eph. 1.11).  “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” (Rom. 9.18)  Now, “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.  And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Rom. 8.26‑27)  The Spirit speaks to us in a still, small voice (I Kg. 19.12‑13, Jn. 10.3‑5,14‑16).  But the voice of the Spirit is the voice of God, who said, “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Is. 55.11)  If God purposes to harden a man’s heart so as to keep him in his sin for the Day of Judgment, then he cannot come to Jesus Christ, even if he appears to do so outwardly, for nothing, least of all the mutable will of man, can thwart His purpose.  Conversely, if God purposes to show a man grace and mercy, drawing him to Jesus Christ for healing, repentance, and forgiveness, then he cannot but come to Jesus Christ, even if he resists his whole life, for nothing can ultimately hinder the purpose of God.

In light of these passages, we must consider those who commit “blasphemy against the Spirit,” which the Lord Jesus said “will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Mt. 12.31‑32, Mk. 3.29, Lk. 12.10)  The “blasphemy against the Spirit” is the sin of apostasy.

For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. (Heb. 6.4‑6)

How can it be that one who has been drawn by the Father to come to faith in Jesus Christ finally and ultimately reject Him and fall away?  How can it be that such a one can blaspheme the Holy Spirit, when it is the will of the Father that Jesus “should lose nothing of all that he has given (Him), but raise it up on the last day…that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life”?

The answer is that they cannot.  There is no weak link in the golden chain of salvation in Romans 8.28‑30.  God “is able to keep (us) from stumbling and to present (us) blameless before the presence of his glory.” (Jude 24)  “No one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” (I Cor. 12.3)  Jesus Christ is “the founder and perfecter of our faith.” (Heb. 12.2)9  “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1.6)

Yet Jesus Himself said that on the last day, there will be those who say to Him, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?”  But He said that He will say to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.” (Mt. 7.21‑23)  Likewise, Paul speaks of those who “have made shipwreck of their faith.” (I Tim. 1.19‑20)  But such, despite all appearances, never had true, genuine faith.  Genuine faith in Jesus Christ that leads to repentance is not something we can generate within our hearts—it is the gift of God’s grace (Eph. 2.8) that He gives to whomsoever He will (Rom. 9.15,18) “according to the purpose of his will.” (Eph. 1.5)  “For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.”  And He also said, “‘Did I not choose you, the Twelve?  And yet one of you is a devil.’  He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the Twelve, was going to betray him.”

Judas Iscariot, then, is the archetype of those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit.  He once was enlightened, he tasted the heavenly gift, he shared in the Holy Spirit, and he tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come (Heb. 6.4‑6) as one of the Twelve Disciples chosen by Jesus Himself.  Likewise, he went out on evangelism missions (Mt. 10, Lk. 10) during which he prophesied, cast out demons, and did mighty works all in Jesus’s name.  And yet the Lord Jesus did not know him—He did not set his electing love on him—but rather chose him as a “vessel of wrath prepared for destruction” (Rom. 9.22) into which He poured the malice of Satan (Lk. 22.3, Jn. 13.27).  Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who is one with the Father, never knew him.  And because God did not know him—or foreknow him—He did not predestine him “to be conformed to the image of his Son.”  And because He did not predestine him, He did not call, justify or glorify him either (Rom. 8.29‑30).

To be sure, God did so predestine Judas to be “the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” (Jn. 17.12)  Jesus Christ was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” (Acts 2.23)  Just as God had superintended the sinful acts that sold Joseph into slavery (Gen. 37.18‑28, 50.20), so He also superintended Judas’s act of treachery.  “The Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!  It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” (Mt. 26.24, Mk. 14.21, Lk. 22.22)  Indeed, David had foretold Judas’s treachery a thousand years earlier.  “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.” (Ps. 41.9; see also Ps. 55.12‑14)

Likewise Jude wrote, “Certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.” (Jude 4)  And according to Paul, “For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.  And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.  So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.  Their end will correspond to their deeds.” (II Cor. 11.13‑15)  God has used false teachers in every age to try and refine His Church.  They say, “We believe the same things you do—we just have a slightly different interpretation of them.”  But in truth, they empty Biblical doctrine of its Biblical meaning and fill it with their own meaning.  They even “perform great signs and wonders.”  Thus, they lead many astray, “if possible, even the elect.” (Mt. 24.24, Mk. 13.22)  Such were once enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, shared in the Holy Spirit, and tasted the goodness of the word of God and the power of the age to come.  But Jesus will say to them, “I never knew you.”  They have taken the name of the Lord in vain, and “the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.” (Ex. 20.7, Dt. 5.11)  Such have committed blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which “will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.  But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.  To him the gatekeeper opens.  The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.  When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice.  A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers. …

I am the good shepherd.  I know my own and my own know me.  (Jn. 10.1‑5,14)

Now it is possible for those chosen and elect by God to wander from the faith and follow false teachers for a time.  It is even possible for the elect to spout some of the heretical teachings of false teachers for a time.  But in time, Jesus Christ, the shepherd of the souls of the elect, will call them back to faithfulness, and they will hear His voice and return to Him, forsaking the false teachers who led them astray.  But those who commit blasphemy against the Holy Spirit are those who never were of the elect of Jesus Christ but mingled among them for a time, like Judas, tasting the goodness of His Gospel.  In time, they were (or will be) drawn off by the false teachers, but when Jesus came to call His elect back to faithfulness, they refused His summons, staying with the false teachers.

But it is not possible for those chosen and elect in Jesus Christ to commit blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, for it is the will of God the Father that Jesus Christ should lose no one who has been drawn to Him by the Father, but that everyone who believes in Him and knows Him will persevere to the end and be raised by Him on the last day.  And it is not possible to thwart the will of God.

The Work of God: To Believe in Him Whom God Has Sent

What, then, shall we take away from the Bread of Life Discourse that affects our everyday lives?  After all, there is much theology in this discourse and not much in the way of actively doing that we can put into practice in our daily lives.

The first lesson we need to learn is, as Jesus said, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”  Eternal life, as He later said, consists in knowing “the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom (He has) sent.” (Jn. 17.3)  We must not be offended by what Jesus said in this discourse, as many in the crowd—and even some of His own disciples—were offended and turned away from following Him.  As He said earlier, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Mt. 11.6, Lk. 7.23)  Jesus said many things in the Bread of Life Discourse that many find hard to accept, even in the Church today.  And many seek to find ways to interpret His teachings that better accord with their understanding of the freedom of the human will and of Christ’s presence in the Sacraments.  But Jesus gave us these teachings, as blunt and plain as they are, in order that we should better know Him and His Father.  When we find Jesus’s teachings at variance with our own preconceived ideas, it isn’t Jesus’s teachings that need to be reinterpreted.  Indeed, when we reinterpret His teachings to better accord with our ideas and understanding, especially as they have been influenced by the world around us, we are loudly proclaiming that we are offended by and ashamed of Jesus and His words.  And let us not forget Jesus’s warning to His disciples, “For whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” (Mk. 8.38, Lk. 9.26)

To be sure, very few people in the Church are willing to actually say that they are offended by something Jesus says.  Rather, those who are thus offended will usually say that they are offended by, or take issue with, the interpretation that others in the Church have, especially if the others come across as implying that theirs is the only true interpretation of the text.

Consider for a moment that the Church of Jesus Christ is fractured on account of differences in interpretation.  Christians differ over whether the doctrine of predestination is predicated upon God’s foreknowledge of who will come to Christ in faith and who will not, or whether it is predicated upon God’s sovereign will and good pleasure alone.  They differ over whether the bread and the wine of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper are miraculously transformed in their substance into the literal body and blood of Christ while their outward manifestation remains bread and wine,10 or whether “the body and blood of Christ are truly and substantially present”11 in, with, and under the forms of the bread and the wine,12 or whether Christ is spiritually present in the Supper,13 or whether the Lord’s Supper is a commemorative feast only with Christ neither physically nor spiritually present.14  Other matters of differences in interpretation are infant baptism versus believers-only baptism, whether the history of redemption is best understood in the paradigm of covenants or in the paradigm of dispensations, and whether the thousand year period of Revelation 20.1‑10 will occur before Christ’s return (premillennialism), after Christ’s return (postmillennialism), or is coextensive with the entire period between Christ’s ascension and return (amillennialism).  Churches are divided over whether Scripture teaches that the form of Church government taught in Scripture is best embodied in the episcopal form of government (rule by bishops), the presbyterian form of government (rule by elders), or by the congregational form of government (congregational independent self-rule).  Churches are divided over whether Paul’s proscription against women teaching and having authority over men (I Cor. 11.8‑10, 14.34‑35, I Tim. 2.11‑12) ought to be interpreted in the context of Scriptural passages where women do, in fact, teach or have authority over men (Judg. 4‑5, II Kg. 22.14‑20, Lk. 2.36‑38, Acts 18.26, Rom. 16.1‑2) or vice-versa.  In the past century, churches have divided—and are still dividing—over whether Scripture ought to be interpreted under the authority of contemporary cultural norms and scholarly criticism or whether these norms and criticisms ought to be interpreted under the authority of Scripture.

The Apostle Peter wrote “that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.  For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (II Pet. 1.20‑21)  The Westminster Confession of Faith, the confessional standard of historic Presbyterianism, includes a line that reads, “God alone is the Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything, contrary to His Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship.” (Ch. XX §2)  In the past century, many have used this credo to justify any and all interpretations of Scripture, and ironically to subject the authority of Scripture to the authority of cultural norms and secular scholarship.

What those who thus subject the authority of Scripture have lost sight of is that what validates an interpretation of a work is whether or not the interpretation accurately communicates the message the author intended.  In the case of Scripture, the author is God, who, the Scripture tells us, will judge all of humanity at the end of time (Mt. 25.31‑46, Acts 17.31, Rom. 2.16, Heb. 10.30, 13.4, Rev. 20.11‑15).  We must be exceedingly circumspect about this fact, for it is not intended to comfort us.  “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Heb. 30.31)  We do not want to be “found to be misrepresenting God” (I Cor. 15.15) by “teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Mt. 15.9)  Yet this is what we do when we interpret the Word of God by the authority of cultural norms and secular scholarship.  By this, our own interpretation eclipses God’s self-revelation in Scripture.  Jesus Christ as He is revealed in Scripture is rejected in favor of an idol called by the same name, and thus we show that we are ashamed of and offended by Him and His words.

How, then, are we to do the work of God by believing in Jesus Christ?  The first step is to understand that Jesus Christ is revealed in the context of God’s written revelation through the prophets who preceded Him and the apostles who followed Him, and that He cannot be known apart from this context.  Moreover, this context so profoundly influences our understanding of Him that adding to or subtracting from the revelation of God in Scripture produces a distorted image that warps our ability to know Him and compromises our ability to believe in Him.  Thus, the additions of the Book of Mormon or the Watchtower Society produce a much different Jesus and a much different gospel than the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” (Jude 3)  Likewise, the subtractions demanded by secular scholarship and cultural norms fundamentally rob Jesus of His glory, leaving us with a pale shadow and shrunken image that his hardly worthy “to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5.12), and much less worthy that to Him “every knee should bow … and every tongue confess.” (Phil. 2.10‑11)

Moreover, to believe in Jesus Christ means to trust Him, and trust is demonstrated by action.  Just as a man demonstrates his trust in the reliability of a bridge only when he steps onto the bridge and walks across it, and just as a man demonstrates his trust in the soundness of an airplane and the competence of its pilot only when he boards the plane and takes a flight in it, we demonstrate our trust in the Lord Jesus when we believe what He says and obey His commands.  He asks us, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Lk. 6.46)  If we claim that Jesus is Lord but disobey what He says, our confession is a lie, for a lord, by definition, is one who has the authority to tell us what to do, what not to do, what to believe, and what not to believe, and our disobedience declares louder than words that we do not regard Him as Lord.  Sin, by its definition, is disobedience to the Law of the Lord, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6.23), and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3.23).  Indeed, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” (I Jn. 1.8)  But the Lord Jesus died on the Cross “to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (I Jn. 1.9)  “We know that our old self was crucified with (Christ) in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. … For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 6.6,10‑11)  But “how can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Rom. 6.2)  “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.  Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.” (Rom. 6.12‑13)


Footnotes

1     All quotations of Scripture are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers, 2000, 2001).

2     The Crucifixion occurred on the Passover (Mt. 26.17‑19, Mk. 14.12‑16, Lk. 22.7‑13).

3     Matthew records the sending out of the twelve apostles much earlier, at the time the Lord Jesus commissioned them (Mt. 10).

4     Jesus, dir. John Krish & Peter Sykes; perf. Brian Deacon, Rivka Neuman, Alexander Scourby, Niko Nitai, Joseph Shiloach (Orlando, FL: The JESUS Film Project, 1979).

5     This is the only miracle recorded in Matthew, Mark, and John, but not Luke.

6     The first was in John 4.26, when the Lord Jesus revealed Himself to the woman at Sychar.

7     Mark, attributing the response to the disciples generically, wrote, “Shall we go and buy 200 denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?”

8     William Barclay’s commentary on Luke 9.10‑17 is an excellent example of this interpretation: “The people were hungry—and they were utterly selfish.  They all had something with them, but they would not produce it for themselves in case they had to share it with others.  The Twelve laid before the multitude their little store and thereupon others were moved to produce theirs; and in the end there was more than enough for everyone.  So it may be regarded as a miracle which turned selfish, suspicious fold into generous people, a miracle of Christ’s changing determined self-interest into a willingness to share.” (The New Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Luke, Revised & Updated [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1975, 2001], p. 140)

9     Other translations read, “author and finisher”.

10    This is the position of the Roman Catholic Church.

11    The Defense of the Augsburg Confession, Article X.

12    This is Martin Luther’s classic position.

13    This is John Calvin’s classic position.

14    This is Ulrich Zwingli’s classic position.

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