26 Jesus answered, "Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval."
28 Then they asked him, "What must we do to do the works God requires?"
29 Jesus answered, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent."
30 So they asked him, "What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? 31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'"
32 Jesus said to them, "Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."
34 "Sir," they said, "always give us this bread."
35 Then Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Sometimes when you get a glimpse of your real self, it's not pretty, in fact, it's pretty ugly. I had been studying the Bible for a while but I had not yet become a true disciple of Jesus Christ. I was learning what that meant, though. During that time, I started playing in a basketball league that the church hosted and put on for disciples and those that were coming out to church. During one game, I got frustrated because the guys who were refereeing that game were not, in my biased opinion, doing a very good job. With each perceived slight I began to get angrier and angrier, and even convince myself that they were intentionally not giving me calls because I wasn't someone important in the church. Then a play happened where I thought I got fouled but no foul was called but as we ran down to the other end of the court, a foul was called on me, even though I didn't feel that I had fouled anyone. That was too much. I lost my temper. I screamed at the ref who gave me a technical foul, but I didn't stop there. I stomped off of the court, yelling the whole time, I threw my duffle bag, I kicked open the gym doors that opened into the hallway, and I threw my water bottle down the hall. How could this happen? I had played sports my whole life and had always been taught that sports built character. This incident, however, revealed a very real truth. Sports don't build character, they reveal it. They bring out certain emotions and responses that tend to show what is truly in your heart and character.
We tend to think that signs and miracles build faith. How many of us before we became Christians declared that if we could just see some sort of biblical-style miracle, then we would believe. That's all it would take for us. But is that really true? Nearly everywhere that Jesus went, he performed signs and wonders that pointed to the coming of the new creation of God, but yet many did not believe. In fact, many who saw those signs reacted in quite the wrong manner. They paid more attention to the spectacle of the signs than to what they were really pointing to. True faith comes from the humility of recognizing and embracing truth, it simply cannot come from being amazed. Signs won't create the faith in us, they can only offer an opportunity for our true characters and faith to be shown for what they are. This is because just as sports reveal rather than build character, signs and miracles reveal faith rather than build it.
We are told in the previous passage that the crowds were searching for Jesus and wanted to know when he arrived, apparently shocked or confused at how he got there so quickly. Jesus completely ignores there question and gets right to the heart of the matter. He's not at all flattered by the fact that they were searching for them, he's quite disturbed by it in fact. They weren't seeing the true sustenance and bread in the sign, all they were seeing was the show and the sign in the bread that Jesus multiplied. They weren't searching for the truth of the Word, they wanted more of a spectacle. Like the women at the well who wanted a fresh supply of physical water rather than realizing the spiritual truths of which Jesus was speaking. Jesus challenges them on working for earthly food that spoils rather than seeking the eternal life that was available through the Son of Man, who has been shown to be truly from heaven by the seal of approval that God the Father has placed on him.
To truly comprehend the exchange that is about to take place we need to understand a few things. The first thing is the Jewish assumption that God required certain works of the law in order for His people to stand in the right place and be considered righteous before God. The second thing is that there was a common Jewish Messianic expectation that when the Messiah finally returned he would usher in the age to come and the resurrection with him and would renew the miracle of supplying God's people with manna. These two assumptions lie behind the inability or unwillingness of the crowds here to accept what Jesus is saying.
The first of these two assumptions leads to the crowd's question of verse 28. Jesus has urged them to stop seeking more bread to fill up their stomachs and to search for eternal life, which for first century Jews meant their place and share in the age to come. So when they asked him, "what must we do to do the works God requires," it's a pretty natural question. In their mind a place in the age to come came to those who were righteous based on their adherence to the works of the law. So, when Jesus speaks of eternal life, they naturally want to know what works in particular that God is going to require of them. Jesus answers this question but changes their assumption of "works" to a singular "work." They were confident that they could meet the requirements of God if he would but tell them what they are, but the only requirement they need is to believe in the one he has sent. We, of course, understand this to mean that we must believe in his life. There is nothing that anyone can do to earn the eternal life that God has offered. We must enter into the life of Christ and there is nothing that we can do on our own to achieve that, except to die to our own life.
Jesus has just, in no uncertain terms, set himself up as the standard by which anyone gains access to the life of the age to come. The crowd responds with a demand, which in the original Greek makes clear that they have no belief that he will actually be able to do so. They want a sign, but haven't they already seen a pretty incredible sign of Jesus feeding multitudes with five loaves and two fish? Jews considered a sign done from heaven to be the highest form of legitimizing one's claim. It's not that they are denying that Jesus did a sign but it wasn't enough to convince them, nor was it the kind of sign they were looking for. We might think feeding a crowd of nearly twenty-thousand people with a few scraps is impressive, but in their minds Moses fed the people with manna that was from heaven for forty years. That's what they want to see. They want to see manna, then they will believe. They have certain expectations of what a Messiah is going to do and they are basically demanding that Jesus meets those expectations in order for them to believe. He had done something quite amazing, but could he prove that he was worthy of their belief by producing manna?
Their demand for a sign like the manna shows not that they are close to coming to faith but instead reveals that they do not have faith at all. They are missing the point entirely. Moses did not give them the bread from heaven, it is God who does that. It was God who gave them the manna, but that manna was not the true bread from heaven. The manna was temporary and to be given over and over again. It was given only to Israel. The bread of which Jesus speaks is far greater and far different from that bread. It is eternal and gives life to the world. The bread of which Jesus speaks is the sustenance of the age to come that can only come from heaven. Perhaps it should not surprise us that John refers to the bread that came down from heaven seven times in this discourse. John is again showing us that this is an act of new creation. Jesus did not come to concern himself with meeting the Messianic and materialistic expectations of the crowds, he came to usher those who believe in him into the new creation. This would take a totally rethinking on their part about who the Messiah was and what he came to do.
The crowds are ready for bread, but probably in the same sense that the woman at the well wanted the water. She initially wanted the water so that she wouldn't have to be bothered with going back to the well over and over again and being confronted with people. Similarly, Jesus seems to be referring to the fact that they want something easy and attractive. They don't want the bread that he has speaking of. They'll believe in him if he will only show them something that rivals the manna of Moses.
To their request to always give them this bread, Jesus makes a bold claim that will set up some of his hard teachings later in this discourse. He is the one who fulfills the Messianic expectations to satisfy hunger and thirst (Isa. 55:1-2; 49:10). He will not just facilitate the coming of this bread, nor will he merely tell them what to do to get the bread. He is the bread of life. This is the first of, you guessed it, seven "I am" statements that Jesus makes in the Gospel of John (the others will come in 8:12 & 9:5; 10:7, 9; 10:11; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1). The bread of life, living water, it's all him. To get these things every human must come to him. It's not about what we can go do. We must come to him and believe that he is the source and sustenance of life. In fact, as Jesus will state clearly in 11:25 and 14:6, he is the life. Until they, and we, recognize that he is the true bread of life, we will have a hunger that continues in us that can never be satiated.
Do you ever fall into the trap of thinking that we must do the works that God requires in order to find salvation? As noble as this might sound, it is simply another way to try to satisfy our hunger by our own efforts. Do you truly trust that the life of Christ is the only genuine bread of life? Spend some time meditating on that truth today.