In the three year lectionary, the Gospel text this year for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost is John 6:35-51.
Let us observe how our text starts.
First, Jesus declares who He is. He says, “I am the bread of life.”
Next, He says that they have seen him.
Then, He says that although they have seen him, yet they do not believe.
Finally, He speaks about the role of the Father in faith.
How did Jesus get onto this topic? What does He mean by these sayings?
Our clue is in the nearby context that just precedes our text. John 6:30-31 says:
30 Therefore they said to Him, “What sign will You perform then, that we may see it and believe You? What work will You do? “Our fathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
The people made these statements, and in our text, Jesus answers them. This is a dialogue. The people said something, and Jesus responds to it. He is not launching off to something else. He is addressing their topic.
The people made specific claims. Jesus gives specific answers. Understanding their claims helps us understand his answers.
Notice a line connecting three of their words: sign, see, believe. They said, “What sign will you perform then, that we may see and believe.” They were making a claim about faith. They were asserting a proposition about coming to Christ. They were saying that faith comes by seeing a sign.
They illustrated this from Moses and the manna in the wilderness. They said, “Our fathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
They were claiming that when the Hebrews saw the sign of manna, they believed. They were claiming that, like the Hebrews before them, they also believed Moses and that they believed him because of his sign. Therefore, they were claiming, that if only Jesus would give them a sign comparable to what Moses did, they would believe Jesus. They were claiming that faith comes from seeing a sign, and if Jesus performs a proper sign, they would come to Christ.
Is that true?
Is seeing believing?
Does their illustration prove their point?
Jesus tells us in our text what their attitude toward him was. In verse 43, He says, “Do not murmur among yourselves.” Murmuring does not come to Jesus.
Let us stop to remember. Where have we heard about murmuring before?
After God gave the Hebrews water from the rock to drink, quail to eat, and manna from heaven to eat, what did they do? The whole story of Exodus and Numbers is the murmuring and complaining of the people. They continually wish that God had not brought them out of Egypt into the wilderness. Even when they reach the promised land, what is their attitude? We see it in Psalm 106:24-25
24 Then they despised the pleasant land;
They did not believe His word,
25 But murmured in their tents,
And did not heed the voice of the LORD.
The people are murmuring against Jesus, and their illustration from Moses and the manna proves nothing, because the Hebrews murmured against that too, and even against the promised land flowing with milk and honey.
Seeing is not believing.
Those verses in the Psalm give us a key. “They did not believe His word.” “They did not heed the voice of the Lord.” Because they wanted to base faith on signs and seeing rather than the word of the Lord, they did not believe.
Deuteronomy 8:3 tells us why the Lord brought them into the wilderness and gave them manna:
So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.
As the Hebrews were tested in the wilderness for 40 years, so Jesus was tested in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights, fasting that whole time. Matthew 4:2 says, “afterward He was hungry.” Luke 4:2 says, “afterward, when [the 40 days] had ended, He was hungry.” What an understatement. I am sure He was hungry before the end of the 40 days. This is to make us understand that it was a trial. He was sorely hungry. But Jesus understands Moses, manna, signs, the Word of God, and life. Matthew 4:3-4 says,
3 Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, “If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”
4 But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”
Notice the issue put by the tempter, whether Jesus is the Son of God. How would we know? By a sign of bread? By Jesus turning stones into bread?
No. We know from the Word of God.
Jesus had just been baptized by John. It was immediately after his Baptism that the Spirit drove him into the wilderness to be tempted by the Devil. In that Baptism, the Father gave his Word. The Father said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” With this Word alone and otherwise starving, Jesus held in faith.
The people do not understand Jesus, the bread of life. They already had not understood Moses and the manna. So, in the dialogue, Jesus responds directly to what they said about Moses and the manna.
In verse 32, Jesus says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give you the bread from heaven.” No, it was not Moses. It was the Father. But because they did not receive it from the Father, they received as if from Moses, they murmured. They complained. They wandered in unbelief.
This is the reason Jesus now talks to them about the Father. Not signs and seeing to believe, but the Father and hearing his Word. Jesus continues in verse 32, “My Father gives you the true bread from heaven.” In other words, as the Father, not Moses, gave the manna in the wilderness, so the Father now gives the true bread from heaven, the bread of life, Jesus Christ.
Manna is only a sign of Christ, not Christ himself. The bread that fed the 5,000 shortly before our text is only a sign of Christ, not Christ himself. Seeing these signs did not create faith.
Amazingly, even seeing Jesus did not create faith. Remember we observed in our text that Jesus says, although they have seen him, yet they do not believe. Seeing is not believing.
Faith is tied to the Father and to his Word and Sacrament. In our text, in verse 37, Jesus says, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.”
What makes God your Father? Your Baptism. You were baptized into the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. In the Small Catechism, Luther asks:
How can water do such great things?
Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.
So, in our text, Jesus connects the Father and the Word. In verse 45 He says, “It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Therefore everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me.”
Let us observe the words of this saying: taught, heard, learned from the Father. Those who are taught, who hear, who learn from the Father come to Christ. As Paul says in Romans 10:17, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”
Even in the sign of feeding the 5,000, it was the Father who gave the bread. Remember from John 6:11, “Jesus took the loaves, and when He had given thanks He distributed them to the disciples.” Jesus gave thanks to the Father. What was He thanking the Father for? Was He thanking Him only for the five loaves and two fish? No. He was thanking the Father that the Father would give bread to feed 5,000. Why thank the Father if it was not the Father who gave the bread? It was the Father who gave bread to 5,000 just as it was the Father who gave the manna in the wilderness and the Father who gives us the true bread from heaven, the bread of life, Jesus Christ.
On the cross, the Father forsook Jesus because Jesus was bearing our sins for us. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” This is a cry of faith. Despite all appearances, with no sign of being God’s Son – on the contrary, with all signs condemning him – Jesus still calls his Father, “My God,” which is a confession of faith. He can detect nothing in the world, in his body, or in his soul for any assurance. There are no signs of fatherhood or sonship. All He has is the bare Word such as from his Baptism. Clinging to this Word alone, with everything else stripped away, faith still turns to the Father and says, “My God.”
Seeing is not believing. The Word in Scripture, the Word in preaching, the Word in Baptism, and the Word in the Sacrament of the Altar – faith comes by hearing the Word. After 40 days of starving in a wilderness, which, in a manner of speaking, might happen to you in your Christian life, don’t look for signs. Don’t look for them in the world. Don’t look for them in your body. Don’t look for them in your soul. Don’t try to turn stones into bread. Jesus did not do that even though He could. Follow Jesus. Remember your Baptism. Remember the Word your Father gave you when you were baptized, “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.”