“The True Bread of Life,” Ensign, Mar. 1999, 7
The Savior’s sermon on the Bread of Life is one of the most edifying discourses ever given. Grappling with and ultimately accepting the Lord’s message contained in this discourse is essential for all who would follow Him. Yet the sermon is so intimately bound to the other events and literary pattern of the sixth chapter of John that it is clarified only by studying the entire chapter’s setting, pattern, symbols, and types.
Consider this general pattern: a multitude follows a man they regard as a possible prophet to a solitary place; the multitude is miraculously fed; the prophet departs alone into a mountain; a spectacular crossing of the sea occurs wherein Jesus Christ saves His disciples; murmuring and debate among the multitude follows, leading to criticism of Him; and finally a profound discourse is given on the meaning of the preceding events.
Do these events seem familiar? This pattern is a general outline of the Exodus of Israel out of Egyptian bondage. The same pattern also fits the events in chapter 6 of John, which reveal a new exodus. In the Exodus of ancient Israel, as well as in the pattern in John 6, a type emerges of a lost and fallen people who follow a deliverer, receive divine nourishment as a gift from God, and are saved only through and by Jesus Christ. Further, both the new and the old exodus typify an even greater pattern: the eternal plan of redemption.
Scripture declares that “all things have their likeness, and all things are created and made to bear record” of Jesus Christ (Moses 6:63). The Book of Mormon certifies that “all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him [Jesus Christ]” (2 Ne. 11:4; see also Mosiah 3:15; Mosiah 13:10, 31; Alma 13:16; Alma 25:15; Alma 33:19; Alma 37:45).
A scriptural pattern, or type, frequently cited in the standard works is the ancient Exodus of Israel out of bondage from Egypt and into the promised land (see Isa. 11:11, 15–16; Jer. 16:12–15; 1 Ne. 17:23–35; 2 Ne. 3:9–10; Hel. 8:11–16; Acts 3:22–23; Acts 7:37; 1 Cor. 10:1–6). And “it is in the Gospel of John that we encounter the most concentrated Exodus typology,” wrote one author.1
A type can be defined as “a person, event, or ritual with likeness to another person, event, or ritual of greater importance which is to follow. … True types will have noticeable points of resemblance, show evidence of divine appointment, and be prophetic of future events.”2
The chart below shows some parallels between the Exodus events and events in John 6. John focused on their historical and symbolic similarities to teach God’s eternal plan for all of His children. Both the ancient Exodus and the pattern of the new exodus in John 6 typify that our salvation is found only in Jesus Christ.
Let’s study John 6 closely. Verse 2 indicates that a great multitude followed Jesus across the Sea of Galilee because of the signs they saw. Before meeting with the crowd, Jesus “went up into a mountain, and there he sat with his disciples” (John 6:3). Significantly, John points out that “the passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh” (John 6:4). These references to the multitude following the Savior, to Jesus going up into the mountain, and to the Passover indicate significant similarities between the events of John 6 and the ancient Exodus of Israel. Like the earlier Israelites of the Exodus, the throng following Christ was not wholly committed to Him but followed because of the miracles they saw (John 6:2). In both cases, the purpose for leading them into the wilderness was to teach them to believe and trust in God (see Deut. 6:21–25; Josh. 24:14; Ps. 78; John 6:29–30, 35–36, 40, 47, 64, 69).
The Exodus pattern echoes similar stories of wanderers being led through a strange land, or a lonely and dreary world where tests and trials occur. “The idea that this life is a pilgrimage through the desert did not originate with the Christians or even the Jews: it has been the religious memory of the human race from the earliest dispensations of the Gospel.”3 The pattern for these stories seems to have been set in the premortal existence, when it was said, “We will go down, … and we will make an earth whereon these may dwell; And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abr. 3:24–25).
Thus, the stage was set for our mortal sojourn, wherein we become “wanderers in a strange land” (Alma 26:36). But “the way is prepared for all men from the foundation of the world” (1 Ne. 10:18) so that “whosoever will may walk therein and be saved” (Alma 41:8). Ultimately, our return to the heavenly promised land depends upon our faithful obedience to God and His prophets. Like the Jews of John’s time and the Israelites of Moses’ time, all mankind is in the same probationary predicament, but the Savior has promised, “I will also be your light in the wilderness; and I will prepare the way before you, if it so be that ye shall keep my commandments” (1 Ne. 17:13).
John 6:5–14 recounts the miracle wherein the 5,000 are nourished with “five small barley loaves and two small fish,” multiplied by the power of God. This event corresponds to the providing of manna and quail to Israel during the Exodus. The Lord may have implied this connection when He admonished them to “labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you” (John 6:27). Jesus Christ, symbolized as the Bread of Life, provides the parallel between the manna of Moses’ day and the loaves multiplied in the feeding of the 5,000. The Father provided both breads, and they typify the Living Bread, also bestowed by the Father.
Another similitude of the Bread of Life is introduced in verse 11, which parallels both the symbolism of the manna and the loaves of the sacrament. Jesus “took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would” (John 6:11). John’s words foreshadow the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, wherein Jesus “took” the bread, gave “thanks,” and “gave” it to His Apostles to eat (see Matt. 26:26; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24). The phraseology effectively alerts the reader to the possible sacramental symbolism of both the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and of the manna of the Exodus.
The association of the symbols of the Exodus manna, the miraculous feeding, and the Last Supper is intensified by John’s report that “the passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh” (John 6:4). The Passover plays a major role in the writings of John. His central theme in this regard presents Jesus Christ as the Paschal Lamb (John 1:29; John 19:36) and as the way for us to pass over from this world of death to the Father and eternal life (see John 5:24; John 13:1).
One Passover symbol is of particular interest in the context of John 6. The unleavened bread, or “the bread of affliction” that was to be eaten during Passover week to remind the Israelites of their Exodus in haste from Egypt (see Ex. 12:39; Deut. 16:3), provides an important type of the Savior. Leaven, which produces fermentation, was often used in the scriptures as a symbol of sin, false doctrine, and hypocrisy (see Matt. 16:11–12; Mark 8:14–16; Luke 12:1). Jesus was the “unleavened bread” who was without sin or corruption and who led Israel out of the bondage of Egypt. The Apostle Paul linked the partaking of the unleavened bread under the old covenant with the symbols of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. He said:
“Christ our passover is sacrificed for us:
“Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor. 5:7–8).
The similitudes of unleavened bread, the manna, the loaves, and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper sustain each other in testifying of “the true bread from heaven” (John 6:32).
In verse 12, Jesus admonishes His disciples, “Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.” [John 6:12] They do so and consequently fill “twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten” (John 6:13). These actions echo the commandment to ancient Israel concerning the manna, that they were to “gather of it every man according to his eating” (Ex. 16:16). A similar command was given concerning the feast of the Passover. Israel was directed to “let nothing of it remain until the morning; and that which remaineth of it until the morning ye shall burn with fire” (Ex. 12:10).
One is also reminded of the table of shewbread, “the bread of the presence,” which stood in the Holy Place of the ancient tabernacle (see Ex. 25:30; Ex. 26:35). Twelve loaves of this unleavened bread were placed upon the table to be eaten each Sabbath by the priests and replaced with 12 new loaves (see Lev. 24:5–9). Whatever was not eaten was to be burned, so that nothing was lost (see Ex. 29:34).
The significant phrase that Jesus uses in John 6:12, “that nothing be lost,” seems to foreshadow His statement in the sermon that follows: “And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day” (John 6:39). These statements parallel John 17:12 and John 18:9 and may imply that “gather[ing] up the fragments” relates to gathering the faithful. Jesus’ concern that “nothing be lost” corresponds to the truth that Jesus would ultimately say to the Father, “Of them which thou gavest me have I lost none” (John 18:9).4 The imagery of eating all of the Passover meal, collecting the manna, consuming the shewbread, and gathering the fragments blend together in John’s testimony of the Savior’s role in gathering the faithful back to His Father.
Many in attendance at the miraculous feeding identified Jesus as “that prophet that should come into the world” (John 6:14). This relates to Deuteronomy 18:15–18 [Deut. 18:15–18], wherein Moses prophesies of the future prophet that God will raise up like unto him. The “great company” then sought to take Jesus “by force, to make him a king” (John 6:15).
A crucial episode of John 6 is the crossing of the sea. Literarily, this section functions as the axis for the entire chapter. In the midst of a turbulent sea in a darkened storm, the disciples are saved and attain their destination only by and through Jesus Christ (see Matt. 14:30–32). John’s focus on the images of darkness (see John 6:17) and wind (John 6:18) emphasize the sea crossing as an intimation of the Exodus (see Ex. 14:20–21).
John’s account paints a stirring depiction of people in trouble. His record speaks of the darkness of the night: “And it was now dark, and Jesus was not come to them” (John 6:17). As their predicament worsened because of “a great wind that blew” (John 6:18), Jesus miraculously walked on the water toward the boat, and the disciples grew afraid (see John 6:19). Their fears subsided with the simple yet profound assurance, “It is I; be not afraid” (John 6:20). As they “willingly” accepted the Savior into their ship, they arrived “immediately … at the land whither they went” (John 6:21). Unlike the writers of the synoptic gospels, John’s attention focuses not on the calming of the sea, nor on Peter’s attempt to walk upon the water, but on safe passage through the sea and the striking impression of the divine name (compare Ex. 3:14). The disciples’ receiving Jesus into their ship and then landing safely may be compared with the Israelites’ crossing the Red Sea by the power of Jehovah (see Ex. 14:15–31). Both accounts seem to typify Jehovah as the deliverer with whom Israel can safely survive mortality and enter into the eternal land of promise.
Like the Israelites of the Exodus, the multitudes of John’s narrative misunderstood the significance of the signs and events surrounding Jesus. After important junctures in Exodus history, the Lord and His prophets committed much time to teaching, chastening, and testifying (see Ex. 14:13–18; Ex. 15:25–26; Ex. 16:4–36; Ex. 17:4–7; Ex. 19–23). This same pattern is in John 6. The powerful Bread of Life discourse unfolds within the context of Jesus’ confrontation with the Jews. Potent and penetrating, His words offended some of His own disciples (see John 6:61, 66). Important background for this sermon occurred on the previous day when Jesus wondrously increased the provisions to sustain the hungry thousands. After they attempted to make Him their king, He departed into a mountain, and they did not locate Him till the next day in Capernaum.5
Upon meeting Him again, they inquired, “How camest thou hither?” (John 6:25, The Holy Scriptures: Inspired Version ). Jesus frankly confronted them with their real concern by declaring, “Ye seek me, not because ye desire to keep my sayings, neither because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled” (JST, John 6:26, footnote a). Like their ancestors in the wilderness of the Exodus, these people were less interested in obeying the commandments than in eating (see Ex. 15:24; Ex. 16:2–3). Jesus Christ was offering “words of eternal life,” and the people were hoping for a handout.
Jesus taught the crowd that they should “labour … for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you: for him hath God the Father sealed” (John 6:27). They queried, “What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?” (John 6:28). Jesus responded that they should “believe on him whom he hath sent” (John 6:29). They reacted by soliciting a sign (John 6:30). After all, they claimed, Moses gave them “bread from heaven to eat” (John 6:31). Jesus corrected them, asserting that “Moses gave you not that bread from heaven; but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven” (John 6:32). He then stated His preeminent point: “The bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world” (John 6:33). In other words, He, Jesus Christ, was the very sign for which they were asking. The manna of Moses’ time was a type of the true bread given of the Father, and that is none other than the Son. In a darkened spiritual state, these people could not or would not understand. To their request for this bread, Jesus unambiguously announced, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).
Like their ancestors who perished in the wilderness during the ancient Exodus, these people responded by murmuring (John 6:41).6 They asked, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? how is it then that he saith, I came down from heaven?” (John 6:42). Jesus answered by proclaiming, “No man can come unto me, except he doeth the will of my Father who hath sent me. And this is the will of him who hath sent me, that ye receive the Son; for the Father beareth record of him; and he who receiveth the testimony, and doeth the will of him who sent me, I will raise up in the resurrection of the just” (JST, John 6:44, Bible appendix).
He then declared that those who have “learned of the Father” will come unto the Son of God (John 6:45). Because they were mortal men, they could not see and be taught directly by Heavenly Father in their carnal state, but He, Jesus Christ, was “of God” and had seen and been taught by Heavenly Father (John 6:46). Therefore Jesus exclaimed, “He that believeth on me hath everlasting life” (John 6:47). This was an unexpected and startling proclamation to a group of people committed more to temporal survival and political ends than to everlasting life. Again, the Savior reminded them of their ancient Exodus progenitors, saying, “Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead” (John 6:49).
“We come now,” declared Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “to the crowning teaching of the sermon on the bread of life, which is, that men are saved by eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of God.”7 Jesus Himself stated:
“This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die.
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever” (John 6:50–51).
Jesus further declared, “The bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:51).
It is plain from the reaction of His Galilean audience that this was a “hard saying” (John 6:60). To convey these sacred truths to those who would listen and learn, Jesus again used similitudes:
“Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.
“Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.
“For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.
“He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him” (John 6:53–56).
Elder McConkie also explained that “to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of God is, first, to accept him in the most literal and full sense, with no reservation whatever, as the personal offspring in the flesh of the Eternal Father; and, secondly, it is to keep the commandments of the Son by accepting his gospel, joining his Church, and enduring in obedience and righteousness unto the end. Those who by this course eat his flesh and drink his blood shall have eternal life, meaning exaltation in the highest heaven of the celestial world.”8
Jesus spoke figuratively on this occasion, and the context of the discourse reveals as much. Elder James E. Talmage (1862–1933), a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, explained that “there was little excuse for the Jews pretending to understand that our Lord meant an actual eating and drinking of His material flesh and blood. The utterances to which they objected were far more readily understood by them than they are by us on first reading; for the representation of the law and of truth in general as bread, and the acceptance thereof as a process of eating and drinking, were figures in everyday use by the rabbis of that time. Their failure to comprehend the symbolism of Christ’s doctrine was an act of will, not the natural consequence of innocent ignorance.”9
Many were offended by Jesus’”hard saying” (John 6:60). He perceived their thoughts and asked, “What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?” (John 6:62). Jesus knew their attitudes and tried to help them: “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). Like murmuring Israel of Moses’ day, Jesus’ audience preferred to focus on the temporal level. Yet His truths still today can only be understood by the Spirit.
In the ancient Exodus and John 6, prophets bore witness of the Lord’s words and His power to save. For example, immediately after receiving “the commandments, the statutes, and the judgments” from the Lord (Deut. 6:1), Moses assembled the people and taught them to observe God’s words “all the days of thy life” (Deut. 6:2). He bore testimony of the Lord and His words. Moses told the people to “teach them diligently unto thy children” (Deut. 6:7) and to “bind them for a sign” (Deut. 6:8). He then promised the children of Israel that “if ye hearken to these judgments, and keep, and do them, that the Lord thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers: And he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee” (Deut. 7:12–13).
The concluding sequence of John 6 contains a similar prophetic testimony of God’s words (see John 6:66–71). When many of Jesus’ disciples turned away and “walked no more with him” (John 6:66), Jesus asked His Twelve, “Will ye also go away?” (John 6:67). Simon Peter declared, “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:68–69). Peter’s witness of Christ follows the pattern of all the prophets (compare Acts 10:43; Jacob 4:4–5).
President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, maintains that the eternal plan of happiness “is worthy of repetition over and over again. Then the purposes of life, the reality of the Redeemer, and the reason for the commandments will stay with [you].”10 President Ezra Taft Benson declared that we should use “the messages and the method of teaching found in the [scriptures] to teach this great plan of the Eternal God.”11 The scriptures often teach the eternal plan through types and shadows, patterns and similitudes. The ancient Exodus and the events in John 6 both teach, among other things, the importance of following Jesus Christ, that He provides all spiritual nourishment, and that He is our hope of deliverance from the bondage and sins of the world. Essentially, these patterns show us that only Jesus has the “words of eternal life” (John 6:68). In the Bread of Life sermon, the Savior brought the events described in John 6 into eternal perspective. The sermon itself becomes more understandable as we see how and why the Savior fused ancient and contemporary symbols to testify of His divine calling.