The Food of Life
All physical life needs food to sustain it. Without food we die. We take food by eating and drinking. Only living people want food. The dead can neither eat nor drink. Thus in the physical realm, eating and drinking are identified with life. We do not learn to eat and drink. These actions are inherent in us and continue as long as we are alive. A person who does not want to eat or drink is ill and will eventually die. Eating and drinking are a key test of life. They are a persistent, life–long urge. But physical life eventually ends in death. Likewise the food that sustains this life also perishes—it does not last. It may be artificially preserved for a time just as physical life may be artificially prolonged by medical means, but left to itself food perishes.
The great discourse on life in the Scriptures was opened by the Lord Jesus Christ with these words: “Work not [for] the food which perishes, but [for] the food which abides unto life eternal…” (John 6: 27). What a word to heed, then as now—for there is a life that does not end and a corresponding food that alone sustains it! Is that life yours, dear reader—a life that death cannot touch? If so, are you going in for that which alone maintains it, for that which lasts? Or are you, sadly, labouring in the fields of this world for the food that perishes?
The Food that Perishes
The way that God has created us means that we must eat and drink to sustain our natural lives. Leave a man without food for several days and he will crave sustenance. But the Lord Jesus said “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which goes out through God’s mouth” (Matt. 4: 4). If there is a natural sphere, then there is a spiritual sphere. We all understand the need of food in the natural world, but many fail to carry the concept across to the spiritual realm. If a believer does not partake of the food that God has provided, then Satan will step in with his substitutes. In the spiritual realm you will either partake of God’s food or Satan’s.
In the West the supermarkets dominate the food and drink supply. The devil runs the spiritual supermarkets of this world. Their shelves are packed. There is always something new on offer. He will see to it that you never run out of junk food. He has an abundant supply. He is never short of offers. Something to meet every taste, satisfy every palate. Items that sell cheap. But there is nothing really cheap. It may appear to be so but it will have a future cost. Feed on what Satan offers and it will cost you dearly in your spiritual life, for you will never grow. You will be a spiritual dwarf. Sadly, today, especially in the West, many believers are walking spiritual skeletons! At best they are like Pharaoh’s lean cattle (see Gen. 41: 19). Many a believer spends hours watching TV, surfing the Internet, playing computer games etc., while seconds, comparatively speaking, are spent with the Scriptures. Even things that seem innocuous like music, reading, gardening, housework, careers, family etc. can be taken up by Satan and used to dominate your life, weighing you down (see Heb. 12: 1). Be assured he has something to meet every taste. His supermarkets are open all hours—24 hours a day, seven days a week—they never close.
What then is this food that “abides unto life eternal” and thus lasts? To answer this question we must ask further questions. Why is this discourse on life recorded in the Bible? Why is it that of the four Evangelists it is John alone that records it?
John and his Gospel
John is the last of the NT writers and the general consensus is that he penned his writings long after Peter and Paul had left this scene. The nature of each of the apostolic writings was determined by the way each apostle initially met the Lord. John was apprehended by the Lord when he was mending nets (see Matt. 4: 21). As one of the Twelve, he was there at the beginning but he was also left by the Lord to not only witness the initial rapid numerical spread of Christianity but also its subsequent equally swift spiritual decline. In keeping with his call, John’s ministry in general, and his Gospel in particular, is on the line of recovery. He was God’s man in reserve.
The words faith and believe are used by every NT writer. In his Gospel John uses the word believe 85 times but the word faith does not occur at all. Has this no voice to us? Faith, as a noun, is just the thing in itself, in this case an abstract concept; believe, being a verb is a doing word—what the noun actively expresses as carried out by persons. Now John lived to see many making claims to the Christian faith yet with little or no evidence of that faith having an ongoing and continuous activity in their lives. Hence at the end of his Gospel John records, “Many other signs therefore also Jesus did before his disciples, which are not written this book; but these are written that ye may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye might have life in his name” (John 20: 30, 31, my emphasis). It is not ‘having believed …’ as if the matter is a finished past event, but the present participle “believing” indicating continuity. Many appear to think that having believed on conversion, then that is it. It is not. Believing is to be the dominant characteristic of us here for the rest of our days—we are to be believing believers! Time and again John uses the present tense in his Gospel in connection with life. For example we read “He that believes on the Son has life eternal” (John 3: 36). This is not the future tense of consequence—of how to obtain it— for that would be ‘he that shall believe shall have life eternal’, but the present tense of identification, marking out the one who has it. Hence the purpose of such verses is not to show how life may be obtained but to identify those who have it. Many were claiming to have eternal life. John is saying here that only those who have an active faith have it.
John 6: the Great Life Chapter of the NT
The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle recorded by all four evangelists. However, although Matthew, Mark and Luke wrote earlier than John, they do not record the associated teaching given by the Lord. They were prevented from giving that teaching by the Holy Spirit, who held it back until John wrote. Why was this? Because the general conditions that existed among the Jews when the Lord was here would soon be mirrored in Christianity. Thus the initial freshness of the early years of Christianity would be rapidly replaced by a spiritual deadness. At the time the Lord spoke there was plenty in Judaism that was external but hollow having no inner vitality. Claims in abundance, but little reality. Plenty of reversion to the past (such as the manna and Moses in John 6) but no present spirituality. Hence the Lord’s teaching then for the Jews based on the feeding of the five thousand; hence the record and revelation of that teaching now for Christians. And if it was needed in the closing days of the last apostle, how much greater the need now, in the closing days of Christianity!
The Teaching on Life
The teaching on life is given in the discourse of John 6: 26–59 and consists of six verbal exchanges between the Lord and the Jews. In studying this teaching we must ever remember that those addressed were Jews and not Christians. What we apply to ourselves must not in any way negate or weaken the interpretation which belonged to those in Judaism. The food the Lord spoke of was “unto life eternal” (v27) and hence this blessing was then future and needed resurrection to enter into it (see v40). To the Jew there were just two periods of time: the present one of law and the future one of the Kingdom under the Messiah. The latter is the “age to come” (Heb. 6: 5), the millennium which the Lord in this chapter in John calls “the last day”—a term familiar in Judaism (see John 11: 24). The Jews also knew about eternal life (see Luke 10: 25–37; 18: 18–30 etc.) for it was referred to in the OT (see Ps. 133: 3; Dan 12: 2). For them this blessing will be realised on earth and is future. Thus when we read that “He that believes [on me] has life eternal” (John 6: 47), this is not present possession (for it could not be possessed then), but entitlement—identification of the one who has title to it.
In this chapter the threads of “life” and “life eternal” (or eternal life) are woven together but are still distinguishable. Essentially, there is no separation between the two—only distinction. In these verses, “life” is given to the world (see vs 33, 51), but not “life eternal” while “life eternal”, but not “life”, is identified with “the last day” (see vs 40, 54). Eternal life is always objective—something outside of ourselves which we enter into; life however, is both objective and subjective.
The great stumbling block for the Jews was that all rested on Christ with no thought whatever of national privilege, for He speaks of Himself here as elsewhere as Son of Man, that is, in relation to all men, rather than as Son of David, which puts Him distinctly in relation to Israel. Throughout the discourse the thoughts of believing on Him (vs 29, 35, 40, 47) and coming to Him (vs 35, 37, 44, 45) are mingled together. As the Jews were in the Lord’s presence, that coming was not a physical one but a spiritual movement of the heart to Himself. But as He had said on a previous occasion “ye will not come to me that ye might have life” (John 5: 40) and in this chapter “ye have also seen me and do not believe” (John 6: 36). Four times (see vs 39, 40, 44, 54) He told them that He would be the One who would raise the individual to enter into the blessing of eternal life at the last day.
The food that “abides unto life eternal” (v27) is expressed in several ways (see vs 27, 32, 33, 35, 41, 48) as the discourse proceeds but it is always Christ Himself. Finally it is expressed in words that can only involve His death (see vs 50, 51) and then accordingly for the first time the Lord speaks of eating. This caused contention among His hearers and opened the way for the final response from the Lord in the chapter—a response that carries great importance for us, as for them.
The Final Exchange
“How can he give us this flesh to eat?” (v52) was the last query from the Jews in the passage and occasioned the Lord’s final response: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Unless ye shall have eaten the flesh of the Son of man, and drunk his blood, ye have no life in yourselves” (v53). This is a crucial verse and represents the pivotal point in the teaching. It is introduced as ever in John by the double verily indicating its importance. The fact that the language is figurative only serves to intensify the truth conveyed, for figures are always used in language to create emphasis. To literally eat the flesh of a man would be cannibalism, and to drink the blood of anything was strictly prohibited for the Jew (see Lev. 7: 26, 27 etc.). The distinctive separation of the flesh and blood in the figure makes it clearly expressive of the Lord’s death in the most vivid way possible. The solemnity of the words is clear. It is imperative that their meaning be equally plain. It is not now a question of coming to Him or believing on Him, as expressed previously in the discourse, but of eating. The Lord did not say ‘Unless ye shall have come to me or believed … ye have no life’ for every believer now has life in Christ (see Col. 3: 4; 2 Tim. 1: 1). It is “Unless ye shall have eaten … ye have no life in yourselves”, the key words being “in yourselves”. (Note carefully, it is “life” and not “life eternal”, for, as previously mentioned, eternal life is never said to be in us. Yes, in the following verse the word is “He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life eternal, and I will raise him up at the last day” (v54), for he that partakes of Christ in eating must have previously come to Him (see v46) and believed on Him (see v47). Thus the title to eternal life in the future is reiterated in v54 for the one who thus eats, but he has life in himself now.)
When Paul wrote to the Galatians, he could say “Christ lives in me” (2: 20)—he had life in himself. While he acknowledged the faith of the Galatians (see Gal. 3: 2 and compare with Eph. 1: 13), he had to address them as a mother saying “of whom I again travail in birth until Christ shall have been formed in you” (Gal. 4: 19). They had believed but Christ was apparently not formed in them—while they had life in Christ, the apostle was not prepared to acknowledge that they had life in themselves—he could not say ‘Christ lives in you’. By way of contrast, the Colossians were told “Christ in you the hope of glory”. (Col. 1: 27). How is Christ formed in us? By feeding on His death, not just by believing in it. It has been well said that a man is what he eats. Thus in John 6 the Lord goes on to say “He that eats my flesh and drinks my blood dwells in me and I in him” (v56). Every believer is in Christ but Christ only dwells in us as a result of feeding on His death.
The repository of all spiritual food is the Scriptures—the Bible. Thus “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word which goes out through God’s mouth” (Matt. 4: 4). This food is available to the believer irrespective of the day in which his lot is cast. Theologians study the Scriptures, but often that is all. Spiritual food is the realisation in my soul that God Himself is speaking to me personally. The Lord said to the Jews “Ye search the scriptures, for ye think that in them ye have life eternal,” but He added “and they it is which bear witness concerning me” (John 5: 39). Someone wrote a book once entitled Christ in all the Scriptures. How true! I may know the Bible from cover to cover, yet be a stranger to the One of whom it speaks. The Bible is a means to an end, not the end in itself. You can be occupied with the Bible’s teachings and know the prophetic calendar accurately but be a stranger to Christ. You can become obsessed with the beauty of the Scriptures, and yet be oblivious to the One who is altogether lovely. You can marvel at the accuracy of its language, and yet be foreign to the One who is its central theme. You may be able to teach its doctrines without a flaw, but never know the One on whom those doctrines rest. You may be able to, as sadly few today can, rightly divide the word of truth, distinguishing the dispensations, differentiating between the ways of God and His eternal purpose, and yet …! Spiritual food is in the Scriptures and for the Christian that food is Christ. In John 6 the Jews spoke of the manna. The food that lasts is not the manna nor of what the manna speaks in type. Yes, I need to take in daily all the grace of Christ in His life here—for that is what the manna speaks of—in order to fit me for the problems and difficulties I face every day on my wilderness journey. But that is not the food of John 6, which is set so clearly in contrast to the manna. It is not just the life of Christ in itself, precious though that is to ponder, but rather what ever lay behind it.
The Food that Lasts
Christ in His death is the food that lasts. That death infuses the Scriptures from beginning to end. Even the life of Jesus is permeated by His death for He who said “thy sins are forgiven thee” (Luke 5: 20) would bear those sins on the cross. This food is available to the believer now. For example, John 3: 16 is probably the Scripture most quoted by believers, sometimes rather glibly. But how many have feasted on its wondrous truths? How much has been taken in, even in a tiny measure, what it meant for God to give His only–begotten Son? For what is given is lost for ever. Something of the tremendous cost to God that was involved may be seen in the shadow when Abraham offered Isaac in Gen. 22, but, as ever, the type falls short, for in the event Isaac did not die and Abraham never lost him. Yes, the Lord was raised from the dead but the condition of “blood and flesh” (Heb. 2: 14) in which He entered this scene terminated in His death, for the blood was shed, and that life that was a delight to God (see Matt. 3: 17) was forever ended. Hence in resurrection, the Lord says that “a spirit has not flesh and bones as ye see me having” (Luke 24: 39), there being no reference to His blood.
Again, every believer can say with Paul “the Son of God, who has loved me and given Himself for me” (Gal. 2: 20). But how much of that wondrous truth has been digested? What did He give? He gave Himself and that for me! The very words used show that the apostle had digested this immense truth. What was involved for the Lord Jesus? What was the cost to my Saviour? If there was a cost to God, there was a corresponding cost to Him. Perhaps that questioning cry on the cross given in Matt. 27: 46 is the answer in a divinely condensed form. The awfulness of those three hours of darkness are touched on anticipatively in Luke 22: 39–48 and prophetically in Psalms 22 and 69—may we feed on it!
This alone is the food that lasts and carries through to the eternal day. I may read the facts of that death in the Gospels, read of all that rests on it in the Epistles and see something of the detail in the types of the OT but I must ingest that truth for myself. What more could be said of that death as securing the Assembly (see Eph. 5: 25), the defeat of Satan (see Heb. 2: 14, 15), and ultimately the reconciling of all things to the Godhead (see Col. 1: 20)? But time and space demand that I leave the matter now with the reader.
Every believer has life in Christ (see Col. 3: 4), but God wants Christ to be formed in each one as well. That formation is only effected by feeding on Christ in His death so that the life of Christ comes out in testimony here. When the Lord was on this earth, what was a delight to God came out in a single Person, because the Lord entered into the limited conditions of man. Now, in the time of His absence, that same life can be multiplied by being seen in every believer who feeds on His death. There is no other way: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Unless ye shall have eaten the flesh of the Son of man, and drunk his blood, ye have no life in yourselves” (John 6: 53).