August 14, 2005

THE BREAD OF LIFE

“I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will not go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” John 6:35

Do you ever feel hungry for something but you’re not quite sure what? You know you crave something in particular, but you can’t figure out exactly what you want to eat. That’s a strange feeling. You go to the kitchen and start looking for something, but all the while you don’t know quite what you’re after. Finally, you grab a cookie or some fruit or some chips or whatever, but even as you’re munching, you know it wasn’t really what you wanted, and when you gulp down the last bite, you’re still not satisfied. You’re still hungry for something, and you still don’t know what it is. Whatever it is, it’s not what you just finished eating. That happens to me sometimes, and when it does, I feel a little silly. It’s no big deal, and I don’t spend much time worrying about it. I just shrug it off as a strange, unexplainable urge, and go about my business.

But there’s another hunger, a deeper hunger, a hunger for something we can’t quite figure out, and this hunger is the story of our lives. We long for something but can’t find anything to satisfy our inner craving. We try to fill our emptiness with various things, but we still come up empty.

Paul Newman starred in movies and was a sex symbol for decades. He drove racing cars. He started a successful company. He married a beautiful actress. But Paul Newman once told an interviewer, “I look like I’m having a lot of fun, and I am. But I should be having more fun than I’m having. In work, I’m not happy because it will never be good enough.”

A lot of us are like that. Oh, we’ll never be as handsome, as famous, or as rich as Paul Newman, but we’re just as hard to satisfy. No matter how much fun we’re having, it will never be enough. No matter how much we succeed in school or work, it’s never good enough. We keep trying various things to satisfy our hunger, and where do we end up? If we’re honest, many of us could echo the old hit by the Rolling Stones: “I can’t get no satisfaction. I try, and I try, and I try, and I try. I can’t get no satisfaction.”

Everybody’s got a hungry heart, and this hunger is much more real and much more important than the vague feeling that moves us to get up at night and raid the kitchen. It’s the most basic and significant fact about every person. Everybody’s got a hungry heart, and there’s only one kind of food that can satisfy this kind of hunger: the bread of life. We can try all sorts of other things, but we’ll remain frustrated, we’ll remain empty, we’ll remain hungry until we feast on that bread.

A Hungry Heart

Once there was a king who had a hungry heart. He tried everything he could think of to satisfy his hunger. This king was a ruler, a billionaire, a scholar, and a playboy, all rolled into one. He got whatever he wanted, but it wasn’t enough.

The first thing he tried was the first thing many of us try: pleasure. He got as many laughs as he could. He partied with the best drinks money could buy. But party life didn’t satisfy him.

Then the king tried more “mature” pleasures. He built fabulous palaces and parks. He tried the delicious pleasure of power, of being in charge and giving orders. He didn’t just have employees; he had slaves. No corporate boss could top the king’s power or his income. This king literally measured his annual income by how many tons of gold he brought in that year (1 Kings 10:14). If the pleasures of power and money were the answer, this king would have felt fulfilled. But he didn’t.

Well, what about sex? These days we’re bombarded with the message that sex is the source of happiness. Did the king somehow overlook sex? No, this king, Solomon, had a thousand of the world’s most beautiful women in his harem. What some people only fantasize about, Solomon did with an endless variety of women. It was fun for a while, but it wasn’t fulfilling. In Ecclesiastes 2:11, Solomon said that his pursuit of pleasure was “meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”

The king decided to look for fulfillment somewhere besides the pursuit of pleasure. He focused on education. If the main point of life is to learn as much as you can and to be the smartest person around, Solomon had it made. He was brilliant. He had an amazing understanding of people and politics. He was a poet and songwriter. He conducted scientific research and gave lectures on plants and animals. He was the foremost scientific authority of his time. People came from all over just to hear him speak (1 Kings 4:29-34).

But what did it all amount to? Solomon said that it was better to be smart than to be stupid, but in the end, it didn’t make much difference. “Like the fool, the wise man too must die!” (Ecclesiastes 2:16) Everybody ends up dead, and one corpse is no smarter than another. Your report card and your academic degrees won’t be carved on your tombstone.

If pleasure isn’t the answer, and education isn’t the answer, then what about work and achievement?” Well, work for the sake of working is the dumbest idea yet! What’s the workaholic’s reward? Stressful days and sleepless nights. Solomon said, “All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.”

But can’t work at least bring a sense of lasting achievement? Dream on! King Solomon knew that no matter how hard you work, no matter what you accomplish, you can’t take it with you, and you can’t even leave it behind! It just disappears. You leave the results of your hard work to someone who hardly works, and he might ruin everything. You may be working hard so that you can leave it all to Junior—but who knows how stupid Junior is going to be? As Solomon put it, “who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool?”

When Solomon wrote this, maybe he was thinking of his son, the crown prince Rehoboam, and saw trouble ahead. Solomon’s brilliant reign made the nation of Israel bigger, richer, and stronger than ever before. But when Solomon died, boneheaded Rehoboam took over and ruined it all. The kingdom fell apart, and things were never the same again (1 Kings 12). Solomon’s grand achievements came to nothing.

So if you’re seeking satisfaction in pleasure or education or work, give it up. King Solomon had more fun than you’ll ever have. He was smarter than you’ll ever be. He worked harder and achieved more than you ever will. Solomon tried to satisfy his inner hunger by stuffing himself with everything under the sun. But it wasn’t enough for him. And it’s not enough for us.

Everybody’s got a hungry heart. Why is that? Where does this hunger come from? It comes from the way God made us. As Solomon put it in Ecclesiastes 3:11, God “set eternity in the hearts of men.” Every girl and boy, every man and woman, has eternity in the heart. Everybody’s got a heart the size of eternity, and nothing under the sun can fill that space. God deliberately made us in such a way that we’ll never be satisfied with anything smaller than eternity. And there’s nothing the size of eternity except God himself. Each of us has an emptiness that only God can fill, an appetite that only God can satisfy.

One of the most striking things Jesus ever said is this: “’I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will not go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty'” (John 6:35). In that one astonishing statement, Jesus says that he can fill the emptiness and satisfy the hunger of every human heart.

A Free Lunch

Shortly before he said this, Jesus had filled thousands of stomachs. In John 6 the Bible says that crowds of people had heard about Jesus and had come to see the man everyone was talking about. They found Jesus out on a hillside far from any town or market. Meal time rolled around, people’s stomachs were growling, and they hadn’t packed lunch for themselves. Jesus knew the crowd was getting hungry, so he asked his friend Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?”

Philip didn’t like the question. No way could they buy food for all these people!

“Lord,” Philip said, “Eight months’ wages wouldn’t buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”

Another of Jesus’ disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

Andrew didn’t think that one boy’s lunch box would do much good. But what did Jesus do?

Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and the men sat down, about five thousand of them. The crowd was so large they didn’t have time to count the women and children (Matthew 14:21). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.

When they had all had enough to eat, Jesus said to his disciples, “Gather all the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. (John 6:5-13)

What a picnic! You start with a small boy’s lunch, you sit on the grass with thousands upon thousands of famished people, you all eat until you’re completely stuffed, and when you’re done, you have to figure out who gets the leftovers.

Needless to say, the crowd was delighted. Free food without working for it! Jesus had the power to give them whatever they craved! This was their kind of guy! The people started planning how to make Jesus their king. But while they were wiping their mouths and making their plans, Jesus slipped quietly away.

The crowd was disappointed that Jesus was gone, and they went looking for him. The next day, they found him again, but when they started talking with him, Jesus seemed to be on an entirely different wavelength. They got into quite a discussion.

Jesus told them that they were looking for him for the wrong reason. Their main motivation was that Jesus had somehow given them plenty to eat, and they were interested in an unlimited source of free meals. They didn’t understand that the miraculous meal was a sign pointing to something more important.

Bread from Heaven

The crowds were looking only for the food that fills hollow stomachs for a little while, but Jesus wanted them to seek food that satisfies hungry hearts forever. Jesus said,

“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.”

Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”

Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”

Well, they said, if Jesus wanted them to believe in him, he’d have to do something to earn it. Back when Moses led the people out of Egypt, he’d given them manna, miracle food, bread from heaven. The manna had fed an entire nation every morning for forty years in the desert. Could Jesus top that? So far, he’d provided only one meal for a few thousand people. He’d have to do better than that!

Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, 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. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:26-35)

A little later, Jesus explained this even further.

I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Jesus says that he’s the only bread that can satisfy the eternity-sized hollow in our hearts. His flesh is the only bread that can make us live forever. Try anything else, and you’ll find that it’s not enough, not even if it’s a gift from God himself. When God gave the people manna in the wilderness, it wasn’t enough. Their bellies were full, but their souls remained empty. When Jesus gave bread to the 5,000 men and their families, it wasn’t enough. Their bellies were full, but their souls remained empty. Today, when God gives us food and clothes and wealth and entertainment and whatever else, it’s not enough. Our bellies are full, but our souls remain empty. The only gift of God that can satisfy our hunger for eternity is the gift of himself in Jesus Christ.

According to Jesus, his flesh is the bread we need. Jesus said he would offer his flesh for the life of the world. He did this when he was nailed to a wooden cross near the Jerusalem garbage dump. Somehow, this one person’s offering of himself has been multiplied through God’s miraculous power to nourish eternal life in countless people. Just as one small boy gave up his lunch and it somehow fed thousands of hungry stomachs with plenty to spare, so Jesus gave up his flesh and somehow feeds millions of hungry souls, and there’s plenty left over yet today to nourish anyone who still needs eternal life. The bread of life is available to anyone who wants it.

Eating the Bread

Jesus is the bread of life, but it’s not enough just for this bread to be available. Bread doesn’t do you any good unless you eat it. Jesus didn’t say, “I am the bread of life. From now on, fulfillment is automatic for everyone.” He said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” Bread is nourishing only for those who eat. Jesus is nourishing only to those who come to him in faith.

We won’t come to him, though, unless we give up on our chances of finding satisfaction on our own. We’ve got to be set free from our habit of trying to fill the emptiness with other things. We think that if only we were more sexy, we’d be satisfied. If only we were more famous, we’d be satisfied. If only we were filthy rich, we’d be satisfied. If only we were smart and sexy and rich and famous, we’d be … well, what would we be? We’d be frustrated and empty without Christ.

We try, and we try, and we try, and we try. We can’t get any satisfaction. Everybody’s got a hungry heart, and that’s why the Lord says in Isaiah 55:

Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare. Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live.

That’s God’s invitation to enjoy some real food, not the stuff that never satisfies.

Ever eat cotton candy? As soon as a puff of that spun sugar touches your tongue, it melts down to nothing. It’s all sweetness and no nourishment. A little cotton candy tastes fine once in a while, but if you try to make a meal of it, your stomach remains hollow, and before long the sugary stuff gets sickening. When you’re really hungry, what would you rather have: a hearty sandwich, or an entire room stuffed with cotton candy? A sandwich isn’t as sweet, but it’s a lot more satisfying.

Too many of us have been stuffing our hungry hearts with cotton candy, and we still can’t figure out why we feel sick and empty. Much of what we do is driven by our unconscious desire to fill the eternity-sized hollow in our hearts. But we might as well face it. We don’t need more cotton candy; we need the sandwich. We need the bread of life.

Pretending We’re Not Hungry

Unfortunately, when we’re not trying to fill up on fluff, we’re trying to pretend we’re not hungry. We try to avoid thinking about our hunger altogether. That’s why most of us try to avoid silence.

When you’ve got a spare moment at home, what’s the first thing you do? If you’re like many people, you turn on the TV to see what’s on. Even if you don’t find a program you like, you may still sit through something just to kill the time. And if you don’t want to do that, you can always rent a movie.

We avoid silence like the plague. When you get into your car, what happens the moment you turn the key? Your radio starts talking and singing to you, protecting you from silence. When you’re waiting in the office of a doctor or dentist, what do you do? You grab a magazine so you won’t have to “just sit there.” Can you even walk anywhere without taking an iPod along to fill your skull with sound? Maybe you can’t even fall asleep at night without a TV show or some music to lull you to sleep.

Most of us, it seems, can’t stand silence. We need something to do, something to watch, or something to listen to. Why is that? Why are we so afraid of silence? The obvious answer is that we don’t like being bored. But what is boredom, really, except another word for emptiness?

We can’t stand to be alone with our thoughts. Why not? Perhaps we’re afraid of what the silence might tell us. Take away all our noise and distractions, and what do we have left? We’d rather not know. We’re afraid to face the fact we’re empty, that our lives are boring, that we’re hungry for something and we’re not quite sure what it is or where to get it.

The bread of life is freely available, but it’s not going to do us much good if we keep pretending we don’t need it. Somehow, each of us needs to somehow come to terms with the fact that we’re empty and hungry.

A Healthy Appetite

This isn’t something we can do on our own. Every one of us suffers from a deadly spiritual eating disorder, a sort of spiritual anorexia. Sinful people can’t stomach Jesus. When Jesus first said he was the bread of life, many people didn’t believe him, and still today, many don’t. We refuse the bread even when it’s offered for free. We’d rather do almost anything than live in total dependence on Jesus.

So how can we develop a healthy appetite? We can’t. Only God can give us a healthy appetite. Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). God is the one who provides the bread of life, and God is also the one who gives us an appetite for that the bread and draws us to Jesus.

When God draws you to Jesus, he shows you the truth about yourself. God shows you that he didn’t design you to be satisfied as long as you’ve got good food, good sex, a good house, and a good job. God made you with an eternity-sized space inside of you, and you will ache with hunger until you eat the bread of life. Like it or not, that’s who you are.

God’s the one who put eternity in your heart in the first place, and he’s the only one who can arouse your appetite for eternity and point it in the right direction. God shows you who you are, and at the same time, he shows you who Jesus is: He’s the answer to your hunger. He’s the bread of life. So eat. Trust Jesus as the source of your life. Believe in his death and resurrection. Live in daily dependence on him.

Next time you wake up hungry, think about what you might really be hungry for. Is it possible that you’re hungry for eternity? Are you hungry for purpose, for zest, for forgiveness, for satisfaction, for joy, for significance, for a life abundant and eternal?

Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will not go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” Are you feasting on the bread?

PRAYER

Father in heaven, make us hungry, really hungry, and once we’ve got a healthy appetite, satisfy us with the bread of life. Forgive us for looking anywhere else for satisfaction, and fill us with more and more of Jesus.

Thank you, Jesus, for offering your own flesh for the life of the world, for covering our sins and filling our emptiness. You are the bread of life, O Lord. Fill us and satisfy us forever. Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.