Interpreting John 6: Jesus, Moses, and the Eucharist

Jesus asks a number of different questions in the Gospels, but one in particular always stood out to me, “Do you believe that I can do this?” (Mt 9:28). Originally posed to two blind men, this question like all of Scripture, transcends its initial audience and can be applied to us as well. For this reason, I often propose this question to my high school students when I’m teaching them about the Eucharist – do you believe that Jesus can transform bread and wine into His Body and Blood? To answer this question, we must turn to chapter six in the Gospel of John. In John 6 we encounter Jesus’ famous Bread of Life Discourse, where He firmly establishes His teaching on the Eucharist. But in order to understand this teaching we first have to look at the two passages that precede the discourse. These two passages serve as the interpretive key for the Bread of Life Discourse, because in them Jesus manifests a power over nature and an ability to feed God’s people that is greater than Moses.

Being greater than Moses is one of the marks of the Messiah. The Jews were familiar with Moses’ words, “A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you from among your own kindred; that is the one to whom you shall listen” (Deut. 18:15). They were looking for a man who was like Moses, who performed mighty deeds, provided nourishment, and set captives free. All of these things are found in Jesus, the Messiah, who manifests Himself as the new Moses. Knowing this will help us to interpret John 6 and the Bread of Life Discourse.

Chapter six of the Gospel of John is broken up into three segments, which build upon each other and conclude in the epic climax of Jesus’ teaching on the Eucharist. The opening of the chapter begins with the miraculous Feeding of the 5000.

As Jesus was teaching in Tiberias, a multitude of people began to follow Him, “because they saw the signs which He did on those who were diseased” (Jn 6:2). After a long day the people were tired and hungry, so Philip approached the Lord and asked how they were supposed to feed so many people. Jesus instructed His disciples to gather the five barley loaves and two fish that were available and have the people sit down. Jesus then gave thanks and distributed the food. All ate and were satisfied.

This miraculous event contains many significant elements, but I want to touch on one. Like Moses before Him, Jesus provides food for the people of Israel. But He does so in a greater way. Moses called upon the Lord and the Lord provided the Manna from heaven. Jesus took what was available and miraculously multiplied it under His own power. This is Jesus’ first miracle in John 6 and it will carry great significance going forward. The people who witnessed the multiplication of the bread and fish will follow Jesus to Capernaum and come face to face with one of Jesus’ hardest teachings.

This leads us to the next scene in John 6, which lies almost hidden in the middle of the text, but serves as the interpretive key for the rest of the chapter. After Jesus fed the multitude He “withdrew to the hills by Himself” (Jn 6:15). In the meantime “His disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum (Jn 6:17). Jesus had not been on the boat when His disciples departed, which leads to one of Jesus’ most impressive miracles. John tells us that he and the other disciples were “about three or four miles” from the shore being buffeted by heavy winds when all of a sudden they saw Jesus walking towards them on the water. The disciples reeled back in fright, but Jesus said, “It is I; do not be afraid” (Jn 6:20). After hearing these words, the disciples found that they had somehow been transported to their destination, although they had just been many miles away.

Once again, Jesus imitates Moses by performing a miracle with water. When leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Moses parted the Red Sea so that the people could cross over the dry land. Jesus once again outdoes Moses. Instead of parting the water and walking on the land below, Jesus simply walks across the water itself! Liquid! If this miracle were not enough, Jesus then transports the disciples to the other side of the sea in an instant. In this scene we see, in perhaps the most profound way, Jesus’ complete and total control over nature. He defies the laws of nature, definitively manifesting His divine nature and power over the created world, which will serve as the means of understanding His teaching on the Eucharist.

In the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus addressed the crowds who had gathered to hear Him speak. Many of the people who had been among the 5000 — those who were miraculously fed — were in attendance. Jesus quickly escalates the conversation by identifying Himself as the Messiah by saying that He has been given the Father’s seal (anointed by God) and been sent by Him into the world. Upon hearing this the people ask for a sign to accompany such a bold claim. They say, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’” (Jn 6:30-31). To which Jesus responds, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from Heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world…I am the Bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger and he who believes in me shall never thirst” (Jn 6:32-33, 35). At this point the people begin to murmur amongst themselves. Jesus was saying some pretty radical things, but He didn’t stop there.

Continuing to build upon His teaching Jesus says, “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that a man may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eat of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Jn 6:49-51). But Jesus kept going. In verse 64 there is a dramatic shift in Jesus’ language that conveys the seriousness of His teaching. Instead of using the typical Greek word for eat (esthio), Jesus switches to the Greek word trogo which means to “chew” or “gnaw.” That’s a big difference that wasn’t lost on the Jews. After hearing this teaching, “Many of his disciple drew back and no longer walked with Him” (Jn 6:66). Jesus teaching on the Eucharist was simply too hard for them to grasp. It’s clear that they did not believe that Jesus could do what He said He could. Even though they had seen Him multiply the loaves and the fish and feed the hungry crowd of 5000 people.

Interestingly, the apostles do not abandon Jesus when He asks, “Do you also want to leave?” (Jn 6:67). Peter, the spokesman for the apostles, proclaims, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:67-69).

Although Jesus’ teaching is difficult, the apostles continue to follow the Lord, because they have seen with their own eyes the power of God. In just one day, they had seen Him feed a large crowd with limited food and walk on water. Jesus had definitively revealed Himself to them as the Messiah and new Moses by performing miraculous deeds that were greater than the works of Moses. By the time Jesus presents His teaching on the Eucharist He has already proven that nothing in the created universe is outside of His control. After feeding 5000 people with a handful of scraps and walking on water, giving Himself to us under the guise of bread and wine is nothing but consistent with His other mighty deeds.

So we return to our initial question, “Do you believe that I can do this?” The apostles, by their witness, answered this question with a resounding “Yes!” What’s your answer?

Matthew Petesch

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Matthew is a high school teacher in Montana, where he lives with his wife and son. He blogs at mtncatholic.com.

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