“So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus.
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “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.’ ” Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father 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.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:24–35)
The events in this passage occur after the feeding of the five thousand. The crowds wanted to make Jesus their king, but he resisted and instead withdrew from them. Here, they find him again and wonder when he got there. All rather mundane stuff, considering the great miracle they had just witnessed! Surely, the question should be: how did you do that?!
The problem was, as Jesus replied, that the people were really just after the bread. What they wanted was a full stomach, material comfort. They weren’t much interested in the message of Jesus, much less the fact that “the Word became flesh” and was standing before them. This was all rather reminiscent of the Israelites who were in the wilderness after the Exodus, fifteen hundred years or so before. They were being fed with manna from heaven - what grace! - but quickly lost sight of the hand of God in all this:
Now the rabble that was among them had a strong craving. And the people of Israel also wept again and said, “Oh that we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11:4–6)
How quickly we lose our focus! How quickly our minds move from God to our bellies! “Do not work for the food that perishes” urges Jesus, “but for the food that endures to eternal life”. Broaden your outlook! Your stomach perishes in the grave, but your soul continues. Your future stretches to eternity, not simply three score years and ten.
His hearers respond. They understand what Jesus is getting at, but they still fail to recognise who it is that is speaking to them. Jesus has said that the “food that endures to eternal life” will come from him, the Son of Man. It will be freely given. They, though, still think this is something to be earned. Maybe by offering the right sacrifices, perhaps by keeping the right rules. So it is they respond: “what must we do, to be doing the works of God”.
To this question, Jesus gives the answer: “believe in him whom he has sent”. Here lies the heart of Christianity, the key to unlock the great gospel of God: belief. Christianity is not a matter of acting in the right way, or showing up at the right times. It is a matter of believing in Christ.
Now you might shrug your shoulders, and think: is that it? After all belief isn’t difficult - it’s hardly going down the mines! But I wonder if that really is the case? To believe in Christ is not simply to believe that he exists. After all, there’s plenty of evidence outside of Christianity which points to the fact that he did. To believe Jesus walked in Israel two thousand years ago is simply to be a competent historian. To believe in Christ is to believe in all that he taught and did. It is to place your trust in him, and then to follow him. It’s not good saying you believe in someone who gives you directions, and then driving off in the opposite directions. Belief affects actions. And that is why it is a challenge, a call.
To believe in Jesus means that, at times, we will be at odds with a society which has a different set of values and follows a different pattern of life. To believe in Jesus means putting your trust in his way. To accept the Scriptures, and to put them into action. That’s not easy. That is why it is the “work of God”.
The conversation continues, and the crowd now want some proof: what sign do you do? They remember that their forefathers received manna in the wilderness, and they want to see what Jesus would do. They seem to have forgotten that he had just fed five-thousand! Jesus responds that he is the bread which comes down from heaven. The thing that gives life. The staple of life. “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst”, says Jesus.
In a world which asserts that all religions are the same, and that to have no faith is as valid as having faith, these words of Jesus stand as an offence. They put him at the heart of any approach to God, and put belief in him as the “work” which restores us to God. This a claim to exclusivity. All must come through Christ.