Scripture: John 6:35-51
Do you remember manna in the Old Testament? We use the expression today—“manna from heaven”—to refer to some unexpected gift that arrives at just the right moment. But it comes from the experience of Israel, when they were wandering in the wilderness for those 40 years, before entering the Promised Land. God fed them each day with this miraculous bread that fell from the sky each morning. In today’s scripture, Jesus intends for us to see parallels between Israel’s experience wandering in the wilderness and the crowd’s experience having witnessed Jesus’ miraculous feeding earlier in the chapter. He makes this comparison explicit in verses 49 and 50.
So that’s what this sermon is about: I want to talk about how the crowd’s response to Jesus in John 6 is a lot like the response of ancient Israel in the wilderness—and a lot like our response to Jesus the “bread of life” today. Then I want to talk about how Jesus the “bread of life” is like manna—and what that means for us today.
So: How are we like the crowd, how is Jesus like the manna, and what does that mean for us today?
A couple of months ago, I laughed long and hard after a friend sent a link to a TikTok video that had gone viral. It featured a comedian named Scott Seiss, a former IKEA employee, mimicking and then making fun of the many complaints that customers made to him back when he was working there. It was sort of like a fantasy of what he would have liked to have told these customers, if he didn’t care about consequences. So for example, a customer said,
“I’m telling all my friends not to shop here.” To which he responds,
“Tell ’em! You think I want five other ‘yous’ running around the store? Have them call me. I’ll tell them. You think you hate this place more than me? I work here!
Another customer said, “You just lost yourself a customer.” To which he says,
“You think I own this business? You think I own IKEA? I’m a part-time employee halfway through a two-week notice!”
He goes on. I used to work in retail, as did many of you… We can relate! The humor is based on this idea: Customers often complain to employees who are powerless to solve their problems. The employee wants to say, “You’re not talking to the one in charge here.” “You’re not complaining to the one in charge.” “You’re not taking out your anger on the one who is in a position to help you! I’m just a part-time employee making minimum wage.”
And in a way, something like that is going on in today’s scripture.
If you have your Bibles—and you should—I invite you to turn to Numbers chapter 11, verse 1: “And the people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes…” One of those misfortunes, the Bible goes on to say, is that they’re unsatisfied with and ungrateful for this manna. They’re tired of it. They want meat, instead.
Now compare that to John 6:41: “So the Jews grumbled about him [Jesus], because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’” They’re grumbling about Jesus, not grumbling to Jesus. Pay attention to those prepositions! That’s what the Israelites are doing in Numbers 11. The Israelites don’t complain to the Lord; they complain to each other and then to Moses… in the hearing of the Lord. To say the least, God does not like this. God is angry.
And Moses is angry, too. Because the people are taking out their anger on Moses. And Moses is simply doing what God has told him to do. Moses is not in charge! God is!
So Moses is angry, he’s hurt, he’s full of self-pity. And he says to God, “Why are you treating me, your servant, so harshly?… The load is far too heavy! If this is how you intend to treat me, just go ahead and kill me. Do me a favor and spare me this misery!”1 This is Moses talking to God!
So much anger! So much self-pity on Moses’ part!
So notice: the Israelites complain; Moses complains. On the surface, these complaints don’t seem so different from one another. And yet, if you read on in Numbers 11 you see that the Israelites get punished in response to their complaining. Moses, by contrast, gets help; God equips some people to help Moses lead the Israelites.
So what’s the difference? Why does God punish one and help the other?
The difference is this: The Israelites complained about their circumstances to one another and to Moses; Moses complained abouthis circumstances to God—to the One who is actually in charge; to the One who has the power to change things; to the One who has the power to make things better!
To his small credit, Moses—who is full of anger, full of self-pity, full of fear—doesn’t grumble and complain to his brother Aaron, or to his sister Miriam, or to his wife Zipporah; no, he takes his complaints directly to God!
For years of my Christian life, I failed to do this. Like Moses, I was full of anger, self-pity, and fear, too, but I would just grumble and complain about it—to others, to myself… Or I would just swallow my anger—and then it would spill over into other areas of my life and hurt people I did not intend to hurt! Why? Because I didn’t really believe praying about it would help. I didn’t have enough faith to believe that God would change my circumstances—or at least change me and my attitude—if I complained to him—in prayer—about my situation.
But here’s what the Bible says: God would rather have you complain to him, in prayer, than not to pray at all!
But complaining to God takes faith… and Moses had it! Maybe not a lot, but enough! In complaining to God, Moses was showing that he believed that God really was really in control; that God really had the power to change things for him; that no matter how bad things appeared, God really did love him and want to take care of him!
Do we have that kind of faith?
The crowd that’s grumbling about Jesus—instead of grumbling to Jesus—they don’t have that kind of faith. Why not?
Like the Israelites, they had been eyewitnesses to a lot of miracles! For instance, we know from verse 2 of John chapter 6 that they had been eyewitnesses to Jesus’ healing miracles. They had been eyewitnesses to the supernatural power that Jesus had displayed in transforming the tiny amount of loaves and fish that were part of one little boy’s lunch into enough food to feed probably 15,000 hungry people2—and still have plenty leftover! And at least some in the crowd had likely heard or figured out that Jesus had walked on water, even if they hadn’t witnessed it.
My point is, hadn’t Jesus done enough for them already—hadn’t he shown them enough already—to earn their trust?
And I could ask myself the same question! After all, I believe Jesus was resurrected from the dead… I believe in all the other miracles attributed to him… I believe he’s given me power through the Holy Spirit… I’ve experienced his power personally in so many ways! And yet… watch me when I don’t get my way… watch me when I feel under pressure… watch me when something goes wrong! I fall apart!
I’ve seen enough of Jesus’ power to trust him! And yet so often I live my life in a way that’s inconsistent with my own beliefs and experience!
I have a hard time with this whole “trust” thing! And maybe you do, too.
A friend of mine—a retired Episcopal minister who is also a theologian—posted a painting on Instagram last week. I had never seen it before. It’s a painting called “Satan Never Sleeps,” it’s from 1874, and it’s by a Scottish painter named Joseph Noel Paton. In the painting, it’s nighttime, and Christ is sleeping soundly and peacefully—with a contented expression on his face. He’s in a desert place—likely during his 40 days of testing in the wilderness. And the painting also shows a menacing looking Satan sitting just above Jesus, on a large rock, with his chin in his hand. Satan is deep in thought—likely devising some clever way to harm Jesus or to lure him into sin.
And I promise my first thought when seeing this painting was to think, “Oh, no! Jesus is in trouble! Doesn’t he see the danger that’s right next to him?”
But of course he’s not in danger! He knows the devil is there! Jesus is able to sleep not because he’s unaware of Satan’s presence and evil scheming; he is able to sleep because he trusts his Father; he knows that his Father is in charge, that his Father wants what’s best for him, and that his Father is taking care of him.
See, the ultimate cure for complaining—for grumbling, for anger, for self-pity, for fear—is to trust. That’s what Israel needed to do in the wilderness. That’s what Jesus’ fellow Jews in John 6 needed to do. That’s what we need to do!
And even if we only trust enough in the Lord to complain to him, let’s at least please do that!
I said this in one of my radio devotionals on WNEG, but I like it: “Complain about nothing that you aren’t also taking to God in prayer.” That’s a good rule of thumb. Complain about nothing that you aren’t also taking to God in prayer.
But in order to do that, you’ve got to believe that God has the power to make a difference! And that takes faith!
So… That’s Point Number One: the Israelites in the wilderness are a lot like the crowd in today’s scripture, and we’re a lot like them, too.
Point Number Two: how is Jesus “the bread of life” like manna? Probably in many ways, but I want to focus on two.
First, manna was a daily provision for God’s people. It wasn’t something that they could merely eat one time and be satisfied. And it also wasn’t something that they could store up. Many of you will remember that after this manna fell from heaven, each family could only gather enough to last them one day, except on Friday… They could get a double portion on Friday to last them through the Sabbath on Saturday. But my point is, with that exception, you could only get enough manna to last you for one day. Tomorrow you would have to gather more.
This may remind us of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, when he’s teaching about overcoming anxiety through prayer, he says, “So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”3 Jesus is saying that he will give us enough grace to handle all the trouble that we face today. Tomorrow, when we need more grace to handle the trouble we face tomorrow… well, we can be confident that we’ll get that grace tomorrow. And not a moment before then! And also in the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Jesus doesn’t teach us to pray, “Give us tomorrow’s bread today.”
We get what we need from the Lord one day at a time!
I was deeply moved by something that pastor and author Tim Keller wrote in the first chapter of a book he wrote about prayer. Keller confessed that even though he had been a pastor for decades, prayer wasn’t always the priority in his life that it should have been—until around the time that he was diagnosed with cancer the first time, many years ago. He said his wife, Kathy, said something that helped to turn him around and to motivate him to pray with his wife every evening. She said:
Imagine you were diagnosed with such a lethal condition that the doctor told you that you would die within hours unless you took a particular medicine—a pill every night before going to sleep. Imagine that you were told that you could never miss it or you would die. Would you forget [to take it]? Would you not get around to it some nights? No—it would be so crucial that you wouldn’t forget, you would never miss. Well, Tim, if we don’t pray together to God, we’re not going to make it because of all we are facing. I’m certainly not. We have to pray, we can’t let it just slip our minds. 4
See, what Tim and Kathy were doing is feeding on Jesus the “bread of life” every day…
And I do this when I read and meditate on God’s Word every morning during my quiet time. It doesn’t even seem to matter what scripture I happen to be reading. The Lord has a way of speaking to me—speaking into my heart—giving me precisely what I need to make it through that particular day! He’ll give me something that I hadn’t thought of, he’ll encourage me, he’ll give me strength for the day. And then, as he speaks to me, I speak to him. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it feels like a conversation—between the Lord and me. It’s my favorite part of the day! So invite you to do that, too!
Finally, notice that God’s miraculous provision of bread for Israel was completely undeserved! After all, the complaining and grumbling that we looked at earlier in Numbers 11 was just a small sample of the many ways that Israel proved that God’s choice of them to be his people had nothing to do with their faithfulness to him. They constantly rebelled against him, constantly committed idolatry, constantly grumbled and complained. And they never seemed to learn. They repeated the same mistakes over and over. In fact, their behavior had very little to do with how faithful God was to them. In fact, Moses says as much later in a sermon he preached in Deuteronomy:
The Lord did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the Lord loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors…5
Moses is saying that it’s not because there’s anything special about Israel that God chose them to be his people. It was an act of sheer grace! It was by sheer grace that God continued to feed them his manna, not because they deserved it.
In the same way, we have done nothing—we can do nothing—to deserve this “bread of life” that Jesus makes available to us!
Notice verse 37, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”
This verse captures both sides of the “God’s grace” versus “human response” equation. In other words, we are saved because the Father “gives us” to his Son. The point is, God takes the initiative. We Wesleyan Christians call this “prevenient grace.” Without prevenient grace, we’re trapped in our sin; our sin prevents us from doing anything to save ourselves. So God takes the initiative; he reveals himself to us; he reveals to us the truth of the gospel; and he gives us the power through his Holy Spirit to make a free choice—to accept or reject his offer of eternal life.
We can say yes or no.
But even when we say “yes” to God’s offer of salvation, this is nothing about which any of us can boast or take credit.6 Think of the parable of the Lost Sheep… We’re like the lost sheep. Jesus the Good Shepherd leaves the ninety-nine other sheep to search for us and find us… What exactly do we do to get rescued? What is our role in the process—aside from getting ourselves lost in the first place? He picks us up and puts us on his shoulders and carries us home. He doesn’t even trust us enough to put us back on the ground and let us follow him home. He carries us home on his shoulders!
Don’t misunderstand: The Lord doesn’t do this against our will. We must first want to be rescued—like I’m sure that lost sheep wanted the Shepherd to rescue him. But our role in the process is very small. As Paul puts it so nicely in Ephesians 2:8 and 9, “God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.”7
And Paul here isn’t just talking about the first moment of salvation—when we first place our faith in Christ and are born again… He’s talking about the entire process of salvation, until we arrive safely with the Lord in heaven. It’s grace from beginning to end. And like the Israelites, to whom God graciously continue to feed with his manna, our salvation isn’t based on whether or not we “earn our keep”… whether we deserve it… whether we can pay for it.
We’re a lot like ancient Israel in our relationship with God. But there are profound ways in which our relationship with God through Christ is different from the relationship that the Israelites had with God: First, the Bible says that all of our sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven; that there is no longer any condemnation for us. The Bible even says that when Christ forgives us, it’s as if God forgets our sins—he doesn’t hold them over our heads. The Bible says we’re adopted into God’s family as his beloved sons and daughters. We call God, “Abba, Father,” just like Jesus does! Our Father now loves us as much as he loves his only begotten Son. The Bible says we are made perfectly righteous in God’s eyes—because Christ’s righteousness is given to us as a gift. In a spiritual sense, we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places. We enjoy God’s favor—which means that God is always for us; he’s on our side; he’s always working for our good. The Bible says that after we believe in Christ, absolutely nothing in heaven or on earth can separate us God’s great love for us… nothing can separate us… including even our ongoing sins!
Literally none of these great promises from God’s Word is conditional… apart from only one condition: believing in Christ. Trusting in him to save you…
In John 6:37 Jesus speaks these very reassuring words: “whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” I will never cast out. That’s almost too weak of a translation. The NASB says, “I certainly will not cast out.” The Greek literally says, “I will not not cast out”—which means “I will never, ever cast out,” which is just a way of emphasizing the absolute certainty that Jesus is not going to reject us when we come to him… in faith.
No matter what we’ve done… No matter what we do!
It’s possible that I’m speaking to some of you this morning who are thinking, “Back when I was eight, 10, 12, 14 years old I sincerely believed in Jesus… I got confirmed… I got baptized… I walked down the aisle… I prayed a sinner’s prayer… and I meant it. And I knew back then that Jesus accepted me, loved me, forgave me… you know, back then… But that was a long time ago… a lot of water under the bridge since then… How can I know that Jesus still accepts me today.
And my only question to you is, “Are you still willing to come to him? To come back to him? To say, ‘I’m sorry, Lord. Please forgive me’?8 If so, he won’t reject you. If you’re not willing to come back then you have a serious spiritual problem, but if you are, then he won’t reject you!
These words in John 6:37 also gave great comfort to the 17th century English preacher John Bunyan, who’s famous for writing Pilgrim’s Progress—the second-best-selling book in history next to the Bible. Bunyan also wrote a book devoted to just this one verse, John 6:37. And pastor Dane Ortland’s new bestselling book Gentle and Lowly, Ortland highlights some of what Bunyan wrote. And in the passage that follows, Bunyan writes as a Christian who is afraid that Jesus will cast him out. Listen to what Bunyan says:9
“No wait”—we say, cautiously approaching Jesus—“you don’t understand. I’ve really messed up, in all kinds of ways.”
I know, [Christ] responds.
“You know most of it, sure. Certainly more than what others see. But there’s perversity down inside me that is hidden from everyone.”
I know it all [Christ says].
“Well—the thing is, it isn’t just my past. It’s my present too.”
“But I don’t know if I can break free of this any time soon.”
That’s the only kind of person I’m here to help.
“The burden is heavy—and heavier all the time.”
Then let me carry it.
“It’s too much to bear.”
Not for me.
“You don’t get it. My offenses aren’t directed toward others. They’re against you.”
Then I am the one most suited to forgive them.
“But the more of the ugliness in me you discover, the sooner you’ll get fed up with me.” And to this, Christ says,
Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.10
What about you? What is your list of reasons why Jesus will reject you? If you’ll come to him this morning, or come back to him this morning, you can throw that list away!
[Invitation. “Come to Jesus… Come back to Jesus. So you can know for sure that you’re a beloved son or daughter in God’s family.”]
- Numbers 11:13b-15 NLT
- Counting the families of the 5,000 men
- Matthew 6:34 NLT
- Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014), 23-4.
- Deuteronomy 7:7-8a NLT
- Paul makes this point nicely in Ephesians 2:8-10.
- Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT
- My scriptural justification for these words is 1 John 1:9, not to mention the Prodigal Son in Luke 15.
- Ortland says he has updated the 17th-century English slightly.
- Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 63-4.