"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.... This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever' " (John 6:32-33, 58).
Bread, the staff of life, has been a staple food for thousands of years. Whether made from wheat, rye, barley, millet, rice or even potato flour, it has been the basic diet of common people. Bread has been synonymous with food for ordinary working people of many cultures.
As the common food of the average Israelite, it featured frequently in the spiritual consciousness and the ceremonial and sacrificial worship of ancient Israel.
For example: "The bread and wine that Abraham shared with Melchizedek king of Salem were a customary expression of peace and fellowship. To break bread with someone was an act of communion (Gen. 14:18).
The unleavened bread of the Exodus reminded them of the haste and eagerness with which they had left their life of bondage in Egypt, on their way to a life of liberty as a new nation in their own land (Ex. 12:39). They remembered the manna in the wilderness—bread from heaven that had preserved their lives during the journey from Egypt through the wilderness to their new home in Canaan (Ex. 16:2-4). The Bread of the Presence, or showbread, that was placed daily in the holy place of the Temple, reminded them that God was their provider and sustainer, and they lived constantly in his presence. (D. Freeman, article "Showbread," New Bible Dictionary, InterVarsity Press, 1996)
So when Jesus said, "I am the bread of heaven, the bread of God, the bread of life," he was tapping into a rich reservoir of religious symbolism, historical tradition and cultural associations. Bread had represented many things to the Jews in the past.
But now Jesus challenged them to see that these historical meanings had been wrapped up in, and were superseded by, one great new meaning. The true bread was not the unleavened bread of the Exodus, or the manna of the wilderness, or the bread of the presence in the Temple. The true bread is Jesus Christ!
Jesus had adopted an ancient and familiar symbol, and had given it a new and fuller significance. The new significance was not totally unrelated to the ancient significances; but it went much further.
For Abraham, breaking bread with Melchizedek had been an act of communion on the human level. But when we Christians partake of Jesus, the bread of God, we have communion not just with one another, but with him and with the Father.
Israel's unleavened bread reminded them of fleeing Egypt to a new life in Canaan. But for Christians, that flight was symbolic of our entrance into the new life in the kingdom of God. The manna from heaven preserved Israel's life during their journey through the wilderness. Christians rejoice that in Jesus, the bread of heaven, our lives are nourished and kept safe as we journey toward the fullness of eternal life.
The showbread reminded Israel that God was the provider and sustainer of their earthly lives. Christians know that in Jesus, the true bread, our lives are lifted up above the mundane, earthly level, and we live with him "in the heavenly realms" (Eph. 2:6). Jesus showed that the meaning of ancient traditions can be superseded by a new and eternal revelation.