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The Bread of Life

A sermon on Belgic Confession Article 35 / John 6.22-59


by Tim Gallant

Beloved family of Jesus Christ,

Without food, we die. Food and drink provides us sustenance.

That is the point of the Lord's Supper, as well. The fact that Jesus provides us with food and drink points to and seals to us His gift of life. And that gift is Himself. Jesus offers Himself as the bread of life. This evening we will consider the purpose of this gift, the substance of this gift, and the proper reception of this gift.

1. Jesus offers Himself as the bread of life. Let's see, first, the purpose of this gift. Article 35 begins by saying,

We believe and confess that our Savior Jesus Christ did ordain and institute the sacrament of the holy supper to nourish and support those whom He has already regenerated and incorporated into His family, which is His Church.

The Supper, we confess, is for our nourish and support. It is not a nice gesture, a nice thing we can do with unbelievers. There are indeed times and places for that, and it is important to reach out to others. But the Lord's Supper is the table of the body of Christ. That's what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10.17: "For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread." In other words, the table and the body are coextensive - those who are members of the body belong at the table; those who are not members of the body do not. In fact, one of the ways we are molded into one body, confirmed as such, is by sharing a place at the table together.

The Belgic uses the language of "those whom He has already regenerated and incorporated into His family." This looks back to Article 34, where we confess that

as water washes away the filth of the body when poured upon it, and is seen on the body of the baptized when sprinkled upon him, so does the blood of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit internally sprinkle the soul, cleanse it from its sins, and regenerate us from children of wrath unto children of God.

Baptism is God's promise that He makes us part of His family. That's Paul's point in Galatians 3. He says in verse 27 that all who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ, and then goes on to say that the result is that we are "the seed of Abraham;" indeed, that means that we are the sons of God, as he writes in verse 26.

That is the promise sealed in baptism, and therefore those who are not baptized should not partake of this table. The table is not simply a social event on some natural level; it is aimed at supporting us, and strengthening us as who we are in Christ.

Now, we need to stress that, to make sure that we have things the right way around. We do not support the table; the table supports us. The Lord's Supper is not a good work we engage in. It is not merely a testimony to the strength of our faith, although certainly it is a public witness of our commitment. Indeed, this article says that in the sacrament we are "making there confession of our faith and of the Christian religion." Participation in the sacrament is a public witness of who we are and the truth of the gospel.

That is important; and yet nonetheless, that is not the main point. The main point is that this is a gift to us, so that we may be strengthened and supported.

2. So the table is for our nourish and support. But how? By offering Christ Himself to us. As Article 35 adds later in the second paragraph,

for the support of the spiritual and heavenly life which believers have He has sent a living bread, which descended from heaven, namely, Jesus Christ, who nourishes and strengthens the spiritual life of believers when they eat Him, that is to say, when they appropriate and receive Him by faith in the spirit.

We talk about forgiveness of sins and so on. But such gifts are not isolated things. They are offered to us in Christ. Forgiveness of sins is not the bread of life. Sanctification is not the bread of life. Jesus offers Himself as the bread of life. So we see, then, the substance of this gift. Jesus is that substance. As He says very plainly in verses 32-33,

Then Jesus said to them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, Moses did not give 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."

And again, point blank in verse 35[a]: "I am the bread of life."

Notice the sacramental language here. That is no accident. This speech in John 6 occurred just before Passover (as we learn in verse 4); the sacrament of Passover was in the minds of everyone. And Jesus, of course, knew that He was going to institute the Lord's Supper with bread. When He calls Himself "the bread of life," He is telling us what He gives us in the sacrament. He gives us Himself. He gives us His body. He gives us His blood.

And there is no greater gift. It is the gift of life, for Jesus is life. Notice again what Jesus says in verses 47-51:

Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.

You may recall that in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul compares the manna and the water in the wilderness to the Lord's Supper. Jesus invites that comparison here, as well. In this case, however, He is not so much interested in pointing to the similarities - as Paul was - but to the differences. The manna was genuinely a Spirit-given gift and had a sacramental quality. But only Jesus gives life. The manna was not resurrected as Jesus has been. When we are joined to Jesus, we know that we are joined with Him in both His death and His resurrection. He gives Himself "for the life of the world."

The manna saved the life of Israel in the wilderness. They ran out of food, and God bound His people to Himself and His covenant when He fed them bread from the skies.

But that manna was not itself life, any more than the elements themselves in the Lord's Supper, the bread and the wine, are life. True life is only in Jesus.

Jesus said that He came that we may have life, and have it more abundantly. To have it richly, overflowing.

Jesus didn't come simply to give us more rules and make us feel guilty enough to seek forgiveness. Jesus didn't come simply to make things passable. He came to give us abundant life.

I sometimes wonder how often we don't recognize abundant life, because we're looking in the wrong direction. We place our hopes for happiness and joy in possessing more, in the pursuit of this pleasure or that, and we always seem to come up empty. But Jesus says, "Look, I give you Myself. That is life, that is joy." As He says in John 15.11, after He has urged the disciples to remain in Him, "These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full."

My joy. What is the joy of Jesus like? It is supremely perfect and full. That is what He wants for us, and it is what He gives us when we find our life in Him.

3. Jesus offers Himself as the bread of life. We notice, third, the proper reception of this gift. Article 35 repeatedly speaks of faith in this connection. For example, once again, the last sentence of the second paragraph:

But for the support of the spiritual and heavenly life which believers have He has sent a living bread, which descended from heaven, namely, Jesus Christ, who nourishes and strengthens the spiritual life of believers when they eat Him, that is to say, when they appropriate and receive Him by faith in the spirit.

That language of "by faith" runs throughout the article; the third paragraph speaks of faith as "the hand and mouth of our soul." Similarly, the fourth paragraph says that the manner of our partaking of Christ in the Supper "is not by the mouth, but by the spirit through faith." And so on.

This is faithful to Scripture, of course. We know that all of God's good gifts come to us by faith. Life is by faith; in the classic statement, "the just - or, in other words, the righteous one - the just will live by faith."

And Jesus makes clear here in John 6 that this is true with regard to Himself as the bread of life, as well. Notice, for example, verses 28-29:

Then they said to Him, "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?" Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent."

Jesus has fed these people, and now they like what He has done for their bellies. So they pursue Him. But Jesus knows this pursuit is not because they have recognized the sign of His identity; rather, it is simply that they like their bellies full. So Jesus tells them in verse 27 not to labour for food that will perish, but "for the food which endures to everlasting life."

And so, in order to stay with Jesus and get whatever food He's got, they ask what they must do to "work the works of God."

And Jesus says, "This is the work of God: that you believe" - believe in Me. As we have already seen, it is in Christ we must believe, because He is life.

And how is life received, how is Christ received? He is received by faith. And that only makes sense. He is a gift. You don't earn a gift. You trust the giver and receive the gift. There's nothing complicated about that, although we tend to try to make things complicated.

Now, we have said that faith is the proper response to a gift. In truth, it is really the only response possible. And yet, the Confession rightly goes on to say something further in connection with our reception of God's gift of Christ in the Supper. Notice the second-to-last paragraph of this article:

Lastly, we receive this holy sacrament in the assembly of the people of God, with humility and reverence, keeping up among us a holy remembrance of the death of Christ our Savior, with thanksgiving, making there confession of our faith and of the Christian religion. Therefore no one ought to come to this table without having previously rightly examined himself, lest by eating of this bread and drinking of this cup he eat and drink judgment to himself. In a word, we are moved by the use of this holy sacrament to a fervent love towards God and our neighbor.

No one ought to come without having previously "rightly examined himself." But what does it mean, then, to "rightly examine" oneself? The Confession borrows this language from 1 Corinthians 11.28. Throughout the epistle, Paul on several occasions has spoken of great sins - covenant-breaking, really - which were present in Corinth. Sins which struck at the heart of God's relationship to His people. Like adultery. Like falling into idolatry. Paul reminds the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 10 of how Israel fell under judgment in the wilderness for such sins. They had become "unapproved;" they failed the test, to borrow the language he uses in 1 Corinthians 9.27.

And the word "examine" in 1 Corinthians 11.28 is related to that word for being unapproved. If those who are breaking covenant come to the table of the Lord, they will call down judgment upon their heads. And that is Paul's concern in 1 Corinthians 11 - at the very table of the Lord, many of the people in Corinth are destroying the body of Christ by shaming God's own people. And Paul says that they are going to eat and drink judgment upon themselves.

To "rightly examine" yourself, then, means that you are to make sure you are not violating the basic terms of God's covenant life with you. It doesn't have to do with reaching down into the recesses of your soul to find a special feeling. It doesn't have to do with becoming all introspective and trying to answer unanswerable questions. It comes down to one thing: "Have I broken faith with God?" Paul calls upon the Corinthians to stop destroying God's people - and then to come to the table.

The point is, this command is not aimed to wound weak consciences. It is not aimed at drawing us away from faith in Christ, and into ourselves. Rather the opposite: it aims to draw us back to Christ. If you take your eyes off Christ when you are "examining yourself," then you are not examining yourself in the way that Paul is concerned with.

Nonetheless, by the nature of the case, faith can only thrive when you cling to Christ. If you say, "I believe, I believe," but live like the devil and despise the body of Christ, your claim to faith is empty. As James says, "faith without works is dead." Even the demons believe, and tremble. Christ is a gift given freely to real faith, to living faith, not to a false claim to faith.

But to faith, weak, wounded and small as it is, Christ gives Himself. As the end of the fourth paragraph of Article 35 says,

This feast is a spiritual table, at which Christ communicates Himself with all His benefits to us, and gives us there to enjoy both Himself and the merits of His sufferings and death; nourishing, strengthening, and comforting our poor comfortless souls by the eating of His flesh, quickening and refreshing them by the drinking of His blood.

Into our sorrow, Jesus brings comfort; into our death, Jesus brings life, and that more abundantly. That is the gift of the Lord's Supper.

Amen.

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