Jesus fed the five thousand with five barley loaves and two fish. The crowds found Jesus the next day in Capernaum. They clearly had the free meal still on their minds. They asked for a sign. They reminded Jesus that Moses had given their fathers manna in the wilderness.
Jesus began his “Bread of Life” sermon: “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). Why the figure of speech? They were desiring bread when they should have desired Jesus. Their minds were on lunch instead of recognizing their Lord. Figures arrest our attention and make us grapple with what is being said. But we can also become lost in them, and this sermon has plenty of them:
So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. (John 6:53–55 ESV)
The original audience to these figures of speech were confused: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” They were viewed as “a hard saying.” Some did not believe.
When struggling with figures of speech, the first thing to do is search the speaker and author to see if he has explained them in the immediate context. Has he said something more literally that explains the figures? If the immediate context lacks the explanation, then the broader context of scripture may hold the key. The figure of speech may be used elsewhere, and an explanation may be there.
What about the “Bread of Life” sermon? I think Jesus said clearly and literally what he wanted.
Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29 ESV)
“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:40 ESV)
The figures of speech make things memorable. The memorable figures attempt to pierce hard hearts. To trust Jesus is to “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood” (John 6:53, ESV).