The Temptation of Jesus in John

Matthew and Luke record the story of Jesus’ post-baptismal temptation with which most of us are familiar. The devil tempted Jesus to create bread, perform miraculous signs and reign over the kingdoms of this age. In an unpublished commentary on the Gospel of John, Deacon Ezra Ham of the Antiochian Orthodox Church alerted me to the way these temptations show up again in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel.

Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. John 6:15

So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? John 6:30

“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.” John 6:34

In John 6, the crowd looks to Jesus for kingship, miraculous signs and bread. John never uses the word “temptation”, but the parallel is remarkable.

The devil doesn’t whisper in Jesus’ ear; the crowd shouts its demands. If we were to use the word “temptation” in John’s case, it wouldn’t mean “an inward desire to do something wrong”. Rather, the crowd laid out their expectations before Jesus. This is the kind of savior they will accept: an earthly king who performs miracles to fill their bellies. If there is an inward temptation for Jesus here, it is not visible in John’s gospel. This is a test as much for the people as it is for Jesus. Will Jesus succumb to the demands of the crowd? Of course not! But will the crowd accept Jesus for who he is: a different kind of king, who offers them a different kind of bread and who ultimately will perform a different kind of sign?

The chapter begins with John’s version of the feeding of the five thousand, the only miracle found in all four gospels. When the people saw what Jesus had done, they said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world,” and they wanted to acclaim him as king. In response, Jesus initially withdrew to ‘the mountain.” The mountain here is not the place of temptation, but a refuge from the misguided crowd and the kind of messiahship they demanded.

When Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee after feeding the 5000, the crowd followed. Jesus challenged them on their motivation.

Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. John 6:26-27

That’s when the people asked Jesus to authenticate his claims by performing another miracle to convince them. I’ve never really understood this question. What did they think the feeding of the 5000 was? Based on the context, it seems that they wanted Jesus to provide miraculous bread for their stomachs again and again.

“Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” John 6:28

Moses didn’t just feed the people once. He provided them bread day-in day-out for decades. The people wanted Jesus to provide baskets full of bread every day. “Where are you going, Jesus? Stick around. Make some more bread! Don’t ever stop!” In fact, that’s what they said: give us this bread always! If you are as great as Moses, you’ll keep the bread coming.

Jesus does provide us with daily bread, but it’s not the kind that sits on the table.

I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry and whoever believes in me will never go thirsty. John 6:35

Like Moses, Jesus will provide God’s people with manna, but a different kind of manna. The Israelites ate the manna and still ultimately died. The manna Jesus provides is the bread of eternal life. Those who eat it will live forever. Jesus will raise them up at the last day.

The “miracle” that Jesus will perform to provide this bread is of a very different kind.

This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” John 6:51b

Jesus death is the “miracle” that will provide the bread of life to all who eat it. And for John, eating Jesus’ “flesh” is not just a metaphor for something that happens within believers’ hearts and minds. Actual eating and drinking is involved.

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” John 6:53-54

John 6 is the evangelist’s Eucharistic chapter. He’s talking about what we would call “Holy Communion” or “The Lord’s supper.” The bread which the church eats in its special meal is like the manna that God provided in the day of Moses, only better. The meal is Jesus’ flesh and blood. It is a heavenly banquet, in which the crucified and risen savior gives himself to his people. It is the means by which Christ’s people abide in him and he in them. It is the heavenly food and drink of those who posses eternal life.

Jesus refused to be turned aside by popular expectations. The people wanted a king and a never ending supply of miraculous food for their stomachs. Jesus was not the king they envisioned, but he was a king. And like Moses he miraculously provided them with heavenly food. It was just a different kind of food and a different kind of miracle. What Jesus actually offered was infinitely better than what the crowd demanded.

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