The highlight of this passage is faith, or more precisely as John states it: “believing in Jesus.” The fourth evangelist uses this phrase thirty-four times, indicating that it has special meaning for him.
This word appears often in the Bible and is frequently mentioned by believers. As with all words and with human language itself, meaning derives basically and primarily from the society that uses the word. In the United States, faith or belief has a strong intellectual character. It is considered primarily to be an act of the mind.
Furthermore, faith usually indicates (to Americans) that a person believes something or someone on the basis of authority. Thus, any person, including an actor or impostor, who wears a white laboratory coat with a stethoscope tucked into its pocket is thought to be “believable.”
In the Middle Eastern world, the words “faith”; “belief”; “fidelity”; and “faithfulness” describe the social glue that binds one person to another person. These are not acts of the mind so much as sentiments that spring from the heart, the seat of thought in Middle Eastern psychology.
These terms really describe the social, externally manifested, emotionally rooted values known as loyalty, commitment, and solidarity. John underlines this aspect (rather than the intellectual one) by his favorite phrase: “believing in” or “into” Jesus.
In today’s episode, people come looking for Jesus but for the wrong reason: they don’t want to miss out if he is going to offer more to eat (Jn 6:26). Given the subsistence diet on which first century peasants lived, one might say Jesus was very insensitive to scold them for seeking him because he fed them. Jesus tried to move their thoughts from perishable food to that which “endures to eternal life which the Son of Man will give to you.” Yet it is difficult to think lofty thoughts when one’s stomach growls from hunger.
The people understand Jesus’ point and ask a follow-up question. “What works of God ought we do in order to gain this sustenance?” (Jn 6:28). Qumran literature indicates that the phrase “works of God” describes those things that please God. People should do these and avoid what is displeasing.
According to Jesus, what truly pleases God is to “believe in him whom God has sent” (Jn 6:29). This is not simply intellectual assent, but authentic Mediterranean commitment, loyalty, and solidarity. Stick with Jesus no matter what!
If the people sound as if they are making headway in understanding Jesus, their next statement indicates just how much further they have yet to travel. They ask Jesus for a sign to authenticate himself. This was, of course, normal in the tradition. A true prophet must legitimate himself and his announcement, with a sign.
Thinking of the great prophet, Moses, the people ask Jesus for a sign like manna. How quickly they have forgotten about the bread which he gave just the day before. Jesus, of course, has already noted that these people missed the point of the bread—“sign” (Jn 6:26) because their minds were elsewhere.
He corrects their understanding of Exodus 16:15: it was not Moses but God who gave and continues to give bread from heaven. Now, Jesus not only gives the bread of life (Jn 6:11, 6:27) but also himself is the bread of life (Jn 6:35, 6:48). The giver and the gift are one and the same.
The parallel structure of Jesus’ concluding comment expresses a synonym for John’s favorite phrase, “believing into!” “He who comes to me shall not hunger, he who believes in me shall never thirst” (Jn 6:35). Other synonyms are “abide with”; “follow,” “love,” “keep the words of”; “receive,” “have”; and “see.” All of these underscore the need for believers to establish commitment and solidarity with Jesus, the bread of life.