Bread in the Gospel of John

Giovanni Lanfranco, “Multiplication of the Loaves”

Yesterday, we saw the centrality to bread in the life of Jews. This is the context in which Jesus multiplies loves and preaches about the  Bread of Life.

In John 6, Jesus takes five barley loaves and two fish and uses them to feed five thousand people. By producing food in a place where people could get no food, Jesus repeats the miracle of manna. He becomes the one who brought “bread from heaven to eat.” This was a power that only God could wield, so the people rightly supposed that Jesus was the Messiah.

But the feeding of the five thousand was greater than the miracle of the manna. The amount Jesus provides is not merely sufficient: it is abundant. A surplus of twelve baskets remains, representing the twelve tribes of Israel and indicating that Christ is creating a new Israel and thus a new covenant.

In his “Tractates on John,” St. Augustine reads even deeper symbolism into the miracle of the loaves, seeing the five loves as a symbol of the Pentateuch. He attaches significance to the fact that these are barley loaves, which “belong to the Old Testament.” Barley has a hard shell, making it difficult to get to the nutritious center, similar to the way the legalities of the Old Testament can prevent true life in the Holy Spirit. As for the boy with the loaves and the fishes, perhaps he represents “the people Israel, which, in a childish sense, carried, not ate. For the things which they carried were a burden while shut up, but when opened [like barley] afforded nourishment.”

St. Augustine is telling us that Jesus has broken open the scripture, and stripped away the burdensome layers of legality, replacing it with Himself. He also “breaks open” the scripture much in the same way he did with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, explaining its real meaning and true fulfillment in Him.

The two fish are also deeply significant to Augustine, symbolizing the roles of Priest and the King in the Old Testament, “ who were anointed for the sanctifying and governing of the people.” In time, Christ himself came to fulfill the roles of Priest and King in one Person: “of priest by offering Himself to God as a victim for us; of ruler, because by Him we are governed. He has fulfilled by Himself what was promised in the Old Testament. And He bade the loaves to be broken; in the breaking they are multiplied.”

As King and Priest, Christ now rules both the corporal and spiritual realm. As we see in the Bread of Life discourse, immediately following the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus does not merely provide the bread from heaven: he becomes the bread from heaven. “It is written,” he says in Matthew 4:4, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

Jesus is that Word and that bread. In giving this bread to others, broken for them as his body shall be broken, He gives them eternal life.

[You can find most of the references to “bread” in the New Testament here.]