Jesus replied, "I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (Jn 6:35)
I was studying Mathew 16:5-12 the other day and it started me thinking about the many references to bread in the bible. First were the stories I had recently studied of Jesus feeding the 5000 and 4000 in Matthew 14 and 15. This led to questions about the importance of bread in the culture, what was their bread like, symbolism related to bread, and what other types of references to bread there are in the bible.
There are about 270 references to bread in the bible. These references cover a number of ideas, here are a few: Bread as a meal, the Manna provided in the wilderness, showbread, and “our daily bread” (The Lord’s Prayer). The ultimate reference was when Jesus referred to Himself as “The Bread of Life” in John 6:35.
Bread was a very important part of ancient cultures, there are even some today in which bread plays an important role. There are a number of reasons for this. Accessibility of ingredients, ease in transporting bread or its ingredients, it is relatively easy to make, and most importantly it was a staple in their daily diet (for some it may have been their only source of food). It was such an integral part of their diet that in some cultures to talk of “eating bread” or “eating a meal” were basically the same thing. Being that having bread could literally mean the difference between life and death (and in some beliefs considered sacred), cutting of bread was considered wicked or akin to be cutting life itself. From this arose the custom of breaking break prior to eating it, and lead to our use of the term “breaking bread” to reference gathering together with friends and family to share in a meal.
A number of grains were an important part of the ancient diet: wheat, oats, millet, rye, spelt, barley, and quinoa. Of these wheat and barley were most commonly used by the ancient Hebrews for bread and are both commonly used in Israel today to make their most common types of bread. There are a wide variety of breads made in Israel in modern times. This variety comes from combination of various cultural traditions that have resided in the area over time and from the wide-ranging backgrounds of the immigrants that have arrived since founding of the nation of Israel in 1948.
Bread for the ancient Hebrews was more limited in scope and fell into three main types. One was a larger loaf similar to what we think of today as bread, most likely it was more round than rectangular in shape and probably a bit weightier. Another was a smaller loaf with a heavier, denser consistency more akin to what most of us might think of as a biscuit. The third was a flat bread that was very thin and pliable which can be used for wrapping food or in the place of normal utensils.
One bread that is most often associated with the ancient Hebrews or with Israel is unleavened bread (bread made without yeast) called Matzo or Matzah, sometimes called the Bread of Affliction. Though matzo can be used in meals and celebrations throughout the year it is an integral element in Passover. Matzo used in the Passover celebration is to only be made from flour and water. Proper celebration of Passover also required all yeast be removed from the home. Use of the matzo serves not only as a reminder of their delivery from Egypt, but also as a reminder to remain humble and to not forget their suffering as slaves.
There are actually some differences between bread made by ancient cultures and bread today. This is mainly due to the differences in grains used today than those used in ancient cultures, as well as, in the processing methods used today. Modern grains have been significantly modified through breeding and hybridization or genetic manipulation (most of this happening in the last 100 years). Between the changes in the grains and some modern farming techniques you can see that modern grains are very different from their ancient cousins. Grains today are also processed much more heavily than they have been in the past. Part of this processing removes two of the three components of the grain and is used for other purposes. These two components, the bran and the germ, contain most of the fiber, vitamins, and minerals found in the grain leaving the endosperm, which is mostly starch. Using primarily this starchy component makes most of today’s commercially available breads very different from ancient breads.
On a personal note, my mother has a small counter-top grain mill and periodically grinds wheat herself to make fresh bread or rolls. In a word, her fresh made bread is incredible! Much better than bread from the store, especially right out of the oven with a little butter.
Manna, sometimes called the Bread of Heaven, was provided by God to the Israelites when they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years after leaving Egypt (Ex. 16). It is described as, “white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey” (vs.31). The word manna means “What is it?” in Hebrew. In Number 11:8 we see one of the ways they used manna was to make bread with it. Manna provides us a powerful symbol of God’s provision for the Ancient Hebrews after Moses had led them out of Egypt. It also shows us God can provide for our needs as well.
There is another lesson for us here which ties the symbol of the physical provision to our spiritual life. In Deuteronomy Moses tells the people, “He humbled you, causing you to hunger then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live by bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deut. 8:3) We need to remember to keep our focus on seeking God for the betterment of our spiritual lives. True life comes from seeking spiritual nourishment that only comes from God.
Showbread, or Bread of the Presence, was 12 loaves of bread made with fine flour that were placed in two rows on the gold table in the temple. The 12 loaves represented each of the 12 tribes of Israel and were made such that each was the same size. This bread was to be replaced each Sabbath by the priests and could be consumed by them in the sanctuary. Leviticus 24:5-9 gives us some of the information concerning preparation and placement of the bread. Because leavening, or yeast, is often used in the bible to represent sin, it is likely that the Showbread was unleavened bread so as to not desecrate the Holy Place in the Temple. The table of showbread was a sign of God’s everlasting covenant and provision with the nation of Israel and also pointed forward to the future Messiah and the fulfillment of His covenant.
When asked, Jesus gave us an example of how to pray (The Lord’s Prayer – Mt. 6:9-13). Verse 11 says, “Give us this day, our daily bread.” In this petition to God, Jesus was teaching us to come to God humbly, asking God to provide what we need in order to sustain us from day to day. Not just one time, but coming back to God daily for His provision in our lives. This can apply to our physical needs, but the bread also represents God’s Word, think of the Bible as spiritual food. So, we can see that we don’t just need physical nourishment, but we need spiritual nourishment as well. God will meet our needs if we trust in Him to provide for us in every way. Some scholars also believe this is a reminder of the manna God provided in the wilderness.
In John 6:25-40, Jesus has an interesting discussion with the crowd people following Him. He starts by accusing them of following Him because they want a free meal rather than because of the signs He has been performing and telling them they need to focus more on the eternal than the temporary. That they need to believe in the one whom God has sent. The people ask for a sign, pointing out that their ancestors ate the manna while in the desert. Jesus remind them that God provided the manna and tells them they need to ask for the true bread of heaven that brings life.
When they ask Him for that bread Jesus responds, “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (Jn 6:35) This is huge! In this statement, Jesus equates Himself with bread and therefore saying He is essential for life (remember what I mentioned before about how important bread was in that time?). Just as Moses told the people in Deuteronomy 8:3, we need more than physical nourishment. We need spiritual nourishment and by telling us He is the Bread of Life, Jesus is telling us that He is our spiritual nourishment.
How can we apply this to our lives?
Because Jesus is the Bread of Life, we need to treat Him with the same level of importance of actual food. And I think one could argue He is actually more important when you look at it from an eternal perspective. As such, we need to create a daily habit (“our daily bread”) of seeking Him. A few ways this can be done is through prayer, reading the bible, praise and worship, a devotional, and listening for the Holy Spirit. Whether you do one of these things, all of them, or some combination of them, the important thing is that we all need to do something to reach out and seek Him on a daily basis. When we focus on seeking Him, we are nourishing our spirit and this helps us become all that we were meant to be.
The next time you eat, take a minute to think about the parallels between physical and spiritual nourishment and how they work in your life. Then thank God for how He provides for both our physical and spiritual well-being. I do believe that He is doing so much more than we realize.