John 6:22-59 describes one of the many uncomfortable encounters between Jesus and the Jewish people who had totally misunderstood the point of the Old Testament prophecies, rituals, and commandments (which were meant to anticipate Christ). In summary, a group of people approach Jesus the day after he miraculously fed more than 5,000 people with only a few loaves of bread and two fish. Knowing their hearts, he immediately calls them out: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (v. 26). They aren’t looking for the long-awaited Messiah. They’re looking for a free meal.
Even before they can respond, He continues, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life” (v. 27). The people are now taken aback, and it seems that they seek to exonerate themselves by inciting a sort of theological debate with Jesus:
Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 30 So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”
Here they are referring back to the events recorded in Exodus 16, where God rains down an unusual type of bread from heaven to feed the newly-liberated Israelites who are stuck in the wilderness with nothing to eat. This bread appears outside their tents each morning, and they are commanded to take only as much as they need for each day, as a test of their faith to see if they trust God to provide for them on an ongoing basis. They call this bread “manna,” which in Hebrew means, “What is it?”
This question, What is it? is the first thing that comes out of their mouths when they see the miraculous food . . . that is, the miraculous food that apparently didn’t meet their expectations.
In John 6:31-24, Jesus identifies Himself as the bread of life, the true and ultimate manna from heaven, which alone can satisfy the hunger of the sinful human soul. And how fitting that He links this identity together with the Israelites’ manna, since so many of the Jews who encountered Him responded to His claims of identity with confusion and anger. Once again, God has sent bread of life from heaven, and they are asking, “What is this?!”
Jesus was not the king they were expecting. He was not the beautiful, majestic ruler who was going to save them from all their earthly problems and oppression. He came in a spirit of humility and servanthood. And while He did deliver many people of their worldly diseases and afflictions, His ultimate purpose was to save them from their sin. This is not what the Jews (or their Israelite ancestors) had in mind.
While it’s easy to criticize such pride and folly, however, it’s also easy to slip into it ourselves. I don’t know about you, but there are many times in my spiritual journey when salvation through Jesus does not look quite how I expect, and I’m caught looking at the works of God with my heart and head saying, Huh? instead of marveling at the fact that He chose to involve Himself in my life to begin with.
For example, many of my prayers for God to intercede in situations look something like this: “God, please change So-and-So’s heart to make it more [insert quality here] and help [desired occurrence] to happen [in this certain way].” And then He answers prayer according to His purposes, hidden or revealed, usually in a way that I hadn’t hoped for or even thought was possible. Another example of how God fails to meet my expectations is in the process of sanctification. I will be exalted only when I am humbled? I will inherit life by dying to myself? Suffering will benefit me?
What? What is this, God?
Similar to the people Jesus had many uncomfortable run-ins with, I am often hoping that the salvation God offers me is going to involve relief from all my earthly problems, while in reality, He is much more concerned about the state of my soul. He wants to save me from myself and from His wrath more than He wants to save me from social inferiority, physical discomfort, political ruin, and other such earthly crises. These kinds of expectations are what stood in the way of many people accepting Jesus when He confronted them on earth, and but for the grace of God, they will create obstacles to fruitfulness and joy in our own hearts.
I am beginning to pray more and more that God will spite my false expectations (and yours too) because this is how our hearts will be humbled and softened to the reality of His sovereignty in all things. This is how we will learn of our foolishness, our unreliability, our sin, and our incredibly limited perspectives. And may that experience cause us to believe and submit to the God whose ways are higher than our ways and whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts.