God told Moses to have the table for the bread of the Presence built for the tabernacle and stacked with twelve loaves as a way to remind Israel of His gracious provision for all their needs (Ex. 25:23–30; Lev. 24:5–9). For the most part, only the priests could eat this bread, though in exceptional circumstances it could be given to those in dire straits (1 Sam. 21:1–9). Yet whoever ate this bread found that while it could sustain life for a time, it could not make anyone live forever. Israel needed a different type of food to find eternal life.
This bread, we see in today’s passage, is Christ Jesus Himself. The Lord has just fed the 5,000 with only five barley loaves and two fish (John 6:1–15), prompting the crowd to seek Him out that they might receive more food (vv. 22–26). Jesus responds that the people ought not to look for temporary food like bread that perishes but for the food that lasts forever, the food that God has commissioned the Son of Man to give to His people (v. 27). At this point the crowd asks what works they must do to get this bread (v. 28), which reflects the Jewish belief that the Law is the bread that God gives. They are asking about the works of the Mosaic law they must do to find eternal life.
Christ does not disagree that something must be done to receive this life-giving food, only that what is to be done is not works of the Law as traditionally conceived; rather, they must put their trust in Him (v. 29). In this, Jesus is implicitly claiming to be the one who ushers in the Messianic age, which is seen in the reference of the crowd to manna in verses 30–31. Jews in that day believed the Messiah would miraculously bring manna when He came, and Jesus does not dispute this assumption; He only says that their idea of life-giving manna is woefully inadequate. He is the real manna — the bread of God who satisfies the true hunger of the soul (vv. 32–35).
The phrase “bread of God” was another name for the bread of the Presence (Lev. 21:6, 8), so Jesus is saying in today’s passage that He is the fulfillment of the bread of the Presence under the old covenant. Christ is far better than the former bread, for anyone, priest or not, can dine on Him by faith; that is, all who are willing may trust in Him alone for eternal sustenance and receive life that can never be taken away. And Jesus will never cast out any who truly put their faith in Him (John 6:36–51).
The old English proverb that “bread is the staff of life” is never truer than when it is used to refer to Jesus. His flesh — His life — given for the sins of the world is the staff that upholds us, and only those who trust in Him alone can find eternal salvation. We are to feed on Him by faith daily that we might be sustained by Him and persevere. Have you partaken of the Bread of Life who alone can satisfy all your hunger?