This text begins the great slide from the pinnacle of Jesus’ popularity to the pits, from the acclamation of the crowds who were fed (6:24) and wanted to make him king (6:14) to the disciples who refused to be fed with true bread (6:66). A little bread filled their stomachs, but the true bread from heaven was not welcomed.
Like the Israelites of old (Exodus 16), they couldn’t see what God was doing in their midst. Those Israelites complained for centuries about the oppression in Egypt, yet wanted to go back there as soon as they had to depend on God for food. While they complained against Moses and Aaron, their real complaint was against God.
So, in John 6, the people idolized Moses but only in their patch work memory. Had they lived during Moses’ time, they would have joined the complainers. Instead, now with Jesus they wanted someone like Moses to appear who could give them bread once again, just like the good old days. God would once again succumb to their demands, or so they thought.
In the process these followers in John 6 could not accept the gift (“the Son of Man will give to you”) of food, but were piqued in their interest in “working the works of God.” Now that was something they could handle. “Just tell us how to work the works of God, Jesus!” So Jesus said: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Notice how that invitation is ignored. Instead, they demand (another!) sign from Jesus, different than the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:1-13).
How often have we followed that path? Jesus invites us to believe him, yet we want something more, more for us to do, and more for Jesus to prove that he is worth it. Am I more willing to live in light of the past, and rest on my laurels as a Christian? Or is God speaking through his word today, to me? Is he inviting me once again “to labor for the food that endures to eternal life” (6:27)?
When Jesus responds to the demands for a sign, like the sign of bread in the wilderness, he opens for them the understanding that it wasn’t Moses, but God who provided. And if they open their eyes now, it is Jesus himself who is the true bread who gives of himself so that they might have eternal life. It seems they get the invitation, for in 6:34 they respond: “Lord, give us this bread always.” But as noted in 6:36, they do not believe in Jesus, therefore they cannot have the gift of eternal life. But Jesus continues to extend the invitation, “will you also go away (or will you believe in me)” 6:67.