Right and Wrong Questions
‘Got milk?’ It must rank up there with the greatest advertising slogans of all time. Simple – and subtly, subconsciously, ever so persuasive. Standing in the grocery line about to check out and the words just pop into your head. And I’m not complaining. Driving home after a long day at work, I’m happy that it suddenly comes into my mind before I get in the house and realize that I’m going to have to drink my coffee black and have toast in the morning instead of my Kellogg’s Cornflakes. For meeting my immediate needs, I am thankful for a little marketed manipulation. But sometimes it’s not so helpful. When I climb the stairs to get something I’m looking for, and then can’t remember what it is, ‘Got milk?’ isn’t so helpful. I’m asking the wrong question and it isn’t helping me to remember the right one in the first place. And that’s before we even get to the answer.
But sometimes focussing on the wrong question can be more significant than having to make another choice for breakfast or standing confused on the upstairs landing. When Jesus proclaims, ‘I am the bread of life’ (John 6:35,48) he does so to a crowd that had already seen him feed 5000 men (not counting women and children) with five loaves and two fish (John 6:1-15) and cross the Sea of Tiberius, though he had not left in the only boat that had gone across to Capernaum (John 6:16-22). Yet Jesus recognizes that their questions were the equivalent of ‘Got milk?’ At the beginning of the chapter, John writes that many were following Jesus ‘because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick’ (John 6:2). They were in pain and he was healing them, they were hungry and he was feeding them. But they couldn’t see past their immediate needs.
What else did they need? Their lives back. They were living under Roman rule in their own land – in their own Promised Land. They were in subjugation under a foreign Caesar. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some justice, wouldn’t it be right to have their own king? Couldn’t Jesus meet that need too? After He fed the 5000, John writes that that is exactly what the crowd was asking for, ‘Perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself’ (John 6:15).
Jesus Reshapes Our Questions
The crowd assumed that this was what Jesus was here to do. Their thoughts had subtly been shaped by the messages of their social and religious culture that had seeped into their subconscious and got them seeking for fulfillment simply in the here and now. Jesus rebuked them saying, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.’ (John 6:26). Unperturbed by Jesus’ rebuke, they persisted in wanting another sign, something like their fathers had in the wilderness, the bread that came down from heaven (John 6:30,31). Again, unable to see beyond the physical and the present, they conveniently forgot what Jesus would soon remind them of, that the generation that ate the manna in the wilderness was the very generation that also died in the wilderness for their unbelief. Despite the bread from heaven. The response of the crowd to the miraculous feeding the day before was just another sad case of déjà vu.
So when Jesus says ‘I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me shall not hunger and whoever believes in me shall never thirst,’ (John 6:35) their questions which focus on Jesus’ earthly parentage (John 6:41,42) and earthly body (John 6:52) show them firmly anchored to material concerns. He was the fulfillment of what the manna pointed to, not just able to sustain life, but able to bring eternal life (John 6:40). Those who ate the manna died in the wilderness, but Jesus proclaims to the crowd that those who feed on Him, those who believe in Him, will be raised from the dead on the last day. But the crowd weren’t thinking of the last day, they were thinking of that day and that day’s needs.
Jesus Knows Our Real Needs
Are we so different? We’re not just subtly shaped by advertising slogans that remind us to buy stuff, we’re endlessly tempted to ask the wrong questions, and forget the right ones. We’re constantly anchored in the here and now, even as Christians. Many of us simply want our felt needs met today; we pay little heed to the One who meets those needs and meets our real need. Mired in the present, we think the physical and the material will fill us. Many of us live in countries where we don’t have to worry too much about our health care, where we don’t need to be hungry, where we aren’t living in political subjugation and where we can always get milk.
But have we got life? We’re so cosseted by all that surrounds us to meet our needs in the here and now, even the blessings that our heavenly Father has showered upon us, that we can forget that poverty, illness, dependence, loneliness, or whatever it is that we have done our best to protect ourselves from has never been the ultimate problem. Our problem is death, the wages of sin. When we ask how we can be happy, or how we can recover from addiction, or how we can find the right job or husband or wife, we’re just asking the questions of the crowd in John 6, ‘Got milk?’ questions.
But Jesus came into the world to give us life, eternal life. Jesus came to raise us on the last day. Many other things we can work for ourselves and be helped with through family and friends, professionals and institutions and charities and many organizations that, by God’s common grace, we can use to meet our needs in the here and now. But in John 6, Jesus orients the crowd, and us, away solely from the here and now and the needs of the moment and toward our true need in this life and in the one to come. That for which we cannot work; that which comes from faith alone (John 6:28,29). It wasn’t ever about milk, it wasn’t even really about bread. It was, and is, and eternally will be, all about the gift of life.
We don't need better advice. What we need is good news.