Personal Reality With God

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. John 6:51

This matters, because Jesus is offering every one of us a satisfaction and energy and inner resource that outperforms even his own blessings in this world. There is something better in this world than the blessing of God. Jesus says so. And God longs to give us his very best. It isn’t as though God is happy to give low-level blessing but reluctant to give out his best. His heart is exactly the opposite. He longs to give us his best. That’s what Jesus is talking about here.

Here is the insight that John chapter 6 provides. There are two kinds of divine favor in this life. God reaches out to us and is kind and is life-giving at two levels. At one level, God blesses us indirectly. Every day he fills our lives and blesses us through his creation. I’m thinking of family and friends and work and play and food, and so forth. So tonight Matt and Kara Phillip and Jani and I are going to hear John Fogerty in concert. I love Creedence. I love “Up Around the Bend” and “Tombstone Shadow” and “Long as I can see the Light.” I don’t know if John Fogerty realizes it, but divine blessing is coming into my experience through him. John Calvin taught me that. In Calvin’s Institutes he teaches us to perceive the goodness of God present in human culture-making:

The mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. Shall we consider anything praiseworthy without recognizing that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude.

Calvin was saying that anywhere we see human talent and intelligence and skill and taste we see the blessing of God. So Christians should be the most grateful people in the world – grateful for Creedence Clearwater Revival, for starters. I wonder what you’re grateful for. But God spreads his goodness our way through people and things. So at this level, we’re talking about the goodness of God coming into our experience really but indirectly. We’re grateful!

But there is an even deeper level of God’s goodness. He is able to favor us directly by giving us himself, God himself drawing near, God himself speaking to our hearts of his love, God making himself real to us and glorious to our hearts, as only God can. This is divine love in its pure form. When I take my wife in my arms, I am experiencing the love of God indirectly. But there is also such a thing as God taking me in his arms. Have you experienced the love of God himself, personally and directly?

Here’s how we can all tell the difference. When the kindness of God comes to us through his creation – these experiences are good but always imperfect, because everything in this world is imperfect, including the blessing of God, because it’s filtered through an imperfect creation. But his love coming down directly from above, coming to us personally from his own mighty heart into our hearts – it’s perfect, because it’s of God alone. God’s love, coming down and entering our hearts, is a foretaste of heaven. The Bible speaks of our “tasting the powers of the age to come” (Hebrews 6:5). In all this world, there is nothing else like that. Think of the best concert you’ve ever gone to. Did you walk away thinking, “There’s just nothing out there greater than that”? But have you ever experienced Jesus in his love for you and come away from him saying, “That was nice, Lord. But what else you got?”

In John 6 Jesus is speaking to us about the kind care of God at both levels. In verses 1-15, Jesus feeds the 5000. He blessed them through food. I think of this event as a really great outdoor concert, an early Woodstock, with no one less than Jesus as the star performer. And everyone had a great time. The food was delicious. Jesus created it himself. But it was only food. It could not do more than what food can do. Not even miraculous bread from the hand of Jesus gives real life. Those people enjoyed that moment with him. Then the moment passed by, and nothing had really changed. Their hearts weren’t any closer to God. And it’s not as though Jesus didn’t give them enough of his earthly blessing. Verse 12 says they ate their fill. They were stuffed. They probably felt like taking a nap. Jesus provided generously. So what was the problem? Verse 27 says that food is “the food that perishes” – like everything else in this world, including even the miraculous blessing of God. Do you ever tell yourself a miracle in your life would solve your problems? It wasn’t a silver bullet for them. We all need the Lord himself.

So we’re beginning to see why verse 35 is so significant. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” When we experience Jesus, we are satisfied. We start thinking, “All I want forever is more of him.” Some of us know what I’m talking about. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you might think what I’m saying is crazy. Jesus as the fullness of your deepest being forever, better than a Ph.D., better than a recording contract, better than a lover? If you don’t believe that, God is able to make himself real to you at that level. And if you walked into church this morning well fed, well paid, loved, admired, successful – and bewildered as to why your heart is still aching, there is a reason. You are at this moment in God’s very presence, but your unbelief barricades your heart against him. And there is nothing worse than living on a private little desert island of isolation surrounded by a vast sea deep with divine peace. Will you let your heart crack open just a little?

We’re not going to go through this long speech in detail, because the Lord is basically saying just that one thing. He is saying that we finally come alive as our hearts feed on him. We must, and we can, feed on the Bread of Life himself. My purpose today is to open that door to you. Just two points. One, what Jesus offers. Two, where we go from here.

What Jesus offers

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. (verse 35)

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. (verse 51)

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life. (verses 53-54)

Whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. (verse 57)

The key to this whole speech is so obvious we might miss it. The Lord repeatedly distinguishes between the life that is here below and the life that comes down from above. It’s the difference between God’s blessing limited to down here, and God himself coming down into our hearts. Throughout this chapter we see Jesus contrasting earthly and heavenly, temporary and eternal, life that fades away and life that only gets better:

Verse 38: “I have come down from heaven”

Verse 41: “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”

Verse 42: “I have come down from heaven.”

Verse 50: “This is the bread that comes down from heaven.”

Verse 51: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.”

And the case the Lord is making here in John 6 runs throughout the Bible. The Bible clearly says that this world is good because God created it, but we flourish only in God himself. If we try to suck out of this creation the life our hearts long for, we will die. But if we look to God, we will live. Christianity is all about us guilty and exhausted sinners perking up and coming alive, and we don’t have to fake it because it’s finally real. Nowhere in the Bible is God offered to us as a topic of speculation. The Bible says, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). It doesn’t say, “Oh, theorize and speculate that the Lord is good.” The Bible says of the people of God, “They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights” (Psalm 36:8). When we finally stoop to drink from the river of God’s delights in the gospel, when we finally open up to him by mere faith and our hearts taste his goodness, do you realize what’s happening at that moment? We are experiencing the joy that God himself experiences: “. . . the river of your delights.” Jesus is saying, “I came down to give you that.” He is not our religious mascot offering us earthly blessing that is good but fades away. He is the Lord from above, offering us himself as the only experience that will never leave our hearts empty and aching and bitter. He is why the apostle Paul could speak in so personal a way: “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). Can you say that? Can you honestly say, “He loved me and gave himself for me”? If not, he has so much more for you. The bread of life can become the feast of your heart – not because you deserve him but because he loves to give. But I am struck by how rarely I hear us today saying from our own experience, “The Son of God loved me and gave himself for me.” But what if the predominant experience among us here at Immanuel was the Son of God coming to us and giving himself to us and feeding our souls directly and personally? Our whole city would feel the impact. So the Bible teaches us to say, “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).

There is a difference between a conceptual knowledge of Jesus and a personal knowledge of Jesus. His glory is so real that an intellectual response only is too small. Our response must be thoughtful. His glory engages our minds wonderfully. But there is more, because he is more, and we are more. You’re connecting with him totally when your heart is savoring him as your bread of life, meeting your need way down deep. Jonathan Edwards put it this way:

There is a difference between having an opinion that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the beauty of his holiness and grace. There is a difference between knowing intellectually that honey is sweet and tasting its sweetness.

Your heart is crying out for more than earthly blessing, and more than right opinions about heavenly blessing. Your heart is hungry for the Bread of Life. You will never find Jesus himself in the theorizing, but you will taste him in the eating.

God put John chapter 6 in the Bible to force the issue. For too many of us too much of the time, Jesus is only a concept. And here’s the trouble with an abstract Savior. Our sins and sufferings are real. We are not facing hypothetical needs in our world. Baltimore is not a theory. Nepal is not a theory. Your failings and tears and longings, like mine, are not a theory. But the real Jesus is life.

When he says, “I am the bread of life,” he is not talking about a denominational preference or a musical style or a secondary doctrine. He is talking about life versus death. Look at verse 53: “So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.’” He did not say, “. . . you have less life in you.” He said, “. . . you have no life in you.” Jesus is not an added ingredient to upgrade your lifestyle from good to better. Jesus is the resurrection and the life of your dead heart. We stop dying and start living by feeding on him, especially his love for us on the cross: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (verse 54). The dying love of Jesus on the cross is the only life-giving feast of our souls. As you look into your upcoming week, I wonder what your top priority is. Maybe it’s closing that deal at work. Maybe it’s graduating from college. Maybe it’s just surviving. But here is how Jesus sees your upcoming week: Your top priority this week is to feed on him at the level of your real needs deep within. That is his reason for you to be on the planet this week and every week.

Isn’t that why we’re here in church this morning? Isn’t that the whole point – for his love and care and wisdom and strength to percolate down into our hearts as a felt reality, so that our chains fall away and we’re free to live for him? How did we ever get to the place where we settle for so little? When did “church” sink to the level of a little pick-me-up as we get ready to drag ourselves into another Monday? Do we realize what Christianity is? Our friend Ed Stetzer said it well: “Bible Belt people need to be saved from their salvation, and come to Jesus.”

Here is how you can tell if Jesus is real to you or theoretical to you. This is a diagnostic for us to dig into what’s really happening inside us:

Real Jesus / Theoretical Jesus

His love for me moves my soulHe is a guilt-inducing burden

Prayer is where I find himPrayer is optional and boring

I need him constantlyI get by on my own

I feel sinful but forgivenI’m not that bad. Is he doing his job?

The Bible reads like my worldThe Bible reads like ancient history

I feel inadequate but supportedI feel self-assured and entitled

I am expendable for himHe fits into the margins of my life

Moment by moment with himSunday only with him

Crisis pulls me toward himCrisis drives me toward doubt

I’m fine with him in controlI have to be in control, setting the terms

I have peace in the crazinessMy circumstances define me

So, which Jesus is yours? Are you feeding on the Bread of Life? Does that category even exist in how you see the possibilities?

Where to go from here

We’re all going to go one of two ways – either toward Jesus or away from Jesus. He is always polarizing. Look at verse 66: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” The idea of eating his flesh and drinking his blood turned many people off. They liked him. They were following him – as long as he blessed them on their terms – as a useful lifestyle upgrade. But when he told them that the only feast of the human soul in all this world is a cross, they walked away. So Jesus said to his other disciples, “Do you want to leave too?” Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Which way are you going to go?

Jesus is saying to us all this morning, “I will answer your prayers, I will bless you like crazy, as never before, to the depths of your being, beyond your wildest dreams, and forever, if you’ll receive the answer I have for you.” So here’s the question. Are we open? Will we walk with Jesus on his terms, or on our own terms? If the sacred gift of Jesus himself takes the shape of a cross, is he still worth it? Or are we saying to him, “I want your earthly blessings, but let’s leave you and your gospel out of it”? If we don’t want him, then his answer to all our prayers is No. And he will forever remain theoretical and aloof, and we will suffer starvation and desolation forever. But what he desires with all his mighty heart is to come to us personally and repeatedly with his healing. Are we open? Do we need to repent of using him but not wanting him? Do we need to repent of thinking of him in categories so small they are insulting to his glory? Can’t every one of us say to him this morning, “Lord, my heart is alive to nearly everything but you. Please make my dead heart alive to you again”?

Feasting on Jesus is not reducible to a formula. I can’t give you three easy steps, because they don’t exist. Feeding on Jesus is a mystery. But here is the wonderful thing. Verse 45: “It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’” We don’t have to figure it out. He will teach us, he will help us, if we’re open.

There is only one reason left not to be open – fear. As you know, C. S. Lewis thought of Jesus as a great Lion. In one of his stories, a girl named Jill walks out a forest into a clearing. She is thirsty. A stream is there, offering refreshment. The problem is, the Lion there next to it.

“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion. “I am dying of thirst,” said Jill. “Then drink,” said the Lion. “May I — could I — would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill. The Lion answered this only by a look and a very low growl. The delicious rippling noise of the stream was driving Jill nearly frantic. “Will you promise not to — do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill. “I make no promise,” said the Lion. Jill was so thirsty now that, without noticing it, she had come a step nearer. “Do you eat girls?” she said. “I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it. “I dare not come and drink,” said Jill. “Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion. “Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.” “There is no other stream,” said the Lion.