Can you think of a friend who seems to stand out from the rest? Perhaps it’s because he or she does things a little bit differently from others, or has experienced life uniquely, and because of this, offers unique perspectives?
In the Bible, John’s Gospel stands out from the other Gospels as having a particular point of view. Its exclusion from the “synoptic” category that encompasses Matthew, Mark, and Luke, meaning these gospels contain “large areas of common subject-matter and often similar phrasing,”1 underlines this particularity. One key difference is that John, though it includes the Lord’s supper, lacks a full description of the original eucharist service, i.e., the sharing of the bread and wine, which the synoptic gospels describe almost identically.
However, does John completely skip over this symbolism? Certainly not—in fact, he goes into an incredible amount of detail about the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, and its theological meaning in the life of each believer. John employs the symbolism of both key parts of the Eucharist, bread and wine, each in a unique and profound way, by means of food miracles.
The Wedding at Cana
First, in John 2, John records Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding in Cana, a town almost exactly halfway between the Mediterranean and the Sea of Galilee, near marshy stretches on the north side of the Asochis Plain.2 The crisis at the wedding was that the wine had run out. Imagine the shame the hosts must have felt as they prepared to explain to guests that their hospitality had fallen short that day, that they had underestimated the amount of wine to purchase. They must have dreaded what people would say, that they were too poor, too stingy, or too ill-prepared to provide completely for their guests. We don’t know exactly why Mary asked Jesus to help, but we can guess that she cared about the embarrassment of the hosts, who were her friends or family, and that the Holy Spirit had prompted her to ask Jesus to perform what some might call a party trick miracle. And at the surface, it might appear like that.
But there’s so much more happening here. To start, let’s consider Jesus’ response: “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” This might seem rather terse, but consider the crisis again—the wine has run out. The Greek word used here is ustereo, “to fall short.”3 Jesus might have been saying, “The wine hasn’t fallen short for me.” Yet, he’s the only one who can help. So what does he do? He turns six large jars of water into wine. Let’s analyze the symbols: Six is the number of humanity (John 2:6); Jesus is a human. Water is necessary for and revives us with life, and Jesus gives the water of life (John 4:14, 7:37-38). Wine is the blood of the covenant, “which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28). Jesus shed this for us on the cross. All this is saying that one man produced wine so abundant that he reversed the situation from “falling short” to overabundant, making 150 gallons, the equivalent to 757 bottles, of wine.
Christ’s work of redemption, represented by both the wine and the bread, is more than sufficient to any who choses Him as Lord and Savior.
In addition to the wine’s quantity, the quality stunned wedding-goers, as shown by the master of the feast’s reaction: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10). Could this have a deeper meaning as well? Consider Luke 5:36-39, another place where Jesus uses wine as a teaching object:
He also told them a parable: “No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it on an old garment. If he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’”
To this audience, according to Ellicott, the old wine represented “the motive-power of the Law in its rigid and Pharisaic form,” whereas the new wine “is the freer, nobler life-power of the gospel.” It’s no surprise that many dug into the old system as Christ presented the new, “as thinking it stronger and more potent than they could bear.”4 Likewise, in the miracle at Cana, not only is Jesus’ wine more than sufficient in quantity, it’s quality is greater than the wine that preceded it, indicating not only the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice to make up where we fall short, but also the superiority of Jesus’ teaching over that which the Pharisees so fervently hung onto.
Feeding the 5,000
Next, we approach the “bread” of the Eucharist, which John identifies powerfully through Christ’s miraculous feeding of the 5,000. The crisis is even more severe than running out of wine at Cana: they don’t have nearly enough food and no means to get more (John 6:7). The food they do have is barely enough for one person (John 6:9). Yet, from this, Jesus cranks out food better than any cafeteria, feeding the entire crowd with plenty to spare. But to what significance? Again, we must look beneath the surface in the context of the Eucharist, to see that this isn’t just a cafeteria miracle.
First, how does Jesus open the subject? “Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?’” (John 6:5). He asked a question he already knew the answer to (John 6:6), Because, when we fall short, faith is the only solution. This story lacks the specific term, ustereo, but contains the same idea: at least 5,000 people utterly lacking, and a miraculous solution through one man, Jesus. Notice that the food they do find is barely enough for one person—five barley loaves and two fish (John 6:9). Yet he uses one person’s worth of food to feed everyone!
Moreover, this is more than just enough, it is abundant:
And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten (John 6:12-13).
It’s no coincidence that 12 baskets remain: Twelve represents the 12 patriarchs and tribes of Israel. This offering of bread is more than enough to satisfy all 12 tribes—that is, the entirety of God’s people, anyone choosing to belong to it according to faith (John 3:16).
Now, if the wine represents the sacrifice of Christ, what does the bread represent? In Matthew, he records that “Jesus took the bread, and after blessing it, broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body’” (Matt. 26:26). According to Ellicott, this represents Christ offering his body to be broken for our sake, and sharing the results of this sacrifice. Just as a sacrifice was a memorial for sin, this ceremony would be a memorial of what takes our sin away—Christ’s sacrifice and victory on the cross.5 And Christ’s work of redemption, represented by both the wine and the bread, is more than sufficient to any who choses Him as Lord and Savior.
Drink My Blood and Eat My Flesh
Despite the incredible miracle of feeding at least 5,000 people from one person’s lunch, only the next day Jesus loses the majority of his closest followers. How? By explaining the meaning of his wine and his bread which he had so powerfully illustrated at Cana and Galilee. First, he calls himself “the bread that came down from heaven…that one may eat of it and not die” (John 6:41, 50). This is a similar statement to the one insinuated at Cana when the steward declared that the new wine was better than the old. Both came from heaven, but the new had power unto eternal life, whereas the old did not (John 6:49). Ellicott explains, “That was manna, special in time and circumstance; this is bread, the true sustenance for all times and all circumstances… this outer earth-born form of flesh contains the true life, in the only way in which humanity could receive it”.6 The only hope for humanity is, by believing in the name of Jesus Christ, to accept his work and his character into our own lives, in as profound a way as food enters into and sustains our body, and to renew this commitment continually, just as we need food continually.
This was a hard teaching when taken literally, and judging by their responses and the predominant expectation that the Messiah would chiefly concern himself with Israel’s earthly kingdom (even among the 12: see Mark 10:35-38 and Acts 1:6-7), Jesus’ followers took him literally. It’s amazing even the twelve remained. Yet, twelve did remain, enough to represent God’s people in entirety. Why did they stay? “Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God’” (John 6:68-69). Peter and the others, though they didn’t understand everything they heard, had witnessed the power, love, and wisdom of this man, Jesus, and believed he was the Son of God. May they encourage us as we encounter situations in life or in Scripture when God acts in ways that we don’t fully understand.
In John’s Gospel, we see symbolism of the Lord’s Supper used in the most powerful ways to communicate a powerful and mysterious message. Brothers and sisters, Christ’s work on our behalf is sufficient to overcome all our shortcomings. May we accept the blood and the body of Christ into our lives as intimately as we do food and drink. And may we remember that we “do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 8:3). May we consume the bread and drink that Christ provides us continually, so that his Spirit might guide us into a life driven by his love and fulfilled by his promise. Amen.
- “Synoptic Problem, The.” In The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.
- Ewing, W. 1939. “Cana.” In International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
- Strong’s Concordance
- Ellicott, Charles John. 1878. “Luke 5:39.” In A New Testament Commentary for English Readers
- Ibid, “Matthew 26:26”
- Ibid, “John 6:49”
Ellicott, Charles John. 1878. A New Testament Commentary for English Readers. New York: E.P. Dutton. https://biblehub.com/commentaries/luke/5-39.htm; https://biblehub.com/commentaries/matthew/26-26.htm; https://biblehub.com/commentaries/john/6-49.htm.
Ewing, W. 1939. “Cana.” In International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. https://bibleatlas.org/cana.htm.
1961. “Synoptic Problem, The.” In The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by F.L. Cross, 1315. London: Oxford University Press.