I don’t want to come across as a self-appointed spokesman for the Church or be mean spirited in my assessment of what I observe in our Christian family. But those of you who know me will notice right off that this is one of my more in-your-face essays, so if you were looking for something a little lighter, you might want to click onward to something a little more entertaining. Let me summarize ahead of time so that you can decide whether or not to read further.
I was tracing the “manna” story in both Testaments recently and then on to the story about the “meat” that Israel demanded when they grew weary of eating the same thing everyday. God gave them the meat they wanted, but it didn’t turn out well at all for them. As the old saying goes, “Be careful what you pray for!” It seems to me that many supposed Christians are not at all satisfied with “just Jesus” and have settled for an entitled brand of Christianity wherein they demand of God what they want and what he is obligated to supply. The spiritual water table has been so depleted that they are bored with their daily diet of simple manna and expect from God more than he promises (at least in this world). As a result they’re overfed, underchallenged, and sickly.
I think the manna and meat (an later, money) passages address these modern tendencies in a representative way.
- Manna represents Jesus, the true Bread from Heaven, and God’s promised daily provision of lavish life in him. When we lose our sense of gratitude for what God gives us, we tend to demand a more extravagant diet than the simple daily manna.
- Meat (in the form of quail) to which we’re convinced we’re entitled, represents the lust for something more than mere manna. If we demand it we might get it and will certainly eventually regret it.
- Money, well, you know what that represents.
For those willing to stick with me on this, I’ll try to unpack some passages and their application to our present Western Church culture. While I’ll do my best to be brief, it’ll take some explaining. If you’ll read these passages ahead of time to refresh your memory of the narrative around the story about “manna,” my musings might make more sense to you. (Exodus 16, Numbers 11, Psalm 78:29-30, Psalm 106:14-16, John 6:32-40, and 2 Corinthians 8:13-15)
Manna Exodus 16:1-23
One day after the Jews’ flight from Egypt manna started dropping out of heaven and kept coming every morning (except on Saturdays) for forty years. The refugees didn’t know what it was (manna means “What is it?”) but since they had little else to eat and because God told them to, they collected it, brought it home, cooked it, and ate it. While traipsing through the wilderness they ate it morning, noon and night for four decades. From the Exodus to the Promised Land the Jews were nourished by something they never really comprehended.
To put the enormity of the miracle in perspective someone calculated that in order to feed two to three million people it would take 1500 tons of food a day, which would require deliveries from a freight train full of manna two miles long every day for 40 years!
A millennium and a half later, like manna, Jesus, “the true Bread from heaven” showed up out of heaven and taught his prospective followers to feast on him.
… it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
34 “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”
35 Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty…
49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. 50 But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.57 Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me.58 This is the bread that came down from heaven. John 6
Manna from heaven was a preview of the Man from heaven. As manna sustained the Jews, Jesus is the sole/soul nourishment to all those who follow him today. In the same way that their physical survival depended on their daily allotment of manna, so our spiritual survival depends exclusively on Jesus. We have no life at all except the life he is to us. He’s the way and truth, but more – he’s the life, our only life!
As the Jews asked, “What is it?” Jesus’ disciples queried among themselves, “Who is this man (that even the wind and waves obey him)?” We no more apprehend the inestimably worthy Son of God than the Jews did the manna that appeared atop the morning dew. Our earth-bound and deficient understanding notwithstanding; we love him, trust him, and feed on him.
In spite of the attempts of some to give a natural explanation for the manna, it was clearly a supernatural substance. If it were something in nature, they would have recognized it and wouldn’t have questioned, “What is it?” Plus, it arrived right on schedule every morning for forty years, evaporated in the afternoon, and spoiled if kept overnight except on the Sabbath! Similar objections have always been posed regarding Jesus, the “Bread from heaven.” Contrary to his claims to divinity they say that he was a “good man,” even the most godly of men, but certainly not the supernaturally the God-Man.
Moses’ contemporaries were told to gather manna everyday and not store it up lest it spoil. Likewise we are advised to routinely ingest the flesh and blood of Jesus. We were re-created to live solely on a daily diet of Jesus and not depend exclusively on some by-gone conversion experience. We have to digest what we gather today and not memorialize what we possessed yesterday. Yesterday’s manna will not do for today, nor today’s for tomorrow! We require a regular diet of the Person of Jesus and live each moment in the strength of that meal.
Some people gather lots of manna, more than they ever expect to use. They lust more for a reputation of a diligent gatherer than for Jesus himself. Their religious spirit gives them the appearance of spiritual superstars and rack up impressive caches of memorized verses, but have no intention of doing what they say. At the end of the day their stockpiled manna looks and smells like rotted fruit. They might appear to be accumulating heavenly food far more diligently than others, but they’re more like collectors of spiritual information than authentic lovers of Jesus.
My plea here is not so much for regular “devotions,” saying daily prayers, or even reading the Bible everyday. As important as those are, they’re simply vehicles that help us interact with God. They don’t save us like Jesus saves us or transform us as he does. The disciplines are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. He said, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
At best, doing devotions (or whatever you like to call it) is the morning manna gathering. But it’s only the “gathering,” not the meal. Putting your favorite restaurant’s menu to memory is fine, but it doesn’t have the same effect as actual eating! The menu isn’t the meal. Jesus, the Bread from heaven, is our meal; he’s our life. Even those who are faithful to the morning gathering can remain malnourished for failing to ingest and absorb him! You might have gathered and stored an entire loaf of Heaven’s Bread, but it’s not for storing, it’s for eating and for living in the strength of the meal.
When Jesus told the crowd to make a meal of him a lot of incredulous fans left his orbit. “This is a hard teaching,” they said. It wasn’t that it was hard to comprehend as much as it was hard to swallow. And swallow him is exactly what we have to do if we want to be more than fans, but followers.
If he’d taught them some new way to pray, creeds to say, or disciplines to practice they’d have stayed with him till the cows came home. But he didn’t come here to give us new bread baking recipes. He was – and is – the Bread that, when eaten, produces life – abundant and eternal.
It’s human nature to prefer spiritual recipes wherein we assume some control over the outcome. But he indicated that we’re spiritually dead and that our only hope is to take this Bread inside of us, so that he can live his way in and through us.
That’s what makes this such a “hard teaching” for sure. He didn’t come to bring bread but to be Bread – The Bread. His mission wasn’t to guide us to God, but to be God in us, living like God through us! It’s hard because we want to have more to do with our spirituality than we actually do. It’s hard on our ego. It’s hard because we can’t get ourselves to believe that living for him is all about him living in us.
At least those who turned back and no longer followed him were honest about their mistaken expectations of Jesus. They thought they were something other than they were and wanted him to be something other than what he was. They were looking for more of a generous landlord type of Messiah rather than a live-in Savior who takes over.
I wonder how many of us would turn back if we really understood that he’s not a life-support system, but our life’s blood. He doesn’t so much change our lives but exchanges our lives with his. The “hard teaching” of Jesus is that only Jesus can live like Jesus, and if we’ll take him in, he will live like himself in us!
“… I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me…”
Going back to the Jews in the desert… Next time we’ll talk about how little appreciation the original manna eaters had for God’s ample supply and how they demanded “meat” instead.
They began to crave other food … “If only we had meat to eat! But now we have lost our appetite … we never see anything but this manna… We detest this miserable food!”
How content are you with “just Jesus”? Pass this on to a friend who might need a reminder…