Do Not Labor for the Food That Perishes
On the next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
Our focus today will be on verse 27 where Jesus says, “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” What does Jesus mean that God has set his seal on the Son of Man? What does he mean that we should labor for the food that endures to eternal life? What does he mean that we should not work for the bread that perishes?
Those are the three main questions for today, and they relate directly to your situation in life. What are you doing so that you have eternal life? How are you going about your daily work — at the office, at home, at school — so that it won’t be said of you that you labored for the food that perishes?
A Public and Personal Message
But, first, let’s get the setting clearly in mind. The day before, in verses 1–15, Jesus had crossed to the eastern side of Sea of Galilee and fed over five thousand people with five barley loaves and a few fish. It was a sign that pointed to himself as the Bread of Life.
- Verse 35: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger.”
- Verse 41: “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”
- Verse 48: “I am the bread of life.”
- Verse 51: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.”
- Verse 55: “My flesh is true food.”
That’s what the miracle of the loaves and fishes was pointing to. It was also pointing very specifically to the fact that Jesus will always be there for his disciples to take care of them personally. He shows this by seeing to it that twelve basketfuls are left over — one for each apostle. So the miracle had a public message for all, and a personal lesson for the apostles.
The Masses Miss the Sign
Publicly, he was saying: I am the bread of heaven. Just like God sent you manna in the wilderness to sustain your life, he has sent me into the world to give life — eternal life. And personally, he was saying to the apostles: Serve me faithfully, and you will never lack what you need. I will be for you everything you need, even in the hour of suffering and death.
But the people didn’t see the sign that way. They missed it. And so verse 15 says, “Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
Jesus Will Be There for You
Later that evening, the disciples get in a boat and head for Capernaum on the west side of the sea, leaving Jesus behind. The people see them go, but don’t know where Jesus is. When a great wind threatens the disciples on the sea about three miles out in the lake, Jesus comes to them walking on the water. They are frightened, but he identifies himself, and they joyfully take him in the boat.
And I argued that having Jesus in the boat with them was the end of that “story within the story,” because John was really making the same point as with the twelve leftover baskets. Jesus will do whatever it takes to be there for us in our troubles. He may seem as distant and as inaccessible as a well-meaning, helpless friend on shore while you are about to drown three miles out to sea. But there is a difference. He makes bread out of nothing, and Jesus walks on water. He will be there for you. Nothing can stop him. And what he gives is above all is himself.
Jesus, Blunt and Critical?
In the morning, the crowd can’t find Jesus and so, according to verse 24, they cross the sea to Capernaum looking for him. And they find him in the synagogue. We know that because verse 59 says, “Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.”
Verse 25: “When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’” They were perplexed at how he had been left behind by his disciples, and yet managed to get across the sea. But Jesus does not see their question as a hopeful sign. He is very blunt and critical. Verse 26: “Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.’”
Fixated on the Product, Not the Person
What does this mean? It means that, when Jesus fed five thousand people with five loaves and a few fish, it was a sign — that is, it was like a beam of glory streaming out from the person of Jesus Christ. It was like a ray of light coming out from Jesus. And when the crowds saw the loaves and felt the pleasures of a full stomach, and thought about what it would be like to have a king who could fill their stomach like that every day, they were thrilled.
But what they didn’t do, when they looked at the sign, was to let their eyes run up the beam of glory from the pleasure in their belly to the Treasure of Christ. They didn’t follow the ray of light back up to the beauty of the sun. What they did was fixate on the product of the miracle, not the person of the miracle. And so the sign ceased to be a sign for them. And Jesus said, “You are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” They were excited about bread as their pleasure, not Christ as their Treasure.
Jesus Is the Treasure, Not His Gifts
This Gospel is written to reveal the glory of Christ — not mainly the glory of his gifts — so that we would not make this mistake, but would see Christ himself as our Treasure — our all-satisfying Bread from heaven — and have eternal life.
So that’s where Jesus turns in verse 27, where we will focus the rest of our time. He says: “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” So let’s take these clauses one at a time. 1) “On him God the Father has set his seal.” 2) “Labor for the food that endures to eternal life.” 3) “Do not labor for the food that perishes.”
1) The Father’s Seal on Jesus
First, the last clause of verse 27: “On him God the Father has set his seal.” I think that means ultimately that Jesus bears the mark of God because he is God. But more directly, it’s probably saying that God has authorized his Son, as the Son of Man, to be the Mediator of eternal life. He sent him; Jesus would give his flesh for the life of the world (verse 51); he would rise from the dead (John 10:18); and he would give life to others. God gave this authority to his Son as the Son of Man. He put his divine seal, or mark of authority, on him.
It’s the same thing we read in John 5:19–27…
For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. . . . For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father . . . has given all judgment to the Son. . . . As the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.
So the seal of God is God’s authorizing his Son, as the Son of Man, to give eternal life to whom he will.
2) The Food That Endures
Now the second clause in verse 27: “Labor for the food that endures to eternal life.” Let’s see it in context. Verse 27: “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but [labor] for the food that endures to eternal life which the Son of Man will give to you.” What does this mean?
The key is found in verses 28–29: “Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’” Now that question follows from what Jesus just said. He said, “Labor, or work, for the food that endures to eternal life.” And they ask, How? What are those works? How do you work for the bread that gives eternal life?
Doing the Work of God: Believing
Jesus answers in verse 29, “This is the work of God” — that is, this is the kind of work you do to please God and get the bread that gives life, this is the work that you do — namely, “that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
So what does it mean to “labor for the food that endures to eternal life”? Jesus says in verse 29 that it means believe in Jesus as the bread that God has sent from heaven for the life of the world. “Believe in him whom he has sent.”
Taste and See
Here they are standing in front of the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ — the infinitely valuable, infinitely beautiful, all-satisfying, everlasting Food that endures to eternal life — who gives eternal life. And they ask: What kind of works does God want us to do so that we can have the Bread of Life? And Jesus says, in essence: If you don’t see the person standing in front of you for who he is, no amount of work is going to make him your Treasure. You don’t need to do any works, you need to taste and see. Eat. Believe.
“To all who did receive him, who believed in his name,” is part of what John said in John 1:12. Believing is receiving. Believing is seeing him for the Food that he is, and eating. That is, taking him into your soul, your life, as the all-satisfying, life-giving Treasure that he is.
Doing Turned Upside Down
So Jesus takes the idea of working for this bread (“What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”) and turns it upside down. If a feast is spread before you, and you don’t see it as a feast, no amount of working for God will turn it into a feast. You see it and freely eat and live. Or you die. Jesus is that feast. Those who eat — that is, believe — live forever. Those who don’t, perish. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
3) The Food That Perishes
Finally, what does the first clause of verse 27 mean? “Do not labor for the food that perishes.” In verse 26, Jesus said that these people were expending significant energy tracking him down, first on one side of the Sea of Galilee and then on the other. And why? Because they had eaten their fill. The product of his miracle, not the person, had satisfied them. “You are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”
You don’t need to do any works, you need to taste and see. Eat. Believe.
That’s the backdrop for saying now in verse 27: “Do not labor for the food that perishes.” That’s what they were doing. But I think Jesus is generalizing here for us as well as for them. He is speaking to us: Don’t labor for ordinary human food. So what does he mean?
What He Doesn’t Mean
We know he doesn’t mean: Quit your jobs. Stop working. We know that because the whole New Testament assumes and commends the dignity of work. Paul says in Ephesians 4:28, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor [!], doing honest work [!] with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” So I don’t take Jesus to mean: Quit your jobs.
And I don’t take him to mean: Don’t bring home the bread from your jobs. When he says, “Do not labor for the food that perishes,” he does not mean that we shouldn’t earn a living and use it to buy bread that perishes so that we and our families can eat it and keep on working.
We know this because Paul says to the freeloaders at Thessalonica, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.” Which means: The normal way to eat the bread that perishes is to work for it. So, “do not labor for the bread that perishes” does not mean don’t make money and use it to put food on the table.
What He Does Mean
So what does it mean? Well, what changes when you believe on him whom God has sent? What changes when you taste and discover that Jesus is your all-satisfying Bread from heaven?
Verse 27 says that this bread is the “food that endures to eternal life.” So two things change: a new chapter is added to your working life, namely, eternity. You will live joyfully forever beyond the grave. And secondly, a new Treasure is added to your heart, a million times more precious than any amount of money or what money can buy. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). The Bread of Life is the Treasure of our hearts.
Something About Everything Changes
So your eyes are opened, you see Jesus Christ as the crucified and risen Son of God, you taste and know that he is the Bread of Life, you eat — that is, you believe — and the result? You stay in your job (most of you, 1 Corinthians 7:24) and something about everything changes. It has to. The food that perishes not longer dominates your mind. Christ dominates your mind as the supreme Treasure. And if things look bleak, you remember: I am going to live forever.
Working with Zeal, Excellence, and Joy
So you go to work now, not dominated by the desire for the bread that perishes of for the fear of losing it. You go to work knowing him, trusting him, treasuring him, being satisfied in him, with your heart set on making much of him in every aspect of your vocation.
Keeping eternal life before you, and snacking all day on the Bread of Life, won’t make you a lazy worker. It won’t make you a shoddy worker. It won’t make you a gloomy worker. You will bring zeal and excellence and joy to your work because you know him, you trust him, you treasure him, you aim to make much of him. And you know that everything you do in his name and for his glory — from washing the bathroom to running the boardroom — will be rewarded forever and ever in the new earth.
A Feast When All Else Fails
You won’t be driven by upward mobility, or big pay, or positions of power, or lust for weekends, or passion for retirement. Because every day Jesus will be with — in your boat. He will be a feast for you when everything else fails.
And you will have before you not the fragile hope for a few years of aged retirement, but the absolute certainty of the everlasting cabin by the lake with Jesus. And you won’t be too old to enjoy it. You’ll be young forever. And the everlasting ocean cruise with Jesus. And the everlasting evening by the fire with a good book and Jesus. And the fact that you don’t need to have that now — because you know you will have it forever — changes everything.
- God put his seal on Jesus, the Son of Man, as the Mediator of eternal life.
- Jesus offers himself to us freely as the food that endures to eternal life and no amount of working for God can make you see him as a feast. He is free. He did the work on the cross. All we can do is eat, that is, believe, and live.
- And when we eat, two things change: a new chapter is added to our lives, eternity. And a new Treasure dominates our heart, Jesus. And that changes everything.