I married into a family full of wonderful traditions. Some have demanded a bit of adjustment on my part, but one that I have always loved at Christmas time is the baking of a German holiday bread known as stöllen. We use, of course, a secret family recipe that relatives tell me was concocted well before Martin Luther was a twinkle in his mother’s eye. I cannot share it with you upon penalty of death. But almost every year since Cindy and I have been married, we spend a day mixing and baking some twenty loaves to enjoy and share with others (I do the mixing, she does the baking – it works out better that way). In the Christmas season, this tradition fills us with the joy of giving, and the anticipation of delight (one of the downsides of the family tradition is that we cannot have our first taste of the stöllen until Christmas morning). But the season would just not be the same without this bread.
Bread, indeed, is a staple of life in most cultures. Certainly such is the case in the world of the Middle East, both ancient and modern. I remember as a youngster going to the local suqs (markets) in al-Khobar, the local Saudi town nearest our home, and making my way to the bread market where the ravishing smell of freshly baking loaves wafted in the air. Workers slid their implements into the outdoor wood ovens and drew out piping hot rows of Arab bread and packaged them twelve loaves to a bag. It was hard to wait to get home to open the package and indulge.
For Middle Easterners, bread is had at every meal. In fact, for poorer folks it often suffices as the only substantial element of the meal. For this reason, Arabs say that “bread is life.” It is what sustains a person when there is nothing else available. To be without bread is unthinkable. To not have bread to break with a guest is a matter of shame. To refuse to offer bread and table fellowship with another is a grave social insult, like a slap in the face to our culture.
The Old Testament recognizes the sustaining function of bread for human life, but of course emphasizes the truth that there is a deeper kind of life more crucial than physical well-being. Moses reiterates to Israel in Deut. 8:3 the lesson that they were to learn from their dependence in the wilderness on the manna God miraculously provided them day by day:
“He humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”
Jesus used these very words during his own testing in the wilderness when after forty days of fasting he was tempted by the devil to satisfy his hunger by miraculously making bread out of the stones lying around him (see Matt. 4:4 and parallels).
Bread is important for life, but the relationship God offers humans on the basis of His self-revelation is even more essential. And so, over the centuries, God sent prophets carrying His words to His people, urging them to believe and obey, for their own good. None of these prophets ever claimed to be the originator of the “divine words of life,” only to be a faithful transmitter of God’s revelation.
So it is truly remarkable when Jesus appears on the scene that he describes himself not merely as a prophet bringing divine truth to the people, but as that divine Truth itself. He compares toss biblical prophets like the sun compares to skylights. The latter provide for light to enter dark areas, but the former generates the light itself.
The claims made about Jesus in the New Testament are mammoth compared to any other figure in the Bible or in history – like Niagara Falls placed next to the trickle coming out of your garden hose. John the Gospel writer introduces him as the Word who was with God in the beginning, indeed who was/is God. Through Him, i.e., the Word, everything was made, and He, i.e., the Word, is the Life and Light of all humanity. It is this Word who that first Christmas took on human flesh, became a human being, and in the wonderful translation of Eugene Peterson “moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14). Christmas is a stupendous holiday because Jesus is a stupendous figure.
But in the end, it is not what others say about Jesus which is so staggering; it is what he says about himself. The divine claims he makes, in word and in action, confound those around him: “Who can forgive sins except God alone? Who is this – even the winds and waves obey him? Come, see a man who told me all that I have every done – could he be the Messiah? Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind….” Even the demons are shaken, “We know who you are, the Holy One of God….Don’t torment us…..”
However, it is the verbal claims of Jesus that provoke an often incredulous response, leading the especially religious to scramble for rocks as a means to stoning him for blasphemy: “Because you, a mere man, make yourself God” (John 10:33). The Gospel of John is famous for recording the seven “I Am” statements of Jesus, each of which makes towering claims of universal import for the human race. No other prophet in the Abrahamic tradition has ever, or would ever, speak in such ways.
Of particular interest for me today is Jesus’ sweeping assertion found in John 6, “I am the Bread of Life.” He restates this in alternate ways so there can be no mistaking his claim: He is “the bread which came down from heaven,” “the true bread,” “I am the living bread.” To ingest the life of Jesus is to connect with a life that death cannot snuff out.
When we understand a bit of the mentality of Middle Eastern culture with regard to the importance of bread as the foundation of existence, Jesus’ self-designation is monumental. He refers back to the manna in the wilderness, for which his Jewish audience credits Moses, and corrects them by pointing out the manna came from God. But, he says, the “true bread” that comes down from heaven does not satisfy only a day’s hunger; the Bread of Life sustains one for eternity. Jesus claims to be the source and sustainer not only of mortal existence but of eternal life with God. He is the fulfillment of the OT declaration: Man does not live by bread alone but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of the Lord. He is the Word, made flesh, offered to the world as the Bread of Life. To draw nourishment from his presence is to find life that will not end; to reject him is to waste away into oblivion. If bread equals life, the “True Bread” equals true life.
Again, no biblical prophet has ever spoken this way, claiming to be the very fulfillment of every human aspiration. Such claims belong to deluded megalomaniacs, pathological liars or to God incarnate. Which category do you think Jesus falls under? If you’re not sure, I urge you to read the Gospels, penned by those who knew him best, to get a clearer picture.
One last thought. The orthodox Muslim world claims that Muhammad was a true prophet in the lineage of biblical messengers, and that he is the best of models for human life as the one who lived life closest to God. Yet Muhammad rejected Jesus’ divine claims and went on record denying that Jesus was anything more than a mortal prophet who in the end would bow before Muhammad as his leader. Muhammad was forced to this conclusion, because if the Bible is accurate about who Jesus is, Muhammad would have to find a different profession, unable to hold a candle to Jesus in terms of preeminence.
Sadly, Muslims are left with a leader unable to claim the titles of “the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, the Gate of the Sheepfold, the Good Shepherd, the Resurrection and the Life, the Way, the Truth and the Life, the True Vine, the I Am, the Alpha and the Omega, the Son of God, and so many more. They are left in darkness as long as they cling to Islam.
So I urge you to pray for the Muslim world, as I also do, especially in this Christmas season, that God may bring to pass for them what He promised the people of Israel in Isaiah 9:2 –
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined.
Jesus, the Bread of Life, offers himself without price to any who will put their trust in him. “He who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me will never thirst” (John 6:35). Thanks be to God for the Incarnation, the Word made flesh whose promises have proven themselves true in countless lives! May the Light of Christmas shine this season into the darkest recesses of our world.