It’s been forty days since Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, and he’s been fasting in the desert. The devil, spying an opportunity, approaches him with a challenge: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread” (Luke 4:3).
Jesus’ response is cryptic: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” (Matt. 4:4).
What is Jesus talking about?
Most people (particularly Protestants) assume he’s reminding us to read the Bible. For example, the Reformed theologian R.C. Sproul argues that it means we need “the whole counsel of God as it is revealed in the entirety of sacred Scripture,” since taking “restricted portions of Scripture” would mean “that we do not live by bread alone but by only some of the words that come to us from God.” (This is an odd position for Sproul to take, as he claims that the Bible is nothing more than a “fallible set of infallible books,” and rejects part of the Biblical canon as “Apocrypha.”)
Some Protestants even find here a repudiation of the Eucharist, since Jesus seems to be using the language of eating as a metaphor for belief. For example, A Baptist preacher recently cited Matthew 4:4 as proof of what he calls “the blasphemy of transubstantiation,” claiming that Jesus’ reference to eating his flesh in John 6 really just meant believing in him. (It’s not clear from this reading why the crowds were so shocked at this teaching.)
When Jesus says that we live by the words that come from the mouth of God, he adds, “he’s speaking about reading, and meditating on, and studying and digesting God’s written word for spiritual sustenance.”
But in fact, Jesus’ message is a good deal more Christological, and Eucharistic, than many people realize.
Anyone can quote Scripture. Even the devil does, taking Psalm 91 laughably out of context when trying to tempt Jesus. But the difference between his misuse and Jesus’ use of Sacred Scripture is that Jesus isn’t just prooftexting. He invokes an entire passages by quoting a single line of Scripture, as he did on Calvary when he cried out “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” recalling the prophetic Psalm 22 (Mark 15:34).
So when Jesus says that “it is written” that man shall not live by bread alone, he’s not firing off one line of Scripture but drawing our attention to the Old Testament, specifically to Deuteronomy 8:1-3, where we read:
All the commandment which I command you this day you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the Lord swore to give to your fathers. And you shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not. And 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 that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord.
In other words, the frame of reference for his words isn’t “read the whole Bible.” It’s all about the manna.
And in response to the second temptation, Jesus responds, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God” (Matt. 4:7). This time, he’s recalling Deuteronomy 6:16, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” And what happened at Massah? It’s where God had Moses miraculously bring water for from the rock (Exod. 17:1-7).
So, Jesus’ first response recalls the manna in the desert, and his second response recalls the water from the rock. What’s the connection between these two? These are the supernatural (or “spiritual”) food and drink that St. Paul presents as foreshadowing the Eucharist (1 Cor. 10:1-4):
I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ.
The Israelites passed through the Red Sea, and this foreshadowed baptism, with the cloud signifying the role the Holy Spirit plays in regenerating us. But that’s just the start of their (and our) earthly exodus from “the place of slavery” (Exos. 20:2) into the Promised Land. Along the way, supernatural food and drink are needed for nourishment. For the Israelites, that was the manna and the water from the rock. For us, Paul tells us, it’s “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16).
But what does it mean to say that the manna (or the Eucharist) is “spiritual food”? Protestants tend to read “spiritual” as “incorporeal” or even “metaphorical” or “symbolic.” So when they read Jesus say that “the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (John 6:63) they tend to take it as his saying, “Don’t worry, it’s just a metaphor!”[i]
But in scripture, spiritual generally doesn’t mean “an invisible thing totally cut off from the visible world.” That’s because we don’t just live in a world of ghosts and animals, but of men—who are made up of body and soul. Our souls express themselves through our bodies. When Jesus quotes Genesis to say that “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one” (Matt. 19:5), he’s describing a spiritual union brought about through the bodies of the two spouses.
So how was the manna “spiritual food”? Because by this visible sign, God made present an invisible reality (his providence). He could have chosen to feed his people miraculously with bread from the earth. Instead, he chose to do so with bread from heaven. As the Psalmist says, God “commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven; and he rained down upon them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven. Man ate of the bread of the angels; he sent them food in abundance” (78:22-25).
The point of the manna wasn’t principally to satisfy the Israelites’ hunger, just as the miracles of Jesus weren’t primarily about curing physical illnesses. Rather, they were about showing the invisible power and goodness and providence of God through material signs. The manna wasn’t “just a symbol.” It was actual food, but it pointed to something more than bread.
The devil doesn’t get this (or perhaps doesn’t want us to get it). He tries to goad the fasting Jesus into performing a miracle that will “out” him as the Messiah and reveal his powers. But such a supernatural feat wouldn’t be a spiritual sign of anything at all. It would be bread simply for the sake of bread, little more than a magic trick. That’s why Jesus’ response is so important. He’s establishing the framework for his own miraculous ministry, upon which he’s about to embark. It won’t be miracles as magic tricks, but as spiritual signs akin to the manna of old.
This brings us back to Jesus and the Eucharist. When the crowds ask for manna in John 6:30-31, they’re falling into the same error as the devil. They want the bread alone, without the theological implications. This time, Jesus reveals more in his reply:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world” (John 6:32-33).
Unlike in his battle with the devil (who seems to have been trying to ascertain Jesus’ true identity), Jesus now reveals himself as the true manna:
“I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51).
When we talk about living off “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” our minds go quickly to Scripture, and that’s not wrong. But the true Word is Jesus himself. “In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). This Son, Jesus Christ, is the definitive Word of God, the Word made flesh (John 1:1-5, 14), and our spiritual lives need to be rooted in him.
[i] One of the subtlest arguments against the Eucharist was made in 1654 by Anglican Bishop Jeremy Taylor, when he argued that “corporal manducation of Christ’s body is apparently inconsistent with the nature and condition of the body,” as “that which is after the manner of a spirit, and not of a body, cannot be eaten and drunk after the manner of a body, but of a spirit,” just as “no man can eat a Cherubim with his mouth.” The nineteenth-century Anglican Rev. William Goode would later point to Matthew 4:4 for support for this supposed distinction between fleshly and spiritual eating. But this logic is basically Gnostic, and leads to bizarre conclusions. St. Paul says that ”you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if the Spirit of God really dwells in you” (Rom. 8:9) and refers to mature Christians as “spiritual men” (1 Cor. 2:15, 3:1). Should we conclude then that all serious Christians are ghosts?