In the steampunk fantasy film (and box office bomb) Mortal Engines (2018), there’s a memorable exchange between the two main characters, Hester Shaw and Tom Natsworthy, as they take shelter while fleeing their enemies. Hester offers Tom a Twinkie to eat (for those who haven’t consumed American food regularly, a Twinkie is a golden sponge cake snack with a creamy filling). Tom reads the label and concludes disbelievingly: “Best before 2118? It’s over a thousand years old,” to which Hester confidently replies: “Doesn’t matter. The food of the Ancients never goes off. It’s indestructible.”
Fresh bread is good for us: it smells good, it tastes good, it feels good.
These days, it feels like bread (and food in general) has an increasingly long expiry date. I’ve been gluten-free for several years now, and you’d be amazed how long some of those loaves last (I once left an opened loaf out for three weeks, and there was still no mould on it!) It’s scary stuff.
But does it taste as good as it used to? The jury might still be out on this, but I don’t think so. Fresh bread is good for us: it smells good, it tastes good, it feels good when you break it apart with your fingers. If it’s just out of the oven, you can watch it steam as you tear pieces off; you can slather on some butter and watch it ooze into the bread. There’s something about fresh bread that nourishes the soul. Stale bread, by contrast, is immensely unsatisfying—even though you can eat it if you’re desperate.
Daily Bread and Manna Maggots
When Jesus instructs his disciples on how to pray, he tells them that they should ask God for “daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). There’s a powerful echo of Jewish history here: when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness for forty years, they received manna to eat every morning—and quail every night (Exodus 16:11-18). Each person was to gather as much as they needed—and they would only receive what they needed, regardless of whether they gathered much or gathered little (Exodus 16:17-18).
But it was not to be kept until morning. If it was, it became full of maggots and began to stink (16:20). The only exception to this rule was on the sixth day, when the Israelites would gather twice as much manna so they could rest on the Sabbath.
Why did the manna go off? Why did it have such a short shelf life? It wasn’t because God couldn’t make it last forever—indeed, God commanded Moses to keep a jar containing an omer of manna with the tablets of the covenant to remind the generations to come what God had done for his people in the wilderness (Exodus 16:32-34). No potassium sorbate or calcium propionate needed!
But if you’ve read Exodus and you know about the tendency for God’s chosen people to grumble unceasingly, you can imagine what might have happened if they hadn’t had to gather the manna each and every day. Some might have gotten greedy and hoarded the manna. Some might have gone hungry, like those who didn’t make adequate preparations on the day before the Sabbath (16:27).
The point is, gathering the manna every day forced the Israelites to continually remember God’s goodness and provision. It was a visible reminder that God was caring for them; meeting their needs, even in the desolate wilderness. All they had to do was go out and gather it—God would give them the amount they needed, even if they had gathered little. And yet, even with such a tangible sign of God’s provision, the Israelites still struggled with forgetfulness—over and over again.
So when Jesus commands his followers to pray for daily bread, it’s hugely significant. Relying on God for our physical needs (or our spiritual food) is not a one-time event. It has to happen daily. Not because God can’t give things that last longer or are permanent (salvation, for instance, isn’t something we receive in dribs and drabs), but because asking for something daily (and receiving it daily) changes the heart of the person who’s receiving it. What do you think would make you more grateful: a lifetime’s supply of groceries in one hit, or a piping hot meal delivered at your door every time you wanted it for the rest of your life?
Maybe a thousand-year-old Twinkie would still be okay … But it won’t taste anything like the fresh bread we’re craving at the end of the world.
The thing about fresh bread is that it eventually goes off. Good things, in this world at least, are always fleeting. And, in the case of bread, that should make us hunger for fresh bread—not more preservatives.
But we’ve gotten very good at extending the shelf lives of our most common household items. We might not be Doomsday preppers, but we usually buy more than we need. We stockpile frozen food and toilet paper in fear that they won’t be on the shelves when we look for them tomorrow. The fear of deprivation drives the hoarding of resources. To reduce our dependence on fresh food, we add preservatives—even to the point of replacing natural foods with artificial substitutes that are only a shadow of the original. Maybe a thousand-year-old Twinkie would still be okay, as Hester Shaw insists. But it won’t have much nutritional value. It won’t taste anything like the fresh bread we’re craving at the end of the world.
The Bread of Heaven
In case you’ve gone low-carb or keto and this bread metaphor isn’t working for you, let me elaborate a little. I’m not really talking about food here (though if you’ve been convicted of your tendency to panic-buy toilet paper, I’ll leave you to your conscience).
Ultimately, what Jesus is offering us in his Word is something very different to perishable bread. As he explains to the crowd, he’s just fed with five small barley loaves and two small fish:
Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him, God the Father has placed his seal of approval. (John 6:27).
He goes on to declare to his disbelieving, grumbling audience (where have we seen them before?):
I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty … 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. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever. (6:35; 6:57-58).
When we seek our bread daily, we’re not just asking God to provide for our physical needs but to give us spiritual bread—Jesus. If we feed on him, we will live because he’s the bread that comes from heaven itself—a bread that never goes stale.
The more we seek after this bread, the more our sinful self-reliance is eroded, the more we discover God’s ability to provide (even in times of scarcity), and the more we see that everything good and gracious in our lives comes from the hand of God himself.
We can’t be trusted with weekly bread. We’ll hoard it, preserve it so that we don’t have to go back to the Giver for more.
The lesson of the manna is that we can’t be trusted with weekly bread. We’ll hoard it, preserve it so that we don’t have to go back to the Giver for more. We’ll keep it too long, and it will get maggoty and stale. Or we’ll forget to gather it at all, and we’ll go hungry in lean periods.
“Relying on God,” C.S. Lewis writes, “has to begin all over again every day as if nothing had yet been done.” Sometimes a mere night’s sleep wipes our memory clean. Yesterday, I trusted God with a difficult situation. This morning, I had to commit it to him again. Yesterday, I read my Bible and prayed and thus fed on the Bread of Life. This morning, I had to rebuke my sluggardly self and sit down for quiet time again, not resting on the laurels of yesterday’s diligence.
Christmas Every Day!
The same goes for receiving God’s good gifts. God’s mercies, that great boon of wilderness periods, are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22-23; my emphasis). Being a Christian is like being a child waking up to Christmas morning each and every day, not knowing exactly what’s under the tree—if it’s going to be a new bike or a pair of socks. Sometimes you get what you want; sometimes, you only get what you need. But God’s blessings are abundant when you train yourself to look for them. Sometimes, they look strange—different to what you’re used to (Exodus 16:3). You might find yourself saying, along with the Israelites, “But what is it?” (Exodus 16:15).
So when you ask God for your daily bread, keep in mind that you will need to ask for it again tomorrow. You will need to partake of it again and again and again. Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross is a one-time offering for our sin, but by immersing ourselves in Him, day after day after day, we will learn what it means to never be hungry again (John 6:35) and we will begin to crave the Living Bread who offers himself to us fresh every day (John 6:51).
It might be hard training yourself to do this, but trust me (or better yet, trust Jesus): the taste is worth it.