Our Daily Bread

March 13, 2018

by Brandon Crowe

Give us this day our daily bread.

With the fourth petition we come to the turning point in the Lord’s Prayer. Whereas the first three petitions were given in the second person (“your”), in the fourth petition we find the first of the “we” petitions. To begin, we should recognize that the fourth petition is indeed rather straightforward; by praying for our daily bread, we are asking our heavenly Father to provide for our daily necessities. We are reminded that if our Father cares for the sparrows, he will care for us, since we are of more value than the many sparrows (Matt. 10:29–31; cf. 6:25–33). And the plural “our” reminds us that we are part of a global community of believers, whose needs we should give attention to in addition to our own.

And yet, in addition to this prayer for physical provision, the history of exegesis encourages us to consider whether there may be more here than we might notice at first. Perhaps the fourth petition is pointing us in a Christological direction as well. Bread serves a variety of purposes in the Gospels: it not only refers to physical bread that assuages physical hunger (and this is what we legitimately pray for in the Lord’s Prayer) but also points to spiritual realities. By this point in Matthew the reader has encountered the threefold temptation of Jesus. The first of these temptations is the challenge that, if Jesus really is the Son of God, he should turn stones into bread (4:3). In response Jesus, recognizing that there is more to life than physical hunger, quotes from Deuteronomy 8:3: Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4).

This is consistent with Jesus’s response to his disciples about food in John 4:34, where Jesus states that his food is to do with the will of his Father and complete his work. In both cases physical food is not as important as the need to be fully committed to God’s will.

Bread not only is about physical nourishment but also serves as something like a sign.

Beyond the temptation account in Matthew, bread also features prominently in the two wilderness feeding miracles of Jesus: the feeding of the five thousand in Matthew 14 and of the four thousand in Matthew 15. These feedings do meet the physical hunger of those present (cf. 15:32) but also point to the fulfillment of the latter-day prophetic hope in which a feast would be spread in the wilderness (cf. Isa. 25:6–8). Thus these feedings serve something like a sign-act function, consistent with what we find among the Old Testament prophets.

This perspective is confirmed in Matthew 16:1–12. After the Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign in 16:1–5, Jesus enters into a discussion about bread with his disciples, warning them against the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees (16:6). His disciples are slow to understand what he means, since they have forgotten to bring physical bread with them (16:5, 7). Jesus then critiques his disciples for their little faith and reminds them of the miraculous provisions of bread in the wilderness (16:8–11). The disciples then understand that Jesus is warning them against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (16:12). Implicit in this exchange is the understanding that bread not only is about physical nourishment but also serves as something like a sign in Matthew. The abundant provision of bread in the wilderness points to Jesus’s role in providing the blessings of eschatological life, such as we read in Isaiah 25.

More clarity in this regard is found in the Last Supper account in Matthew 26, which is verbally linked with the two feedings in the wilderness. In all three accounts we find Jesus taking (λαμβάνμνω), breaking (κλάω), and giving (δίδωμι) bread (ἄρτος). And in each case Jesus either says a blessing (εὐλογεω, Matt. 14:19; 26:26) or gives thanks (εὐχαριστέω, 15:36; 26:27) for God’s provision. Thus, while the feedings in the wilderness are not to be taken as celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, strictly speaking, readers are encouraged to view the two in similar terms. Likewise, the only other place in Matthew where we find δίδωμι and ἄρτος together is in 6:11. And we know from elsewhere in the New Testament that the sacramental supper instituted by Christ points us to Christ himself, on whom we feed by faith (cf. 1 Cor. 10:16; 11:24, 27–29). Therefore, in the feeding of the multitudes in the wilderness, along with the institution of the supper, we are encouraged to read “bread” in Matthew (including the Lord’s Prayer) in a richly Christological way.

Reading “bread” in Matthew to entail a spiritual dimension also accords with the language of daily bread we encounter in Matthew 6:11. Understanding what is intended by daily (έπιούσιος) bread may be the most difficult exegetical decision in the entire Lord’s Prayer. As Lohmeyer averred many decades ago, έπιούσιος “still remains to be explained and probably never will be.” However, perhaps we can make fruitful progress on this question if we allow for a spiritual dimension to daily bread. One of the most ancient traditions takes έπιούσιος as future bread. This goes back at least to Jerome, who knew of this reading in the so-called Gospel according to the Hebrews, which reads mah ar  (“tomorrow”). Daily bread was frequently understood in the ancient church to refer to”future bread,” “heavenly bread,” “heavenly manna,” “bread of life,” or “bread of salvation.” It was also commonly understood to refer to the Eucharist. Calvin, on the other hand, considers the notion that daily bread refers to “super substantial” bread to be “exceedingly absurd.” His point, apparently, is that eucharistic superstition had replaced the simple, practical prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray.

The abundant provision of bread in the wilderness points to Jesus’s role in providing the blessings of eschatological life.

However, I believe that one can agree with Calvin against readings that deny the simplicity of this prayer for physical bread while also recognizing a spiritual dimension to bread in the fourth petition. For in a biblical worldview, there is no ultimate dichotomy between physical and spiritual bread. And when we understand daily bread to have a spiritual dimension, we are not denying the need to pray for physical bread, but we are recognizing that even physical bread in Matthew’s Gospel has a kingdom dimension. Thus we read that Jesus was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard for the feasts he participated in (Matt. 11:16–19), whereas Matthew makes it clear that these were actually the messianic feasting deeds of the Messiah.

It may help to consider the Gospel of John, where Jesus proclaims that he is the Bread of Life who gives eschatological life (e.g., John 6:27, 31–33, 35, 41, 48, 54). Significantly, the Johannine Bread of Life discourse comes on the heels of Jesus’s feeding the five thousand (6:1–15). It is not difficult to argue that what John makes explicit–namely, that Jesus’s feeding in the wilderness points to himself as the true Bread of Life—is implicit in Matthew, where bread likewise serves multiple functions. Therefore, the fourth petition is likely worded in such a way that we should think prominently of Christ, who feeds us with the bread of eschatological life as we trust in him. Significantly, in John 6, Jesus compares himself to the manna that was given through Moses, which may also provide insight into the daily bread of Matthew 6:11. Readers of the Old Testament will know that the manna came down from heaven daily. In contrast to the manna given in Moses’s day, Jesus is the Bread of Life who came down from heaven that he might give eternal life for all who believe in him (John 6:29, 50–51, 58). Though many have taken John 6 to refer primarily to the Lord’s Supper, the primary point is the Christological reality that undergirds the supper—namely, feeding in faith on the Son of Man (cf. 6:29, 56). Likewise, though the daily bread of Matthew 6:11 may have implications for how we understand the Lord’s supper, it is best taken as a reference to physical bread that also points in a Christological direction.

In sum, the fourth petition is indeed a prayer for daily provision, but it is also a prayer for the provision of eschatological life that comes through believing in Jesus, the Bread of Life.

This piece is adapted from Brandon D. Crowe, “Reading the Lord’s Prayer Christologically,” in Redeeming the Life of the Mind: Essays in Honor of Vern Poythress, ed. John Frame, Wayne Grudem, and John J. Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 87–91. Used with permission of the publisher.

Brandon Crowe

Dr. Crowe (PhD, Edinburgh) is associate professor of New Testament at WTS.

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