In an interview in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, Pastor Rick Warren described the health epiphany that lead him to write, along with world-famous doctors Daniel Amen and Mark Hyman, his latest bestseller, “The Daniel Plan”. Named for the biblical Daniel, who Warren says “refused to eat junk food and challenged a king to a health contest”, “The Daniel Plan” uses a myriad of Scripture passages from a variety of translations, under the categories of Faith, Food, Fitness, Focus and Friends, to help its readers experience the same success Warren and the Saddleback congregation did in losing over a quarter of a million excess pounds collectively, and reverse the effect of nutrition-related conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
“One-third of [Jesus’] ministry was health care,” Warren states in the interview. ”We believe the Daniel Plan is really taking the church back to what it has done for 2,000 years.”
Saddleback Church isn’t the first group to have a Scripturally inspired epiphany about the need for God’s help to solve food problems in a fallen world. The Jews of Jesus’ day had a battle with food far bigger than ours in America- not with weight, but with hunger. Living in an arid climate, with no Publix , no organic famers’ market, and no Chik Fil A, meant that the fight to produce enough food simply to sustain life was relentless and exhausting. Many (though, sadly, not all) Americans have never felt the kind of constant nagging worry over water sources running dry and barley supplies falling short like the Jews of Jesus’ day. So we need to use our imagination to understand how the people in John 6 felt as they sat and watched a man they already knew to be a great healer, pray over a one boy’s lunch of barley loaves and fish, then send his disciples out amongst them to distribute it for all of them to eat. Skepticism turned to shock as the entire crowd wasn’t simply fed, but made full, with a dozen baskets of leftovers standing as a testament to the miracle that had just taken place. Old Testament passages recounting manna falling from heaven and predicting a day when a prophet would come had been reenacted, right before their eyes.
It’s not a surprise that the crowd responded as they did in wanting to make Him a king. They had seen what He could do. They knew what that signified. He was the one sent to save them.
What did surprise them, and what should give us pause, is how Jesus responded.
When the people move toward Him to compel him to become their king, he moved away. When the people tracked him down, instead of receiving them, Jesus rebuked them for seeing him as a means to nutritional ends, even legitimate ones.
Unmoved from their goal, the crowd deployed an impressive combination of Scripture allusion and feigned selective amnesia in an attempt at holy reverse psychology, hoping Jesus would give them bread one more time, if not always.
But instead of another miracle, Jesus responded with an increasingly cryptic, shocking and ultimately offensive collection of statements, turning their understanding of bread, of manna, and most importantly, Himself, upside down.
Saying the he had come from heaven, when they all knew he was Joseph’s son, was bad enough. But saying they needed to eat his flesh and drink his blood? Violate a tenet of Jewish law so pivotal that it was given in the days of Noah, even before all the other Kosher laws their ancestor Daniel had committed to keep were given?
And so they left, unsatisfied and upset. And Jesus let them go. His compassion had filled their stomachs for a time. But he wanted more for them. He wanted them to want Him more than they wanted what He could give.
None of God’s gifts of food – not the trees in Eden, nor the manna in the wilderness, nor the barley loaves and fish on a Capernaum hillside – were ever meant to be gifts in themselves. They were, and still are, eloquent pointers to THE ultimate gift – Jesus, the true bread of eternal life, not just giver of earthly bread for the here and now.
When we come to see food this way, the way we feed ourselves, our families and a hungry world still matters very much. We do well to consider whether what and how we eat is an accurate and beautiful picture of who Jesus is, or a distortion. But in all of our efforts to be a better steward of God’s good gift in food, we ought never to lose sight of the greater gift of God’s Son. It’s Jesus’ plan, not Daniel’s, that fulfills God’s greatest purposes for our bodies, and our souls.