John (Part 17): Bread of Life (part 1)
Suppose I say to a group of people, “Finish this sentence: if a person has no food to eat, he or she will … what?” There would be a couple possibilities for an answer, but probably the majority would finish the sentence with die, and that makes sense. Some may say, “get hungry,” but I think the majority would leap to the more serious consequence. However, suppose I say, “If a person has nothing to drink, he or she will … what?” Here’s where I think the majority would say, “get thirsty,” rather than “die.” Even though lack of drink will result in death much more quickly than lack of food, the more serious consequence may be answered for the lack of food, while a more immediate need is answered for lack of drink. Why is that? In the normal routine of life, thirst happens much more frequently than hunger. Satisfying our hunger, or more simply, supplying our bodies with fuel is more routine at set meal times. If we get hungry, we look at the clock and may think, “Oh, good, only another half hour until lunch.” But if we’re thirsty, we tend to find something immediately. It is easy, and we’ll be thirsty again shortly afterwards. We won’t ruin our thirst by drinking like we ruin our appetites by eating.
Our view in understanding the organization of John’s Gospel sees chapters 4 and 5 discussing Jesus as living water. Chapter 6 discusses Jesus as the bread of life. I mentioned the perspective with food and drink because I think it is that difference that Jesus had in mind when presenting himself and that John had in mind as he wrote about it. While true, without food, you die, and also without water, you die, Jesus, I think, is making two different points with the two images rather than just one.
In the first main section after the prologue that started halfway into chapter 1 and continued through chapter 3, we saw water used symbolically for purification both in the baptism reference by John the Baptist and in the purification pots of the Cana wedding story. And that purification idea continued into the incident in which Jesus cleansed the temple. But in the next section, which pictures Jesus as living water, the idea presented was of being in need and having that need satisfied. It was thirst imagery--a longing to satisfy or quench a need in life. The woman at the well wanted the living water because then she wouldn’t have to struggle in her life by coming out to the well and drawing water every day. Jesus applied the picture of satisfying thirst with living water to her particular situation in life in which she was outcast by her fellow townspeople and by God because of her sin.
And in the story of the lame man by the pool, even though we may think of purification because of the pool’s supposedly magical waters, Jesus is satisfying a need of the man to recover the ability to walk—again, not a life/death situation but rather a need in life. Jesus applies that to recovery of relationship with God.
In the central story of the living water section, we don’t even have a drop of water referenced, but we still have the same theme. The royal official has a pressing need—his son is dying. (Note that even though there is life/death drama in this story, the main character—the supplicant—is not in danger of death. He has a need that, without Jesus’ help, will become more dire, but he is not personally in danger of death.) We see tremendous contrast in the urgency of his trip to Jesus, as he is longing, thirsting for solution, as opposed to the lack of urgency in his return home from Jesus, having been satisfied.
The whole section ends with a long discussion about the Sabbath—the rest of God—the satisfaction in life that Jesus brings.
In chapter 6, the symbol changes and so does the point. Instead of the water imagery and the quenching of thirst pointing to satisfaction in life, we have bread (or food) imagery and the supplying of need that escapes death. But we may have to dig a little to see this image fully. After all, the chapter starts with the story of Jesus feeding the 5000. While we certainly see bread in the event, this bread isn’t given to escape death, not immediate physical death. But there’s a greater perspective here, and so I think we may be looking at it from only the front. We need to walk around the image a bit.
Let’s examine this scenario. Verses 1-2 tell us that Jesus crossed the Sea of Galilee and a huge crowd followed him. Okay, … what? A huge crowd followed him across the sea? Well, no. Thankfully this story is in every Gospel so we can fill some gaps with details from the other accounts. Matthew tells us the crowd followed him by foot from the towns (Mt 14:13). So it appears (from the other Gospels) that Jesus had been either still in Nazareth or perhaps had already gone to Capernaum where he was teaching and healing. He heard the news of John the Baptist’s death, and he decided that he and his disciples needed a break. So they got in a boat (Capernaum was a fishing village on the north/northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee) and headed across the sea to a spot on the northeastern shore near a town called Bethsaida. The townspeople of Capernaum didn’t watch them sail away, the boat dipping below the horizon, and then run around the shore just guessing where Jesus might be going. The trip across that corner of the sea as the crow flies (or the boat sails) was only about 3-3.5 miles. So, the boat was probably never out of view from the shore. The people ran along the shore watching the boat’s progress, probably gaining a larger crowd as they continued on. Their trip by land was about 5 to 6 miles—a distance easily traversed in an hour and a half even without hurrying all that much. So by the time Jesus and his disciples got to shore, the people were already arriving.
John immediately gets into the miracle as if Jesus hopped out of the boat, looked up, saw the crowds, and immediately thought, “Let’s have lunch.” We learn from the other Gospels that Jesus healed and taught here awhile first. Only as it became later in the day and, no doubt, the Twelve started to get hungry, did they suggest to Jesus that he send the crowds away into the surrounding area to buy food (Lk 9:12).
But John never mentions the timing. John is not interested in his readers seeing a hungering need by the crowd. Rather, John just mentions that Jesus wants to test his disciples and so asks Philip where to get bread. So we should recognize that there is not an urgent pressing need as if a convention had been organized and now they had the problem of feeding all the attendees. The crowd had come uninvited. There were surrounding towns full of food. And if worst came to worst, it was only an hour and a half or less walk to their homes for even the ones that had come farthest.
If there was no threat of death from starvation and if there was not even an urgent need, what lesson are we supposed to be learning from this miracle? How does this even match up with the second half of the chapter in which Jesus gives his talk back in Capernaum about him being the bread of life? I think our problem in understanding is that we are looking for the lesson in the wrong spot. This is such a tremendous miracle, so dazzling, that we feel sure the point is in Jesus’ feeding the crowd, and certainly it is a major idea, but let’s keep looking for that which brings it all together.
The other Gospels don’t mention the crowd’s reaction, but they do mention that after everyone had been fed, Jesus told the disciples to leave and then went to dismiss the crowd. In John, Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples to leave, and he doesn’t dismiss the crowds, but we do get the crowd’s reaction. What’s John’s point? The crowd’s reaction is very much crucial to John’s point in telling this story.
The crowd understands the miracle, and they are amazed—blown away. They immediately see a connection between Moses and Jesus. Moses fed the people manna out in the wilderness. Moses delivered Israel from the oppression of Egypt. Deuteronomy 18:18 tells the Jews that God will raise up another prophet like Moses. So they’re thinking…hmm…Jesus fed them bread out in this desolate spot. So, Jesus could be this Prophet like Moses that God is raising up to deliver their nation from the oppression of Rome! This is their conclusion in verse 14. And this is why in verse 15 we learn that they want to make him king. Can you imagine the amazed, excited crowd, convinced that prophecy is being fulfilled, wanting to crown Jesus king and begin lifting Israel to its rightful height over all other nations?! Can you imagine the Twelve, hearing this vast crowd cheering for their own rabbi? If Jesus were made king, what positions would they hold? This is perfect! Israel would triumph! God would lift them up into greatness! And then, and then … And then Jesus “withdrew again to the mountain by himself. And the disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. Darkness had already set in” (6:15b-17a).
Wait! What happened? All the amazement, all the excitement, all the cheering, all the dreaming, all the planning … what happened? Jesus goes off by himself? The disciples get in a boat—the only boat on the shore—and leave? They leave Jesus by himself? Were they not excited? Were they not probably also urging Jesus to reign—telling him that this was his time—that God was on his side? Well, yes, probably all of that. But Jesus told them no.
We know what Jesus wanted. He wanted to follow God—God’s will, God’s way, God’s words, God’s works. And this was not God’s way. Becoming an earthly king to raise Israel above other nations in temporal delight for themselves was not the mission of Christ. …And, by the way, it is still not, no matter what the Premillennialists with their millennial kingdom or the Postmillennialists with their rising kingdom think. God’s kingdom is not about control over sin in a we-have-the-upperhand mindset. Sin is not merely disobedience that must be controlled. Sin is broken relationship that must be repaired. God’s kingdom is about relationship devoid of brokenness (sin), not merely that the brokenness is temporarily suppressed just below the surface. We make evil necessary when we cannot see God’s glory unless he has a foot on an enemy’s neck. We elevate Marcionism or Gnosticism or some other eastern yin-yang dualism when Christ’s kingdom has to be characterized by a subjugation of evil.
By reading John carefully, and getting a little help from the other Gospels, we know what happened. The crowd wanted to make Jesus king, and the Twelve wanted to make Jesus king. And Jesus dismissed both groups. He told the disciples to leave—to go away without him. He dismissed the crowd—no, he won’t be king; go back to your homes. He dismissed them all—stated more to our purposes here, he cast them out. And Jesus turned to go to the mountain (true kingdom; place of God) and pray (commune in relationship with God) alone.
This is the same image we see when Jesus spoke of his death and Peter countered, “Oh no, Lord!” (Mt 16:22). Jesus immediately told him in verse 23, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me because you’re not thinking about God’s concerns, but man’s.” The idea and the action are the same here in John 6. Jesus turned from, dismissed, cast out the one or the group with earthly concerns, because he would not be moved from following God’s direction. And so the crowd was dismissed…and so the Twelve were dismissed.
What do the Twelve do? Well, they went to the boat. They’re frustrated with Jesus. They’re maybe a little irritated—maybe a little angry. Here’s opportunity, they may have thought, and Jesus was just throwing it all away. So they got in the boat and sailed away in a foul mood. And notice John setting the stage—verse 17 tells us, “Darkness had already set in.” John’s telling us more than indicating the time. The darkness was in the hearts of the Twelve. John does this again later. In chapter 13 at the Last Supper, Jesus handed the dipped bread to Judas and told him to leave (“What you’re doing, do quickly” Jn 13:27b). And Judas, “after receiving the piece of bread, he went out immediately. And it was night.”
And then what happened? They were without Jesus. They were upon the sea. And the storm came. The image is of being out in life with no ability to handle the danger of the sin-enraged world. They struggled, rowing 3 or 4 miles, which shows they’re not able to steer to Capernaum only 3 to 4 miles away. But then Jesus came by walking on the water. And Jesus said, “It is I. Don’t be afraid.” And then they were willing to take him into the boat.
This is the perfect depiction of salvation. Darkness, hardened hearts, but then amid the storms of life that can’t be handled. Jesus reveals himself. And the Twelve are willing to take him in. And when he comes in—peace; they are at their destination.
Now, what about that crowd that Jesus dismissed. Again, in John we are not told that he dismissed them. We are just told that he left them to go to the mountain alone. In the other Gospels we learn that first he dismissed them. But I don’t think we can imagine that this was the closing of a service where he says, “Good night, everyone. Time to go home,” and they all get up and file out. These are people amazed and excited who wanted to make him king. But, Mark 6:45-46 reads, “Immediately He made His disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while He dismissed the crowd. After He said good-bye to them, He went away to the mountain to pray.” I’m sure that crowd had no desire to leave and had no desire to see Jesus leave. They weren’t simply going to follow his direction when told to leave. But Jesus was in control. He said good-bye, and, as in Luke 4:30 when the crowd wanted to stone him, Jesus merely “passed right through the crowd and went on His way.” Jesus left them to go to the mountain, and they simply didn’t see. They didn’t know where he was. And it was late, so most of them bedded down for the night (6:22).
When back in Capernaum they finally find him, they wondered at how he got there, but they were still excited about the miracle and still thinking Jesus may be the Deut 18:18 Prophet. At first, they still called him Rabbi (6:25).
Jesus informed them that they had the wrong motives in wanting to make him king. Jesus urged them to believe in him. And they were willing (still in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons). And they asked for another sign, possibly all giddy and excited that they were going to see another miracle. And they pushed the connection again with Moses. They spoke of Moses giving bread from heaven to eat. Jesus corrected them saying that Moses didn’t give them the bread; God gave them the bread. And they begged Jesus to give them this bread. And then Jesus stunned them. He said, “I am the bread of life” (6:35). He made it plain that he came from God, and that for them to be with God, they must believe in him and understand that only he can give them eternal life.
Okay, this was a little different from their plans. They needed a king who could overthrow Rome so that they could be preeminent on earth. Now Jesus was saying that they can’t have relationship with God except through him? Who is this guy anyway? He’s Joseph’s son. He didn’t come down from Heaven.
The crowd turned on him when Jesus revealed his true mission. He offered salvation from death to life with God. But that’s not what they thought they needed. They wanted salvation from oppressed nation to premier nation. They already had covenant relationship with God, or so they thought. They did not believe they needed some man to make a way from hell to heaven.
But Jesus said they have to take him in (just like the Twelve took him in the boat). And they answered no. They started falling away.
Jesus turned to the Twelve, and asked if they were going to go away too. But they now understood better. They wanted the eternal life Jesus offered, and they stayed.
So what is this story all about? It’s not really about the crowd. It never was. At the very beginning, Jesus decided to do the miracle for the sake of the Twelve (6:6). The crowd and the Twelve both got the wrong idea, and Jesus cast both groups away. Then Jesus presented himself to the Twelve while they were in need. They received him, and he entered in with them. He presented himself to the crowd in their need, and they rejected him. This time the crowd moved away. But the Twelve, faced with the choice this time, did not move away.
That’s the basic understanding of the story. Let’s look at some details now. Back at the beginning, John starts with his familiar “Among these things” transition, indicating another event rather than a chronological sequence. Notice the setting—John emphasizes crossing the sea not to focus on what was being done but rather where they were. They were going to be in an unpopulated area (just as Moses was with the children of Israel in the desert). Jesus arrives on shore and goes to sit on a mountain. It really was just a hill, but John is pulling in the mountain imagery which stands for kingdom. Jesus is going to be using the miracle to teach about the kingdom.
John mentions that Passover is near. This is another introduction of the Moses allusion. Moses led Israel from captivity to God’s Promised Land starting with Passover. And Jesus was going to lead all people from captivity in sin to God’s promised rest.
We find Jesus coming up with the idea for a test. This is not a test of faith in trusting him to supply immediate need. This is a test of kingdom intent. Would they want Jesus as temporal king or Messiah Savior? Jesus begins with a question put to Philip about how to feed the crowd. Why does he ask Philip? Back in John 1:45, Philip brought Nathaniel to Jesus with the words, “We have found the One Moses wrote about in the Law!” He was talking about the Deuteronomy 18:18 Prophet—the one God would raise up who would be like Moses. In John 6:14, that’s exactly who the crowd thinks Jesus is—the Prophet. It is ironic that both Philip and the crowd were correct in understanding the Deut 18:18 prophecy to be fulfilled in Christ, but they were incorrect to understand this Prophet as a mere temporal leader to lift the nation out of oppression.
The next few verses establish the fact that there was little food among the crowd. The people had not packed lunches. This would truly be a miracle.
And then Jesus tells them to all sit down. Why this command? We learn from this that it would not be a line passing by as Jesus handed out food. I think he had the people sit to force the involvement of the Twelve—the ones for whom this whole scene is arranged. Remember this is their test. So the Twelve must serve. Even the leftovers in twelve baskets emphasize the disciples’ involvement.
After Jesus dismissed both the disciples and the crowd, he returned to the mountain. We see a contrast between verse 3 of this chapter in which Jesus sst with the disciples and verse 15 when he returns alone. This is another Moses allusion. In Deuteronomy 10:10-11, after Moses is disturbed by the faithlessness of the people, he goes up to the mountain again to speak with God. God tells him to return and lead the people to his promised land. Just so, does Jesus leave the Twelve who have failed in their test to speak with God on the mountain. And we find later that he returned to lead them.
He met them out on the sea and immediately called out, “It is I!” Literally translated, it reads “I am,” immediately bringing to mind the existent name of God. And this is indeed the point—to show revelation by God in the salvation process of who he is. We also find in this scene a connection to Genesis 1:2-3 in which the Spirit of God moved on the surface of the waters while the earth was without form. There God said, “Let there be light.” In our story Jesus spoke as well, bringing the light of revelation to the Twelve.