The sixth chapter of John’s gospel records for us the miracle of the feeding of 5000 men. As we return to our study of this gospel we need to keep a few concepts in mind. First, the purpose of John’s gospel is to cause people to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and by believing you will have life (John 20:31). Second, the way John has been showing that Jesus is the Son of God is by revealing how Jesus does what God does. We were introduced to this concept with the very first words of the book, “In the beginning was the Word.” This is the same introduction as the book of Genesis, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” John makes the equation that Jesus is God because he was in the beginning just like God the Father. Third, John emphasizes signs. John only records seven miracles, which he calls “signs.” We are not supposed to be simply wowed by the miracle but ask what is the spiritual meaning of the miracle because it is a sign. A sign points to something or communicates something to us. With these reminders in place, let us come back to John’s gospel and enjoy these precious truths of God.
Introducing The Chapter
As we look at this miracle, it is interesting to consider that this is the only miracle that is recorded in all four gospels. All of the gospel authors use this miracle to show us Jesus and prove who he is. The goal is not to try to harmonize these gospel accounts. We make an enormous mistake when we try to blend these stories into one. As I have noted to you many times, if God wanted only one gospel he would have given us only one gospel. Rather, the goal is to notice what about this account of the feeding of the 5000 is distinct. We need to observe the distinctiveness of the account and draw much from those difference because the author of the gospel is trying to teach us from those unique features.
The exodus overtones in this story are strongly highlighted by John’s gospel. Notice in verse 4 that John tells us that the Passover was near, which is a memorial for the exodus from Egyptian slavery. Notice the imagery that John gives us that the other gospels do not, which point to the exodus. (1) Jesus crosses the sea and goes up on the mountain. Jesus is mimicking what Moses did in the exodus when Moses crossed the sea and then went up to Mount Sinai. (2) A large multitude is following Jesus across the sea. But only Jesus goes up the mountain with his disciples, just like Moses only went up on the mountain. (3) They are in the wilderness after crossing the sea. We know that the east side of the Sea of Galilee had barren hillsides. They are in a desolate place and are unable to go buy bread anywhere, as indicated by Jesus’ question, “Where are we to buy bread?” There is no where to do this. (4) John’s gospel is the only account where Jesus is asking the question, “Where are we to buy bread?” In all the other accounts, the disciples initiate with the question and Jesus tells them to feed. Consider that the exodus reenactment is continuing because Moses asked the very same question in the wilderness, “Where can I get meat for all these people?” (Numbers 11:13). As we study the sixth chapter of John, the gospel wants you to have firmly in your mind that a new exodus is occurring. These events are being paralleled to the Passover, exodus from Egypt, going up to Mount Sinai, and going into the wilderness.
The story also gives a warning for future trouble. Notice verse 2: “And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick.” The crowds were following him because they saw the signs he was doing. We have observed that this has been a problem many times in the Gospel of John. The issue was first highlighted for us in John 2:23-25. Many believed when they saw the signs he was doing but Jesus did not believe in or entrust himself to them because he knew what was in their hearts. They were not following him for the right reasons. The signs were meant to be followed so that saving faith would be initiated. Jesus condemned the people specifically in John 4:48, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” John has shown us the false, non-saving belief of Nicodemus and the Pharisees in chapter 3 and the true, saving faith of the Samaritan woman in chapter 4. Verse 2 sets the tone for this chapter about what the crowds are going to do with Jesus.
So Jesus asks Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” I would like for you to visualize the enormity of the problem. There are 5000 men coming toward the mountain where Jesus and his disciples are. They are sitting on the mountain and they can see the thousands coming to him. A typical arena holds around 15,000 to 18,000 usually. If you have ever been to a basketball or hockey game, we are talking about that many people coming toward Jesus. Jesus asks, “Where are we going to get bread to feed them?” But Jesus knows what he is about to do (6:6). But Jesus wants to see what his disciples are going to answer. He wants to test and strengthen their faith in him.
The hope would be that the disciples would turn to Jesus and declare that he can resolve this situation. “You are the Son of God and you can do all things” would be the great confession at this moment. Rather than looking to Jesus for the answer and trusting him to provide, the disciples look to self-reliance. We don’t have enough money to fix the problem. We don’t have enough food to solve the situation. Where is the faith to look at the problem, turn to Jesus, and say, “You can solve the problem!” Jesus is not asking for his disciples to solve the problem. Jesus is asking his disciples to see Jesus as the problem solver. We are not supposed to look at our lives and determine to fix our troubles ourselves. Rather we are to look at our lives and determine that only Jesus can fix our troubles. We are supposed to see our insufficiency and see how Jesus is all-sufficient for us. How easy it is to fail like these disciples in refusing to see that we are joined to the one who provides all we need!
So Jesus instructs the disciples to have the crowds sit down. Notice that they are sitting in the grass. I do not believe this is a throw away statement nor a point being made about the comfort of those who are sitting so that their clothes do not get dirty. In a region filled with barren rolling hills, where Jesus is there is life.
With the five small loaves and two small fish available, Jesus takes the loaves and fish, gives thanks to the Father, and then distributed the bread and fish. With 5000 men and an unknown number of women and children, the disciples begin to hand out the food. The twelve pass out the food they can carry, come back to Jesus and get more food, and pass it out. The disciples keep passing out the food until the crowd had eaten “as much as they wanted.” This is not a snack. This is dinner for the crowd. The crowd eats until they are satisfied. Only Jesus offers what will satisfy our hunger and thirsty. Nothing else can or will satisfy.
Another unique part of John’s account of this sign is the command of Jesus in verse 12. Jesus instructs the disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” I am mystified at how many writers misunderstand this teaching. One writer said, “God’s abundant provision was no excuse for wasting resources.” Conservationism or not wasting resources is not remotely the point. Think in spiritual terms what John is teaching. The bread that Jesus gives is so that no one will be lost. Jesus has come to Israel so that no one may be lost. Notice how much is leftover: 12 baskets. Why aren’t there four baskets leftover or 10 baskets or 40 baskets? Twelve represents the tribes of Israel. Jesus has come so that none of Israel would be lost. He has come to offer them life, to save them from their sins. Now, you might be thinking that this is reading too much into the text. But look at verse 14: this is a sign. John identifies that there is a deeper symbolic message in the feeding of the 5000 than the mere fact that Jesus used his divine power to fill bellies. Something greater is being taught and this message sets the tone for the chapter as Jesus will declare himself to be the bread of life. Jesus has come so that no one may be lost. He has come to gather Israel in for its salvation. All who are gathered to him will be saved. Those who are satisfied in Jesus are gathered in and will not be lost.
The people understand the symbolic connection to the Passover and the exodus. In verse 14 the crowd declares that Jesus is the Prophet that Moses spoke about in Deuteronomy 18:15-19. But rather than coming to Jesus as the giver of life and the one who satisfies all that we ever need, they come to him to make him their king. They saw the sign but drew the wrong conclusion about what this meant for them. They did not come to him for their eternal king to rule over the sin in their lives. Their response follows what we have seen over and over again in this gospel. People are thinking physically and materially rather than spiritually. When Jesus offers the woman at the well water that will become a fountain of living water, she responds, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.” She thinks of her physical comfort. It would be great to not have to draw water out of a well anymore. When Jesus feeds the 5000, they want to make Jesus a physical king who will give them all that they want. We see this point clearly stated in John 6:26. This is why Jesus withdraws from them and returns to the mountain. Just as when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of stone only to find the people acting sinful and returned to the mountain to receive the Law again, Jesus finds the wrong hearts in these people and returns to the mountain. Jesus has come to be their lasting eternal satisfaction. The people just want to be fed. We will leave that thought there and consider it with greater depth in the future lessons from this chapter as Jesus will explore this problem with the people’s hearts.
How often God tests us to see if we will trust Jesus to be our all-providing king! Is it on our lips that Jesus can do anything? God uses us and tests us to accomplish his purposes. How often we refuse to stand back and observe God’s glory at work in our lives? We are off looking at how impossible things are, failing to see that the arm of the Lord is not short. We must have a heart to trust the Lord in all things and to look to him in every circumstance, whether good or bad. How we need to hear and believe the words of the apostles:
His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. (2 Peter 1:3 NIV)
Everything we need so that no one would be lost. Turn to the all-providing king and find your needs fully supplied by Jesus. Find your fill in Jesus.