What do verses 16-21 have to do with Jesus as the bread of life? This is the great dilemma of this text. The author of this gospel has placed a story in the midst of a discourse of Jesus as the bread of life. On the surface it seems completely out of place except that this is what happened next. While all the gospels record the feeding of the 5000, Luke does not record the story of Jesus walking on the water. So it is not necessary for this story to be placed here. Further, the record of Jesus walking on the water in John’s gospel is extremely brief and leaves out key parts like Peter walking on the water and sinking. There is nothing about Jesus stilling the storm. But somehow this story of Jesus on the water is useful and part of the story about Jesus as the bread of life.
Do not forget that our story is colored by the Passover (6:4). We have already noted the parallels to the Passover and exodus in the first three verses also. The sea plays a major role in the exodus account. God rescues Israel at the Red Sea and shows his power and deliverance of his people in that miracle. When the psalmist records the exodus scene and God’s deliverance through the sea in Psalm 77, he writes these words: “Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen” (Psalm 77:19 ESV). Notice that the deliverance from Egypt and parting of the Red Sea is pictured as God walking through the sea and the great waters. So now we see Jesus walking on the water. Remember the message of John’s gospel is that Jesus is God because he does the things that God has already done in history. So what is the message here?
Jesus Has Come To Save (6:16-21)
Jesus is up on the mountain as the story ends in John 6:15. Jesus’ disciples get in the boat and are rowing across the Sea of Galilee. As they are going the sea becomes rough because a strong wind is blowing. Verse 18 tells us that they are only about halfway across the sea. It was about 6-7 miles to Capernaum across the sea. It is at this moment that the disciples see Jesus walking on the water and coming near the boat. Fear strikes the hearts of the disciples. But Jesus clarifies that it is him and there is no need for fear. It is possible that Jesus said, “I am.” Either way, Jesus clarifies that it is the Lord. Verse 21 seems to be the key to this short story. The disciples then, knowing that it is the Savior, want to receive him into their boat. This is all that matters in the story. The story is exclusively about the disciples, upon learning that it was the Lord, wanted Jesus with them. Jesus has come to deliver his people. When you receive Jesus, then you have all that you need. Then you have deliverance and nothing to fear. Just Jesus is all you need. Notice something else that is interesting. As soon as Jesus comes into their boat, they immediately arrive at their destination. Remember that they were still miles away from shore. The text goes out of its way to make this point clear. The text also goes out of its way to make the point that Jesus has brought them safely home with the simple word, “Immediately.” Though in the middle of the sea, they suddenly come to port. Think about this: Jesus is there for his disciples. Even though he seemed far away, left on the other side of the sea, Jesus was there for his disciples and he delivers them. See how this amplifies the message in John 6:12. Jesus has come so that nothing will be lost. He has come to save. He has come to deliver and those who receive him will not be lost. Jesus abides and remains with those who receive him. The author has set us up for the contrast recorded in verses 22-29.
Love The Savior (6:22-26)
The story now turns to the next day. The crowd is still on the east side of the sea where Jesus had fed the 5000 men with five loaves and two fish. The crowd sees that the boat is gone because the disciples had crossed back over to the other side. However, they also know that Jesus was not in the boat with his disciples, yet somehow Jesus is not here with them. He’s not up on the mountain and they are in a desolate place. So the crowds get in their boats and cross the sea to Capernaum. They find Jesus in the synagogue (6:59) and ask him when did he come over here.
But Jesus knows the hearts of people, as we saw in John 2:24. He knows why the crowds are following him and he addresses the problem in verse 26. “You are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Jesus says that the people are not coming to him because they saw the signs and were grasping the meaning of the signs. They did not see Jesus as God with us. They did not see Jesus as the light coming into the darkness. Rather, they saw the sign and are following him because they want to be fed. They have come for the food. They are acting just like Israel in the wilderness. They will follow God when it is beneficial for them. If you are going to give me something, then I will follow you. Their enthusiasm is not for who he is, but for what he gives.
There is a great difference between wanting Jesus and wanting what Jesus gives. Allow me to use a couple illustrations. Do you want your spouse to love you because of who you are or do you want your spouse to love you because of what you give? Do you want your children to love you for who you are or do you want them to love you because you give them good gifts? I hope you recognize something. It is not love if I am with you only because of what you do for me. That is selfishness. So many marriages fall apart because we are not committed to the person, but are committed to receiving what the other person does for us. That is not love. That is complete and utter selfishness. What one gives cannot be the object of our affection. This truth is paramount when it comes to Jesus. It is full selfishness if the only reason we are following Jesus for the physical blessings. Jesus spins on this crowd and tells them that they are following him for their own selfish reasons and not from the signs which show that Jesus is the Son of God, the Savior of the world. Jesus is looking for submission to him and love for him that comes from more than our physical desires. Jesus did not come to fulfill your desires. Jesus came to change those desires to him so that we will come to him for what we truly need. Jesus did not come to fulfill your desires and meet your expectations. Oh, how I wish we would hear this truth. Everyone wants to turn Jesus into what he will do for me. It is all about our selfishness. What will Jesus do for me and what will Jesus give to me? He will give you nothing if you are seeking him for what he gives. Do not love him for his gifts. Love him for he is our loving Savior and Lord. If this truth will sink into our hearts then it will end any notion of asking if we have to assemble at all services, if we have to worship, if we have to serve, if we have to give, and so forth. This represents a heart that is not in love with who Jesus is but merely in love with what Jesus gives.
Labor For Lasting Food (6:27-29)
Jesus amplifies this teaching even further. “Do not work for food that perishes.” What are we working for in this life? What are we trying to get out of this life? Are we working for the physical? This has been a continual message in this gospel so far. Stop focusing on the physical. Stop focusing on the material. What is your quest? What is your focus? What is your life purpose? Jesus’ walking on the water fits into our story because we are to see that we need Jesus and readily and joyful receive Jesus into our boat. But we will not truly receive Jesus if we are focused on the physical. Stop working for the wrong bread. The food we work for in this life perishes. The food is empty. It does not satisfy. It does not give us what we need. It does not fill the God-given void in our souls. This life does not give what your soul needs. So we will not be driven by our occupations. We will not be driven by making more money. We will not be driven by our comforts. We won’t be driven by positions of power. We will not be driven by lust. We will not be driven by our weekends. We won’t be driven by retirement. We will recognize these things to be the food that perishes. The fact that we do not need these things changes everything about us. It transforms how we think and how we live!
Instead, work for the food that endures to eternal life. There is only one food that will truly satisfy your needs and it is given to you by Jesus, the Son of Man. Only Jesus gives that food. God the Father has authenticated Jesus as the giver of eternal life. He set his seal on him, marking him and declaring his approval of him that he is the only one who gives eternal life. This point was made in John 5:26. “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.” God the Father has authorized that life comes only through Jesus and no where else.
So now the people ask an important question. Jesus said that they must stop working for the food that perishes and work only for the food that endures to eternal life. So the people ask essentially, “What is that work?” Here is verse 28, “Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?'” I think the NIV captures the phrasing well: “What must we do to do the works God requires?” (John 6:28 NIV) So Jesus is explaining the working for the food that endures to eternal. Listen to the answer: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (6:29). I love the way this is worded. God has done the work. This is the work of God. To have eternal life is not your work. God is the one who is accomplishing this great work. But how are we working with the work of God? Jesus says you must believe. The work of God, what God requires, is faith. Standing before them is the great Lord and Savior. If you do not see him for who he is and love him for who he is, there is no amount of work you can possibly do to have eternal life. Jesus must be the one we treasure. If you do not love him for who he is, then you do not truly believe in him. We may be like so many that we have read in this gospel who see the signs but are unmoved to come to Jesus as the Savior and have everything in their lives changed. We must believe that Jesus is the one who gives eternal life which will radically change us. If we do not grasp who Jesus is, then all our work is in vain. All that we are doing is for nothing if it does not come from the knowledge and love that this Jesus is precious and he is all I need. I will labor for Jesus and not for the food of this world that perishes. He is the Savior, the one sent by the Father who gives life to all who will come to him. The disciples on the Sea of Galilee saw Jesus as the Savior and received him into their boat and they arrived at their destination. The crowds saw Jesus as a means to their physical desires and therefore did not have true saving faith in him. In John 1:12 we learned that believing in Jesus is to receive him into your life. Jesus told Nicodemus that whoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). In the context of that chapter Jesus is describing being born again. We must have a spiritual birth, being born from above, to have eternal life. Only when we see Jesus for who he is will we truly receive him into our lives, and by receiving him into our lives will we experience the new birth that leads to eternal life from the Son.