Nearly all of us have had the experience of having unexpected guests drop in and end up staying for dinner. While I was attending seminary, my wife and I began to invite people from church over for dinner. Though times were difficult, Jeanette had prepared some cabbage rolls, stretching our meager supply of hamburger to the point where we could invite someone home for dinner. We went to church that morning, not knowing who we would invite. After the service Jeannette informed me that she had invited one couple, and I added that I, too, had invited a couple. There was no problem we thought for there were plenty of cabbage rolls for all. When we arrived home with our guests, the house was filled with smoke. The oven had been turned up too high and the dinner was burned to a crisp. Jeannette could not understand how it could have happened, since she checked the oven just before she walked out the door. The only problem was that I checked it, too. It was a five dollar stove, and it had no thermostat as most ovens do today. You judged the oven temperature by the height of the flame. Well, to me it didn’t look high enough, so I set it up just enough to burn up the entire dinner.
You can imagine the consternation at our house that Sunday with two families arriving for dinner and nothing but ashes in the oven. Well, as bad as that was, it could not compare to the situation in John chapter 6 where somewhere around 20,000 folks showed up and stayed late for dinner. This, as you will recognize, was the situation facing our Lord and His disciples prior to the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 men.
The significance of this miracle is apparent even at the surface, for it is the only miracle (with the exception of the resurrection) which is recorded in all four gospels. Of far greater importance, this event was indeed the ‘hour of decision’ for the nation Israel. Jesus had long since been written off as a candidate for Messiah by the Jewish leadership, but His popularity among the masses was at its peak. The discourse on the ‘bread of life’ which was the sequel to this miracle was the determining factor for many which caused them to cease following Jesus as their potential Messiah. It is for this reason that we shall give our attention to this crucial event in the life and ministry of our Lord.
It is only when we put all of the gospel accounts together and get a composite picture that we can ascertain the setting for this great miracle. Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee for several reasons. First of all, Herod had just put John the Baptist to death (Matthew 14:1-12), and he was also eager to see Jesus (Luke 9:9). It was not without good reason that Jesus retired to a desert place on the mountains near Bethsaida, just outside the jurisdiction of Herod.
Second, the disciples had been sent out as apostles to proclaim the message of the Kingdom (Mark 6:7-13). As a result of their taxing ministry, the Lord recognized the need for rest and relaxation, as well as time for reflection. It was to be a time of retreat (Mark 6:31).
Third, to put all of the factors together, the Messianic expectations of the people were at an all time high, dangerously so. Since John the Baptist was dead, all eyes were upon Jesus as his successor. The Jews were ready to throw off the shackles of Rome. Further, the apostles had just been on a campaign preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God. Thus, expectations were heightened. Finally, it was the time of the Passover (John 6:4); there were many zealous Jews who had made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land and the spirit of religious expectation and enthusiasm, due to the season, was unusually high. All of these factors combined to make an explosive situation, one which should be allowed to cool off if at all possible.
For these reasons, our Lord and His disciples set off for the other side of the lake by boat, rather than by land so as not to attract attention. Perhaps because the ship was well-known,140 it was recognized as it made its way to the other side of the lake. Many people ran ahead by land, gathering a larger and larger crowd as they went. Some of these people actually arrived before the little ship, while the rest arrived somewhat later.
When the Lord saw these sheep without any shepherd (remember that John was now gone) He was moved with compassion. He began to teach them much about the Kingdom, as well as to heal many who were sick (Luke 9:11). It would seem that early in the day our Lord raised the question of how this large group was to be fed (John 6:5ff.). As the day wore on,141 the impact of our Lord’s earlier question began to grip the disciples. Their solution was to send the crowds away and let them fend for themselves. There is probably a great deal of their humanity disclosed here, for they had come expecting a quiet day with the Lord to themselves. They had probably seen all the people they cared to on their preaching tour.
The impossibility of the situation was brought out by our Lord’s discussion with Phillip. According to Shepard,142 Phillip, in bookkeeper-like fashion, computed the cost for each person to receive even a bit of a snack. When the disciples were told to assess the situation more carefully, five loaves (not loaves in the sense that we know them but more like biscuits that didn’t rise) and two small sardine-like fishes were found in the possession of a boy. But how could this be of any help?
Our Lord instructed His disciples to have the men sit in companies of 50 or 100, the women and children sitting apart from the men, in typical Jewish fashion.143 After blessing the loaves and fishes,144 Jesus distributed the food by means of the disciples. Although the meal was not a luxurious one,145 it was very adequate, for all who ate were filled (John 6:12). The unused portions were collected so as not to be wasted, and, significantly, there were twelve baskets146 full, one for each disciple to carry, as I would take it, an object lesson.
This miracle has been variously explained. The liberals, trying at all costs to avoid the supernatural, have explained this as a ‘miracle’ in the hearts of the crowd. These selfish folks had brought plenty of food along, we are told, but they did not want to share it with those who had none. When the example of the generous little boy was put before the crowd by Jesus, everyone felt ashamed and brought out their food to share with the rest. Surely this does not fit the gospel accounts. Others say that it was a sacramental meal, with each person receiving a mere tidbit, just as we do in a communion service. It is hard to see how the crowds could be ‘filled’ by such a fragment. It is also hard to see how so little food could be divided among such a large crowd. The only logical interpretation is to understand it as the gospel writers have recorded it as a full-fledged miracle. If we are not willing to accept it as such, then let us call these writers deceivers and their works mere fiction.
Matthew and Mark inform us that Jesus forcefully instructed His disciples to get into the boat and go on ahead of Him to Bethsaida, while He remained behind to dismiss the crowds. John tells us the reason for what must have seemed highly unusual to the disciples: the crowd had determined to make Jesus their king. Jesus had sought retreat from the crowds, due to their heightened messianic expectations, but instead they gathered about Him, and now He performed this miracle which further added fuel to the flames of their hopes for Messiah. It was difficult enough to deal with the crowd alone. His disciples (with their own messianic hopes running high, perhaps higher than the crowd’s) would have only made matters worse.
Our Lord, having dismissed the crowd, went off by Himself to pray (Matthew 14:23). He may have originally intended to walk to the other side of the lake, just as the crowds had come. Looking out from His mountain place of prayer, Jesus may have seen the disciples struggling at the oars, and set out across the lake to help them. As the Lord drew near they supposed that they were seeing a ghost, and cried out in fear (Mark 6:49,50). Immediately, as our Lord got into the ship, the winds became calm and they were at their destination. The amazement of the disciples was due to their hardness of heart (Mark 6:51-52). In particular, Mark informs us that they did not understand about the loaves (6:52). If I understand the passage correctly, the incident with the loaves should have proved Jesus to be One greater than Moses. If the disciples had realized that they were with One Who was greater than Moses, then just as the Lord had provided bread from above, so He could make a path through the sea. They should not at all have been astounded at what took place, for it was the logical corollary to the feeding of the 5,000.
The miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 was a sign (John 6:14) which pointed to a deeper spiritual truth about the person of Jesus Christ. John is the writer who records the discourse on the ‘bread of life’ given by our Lord on the following day. The crowds interpreted the miracle in the light of their distorted messianic hopes. Since Jesus was not this kind of messiah, He sent the crowds away in bewildered disappointment. In this discourse, He indicated the difference in His program, correcting their misconceptions.
The messianic kingdom for which the Jews waited was completely materialistic. Edersheim describes it this way:
“What they waited for, was a Kingdom of God—not in righteousness, joy, and peace in the Holy Ghost, but in meat and drink—a kingdom with miraculous wilderness banquets to Israel, and of coarse miraculous triumphs over the Gentiles. Not to speak of the fabulous Messianic banquet which a sensuous realism expected, or of the achievements for which it looked, every figure in which prophets had clothed the brightness of those days was first literalised, and then exaggerated, till the most glorious poetic descriptions became the most repulsively incongruous caricatures of spiritual Messianic expectancy. The fruit trees were every day, or at least every week or two, to yield their riches, the fields their harvests; the grain was to stand like palm trees, and to be reaped and winnowed without labour. Similar blessings were to visit the vine; ordinary trees would bear little fruit trees, and every produce, of every clime, would be found in Palestine in such abundance and luxuriance as only the wildest imagination could conceive.”147
Not finding Jesus at the place where the 5,000 had been fed, the multitude made their way to Capernaum, and when they found Him they asked, “Rabbi, when did You get here?” (John 6:25).
Perhaps they sensed another miracle had taken place and were hoping to draw the details out of Him. But Jesus brushed this question aside, to get to the true motivation for seeking Him. They were not seeking Him for His presence, but for His presents. It was not Jesus that they sought, but some kind of ‘great society’ where men would no longer have to work in order to eat. To put it in yet another way, they did not receive the miracle of the preceding day as a sign, but only as a mere miracle (verse 26). They did not consider the purpose of the miracle, but only sought for the perpetuation of it. It was, at best, a kind of ‘soup line’ mentality revealed in those who were seeking after Jesus. Their eyes were not on the person, but on the provision.
As a sign, the feeding of the 5,000 signified that Jesus was a person who had to be taken seriously. More than this, He should have been acknowledged as One on Whom God had set His seal (John 6:27). Again we see that the miracles of our Lord were accomplished to authenticate the claims of Jesus to be the Son of God, Israel’s Messiah. It was not the person of Jesus that they sought, but His power: “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?” (John 6:28).
They perceived Jesus to be no different than any other Jew. If He could work such miracles, so could they. They merely asked Him how to duplicate the works that He did. According to Jesus, the only work acceptable to God (and accomplished by God) is the work of faith. “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent” (John 6:29).
The Jews perceived that Jesus was attempting to shift their attention from the bread of the previous day to Himself. Consequently, they urged Him to produce some spectacular sign to verify His claim to be their Messiah: “What then do You do for a sign, that we may see, and believe You?” (John 6:30).
Here the gauntlet was thrown down before our Lord. “If You are the Messiah, prove it!” “If Moses provided bread in the wilderness for forty years, let’s see You do better.” By this, they insisted that Jesus should produce better bread and for a longer period of time.
But this was exactly the point. They had fixed their focus only an the physical bread. Now they fixed their eyes on Jesus only as the instrument through which bread was given. Ultimately, it was not Moses who gave the bread, but God. The manna was bread from heaven. Jesus came not as a mere provider of bread, but as the bread from heaven. The superiority of Jesus over Moses was not just to be sought in the period over which the bread would be provided, but in the effect which it produced. The bread which was given in the wilderness did not give eternal life, for they all died (verse 49). The bread which God has provided in Christ is far better, for it gives eternal life. Those who taste of it will never again hunger or thirst for what it provides (verses 50,51).
Although Jesus attracted the multitudes with His works, He repelled them by His words as recorded in verses 32-59. His words were the truth necessary for the moment, both to correct misconceptions concerning Messiah and His Kingdom and to cool the feverish expectation of Messiah’s return in splendor and great power. What He did not accomplish by retreating to a remote spot, He achieved by His discourse on the bread of life. We shall summarize His teaching in seven striking statements.
(1) The issue is not one of physical bread, but spiritual. The kingdom which the Jews sought was almost exclusively material, while that which Jesus came to institute was primarily (though not exclusively) spiritual. He came not to provide free meals, but to satisfy man’s spiritual hunger by the free gift of salvation. Consequently, our Lord could claim that His program was vastly superior to that of Moses.
(2) Christ’s Kingdom was not one established by the good works of (as Israel supposed), but on the basis of faith (verse 29).
(3) Christ came not as a spectacular wonder worker but as the wonder. There was in Israel at this time (as with us in our own time) a craving for the spectacular. It was because of this that Satan challenged Jesus to make a spectacular death-defying leap from the pinnacle of the temple (Matthew 4:5,6). It was the spectacular provision of bread and the mighty miracles of Jesus which attracted the crowds. They sought the works to the neglect of the Worker. It was He that was the wonder, not so much His deeds. They were preoccupied only with the spectacular works.
(4) Those who are to enter Christ’s Kingdom do so by means of election and divine drawing. The Jews supposed that by virtue of their national origin and religious works they were assured of a place in the Kingdom. They thought that they could manipulate Messiah into adapting to their conception of the Kingdom. Quite the opposite was true, our Lord revealed. Entrance into the Kingdom is not ultimately a matter of our choice, but God’s. It is not we who bring God to us, but God Who draws us to Himself.
“All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me; and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37).
“No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44).
Every Israelite does not have a reserved seat in the kingdom, but only such as submit to the rule of Jesus as their Messiah. The issue is solely one of receiving Christ or rejecting Him (cf. John 6:36,40,45,47).
(5) The Kingdom of our Lord is not merely for the present, but also for eternity. We speak sometimes of our own age as the ‘now generation.’ By this we point out that those in our day live only for the present. So it was in Israel in our Lord’s manifestation as Messiah. Their concept of the Kingdom was material, not spiritual. It was present, not future. The Kingdom of our Lord Jesus is both present and future. The present manifestation is predominantly spiritual, followed in the future by more physical and material dimensions. So it is that our Lord spoke here of the future aspects of His Kingdom instead of what the Jews wanted now.
“For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son, and believes in Him, may have eternal Life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40).
“No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44)
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life” (John 6:47).
It is no wonder that the theme of resurrection is so prominent in their discourse.
(6) The watchword of the Kingdom is not self-satisfaction, but self-sacrifice. The Jews sought the Kingdom largely for what it would do for them. They projected their own desires into their concept of messiah. They had no intention of entering into a Kingdom which taught self-sacrifice and denial, much less a Messiah Who would die, rather than deliver them from the tyranny of Rome. But Jesus insisted in speaking of His destiny as that of giving His body and His blood for others:
“‘I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ Jesus therefore said to them, ‘Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life; and I will raise him up on the last day’” (John 6:51,53-54).
The discourse on the bread of life revealed that Jesus’ concept of the Kingdom was diametrically opposed to the popular expectations of the masses in Israel. As a result, there was a negative reaction. “Many therefore of His disciples, when they heard this said, ‘This is a difficult statement, who can listen to it?’” (John 6:60).
The masses are not troubled because they cannot understand what Jesus has said but precisely because they have understood Him too well. It was not difficult to comprehend but hard to cope with, for it failed to line up with their own distorted views of the Kingdom of God.
Once again, Jesus made no effort to modify or re-state His doctrine so as not to lose popular support. He rather sharpened the issue. If they stumbled at His teaching, how much more would they be distressed at His ascension to return to the right hand of the Father (verse 62). They had chosen to understand God’s Word in an almost crassly literal way, while our Lord’s were more metaphorical. He did not teach the eating of His literal flesh, but of making His person and work a vital part of themselves (verse 63).148 The real problem, as always, was that of unbelief (verse 64), just as was the case with Judas. They appeared to be true disciples, but were in reality only thrill seekers and deadbeats, looking for a handout. Their unbelief was to be expected for they could only come by means of the Father’s drawing (verse 65).
Those who followed Jesus were all called ‘disciples’ (cf. verse 66), but the dividing line was about to be drawn. When the masses heard the discourse they went their way in unbelief. When Jesus’ disciples were given the opportunity to back away, Peter answered for the twelve when he said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. And we have believed that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).
Here was the response of Jesus’ most intimate followers. They had no other options, for He was the only One Who had the words of life. Yet, even at this point, the betrayal of Jesus by Judas was known to the Master (vv. 70-71).
Historically, the feeding of the 5,000 and the discourse on the Bread of Life was the turning of the tide of national sentiment away from Jesus as Messiah. With the death of John the Baptist, every eye was upon Jesus as his successor. But Jesus’ teaching made it clear that He did not come to conform to the popular thinking about Messiah.
By way of application to us today, it is most interesting to note that in Jesus’ presentation of Himself as Messiah, He refused to accommodate their entirely materialistic ideas and expectations. How different it is in our day and age when men and women proclaim the Gospel, not in terms of its spiritual demands, but in the light of its material benefits. We make it sound as though God is promising a utopian life of unusual and continual blessings for whoever gives at least lip service to Christ.
The real focus of the gospel of our Lord was not on the matter of self-gratification and indulgence, but rather on sacrifice and death. Jesus came to die for men’s sins and only those who have accepted the suffering Savior will reign with Him. Such is the great divide in Christianity. Many are those who name the name of Christ and who call themselves Christians. But when the matter comes down to suffering, they quickly go their way (cf. Mark 4:16-17).
Then, too, we are reminded by this passage that salvation comes not by mere mental ascent, the polite tipping of the hat to Jesus (as a good man, a good teacher, etc.), but by the bowing of the knee, by the actual and personal acceptance of His person and work on the cross of Calvary. It is not just a matter of believing about Him, but of trusting in Him alone for eternal salvation.
140 “St. Mark vi. 32 has it ‘by (or rather in) the ship,’ with the definite article. Probably it was the same boat that was always at His disposal, perhaps belonging to the sons of Jonas or to the sons of Zebedee.” Alford Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), I, p. 678, fn. 2.
141 “For already the bright spring day was declining, and what was called ‘the first evening’ had set in. For the Jews reckoned two evenings, although it is not easy to determine the exact hour when each began and ended. But, in general, the first evening may be said to have begun when the sun declined, and it was probably reckoned as lasting to about the ninth hour, or three o’clock of the afternoon. Then began the period known as ‘between the evenings,’ which would be longer or shorter according to the season of the year, and which terminated with ‘the second evening’—the time from when the first star appeared to that when the third star was visible. With the night began the reckoning of the following day.” Edersheim, Life and Times, I, p. 681.
143 “In keeping with Eastern customs, according to which the women and children were kept apart, the men alone appear to have sat down in the order indicated. This explains why, as say the synoptic Gospels, they alone were counted, besides women and children.” Godet, quoted by R. C. Trench, Notes on the Miracles of Our Lord (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1949), p. 166, fn. 3.
144 “There can be little doubt, therefore, that the words which Jesus spake, whether in Aramean, Greek, or Hebrew, were those so well known: ‘Blessed art Thou, Jehovah our God, King of the world, Who causes to come forth … bread from the earth.’” Edersheim, Life and Times, I, p. 684.
145 “When we read that these five were barley-loaves, we learn that, no doubt from voluntary choice, the fare of the Lord and of His followers was the poorest. Indeed, barley-bread was, almost proverbially, the meanest. Hence, as the Mishnah puts it, while all other meal-offerings were of wheat, that brought by the woman accused of adultery was to be of barley, because (so R. Gamaliel puts it), ‘as her deed is that of animals, so her offering is also of the food of animals.’” Edersheim, Life and Times, I, pp. 681-682.
146 “The word for basket here (kophinos) means a wicker container such as the disciples would have used for carrying provisions on a journey. Juvenal mentions it as used by poor Roman Jews. They carried their own provisions so as not to be defiled by eating Gentile food.” Ralph Earle, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957), p. 87.
“This may be illustrated from the prophecy concerning the messianic age in II Baruch 29:5, “The earth also shall yield its fruit ten thousandfold and on each (?) vine there shall be a thousand branches, and each branch shall produce a thousand clusters, and each cluster produce a thousand grapes, and each grape produce a cor (about 120 gallons) of wine.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), p. 364, fn. 87.
148 “The idea of eating, as a metaphor for receiving spiritual food and the benefits flowing there from, was familiar to the Jews. ‘In the Rabbinical literature, sacred instruction was called bread and those who eagerly absorb it were said to eat it.’ ‘Thy words were found and I did eat them’ (Jer. 15:16). In the Talmud Hillel says: ‘The Messiah is not likely to come to Israel, for they have already eaten Him in the days of Hezekiah.’ The Rabbis spoke of their instruction as ‘the whole stay of bread.’ It was a common saying among the Jews: ‘In the time of the Messiah the Israelites will be fed by Him.’” Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels, p. 275.