9. Exegetical Commentary on John 6
[3 A The Book of the Seven Signs (2:1 -12:50)]
[2 B Selected Highlights from the Later Part of Jesus’ Public Ministry: Conflict and Controversy (chapters 5-10)]
2 C The Fourth Sign, in Galilee: The Multiplication of the Bread (6:1-15)
3 C The Fifth Sign, in Galilee: Walking on the Water (6:16-21)
4 C The Paschal Discourse: Jesus as the True Bread from Heaven (6:22-71)
Borgen, P., Bread from Heaven: An Exegetical Study of the Concept of Manna in the Gospel of John and the Writings of Philo, Novum Testamentum Supplement 10 (Leiden: Brill, 1965).
Borgen, P., “Observations on the Midrashic Character of John 6,” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 54 (1963): 232-40.
Borgen, P., “The Unity of the Discourse in John 6,” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 50 (1959): 277-78.
Dunn, J. D. G., “John VI—An Eucharistic Discourse?” New Testament Studies 17 (1971): 328-38.
Grtner, B., John 6 and the Jewish Passover, Coniectanea Neotestamentica 17 (Lund: Gleerup, 1959).
Giblin, C. H., “The Miraculous Crossing of the Sea (Jn 6:16-21),” New Testament Studies 28 (1983): 96-103.
Howard, J. K., “Passover and Eucharist in the Fourth Gospel,” Scottish Journal of Theology 20 (1967): 329-37.
Johnston, E. D., “The Johannine Version of the Feeding of the Five Thousand—an Independent Tradition?” New Testament Studies 8 (1961/62): 151-54.
Joubert, H. L. N., “‘The Holy One of God’ (John 6:69),” Neotestamentica 2 (1968): 57-69.
Kilmartin, E. J., “Liturgical Influence on John VI,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 22 (1960): 183-91.
Kilmartin, E. J., “The Formation of the Bread of Life Discourse (John 6),” Scripture 12 (1960): 75-78.
Macgregor, G. H. C., “The Eucharist in the Fourth Gospel,” New Testament Studies 9 (1962/63): 111-19.
Moloney, F. J., “John 6 and the Celebration of the Eucharist,” Downside Review 93 (1975): 243-51.
Moore, F. J., “Eating the Flesh and Drinking the Blood: A Reconsideration,” Anglican Theological Review 48 (1966): 70-75.
Ruland, V., “Sign and Sacrament: John’s Bread of Life Discourse,” Interpretation 18 (1964): 450-62.
Shorter, M., “The Position of Chapter VI in the Fourth Gospel,” Expository Times 84 (1973): 181-83.
Smalley, S. S., “Liturgy and Sacrament in the Fourth Gospel,” Evangelical Quarterly 29 (1957): 159-70.
Temple, S., “A Key to the Composition of the Fourth Gospel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 80 (1961): 220-32.
Worden, T. E., “The Holy Eucharist in St. John,” Scripture 15 (1963): 97-103; 16 (1964): 5-16.
2 C The Fourth Sign, in Galilee: The Multiplication of the Bread (6:1-15)
Introduction. With the account in John’s Gospel of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, we come face to face with the element of the supernatural in the Fourth Gospel once more, but this time on a far “grander” scale than the changing of water into wine at Cana, the healing of the nobleman’s son, or the cure of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. This time it is difficult to attribute the sign-miracle to the inventiveness of the Evangelist (as some critics have been inclined to do with the former miraculous signs) because it is the single event in the entire public ministry of Jesus before the Passion Week which is recorded in all four gospel accounts. Thus there are only a limited number of approaches to the miracle which may be taken, and these are well summarized by L. Morris as follows:
This is the one miracle, apart from the resurrection, that is recorded in all four Gospels. We can only conjecture why this story was thus singled out, but obviously it made a strong appeal to the Gospel writers. In this account we see that the reason for the multitude’s presence was the attraction of the “signs” that Jesus wrought. John also records Philip’s perplexity as to the feeding of the great crowd, and his little piece of mental arithmetic which showed so clearly the impossibility of a solution out of the disciples’ own resources. And he tells us that it was Andrew who brought the boy forward. It is in this Gospel that we read of the proximity of the Passover, of the bread as ‘barley loaves’, of the reason for gathering up the fragments, of the effect on the people, and of Jesus’ dismissal of the disciples and of the people in general. Clearly John has quite a lot of information not derived from the Synoptists. Characteristically, John describes what happened as a “sign”. The effect of the sign is to make some people think of Jesus as a prophet, and some to wish to make a king out of him.
There are three principal ways of understanding what happened. Some hold that a “miracle” took place in men’s hearts. Christ induced the selfish to share their provisions, and when this was done there proved to be more than enough for them all. Others think that the feeding should be understood as a sacramental meal, rather like Holy Communion, wherein each received a tiny fragment. This view has been severely criticized by G. H. Boobyer. Though it is defended by Alan Richardson, for example, it seems to me untenable. Indeed, both the views we have noticed seem to rely too much on presupposition, and to overlook what the writers actually say. It is much better, accordingly, to hold to the third view, that Jesus, the Son of God incarnate, did do something that we can describe only as miracle. Undoubtedly, it inculcates spiritual truth (it is a “sign”). But this does not alter the fact that the Gospel writers speak of something wonderful that actually happened.77
In light of the fact that all four of the gospels present the incident as miraculous, it appears clear that any approach which attempts to remove or downplay the supernatural nature of the event does not do justice to the biblical accounts.
6:1 metaV tau'ta Again, we are faced with a vague temporal reference. How Jesus got from Jerusalem to Galilee is not explained, which has led many scholars (e.g., Bernard, Bultmann, and Schnackenburg) to posit either editorial redaction or some sort of rearrangement or dislocation of material (such as reversing the order of chapters 5 and 6, for example).
Such a rearrangement of the material would give a simple and consistent connection of events, but in the absence of all external evidence it does not seem to be supportable. R. Brown says that such an arrangement is attractive in some ways but not compelling, and summarizes well:
No rearrangement can solve all the geographical and chronological problems in John, and to rearrange on the basis of geography and chronology is to give undue emphasis to something that does not seem to have been of major importance to the evangelist.78
Tiberiavdo" Only John in the New Testament refers to the Sea of Galilee by this name (see also 21:1), but this is correct local usage. In the mid-20’s Herod completed the building of the town of Tiberias on the southwestern shore of the lake; after this time the name came into use for the lake itself.
6:2 Note the reference to other signs again, not mentioned elsewhere by John (cf. 21:25).
6:3 eij" toV o[ro"… This phrase does not necessarily refer to a particular mountain or hillside, but may simply mean “the hill country” or “the high ground,” referring to the high country east of the Sea of Galilee (well known today as the Golan Heights).
6:4 toV pavsca, hJ eJorthV tw'n =Ioudaivwn According to John’s sequence of material, considerable time has elapsed since the feast of 5:1. If the feast in 5:1 was Pentecost of AD 31, then this feast would be the passover of AD 32, just one year before Jesus’ crucifixion (see the chronological note on references to the passover in the Fourth Gospel at 2:13).
6:5 =Epavra" ou touV" ojfqalmouV"...kaiV qeasavmeno" Compare 4:35 for a similar expression (although Jesus is the subject rather than the speaker here).
6:11 Note the similarities with the various accounts of the Last Supper:
He took loaves
Matthew, Mark, Luke, Paul (1 Cor 11)
Matthew, Mark, Luke, Paul (1 Cor 11)
Matthew, Mark, Luke
6:13 Note that the fish mentioned previously (in 6:9) are not emphasized here. This is easy to understand, however, because the bread is of primary importance for the Evangelist in view of Jesus’ upcoming discourse on the Bread of Life.
6:15 Jesus, knowing that his hour had not yet come (and would not, in this fashion) withdrew. The ministry of miracles in Galilee, ending with this, the multiplication of the bread (the last public miracle in Galilee recorded by John) aroused such a popular response that there was danger of an uprising. This would have given the authorities a legal excuse to arrest Jesus.
The nature of Jesus’ kingship will become an issue again in the passion narrative of the Fourth Gospel (18:33ff.).
Furthermore, the volatile reaction of the Galileans to the signs prepares for and foreshadows the misunderstanding of the miracle itself, and even the misunderstanding of Jesus’ explanation of it (6:22-71).
3 C The Fifth Sign, in Galilee: Walking on the Water (6:16-21) [ =Matt 14:22-33; Mark 6:45-52]
6:17 h[rconto This is a good example of a conative imperfect—”they were trying to cross the sea…”. We are told that their destination was Capernaum.
6:19 wJ" stadivou" ei[kosi pevnte h] triavkonta (“about 25 or 30 stadia”): One stadion (AV “furlong”) = 607 feet (182 m); the Sea of Galilee was at its widest point 61 stadia (7 miles or 11.6 km) by 109 stadia (12 miles or 20 km). So at this point the disciples were pretty much in the middle of the lake.
Clearly the Evangelist has a miracle in mind here, regardless of what may be said about the somewhat ambiguous phrase ejpi + genitive (as in Mark, instead of Matthew’s ejpi + accusative), since Jesus came near the boat, which we have just been told was 25 or 30 stadia at sea. Furthermore, it is implied by the question of the disciples in 6:25 that Jesus crossed the sea in an unexpected way.
6:21 eujqevw" (“immediately”) Again the miraculous seems to be in view here with the sudden arrival of both boat and passengers at the destination.
The Place of the Miracle in the Narrative:
We need to ask at this point: Why did the Evangelist choose to include this incident, particularly at this point in the narrative? In the versions of this miracle given by Matthew and Mark, Jesus calms the sea (to the amazement of his disciples) and gets into the boat. The miracle is basically a nature-miracle (emphasizing Jesus’ sovereignity over nature) in which the disciples are rescued from the storm. But John does not even mention these elements—it is not even clear if Jesus gets into the boat (verse 21 only states that the disciples wanted to receive Jesus into the boat—we may assume he got in, but the text does not explicitly state this).
Why then does John include the miracle? And why here, when the Bread of Life Discourse which follows would fit so well with the miraculous feeding in 6:1-15?
It is possible that the story of Jesus walking on the water was linked with the feeding of the five thousand in early Christian tradition, before any of the gospels were committed to writing. It follows the feeding of the five thousand in Matt 14:22-34 and Mark 6:45-52 (although it does not occur in Luke 9). In this case the Evangelist is simply following the traditional association when he includes the account here.
Structurally these verses also serve to explain to the reader how Jesus and his disciples came to be back on the western side of the lake (Capernaum), cf. 6:24, 59.
These explanations, however, do not exhaust the possibilities, and probably are not the primary reason for John’s inclusion of Jesus walking on the water at this point in the narrative. More significant is John’s use of the term ejgwv eijmi (6:35, 41, 48, 51). Jesus is the one who bears the Divine Name (cf. Exod 3:14). For John this story takes on the character of a theophany, not at all unlike the Transfiguration recorded by the Synoptics. The reaction the crowds had made after the multiplication of the bread had been an attempt to crown him king—but on a purely political level. And in the discourse which follows (on the Bread of Life) many even of his disciples will be unable to accept what he has said.
Note: We should not overlook the symbolism of water/sea—in the Old Testament it is the image of evil and chaos, particularly in Isaiah. For John, this could carry similar significance: Jesus’ triumph over the sea represents his triumph over the forces of evil.
But to his disciples in the boat (probably to be identified with the Twelve, cf. 6:67), not to the crowds, Jesus manifests that he is much more than a political messiah. What he is can be summed up only by the phrase “I am”. These disciples, of course, knew that; they had placed their trust in Jesus as Messiah; but they needed a reminder that their ideas about the person and work of the Messiah were not to be conditioned by the ideas of the general population, to which they had just been witness.
I think we can go beyond this, however, to see that there may be some indications that the Exodus motif (following the Passover) was in the mind of the author as he selected details in composing the narrative. Note the following striking parallels with Psalm 107:
the people wander hungry in desert wastes
the Lord satisfies and fills the hungry and thirsty.
some go down to the sea in ships
the Lord raised up a stormy wind
they cry out to the Lord
the Lord delivers them, calms the sea, and brings them to their desired haven.
Note: It cannot be proven that Psalm 107 was in the author’s mind when he wrote this section. I merely want to suggest the parallels, which are many and striking. It may be that the Twelve, with the retrospection they demonstrated in other Johannine passages, came to believe that Jesus’ actions were following the pattern described by the Psalm at some point after the resurrection. It may have influenced all the accounts, including the synoptic ones. But it would be extremely difficult to prove such influence since there is no explicit citation of Ps 107 in the context.
4 C The Paschal Discourse: Jesus as the True Bread from Heaven (6:22-71)
The setting. The previous miracle of the multiplication of the bread had taken place near Tiberias (cf. 6:23). Jesus’ disciples set sail for Capernaum (6:17) and are joined by the Lord in the midst of the sea. The next day boats from Tiberias pick up a few of those who had seen the multiplication (certainly not the whole 5,000!) and bring them to Capernaum. It was to this group that Jesus spoke in 6:26-27. But there were also people from Capernaum who had gathered to see Jesus, who had not witnessed the multiplication, and it was this group that asked Jesus for a miraculous sign like the manna (6:30-31). (This would have seemed superfluous if it were the same crowd which had already seen the multiplication of the bread! But some from Capernaum had heard about it and wanted to see a similar miracle repeated.)
6:25 The people who followed in the boats ask, “Teacher, when did you get here?” Jesus answers not their direct question, but the implication (again, supernatural knowledge on Jesus’ part is implied—he knows their true motivation for following him).
6:27 ejrgavzesqe mhV thVn brw'sin thVn ajpollumevnhn Note the word-play on “work” here. This does not imply “working” for salvation, since the “work” is later explained (in 6:29) to be “believing in the one whom he (the Father) has sent.”
6:30 The crowd responds to Jesus’ statement about believing in the one whom God has sent by demanding a sign—especially something like the manna given in the wilderness. Probably those who had not seen the multiplication of the bread had heard about it from those who had, and wanted to see something similar.
Note again the Johannine play on the physical versus the spiritual (32-33)—the food which perishes versus the food which remains for eternal life. Compare with chapter 4 where the contrast was between the water that quenched thirst temporarily versus the living water that would satisfy thirst forever.
Note also the interplay between works and faith in Johannine thought: The crowd asks Jesus (6:28), “What must we do that we may work the works of God?” Note Jesus’ reply: “This is the work of God: that you believe in the one he sent.” By the very phrase Jesus has shifted the emphasis from a work of man to the work of God—the initiative which God took in sending the Son into the world. (Qeou' is best understood as a subjective genitive in 6:32-34.) Note that at this point the crowd still misunderstands the nature of the true bread from heaven: “Lord, give us this bread.” If they conceive of it as something that Jesus himself gives them, they have still missed it, because he himself is the ‘Bread’ from heaven. (Note in this regard Jesus’ response in verses 35-36.)
6:35 Note the use of ejgwv eijmi. Also note the parallel structure between the two participles oJ ejrcovmeno" and oJ pisteuvwn. The concept of “coming to” Jesus and “believing in” him is the same, and this will be important later, in verse 37.
6:40 oJ qewrw'n This refers to the person who beholds the Son not just physically, but with spiritual insight, discerning correctly his identity and mission. This is clear from the context.
6:41 Note that oiJ =Ioudai''oi are singled out here. It would appear that there were some of the Jewish authorities in the crowd which had gathered to listen to Jesus in Capernaum, after the crossing of the Sea of Galilee (6:24).
6:44 eJlkuvsh/ It is never specifically spelled out by the Evangelist what this “drawing” consists of. It is evidently some kind of attraction; whether it is binding and irresistable or not is not mentioned. But there does seem to be a parallel with 6:65, where Jesus says that no one is able to come to him unless “it has been granted to him from the Father.” This apparently parallels the use of Isaiah by John to reflect the spiritual blindness of the Jewish leaders (see the quotations from Isaiah in John 9:41, 12:39-40).
6:52-59 “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood…” These words are at the heart of the discourse on the Bread of Life, and have created great misunderstanding among interpreters. Anyone who is inclined in the least toward a sacramental viewpoint will almost certainly want to take these words as a reference to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, because of the reference to eating and drinking. The participle in verse 54, trwvgwn, is almost shockingly graphic: it means to eat noisily, often used of animals (“gnaw,” “nibble,” “munch”). When used with reference to people, it often has the idea of enjoyment (Matt 24:38) and close comradeship. Some have thought it refers to a literal feeding, and thus to the Eucharist. But this does not follow: by anyone’s definition there must be a symbolic element to the eating which Jesus speaks of in the discourse, and once this is admitted, it is better to understand it here, as in the previous references in the passage, to a personal receiving of (or appropriation of) Christ and his work.
6:60-66 sklhrov" ejstin oJ lovgo" ou|to" Previously we saw indications that Jesus was addressing a crowd of people (verse 24) and some of the “Jews” (verse 41). Now it is evident that some of his own disciples were present and listening as well. And they did not like what they were hearing. Sklhrov" has the idea of being both “hard” and “harsh”; in this context it is not so much “hard to understand” as “difficult to accept”.
It became apparent to some of Jesus’ followers at this point that there would be a cost involved in following him. They had taken offense at some of Jesus’ teaching (perhaps the graphic imagery of “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood,” and Jesus now warned them that if they thought this was a problem, there was an even worse cause for stumbling in store: his upcoming crucifixion. I take this to be the meaning of verses 61b-62. Jesus asks, in effect, “Has what I just taught caused you to stumble? [What will you do, then,] if you see the Son of Man ascending where he was before?” This ascent is to be accomplished through the cross; for John Jesus’ departure from this world and his return to the Father form one continual movement from cross to resurrection to ascension.
6:67-71 rJhvmata zwh'" aijwnivou e[cei" (Peter’s confession) In contrast to the response of some of his disciples, we have here the response of the Twelve, whom Jesus then questioned concerning their loyalty to him. This is the big test, and the Twelve, with Peter as spokesman, pass with flying colors. The confession here differs considerably from the Synoptic accounts (Matt 16:16, Mark 8:29, and Luke 9:20) and concerns directly the disciples’ personal loyalty to Jesus, in contrast to those other disciples (6:66) who had deserted him.
6:71 This statement is another of the Evangelist’s post-resurrection insights, added for the reader’s help in understanding Jesus’ statement in the previous verse. At least six explanations for the name Iscariot have been proposed, but it is probably transliterated Hebrew with the meaning “man of Kerioth” (there are at least two villages that had that name).79 This is the first mention of Judas in the Fourth Gospel, and he is immediately identified (as he is in the synoptic gospels, Matt 10:4, Mark 3:19, Luke 6:16) as the one who would betray Jesus.
77 Morris, The Gospel According to John, 338-39.
78 Brown, The Gospel According to John, 236. [emphasis mine]
79 Cf. D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 304.