John 6:1-15 After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. 2 And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. 3 Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. 5 Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. 7 Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. 11 Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”
15 Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
If you wanted to prove to the world that you were in fact the Son of God, the long-promised Messiah, what exactly would you do? More particularly, assuming that performing miracles was at least part of your answer, what kind of miracles would you perform? When you think of the kind of miracle that would leave absolutely no doubt as to your divine nature, what’s the best you’ve got?
As we’ve seen, miracles were indeed a part of the testimony Jesus provided concerning His true nature. The interesting thing for me is how low-key Jesus’ miracles were. Jesus never did anything too far out of the ordinary. For instance, He didn’t fly from place-to-place Superman-style. Likewise, He didn’t summon a pillar of fire to continually descend on Him or cause trees to do summersaults every time He walked by them. When He healed, people just got better. Water simply became wine without a sound track or lightning bolts. The Bible never fully explains the thought process behind that approach. We’re gradually given smaller pieces of the answer, but never a thorough and explicit explanation.
With that in mind, we’ve come to one of Jesus’ more famous miracles—the feeding of the 5000. And it’s no exception to Jesus’ low-key approach to miracle-working. When He did so the earth didn’t split open and erupt food. Nothing rained down from the sky. There was no angel Door Dash. Instead, as far as we can tell, He did so by simply causing a few baskets containing a few fish and pieces of bread to never be empty. There’s no mention in any of the four Gospel accounts of the crowd being amazed by whatever multiplication means Jesus used, only in that they were all fed.
Through all of this we see word of Jesus spreading further and further, crowds growing larger and larger, Jesus’ ministry being more and more divided between public and private, Jesus’ revelation of Himself becoming clearer and clearer, and the reaction of the masses as more and more dramatic. The main point of all of this is that Jesus is the Christ but His time of fully fulfilling His role as the Christ had not yet come. It was drawing nearer and nearer, but there was more work to be done first. Our main takeaway is to fight to believe and remember that trusting Jesus is the only path to everlasting life and joy. Let’s pray.
WORD SPREAD AND CROWDS GREW (1-2)
I’ve mentioned this before, and I’ll mention it again as we continue to see it play out in John’s Gospel: throughout the entire three years of Jesus’ ministry, He was consciously and masterfully overseeing a balancing act. Jesus came to serve as an example for all mankind before dying for the sins of mankind. What’s more, the more Jesus accomplishing the first (serving as an example), the He ushered in the second (dying for the sins). In other words, as Jesus increasingly revealed Himself for who He was (by teaching and performing miracles), He made it increasingly likely that He would be crucified. The balancing act that I’m referring to, then, was of accomplishing all that the Father had given Him while not stirring up the Jews or Romans so much that they would crucify Him prematurely. In John’s Gospel, we’re witnessing an ongoing interplay between what Jesus says and does and the reaction He gets. And Jesus was orchestrating both perfectly. That is, in part, why Jesus went from north to south and back again so many times.
John 5 came to a close with Jesus in Jerusalem (for an unnamed feast) and locked in a trial of sorts with the Jews and Jewish leaders. The trial arose because Jesus miraculously healed a man on the Sabbath. This led to accusations by certain Jews and Jewish leaders that insodoing Jesus had broken the Sabbath and encouraged another man to do so too.
While that certainly would have (and did) caused a stir, there’s a bit more that happened in between the end of chapter five and the beginning of six that explains the “large crowd” of v.2.
Interestingly, the miracle we’re about to consider, the feeding of the five thousand, is the only one recorded in all four Gospels. Helpfully, that means we have more background information than usual to fill in John’s account. While it’s not obvious in John, 6:1 likely takes place at least six months after 5:47 (we know this because of the change in feasts). 6:1 also takes place back up in the far north again (near the Sea of Galilee). More importantly still, is the fact that in between the end of five and the beginning of six, Jesus had sent the disciples out “throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction (Matthew 9:35; also Mark 6:7 and Luke 9:1-2). For months demons had been cast out, sicknesses had been healed, and the good news had been proclaimed throughout all Israel. With those additional details, vs.1-2 makes a lot more sense.
1 After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. 2 And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick.
The “large crowd,” as we’ll soon see was around 5,000 men, but it also included an undisclosed number of women and children. It is estimated that there were upwards of 20,000 in total. That’s a lot of people! Tragically, however, they were not there because they’d come to believe in Jesus, but because “they saw the signs He was doing.” And that’s part of what made the balancing act more and more precarious. Because they still didn’t really understand who Jesus was, they didn’t really believe in Him. And because they didn’t really believe in Him, they were not humbly surrendered to Him. And because they were not humbly surrendered to Him, they were a fickle and oscillating bunch. Balancing all of that was growing increasingly challenging, but our Lord was more than up to the task, perfectly orchestrating all things to the praise of the glory of God and the salvation of the world.
Word was spreading and crowds were growing as Jesus moved toward the cross.
PUBLIC MINISTRY VS. PRIVATE MINISTRY (3-9)
Another interesting aspect of the balance Jesus was working to achieve concerned the interplay between His public ministry to the masses and His private ministry to the disciples. With the growing crowds Jesus would preach, teach, and perform signs. In private Jesus would explain, test, and commission. In our passage for this morning, we get glimpses of both. The bulk of the text and sermon are focused on Jesus’ public ministry. Before we get there, however, I’d like to say a few words about His special ministry to His disciples.
Privately, Jesus “withdrew” from the crowds with His disciples. While there’s no explicit mention of why Jesus initially withdrew or what He did while withdrawn, given what we just saw, it’s not hard to imagine. Jesus and His disciples had been separated for some time, each engaged in remarkable ministry. On top of that, they’d likely just heard of John the Baptist’s beheading. It’s possible that this is the first time they’d gotten together in a while and wanted to process all of that together. Nevertheless, the text simply says (in v.3), “Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples.”
Additionally, even within His ministry to the crowds, Jesus engaged the disciples personally. There were continually two tracks of ministry running for Jesus. Much of what He did and said with the crowds was meant to help the disciples understand so they could best lead the Church after Jesus’ ascended to the Father.
Therefore, in the midst of another public, marvelous work, we find an exchange between Jesus and Philip where Jesus sought to minister to Philip personally (in v.4-8). That is, as the crowds pressed in and Jesus anticipated the public ministry that was about to begin, He took a moment to help Philip understand a bit more about His power and overcome a bit more of his functional atheism.
4 Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. 5 Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. 7 Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?”
Even after all he’d already witnessed in Jesus, it seems not to have occurred to Philip that Jesus wasn’t bound by the way the usual limitations of men. Knowing this, Jesus “tested” him in order to help him. Jesus asked Philip what Philip recommended concerning the feeding of the 20k+ people moving towards them. Knowing what He was planning, Jesus was giving Philip the proper framework to interpret the imminent miracle. This is what all good leaders and mentors do. As they seek to train up others good leaders and mentors don’t just impart skills, they also help their followers interpret the world in which those skills will be used.
Philip and Andrew most certainly knew the right answers, but they lacked the ability to see how they applied to their current situation. The disciples usually had to purchase their food so Philip simply projected that out to the crowd and realized there was no conceivable way they’d have enough money. Andrew was equally practical. He surveyed the people to see if they’d brought enough for themselves, but alas, they were as far short of food as they were money to purchase it.
As we’ll see more and more as Jesus’ time drew near, Jesus private ministry to His disciples would become increasingly important to overcome this kind of remaining unbelief. They were to be the ones who started taking the gospel to the ends of the earth and Jesus was doing everything necessary to make sure they were prepared.
On a practical level, this is part of how we understand the relationship between our corporate worship services, DGs and discipleship tracks. In the corporate worship, we’re meant to gather together around the reading, praying, singing, and preaching of God’s Word. It’s meant to be the time of most careful proclamation. In DGs, we’re meant to press further into the Word together. They still have pastoral leadership, but are meant to be more interactive. DGs are a great place to get your questions answered concerning the sermon and its application to your life, for instance. And our discipleship tracks are meant to be more personal still—typically one-on-one. That’s where the most specific questions can be asked and prayer requests shared. That’s where we’re often best able to not only impart truths about following Jesus, but also stories and life.
FEEDING OF THE FIVE THOUSAND (10-15)
All of that, then, leads us to the main passage and central thrust of the text, the actual miracle of feeding 20k people with no food or money. In that we see the miracle, the sufficiency, the leftovers, and the result.
The Miracle (10-11)
Concerning the miracle, in his usual, understated prose, John simply wrote, “10 Jesus said, ‘Have the people sit down’ [in groups of ‘about 50 each’ according to Luke]. Now there was much grass in the place [a statement that strongly confirms John as an eyewitness]. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. 11 Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted.”
If you’ve been to a potluck at Grace or talked to the Dahls, you know that coordinating food for 200 people can be a significant endeavor. We’re mostly guessing how many will show up and how much they’ll eat. It can take a long time to get everyone through the line and then it’s typically a challenge to make sure there’s someplace for everyone to sit. It’s not unusual, despite our best efforts, for the food to run out before everyone gets enough to eat.
The miracle, once again, was in feeding an unimaginable number of people without any preparation or earthly resources. We’re only told three things about it: (1) Jesus had the disciples have everyone sit down in the grass, (2) Jesus gave thanks for the few pieces of bread and fish they had, and (3) There was enough to go around. There’s no real mention of how everything was distributed, how long it took, how the fish and bread multiplied, or any of the other details we think so carefully about when we feed people. Even though details are scares, we cannot miss the staggering reality of what just happened. This was a miracle!
Jesus was not bound by the limits of ordinary men because Jesus was not an ordinary man. He was and is the Christ, the Son of God. Trust Him, Grace Church. Trust Him with all you have. Believe on His Name that you might have fullness of life, now and forever!
Eating Until They Were Full (11b-12a)
The second thing to see from this passage is that not only did everyone get something to eat, but everyone was able to eat “as much as they wanted,” to the point every single person was able to eat “their fill”. Again, in contrast with our ordinary experience, instead of trying to stretch out the limited quantities when more people show up than we planned for, so that everyone gets a little something, but no one gets enough, Jesus made sure that everyone ate until they were fully satisfied.
Grace Church, hear me say that (1) Jesus has no shortage of anything, ever and (2) He is pleased to satisfy us entirely. This miracle shows both of these profound truths as clearly as possible. Jesus is Lord of heaven and earth. All that has been made was made by the word of His power. He summoned all the fish and grain (for bread) into existence with a word and He can add to that at any moment without any effort. Likewise, Jesus is infinitely glorious and offers all of Himself to all who will receive Him. He withholds none of His glory from any His people. That means that He means us not to live (now or eternally in heaven), with anything less than peace that surpasses understanding, life to the full, all joy, and complete satisfaction.
Neither of those things mean that we will be healthy or wealthy on earth. Those are not first promises of physical fulfillment (though those too will be ours in the new heavens and earth). They are, however, promises of a greater, fuller spiritual fulfillment that is able to count every trial joy, rejoice in suffering for the sake of the Name, count all that the world offers as loss, and consider death gain.
Eat until you are full, Grace, not of the world for it can never truly satisfy, but of Jesus who offers Himself freely. The masses ate bread and fish until they were full to give us a picture of the abundant life Jesus won and offers to everyone who will receive Him.
The Leftovers (12-13)
Third, more than simply enough, though, there were even leftovers.
12 And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten
Much has been made about the meaning of the leftovers. Some suggest that the twelve baskets represented God’s blessing for the twelve tribes of Israel. Those who argue for this interpretation, also typically believe the seven baskets of leftovers from the later feeding of the four thousand represents God’s blessing for the gentiles. Others believe the leftovers were simply provision for each of the twelve disciples for the next day or two.
Both of those things are certainly true and so we should celebrate them even though John doesn’t make it clear which one (or both, or something else entirely) that Jesus specifically intended. John’s point in writing what he did was, once again, to help his readers to see that Jesus really was the Christ, that we might believe in Him and have life. May that be the result today and until Jesus returns.
The Response (14-15)
Finally, we see the response of the people. They gained clarity in who Jesus was, but also confusion as to what that meant. Having witnessed and partaken in Jesus’ miracle, “they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’” This was another reference to the Prophet promised by Moses in Deuteronomy (18:15-18). The Jews wondered allowed whether John the Baptist was “the Prophet” back in John 1. But while they asked John if he was the Prophet, they knew for certain that Jesus was, and they were right!
But what should they do now that the Prophet had arrived? That’s a good question for sure, but not one they answered well. Instead of simply listening to and following Jesus as they should have, they sought to “take Him by force to make Him king.” They sought to use Jesus as a tool to accomplish their own purposes. They sought to make Him into a weapon to fight their battles.
If ever there was an example of Jesus’ teaching that man does not live by bread alone, it’s this. Their bellies were full of bread, but their souls were empty of faith and life.
Knowing this, because He knows the hearts of all men, Jesus slipped away. He would not be used for the purposes of men. He was there to do the will of the Father and until the time appointed by the Father, no man could lift a finger against Jesus—whether to do Him harm or make Him king.
Grace, it is right for us to join the crowd in acknowledging Jesus as the Prophet. We must also join them in recognizing Jesus as King. But we must break from them in seeking to manipulate Jesus’ power and authority to accomplish our own purposes. We cannot do so. Jesus cannot be manipulated.
Equally important for us to recognize, though, is that even if we could, it would always, always, always, be to a lesser purpose than that of Jesus. The last thing in the world you should want, if you really understand Jesus, is for Him to do your will. He is full of all goodness, knowledge, wisdom, and power. We are finite, fickle, and fallen. He is continually working all things for greatest glory and good. We are often driven by selfish, silly desires. Why in the world would you or I want to get in the way of or override Jesus’ perfect plan? Once again, let us learn from the mistakes of the crowds and turn to Jesus in humble, surrendered, faith. And let us fight to believe and remember that trusting Jesus is the only path to everlasting life and joy.
The Lord’s Supper, to which we now turn, was given to us, in part, for exactly that purpose.