Tuesday, January 08, 2013

The Master Manifested at a Miraculous Meal (John 6:1-15)


Today we resume our study of the Gospel According to John, after several weeks of observing Advent through the songs recorded in Luke’s Gospel. Picking up where we left off back in November, we begin today with Chapter 6. In the first portion of this chapter, we read of the feeding of the five thousand. That is a bit of a misnomer, as all of the Gospels indicate that the number of the people included 5,000 men, while Matthew states clearly that there were women and children in addition to these men. Therefore, most estimates would number this crowd of people to be perhaps 20,000 or more. The significance of this miracle is understood by the fact that it is the only one of Jesus’ miracles to be included in all four Gospels.

John begins the chapter with the words, “After these things.” On the surface, one would assume that “these things” would be the events recorded in the verses immediately prior. However, when we look back on these verses, we notice that the last account took place in Jerusalem, while this one takes place on the far side of the Sea of Galilee. There has been a lot of ground covered that John does not record for us. Additionally, the events of Chapter 5 take place around some “feast of the Jews” that is not specified, while John 6:4 tells us that this event took place just prior to Passover. If the feast in John 5 was one of the Fall Feasts, then six months or so have passed. Some suggest that the unnamed feast in John 5 was Passover, meaning that an entire year has elapsed. In either case, much time has passed and much ground has been covered when Chapter 6 opens.

We know from the other Gospels that just before this time, Herod Antipas, the Roman’s puppet governor of the Galilean region, had ordered the beheading of John the Baptist. And we also know that Jesus had sent His disciples on a ministry assignment around Galilee. Herod was so unsettled by all that God was doing through Jesus and His disciples in the region that he wondered if John the Baptist had risen from the dead. With His popularity surging and crowds gathering wherever Jesus went, He had withdrawn to the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee with His disciples, to the area that today is called the Golan Heights, for some rest and fellowship with them. He intended to use this time to debrief with them about their ministry assignments in Galilee (Mark 6:30-31) and to speak frankly with them about His future, including His death, and to prepare them for what was to come (Luke 9:10). With hostility arising from the authorities, Jesus had also hoped that this time away would allow for the excitement to die down a bit so He could continue on with His mission. We also know that Jesus was seeking somewhere to grieve privately over the death of John the Baptist, His kinsman, His forerunner, and His friend.[1] But the crowd of people following Jesus would not relent, and as Jesus and the disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee by boat, the growing crowd travelled by foot around the northern end of the lake and met Him on the far side.

Why was this crowd following Him? John tells us in verse 2 that it was because they saw the signs which He was performing on those who were sick. They are like so many others we have met in the Gospels who were interested in Jesus in much the same way that we might be interested in a sideshow or a magician. It is a combination of curiosity mixed with a selfish interest in what He might be able to do for them. Though they witnessed the miracles, they did not perceive the ultimate reality beneath the miracles – the revelation of Jesus as God the Son, the Messiah who had come to redeem humanity from the curse of sin. Mark tells us that when Jesus saw this crowd coming to Him, “He felt compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). Out of His compassion for their deep spiritual needs, the first thing that Jesus did was to teach them “many things.” And as this time of teaching went on and the hour became late, His disciples began to ask Him to send the people away so that they could go and find something to eat. And so the stage is set for what we read here in John 6:1-15. And Jesus here takes action to perform a tremendous supernatural miracle. And in this miracle, as in all of His miracles, He demonstrates something about Himself.  The other gospels draw attention to His compassion, and certainly it is on full display here; but John directs our attention to other attributes of Christ as this narrative unfolds. As we see what He does, our understanding of who He is should be affected, and this has the power to shape us as we seek to know and follow Him.

I. Christ’s infinite wisdom is revealed in His preparations. (vv5-10)

I, for one, was not sad to see 2012 come to an end. It was a difficult year for me. Over the last year, I’ve had several reminders that I do not handle stress and anxiety well in my own power. When things seem to get out of control, I tend to panic and scramble to try to wrestle those things back under reign. But what God has been teaching me through these things is that, although things are often out of my control, they are never out of His. In His infinite wisdom, He is always at work in our circumstances in ways that we may not even perceive. And when He is at work, He is accomplishing something beneficial for us, even when we do not understand what it is.

I am captivated by the phrase in verse 6 here that says “He Himself knew what He was intending to do.” You have to behold the chaos of this scene. The crowd is massive; the people are hungry; the hour is late; there is no food; there is no money to buy food, and no place to buy it anyway. If you asked the disciples, they would say that things had gotten out of hand. In fact, Jesus did ask one of the disciples: Philip. Being a native of the nearby town of Bethsaida, Philip was a natural choice for the question Jesus asked: “Where are we to buy bread?” But the question was only a test to see how Philip would view the situation. Had he matured in his walk with Jesus to the point of trusting that Jesus knows what He is doing, or would he view it only with his human eyes and see things only from a natural perspective? He shows us with his answer. He says, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for everyone to receive a little.” Two hundred denarii was equal to about 8 months of wages for the average worker in that day. And according to Philip, even if they had this much money, it would not be enough to feel thousands people more than just a bite. He failed the test. He was still looking at things through human eyes and a natural perspective. He was not thinking supernaturally about what Jesus had the power to do. He responded to the situation by giving up hope. In His wisdom, Jesus proved the spiritual mettle of His followers with this single, simple question.

But another disciple had a somewhat different perspective, and in His wisdom, Jesus had arranged circumstances in such a way that even a small glimmer of faith could shine through. While Philip was crunching numbers and seeing all that could not be done, Andrew came with a more positive report, albeit only slightly more positive. Andrew has gone around the massive crowd to see what supplies he can muster in his own effort. He’s found one boy, a lad (the Greek word could mean a person ranging in age from a young child to a man in his early 20s), who has five barley loaves and two fish. This is not much food. The loaves would have been very small, and barley was the common staple grain of the very poor. The first-century Jewish philosopher Philo said that barley was “suited for irrational animals and people in unhappy circumstances.”[2] The fish were not big at all; they were small, pickled fish that were used as a relish for the bland barley cakes to give them flavor. Andrew recognized that this quantity of food was “ludicrously inadequate” to feed such a crowd.[3] He said, “What are these for so many people?” If Philip’s response to the situation was one of giving up hope, Andrew’s was more that of trying harder. What we will find as we go through difficulties in life is that neither approach is sufficient. While Andrew’s attempts to try harder to solve the problem were not sufficient, with faith as tiny as a mustard seed, he does the one thing that we all have to learn to do. He brought the boy with the food to Jesus, and the boy gave what he had to Jesus. I tell you, if nothing more had been done on that day, this much would have been a success. You have never failed if you’ve brought someone to Jesus; and you’ve never failed if you’ve given what you have to Jesus. In His infinite wisdom, Jesus had arranged the circumstances so that Andrew would see the futility of his own self-effort, and in utter desperation do the only thing he knew to do – hand the situation over to Jesus. And this is what Jesus had been waiting for: someone to finally recognize that if the situation was going to improve, it was not going to be by giving up hope or trying harder but by turning it all over to Him.

We also notice the infinite wisdom of Jesus on display in v10, where we read that Jesus ordered for the disciples to have the people sit down in the grass, and this they did. The other Gospels tell us that Jesus had the disciples to arrange the people in groups of hundreds and fifties. You see, Jesus knew what he was intending to do. And in order to do what He intended to do, He took measures to do it well. Notice He had the people to sit, so that the crowd would be stabilized and there would be no rush, and so that the serving of the people would be expedited. Another reason perhaps is that the people, once seated, would all have a better view to see what Jesus was about to do. They would be able to see the miracle that was about to take place with their own eyes. But also don’t miss this point – that Jesus desires to put His disciples to work in His mission. He gives them an assignment to carry out. It wasn’t necessary to do it this way, but in His infinite wisdom Jesus creates opportunities for His followers to serve Him and invites them to join in His work.

Now, before we leave this point about the infinite wisdom of Christ, let’s draw out some practical points. First, when situations seem out of hand to you, are you confident that they are not out of the Master’s hand? Do you trust that He knows what He is doing? How do you respond to stressful situations? Do you try to sort out the logistics of it all in your head, and ultimately conclude that it is hopeless and give up? Do you try harder to fix the problem in your own self-effort? Or do you take the situation to Jesus and hand it all over to Him? And through it, are you looking for others that you can bring to Jesus in the midst of the circumstances, and for ways that He is inviting you to participate in His work? When we behold His infinite wisdom we come to understand that He is always in control, even and especially when things are beyond our control. We are confident that as long as He is with us, we must not give up hope because He knows what He intends to do. He may be testing our ability to view things with the eyes of faith, and our response indicates whether we pass or fail the test. We understand that trying harder is not the solution, but entrusting matters to Him is! And we see a place carved out for us by the very circumstances we are in: a place for us to serve Him and to serve others, and a place for us to bring others to Him. Only Jesus in His infinite wisdom can accomplish these things in the midst of chaotic scenarios.

II.  Christ’s unlimited power is revealed in His provision (vv11-13)

Notice again Andrew’s question in v9. Here is a boy with five loaves and two fish. “What are these for so many people?” Five thousand men, plus women and children; maybe 20,000 people there, and we’ve got one boy’s snack to feed them all with. Surely this is not enough. But what everyone on that hillside is about to be faced with is the truth that though these are not enough, Christ Himself is enough. This small amount of food cannot meet their need, but this wonderful Savior can. As He provides for them all, His unlimited power is displayed.

It is really interesting, the lengths to which some will go to undermine the authority of God’s Word. This passage has been tinkered with by some who simply refuse to believe that Christ has the power to do what He did here. There are a group of so-called scholars who say that if there was a miracle at all here, it was a miracle of the human spirit. They say that this crowd had been hiding their food and unwilling to share it with their fellow-man, but seeing the boy’s willingness to give Jesus his food, they were all moved in their hearts to break out their food and share it as well. I suppose stranger things have happened, yet I cannot fathom why, in the wake of an event such as this, that the people would conclude that Jesus was the promised Messiah and desire to make Him their king. If anything, it seems that they would rather applaud the boy with the fish and bread rather than Jesus. But the people were aware that Jesus had done something extraordinary here. They saw it, they experienced it, and they ate it. Then there have been others who suggest that enough food was mustered up to give everyone present a tiny morsel of food, much like we receive when we share in the Lord’s Supper. Again, this seems very odd, for certainly it couldn’t have been possible with just five loaves and two fish; and if there was more food than this, then why was it significant to mention the boy with his loaves and fish at all?

But more than just this, notice how unlimited the power of Jesus is as He reveals His nature through this miracle. First, notice what Jesus does with the loaves and fish. He “gave thanks.” Whom did He thank? He might have thanked the boy, but the other Gospels tell us more. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that He took the loaves and fish and He looked up into heaven. Just as the boy had offered what He had to Jesus, so Jesus offers it up to His Father in heaven. In the NASB and some other English versions, Matthew and Mark say that next Jesus “blessed the food.” If you look at that text in Matthew 16:19 or Mark 6:41, you will see that the words “the food” are in italics, meaning that they are not found in the original Greek text, but were added by the translators. And, in this case, I believe the translators got it wrong. I do not believe that Jesus blessed the food, I believe that He blessed God by giving Him thanks for this provision of food. The traditional Jewish prayer offered up before a meal would say something like this: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who bringest forth bread from the earth.” Jesus is, by His actions and words here, indicating that whatever we have, we have from God’s gracious hand; and what we have from God’s gracious hand is enough to supply our need.

Now the text says that He distributed the food to the people. The other Gospels explain that He began breaking the bread and dividing the fish and giving it to the disciples to distribute. And as He broke the bread, He kept on breaking it. And as He divided the fish, He kept on dividing the fish. The more He broke and gave out, the more there was to break and give out. As the food was all distributed, notice that the people had “as much as they wanted” and “they were filled.” Jesus did not merely have the power to generate a tiny morsel for everyone. He had the power to take what was offered to Him and make it into a satisfying meal for the entire multitude. Philip was concerned that 8 months’ salary would not provide even a little for everyone; but Jesus was able to produce much more than that from much less.

In fact, so abundant was His provision that there were leftovers. In keeping with custom, Jesus ordered that the leftovers be gathered. Jewish custom required anything larger than an olive not go to waste.[4] John only mentions the bread, but Mark tells us there was leftover fish as well. And the leftovers amounted to twelve baskets full. The disciples may have thought, as they distributed all of this food to others, “What about us? Is He going to let us starve?” But, they were not overlooked in the provision, as each had enough to supply their needs for several days. In fact, what they were left with was more than they started with! So unlimited is His power.

Before we move on, a couple of practical points can be drawn out. First, we must never underestimate the power of Jesus to meet our needs. Now, just because He can does not mean that He always will in the way that we think is best. How He chooses to meet our needs is up to Him. Our part is simply to trust Him to meet them in the way that He knows is best. Second, we must come to see that all that we have comes from His hands anyway. Just as Jesus received the bread and fish from the boy, and then blessed God with thanksgiving for it, so we must understand that no matter whose hands deliver the provision, it ultimately comes from the nail scarred hands of Jesus. Whatever good things come our way come as blood-bought blessings from Him, when all we deserve from Him is wrath. Also, when we see the Lord providing for others in abundance, we must not become bitter or envious. We should rejoice that they are receiving such a blessing, and trust that if we belong to Him, we will not be overlooked in the distribution of His provisions. Even if what we receive are leftovers, the leftovers of the Lord are far better than the main course of any other. And when we observe the meticulous care of the Lord, who preserves even the morsels of food that have fallen to the ground, we must delight in knowing that His love for us is even greater. He will preserve us as well, and not suffer those who are His own to be trampled underfoot or to waste away and perish. The morsels are gathered into baskets; His people are held securely in the very nail-scarred hands that provide for us.

This miracle reveals the infinite wisdom and the unlimited power of Jesus. But it was intended to do more than this. He Himself knew what He was intending to do. And ultimately He intended to reveal something even more important than His wisdom and power.

III. His saving purpose is revealed in His person.

I knew a pastor once who carried around a little card that he would leave in the doors of people he went to visit who were not at home. The card said, “I came to tell you about Jesus. Missing me is not a big deal; missing Him is.” I think of that when I think of this miracle. The point of it was not that the people got their bellies filled. If they missed the meal, it would not have been a big deal. But if they miss Jesus in this, it is a very big deal. It would be a tragedy to leave that hillside and rejoice over how delicious and satisfying the meal was, only to forget the splendor and glory of the One who provided it. You see, Jesus’ intention was not just to put food in their mouths. After all, this is the same Jesus who told the woman at the well, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again.” Jesus fed the people for now, but they will hunger later. His intent was to show them that they have a greater need that food cannot satisfy. But just as He is able to satisfy their hunger with food, so He can satisfy the greater need for all eternity. Once He meets the need of spiritual hunger in their lives, they will never hunger in that way again.

When the people had eaten their fill, v14 says that they proclaimed, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” It is interesting that, of all the Old Testament references to the Messiah, they chose this one. It comes from Deuteronomy 18, where Moses tells the people that in the future, the Lord will raise up a prophet like himself from among them. While every genuine prophet was a partial fulfillment of this promise, many rightly understood that the Messiah would be the ultimate fulfillment, and the final prophet sent from God. But what is interesting about it is that the people seem to be focused, not on the “prophet” aspect of the promise, but the “like Moses” aspect. Moses was considered to be the agent God used to bring the manna to the people in the wilderness, and so here was a new Moses providing the people with a new manna in the wilderness. And because of this, they sought to make Jesus their king. They didn’t say this, but they didn’t have to. Remember that John 2:24-25 says that Jesus knew all men and knew what was in man. He perceived that they wanted to take Him by force to make Him king. Surely a mob of 20,000 people could amass quite a force to do battle under their newly crowned King.

Now, notice that nowhere here do we read that they were wrong in their conclusions. In fact, Jesus was that Prophet who had been promised, and He was the King who was to come. The irony of this is that they could not make Him more of a King than He already was. The problem was that He had not come to be the kind of King that they wanted. In their minds, here was a King who could fill their bellies and rescue them from the oppression of Rome. But in reality, if that is all that Jesus came to do for them, they would not be much better off than they already were. The fact is that He came to satisfy a deeper need than physical hunger, and to deliver them from a greater bondage than that of Rome. He came to redeem them from sin and to reconcile them to God. This victory would not be accomplished by defeating a Roman army on the battlefield, but by defeating sin, death, and Satan on the cross. He would not “wield the spear and bring the judgment,” but rather He would “receive the spear” and “bear the judgment” as He died for man’s sin to save us.[5]

Jesus was unwilling to become what they wanted. He was steadfastly committed to being for them what they needed: not a commanding general, but a suffering Savior. So, rather than giving in to their corrupted desires, He withdrew from them alone, taking not even His disciples with Him as He ventured further up into the Golan Heights. Hear the words of John MacArthur as he applies this important truth to us all:

Jesus “comes to no man on that man’s terms. People cannot manipulate Him for their own selfish ends. … People do not come to Christ on their terms, so that He can heal their broken relationships, make them successful in life, and help them feel good about themselves. Instead, they must come to Him on His terms. … Even today, He continues to withdraw from those who seek Him for their own self-serving ends, just as He did from the crowd that sought to make Him king on their terms.”[6]
    
A few verses beyond our text here, Jesus will say, “You seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. … I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst. … Everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise Him up on the last day” (6:26, 35, 40).

What do you seek from Jesus? Do you seek in Him one who will always grant what you desire? One who will be for you what you want Him to be? Or do you come to Him in humble recognition of your true spiritual need – that you are a helpless sinner without hope before God unless Christ in His mercy rescues you through His cross? Are you seeking in Him a King who will reign over your own Kingdom and follow your agenda, or are you prepared to surrender to Him as King over His own Kingdom and yield to His agenda? If you enter into His Kingdom, you are committing yourself to One who is infinitely wise, who knows your needs before you ask them, and who meets those needs in the way that He deems best for you. He welcomes you and bids you to become part of His Kingdom work by His grace. In His unlimited power, He provides for you so that all that you have comes from His hand as a blood-bought blessing. He may be all you have; and when He is, then gloriously and graciously you find Him to be even more than you need. And as your King, He will carry you through the battles of this life, holding you in His grasp. And when this life and this world has done its very worst to you, bringing you at last into the throes of death, He offers you eternal life and promises to raise you up with Him on the last day. Oh that we might find all our longings, all our desires, and all of our hunger satisfied in Him and in Him alone as we turn to Him and walk with Him by faith.




[1] Merrill Tenney, "John" in The Expositors Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), 71.
[2] Cited in Andreas Kostenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 201 fn. 4.  
[3] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 270).
[4] Kostenberger, 220 fn. 20.
[5] Carson, 273.
[6] John MacArthur, John 1-11 (MacArthur New Testament Commentary; Chicago: Moody, 2006), 225-226. 

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