Thursday, November 17, 2011

Feeding the 5,000 (John 6:1-36)

Jesus feeds the multitude.

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?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do (John 6:6).

Here Jesus and the disciples face a seemingly impossible situation. It is evening, there is a multitude of people who will need to eat (no doubt the disciples themselves were also hungry), and they have no means of feeding them. Philip reports that two hundred denarii would not buy enough food for each person just to get a bite. To put that into perspective, one denarius was, in Biblical times, an average laborer’s wage for one day.[1] To put that into some kind of perspective; that would be like saying they needed $32,000 to buy the absolute minimum amount of bread to feed the crowd (assuming an average hourly wage of $20/hour, multiplied by an eight hour day, multiplied by 200 for the number of denarii). However you calculate it, they were talking about an immense sum of money. Even if they had the money to buy food for all these people, there would have been no place at which to buy it, as they were sitting on the side of a mountain. Jesus, we are told, already knows how the problem will be solved.

This seems like kind of a dirty trick to play on Philip. If Jesus already knew what he was going to do, why would he feel the need to test Philip? The Greek word translated “test” in this verse may also be translated “tempt”, which makes it seem all the more as though Jesus is making sport of Philip and the disciples.[2] Knowing Jesus’ mission to seek and save the lost[3], however, it is safe to assume that this is not what Jesus is doing. To the contrary, by testing the disciples Jesus is endeavoring to strengthen their faith in him. This is not the first instance of such testing to strengthen faith we encounter in the Bible. God tested Abraham in a similar way.[4]

In Genesis 22 God tells Abraham to take his only son Isaac and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. Isaac was the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham that God would make him into a great nation and subsequently bless all nations through him. It probably didn’t make much sense to Abraham at the time for God to require the death of Isaac, as Isaac’s death would seemingly nullify God’s promise. Abraham, however, responded in faith to God’s command and passed the test. When asked by Isaac where the lamb for the burnt offering was, Abraham replied, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”[5] Abraham conceded that God was in control of the situation and that God knew what he was doing, even if his human reason said that this didn’t make any sense. Abraham’s faith was rewarded. The disciple’s weakness, in contrast to the faith of Abraham, is made evident in their response to Jesus.

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. 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. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten (John 6: 10-13).

Jesus demonstrates, by feeding the 5,000 with five barely loaves and two fish, that he is in control of this, and every, situation. I once heard a homily preached on the feeding of the 5,000 that was truly amazing to me. The priest, to put it in a nutshell, said that as all the people gathered, it became evident to the disciples that no one had food and that they were unable to provide it for them. As Jesus preached to the multitude, however, the people were moved by his message of peace and love that, by supper time, the selfish people were eager to share the provisions they had secretly brought with them with their neighbors. That was how wise Jesus fed the 5,000 – by guilting the people into sharing what they were selfishly hoarding for themselves.

This explanation is bewildering to those who believe that the Bible is the inerrant, divinely inspired word of God for several reasons. Theologians who have a more liberal interpretation of scripture, and wish to dispense with all things supernatural in the Bible, love this interpretation. What this misguided preacher was actually teaching, whether he realized it or not, was that salvation is man’s work. The people would have gone hungry if they continued in their selfishness. By pooling their resources, however, they were all able to have enough to eat. All it took was a few words from that good teacher, Jesus. By looking at this passage in such a manner, we make Jesus out to be merely a man with nice teachings. He might have said words to the people, but it was the people who made the final decision to share their bread. It was not provided by Our Lord. Human hearts like to hear such nonsense, because it gives us the false sense that we are in control of our spiritual destiny. That is not, however, what Jesus teaches.

The pages of Holy Scripture demonstrate that God gives life by his word. Jesus illustrates this point with a living parable by his miraculous feeding of the 5,000. He explains the significance of what he had done the next day to the disciples and to the people who followed him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal” (John 6: 25-27).

The people were awed by the miracle they witnessed, and they went after Jesus. They did not go, it seems, because they believed in Jesus as a result of the sign they saw. They were interested in him as if he were a slight-of-hand magician. They wanted to see another trick. This is evidenced by the question they ask Jesus in verse 25. They knew he didn’t get into the boat with his disciples, and they wanted to know about the trick Jesus did. Jesus ignores their question about him, however, and responds with a statement focused on them.[6] He basically tells them that by demonstrating that he can sustain their bodily needs of daily bread, he was providing them with a sign that he was the fulfillment of their spiritual needs as well. The people ask what they must do. It is a logical human question. If I am to receive this food that endures to eternal life (v. 27), surely there is something I must do to earn it. Jesus, the bread of life, gives his answer.

Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6: 28-29).

Jesus singled out one necessary work: faith in Him, which is God’s gift.[7] Upon receiving Jesus’ answer, one they did not like or understand, they demanded a sign. They wanted Jesus to perform a miracle for them as Moses had done.[8] Surely Jesus wasn’t greater than Moses. This, however, is further illustration that, even after witnessing all that Jesus had done up to this point, they had not understood the sign that was being presented to them – that Jesus was the Messiah. Lenski writes:

“These people failed to see what was so gloriously pictured to them, the divinity of Jesus, his ability to feed their souls as he had fed their bodies, his Savior qualities as the Messiah sent of God. They had held the wonder bread in their hands, had eaten it with their mouths, but had never understood its true meaning with their hearts.[9]

Jesus corrects them once again. They focused on God’s instrument – Moses – rather than on the true source of the manna from heaven. Jesus makes a distinction between physical food and spiritual food, and then tells them, through the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and by his words, that he is the source of both physical and spiritual nourishment.

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe” (John 6: 35-36).

Here again Jesus reveals exactly who he is to the people. He does this in two ways. Jesus uses the phrase “I am” in referring to himself as the bread of life, recalling God’s name and applying it to himself. His words also recall those of the prophet Isaiah, who wrote:

"Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live; and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David. Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples. Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know, and a nation that did not know you shall run to you, because of the LORD your God, and of the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you. Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55: 1-9).

Jesus is telling these people that he is the Servant, whose words Isaiah records. He calls us, and all people, to repentance and to focus on what we really need – spiritual healing and nourishment. That isn’t to say that God doesn’t care about our temporal needs and difficulties. Of what importance is “daily bread”, though, to people who are starving to spiritual death? This is why he tells us not to labor for the food that perishes. Jesus illustrates for us by his feeding of the 5,000 that God provides for our earthly needs without us even having to ask him for such provision.[10] He wants us all to focus, however, on being fed with the bread of life, the food that endures to eternal life. We do that by believing in him; by turning from our sinful ways and living as the new creation we now are in him;[11] by gathering together around word and sacrament;[12] and by proclaiming his Gospel to everyone.[13]


End Notes

[1] Matthew 20:2; John 12:5
[2] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel, (Columbus, Ohio: The Wartburg Press, 1942), 432.
[3] Luke 19:10
[4] Genesis 22:2
[5] Genesis 22:8
[6] Lenski, 450
[7] The Lutheran Study Bible, English Standard Version, Verse 6:29 notes, p. 1792; Ephesians 2: 8-9
[8] Exodus 16: 13-15
[9] Lenski, 450
[10] Matthew 6: 25-34
[11] 2 Corinthians 5: 16-18; Ephesians 4: 17-24
[12] Acts 2: 42-47
[13] Matthew 28: 19-20