What brings true fulfilment in life? Once the basic needs of life are met, then what? For many it is simply the acquisition of more things, experiences, adventures, and novelties. For some they are looking to discover something new as the old becomes boring. There is a restlessness in the human experience, and it can be only filled with something eternal and not temporal. It can easily be summarized by the wisdom writer in the book of Ecclesiastes.
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.[i]
Choosing to live in a purely naturalist world, ‘the Teacher (NIV) plunged himself into immense projects, sex, work, pleasure, learning, reflection, unrelenting self-gratification. His conclusion could be the epitaph of secular humanism: ‘Meaningless! Meaningless! …Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!’ (Eccl. 1:2). There is, finally, only one way out of the Teacher’s despair: a return to the theistic universe in which he was reared. ‘Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them.”’ (12:1).[ii]
The purpose of God coming to our world in the person of Jesus was in order to give us life to its fullness. So, why do so few really experience this dimension of living? It begins when we encounter Jesus and surrender to His amazing love and purpose for our lives. It starts with knowing that we are loved and out of that, we begin living for a purpose greater than ourselves.
John’s purpose in selecting certain incidents and their message is to enable us to come to an important discovery regarding Jesus’ identity and what the right response to Him should be. When that happens in our lives it will bring about the kind of future that is worth living.
What we are going to discover in John chapter six is not just the nature of Jesus’ identity,
but is understanding the necessity of coming to Jesus on His terms, not just based on what we desire.
What Jesus demonstrates is the power He has to meet every need, even with our limited resources. We can all identify with having limited resources particularly when we need to meet a need and it is beyond what we thought was possible. The fact that Jesus more than met the need is designed to teach us that our focus must move beyond our materialistic world, or the world we see, which is all temporal. We need to move beyond simply trying to survive in life and move to experience what God really intends for us.
We can easily misunderstand the nature of eternal life as something futurist, in heaven, but the reality is that eternal life is a quality of life that we can enjoy now. So, how can we experience this new dimension of living? It begins by accepting the person who invites us to live a life of deep satisfaction in the depths of our being. This is a place where striving ceases and acceptance of who we are and what God is calling us to become develops into a new way of life.
THE FIRST THING IN EXPERIENCING THIS NEW DIMENSION OF LIVING IS ACCEPTING THE PERSON OF JESUS
What I mean by accepting Jesus is simply coming to Jesus based on who He is, on what He has done. When we come to Jesus on His terms and not ours, we really begin the great adventure of discovering His plan and purposes for our lives. Here is where we often make a misstep because what we need is not always what we think we want. We must move from our self-focused ambitions to a life of self-denial and a focus on serving others as an expression of our love and service toward God. It is this apparent irony where we experience genuine fulfilment as we live out God’s purposes for our lives. Jesus is now going to shatter the wrong assumptions and priorities of our lives in the feeding of the multitude.
A. The setting of the miracle.
This is the only time John has Jesus in the Galilean setting, which occurred in the first year of Jesus’ ministry. We gain a sense of the timing of this miracle because the second Passover is now mentioned as drawing near. It was also described as an isolated place from the other gospels. The other important criteria in John’s narrative is the mention of the great crowd that were ‘following him’ because of their needs. Our neediness is so often the reason why we first come to Jesus. This multitude had seen the signs of healing and therefore many who were sick came to receive a miracle from Jesus.
Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick.
Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples.
The Jewish Passover Festival was near.[iii]
Craig Keener relates the significance of the Passover being mentioned in the context of this miracle and the ensuing teaching.
The most important function of John’s mention of the Passover is thus that it sets the rest of the chapter in the context of the paschal lamb… John again invites us to understand Jesus’ whole ministry in terms of the passion leading up to the cross.[iv]
Possibly the greatest element that John is bringing to our attention which will be established in the dialogue to come is the behavior of the people. Keener makes this insightful observation that the most critical element of the setting, however, is ‘the behavior of the crowds in that they follow him (6:2).’ He goes on to say that it is not those who begin to follow Jesus, but those who persevere who remain His disciples as Jesus challenges them with what they consider an offensive and difficult remark that they do not understand, and some stop following Him. In other words, their initial faith is inadequate as they do not continue to grow in their relationship with Him.
From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.[v]
B. The insufficiency of human resources for humanity’s needs.
The great challenge today is the overwhelming need of people and the lack of resources, humanly speaking, to meet them all. We were never designed by God to live independently of Him. We have needs that are greater than meeting the physical aspect of our lives. Yet, even here in the very simplest need to have food to sustain us, we need God to provide for us.
When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?”
He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.
Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”[vi]
Here we have Jesus testing Philip with the question of where to supply the needs of this vast multitude. Philip’s responds is a mental calculation that leads to deducing the impossibility of meeting this enormous need with human resources alone. This helps us understand the magnitude of the miracle, but it also helps us understand a more fundamental question that we all wrestle with as followers of Jesus, ‘Why does God test us?’
C. Why are there tests of faith?
We read from Genesis that God asked Abraham to offer up Isaac as a test of his faith.
Some time later God tested Abraham.[vii]
It was only when Abraham obeyed that God intervened. In the Torah, Moses explains the nature of God’s testing. When God allowed false prophets and teachers to come and try to lead the people of God astray, we read in Deuteronomy.
If a prophet or one foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, ‘Let us follow other gods (gods you have not known) ‘and let us worship them,’
You must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The LORD your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul.[viii]
Tests reveal the condition of our hearts. Will we trust God despite the challenges that we are currently facing? Will our love for God help us to obey what God is saying regardless of what others are saying and doing?
Jesus here tests his disciples’ faith, to prepare them for larger tests to come (6:67-71).[ix]
D. God uses what we surrender to Him.
God can only use what we give Him. Are we willing to invest with what we have in God’s program and watch what God can do with what we have given? What is so amazing to me is the total commitment of this boy in surrendering his lunch. What are we withholding from God and how does that limit what can be done?
Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”
Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there).
Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.
When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.”
So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.[x]
We see the abundance that God provides, but also there is an encouragement that there should be no waste.
E. An inadequate confession.
After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.”[xi]
We do not gain an understanding of this text apart from knowing that John is referring to the words of Moses found in Deuteronomy 18:15-19, where Moses prophesied that a day would come when a prophet like himself would come and needed to be heard and responded to.
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.
I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name.[xii]
Doubtless Jesus’ provision of so much bread to so many people in the wilderness area prompted some to think of Moses’ role in providing manna.[xiii]
F. F. Bruce explains the significance of this confession by the people.
The Evangelist does not suggest that the people were wrong in identifying Jesus as the coming prophet; he does suggest that they were wrong in interpreting his significance on a material and external plane. When the true interpretation of his significance was made plain to them, most of them took offense.[xiv]
The problem with their confession about Jesus is the focus on the physical needs of people. They were deciding to embrace Jesus for what He could do for them physically. It is basically seeing life in terms of what can be done for us in the material realm.
Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.[xv]
When Jesus miraculously multiplied five barley loaves and two fish, so that they became sufficient to feed five thousand people with a surplus of broken pieces enough to fill twelve baskets, the Galilean crowd did what the Jews at Jerusalem had not been willing to do, though they did it from a wrong motive and with the wrong intentions. They accepted Him as that prophet that should come into the world (14), the prophet like Moses, who fed the hungry Israelites in the wilderness with the manna which came down from the sky. But in their enthusiasm, they would have done more than that. They wanted to seize Him and proclaim Him a king. From this fate Jesus at once escaped by withdrawing to the hills to pray in solitude, for had He consented to their wish, He would have completely frustrated the purpose of His mission. He had not come to satisfy men’s material needs but their deep-seated, if not always recognized, need of forgiveness, without which they could not enjoy eternal life.[xvi]
THE SECOND THING IN EXPERIENCING THIS NEW DIMENSION OF LIVING IS TRUSTING JESUS WHEN WE ARE IN THE STORMS OF LIFE
We can quickly question why God is allows storms to arise in our lives. It is interesting that John moves from the miracle of the five thousand to Jesus joining the disciples who had left by boat and now Jesus comes to them walking on the water.
When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them.
A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough.
When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened.
But he said to them, ‘It is I; don’t be afraid.[xvii]
The feeding of the five thousand, as it is called, is told in each of the gospels. Each writer is making a different point. John here tells us that the five thousand men wanted to make Jesus king by force. Jesus’ response was to withdraw and pray. The phrase that strikes me is that ‘they intended to come and make him king by force.’ They would have given him no choice, but Jesus, aware of the human heart, rejected that plan.
A. Here we see the sense of urgency in Jesus to get His disciples away from the crowd.
There is a sense that we also cannot be shaped by the pressures of our culture and its expectations.
Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him…[xviii]
The word ‘made’ is very forceful. Jesus compelled them to leave.
Jesus wants to be rid of the disciples so he can dismiss the crowd by himself. Why? …The disciples are not unsusceptible to the messianic contagion of the crowd. …the disciples are reluctant to leave. The apparent sense is that Jesus must expeditiously remove them from the scene in order to persuade the crowd to disperse peaceably and thus avert a revolutionary groundswell.[xix]
The greater danger for the disciples is to embrace a wrong understanding as to the mission of Jesus. Seeing the mission as simply the overthrow of the Romans is exactly what Jesus doesn’t want these men to embrace. There is already a proclivity to this idea in their hearts. Jesus is trying to teach them that the kingdom of God is a spiritual kingdom.
It is interesting that the focus of the text here is actually on the dismissal of the crowd. Jesus reveals that he is unlike most leaders. Jesus is not motivated or swayed by popular opinion. He realizes that their aspirations are not His. He knows that their approach to the oppression is not His approach to their pain and sorrow. He knows that a greater evil exists than political oppression. It is the oppression that attacks every human heart, the oppression of our own sin, and Jesus is prepared to give His life for this ultimate oppression and slavery.
The next action of Jesus is very telling. Jesus dismisses the crowd, then He engages in prayer.
After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.[xx]
B. We need to understand that Jesus prays for us at all times and sees the current challenges we are facing.
Mark points on three occasions that Jesus is seen praying in his gospel. James Edwards states:
Each prayer is at night and in a lonely place, each finds the disciples removed from him and failing to understand his mission and in each Jesus faces a formative decision or crisis. Following the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus reaffirms by prayer his calling to express his divine Sonship as a servant rather than as a freedom fighter against Rome.[xxi]
However, I believe that Jesus is also praying for His disciples. We pick up the story where Jesus is witnessing what is transpiring in the disciples’ lives. John simply states that the waters grew rough.
When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land.
He saw the disciples staining at the oars, because the wind was against them.[xxii]
Most writers in speaking of Jesus’ prayer is that he is praying for himself, in order to overcome
the challenge presented by the people. I’m not suggesting that He didn’t but what we need to understand is that Jesus wasn’t just concerned about Himself. Jesus was deeply concerned about His disciples that they would embrace the real mission that he had in mind for them.
To give you an idea of what was happening to the disciples, they had been rowing all night. The word that is translated ‘straining’ is actually a very powerful word and is usually translated ‘to torment.’
The word often means the torment of demon possession, but it can also refer to dire straits in other forms (contractions of childbirth, suffering in hell, or the torment of a righteous soul forced to live among the unrighteous).[xxiii]
In other words, they were struggling. Since Jesus had dismissed the crowd before sundown, Jesus didn’t come to the disciples until almost sunup, which meant they had been rowing for at least eight hours through the night in adverse weather. They were only in the middle of the lake about three and a half miles from shore. Jesus sees and comes to them, even as Jesus sees our struggles and comes to us.
B. The willingness to receive Jesus despite their fears.
When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened.
But he said to them, ‘It is I; don’t be afraid.
Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.[xxiv]
We need to remember that they were only halfway across, but the moment Jesus enters the boat and they immediately arrive at their destination. Many believe that this is another miracle. We can be assured that even though the storms are assailing our lives, ‘or when we are straining at the oars,’ that Jesus will get us safely through the storm to our destination.
James Edwards challenges us regarding our faith in Jesus.
Mark again reminds us that faith is not an inevitable result of knowing about Jesus, or even of being with Jesus. Faith is not something that happens automatically or evolves inevitably; it is a personal decision or choice.[xxv]
It is only when they were willing to take Jesus into the boat that the storm stopped and they reached their destination safely. We can easily ask ourselves in our storms, where is Jesus? Are we willing to invite him into our lives?
So what is the point that John is making? That it seems that we are willing to accept what Jesus offers in our need, but Jesus will not surrender to our demands. Jesus has His own agenda for us. We will never experience that new dimension of living or eternal life unless we accept Jesus on His terms. We need to recognize and accept him as Lord and Savior and then trust Him despite the challenges we will face in this temporal life.
[i] Ecclesiastes 2:10a, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[ii] D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 206.
[iii] John 6:1-4.
[iv] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 665.
[v] John 6:66.
[vi] John 6:5-7.
[vii] Genesis 22:1a.
[viii] Deuteronomy 13:1-3.
[ix] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John, Vol. 1, 665.
[x] John 6:8-13.
[xi] John 6:14.
[xii] Deuteronomy 18:15, 19.
[xiii] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 271.
[xiv] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), 146.
[xv] John 6:15.
[xvi] R. V. G. Tasker, John, TNTC, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960), 92-93.
[xvii] John 6:16-20.
[xviii] Mark 6:45.
[xix] James Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 196-97.
[xx] Mark 6:46.
[xxi] James Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 197.
[xxii] Mark 6:47-48a.
[xxiii] James Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 198.
[xxiv] John 6:19-21.
[xxv] James Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 201.