JOHN 6:21-23. THE CONTEXT
21(The disciples) were willing therefore to receive (Jesus) into the boat. Immediately the boat was at the land where they were going. 22On the next day, the multitude that stood on the other side of the sea saw that there was no other boat there, except the one in which his disciples had embarked, and that Jesus hadn’t entered with his disciples into the boat, but his disciples had gone away alone. 23However boats from Tiberias came near to the place where they ate the bread after the Lord had given thanks.
This chapter opens with the feeding of the five thousand (vv. 1-15)—and with Jesus walking on the water (vv. 16-21)—and the crowd realizing that Jesus has departed (vv. 22-23).
Verses 21-23 are draw attention to a miracle that speaks to Jesus’ identity. In the “walking on water” miracle, Jesus came to the disciples in their boat. They wanted Jesus to get into the boat, but “immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going” (v. 21)—the implication being that Jesus never did get in the boat—that he made his journey across the sea from beginning to end on foot.
The narrator adds that the crowd realized that there had been only one boat and that Jesus had not gotten in it (v. 22).
These facts constitute essential background for the question that the crowd will pose to Jesus in verse 25—”Rabbi, when did you come here?”
JOHN 6:24-25. RABBI, WHEN DID YOU COME HERE?
24When the multitude therefore saw that Jesus wasn’t there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats, and came to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. 25When they found him on the other side of the sea, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”
In verse 1, Jesus “went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee”—presumably the eastern (Gentile) side. Then in verse 16, the disciples “got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum,” on the northwestern shore. They rowed three or four miles, most of the way across the lake, when Jesus walked on water to join them. When he did so, “the boat reached the land toward which they were going” (v. 21)—Capernaum.
“When the multitude therefore saw that Jesus wasn’t there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and came to Capernaum, seeking Jesus” (v. 24). Surely only a few of the five thousand people actually cross the sea in their small boats. This verse doesn’t tell us why the crowd is seeking Jesus, but the last time we saw them, they were trying to make Jesus king (v. 15).
Finding Jesus, they ask, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” (v. 25). Much of this Gospel can be understood on two levels, and that is true of this question. The crowd means to ask only about the manner by which Jesus transported himself to Capernaum, but we learned in verses 22-23 that the crowd had noticed that there was only one boat and that Jesus had not gotten into it. Jesus got there by walking on the water—a miracle that speaks to his identity as the Son of God (Ridderbos, 223).
This Gospel has already told us that “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (1:14). The incarnation is the more profound answer to the question of when Jesus came here.
JOHN 6:26-27. DO NOT WORK FOR THE FOOD THAT PERISHES
26Jesus answered them, “Most certainly I tell you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled. 27Don’t work for the food which perishes, but for the food which remains to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For God the Father has sealed him.”
Jesus ignores their question and rebukes them for their superficial interest. “Most certainly I tell you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled” (v. 26). In its hierarchy of needs, the crowd is focused at stomach-level rather than spirit-level. At the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus satisfied their physical hunger, and now they are looking for more of the same.
The meeting of physical needs (food, clothing, shelter, money) never loses its appeal. Spiritual gifts, however, are a different story. They tend not to stir the same excitement as a new car or a promotion. That tends to change, however, when life pummels us and drives us to our knees. At that point, we learn what is really important.
“Don’t work for the food which perishes, but for the food which remains to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (v. 27a). Jesus challenges the crowd to raise their eyes to see beyond the physical realm. Earlier he said of himself, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and to accomplish his work” (4:34). Now he challenges the crowd to join him on his spiritual journey. We first heard these words, “perish” and “eternal life” in 3:16, where Jesus spoke of God loving the world and giving the Son so “that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”
Jesus is not saying that physical needs are unimportant. Elsewhere he speaks of food, drink, and clothing, assuring his listeners that “your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things,” and promising that, if they will seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness, “all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:32-33). Much of Jesus’ earthly ministry is focused on healing people’s physical ills. But now he calls the crowd to acknowledge their need for “food that endures for eternal life”—promising that the Son of Man will give them that food.
The people addressed Jesus as rabbi (v. 25), but he refers to himself as “the Son of Man” (v. 27). He could refer to himself as messiah, but that word would raise expectations that he has no intention of fulfilling. People expect the messiah to drive out the Romans and to make Israel great once again, but that is not the focus of Jesus’ ministry. The phrase, Son of Man, carries less political baggage.
“For God the Father has sealed him” (v. 27b). A seal authenticates authorship or ownership. Officials use a signet ring with a distinctive design to stamp an impression in wax on a document. Such a seal gives the document official status, just as a signature would do today. The bearer of such a document would be accorded the respect due the person who sealed it.
God the Father has set his seal on the Son, who acts as his emissary from heaven to earth (1:51; 3:13). Jesus does not tell us when this sealing took place, but perhaps it took place at his baptism, when the Spirit descended on him (1:33) and a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).
JOHN 6:28-29. THIS IS THE WORK OF GOD, THAT YOU BELIEVE
28They said therefore to him, “What must we do, that we may work the works (Greek: erga—plural) of God?” 29Jesus answered them, “This is the work (Greek: ergon—singular) of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
“What must we do, that we work the works (plural) of God?” (v. 28). Ever since the giving of Torah law at Mount Sinai (Exodus 20 ff.) the Jewish people have accepted obedience to the law as the approved way of serving God. Torah law is complex, however, and this crowd is asking Jesus to point them to the heart of the law—in much the same way that the young ruler will ask, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18). The crowd asks Jesus to identify the works (plural)—the truly critical laws—so that they might focus on those. They are asking Jesus to provide a faithful guide through the maze of laws and commentary that lies at the center of their religious practice.
In the Synoptics, Jesus summarizes the law for his listeners (Mark 12:29-31), but here he directs them away from the law and toward himself. “This is the work (singular) of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (v. 29).
While the crowd seemed confident that they could perform whatever works that Jesus might identify as critical, the fact is that obedience to the law is fraught with failure. As Paul put it, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Our spirits are willing, but our flesh is weak (Mark 14:38).
By inviting the crowd to believe in him, Jesus provides an achievable alternative to the hopelessly difficult task of law-keeping. They have to do only one thing—believe in the one whom God has sent. Paul stated much the same idea in these words: “We maintain therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28).
JOHN 6:30-31. WHAT SIGN ARE YOU GOING TO GIVE US?
30They said therefore to him, “What then do you do for a sign, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you do? 31Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness. As it is written, ‘He gave them bread out of heaven to eat.'”
“What then do you do for a sign, that we may see, and believe you? What work do you do?” (v. 30). Signs have been part of human life from the very beginning when God set a bow in the clouds as a sign of the covenant that God would never destroy the earth by flood again (Genesis 9:12 ff.), God has employed signs of various kinds—symbols or miracles that point beyond themselves to something greater. Thus circumcision is a sign of the covenant (Genesis 17:11). The unleavened bread of the Passover is a sign to remind Israel of the salvation that God afforded them in Egypt (Exodus 13:9). The sabbath is a sign (Exodus 31:13, 17). God expected the Israelites to respond to signs and wonders by believing, and was disappointed when they failed to do so (Numbers 14:11, 22; Deuteronomy 4:34).
The Exodus from Egypt and its accompanying miracles served as the greatest sign of all (Joshua 24:17). Particular signs included Aaron’s miraculous rod (Exodus 7:8-13)—the various plagues (Exodus 7:14—12:32)—the Passover (Exodus 12)—pillars of cloud and fire (Exodus 13:17-22)—crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 14)—bitter water made sweet (Exodus 15:22-26)—manna from heaven (Exodus 16)—and water from a rock (Exodus 17). These miracles not only saved Israel, but also served as signs to authenticate Moses’ leadership and to point to God’s love and special provision for Israel.
This crowd recognizes the radical nature of Jesus’ invitation and demands assurance that he has authority to advocate such a sweeping departure from their traditional religious practice. They want a sign to authenticate him as God’s prophet. For twelve centuries, they have observed Torah law—Mosaic law—God-given law—as the way to please God and to assure their own salvation. For centuries, their rabbis have devoted their best efforts to applying the law to every situation. Throughout Israel’s history, God has called Israel again and again to faithful observance of the law, and has called prophets to help them to understand it.
Now this thirty-something-year-old uncredentialed product of an undistinguished father and an even less distinguished town is suggesting that they abandon their long-held allegiance to the law and stake their lives on him. No wonder they want to authenticate his authority in some unmistakable, compelling way! To follow him otherwise would be the height of recklessness. However, the crowd seems to have lost sight of the fact that Jesus has just now authenticated his Godly connection by feeding five thousand (or more) people with a boy’s lunch!
“Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness. As it is written, ‘He gave them bread out of heaven to eat'” (v. 31). They ask for a sign (v. 30), and cite manna as the kind of sign that they expect (v. 31). They quote scripture, but imprecisely—”He gave them bread from heaven to eat” (v. 31) is an amalgam of several scriptures (Exodus 16:4; Nehemiah 9:15; Psalms 78:24; 105:40).
Moses’ gift of manna authenticated his status as prophet. If Jesus expects this crowd to accept him as a Moses-like prophet, he must give them a Moses-like sign. They have seen false prophets come and go, and want rock-solid proof that Jesus is not one of them.
Their demand represents the response of ordinary people faced with a new situation. Jesus has thrown them off-center, and they are struggling to regain their balance. So they establish the criterion that Jesus must meet if they are to believe, and establish themselves as judge and jury. If Jesus will give them a sign, then they will be able to decide whether or not to believe in him.
Their vision seems astonishingly myopic, given that Jesus has just fed the five thousand (or perhaps ten or twenty thousand including women and children) with a few loaves and fishes (vv. 1-15), but Jesus’ miracle pales when compared to Moses’ miracle. Jesus fed a few thousand people on one occasion; Moses fed the whole nation every day for forty years. Jesus gave the crowd ordinary bread; Moses gave Israel bread from heaven. The crowd has seen Jesus perform a miracle, but now they raise the bar to demand that he match Moses’ miracle.
There is a lesson here for us. We, too, suffer from spiritual myopia. Wonderful things happen in our presence every day, but we fail to see them or take them for granted. Martin Luther observed:
“God’s wonderful works which happen daily are lightly esteemed,
not because they are of no import
but because they happen so constantly and without interruption.
Man is used to the miracle that God rules the world and upholds all creation,
and because things daily run their appointed course, it seems insignificant,
and no man thinks it worth his while to meditate upon it
and to regard it as God’s wonderful work,
and yet it is a greater wonder
than that Christ fed five thousand men with five loaves
and made wine from water.”
God feeds billions daily, but we take notice only when we miss a meal—or when the feeding takes place under dramatic circumstances. We, too, say, “Give us a sign, Jesus. Do something spectacular, so we can believe in you.” Sometimes we even present Jesus with trivial tests—”Find me a parking place, Jesus, and then I will believe.”
JOHN 6:32-34. THE BREAD OF GOD GIVES LIFE TO THE WORLD
32Jesus therefore said to them, “Most certainly, I tell you, it wasn’t Moses who gave you the bread out of heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread out of heaven. 33For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world.”
34They said therefore to him, “Lord, always give us this bread.”
Jesus makes a half-dozen points here:
• It was God, not Moses, who gave the manna (v. 32).
• The manna was not the true bread from heaven (v. 32), but was “a type of the true bread that God, who is in a unique sense Jesus’ Father, now gives” (Smith, 153).
• It isn’t that the Father “gave” (past tense), but that the Father “gives” (present tense) (v. 32). Jesus is the gift—the bread of life.
• The bread of God is incarnational—comes down from heaven (v. 32). That is in keeping with the Prologue of this Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. The Word became flesh, and lived among us. We saw his glory, such glory as of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:1, 14).
• The bread of God gives life (v. 33). The manna sustained physical life, but the true bread of God gives eternal life (see 3:16).
• The scope of the life-giving “bread out of heaven” is broad, embracing the whole world (v. 33; 3:16). Manna gave life to the Israelites, but only temporarily—the wilderness Israelites died centuries earlier. The true bread of life gives eternal life—and gives it to the whole world—not just to Israel.
The crowd responds, “Lord, give us this bread always” (v. 34). Their answer parallels that of the Samaritan woman, who said, “Sir, give me this water” (4:15a). Both sound as if they are asking Jesus for a spiritual gift, but the Samaritan woman added, “so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water” (4:15b). Her understanding was only superficial. We suspect that the same is true of this crowd.
JOHN 6:35. I AM THE BREAD OF LIFE
35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will not be hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.”
The crowd failed to understand when Jesus spoke of “the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world” (v. 33), so Jesus makes his meaning clear. “I am the bread of life,” he says (v. 35).
This is the first of a series of “I AM” (Greek: ego eimi) sayings in this Gospel that remind us of the burning bush story. When Moses asked God his name, God replied, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you’ ” (Exodus 3:14). “I am,” of course, can be simple self-identification, but in John’s Gospel it clearly means more. The “I AM” sayings in this Gospel are as follows:
• “Ego eimi he” (4:26)
• “Ego eimi the bread of life” (6:35).
• “Ego eimi the living bread” (6:51).
• “Ego eimi the light of the world” (8:12; 9:5).
• “Before Abraham came into existence, Ego eimi“ (8:58).
• “Ego eimi the sheep’s door” (10:7).
• “Ego eimi the door” (10:9).
• “Ego eimi the good shepherd” (10:11).
• “Ego eimi the resurrection and the life” (11:25).
• “Ego eimi the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6).
• “Ego eimi the true vine” (15:1).
These “I am” sayings show us the many facets of the Jesus-gift.
“He who comes to me will not be hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (v. 35b). In their forty-year trek through the wilderness, God fed the Israelites manna—teaching them to rely on God for their sustenance. The deeper lesson was “that man does not live by bread only, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of Yahweh” (Deuteronomy 8:3). Now Jesus makes a similar claim for himself. He will provide for the deepest needs of those who believe in him.
Jesus’ comments will elicit complaints from “the Jews,” who will say, “Isn’t this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How then does he say, ‘I have come down out of heaven’?” (v. 42). We should not wonder that they complain. “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said wouldn’t be a great moral teacher. He’d either be a lunatic—on the level with a man who says he’s a poached egg—or else he’d be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse” (C. S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity).
Paul speaks of the offense (Greek: skandalon—stumbling block) of the cross (Galatians 5:11), and the cross is surely a skandalon to anyone who expects God to behave in keeping with his stature. But the incarnation is also a skandalon—perhaps an even greater skandalon.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan