Feeding a Multitude
We come now to the fourth miracle recorded by John, in which Jesus feeds a multitude. This miracle took place near what we call today the Golan Heights. Read 6:1-14 (6:10 is an eye-witness comment; Jesus fed them through his disciples [Mk. 6:41]).
This was a bona fide miracle. The "miracle" was not the boy’s generosity shamed many of the rest into sharing1 —this makes all 4 gospel authors liars. Jesus supernaturally multiplied five dinners rolls and two sardines to feed as many as 10,000 (6:10 says there were about 5000 men) hungry people to the point that they pushed their plates away. This is why the people responded the way they did (6:14): "If he can feed us this way, he can also defeat the Romans" (6:15).
But while it was a real miracle, it was more than a miracle. Like all seven of the miracles John records, this miracle helped real people by meeting their real physical needs (hunger). But it was also far more than that; it was a "sign”—an "attesting miracle," meaning that its ultimate significance is not in the miracle itself, but in what it reveals symbolically about Jesus' unique identity and ability to meet humanity's spiritual needs (read Jn. 20:31). In this case, Jesus clearly explains the meaning of this "sign" when he meets these people the next day at the synagogue in Capernaum.
Read 6:25. Jesus' response (6:26) cuts through their small talk to the heart of the issue. They haven't tracked him down because they seek understanding of the spiritual significance of yesterday’s miracle, but because they want another free lunch. They don't view him as the REVEALER OF TRUTH, but rather as a MOBILE McDONALD'S. In the dialogue that follows, Jesus keeps trying lift their eyes to see the meaning of the miracle, while they keep trying to extract another free lunch. Jesus begins by giving them a solemn warning and a fantastic offer . . .
The Warning: "Don't try to satisfy spiritual hunger through non-spiritual means."
Read 6:27a. Is this a prohibition against working for a living so they can provide groceries for their families? Is Jesus reminding them to be sure to buy bread with preservatives so it doesn't mold quickly? No, he is speaking figuratively to warn them (and us) against the tendency to try to satisfy spiritual hunger through non-spiritual means.
We are physical beings and we live in a temporal world, so we need food, rest and shelter. We also “need” recreation, comfort, work accomplishment, romantic relationships, aesthetic and sensual pleasure, etc. But this is not all that we are. We are also spiritual beings—created in God's image and needing above all else a personal relationship with God. This relationship with God is the only integration point around which all these other things find their rightful place. And if this relationship is not in place, all of the perishable food in the world is not enough to keep the hunger at bay.
This is why no amount or combination of this "food" will ever satisfy this spiritual hunger. This is why the American Dream inevitably turns into the American Nightmare. This is why the basic ideology behind American advertising is a soul-destroying lie. This is why “mid-life crises” (“Is this all there is to life?”) are spiritual crises (QUOTES2). And so Jesus, out of love, issues this warning and immediately follows it with an amazing offer . . .
The Offer: "I'll give you spiritual food that will fully satisfy your spiritual hunger."
Re-read 6:27b. Jesus is echoing an Old Testament passage with which they were familiar (read Isa. 55:1-3a). He is saying, "I'll give you spiritual food that truly satisfies and lasts forever." But they are so intent on getting more “perishable bread” that they don’t understand his obvious meaning. (Sound familiar?)
Read 6:28. Jesus is offering this food as a gift, but they think they must earn through their good works. Read 6:29. Jesus says they don’t need to earn it; they need only believe in him (we'll come back to this later).
Read 6:30. This is a pretty stupid question, since they had just seen him perform a miracle so great that they wanted to make him King. What they really want is another free lunch (read 6:31): "Hey, Moses was the BREAD MAN every day—how about it? What have you done for me lately?"
But Jesus refuses to do another miracle feeding, because this would only reinforce their wrong mind-set. This is why God in his love often refuses to grant our requests for things like the LOTTERY, a NEW LOVER, that GREAT PAYING JOB, etc.—because this would only help us keep looking in the wrong places . . .
Instead, he continues to correct their thinking (read 6:32,33). Moses only gave their ancestors manna, which perpetuated physical life (bios). But God is offering them true spiritual ("life" is zoe) food—the very life of God itself.
Their request (6:34) is still for temporal “bread,” but it gives Jesus the opportunity to make a block-buster claim . . .
The Claim: "I am the sole source of spiritual life."
Read 6:35. Bread was the essential food of the ancient Mid-East—just as it is today in many cultures. No bread, no physical life. Jesus isn’t saying just that he brings the bread of (spiritual) life; he is the bread of life.
This is the explanation of the "sign." Just as Jesus alone could provide them with physical food to satisfy their physical hunger yesterday, so Jesus alone can provide the world with spiritual life to satisfy our spiritual hunger.
What a breath-taking claim! Notice he does not say: "I am one of many valid breads of life." He says: "I and I alone am the bread of life." Jesus claims that he himself is the sole source of spiritual life, that he alone fully satisfies our spiritual hunger and thirst. This claim forces us to deal with him differently than any other religious founder, because none of them has ever made such a claim as this (e.g., BUDDHA; MUHAMMAD). Why is Jesus the bread of life?
Because he alone is God-incarnate (Jn. 5:21). Unlike other religious founders, who claimed only to have discovered a way to God, Jesus claimed to be God and therefore able to directly impart spiritual life to others.
Read 6:51. He speaks of two breads—or actually, two reasons why he is the bread of life. Jesus is the life of God made available to us—and (“also”) he is available to us because he will (future tense) “give his flesh.” This is the language of substitutionary sacrifice.
It was the Feast of Passover (6:4). Review the setting and instructions for the Passover Feast. This ritual symbolized our dilemma (deserving God’s judgment because of our sins) and God’s solution—that he would one day provide a blameless Substitute whose death would pay for our sins (cf. Isa. 53).
Jesus is declaring himself to be the true Passover lamb (see also Mk. 10:45; Lk. 22:19,20). His perfect life qualified him to die in our place, to pay for our sins against God—so that we can receive God’s spiritual, eternal life as a free gift. So Jesus is the sole source of spiritual life because he alone pays for our sins.
Once again, they don't get it. Read 6:52: "Great, we come out for another fish sandwich and the guy starts talking cannibalism." "Come on, Gladys. We're gonna find another church." But Jesus presses his claim—and the condition for receiving his offer . . .
The Condition: "You must personally receive me and my death for your sins."
Read 6:53-58. What does it mean to eat his flesh and drink his blood? Let's be clear first about what it doesn't mean:
It does not refer to animistic cannibalism (get victim’s vitality & valor by eating his heart). This wide-spread religious idea is foreign to the whole Bible. Furthermore, Jesus has been speaking figuratively throughout this whole passage.
It does not refer to communion (receive spiritual life through ongoing observance of Eucharist). There is no mention of communion in the context. To import it into the passage is eisogesis, not exegesis. Furthermore, the aorist tense in 6:53 suggests that this is once-for-all rather than ongoing.
Rather, Jesus is explaining what it means to believe in him. He has already made it crystal clear that the condition for receiving spiritual life is to believe in him (see 6:29,35,47). Comparing 6:40 to 6:54 makes it clear that believing in him is equivalent to eating his flesh/drinking his blood. Jesus uses this graphic image to explain what kind of belief he is talking about. He's saying it is not enough to mentally assent that he is the Messiah, or that he alone contains the life of God, or that he died for our sins. He is saying that we must personally receive him and his death for our sins.
Just they had to eat the bread the day before. Would it have been enough for them to calculate the calories and carbs—and “believe” that that bread could meet their nutritional needs—but not actually receive it into their bodies? No! They had to personally eat the food so that its life could be assimilated into their bodies.
Just as the Israelites had to eat the Passover lamb. This was the way God called on them to express their belief that he would deliver them from his judgment through this sacrifice. They had to personally appropriate this sacrifice.
In the same way, it is not enough for you to merely “believe” that Jesus is God's Son, able to forgive you and give you spiritual life now and eternal life in the future. If your belief stops here, you will miss out on the bread of life! You must personally receive Jesus into your heart and his death for your sins. Only in this way can the life of God be assimilated into your being.
Have you ever made this decision? You’ve got everything you need to do so. You know “perishable bread” doesn’t satisfy, your heart longs for the “spiritual bread” Jesus offers, you understand that his death already paid the purchase price. All that stands between you and experiencing Jesus filling your soul is this decision. Simply call out to him and ask him for it . . .
Jesus is the supreme multi-tasker. He could simultaneously teach the multitudes and train his disciples. Now that you know the meaning of this “sign” to the multitudes, what do you think it was supposed to teach his disciples?
Jesus could have materialized the food directly to the multitudes, but he chose to feed them through the disciples. This is a picture of God's plan to give the bread of life to a lost world through Christians.
In the midst of their own hunger, Jesus calls on the disciples to feed the multitude. As they do so, they discover that there is abundant food for them (12 large baskets - kophinoi). Jesus is teaching us that it is as serve others (especially share the gospel)—even in the midst of our own needs—we will find him meeting our needs and filling us with his life.
Does anyone know where Jesus taught this explicitly to his disciples (see Jn. 4:34)?
Has anyone experienced this lately?
1 See William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1958), pp. 114,115.
2 " . . . you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you." Augustine, Confessions, Book 1, p. 43. "What is it, then, that this desire and this inability proclaim to us, but that there was once in man a true happiness of which there now remain to him only the mark and empty trace, which he in vain tries to fill from all his surroundings, seeking from things absent the help he does not obtain in things present? But these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself." (Pascal, Pensees, VII, 425.
Next Week: John 9:1-41 - Jesus Heals a Man Born Blind
Copyright 2004 Gary DeLashmutt