In this classic text, Jesus Christ teaches plainly why people come to him in true faith. This text more than any other was used to convince me that Jesus taught “reformed theology”, and that he plainly taught only those whom the Father has given to him will believe in him. There has not been a non-reformed exegesis of this text that I have ever found able to refute this. Most non-reformed folks are not able to walk through this text verse by verse and keep their system intact without horribly distorting the plain meaning of the text. And just like in John 5, this teaching of Jesus is preceded by a supernatural miracle of Christ in order to provide a physical analogy of the spiritual reality. Let’s get right to the text. We’ll first look briefly at the first 13 verses of this chapter which narrate the miracle that Jesus performed, which provides the basis for his teaching.
After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. 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. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” 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 6:1-13)
After Jesus was finished with an extended teaching about his authority to give life and judge, he finishes by stating, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:46-47) This connection between the end of chapter 5 and the beginning of chapter 6 is important to note. Jesus says that Moses wrote about Him, and then he goes onto perform two miracles, one which is a miraculous feeding of bread, which points us back to the manna in the wilderness, and his miraculous crossing of the sea, which points back to the crossing of the Red Sea.
Jesus goes to the other side of the sea and a large crowd is following him because they have seen the signs that he has performed on the sick. Here we have a group of people who follow Jesus in admiration and wonder when they hear about or see the signs that he is performing. This is in contrast to chapter 5 where we encounter the Jewish leaders who react in hostility and persecution when they hear or see Jesus perform a miraculous sign. One might think that this crowd who follows Jesus because of a positive response to his miraculous signs would be more open to believing in him than the hostile Jewish leaders, but we will soon see that this is not the case.
It says Jesus sat down on a mountain, which could be another connection to Moses, as Moses taught from the mountain called Sinai. We are told that the feast of Passover is near, which is clearly a connection to Moses, in that this is the event that brought the children of Israel out of Egypt. As we will see, Jesus is providing a greater fulfillment of that deliverance from slavery and feeding of his people in the wilderness than under Moses. Jesus looks up and tests Phillip by suggesting that they should go and buy bread for the huge crowd that had been following them. Phillip responds in shock by saying that not even 200 denarii would buy enough bread. A denarii was a day’s wages, so we are talking about 8 months worth of pay would be needed to feed all of these people. But then one of the 12 Apostles Andrew comes forward and points to a boy who has five loaves of bread and two fish, but Andrew himself expresses doubt as to what can be done with this little amount of food.
Jesus tells the people to sit down and he begins to distribute the bread and fish. Somehow all 5000 of the people in the group eat as much as they desire, and to top it off there are 12 baskets full of pieces of bread left over. Keep in mind the phrase that the people ate “as much as they wanted” because that idea will become important later in Jesus’ teaching about this miracle. So once again, Jesus performs a supernatural miracle and sign, which would have amazed those who witnessed it. Imagine being one of the 12 Apostles and seeing this! Put yourself in their shoes. What would you be thinking? But what does the text say that the crowd was thinking after seeing this sign?
When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. (John 6:14-17)
The people react to this sign by proclaiming Jesus to be “the Prophet” that was to come into the world. It is likely that the crowd was thinking of the prophecy given by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15, where he promises that God will raise up another prophet like himself. The people are in such a frenzy in response to this miracle that they are ready to make Jesus king by force! This would mean that this group was ready to proclaim themselves enemies of the Roman State and Caesar himself because they were so amazed by this sign! What do you think the Roman Empire would do when they heard that a crowd of 5000 people have proclaimed a new King? They would send their armies to crush that rebellion against Caesar! Jesus perceives that they want to make him king by force, so in response to this he withdraws to the mountain by himself, leaving his disciples behind. His disciples then wait until evening for Jesus to return, and when he doesn’t, they get into a boat and start across the sea. As we will see in a minute, the crowd basically blockades the shore waiting for Jesus because they assume that Jesus will have to rejoin his disciples at some point. Darkness sets in as the evening goes on, and the disciples are sailing across the sea as the crowd waits for Jesus to emerge.
The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. (John 6:18-21)
A strong wind comes and makes it difficult for the disciples to make their way across the sea. After rowing three or four miles, they look out to see Jesus walking toward them on the sea. Of course when they see a person walking on the water they are frightened. But Jesus reassures them by saying, “I AM, don’t be afraid”. This is literally what the verse says. Jesus literally says, “(ἐγώ εἰμι-ego eimi) IAM, don’t be afraid. This is the name of God as revealed to Moses in Exodus when he says, God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” (Exodus 3:14) This is simply one of the many times in the Gospel of John that Jesus refers to himself as “I AM”. When the disciples realized that it was Jesus they were glad to take him into the boat. (1) When Jesus got into the boat, immediately they reached the other side of the sea. Is the fact that they “immediately” reached the other side of the sea another miracle? It could be. Also, notice the reference to “the land”, which could also be a reference to the book of Exodus and the journey of the people of Israel across the Red Sea. What is clear is that Jesus walks on water and rejoins his disciples, and the crowd on the other side is unaware of it.
On the next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus. (John 6:22-24)
When the sun comes up the next day, we learn that the crowd has been blockading the shore all night waiting for Jesus to return. Notice the dedication of this crowd that they are willing to wait all night for Jesus to return. When Jesus doesn’t return, the crowd decides to get in other boats and sail across the sea to follow Jesus’ disciples. They probably reason that if they follow His disciples long enough, Jesus will eventually rejoin them. So they get into the boats and went to Capernaum. And notice what John says they are doing, they are “seeking Jesus”. This is very important to remember as we begin looking at the teaching portion of this text. These people are “Jesus seekers”, who are so caught up in the frenzy of Jesus’ miracles that they are willing to become enemies of the Roman State and sail across the sea to find him. This crowd is not hostile or neutral to Jesus. This is important to note because this same group who are described as “seekers”, will end up walking away from Jesus in unbelief when all is said and done.
When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” (John 6:25)
The people in the crowd are trying to figure out how in the world Jesus got across the sea. They had the shore blockaded, so they knew he didn’t get into a boat. So they are puzzled as to how Jesus rejoined his disciples. Once again, notice that this is a group of people who are so dedicated to seeking and following Jesus that they wait all night and sail across the sea just to find him. Their original plan at this point was to find Jesus’ disciples and follow them around until Jesus rejoins them. But to their shock, they find him already with his disciples. This must have just added fuel to the fire in terms of the crowd’s thought that Jesus was the messiah. Notice Jesus’ response to their seeking of him.
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 6:26-27)
These verses begin the “meat” of Jesus’ teaching in this section. It is very crucial that we follow the argument and structure of the next forty or so verses very carefully and not chop these verses into sections and thereby lose the meaning. Notice, the first thing that Jesus addresses is their “seeking” of him and the motive why they are seeking him. He makes a distinction between seeking him because they “saw signs” and seeking him because they “ate their fill”. Jesus makes the point that the crowd is really following him because they ate the bread, not because they have seen him do miracles. Is this the reason the crowd would have given for seeking and following Jesus? No. Back in verse 2 of this same chapter it is stated clearly that they are following him because they “saw the signs he was doing on the sick”, and obviously they were thrown into a frenzy by the recent sign they saw of Jesus feeding 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish. So the crowd is probably thinking, “What is this guy talking about? Of course we are following him because of the signs he is doing”.
Then why does Jesus do this? He is trying to take their focus off the “signs” themselves, and focus them on the meaning of the signs. He is moving their focus off of the miracles themselves and putting it upon their real need. As we will see, their real need is to be fed with the bread of life, which is Jesus himself. As in John 5, where the miracle of the paralyzed man being healed is a sign of the deeper reality of Jesus imparting spiritual life to the dead, so also the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 is meant to point to a deeper spiritual reality. Jesus is showing the people that the real issue is not the signs or miracles themselves, but what the miracles point to. Jesus also points beyond the physical bread that they ate to spiritual reality when he talks about “the food that doesn’t perish (or spoil)”. Jesus is not talking about the flour and oil that was baked into bread, but his is talking about an altogether different bread. Jesus says that this bread will endure to eternal life, as opposed to the bread he gave them on the other side of the sea, which will get moldy and spoil. He also says that he is the source of this bread, and he is able to give this bread because God the Father has set his seal of approval upon Him. Let’s see how this interaction unfolds.
Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” (John 6:28)
The crowd focuses in on only one aspect of what Jesus says; the fact that he said they should “labor” or work for the bread that does not perish. They in effect respond by saying, “Okay. You said we should labor for this bread. What labor should we do”? Notice the tendency of unregenerate men to focus upon the works they have to do, and not upon the Son of God standing right in front of them! Jesus clearly said that he would “give it to them”, but they miss that part completely and focus instead upon what they have to do to get it. This should signal to us right away that there is a spiritual problem with this crowd. How does Jesus respond to their question?
Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29)
Jesus’ response is to focus them back upon himself as the source of this bread. He answers their question by pointing them back to faith in Him. This comparison between “work” and “believe” is an intentional play on words by Jesus. He is not saying that faith is a work, in the sense that we do the work of faith to earn the bread that endures to eternal life. What he is doing is turning the tables on the crowd by taking their focus off of their “work”, and onto faith, and by consequence back onto himself. The people are stuck in looking to their own efforts and works in order to attain the bread of life, and Jesus is telling them to place their trust in Him and he will “give” them the bread. They do not have to earn it through “work”, but be “given” it by the Son of Man as they open their empty hands in faith. What is the crowd’s response to this clear statement of Jesus that they should believe in him?
So they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” (John 6:30-31)
Did you catch what just happened! What does the crowd go right back to in their thinking? Back to signs! Jesus had just led them away from focusing upon signs and placed and their focus upon the bread, and in so doing pointed them to Himself. But the crowd misses all this and goes right back to their obsession: signs. Their spiritual problem is becoming more apparent. They are not interested in Jesus Himself, they are interested in what signs he can perform. They are actually challenging Jesus to perform another sign, and this time the sign needs to be more spectacular than feeding 5000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fish. This time he needs to rain down manna from heaven for 40 years straight like Moses in the wilderness! They are in effect saying, “You fed 5000 of us one time yesterday, but Moses fed millions of people in the wilderness for 40 years straight”. And notice their reason for wanting Jesus to perform another sign. It is so they will “see” the sign, and then believe in Jesus. Don’t miss this point because it becomes central to understanding the exegesis of John 6. The crowd wants to “see” signs, and they think that this seeing will result in true faith. But Jesus is about to explain how simply “seeing” Jesus is not enough to bring someone to true faith in Him.
Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” (John 6:32-33)
Jesus then takes their focus away from Moses and the signs that he performed, and placed their focus back upon the source of the signs, which was God himself. Jesus once again, as he did in verses 26-27, is addressing the crowd’s obsession with miracles and signs, and redirecting their focus back to the meaning and source of the miracles. They are focusing on Moses, and his reputation in the Old Testament as a worker of miracles, which in turn validates the ministry of Moses as a prophet and sent by God in their eyes. They are putting this same type of thinking upon Jesus, and saying, “If you show us enough signs like Moses did, then we will certainly follow and believe in you”. But is this what happened in the book of Exodus? Did the people
of Israel believe in Moses and follow him with total faith? No! Instead they grumbled and complained against Moses time and time again. Even the sight of great and powerful signs like the 10 plagues in Egypt, the parting and crossing of the Red Sea and the raining down of Manna in the wilderness was not enough to create true faith in the people of Israel. So what makes this crowd think that they are any different? What makes them think that if they simply see Jesus do more miracles, then they will “see” these miracles and then believe in him? It is their wicked hearts that won’t simply take Jesus at his word, but must be convinced by miracles. See Luke 11:29
What is Jesus’ approach to dealing with this major spiritual blindness in this crowd? His approach is to point them away from Moses and the miracles, and point them to the source and power of the miracles: the Father. He says it is the Father who gives them the true bread from heaven. And also here is where Jesus clearly makes the connection between the bread and himself. The bread is not something external to Jesus, but the bread is Jesus. The people are still thinking in terms of external miracles and signs, like the sign they saw when the 5000 were fed, or the sign of feeding millions of Israelites in the wilderness with physical bread. But Jesus is talking about a person. He is talking not about physical bread, but “He” who comes down from heaven. He is pointing them to Himself and away from the miracles. Jesus’ point is that the miracles are meant to draw people to the source of the miracle and not the miracle itself. But clearly this crowd is not seeing that connection.
They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” (John 6:34)
Once again they totally miss the point! Jesus told them that the bread that comes down from heaven is a person. It is “He” who comes down from heaven. But the crowd immediately goes back to thinking in terms of a physical bread that they can eat, like the bread they ate the day before, or bread like their ancestors ate in the wilderness. Don’t miss what we are being taught by observing the spiritual blindness of this crowd. Unregenerate man by nature will look at anything and everything except Jesus himself. They will look at miracles, signs, wonders, healings, emotional experiences, works, etc…, but when it comes to Jesus Himself, they want nothing to do with him. This crowd would be happy if Jesus just kept stoking the fire of their excitement by performing miracle after miracle, but they are not content to simply look upon Jesus Himself and trust in Him. They are blinded by their obsession with miracles and works, and unable to simply come to Jesus. So instead they go back to asking for Jesus to give them bread. Now in a sense, there has been a bit of progress made since verse 28, because instead of wanting to “work” for the bread, they are asking for Jesus to “give” them the bread. And they also are now asking about the bread and not signs. However they are still not making the connection between the bread and Jesus. But now Jesus makes his point crystal clear so that there can be no mistake.
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. (John 6:35)
How could Jesus be any clearer than he is here? He is basically saying “Listen guys. Stop thinking in terms of physical bread that I will give to you! I am talking about myself. I am the bread that God the Father has rained down from heaven! Stop looking for physical bread and external signs! Look to me in and of myself.” Once again, the point Jesus is making here is that the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 was meant to point to him as the source of spiritual life. As the 5000 were fed with physical bread and they ate until they were physically full, so also Jesus offers himself as the bread of life so that whoever comes to him and believes in him will be spiritually full. But remember, the crowd had a physical hunger that made them desire to eat the bread on the other side of the sea, but the question here is whether or not they have the spiritual hunger to desire Jesus as the bread of life and feed upon him by faith.
In this verse, there is an important link between the words “come” and “believe” that will impact the understanding of later verses in this chapter, especially verse 44. It is important to note that there is a direct
parallel between the terms coming and believing. In other words, these terms could be switched and it wouldn’t change the meaning of either term. You could also say, “whoever believes in me shall never hunger and whoever comes to me shall never thirst”. Therefore the simple point is that “coming” also meaning believing, or having faith in Jesus Christ. So what is necessary from the human side of the equation to have our spiritual hunger and thirst satisfied? We must come to or believe in Jesus Christ. However, look what Jesus says about the crowd.
But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. (John 6:36)
The way for spiritual hunger and thirst to be satisfied is by coming to Jesus and believing in Him, not by coming to signs, miracles or other things external to Jesus. But what is the crowd doing according to Jesus? Are they coming to Jesus and believing in Him? No. Don’t miss this point. Jesus is about to explain why the people are seeing all of his signs but yet they do not believe in him. This is the point of John chapter 6 that many people miss: Jesus is about to explain the unbelief of the crowd. He is about to give an answer to the question that many people ask, “Why is it that a person can see Jesus do all these signs, hear about Jesus, be preached to and witnessed to over and over again, but yet they still do not believe in him?” What is the answer that most Christians in America will give 9 times out of 10? They will say, “It is because they have the ability to believe in Jesus, but they don’t make the choice to believe in him. The person could choose to believe, and God has given them the ability to make that choice, but they have to exercise their free-will and make the choice.” But is this the answer Jesus gives to the question of why people don’t believe in him?
Stay Tuned for Part 2!
1 I found an interesting link between this idea that “they were glad to take him into the boat” and Psalm 107:30. The immediate context of this psalm is the calming of a storm, and if you read the rest of the psalm it has some interesting parallels with John 6 such as feeding the hungry souls.