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John 6:1-21 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN, CHAPTER 6. GALILEE, JERUSALEM, GALILEE, JERUSALEM
The end of chapter 4 finds Jesus in Galilee. Chapter 5 moves to Jerusalem. Chapter 6 (our reading for this week) moves back to Galilee. In chapter 7 Jesus will return to Jerusalem.
It would simplify the geography to put chapter 6 between chapters 4 and 5, but this author is more concerned with theology than geography. Jerusalem will be the place of Jesus’ death during a subsequent Passover. There he will break bread with the disciples in the Upper Room, temporarily closeted away from his enemies. Here, at Passover, far from Jerusalem, he will break bread with thousands on a mountaintop.
This week’s Gospel lesson includes two stories. The first (vv. 1-15) recounts the feeding of the five thousand. The second, (vv. 16-21) tells of Jesus walking on water. Both the miraculous feeding of bread from heaven and the miraculous crossing of the sea are reminiscent of the Exodus, where God fed the people manna and allowed them to escape from the Egyptian soldiers by passing through the waters of the Red Sea.
JOHN 6:1-4. JESUS WENT UP INTO THE MOUNTAIN, AND SAT THERE
1After these things, Jesus went away to the other side of the sea of Galilee, which is also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2A great multitude followed him, because they saw his signs which he did on those who were sick. 3Jesus went up into the mountain, and he sat there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.
“After these things, Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee” (v. 1a). The “other side” is probably the eastern side, across from Tiberius. Wherever they are, the disciples will get in their boat and depart for Capernaum, at the north end of the sea, when evening comes (6:16).
“also called the Sea of Tiberias” (v. 1b). The Sea of Tiberias is a name found in the Gospels only here and at 21:1 (the Sea of Galilee is the usual name). The name comes from the city of Tiberius which was built on the west shore of the sea by Herod Antipas, completed in 20 A.D. and named in honor of Tiberius Caesar, who reigned as the Roman emperor from 14-37 A.D. The sea is also known as Gennesaret (Luke 5:1).
“A great multitude followed him, because they saw his signs which he did on those who were sick” (v. 2). In Galilee, Jesus healed the son of a royal official (4:46-54). In Jerusalem he healed a man who had been sick for 38 years (5:1-18). This verse suggests that there were additional healings in Galilee during this visit.
“they saw his signs which he did on those who were sick “ (v. 2b). We would probably call these miracles, but John calls them signs—an important word that occurs 17 times in this Gospel. The usual listing of signs includes:
1. The wine at Cana (2:1-11).
2. The healing of an official’s son, also performed at Cana (4:46-54).
3. The healing of a sick man (5:1-9).
4. The feeding of the five thousand (6:1-14).
5. Walking on the sea (6:15-21).
6. The healing of the man born blind (9:1-34).
7. The resurrection of Lazarus (11:38-44)
A sign is something that points to a reality beyond itself. In both Old and New Testaments, “signs” or “signs and wonders” crack open heaven just a bit to give earth-bound people a glimpse of Godly truths (see Genesis 1:14; 9:13-17; Exodus 7:3; Deuteronomy 4:34; 6:22; 7:19; 26:8; 34:11; Jeremiah 32:20-21).
People responded positively to these signs (6:2, 14; 7:31; 10:41-42; 12:18-19), but Jesus was skeptical of those whose faith was sign-based (2:23-25; 4:48).
“Jesus went up into the mountain, and he sat there with his disciples” (v. 3). These words signal that something important is about to happen. Mountains are places where God and God’s will are revealed—where God gave the Torah to Moses (Exodus 19)—where God defeated the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18)—where Jesus gave his greatest sermon (Matthew 5-7)—and where he will be transfigured (Matthew 17; Mark 9; Luke 9).
This reference to the mountain is one of a series of Exodus/Moses images in this chapter. Others include crossing the sea (v. 1), the mention of the Passover (v. 4), God’s provision of bread (manna) (v. 11), the gathering of fragments (v. 12), the mention of manna (vv. 31-32, 49-50), and the mention of “the bread which came down out of heaven” (v. 58). Jesus is like Moses, but is greater than Moses.
“Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was at hand” (v. 4). The mention of the Passover is another signal that something important is happening. This Gospel tells of three Passovers:
•The first was in Jerusalem, where Jesus cleansed the temple at Passover (2:13-25). In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the cleansing takes place near the end of Jesus’ ministry, but this Gospel reports it as taking place immediately after the first of Jesus’ signs, a miracle of abundance, the making of wine from water at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee (2:1-11).
• Now, at Jesus’ second Passover, we have another miracle of abundance, the feeding of the five thousand (6:1-14), a miracle like unto God’s gift of manna in the wilderness—a linkage that Jesus will make clear in the Bread of Life discourse (6:22-40) that follows the feeding of the five thousand.
• The story of Jesus’ third Passover will require eight chapters for its telling (11:55 – 19:42), and will include the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion as well as the crucifixion itself. The Passover celebrates the Exodus, with the Passover lamb commemorating the salvation of the Israelites from the death angel. In this Gospel, Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29, 36—see also 1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Peter 1:18; Revelation 5:12). Just as the Passover lamb saved the lives of the Israelites, so the Lamb of God has come into the world “that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (3:16).
JOHN 6:5-9. WHERE ARE WE TO BUY BREAD?
5Jesus therefore lifting up his eyes, and seeing that a great multitude was coming to him, said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?” 6This he said to test (Greek: peirazon) him, for he himself knew what he would do. 7Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that everyone of them may receive a little.” 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these among so many?”
Unlike Matthew 14:14 and Mark 6:34; 8:2, this Gospel does not mention Jesus’ compassion for the crowds, who are like sheep without a shepherd. In this Gospel, this story has to do with faith in Jesus rather than his compassion.
The story of the Feeding of the Five Thousand is also found in Luke 9:10-17, making it the only miracle story to be found in all four Gospels.
“Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?”(v. 5). Jesus addresses his question to Philip, whose home is in nearby Bethsaida (1:44). If anyone would know where to purchase bread locally, Philip should know.
This is an allusion to the question raised by Moses to God in the wilderness: “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people?” (Numbers 11:13).
“This (Jesus) said to test (peirozon) (Philip)” (v. 6a). Peirazon can mean “to examine” or “to tempt.” The examiner hopes that the student will pass the test, while the tempter hopes that the student will fail. Jesus is an examiner here—hoping to find in Philip a man of faith.
“for he himself knew what he would do” (v. 6b). Jesus has a plan in mind. He is not asking Philip a question to initiate a brainstorming session to solve a difficult problem. He is probing Philip to learn the depth of his faith.
“Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that everyone of them may receive a little“ (v. 7). Philip points out the obvious difficulty—the purchase of bread for such a large crowd would be very expensive. The Greek says diakosion denarion—two hundred denarii. A denarius is a day’s wages for a working man, so two hundred denarii represents at least six month’s wages—a capital sum that would seem enormous to a man like Philip. How can he get that kind of money?
Philip could go even further by pointing out the logistical problems associated with the procurement and transportation of such a large quantity of bread. Even if the disciples could collect sufficient funds, they could hardly expect to find bread already baked in sufficient quantities to feed thousands. How many ovens would be required? How many bakers? How much flour? How long would it take for the dough to rise? To bake? How could the disciples transport thousands of loaves of bread? What about water? What about toilet facilities? If the disciples were to tackle this monumental task and gather the necessary food, could Jesus reorganize the crowd for teaching again after dinner? Wouldn’t it make more sense to dismiss them now and let them find their own dinner?
But doesn’t Philip remember Jesus’ miracle at Cana (2:1-11)—”This beginning of his signs” (2:11)—revealing Jesus’ glory and causing his disciples to believe in him (2:11)? Philip was already Jesus’ disciple when Jesus worked that miracle of abundance (1:43-48). While we are not specifically told that Philip was present at the Cana wedding, surely he has heard about that miracle. For whatever reason, he fails to connect that miracle of abundance with the need for abundance here.
“One of his (Jesus’) 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 among so many?'” (vv. 8-9). Andrew makes a feeble stab at a solution, identifying a modest resource—a boy with his lunch. But then he endorses Philip’s pessimism by saying, “But what are they among so many people?” Both Philip and Andrew help us to understand the magnitude of the coming miracle by stressing the obvious difficulties.
“five barley loaves” (v. 9). Barley loaves are an inferior bread usually eaten by poor people. It is less nutritious, less tasty, and harder to digest than bread made from wheat.
These barley loaves recall Elisha’s miraculous feeding of one hundred people with a small supply of barley loaves. In that story, a man from Baal-shalishah brought twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain to give to Elisha for the offering of the first fruits. Elisha said, “Give to the people, that they may eat.” But his servant said, “What, should I set this before a hundred men?” So Elisha repeated, “Give to the people, that they may eat; for thus says Yahweh, ‘They will eat, and will have some left over.'” The servant “set it before them, and they ate, an left some of it, according to the word of Yahweh” (2 Kings 4:42-44). The connections between the stories of the prophet Elisha and the prophet Jesus are unmistakable.
“and two fish” (v. 9). The fish are probably small—an accompaniment for the bread, which is the main course.
This is all that the Gospels have to say about this boy (the Synoptics don’t even mention him). The boy is an unlikely candidate to save the day, just as the shepherd-boy, David, was an unlikely opponent for Goliath many years earlier. His pitiful offering is as inadequate as was David’s sling. The boy has little to offer, but he offers that little bit. Jesus will transform that little bit into more-than-enough.
What if the boy had been unwilling to share his lunch? What if he had said, “I need this for myself”—or “My little bit won’t make any difference”? In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), it was the one talent man who failed to use his talent. The boy with the lunch is clearly a one talent person, but his contribution, blessed by the Lord, is a key element in the story.
The fact is that the Lord relies on one and two talent people do most of the work that is done in his name. All too often, five talent people are long on hubris (pride) and short on faith. Those of us who might be tempted to believe that we have too little to offer need to remember how the Lord multiplies the contributions of faithful people.
JOHN 6:10-14. THE FEEDING OF THE FIVE THOUSAND
10Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in that place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. 11Jesus took the loaves; and having given thanks (Greek: eucharisteo), he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to those who were sitting down; likewise also of the fish as much as they desired. 12When they were filled, he said to his disciples, “Gather up the broken pieces which are left over, that nothing be lost.” 13So they gathered them up, and filled twelve baskets with broken pieces from the five barley loaves, which were left over by those who had eaten. 14When therefore the people saw the sign which Jesus did, they said, “This is truly the prophet who comes into the world.”
“Jesus said, ‘Have the people sit down'” (v. 10a). Jesus might intend this gesture to signal the crowd to prepare for lunch. If so, it is a bold move for a man with so many mouths to feed and so little food.
“Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand” (v. 10b). The “in all” at the end of this sentence is absent in the Greek, and might mislead us to assume that it includes women and children. In that time and place, this sort of count would include only men, so the total crowd would be larger, probably much larger. Matthew’s Gospel makes this explicit by saying, “Those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children” (Matthew 14:21).
“Jesus took the loaves, and having given thanks (eucharisteo), he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to those who were sitting down” (v. 11). Eucharisteo is the Greek word from which we get our word Eucharist.
Jesus most likely prayed traditional prayer of thanksgiving, “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who bringest forth bread from the earth” (Carson, 270). It expresses, not a blessing of the food, but thanks to God.
In the Synoptics, the disciples distribute the bread, but in this Gospel, Jesus, acting as the host, does it.
“When they were filled” (v. 12a). The people eat their fill—not just a token amount as some scholars have suggested. Nor is this a lesson in sharing, as others have suggested. This is NOT the story of a young boy who sets an example of generosity that inspires the rest of the crowd to share their food which turns out to be adequate for the occasion. This IS a story—one of many in both Old and New Testaments—about God’s/Jesus’ ability to transform too little into more than enough.
Attempts to explain this story by rationalistic or humanistic interpretations only diminish it—shrinking the miracle to fit our vision instead of expanding our vision to see God’s majesty. We must ask why some interpreters find it possible to believe in the miracle of the resurrection but not the miracle of the loaves and fishes—and if they do not believe in the miracle of the resurrection, how can they be faithful spiritual guides?
Jesus commands, “Gather up the broken pieces which are left over, so nothing may be lost” (v. 12b). This differs from the Exodus account, where God commanded the Israelites not to keep the manna until the next day (Exodus 16:16-21). When the Israelites disobeyed this order, the manna “bred worms and became foul” (Exodus 16:20).
The emphasis in the Exodus story was the faithfulness of God’s providence, while the emphasis here is the abundance of God’s providence. Jesus makes no mention of gathering only what is needed for the day.
“So they gathered them up, and filled twelve baskets with broken pieces from the five barley loaves, which were left over by those who had eaten” (v. 13). The twelve baskets of leftovers are more food than Jesus started with—one basket each for the twelve tribes of Israel. The supply is abundant. God provides plenty to meet our needs.
Various numbers have special significance in the Bible. There were twelve tribes of Israel—and twelve apostles. There were five books of the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy).
Seeing the miracle, the people say, “This is truly the prophet who comes into the world” (v. 14). This refers to Moses’ promise, “Yahweh your God will raise up to you a prophet from the midst of you, of your brothers, like me. You shall listen to him” (Deuteronomy 18:15).
JOHN 6:15. JESUS WITHDREW AGAIN TO THE MOUNTAIN BY HIMSELF
15Jesus therefore, perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force, to make him king, withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
“Jesus therefore, perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force, to make him king” (v. 15a). The crowd wants to institutionalize Jesus’ role as provider and deliverer. Having seen his power at work, they want to harness it for their own purposes. While their response is natural enough, it would make too little of Jesus.
“withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (v. 15b). Seeing that they are about to make him king by force, Jesus withdraws. He has a ministry to fulfill, but not the one that these people envision. To become the king that they want would shrink his ministry from the world (3:16) to the eastern end of the Mediterranean—from all of history to a generation or two—from a giver of eternal life to a giver of temporal security. And to become their king would expose Jesus to a justifiable charge of treason, legitimizing his execution as a criminal. No longer would he be the innocent lamb dying for the sins of the world, but he would instead die as a rightfully convicted felon.
JOHN 6:16-21. THEY SAW JESUS WALKING ON THE SEA
16When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17and they entered into the boat, and were going over the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not come to them. 18The sea was tossed by a great wind blowing. 19When therefore they had rowed about twenty-five or thirty stadia, they saw Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing near to the boat; and they were afraid. 20But he said to them, “It is I (Greek: ego eimi). “Don’t be afraid.” 21They were willing therefore to receive him into the boat. Immediately the boat was at the land where they were going.
“When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, and they entered into the boat, and were going over the sea to Capernaum” (vv. 16-17a). In Matthew 14:22 and Mark 6:45, the disciples depart on Jesus’ orders. Here they leave on their own initiative. Luke 9 doesn’t report this departure.
“It was now dark, and Jesus had not come to them” (v. 17b). In this Gospel, darkness is more than the absence of physical light—it signals evil or danger. It is now dark, and Jesus is absent.
“The sea was tossed by a great wind blowing” (v. 18). Located nearly 700 feet (215 meters) below sea level, the sea is nearly surrounded by high hills. The topography is such that high winds often sweep down suddenly from the hills, making the sea a dangerous place to be in a small boat. There is no indication yet that the disciples are in danger or afraid, but their journey will not be easy.
“When they had rowed about twenty-five or thirty stadia” (v. 19a). A stadion is a little more than 600 feet (180 meters), so this distance is 15,000-18,000 feet or roughly 3 – 3.5 miles (4.8 – 5.6 km). The sea (really a good-sized lake) is 8 miles (13 km) east to west at its widest point and about 13 miles (21 km) north to south. The point here is that the disciples are somewhere in the middle of the lake. They have rowed a considerable distance in the storm, but have a considerable distance left to go. Their group includes experienced fishermen who have surely been on the lake during storms. While the text doesn’t say that they are afraid, anyone who has ever been caught in a storm in the middle of a large lake will appreciate the challenge that they face—the danger that the storm poses.
“they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near to the boat, and they were afraid” (v. 19b). Now, for the first time, we hear that the disciples are terrified. It is not the storm that terrifies them, but the sight of Jesus walking on the sea and coming near their boat. John doesn’t specify the cause of their fear, but the Synoptic Gospels tell us that the disciples are afraid because they think that Jesus is a ghost (Matthew 14:26; Mark 6:49; Luke 24:37).
Jesus says, “It is I (ego eimi). Don’t be afraid” (v. 20). Ego eimi can be translated “I AM”—God’s name (Exodus 3:14)—and Jesus uses this phrase often in this Gospel to say “ego eimi the bread of life” (6:35)—”ego eimi the light of the world” (8:12)—”ego eimi the good shepherd” (10:11)—etc. Here on the chaos of these troubled waters, therefore, Jesus is revealing himself on two levels. He is the leader whom the disciples have been following, but he is also the presence of God in their midst. He comes to help them in their distress.
Matthew includes the story of Peter attempting to walk on the water to meet Jesus (Matthew 14:28-31), a story not found in the other Gospels.
“They were willing therefore to receive him into the boat. Immediately the boat was at the land where they were going” (v. 21). The immediacy of their arrival suggests that Jesus is somehow responsible for their quick return to land. The movement of this story is from the chaos that the disciples experience when separated from Jesus to the peace that he brings when he joins them. It echoes Psalm 107:23-30:
“Those who go down to the sea in ships,
who do business in great waters;
These see Yahweh’s works,
and his wonders in the deep.
For he commands, and raises the stormy wind,
which lifts up its waves.
They mount up to the sky; they go down again to the depths.
Their soul melts away because of trouble.
They reel back and forth, and stagger like a drunken man,
and are at their wits’ end.
Then they cry to Yahweh in their trouble,
and he brings them out of their distress.
He makes the storm a calm,
so that its waves are still.
Then they are glad because it is calm,
so he brings them to their desired haven.”
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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Carson, D. A., The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991).
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Lockyer, Herbert, Sr., Nelson’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986)
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Myers, Allen C., The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987)
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