John 6:1-15

Jesus Fulfils and Reinterprets the Jewish Festivals - 2

Passover in Galilee – The Meal in the Wilderness


John 6:1-15     Feeding the Five Thousand

Jesus crossed Lake Galilee [or of Tiberius].

The mention of crossing the lake hinted that the account to follow would be relevant to Diaspora Jews: it would happen outside Jewish territory.

2 A large crowd followed him;
they had seen the signs he worked among the sick.

In this narrative, there had been no generalised healing activity witnessed by a Galilean crowd. The comment seemed to assume a familiarity with the other Gospels, which contained numerous references to Jesus’ outreach to the sick. 

3 Jesus went up a hillside and sat down there with his disciples.

The mountain setting, the presence of disciples and Jesus’ posture of sitting down served to cast Jesus in the role of teacher. Centuries before him, Moses had gone up the Mountain of Sinai with chosen disciples and learnt there the Torah from God. Then he descended from the mountain and taught the Torah to the people assembled below. On this occasion, Jesus’ audience was restricted to disciples, and the narrative gave nothing of the content of his teaching.

4 The Jewish feast of Passover was near.

The author quickly identified the Passover context for the incidents and discussion that would follow. It would be a Passover celebrated away from Jerusalem, as it was by the author’s contemporaries in the Diaspora. By the time that the Gospel was written, Jerusalem had been destroyed and its temple no longer existed. Passover in the Diaspora was a festival celebrated by laity without the ministry of priests. The feast became the occasion to remember not only the original slaying and eating of the Paschal lamb, but also the whole Exodus event that it launched. In particular, it emphasised God’s gift to the people, through the ministry of Moses, both of the Torah that fed their minds and hearts, and of the manna that fed their stomachs – the “bread of angels” [Psalm 78:21].

Passover and Exodus

The Exodus event had led the people to recognise God as the God who set them free.  They were a chosen people, a people set apart. In the popular mind, that privilege had a nationalistic flavour. They were free over against other nations. During their long and gradual period of growth, prophets had tried to educate them to see their specialness, not as something reserved for them alone, but as an experience to be brought through them to all the nations. 

Feelings of exclusiveness and of specialness can be hard to let go; inclusive universality hard to take to heart. In Israel, the sense of specialness was misused at times to justify boundaries, to exclude strangers and to confine to the margins even fellow Jews, particularly the sick, who were commonly categorised as “impure” and blamed as sinners. The Gospel narrative deliberately situated the feeding that would follow in the context of Jesus’ socially inclusive ministry to the sick [verse 2]. God’s liberating action excludes no one.

Clarifying the Problem

5 Jesus looked up and saw that a large crowd was coming towards him.  
He said to Philip, “Where can we buy bread for them to eat?”

The construction of the location was awkward. Mention had already been made of a following crowd [verse 2], but in the meantime Jesus had ascended the hillside and spent time there teaching the disciples. The developing story would suggest a lakeside location [verse 15].

In this account, Jesus took the initiative by posing the question to Philip. His question suggested the Exodus context, echoing Moses’ question to God: Where am I to get the meat to give all these people? [Numbers 11:13]. It also reminded readers of Jesus’ earlier comment made to the disciples in Samaria: My food is to do the will of him who sent me [4:34].

6 He said this to test him out;
he knew himself what he meant to do.

The author’s references to testing and to knowing intimated that the emphasis in what followed would be more theological than historical. God had also tested Israel in the desert.

7 Philip answered him, “Even with a little bit for each,
two hundred denarii would not be enough for them.”  
8 One of the disciples, Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter, said to him, 
9 “There is a young lad here
who has five barley loaves and two small pieces of dried fish.  
But what is that among so many?”

Philip and Andrew had appeared in the opening scene of Jesus’ ministry [1:44], where both had been identified as coming from Bethsaida, a town across the Jordan River just over the border from Galilee. Their origin from Bethsaida may have been intended to give a further indication of Jesus’ preference for porous boundaries. (They would figure together later in the narrative when a group of non-Jewish Greeks would seek contact with Jesus [12:20-22].)

The exchange between Jesus and the two disciples emphasised the total inadequacy of current resources. In this, it reflected the plight of the Israelites in the desert of Sinai.

Jesus’ Performs the Sign

10 Jesus then said, “Make the men recline.”  
There was a lot of grass at the place.  
So the men reclined, about five thousand in number.

Passover was an early spring festival, so grass would have been plentiful. Literally, Jesus instructed the disciples to direct the people to recline, as people would at banquets. 

Universal Salvation Imaged as a Banquet

By situating the soon-to-be-recounted feeding of the crowds “up the mountain” and on “the other side”, the Gospel may have intended to bring to mind, in addition to the Exodus events, the promise mentioned in Isaiah, where God would provide a banquet for “all nations” – a wonderfully inclusive image of universal salvation:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever. [Isaiah 25:6-8]

The God revealed in Jesus was the God who recognised no boundaries, whose love reached out to all: the “impure” and sinners of Israel, as well as to “all peoples”, “all nations”.

The Gospel’s lush grass reflected the familiar imagery of Psalm 23: 

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. 
He makes me lie down in green pastures [Psalm 23:1-2].
11 Jesus then took the loaves,
said the prayer of thanks,
and gave them to those who were reclining.  
He did the same with the small pieces of dried fish – as much as they wanted.

Not surprisingly in this narrative, Jesus himself not only took the loaves and gave thanks to God, but it was he, not the disciples, who also gave them out. The author placed the focus clearly on the activity of Jesus. The eucharistic echoes – took, thanked, distributed – would have been deliberate.

12 When they had been filled, he said to his disciples,
“Gather up the pieces left over so that nothing be wasted.” 
13 They gathered them up and filled twelve baskets
with scraps from the five barley loaves l
eft over by those who had eaten.

The sheer abundance (the number twelve indicated fulness) of what remained was significant. Similar abundance had accompanied the miracle at Cana [2.6]; and was symptomatic of the boundless mercy and goodness of God. The fulness of love and truth [1.14] had been ushered in by Jesus.

Jesus’ command to gather the fragments left over so that nothing be wasted contrasted with the directions given to the Israelites by Moses regarding the manna: “Let no one leave any of it over until morning.” But they did not listen to Moses; some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul [Exodus 16.19-20]. As the true manna, the true bread of life, Jesus’ words were to be preserved to be savoured at length. 

People’s Response – Prophet and King

14 When people saw the sign he had done,
they said, “This really is the prophet who is to come into the world.” 

The people had witnessed the sign, and had searched for its significance. Their conclusion was not wrong, but incomplete: they identified Jesus in terms with which they were familiar – as the prophet. To Moses, who had led the people on their Exodus journey from slavery to freedom, God had spoken of another prophet who would come into the world, who would speak God’s words and who would bring to its fulfilment the work begun by Moses:

I will raise up for them a prophet like you
from among their own people [Deuteronomy 1:.17].
15 Jesus knew that they intended to come and seize hold of him
and make him a king,
so he went up again into the hills by himself alone. 

Not content with acclaiming Jesus as prophet, the people wanted to make him king. The role of king went beyond that of prophet (the proclaimer of the will of God) to that of political power-player.  In the volatile climate of Herodian Galilee, the people yearned for political freedom and justice. They wanted loaves on their tables, provided by a king of their own. 

At the start of the narrative, Nathanael had proclaimed Jesus to be King of Israel [1:49]. On that occasion, Jesus had deflected the claim: the truth of Jesus went far beyond Nathanael’s limited views. On this occasion, Jesus physically withdrew from the crowd, retreating from the lakeside to the hills where he could be alone with God (not unlike Moses). Jesus’ focus was not revolt, but genuine conversion.

Next >> John 6:16-21