By porthkerryandrhoose, Sep 9 2017 08:26PM
Have you ever hosted a meal or a party for a large group of people? How many people? What did you need? Fortunately, the most I’ve ever cooked for is six but I imagine that on a larger scale you would need to consider your venue – can you accommodate a large group of people? You might also give some thought to your menu – as well as your cooking ability. Perhaps you’d also think about entertainment, especially for a party. In every case though, you’d want to know in advance how many people were coming – or at least have a good estimate. Imagine then the panic in the disciples’ minds when they realise that the crowds of 5000 men (plus, presumably some women and children), who have followed them around the shore of the Sea of Galilee to listen to Jesus, are hungry and need something to eat!
Our study of the previous chapters of John has revealed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, as the giver of eternal life and as the Judge of humankind. In this chapter, John reveals Jesus as the Rescuer of and provider for God’s people. John presents two pieces of evidence for this revelation: the nature of the miracle itself in the provision of food and the timing of the miracle just before Passover. However, John also shows the reactions of the people around Jesus in this passage in Jesus testing the faith of his disciples now that he has revealed his identity to them and in the crowd’s wrong motives for following Jesus.
Firstly let’s look at the miracle itself. Jesus has crossed the Sea of Galilee with his disciples and a huge crowd has followed him because they’ve seen his miracles. Jesus saw the crowd coming towards him and knew that they would be hungry. Though he asks his disciples where they can find food, we’re told in v5-6 that Jesus already knows what he is going to do: ‘When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming towards him, he said to Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?’ He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.’ Bible scholars have drawn parallels between this passage of John’s gospel and another time when God provided food for his people. This passage can be found in chapter 16 of the book of Exodus. The Israelites are in the desert following their rescue from slavery in Egypt and they are hungry and can’t find food. In v4 God tells Moses, ‘I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day.’ In the same way in our passage from John’s gospel, Jesus is going to provide food for hungry people. However, in contrast to God providing manna in the desert, where he provided enough for each day, Jesus’ provision echoes the wedding at Cana as he demonstrates God’s generosity again in providing in abundance. At the wedding, 12 huge water jars were filled with wine – and the best wine. Here, on the shore of Galilee, Jesus provides food for 5000 men (plus women and children) and we’re told there were leftovers! In verses 12-13 we hear: ‘When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, ‘Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.’ So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.’ In both this passage and the passage from Exodus, we see God providing for his people so that they trust in him. Sometimes God asks his people to prove their trust in him by testing them.
Jesus tested his disciples in this passage. We heard in v6 that Jesus tested Philip by asking him where they could buy food for so many people. Jesus wanted to know whether Philip trusted him. Philip had seen Jesus perform miraculous signs at the wedding in Cana and in healing the sick. He should have been able to say to Jesus ‘You know, Lord’, or even ‘You can provide for them, Lord.’ He hasn’t remembered his words to Nathanael in 1: 45 ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’, or has failed to grasp their full significance. In any case, rather than recognising that Jesus can solve the problem they’re faced with, Philip is concerned with how much it will cost – half a year’s wages, as we hear in v7. Again, we look back to Exodus 16 and see a parallel test for God’s people. The second half of v4 says: ‘In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions.’ You may be familiar with the rest of the passage – when the Israelites follow God’s instructions, they have enough food; when they gather too much to try and keep some for the next day, it turns maggoty and mouldy overnight. God wants his people to trust in him and him alone – not in their own efforts. If we are tested by God, let us remember this. Belief in Jesus and trust in God is not protection from all that the world can throw at us, but God has promised his people that he will care for them. God wants us to trust this promise and may test us if we become too self-reliant. Let us not forget to say ‘You, Lord, can provide.’
Let’s look now at the timing of the miracle. In v4 John tells us that ‘The Jewish Passover Festival was near.’ This is not the first reference that John makes to the feast of Passover – the first is in Chapter 2 when Jesus clears the temple – and the significance of these repeated references should not be lost. Under Roman occupation, Passover would have taken on additional significance for the Jews: surely the God who rescued them from slavery in Egypt would rescue them again from the Romans. In chapter 2, Jesus had hinted at another significance to the Passover feast when he said in v19 ‘Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days. We know from John’s narrative, that those in the temple did not understand what Jesus meant and that it was only after Jesus was raised from the dead that his disciples realised that by ‘temple’, Jesus meant his body. By now though, in chapter 6, many people have begun to follow Jesus for his miracles and his teaching. As we see in v14, they even recognise him as the Prophet – the one identified by Moses as the leader for God’s people. There must have been a great sense of anticipation that the time of their rescue was near. The time was indeed near. During a future Passover festival, Jesus would be crucified, would die and would rise again to rescue people from their separation from God caused by sin. However, v15 reveals that the people had their own ideas about how God’s rescue would take place. ‘Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.’ They believed that Jesus would overthrow their Roman occupiers and reign as their king.
Have you ever misunderstood God’s purposes? Have you mistaken God’s purposes for your own? It’s so easily done isn’t it? The crowds following Jesus because they had seen his miracles and heard his teaching wanted Jesus to defeat the Romans and become King. They recognised that Jesus was sent by God but projected their own desires on to Jesus, believing that what they wanted was God’s will – after all, God had rescued them from oppression before. They had a blinkered view of Jesus, having seen what they wanted to see and heard what they wanted to hear – rather than what Jesus had actually said. Jesus had in fact made God’s purpose in sending him to live among us quite clear. We’ve referred to the passage several times already in our study of John’s gospel and, yet again today, it’s relevant. John 3:16-17 reveals God’s purpose in sending Jesus: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.’ This was the message that the crowds had missed from Jesus and it is as true today as it was then. God still loves his world and there are many people living in it who have not yet received God’s gift of eternal life. If we have received the gift of eternal life from God by believing in his Son, this should surely be our purpose too: to proclaim God’s saving love to those in our lives who don’t already know it.
So we’ve seen today that God sometimes tests his people to see if they trust him and believe in his promise to care for them. If, as in Exodus we follow God’s instructions, or as in John we simply recognise that God will provide for us, then we pass the test. But we must be careful not to be self-reliant or fail to recognise that God can give us what we need. We’ve also seen how Jesus continued to reveal his purpose for coming to earth – to rescue God’s people – through the Passover timing of this miraculous sign but that the crowd wanted a different kind of rescue. Let us remember that God’s purpose is to give his people eternal life and save them from punishment from sin and let us not shy away from sharing this with others.
Let us pray
Loving God, we thank you that you are a God who provides all our needs and that you are generous in your gifts to us. We know you want us to trust in you and believe in your promise to care for us. We’re sorry for the times we rely on our own efforts, or fail to see that you can provide. Help us to recognise this both in good times and difficult times. Make us always ready, too, to share the good news of your saving love with others, so that more people will declare belief in Jesus and receive your gift of eternal life. We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.