Bible Book List
John 6 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Resources » Commentaries » John » Chapter 6 » exegesis

Jesus Demonstrates His Authority in Two Nature Miracles

John follows Jesus' speech (5:19-47) with further disclosure of Jesus as the one who can give and take life; he is the life-giver and the judge. Jesus has said that Moses "wrote about me" (5:46), and now we learn how this is the case. Under Moses' leadership Israel escaped through the Red Sea, traveled through the wilderness and miraculously received food there. These stories are now echoed in Jesus' miraculous feeding of the five thousand (6:1-15) and his rescue of his disciples as he walks to them on the sea (6:16-21). These miracles clearly reveal Jesus as sovereign over the forces of nature. But in his teaching that follows and the controversy it arouses, we discover that he is not merely one who works miracles within the realm of nature, nor merely a leader of God's people like Moses, but the source of eternal life itself (6:22-59). He fulfills the role of Moses and utterly transcends it.

The revelation at this point, however, is too difficult to accept even for most of Jesus' disciples (6:60-71). This gracious revealing is itself a test of hearts and thus a judgment. Jesus tests Philip (6:6), and then, as we see the reaction to his teaching and the events leading up to it, we find that the crowd and the disciples are all being put to the test. As God tested his people in the wilderness, so here the Son of God tests hearts. As with Israel, many grumble and fail, yet Jesus does find some who are receptive enough to pass the test.Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand (6:1-15) Jesus has said that Moses wrote about him, and now, when he miraculously feeds the five thousand, the people conclude that he is the prophet Moses wrote about (6:14; cf. Deut 18:15). Jesus is indeed the prophet, but he is also something much greater. He is not only the prophet that Moses wrote about but the God that Moses wrote about, the one who gave bread in the wilderness.

Once again we find Jesus in Galilee with people attracted to him because of the signs he has done (cf. 4:45). The crowd's faith is defective, as was the faith of the earlier crowd. The fact that it is described as a great crowd at the outset (6:2) contrasts sharply with the desertion of all but the Twelve at the conclusion of the story (6:66). As we watch the dynamics that lead from acceptance to rejection we learn something about the nature of discipleship.

The reference to the Passover (6:4) alerts us to another developing motif in this Gospel. At a previous Passover feast (2:13) Jesus made reference to his coming death (2:19-22; 3:14-15), and the opponents sought to kill him (5:18). Here, again in the context of Passover, he provides one of the most profound discussions of his coming death, which is to occur at a later Passover. The exodus of this new Moses is accomplished in his own sacrificial death as the Passover lamb, whose flesh and blood give life to the world (6:51-58). "The multitude, by coming to Jesus instead of going to Jerusalem, finds in him the true meaning of Passover" (Talbert 1992:131-32).

The account of the feeding begins with Jesus' asking Philip, Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat? (v. 5). Since Philip is from the area (1:44) this could come across as a simple question of where the shops are located posed to a local boy. But in fact it is a test (v. 6), and Philip fails. He is asked "where" and can think only in terms of "how." It is a very difficult test because Jesus refers to "buying" bread. A correct answer, in keeping with faithful responses earlier in the Gospel (for example, 1:38; 2:5), might be something like, "Lord, you know." Or perhaps even more could be expected: Jesus' question echoes that of Moses in the wilderness (Num 11:13), and if Philip caught this allusion and remembered that Jesus has turned water into wine, he might have said, "You, Lord, are able to provide." But Philip does not grasp the full significance of his earlier confession that Jesus is "the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote" (1:45).

Thus the test is ultimately concerned with the recognition of Jesus' identity and the graciousness of God. In fact, even in this test itself Jesus' identity and God's graciousness are evident. Jesus is acting like God, for in testing Philip, Jesus is treating him like God treats his own people in the Old Testament. Indeed, in the Old Testament, God tests only his own people, not those outside the covenant relationship; and the only individuals God is said to test are the godly, not the ungodly. What God is looking for is faith, trust that God will be loyal to his covenant obligations to care for his people (Schneider and Brown 1978:799-800). This question is meant to reveal Jesus as the presence of that gracious God who is providing the ultimate blessing--eternal life.

God's children continue to be tested in this same way today. We who have the benefit of the revelation of the New Testament and the witness of the Spirit still find ourselves in situations that challenge us to think and act in keeping with our recognition of God as the ultimate reality in every situation, even situations of great fear or grief, when God seems absent or cruel (cf. comments on 6:20 and 11:27). Such testing is not comfortable, but it is part of God's graciousness, for it achieves a deepening of our faith by revealing our own weakness and God's all-sufficiency.

Philip has called attention to the enormity of the problem. Then Andrew points to the meagerness of the resources (v. 9). The availability of twelve baskets for collecting the leftovers (v. 13) suggests this child was not the only one who had brought food. But there is no suggestion that this feeding was accomplished by getting people to share their lunches. Indeed, the reference to this event as a "sign" rules out such an interpretation (6:26; cf. Mk. 6:52). Rather, Jesus takes a child's lunch and from it provides for all. Andrew does not see how the child's lunch can be of help, but just such weakness is characteristic of the way God provides. He produces sons from barren women (Gen 18:11) and even from a virgin (Mt 1:18); he chooses what is foolish, weak, lowly, despised and even nonexistent (1 Cor 1:27-28). He is the God of the impossible (Mk 10:27), as the salvation of each of us testifies.

Given the allusions to Moses and the stress on both the enormity of the need and the meagerness of the resources, the actual account of the miracle is striking in its spare simplicity. The disciples are told to get the people to sit down. The disciples play no further role, unlike in the Synoptics where they are the ones who distribute the food (Mt 14:19 par. Mk 6:41 par. Lk 9:16). John does not suggest otherwise, but his focus is entirely on Jesus. He took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed (v. 11). Jesus is clearly in charge from first to last, having taken the initiative (v. 5; contrast Mt 14:15 par. Mk 6:35-36 par. Lk 9:12) and now distributing the food himself. He is acting as the father of a family, but in giving thanks he refers it all back to his Father, as will be developed in the following discourse. Everyone received as much as they wanted (v. 11), they were all full (v. 12), and twelve baskets full of food was left over (v. 13). This leftover food echoes the account of Elisha's feeding a hundred people from only twenty barley loaves (2 Kings 4:42-44). Here we see the same gracious abundance evident in the provision of more than one hundred gallons of wine at the wedding (2:6-9). It is a sign that reveals Jesus' identity and the Father's gracious gifts. All food and drink come from God, so Jesus here continues to do what he sees his Father doing (5:19). But provision of nourishment for physical life is itself a sign of nourishment for life in a deeper sense, as will become clear later in the chapter.

The people who have been following him because they saw signs now interpret this sign correctly. They identify Jesus as the prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15) and want to make him king. Among at least some Jews, Moses was viewed as both the greatest prophet and the ideal king (Meeks 1967), a connection that seems reflected in the response of this crowd. But, like the disciples in chapter 1, they are applying correct titles to Jesus with no real understanding of what they are saying. They think of kingship in earthly, political terms whereas Jesus' kingdom is not of this world (Jn 18:36). Furthermore, their attitude is as wrong as their understanding. The desire to come and make him king by force (6:15) is totally opposite to the humble and docile attitude that is characteristic of true disciples. They are working on their own agenda, not God's, and thus ironically they share a chief characteristic of Jesus' opponents. Jesus escapes from them, just as he will escape from the opponents later (8:59; 12:36).

Each of us probably knows from experience how easy it is to come up with our own ideas and confuse them with the Lord's will. Only great humility and docility before the Lord and his revelation can protect us. Part of God's grace is seen in his continual correction of our false views. In the discourse that follows in this chapter we see him trying to correct and deepen these folks' understanding, but to no avail. We should fear lest we also are as obtuse as these people. True receptivity is itself a gift from God for which we can trust him.Jesus Rescues His Disciples on the Sea (6:16-21) The account of the feeding of the five thousand shows Jesus as a new Moses, but Jesus is more than a new prophet like Moses, as is confirmed in what follows. The imagery, language and action in the story of Jesus' walking on water all echo descriptions of God in the Old Testament. In Jesus' rescue of his disciples we see yet another example of the divine glory, God's grace.

In these six verses two miracles are recorded that each reveal Jesus as the master over the natural realm. The first is his walking on the water to reach the disciples. Many have suggested that John does not intend for us to believe Jesus walked upon water but that John is saying Jesus was walking along the shore next to the sea. The Greek allows such an interpretation (epi tes thalasses has this meaning in 21:1), and it is quite possible that they had begun their trip along the coastline, expecting to pick up Jesus. But John says that they were heading across the lake and had rowed several miles, which does not speak of a trip along the coast. Furthermore, if Jesus had merely walked along the coast, then the disciples' fear (v. 19) and the puzzlement of the crowds (vv. 22-25) would not be accounted for.

The second miracle is the way they arrived at Capernaum after taking Jesus into the boat (v. 21). Again, it is possible that this verse does not describe anything miraculous. Some suggest that once the sea had calmed down, the normal travel seemed as though it took no time at all, especially with Jesus present in the boat after his spectacular approach. Thus the immediate arrival would say something about the disciples' perception rather than about physical motion. Such an interpretation is possible, but the text focuses attention on what happened to the boat: immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading. John seems to suggest that Jesus' walk on the water was not the only unnatural mode of transportation that night.

Such stories raise questions regarding the miraculous. Many believe that such things do not happen, so therefore John is making up a story to convey something of Jesus' authority and power. The story certainly does show Jesus' authority and power, but did he really have such authority and power? Was he really able to walk on water? As science is coming to accept views of the universe that are not as mechanistic as views in the past were, it is perhaps easier today to believe that such unusual events are possible.

If we accept that this passage recounts events in history, there are three ways we might view them. An older view of miracle spoke of the suspension of a natural law. Alternatively, it could be that Jesus is drawing upon forces in nature to which most of us do not have access but which are part of the created order. Widespread evidence, both ancient and modern, of "faith healing" that can be explained neither by medicine nor psychology suggests such forces exist. A third possibility is that something unique is happening. That is, there is here neither the suspension of a natural law nor the drawing upon a natural law as yet unobserved by natural science, but rather there is "a new force called into exercise" (Westcott 1908:1:217). Because we do not really know the nature and scope of these unstudied forces and laws of nature, it would seem we cannot say for certain whether this is a "new force" or the operation of natural laws unknown to most people.

In any case, we have here nature miracles that reveal Jesus' identity to us: he is God present in our midst, saving his people. This identity is signaled in part by Jesus' statement, It is I [ego eimi]; don't be afraid (v. 20). The expression ego eimi plays a major role in this Gospel. Rudolf Bultmann (1971:225-26) has identified four uses of this formula: (1) a presentation formula, in which one tells who one is ("I am John"); (2) a qualifying formula, in which one tells what one is ("I am a teacher"); (3) an identification formula, in which one identifies oneself in terms of another person or thing ("I am a servant of Christ"); and (4) a recognition formula, in which one identifies oneself as the one expected, spoken to, seen, and so on ("It is I"). John's uses fall in the latter two categories. These uses in themselves can be either secular or sacred, but in John the usage is most characteristically an expression of Jesus' close relationship with God. For a fifth use, the divine name of God, I AM, overshadows the other uses.

The exact significance of this formula is, however, debated. Rudolf Schnackenburg and George Beasley-Murray believe that the ego eimi formula signifies that Jesus is "God's eschatological revealer in whom God utters himself" (Schnackenburg 1982:88; cf. Beasley-Murray 1987:90) but that it does not signify Jesus' identification with God. This is true in the sense that Jesus is not the Father; the first verse of the Gospel reveals that there is both identity and distinction between the Father and the Son, and the very terms father and son suggest the same. We cannot be certain the use of ego eimi in 6:20 is a divine formula, but nevertheless in John's Gospel this ambiguous formula is made "a leitmotiv of the Gospel as that form of the divine name which the Father has given to Jesus and by which he identifies himself. . . . The majesty of Jesus is that he can bear the divine name" (Brown 1966:252, 254-55, 533-38). This formula seems to be a part of the larger theme of the charge of blasphemy against Jesus (8:58-59; cf. 5:18; 10:33), suggesting the term is understood as Jesus' claim to be more than a human agent of God. So although Jesus' assurance, It is I (ego eimi), could be simply a call for the disciples to recognize that it is Jesus who is standing there in front of them, the Johannine reader, knowing Jesus uses it as the divine name (for example, 8:58), hears an echo of that more weighty use in all this Gospel's references to Jesus.

The story of Jesus' walking on water alludes to several Old Testament passages, which builds the case for Jesus' divine identity. It is said of God, "he alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea" (Job 9:8). Psalm 107 speaks of those who "went out on the sea in ships" (Ps 107:23) and were caught in a great storm. They should "give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love" (Ps 107:31) because "he stilled the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven" (Ps 107:29-30). The poetic imagery of these passages is reenacted on a historical level in the actual event John is describing. The image of walking on the sea mentioned in Job now actually occurs; and though John does not mention the calming of the sea, the deliverance to "their desired haven" is attributed to God in the psalm and, by implication, to Jesus in the Gospel. When Jesus brings his people safely through the sea, he repeats the pattern of God's leading his people through the Red Sea by the hand of Moses and Aaron (Ex 13:17--15:21; Ps 77:16-20). Thus, Jesus' superiority to Moses, seen clearly in the feeding of the five thousand, is implied in this story as well.

So John continues to witness to Jesus' identity and his gracious activity. The feeding shows that Jesus is able to provide even when our resources are very small. The rescue on the sea shows that he can protect and guide in the midst of great adversity, when we have no control over the forces of chaos. In both cases the physical realm reveals his identity and his loving care. In this way, these stories also begin to prepare us for the startling teaching that comes next in the discourse on the bread of life, when he tells his would be followers they are to eat his flesh and drink his blood.

The miracles in this chapter have presented a challenge to a secular view of the physical realm. In the teaching that follows, secular views and even many religious views of the relationship between the material and the spiritual are challenged. We do not expect a small amount of food to feed many people nor the surface of the water to support a human being, and neither do we expect body and blood to bring us eternal life. But, just as Jesus is far superior to Moses, so too the salvation he brings is far more than the provision of physical food and the protection from physical danger. We will now learn of the eternal life he offers and the means of its provision.The Crowds Seek Jesus (6:22-24) This brief transition section provides important information about the crowd. John also uses this transition to emphasize the two miracles that he has just depicted.

We learn at the beginning of this section that this crowd is well aware that something very strange has happened. They realize that Jesus is no longer present at the scene of the feeding but also that he did not leave in the one boat that had been present (v. 22). Thus, while the crowd did not witness Jesus walking on the water, they come to realize that the feeding miracle was not the only unusual event that had taken place.

Once they realize the situation and boats arrive from Tiberias (v. 23), they set out for Capernaum in search of Jesus (v. 24). It is not clear why they knew to search for Jesus in Capernaum. They may have heard the disciples talking as they departed (v. 17) or assumed the destination from the direction they took. But it is also possible that they realized Capernaum was Jesus' base of operations (cf. Mt 4:13; Mk 1:21; 9:33) and the residence of Andrew, Peter, James and John. In any case, in doing so they repeat the pattern of the first disciples, who took the initiative and sought out Jesus as he went on ahead of them (1:35-39). But others, like Nicodemus, also sought Jesus out yet failed to have the openness and trust to receive his teachings. This transition passage shows us that, like Nicodemus, this crowd has seen miraculous signs and has come to Jesus. In what follows we will discover whether or not they have the inner disposition to be Jesus' disciples in truth.As verse 22 draws our attention to the fact that Jesus' departure the night before had been unusual, so verse 23 helps focus our understanding of the feeding miracle. Boats from Tiberias arrive near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. The additional phrase after the Lord had given thanks seems unnecessary and is, indeed, omitted in some manuscripts (for example, D, 091). But its presence puts Jesus at the center of attention. The people had eaten, but the Lord's gracious activity had preceded this miracle. And the specific action John focuses us on, Jesus' giving thanks, speaks of the relationship between the Son and the Father and of the Son's dependency. It also shows Jesus acting in the family role of a father at meal. So this brief clause touches on the deepest revelation about Jesus in this Gospel, the relation between the Father and the Son, and it also speaks of Jesus as the agent of God's gracious provision.

Do we miss the important point in the events of our lives? Behind all blessings and all sorrows, the Son of God is present and interceding for us with the Father. In all circumstances God the Spirit is present with us. Do we get caught up in the melodrama, whether pleasant and exciting as in this story or painful and confusing as we will see in the story of Lazarus (chap. 11)? We need to have eyes to see the gracious God active in our midst in both the joyful and the painful, in both the spectacular and the mundane.

Previous commentary:
Jesus, the Life-Giver and Judge, Is Revealed as the Bread of Life

Next commentary:
Jesus Reveals Himself to Be the Bread of Life

About this commentary:
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.