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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand (6:1-15)
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.

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