The crowd that had come across the lake in search of Jesus ask him, Rabbi, when did you get here? Quite often in this Gospel people call Jesus "Rabbi" and then do not treat him as a rabbi; that is, they do not receive his teaching. As this dialogue unfolds we see this crowd fitting this pattern. Indeed, their uncertain attachment to Jesus may be evident even in this question. We would expect them to ask how Jesus arrived, not when. By asking when they seem to assume he slipped away undetected and arrived by normal means. They have already observed something unusual about Jesus' travel (v. 22), yet they are slow to believe that Jesus is unusual, too.
Jesus' reply, as is often the case, is neither polite nor seemingly directed to the question asked. He responds as a holy man would, revealing their own state of heart. That they are looking for him is good (cf. 1:35-39), but Jesus says there is something wrong with their motivation. The proper motivation has to do with seeing miraculous signs (semeia, v. 26). A sign is a deed that is full of significance, revealing Jesus' identity and God's saving activity in his ministry. They had seen a miracle, but it did not focus their attention on Jesus. Rather, he was seen as a means to the filling of their stomachs (v. 26). Jesus did not come to fill stomachs with food, but to fill lives with the very presence of God, as he will make clear in this dialogue.
This crowd is focusing on the physical realm. In John the physical and the spiritual are interconnected, for the physical is spirit-bearing: the Word became flesh. The present dialogue will teach us this lesson very clearly. This crowd, then, is faulted not for their interest in the physical, but for lacking perception of the spiritual through and in the physical. The same problem afflicts some disciples today, since matter is still spirit-bearing. Too often we fail to have eyes to see and ears to hear the God who is present in our lives, through either the sacraments or the events of everyday life.
These folk had to work hard for their daily bread, so when they found a miraculous source of food this was good news. But Jesus tries to redirect their attention: Do not work for food that spoils (v. 27). Sure, they have to work for a living, but what is their deeper vocation? Their focus is on physical food, which is temporal. Like the manna in the wilderness, it does not last long. But more profoundly, the life it nourishes is also all too brief. Our physical lives of flesh and blood are given by God, and they are significant, but they are not the whole story; this life is transitory. There is a food that endures to eternal life (v. 27); it does not rot but instead nourishes real life, divine life, life that continues on forever. Jesus is repeating what he told the Samaritan woman: "Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (4:14). What do we really hunger and thirst for (cf. Mt 5:6)? What is "blue chip"—of highest value—in our lives (cf. Ward 1994: 23-29)? Are we like this crowd?
Jesus says the crowd is to work . . . for food that endures, but he also says that this is food which the Son of Man will give you (v. 27). So it is both work and gift, concepts that have often been thought to be in opposition to one another. The Son of Man will give this food by giving his own life and also by providing a means by which we may share in that life, as he explains later. Thus, the reference to the Son of Man in this passage (cf. 6:53, 62) is part of the pattern in this Gospel in which Son of Man refers to the Messiah from heaven who brings God's life and judgment, especially through the cross (cf. comment on 3:13).
Verse 27 in the NIV does not represent the word because (gar), which is important for understanding the reason Jesus, the Son of Man, can give eternal life: the Son of Man will give you [food that endures to eternal life] because on him God has placed his seal of approval. It is not clear what in particular the Father's seal of approval refers to. Has placed his seal is in the aorist (esphragisen), so it could refer to some particular event, such as the incarnation or the baptism (1:33-34). It is similar to the references to the Father's bearing witness to the Son (5:32, 37; 8:18). It means that Jesus is, as it were, the authorized dealer. Constantly Jesus is reminding us, as spelled out in his keynote address (5:19-30), that he is utterly dependent on the Father. This thought is vital for understanding everything about Jesus, not least his role in giving eternal life (cf. 6:57). It is the Father, the source of all, who has given Jesus the life that he offers here (cf. 5:21, 26).
The crowd next asks, What must we do to do the works God requires? (v. 28). This is an incredible question. How many Christians today reach the height of this question? For how many of us is this a burning question? How would we answer this question? Many would think of God's work as acting morally or doing evangelism or apologetics or even worship. As important as all of these are, Jesus goes to the heart of the matter, to the source from which all of these vital aspects of eternal life flow—belief in the one sent by God. Without this faith none of these activities benefit us. Our primary work is being receptive to God. All our actions and plans are dependent on the most important action—union with God in Christ by the Spirit. Ultimately it is not a matter of our working for God, but a matter of God's living his life and doing his work through us as we trust him and align ourselves with him by his grace (see comment on 20:27-29).
So this question by the crowd shows that they have gained some understanding since the conversation began in verse 25. They appear to be trying to get on board with Jesus' teaching, for they are talking about the work of God. But they are still missing the main point: they do not pick up on Jesus' revelation of himself and of his role in giving them the food that endures to eternal life. Instead of looking to the giver and the gift, they look to their own role. Somewhere in the midst of trying to please God it is easy to lose sight of, and lose trust in, God's own sovereign graciousness. Jesus' reply to their question sharply refocuses their attention on trust in God and his grace—The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent (v. 29). Once again Jesus describes himself by referring to the Father who sent him. Everything the crowd has said and done has failed to focus on the central figure, Jesus himself. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, has finally gotten them to face in the right direction. It is not many works that God requires but one work. And that work is to believe, to trust in Jesus as the one sent from God, as God's unique Son who offers God's grace. Jesus' work is to reveal the Father (cf. 4:34), and our work is to receive that revelation and align our lives with it.
Once again we see the overwhelming grace of God and his amazing patience with our dullness and stupidity. Just as he worked through the Samaritan woman's misunderstandings to bring her to faith, so here he works with an unpromising situation to get the people to see what is right before their eyes. This is great good news for all of us, for we are also quite dull at times. We too can have stiff necks. Fortunately, as John Shea has said, God has a stiffer neck! We can take great comfort in his patience and the picture we see in this account of his working in all human hearts. We can be assured that God is trying to break through to the heart of every person we come in contact with, and he may want to use us in the process.
While there is much comfort in what we see here in Jesus' dealings with the crowd, we should not take false comfort. The folk in this crowd will end up rejecting Jesus. Indeed, almost all of Jesus' disciples will reject him by the end of the chapter, at least for the present. God's patience is forever, but we can reject him and reject the gift of life he offers. Jesus' presence not only brings the offer of eschatological blessing, but also includes the threat of eschatological danger. The stakes are high for us and everyone we meet.
Many Christians, as John Wesley said, have just enough religion to be miserable. They are like this crowd, missing God's gift of life in his Son. They are not experiencing abiding life, which will be described in this chapter. We, like this crowd, need God's help to understand who Jesus is and what he offers us. We also need help to appropriate this gift of divine life.