The All-Providing King Who Would Not Be King
After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
One of the reasons God created bread — or created the grain and the water and yeast and fire and human intelligence to make it, and I mean the really good kind, that’s not mainly air — is so that when Jesus Christ came into the world, he would be able to use the enjoyment of bread and the nourishment of bread as an illustration of what it means to believe on him and be satisfied with him. I believe that with all my heart. Bread exists to help us know what it is like to be satisfied in Jesus.
This is true for water (John 4:14) and light (John 14:6) and every other good thing that God has made. Nothing exists for itself. “All things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16). Every honorable pleasure that we have in the created world is designed by God to give us a faint taste of heaven and make us hunger for Christ. Every partial satisfaction in this life points to the perfect satisfaction in Jesus who made the world.
Bread Is About Jesus
The pleasures of warm bread should send our senses and our spirits to Christ as the bread of life. The pleasures of cold water when we’re hot and thirsty should send our senses and our spirits to Christ as the living water. The pleasures of light making all other natural beauties visible should send our senses and our spirits to Christ as the true light of the world.
So in John 6 we watch Jesus work a miracle with natural, created bread — the kind they ate every day. That’s verses 1–15. Then in the rest of this long chapter, verses 16–71, Jesus shows people, with increasingly provocative and even offensive language, that this miracle of bread is about himself as the bread of God that comes down from heaven.
“To Whom Shall We Go?”
By the time Jesus is done pressing on this comparison between himself and bread, many of his followers have abandoned him. Verse 66: “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” In the next several weeks, we will dig into this comparison and the things Jesus said about himself as bread that made some people leave him.
But not all left him. When so many left, Jesus asked the Twelve in verse 67, “Do you want to go away as well?” And in verse 68, Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
But today I simply want us to focus on how Jesus set up this long discussion — namely, with the miracle of making real bread — enough real bread to feed over five thousand people by using only five barley loves and a few fish. So the chapter — the story as John tells it — has these two parts: the miracle itself, verses 1–15, and the explanation and controversy over Jesus as the bread of heaven in verses 16–71. So let’s turn to verses 1–15.
More Than Meets the Eye
The beginning and the end of this section about the feeding of the five thousand shows us both that Jesus is doing more than feeding people with natural bread, and that the people in general are in no spiritual condition to see what he what he is doing. We have seen this before in this Gospel. Jesus says something or does something in the natural realm as a way of pointing to the spiritual realm, and the people don’t get it.
He told the leaders in Israel, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up,” (John 2:19). And they said, “It took forty-six years to build this temple.” He told Nicodemus that he had to be born again, and Nicodemus asked how you get back in your mother’s womb (John 3:4). He told the woman at the well that he would give her living water (John 4:10), and she said, But you don’t have a bucket.
They Saw the Signs He Was Doing
Now notice how this happens again in the feeding of the five thousand. And the point of John’s showing this to us again and again is to wake us up from being this dull. His aim is our faith, so he shows both the deadness of unbelief and the greatness of Christ.
Notice first verses 1–2: “After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick.” They were following him because of the signs they saw him doing. He was healing the sick, and they were amazed and desired more of the benefits of this power.
But this is not encouraging. We have seen this phrase before: “because they saw the signs he was doing.” John 2:23 said, “Many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.” But then John adds in verse 24, “But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people” (John 2:23–24). Something is wrong with their hearts. They are excited by Jesus’s signs. They believe he is a genuine miracle-worker. But something is wrong.
Enthusiasm for the Wrong Jesus
Now jump to the end of the story of the feeding of the five thousand in John 6:14–15, and we will see what’s wrong. “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’ Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
Why did Jesus withdraw? Because the enthusiasm these people have is not for who he really is. This is so important for our day and for your life. People can have a great enthusiasm for Jesus, but the Jesus they’re excited about is not the real biblical Jesus. It may be a morally exemplary Jesus, or a socialist Jesus, or a capitalist Jesus, or an anti-Semitic Jesus, or a white-racist Jesus, or a revolutionary-liberationist Jesus, or a counter-cultural cool Jesus. But not the whole Jesus who, in the end, gives his life a ransom for sinners (Mark 10:45). And if your enthusiasm for Jesus is for a Jesus that doesn’t exist, your enthusiasm is no honor to the real Jesus, and he will leave you and go into the mountain.
Jesus As the Prophet
So these people saw that Jesus was the predicted Prophet and the long expected king of Israel. Isn’t that right? Verse 14–15: “They said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’ Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king Jesus withdrew.” Isn’t he the king of Israel? Isn’t he the Prophet?
The reference to the Prophet points back to Deuteronomy 18:15 where Moses prophesied, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers — it is to him you shall listen.” Jesus was indeed this predicted Prophet like Moses. In fact, that may be why in verse 3 he goes up on a mountain for this miracle, the way Moses went up on the mountain. “Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples.”
Not the Prophet They Thought
But the people who saw Jesus’s miracle didn’t understand what it means for Jesus to be this predicted Prophet. Look at verses 32–33, “Jesus then said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’” In other words, when you think of me as the Prophet like Moses, don’t draw the parallel too tightly. I am like him. But I am oh so much more.
Do you think Moses gave you the bread — the manna — from heaven? No, it was God who gave it. And now I am giving it. Do you understand? I am giving the miracle bread, the inexplicable bread. Out of five barley loaves, I am multiplying the mystery manna, so to speak, the way God did. I am not merely another Moses. I am not merely another prophet. I am like Moses. But I am as much greater than Moses as God is greater than Moses. I am as much greater than manna and barley as the Creator of manna and barley are greater than manna and barley.
And as the Creator of barley and manna, I don’t just give the bread of life; I am the bread of life. You certainly see my power, but you do not yet see the glory of how this power will be used. You don’t know me. You don’t know who I am, or what I have come to do, or what it is about my power that makes it a glorious power.
What They Don’t See
The clearest statement of what that is comes later in verse 51, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” There are at least three things about me that you don’t see. First, you don’t see that I am going to use my power not to triumph over the Romans but to be for your sins. Second, you don’t see that I myself am your food. It’s me, and not my gifts, that your soul needs. And third, you don’t see the connection between these two: the way I become food for the everlasting satisfaction of sinners is by laying down my life. “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (6:51). So you call me the Prophet, and so I am, but not the way you think I am.
Jesus As King
But what about “king”? Is he not a king? Verse 15: “Perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Is he not a king? He is. At the end of his life, Pilate asked him in John 18:33, “Are you the King of the Jews?” and Jesus answered in verse 36, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” In other words, yes, I am a king, but not the way you think I am.
When Jesus says that, he doesn’t mean that this world doesn’t belong to him. It does. He made it. He will come again to claim it. What he means is: I have come into the world the first time to rule men’s lives not by being their military captain, but by being their bread. I am going to triumph not by subduing armies, but by satisfying souls. I am going to conquer not with the power of armed forces but with the power of radically new appetites.
Not the King They Thought
And what we see back in chapter 6 is that the crowds did not understand this at all. Verse 26 is the key to why Jesus withdrew and would have nothing to do with their excitement about his kingship. “Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.’” This is why you want to make me king (6:15). To have me as king mean full stomachs.
They hadn’t been changed. Jesus didn’t come into the world to lend his power to already existing appetites. That’s the fundamental mistake of the prosperity gospel. Leave people untransformed in what they crave, and simply add the power of Jesus as the way to get it. That is not the gospel. It is a kind of acclamation that Jesus walks away from. “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (John 6:15). He walks away.
Jesus Is Better
So what is Jesus doing in this miracle of taking five loaves and a few fish and feeding over five thousand people? He is opening a window on who he is. He is manifesting his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father (John 1:14). And he is opening this window on his glory not that we might get excited about how useful he might be in getting what we already wanted, but that we might see that he himself is better than anything we ever wanted.
The point of making bread, as it were, out of nothing — like God making manna — is that the Son of God has come into the world not to give you bread, but to be your bread. And, since we are all sinners and do not deserve this bread, how will he give it to us? “The bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6:51). When he gives his flesh on the cross, he becomes bread — all-nourishing, all-satisfying bread — for sinners who believe.
Taste and See
Verse 6 says that Jesus was testing Philip when he said in verse 5, “Where are we going to get bread for these people?” And I would say, Jesus is testing us now. Right now. Will we be like the Jewish leaders? “It took 46 years to build this temple, and you’ll build it in three days?” Will we be like Nicodemus? “How can a man be born again, enter into his mother’s womb?” Or like the woman at the well? “How will you give me living water when you don’t even have a bucket.” Or like Philip here in verse 7? “Jesus, two hundred days’ wages couldn’t feed these people.”
Or will we see the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth? Will we see Jesus crucified for sinners and risen from the dead to become not mainly a Giver, but a Gift, not mainly your benefactor but your bread? Taste and see that that the Lord is good.