Biblical Studies/New Testament Commentaries/The Gospel of John/Chapter 6
Topics to think about in John 6:
- How does the narrative relate to its Synoptic counterparts?
- Is this a part of the Gospel in its original form or an addition to the "second edition"?
- What is the importance of the Eucharistic background and imagery?
- What is the role of the background in Scripture of the imagery used?
- What is the significance of the fact that it is followers of Jesus who turn away because of his words in this chapter?
The timeframe between Chapter 5 and Chapter 6 is about 6 months. During this interim time, many events have occurred as recorded in Matthew and Luke, and to lesser degree in Mark:
- The 12 Apostles are chosen (Mark 3; Luke 6)
- Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5; Luke 6)
- Many miracles are performed by Jesus including healing those who are lame, blind or otherwise afflicted. (Matt 8,9,12;
Mark 1,2; Luke 4,5,7)
- Casting out demons (Matt 8; Mark 5; Luke 8)
- Parables about the Kingdom (Matt 13; Mark 4; Luke 8)
- Calming a storm (Matt 8; Mark 4; Luke 8)
- Apostles commissioned and sent out (Matt 11; Mark 6; Luke 9)
- Beheading of John the Baptist (Matt 14; Mark 6)
Chapter 6 is a continuation of the ministry in which Jesus performs miracles in the communities surrounding the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The crowds passing through Galilee have increased as it is the Spring and the upcoming Passover Festival attracts large numbers of people from all over Palestine on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
The Feeding of the Five Thousand
The crowds in the area have heard about or witnessed His miracles, and bring Him many afflicted people to be healed. It is the end of the day and the people are all hungry with little chance of getting food in the towns. Jesus takes two fish and five loaves of bread and feeds five thousand people who have come to Jesus and his disciples.
Despite Jesus' power, John 6:6 notes that Jesus questions Philip "only to test him." The purpose of such a test could be for the reason of showing Philip where he stands in his faith, or perhaps for Jesus to lead Philip toward a greater understanding of His power. This authority over nature shown through this miracle could have been meant as an illustration of Christ's divine power and that his abilities are one with God the Father's own.
Jesus, who in previous passages of John kept his ministry low profile, continues to escalate his works in order for more people to believe. However, rather than taking in all of the glory with pride, he simply performs his work to lead people to God, and then parallels his previous actions (see John 5:13) of removing himself from the situation, this time taking time for Himself by a mountain (6:15). In these instances, Jesus withdrew from the crowds because His time for fully revealing Himself as Messiah had not yet come (see John 7:6). The crowds, having been fully fed, now see Jesus as a Prophet who will take David's throne and press upon Him to forcefully make Him king. (6:14-15). Jesus refrains from becoming a crowned king and withdraws. The people do not see the prophesied Suffering Messiah, but only a king who will take His coming kingdom as a literal kingdom on Earth.
Although some have speculated, due primarily because John gives no explanation for Jesus having left Jerusalem and now all of sudden being in Galilee, that chapters 5 and 6 may be out of order. However, cross-referencing the events of the other Gospels show that the early events of Chapter 6 were indeed in Galilee at the end of the Galilean ministry and that Jesus was in Galilee because of the persecution and threats to kill him that existed in Judea. This miracle takes place in Galilee and is the only one that is recounted in all four gospels. It is interesting however that in the other three accounts of this miracle it is Jesus' disciples that are concerned about feeding the people while in Johns Gospel, Jesus is the one who inquires about their food supply and as mentioned before does it to test Philip. However this is consistent with John being an eye-witness of these events and being close enough to Jesus to see His involvement more than the disciples involvement. The boy who provides the food is also only mentioned in John, as is the fact that the bread is the "bread of the poor" or barley which could perhaps be a reference to 2 Kings 4 in which Elisha feeds 100 people with 20 loaves of barley (Smith pg. 147). It might also be of importance that the bread is the primary concern of John's recounting and the fish is more of an afterthought as is evidenced by verse 13 in which the fish are not even mentioned; the explanation for this is probably that John was setting up the words of Jesus that follow this miracle pertaining to the bread of life.
The Crossing of the Sea
Jesus walks on water. He didn’t leave in the boat with his disciples; instead, he walks out to meet them and joins them in the boat. Although his disciples are initially afraid of the feat that Jesus is performing, they let him in the boat and begin to realize that Jesus is not bound by the binds that hold men firmly in this world.
Jesus' walking on water is an interesting place of relationship of John with the Synoptics. Though Luke doesn't record this miracle, Mark and Matthew both do. The narrative of John follows Mark more closely, as it does not include any reference to Peter walking out to meet Jesus on the water. Other than the destination of the disciples' boat, the accounts in Mark and John are quite similar, except for another sign of Jesus' power: as soon as Jesus gets into the boat in John's story, the boat reached the destination. When Jesus was walking on water toward the boat he says, "It is I, do not be afraid."
In verse 16 it says; "Now when evening came, His disciples went down to the sea,..." (NAS) Here, we have another example of Jesus and disciples going somewhere together which inadvertently foreshadows a miracle. For instance we can look in John 2 and see the same thing in verse 2 when they were both invited to the wedding. This verse also parallels chapter 2 in that it states it was "evening" when His disciples came. In the same way, Nicodemus is seen coming to Jesus at night for wisdom. Verse 17 "...and after getting into a boat, they started to cross the sea to Capernaum. And it had already become dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them."(NAS) These references to "dark," "evening," and "night" are all parallels to the other references of light and dark throughout John. Light is said to be Jesus or salvation and wisdom. Darkness seems to symbolize ignorance, doubt, satan and/or life without Jesus. This miracle of Jesus walking on water can then be another foretelling of Jesus’ soon to be glorification. Some believe that this passage is just that. When it says that Jesus had not yet come to them, this could be an allusion to Jesus being glorified through his persecution, death, resurrection, and ascension. However, most see this event as a demonstration to the apostles that Jesus is indeed the Son of God with the full authority given to Him by the Father.
This section lends symbolism to a possibly bigger lesson. It is also important to recognize the differences in John. In John, the boat that the disciples are in is near the land which is unique to John. "John could be saying that with Jesus' arrival they got to land with unusual speed. On the other hand, rationalist critics once saw here the key to the "miracle"" Jesus was actually walking in the shallows, (Smith). However, the other Gospels do not follow this rationale making it clear that Peter would have sank and drowned in the water had Jesus not saved him from the deep.
These miracles (signs) clearly reveal Jesus as ruler over the forces of nature. In his teaching that follows and the debate it arouses, we learn that he is the foundation of eternal life (v. 22-59).
The Bread of Life Discourse
The way Jesus chooses to deliver this discourse is similar to the tradition of Jewish sermons. In traditional Jewish sermons, the Rabbi would relate two different texts to each other. Jesus does just this when some of the things he says are reminiscent of Old Testament text. For example, Jesus says in John 6:35 "Jesus said to them, 'I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger and whoever believes in me will never thirst.'" This language of the giving of food is much like Isaiah 55:1, which states, "All who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain, and eat; Come, without paying, and without cost, drink wine and milk!" Another similarity between Isaiah and John is between John 6:37-38 which state, "Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and I will not reject anyone who comes to me, because I came down from heaven not to do my own will but the will of the one who sent me" and Isaiah 55:10-11, which state, "For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to him who sows and bread to him who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it." Furthermore, the talk of manna in John 6:31 is similar to Deuteronomy 8:3. John 6:31 states, "Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" Deuteronomy 8:3 says, "He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by manna alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of Yahweh." Another important similarity is that the people in John 6:41 "grumble" (because Jesus said he was the bread that came down from heaven) just as the people "grumbled" after being fed in old Jewish scriptures when they were in the desert. All of these similarities work together to show the readers of the Gospel of John that Jesus is continuing the work that his Father talked about earlier, and one of the only differences between this "new" discourse is that it is quite surprising and confusing to the people listening in John 6 that Jesus is calling himself the bread of life. These words (vv.32,33,35,50-51, 54-58)were so extraordinary that even Christ's followers said: "This is a hard saying; who can hear it?" And many of them "went back and walked no more with Him" (vv. 60-66). Still it is important to note that those that would "walk no more" were not chosen disciples. None of the Chosen Twelve were included in this group for they still believed that He, Jesus, held the words of eternal life. This was affirmed by Peter who said of Jesus (6:69) "We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God". They still believed, despite the fact that one among them was considered a devil by Jesus, meaning Judas Iscariot, the one who would betray him later.
After the people come back to find Jesus he questions them to see if they fully understand why he performed the miracle of the feeding of them. When the people show they do not fully understand what it means to believe, Jesus explains to them what the Bread of Life is and how the people can only receive the bread of Life if they believe in the Son who is sent by the Father. By receiving the bread in vv 51-58, ,they can eat his flesh and drink his blood, the food that has come down from heaven to nourish all of those who believe. Some see this as an allusion to the Eucharist. Jesus tells the people his wisdom (gospel) is the bread of Life they seek. This results in an argument among the people because some do not understand the meaning of (6:53) "eating my flesh and drinking my blood" and others previously claimed Jesus is the son of Joseph, who is known to them, and so could not be the Son of God.
In John Chapter 6, one can see the difficulty that Christ caused for the Jewish ruling council. They ignorantly thought he advocated the consumption of His flesh (verse 53), a concept very much in conflict with the strict Jewish laws that regulated what a person could eat. Cannibalism was definitely not condoned. Christ used this radical example, though, to reveal the true meaning of the Law and Prophets to the Jews, a fulfillment of the law that would ultimately supersede all the previous law. He hearkened back to the Israelites as they ate manna in the desert while they followed Moses and they died (verse 58), and used the Jews’ sense of history and tradition to further His cause. He knew that the Jews would be familiar with the notion of ‘manna of life,’ as they had been saved by manna from heaven, and so His own example of eternally nourishing bread (His teaching).
For Further Reading
James F. McGrath, "Food for Thought: The Bread of Life Discourse (John 6:25-71) in Johannine Legitimation"
D. Moody Smith; John: New Testament Commentary; Abingdon Press, 1999; Nashville, TN