When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” 15 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 6:14-15)
After feeding the five thousand, it’s no wonder the crowds on the grassy mountainside frothed about Jesus, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” They saw Jesus as the great Prophet foreshadowed by Moses, whom God used to liberate Israel from slavery and bring them to their own land—a land of abundance, overflowing with milk and honey. And in those early days of Israel’s history, God had promised to send another prophet like Moses:
“God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. You must listen to him” (Deut 18:15).
For all who witnessed the miracle, Jesus seemed to be the long awaited Prophet!
No bring-and-share event.
Jesus’s spectacular miracle was beyond a shadow of doubt. He performed an impossible catering job for the great multitude! This was no bring-and-share event. Jesus fed 5000 men (probably 15 000 with women and children) with just five small barley loaves and two small fish.
The fish were probably salted, like little sardines or pickled fish. John makes sure we know they were small, as if to contrast the great multitude sitting on the grassy mountainside and the teeny tiny morsels of food. As Phillip remarked, “Eight month’s wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” (John 6:7)
Not only did Christ reproduce enough food for the crowd to eat “as much as they wanted”, but there were also twelve basketfuls of leftovers! (John 6:11-13) There was abundance and excess in the miracle that Jesus performed with his own hands. And any silly explanations about people taking out their own sandwiches are an insult to John’s integrity and intelligence. Surely one person among the thousands would have debunked this story if there was a natural explanation? It’s either a fraud or it’s true, nothing in between.
The generous picnic must have resembled Moses with the whole congregation of Israel gathered around him, eating manna from heaven. “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread. Then you shall know that I am the Lord” (Exodus 16:12)
And that’s exactly what happened. Every morning except the Sabbath, manna lay like flaky frost all over the ground, “the bread that the Lord has given you to eat…Gather of it, each one of you, as much as he can eat…Each of them gathered as much as he could eat” (Ex 16:15-18). If the coming Prophet was like Moses, it made sense that he would feed the people miraculously as Moses had.
A Prophet like Moses.
Just like Moses, who taught the people of Israel from Mount Sinai, Jesus stood teaching his disciples on a mountainside. And it all happened just before Passover. Of course, Passover is associated with the great liberation of God’s people from slavery in Egypt, when God saved His people from death, because they painted the lamb’s blood on the doorposts of their houses.
The crowds who saw Jesus distributing the endless supply of bread and fish, must have remembered the miracles of Moses, whose epitaph says: “….no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, 11 who did all those signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egypt—to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land. 12 For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel” (Deut 34:10-12).
It’s no wonder the crowd claimed Jesus as their miracle Prophet! They wanted to recruit Him as their king and liberator, to lead their crusade and free them from Roman oppression. After all, wasn’t it true that the tax collectors stole from them? Didn’t the Roman soldiers treat them cruelly? And didn’t the Emperor and his political puppets abuse them? Surely Jesus was patriotic enough to join their good cause?
But they had no idea that their sin was a greater enemy than Rome.
And so, realizing that the crowds wanted to turn Him into some sort of political figure to satisfy their pressing economic, physical and national needs, Jesus withdrew and refused to oblige (John 6:15). He knew that this crowd was only willing to support Him so long as he gave them what they wanted.
Even when Satan came to Him with similar temptations, Jesus would not use his powers to create for Himself an earthly kingdom, but lived to serve and worship His Father in heaven (Luke 4:6).
But does that mean that Jesus does nothing for His people on earth?
I don’t think so, on account of the little story wedged like jam between the miracle and Jesus’s explanation. Jesus comes down from the mountain to walk on water, to meet his terrified disciples in a storm-tossed boat.
“It is I. Do not be afraid”.
“When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19 When they had rowed about three or four milesg they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. 20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21 Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going (John 6:16-21)
Haven’t you found that mountain top experiences of God’s wonderful provision are often followed by times when you’re tossed like a cork in the ocean? This was so for the disciples. The well-fed, admiring crowd was gone. Jesus was gone. The abundant food was gone. And the disciples were in the middle of the Lake between 3am and 6am, struggling in the dark on their own. The sea had swallowed up their excitement and their Saviour was nowhere to be seen.
Yet this was no accident, as Mark’s gospel tells us that Jesus ‘compelled’ his disciples to go back across the lake (Mark 6:45). But after rowing feverishly for 8 hours, with little headway against the wind and waves, the picnic was clearly over! Was Jesus perhaps using this boat trip to show his disciples (and us) something about our desperate spiritual state without Him? That our best efforts will always be useless in bringing us safely to shore?
Understandably, when they finally saw Jesus walking towards them on the water, their first reaction was fear. Mark tells us that they thought he was a ghost (Mark 6:49), but Jesus reassured his disciples,
“It is I; Do not be afraid.”
Christopher Ashe points out a familiar pattern of faith: Fear. Reassurance. Willingness. Each of us must begin our relationship with Jesus by having proper fear, because we are sinful, and Christ has the right to punish sin and evil. But the good news of the gospel reassures our heart, as we listen to Christ’s words, “It is I. Do not be afraid.” True peace and safety only come when we are willing to receive Christ as our Saviour and Lord.
Verse 21 is a picture of deep joy and security when Jesus is in the boat with us. No storm can swallow us when we are in Christ, and He is in us. And we will surely reach our heavenly shore with Jesus in the boat.
You say that I am king.
And so, the crowds were right when they identified Jesus as the long awaited Prophet. Their problem was that they wanted Him on their own terms and wouldn’t listen to His voice or receive Him as Lord (John 6:42). They preferred a political king.
Hours before Jesus died, He told Pilate, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice”(John 18:37).
Jesus was sure of His purpose as King, but never wrongly used his powers to set up His own kingdom. He knew that His kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). Jesus is a prophet and liberator of another kind. He came into the world to save sinners like ourselves. Sinners who listen to His voice, and come to Him willingly in repentance and faith.
Are we people of the truth who listen to His voice and come willingly to Christ on his own terms? Or do our preferences matter more?
These two miraculous signs set the stage for Christ’s astounding conversation, which we’ll unpack next in “The Bread from Heaven.”
Lord, your word says “Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, And delight yourself in abundance” (Isa 55:2). Thank you that you have revealed who you are in the Bible, and that you offer shalom and abundant life, rather than just cheap thrills. Thank you for those comforting words, “It is I; Do not be afraid” as we know that your loving presence never leaves us, no matter how buffeted we may feel. Help us to listen carefully to your Word and trust you fully. In Jesus’s name, Amen.