This is a Bible study on the passage in the gospel of John where Jesus feeds the five thousand. To understand this post, you should stop and read John 6:1-71 before moving on.
Comparing John 6:1-13 to Exodus 16:4-18, there are several ways in which Jesus’ miracle of feeding the five thousand echoes the miracle of manna in the desert. For both, there was more than enough food provided for the hungry, and the food provided was bread (manna). Ex 16:12 says that the people would eat manna from heaven and thereby know that the LORD is God. Jesus gave the people bread to eat so that they would know that Jesus is the Lord their God. The manna in Exodus was from heaven; Jesus looked up to heaven and gave the people bread to eat. He “thanked” heaven (i.e., God) for the bread. Jesus performed his miracle during the time of Passover, which echoed back to the period when the Israelites were in the wilderness—the same time when Moses fed the people with manna from heaven.
Then Jesus asks Philip a question to test him (John 6:5-6). What do you think the test is meant to reveal? The text says that he asked Philip this question to test Philip, because Jesus knew what he was about to do. It seems the test is meant to reveal whether Philip knows that Jesus is able to provide food for the multitude in the wilderness. Moses was able because God worked miraculous through him to provide for the hungry. Is Jesus greater than Moses? Can Jesus also provide for the hungry in a miraculous way? Philip does not yet understand who Jesus is—that he is the greater Moses—or what Jesus is. Jesus is the bread of life, the bread that comes down from heaven that gives life to the world. The miracle that Jesus proceeds to perform demonstrates this for Philip, and Jesus asking the question beforehand is a great mercy that prepares Philip’s heart to learn this truth about Jesus.
This raises a question: Why didn’t Jesus want them to “make him king by force” (6:15)? After all, wasn’t he Israel’s rightful king? Jesus had a mission to accomplish during his advent. He is in fact Israel’s rightful king. He is the greater son of David, but Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. He is King of kings and Lord of lords, and rules all the kingdoms of this world from his heavenly throne at the right hand of God the Father. His mission on earth is not to repeat the old covenant monarchy, but to fulfill it. To fulfill the role of Israel’s king is to act as God’s Son and to die on the cross to redeem his lost sheep. If the people succeeded in making Jesus their earthly king by force, then Jesus would be off mission. Jesus would not be squeezed into their mold of expectations. He is the sovereign of the world and will not be manipulated.
Next, let’s compare the disciples’ response to this miracle (6:19-21) with the crowd’s response to the miraculous meal (6:14-15). How are they different? Which, if either of them, is a better response to a glimpse of God in action? Why? In John 6:15, the people seek to “take” Jesus by force to make him their political messiah-king. In contrast, the disciples freely receive (“take”) Jesus into their boat when the recognize him walking on the water. The disciples yield to the will and plan of Jesus, while the crowds in the wilderness do not. Obviously, the response of the disciples is better than that of the crowds. Both groups witness God in action, but only the disciples join Jesus and “take him” as he is. Jesus is the Lord, the Messiah, and the King, but he cannot be tamed or cajoled into jumping through our hoops. He is not available to help us meet our agendas. He must sign up for his.
Jesus is misunderstood in this passage. Like Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, and even the disciples, the people in Capernaum have a terrible time understanding Jesus. What do they think the bread from heaven is? What does Jesus say the bread from heaven is (6:33)? The people in Capernaum think that when Jesus talked about bread from heaven, he means a rerun of the manna in the wilderness. They think bread from heaven is the stuff that fills their tummies and takes away their hunger. But they miss the point entirely because they do not see that the bread of heaven (the manna) in the wilderness that came from Moses was a sign that pointed to the true manna from heaven. Jesus reveals to them what the true bread from heaven is—it is himself. He is the bread of life that gives life to the world. He is the one who has come from heaven to feed them and give them eternal life. He is the one who is their spiritual sustenance. He is their daily bread. But the people do not understand because they are not taught by God, they do not hear the words that Jesus speaks to them and receive them as the very words of God the Father. They are of the flesh, not of the spirit. They are children of darkness, not children of the light. They are of their father the devil, not of the heavenly father. They are sheep that do not hear the voice of the Good Shepherd because they are not of his sheep fold. They do not belong to him, and so they do not believe him or believe in him.
But what do the people want that conflicts with what he is offering? They want a sign like the sign that Moses gave. They want bread to satisfy their hunger, and they want a show of divine power. They want to be entertained and catered to. But Jesus is not offering these things. Jesus is offering himself. He has the words of life, but they do not want to listen. They don’t want the words of the giver of life, they just want the gift. Jesus identifies their lusts in John 6:26. They are laboring for food that does not satisfy, and that is not what Jesus offers. Like his offer to the woman at the well in John 4, Jesus offers more. He offers the spiritual bread which is himself. But the people only want barley loaves, proving their father is Esau instead of Jacob. They are willing to sell their spiritual birthright as children of God for a mess of stew!
What does Jesus mean when he uses the mysterious saying, “I am the bread of life”? Jesus expects us to understand that physical hunger is a pointer toward spiritual hunger. Each has a food that is created to satisfy. Earthly bread is meant to satisfy physical hunger pangs (for a time) until the body digests it and craves more. But earthly bread was not created to satisfy spiritual hunger for fellowship with God, and it cannot satisfy spiritual hunger (even for a short time). It simply was not created for that purpose. But spiritual food does satisfy the hunger of the spirit. Jesus teaches that spiritual food actually satisfies, so that he would eats the spiritual food will never spiritually hunger again! What is the bread of life? Jesus is the bread of life! Jesus is given for the life of the world, and he who feeds on him will never be spiritually hungry again.
Nevertheless, the people don’t believe Jesus. Why isn’t seeing the miraculous feeding, along with hearing Jesus teach, enough to convince his audience to believe him? The shorthand answer is belief (faith) does not come from inside a man. Faith is a gift of God. The sovereign choice of God distinguishes between those he chooses to bestow the saving grace of faith upon, and those who he passes over in their sins. The crowds see the miraculous feeding, hear Jesus teach, yet do not believe him. Why do some believe and others do not? Because some are drawn to the Father, and some are not (John 6:44). Because some are given to the Father, and some are not (John 6:39).
So how ought we to interpret what Jesus says about eating his flesh and drinking his blood? Is he telling us the meaning of what he would later institute as the Eucharist/the Lord’s Supper? If so, what’s the meaning? If not, what else is he talking about? This is a difficult passage, and has proven to be a hard saying of Jesus throughout the history of the Church. Reformers Luther and Zwingli could agree on almost everything in terms of Reformation doctrine, but their disagreement about the nature of the Lord’s Supper aroused suspicion and prevented unity. Luther insisted that Jesus was speaking here about the nature of the Eucharist, and accused Zwingli of having a “different spirit” because Zwingli denied the doctrine of consubstantiation (that Christ’s flesh and blood coexisted in, with, and under the common elements). I do not believe Jesus is referring to the nature of the Lord’s Supper in this passage because the closest OT parallel is the story of the manna in the wilderness, not the Passover. I think it best to understand Jesus as speaking in metaphors that connect the experiences of eating and drinking with the reality of mystical union and fellowship with God. On the other hand, this is admittedly the nature of sacraments, so there could be at least a veiled reference to the Lord’s Supper in this passage, but I suspect only in the sense that eating Jesus’ flesh (the sacramental bread) and drinking his blood (the sacramental wine) are signs and seals of union and communion with God.
For some of Jesus’ disciples, this teaching about eating his flesh and drinking his blood is too offensive. How would you put Peter’s response to the hard teaching (6:68) into your own words? I can remember years ago when a friend pressed me on the sovereignty of God in salvation, and how I chaffed at the doctrine. I set out to disprove him and affirm my view that men have the freedom in their own wills to either choose or reject God. But as I began to study the doctrine and carefully read what the Bible has to say about this subject, my confidence in my previous understanding of the Bible began to shake. That is probably putting it lightly! My whole view of God was shaken to the core, and I lost several nights of sleep wondering how I could serve the kind of God I was finding on every page of the Bible. I remember the turning point for me was praying the words of Peter in John 6:68: “Lord, to whom shall I go, for you have the words of eternal life.” I didn’t know what was in store for my spiritual walk from that moment forward, but I knew in my heart that I couldn’t turn anywhere else, because God was all I had, and I knew that he is all there is. Nothing is a substitute for God. So I gave up my idolatrous understanding of God as soon as I discovered who God really is and what he says about himself. And my spiritual walk with God has been blessed since then, more than I could possibly imagine. So I empathize with Peter. I couldn’t bring myself to walk away because there was nowhere for me to go. But I found in my emptiness life in God. Hallelujah!
Now, let’s make this personal. How does God want to feed you? Or if you don’t know, what feelings does your not knowing evoke in you? Personally, I suspect that God wants to feed me through fellowship with Christ in the power of the Spirit. For me, this means I experience spiritual fulfillment when I read the Scriptures often enough that they begin to pop up in my thoughts throughout the day, and when questions of life come to mind, I readily wonder what God’s word has to say. Feeding on Christ means meditation and writing for me, thinking through the issues of my life through a biblical lens. Being spiritually fed means gathering weekly with God’s people in my community to worship and feast on Christ and his word. It means that I am spiritually fed well enough that I have the energy and desire to offer the bread I find to others—friends, neighbors, family. But sometimes I get the feeling of spiritual dryness and spiritual hunger, and my hunger is not satisfied by these things. It is during times like these that I remember that heaven isn’t too far away, and I’m closer to it every day, and it is already, but not yet. Spiritual hunger is a good thing because it makes me yearn for heaven and the redemption of all things in this world. That will be a day when all spiritual hunger will be satisfied forever and ever. Amen.
What alternatives to seeking food from Jesus has life offered you? The world is alluring and at times the siren call is overwhelming. Entertainment offers food that promises life, but it is vacuous and hollow. It does not satisfy. Wealth and security offer a crop of food that sustains itself, but instead they create an appetite for more and more. They do not satisfy. Happiness and health offer food that is tasty and full of delights, but the body is fickle and emotional highs are fleeting. They do not satisfy. Peace offers food that will never perish, but the world is ever full of enemies. It cannot satisfy. Success and recognition promise food that is dependent on the economy and the whims of man. Such unstable food cannot satisfy. Sex says it satisfies, but it has the power to destroy life. Power is a savory dish, but it corrupts or flees, satisfying no one. Nothing satisfies like the food that Jesus offers—himself—because our spiritual hunger was designed only to be satisfied by one thing—God. And Jesus is able to deliver God to us because he is one with the Father.