Manna for a Multitude and a Miracle for His Men
Topic: Gospels Passage: John 6:1–6:21
“MANNA FOR A MULTITUDE AND A MIRACLE FOR HIS MEN”
1 After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. 2 And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. 3 Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. 5 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?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. 7 Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” 10 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. 11 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. 12 And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. 14 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 that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
16 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 miles, 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 glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.
The definition of a “miracle” is “an event unable to be explained by scientific or natural laws.” The colloquial manner in which we use the term today tends to diminish that meaning. For example, we may say that “it was miracle” that we found a parking place or that a sports team rallied and made a “miraculous” comeback. Given that criteria, “miracles” can be said to occur with relative frequency. Perhaps it’s not surprising that we have lost our sense for those things that are truly “miraculous.”
Take for example, the miracles of Jesus Christ. They make for a fascinating study. Somewhere in the neighborhood of forty are recorded in the four Gospels, but there is little doubt that He performed many more that are not reported. In His account of Jesus’ ministry, John selected seven for special consideration. He refers them as “signs.” Near the end of this book, he tells us why he chose the ones that he did: “Now Jesus did many signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30-31).
In the passage from John 6 that we just read, we find two of those miracles...the ones generally referred to as “the feeding of the multitude” and “walking on the water.” And while these two miracles are related in context and provide the foundation for the remainder of chapter 6, they also stand in contrast with one another. One takes place on a mountain and the other on a lake. The first was done in the presence of a great multitude, while the second was observed only by His twelve disciples. Both defied natural law, one serving to arouse the faith of the masses in Jesus as “the Christ,” and the other serving to affirm the faith of His disciples as by knowing Him as “Lord.”
Approximately seven months are believed to have passed since Jesus’ verbal encounter with the Jewish religious leaders in chapter 5. By now, John the Baptist has been put to death by Herod (cf. Matthew 14:1-12), and the opposition to Jesus on the part of His adversaries has been exceeded only by His reputation among the masses. He and His disciples are back in Galilee, where He had called His disciples aside for a little “r and r” (cf. Mark 6:1-32). But His growing popularity prevented Him from avoiding the crowds that persistently followed Him. Mark (6:34-35) tells us that “He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them.” The hour grew late and the sun began to set in the west, the people would not go home.
But let’s let John set the stage for us. In verses 1 through 15, we are told of...
The miracle on the mountain (6:1-15).
When John describes the setting as being on “the other side of the Sea of Galilee,” the reference is to the eastern shore of what was also known as “the Sea of Tiberias”...so named in honor of the second emperor of the Roman Empire. That area is located within the mountainous region that is known today as the Golan Heights.
We are told that “a large crowd was following” Jesus. The tense of the verbs denotes continuous action...the multitude “kept following” “because they (kept seeing) the signs that he was (habitually) doing on the sick.” Clearly, many of them had hoped to find healing or a cure for themselves or for a loved one by being in His presence. They had heard the stories, and some of them had witnessed His miracle-working power. They eagerly longed to be near Him.
Another Passover was drawing near, the second of three recorded by John. We are now likely just a little over one year away from the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. No doubt wearied by the constant press of the crowds wherever He went, He and His disciples “went up on the mountain, and...sat down.” Looking up He saw that “a large crowd was coming toward him.” Rather than retreating further into the hills, Jesus instead felt compassion for those who pursued after Him. Turning to Philip, whose hometown was in nearby Bethsaida (cf. John 1:44), He asked, “Where are we to buy bread so that these people may eat?” “What would you recommend, Philip?”
But Jesus was asking neither for advice nor counsel. His question was intended to test the faith of His disciples. Verse 6 indicates, “For he himself knew what he (was about to) do.” In effect, he was asking, “Do you believe that I am able to feed all of these?” “Do you believe that without having to run down to the nearest 7-11 that I can provide for all of these people?”
Philip has been called be a “practical pessimist.” He pondered the question for a moment, before doing some quick calculating and “crunching the numbers.” Statistically speaking, he reasoned, “two hundred denarii (or eight month’s wages for a laborer) would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” And he was right. But like so many research studies today, Philip’s conclusion was wrong because he began with the wrong hypothesis.
While Philip calculated, Andrew, another of Jesus’ disciples quietly moved among the crowd. He spotted a young boy who had the foresight that day to bring along a “bag lunch” containing hesitant at appearing foolish, Andrew mentioned the meager portion to Jesus...but then quickly added, “but what are they for so many?” Indeed.
I imagine the Lord had to restrain a slight smile at both Philip and Andrew’s suggestions for solving the dilemma that faced them. What He was about to demonstrate was something that their still weak faith could not have possibly conceived. In verse 10, He instructs the disciples to “Have the people sit down.” The mention of there being “much grass in the place” reminds us again that it was the spring of the year and the Passover season was drawing near. That was the time when the Passover lamb would be sacrificed in memory of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt under Moses (cf. Exodus 12:1-28) and in anticipation of the promised Messiah who would provide ultimate deliverance from sin (cf. John 1:29).
We are informed of the size of the crowd in verse 10. When Jesus said, “Have the people sit down,” the word He uses is “ανθρωποs,” which speaks of “mankind” or “people in general regardless of gender. But when it is said that “the men sat down,” a different word is employed: “ανδροs,” which is the term used for “adult males.” In other words, there were “five thousand” men plus an undisclosed number of women and children. Estimates on the part of Bible scholars place the total at somewhere in the range of ten-to-twenty thousand people. Regardless of the number there were a great many people, and what was about to occur was a “miracle” of unprecedented proportion.
Jesus accepted the young lad’s lunch, just as He will accept every sincere offering we bring to Him. Verse 11 says that “Jesus took the loaves (which were little more than small unleavened flatbread), and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish (which likely were no larger in size than sardines), as much as they wanted.” Verse 12 remarkably adds that “they had (ate) their fill.” The tiny portion of food that been provided abundantly multiplied in Jesus’ hands. There was no rationing; everyone ate as much as they wanted until they were fully satisfied.
There have been numerous attempts throughout the centuries to explain away this miracle. I am constantly amazed by those who deny the literalness of the text, and I find myself asking who would want to worship a Savior who was unable to do what is described in clear and unambiguous terms in this passage? Why do we somehow think it easier for God to forgive our sins than that was for Him to feed a very large crowd with a small boy’s lunch? Think about that.
You may or may not be aware that this is the only one of Jesus’ many miracles that is reported by all four of the Gospel writers. That alone should testify to its intended significance. For those who were there that day, it also would have conjured up recollections of how the Lord had provided “manna” for His people during their wilderness wanderings centuries earlier (cf. Exodus 16). It is hard to imagine anyone not making that connection and identifying Jesus with Moses. After all, it was Moses who had told the people that “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” (Deuteronomy 18:15). Could Jesus possibly be the “new Moses”?
“And when they had eaten their fill,” verse 12 continues, “he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing be lost.” “Leftovers?” Some of us may still be eating “leftovers” from our Thanksgiving meal. But we had an abundance of meats, vegetables, and desserts to begin with. Jesus had five small loaves and two small fish presented to Him by one small boy. That simply doesn’t compute...unless you believe in the One who is able to multiply what we offer to Him...namely ourselves. It is not the size of the offering, but the size of the heart with which it is presented. And, even more, it is the One into whose hands it is placed. Jesus did not create new food that day. He multiplied what He had been presented to Him.
Could it be that the reason we are not seeing the hand of the Lord moving more noticeably in our lives and in our church is because we have not yet given God our all? It is what He requires...it is what He has always required of those who are His. We are instructed in Romans 12:1 to “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” Jesus is still saying, “Bring them here to me” (cf. Matthew 13:18). John 6 is an illustration of what He is able to do when we make an offering of ourselves to Him.
As our church family enters into a season of transition over these next several months, let me challenge us to examine ourselves honestly and openly before the Lord and one another. How might we—both individually and corporately—give of ourselves more freely to the One who has given His all to us? Giving, in terms of sharing the Gospel with those who are still without Christ...giving, in terms of building into one another’s lives through relationships and discipleship...giving, in terms of sacrificing financially and physically in support of this ministry and your church family. We pledge to do these things each time we repeat our church covenant with one another, just as we will again in a few minutes. Perhaps we need to reassess how faithful we have been and are being in terms of honoring those pledges. Like Jesus’ first disciples, we all have much growing to do.
“So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten.” ‘Twelve baskets”...one as an object lesson for each disciple to illustrate that nothing of our sacrificial giving to the service of the Lord is ever wasted. I find it noteworthy that, being God, Jesus could have simply created out of nothing a feast for those who had gathered on the hillside that day. But He didn’t. He chose instead to use what was available and had been offered to Him. He used a small boy to supply the meal and His disciples to serve it. To this day His method of carrying out His mission hasn’t changed.
The response of people is always a personal thing. Verse 14 tells us that “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world.” “He is the One of whom Moses wrote,” they declared. But the following statement reveals that recognition alone was insufficient. Despite the miracle, they were still unable to recognize Jesus’ true identity. We find these alarming words in verse 15: “Perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force (and that word, ‘‘αρπαζω,’means ‘to seize suddenly and vehemently’) to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
William Hendriksen describes the prevailing mood and motive of those who pursued Him:
The kind of Messiah the people wanted...(was) one who would be able and willing to provide for their physical needs. When it seemed to them that Jesus would actually fulfill this expectation, they were anxious to lead him in triumph to Jerusalem, if need be by force in order to crown him king. But as soon as it was made clear to them that their hero was not at all what they had imagined him to be, but a spiritual Messiah who had come to save people from the guilt, pollution, and misery of sin, they turned their backs upon him and walked no longer with him.
That is because “signs” do not necessarily generate saving faith. What they do is make one accountable. At times they reveal the absence of spiritual understanding. The miracles are not intended to be an end in themselves, but rather to demonstrate the identity of the One—the only One—who is able to meet our greatest need. And our greatest need is to have our sins forgiven so that we may be rightly related to God.
At this point in our story not even the disciples were able to realize that a cross awaited Jesus. So having provided manna on the mountain for the multitude, and in verses 16 through 21, Jesus is now about to provide...
The miracle on the lake (6:16-21)
...for His men.
“When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.” We had just been told in verse 15 that Jesus had withdrawn to the mountain “by himself.” He needed to be alone with His Father and reflect on the events of that afternoon. Mark’s parallel account says that Jesus “made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd” (Mark 6:45). In other words, He compelled them to go on ahead, assuring them that He would meet up with them on the western side of the lake.
There may have been some hesitation on their part because the Sea of Galilee, located some seven hundred feet below sea level and surrounded by mountains, was known for the strong winds that often swept down upon the lake once the sun set. What’s more, the disciple had to have been curious how Jesus would traverse the seven or eight miles to the opposite shore since they were taking the boat. Would He hitch a ride on a fisherman’s vessel early the next morning?
As fate—or rather, Divine Providence—would have it, a storm did arise, and verse 18 tells us, “The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.” The sky was dark and navigation became difficult. Verse 19 informs us that “they had rowed about three or miles,” which would have put them midway along their journey in the storm-tossed lake. Matthew, one of the disciples, adds this to his firsthand account: “The boat by this time was a long way from land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them” (Matthew 14:24). And Mark (6:48) further says that they were “straining at the oars” (NASV).
I don’t have to tell you that sometimes the Lord allows us to get into desperate situations and does not immediately come to our aid. Just when they thought that they might not be able to maintain control, we read that “they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat.” And their fear increased all the more! “But he said to them” (in verse 20), ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going.”
If I may share a word of personal testimony, this is one of the Scriptural stories that first drew me to faith in Jesus Christ. When I was twenty-four years old, the Lord was in the process of bringing me through a series of trying experiences, out of which He extended His strong hand of grace. I cannot say at what point in time He actually planted the seed of faith within me, but because of everything that was going on in my life at the time I began reading the Bible. One day I was in Matthew’s Gospel, reading his parallel account of this event. There we find a rather significant portion of this amazing story that is omitted by the other Gospel writers. Following Jesus’ reassuring words, Matthew writes,
“And Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying, ‘O you of little faith, why did you doubt?’ And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’” (Matthew 14:28-33).
Mark (6:51-52) tells us that when Jesus “got into the boat with (the disciples)...the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” They saw the miracles, they had sat under His teaching, and yet “they did not understand...their hearts were hardened.” Please notice that it doesn’t say that “they hardened their hearts.” It says, “their hearts were hardened.” In other words, someone had to “free” their “hardened hearts” for them to be made able to see. They were in no position to see for themselves.
I had heard this story many times as a child, but on that day the Bible became quite real to me. Literally, a cold chill raced down my spine and I shivered at the realization of who this Man Jesus truly is! Imagine, “walking on (‘επι,’ ‘upon’) the sea.” Not “in” the water, not “beside” the water, but “on,” “upon” the water. How was He able to do it? The answer is given in seven words—four in Greek—in verse 20: “It is I; do not be afraid.” If any man was going to walk on water, it would have to be by God’s command.
The expression, “It is I,” translates a phrase in Greek that reads, “εγω ειμι,” which literally translated means “I am.” It is a reference to the Divine name, first pronounced by the Lord to Moses at the burning bush (cf. Exodus 3:14), when he was informed just who it was who would be sending him to Egypt to set His people free. “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’” Throughout John’s Gospel, time and again Jesus lays exclusive claim to the “εγο ειμι” title:
- “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35, 48, 51).
- “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12, 9:5).
- “I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7, 9).
- “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11, 14).
- “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).
- “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
- “I am the true vine” (John 15:1).
Besides these, Jesus makes five additional absolute statements claiming to be the great “I AM,” the very One who was at the burning bush that day, and the only One who is worthy of all honor and glory. He alone is to be praised and worshiped. When I finally understood that, I realized that He had already brought me out of the waters and unto Himself and stood with open arms welcoming me into His family.
I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore,
Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more;
But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry,
From the waters lifted me, now safe am I.
Has He done that for you? Where are you in terms of being related to Jesus Christ this morning? He is still compelling His followers to step off the shore and into the boat, and He is still inviting those who are willing to get out of the boat and walk on the water with Him. The rescue of these twelve disciples resulted from Jesus coming to them by walking on the water. It was the fifth of the “signs” reported by John. It was a miracle, but no more of one than in His rescue of any and all who would turn from themselves and become His follower. On this night He walked upon the sea to deliver these twelve. But a little more than a year later He would take a far more difficult walk...a walk that would result in trampling down the forces of hell for those who would humble themselves before Him and acknowledge Him as Savior and Lord.
Both of the “signs” that we find in this passage prepare us for the discourse that follows. We will begin to look at that next Sunday, when Jesus declares Himself to be “the bread of life.” In a moment we who are His by faith will collectively receive the Bread and the Cup, the symbolic remembrances of the death that Jesus died in order that we might live with Him and for Him forever.
I remind you even now that, because of His infallible scrutiny, He sees your heart and knows what is there. You are not what you think you are, or even what others think you are. You are what the Lord knows you to be. Therefore, I urge you to use these moments to examine yourself honestly before Him before partaking of the elements which will be served.
That doesn’t imply that you are sinless. If that were the case, no one would ever observe this ordinance. But it does mean that you are not living a habitual life of sin, and that when you do so sin you are instinctively drawn to repent. And while the eating of the Bread and the drinking of the Cup do not bestow grace, they remind us of the grace that belongs to those who believe by virtue of Christ’s great sacrifice for us.
If you are His by faith, then you are invited and encouraged to worship the Lord with us in this way. If you have not yet experienced the miracle of His saving grace in your own life, then we request—for your sake and out of respect for the meaning of this celebration—that you abstain and observe. Let what you see and hear be a witness to you so, that you may consider what Jesus meant when He said to Hid disciples, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this is remembrance of me,” and “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20).
Taken together, these two miraculous events that we have considered this morning demonstrate the bankruptcy of human calculation and the all-sufficiency of Divine provision. Left to ourselves, our situations are hopeless and desperate. But when placed into the hand of Jesus, the outcome exceeds our fondest imaginations. He has known from the beginning our deepest need, and He appears in the hour of our greatest want to supply what we lack.