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NOTES ON JOHN 6:1-21
Introduction to the chapter
John groups his account of the life and ministry of Christ around three Passovers. The one mentioned in chapter 2, the one in this chapter, and the one at which He was crucified.
There are three important matters to notice in connection with the institution of the Passover. First, that at the initial Passover the children of Israel were united together as a nation, so that in Exodus 12:3 we have the first use of the expression “congregation of Israel”, and in verse 9 the nation is simply described as Israel, thus showing it is now the established name for a nation, and not just one of its founders. Second, that it was a time when that newly formed nation participated together in a common meal. Third, that it was the start of a pilgrim journey to the promised land, for they ate the Passover meal with shoes on their feet, staff in their hand, and loins girded. So as people, as participants, and as pilgrims they celebrated the Passover.
Now these three things are seen in the Passover mentions in John’s gospel. Immediately after the mention of the first, in John 2:13-25, there is the account of the Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus, with its emphasis on the need for the new birth. Significantly, when the Passover was instituted in Exodus 12, then their seventh month was to become their “beginning of months”, Exodus 12:2. They were to have a new beginning on the basis of the shedding of the blood of the lamb. And as already mentioned, we also find in that chapter the first mention of their beginning as a nation, in the phrase “the congregation of Israel”. They were now a people.
Then the second Passover occurs in our chapter 6, and here the emphasis is participating in a new supply of food. Not only had there been a meal of roast lamb on the original Passover night, there had also been a feast of unleavened bread immediately following. Then when Israel reached the desert, there was the manna which fell from heaven for them. New people need new food. Just as Israel marched out of Egypt into the wilderness to be fed by God, so in John 6 the people are in the wilderness, and not only are the loaves multiplied for their bodily needs, but, most importantly, the Bread of God is made available to them.
At the third Passover two things occurred. The true Passover Lamb was slain, ensuring the redemption of those who believe in Him. The blood of Christ made them His new possession. Not only so, but previous to His death, the Lord Jesus prepared His own for His departure from this world, and their needs as those left in this world, but on their way to where He is gone, John 13:1;14:4-6. They had a new prospect in view; instead of an earthly kingdom, it was a heavenly one to which they were heading. They were pilgrims walking “the Way” that Christ had marked out for them so that they could reach the Father, John 14:2-6. Those with new prospects need food to give them energy to press on to what lies before.
Some indication of the importance of the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 is gained by noticing four things at the outset:
First, it is the only miracle that is found in all four gospels. Each of the gospel writers has his own agenda, and presents to us a fresh aspect of the person of Christ, but all four unite in telling of this miracle. This tells us of the supreme importance of the truths expressed through it.
Second, it is the only miracle John records that is found in the other three gospels, for the others he records are not found in Matthew, Mark and Luke. John’s gospel was probably the last of the four to be written, so he knew the others had all given the record of it; nevertheless he still included it, no doubt because he alone of the evangelists records the discourse of the Lord Jesus based on the miracle.
Third, as just stated, it is the only miracle whose significance is expounded by the Lord Jesus.
Fourth, it is the miracle that deals with that most basic of needs, bread itself, the staff of life. The main lesson to come out of the miracle is that we should never underestimate the importance of the word of God, for just as bread is food for the body, the word of God is food for the soul and spirit. When God made man, He made him in His own image. This means that man has rationality, and is able to think and reason. Man also has morality, and is therefore able to distinguish between good and evil. Man has spirituality, for he is not just a body, but has a non-corporeal dimension, enabling him to appreciate God. Fourthly, man was made with personality, with the ability to express and represent God. All these abilities, however, depended for their maintenance on obedience to the word of God. If man distances himself from God by not listening to His word, then he is no longer a complete person, nor can he fulfil the purpose for which God made him. So it was that continued communion with God depended on response to His word in obedience, reverence and love. When Adam and his wife were in the garden, God tested them in the matter of food, and the matter of His word. He instructed them not to eat of a certain tree; that was His word to them. But sadly, when Satan tempted the man and his wife, (and he did this by questioning God’s word with the words, “Hath God said?”, Genesis 3:1), they united in preferring the lie of Satan to the truth of God’s word. As soon as they had done this, we read of the Lord God as He walked in the garden to confront the guilty pair, Genesis 3:8.
Centuries later, God took His people into the wilderness and allowed them to know hunger for a short period, and then gave them bread from heaven in the form of the manna. His purpose for doing this was stated by Moses in Deuteronomy 8:3, “And He humbled thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know; that He might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live”.
When the Lord Jesus was in a wilderness to be tested, He refused to make a stone out of bread because no word from His Father had come to Him to allow that. He based His refusal on the very words of Deuteronomy 8:3. He gloriously triumphed where Adam and Israel had disastrously failed. In John 6 some of the people are in a desert again, and they are given opportunity to triumph by obeying His word. Sadly, most of them walked away, 6:66.
THE WORDS OF THE BIBLE, THE CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURES, AS FOUND IN THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN CHAPTER 6, VERSES 1 TO 21:
6:1 After these things Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias.
6:2 And a great multitude followed Him, because they saw His miracles which He did on them that were diseased.
6:3 And Jesus went up into a mountain, and there He sat with His disciples.
6:4 And the passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh.
6:5 When Jesus then lifted up His eyes, and saw a great company come unto Him, He saith unto Philip, Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat?
6:6 And this He said to prove him: for He himself knew what He would do.
6:7 Philip answered Him, Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little.
6:8 One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, saith unto Him,
6:9 There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?
6:10 And Jesus said, Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand.
6:11 And Jesus took the loaves; and when He had given thanks, He distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would.
6:12 When they were filled, He said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.
6:13 Therefore they gathered them together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten.
6:14 Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world.
6:15 When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take Him by force, to make Him a king, He departed again into a mountain Himself alone.
6:16 And when even was now come, His disciples went down unto the sea,
6:17 And entered into a ship, and went over the sea toward Capernaum. And it was now dark, and Jesus was not come to them.
6:18 And the sea arose by reason of a great wind that blew.
6:19 So when they had rowed about five and twenty or thirty furlongs, they see Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing nigh unto the ship: and they were afraid.
6:20 But He saith unto them, It is I; be not afraid.
6:21 Then they willingly received Him into the ship: and immediately the ship was at the land whither they went.
Structure of John chapter six
Section 1 Verses 1-15 The feeding of the five thousand.
Section 2 Verses 16-21 The storm on the lake.
Section 3 Verses 22-33 Seeking the True Bread.
Section 4 Verses 34-46 Seeing the Son.
Section 5 Verses 47-59 Eating the flesh of the Son of Man.
Section 6 Verses 60-71 Going back or standing firm.
Section 1 Verses 1-15 The feeding of the five thousand
The setting of the miracle
6:1 After these things Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias.
John begins the chapter as he begins both chapters 5 and 7. Several weeks or months may separate the chapters, but he wants us to know that there is a connection between the incidents he records. In chapter 5, the emphasis was on the Sabbath day, so John does not tell us what feast was being celebrated at that time. In chapter 7 it is the time of the feast of Tabernacles, but in this chapter it is Passover time. At such a season the feelings of the nation would be highly charged, as they remembered the dramatic way in which God had delivered them in a past day. Yet John deliberately tells us that the sea that the Lord Jesus crossed immediately prior to the miracle, was not only called the sea of Galilee, but was also called the sea of Tiberias. In this way he reminds us that the nation was under the domination of Rome, for the lake that was normally called Galilee, was also called Tiberias, after one of the Roman Emperors. As we shall see, the Lord walked on the waters of this lake during the night, thus showing symbolically that He was superior to the power of the world.
6:2 And a great multitude followed him, because they saw his miracles which He did on them that were diseased. Luke in his account assures us that these miracles were healing miracles, reminding us that immediately after leaving Egypt and crossing the Red Sea, the children of Israel were assured that their God was Jehovah Ropheka, “Jehovah thine Healer”. The promise was given to them in Exodus 15:26,27, that if they kept God’s commandments, He would not put any of the diseases of Egypt upon them. In John 6, however, the healing was done without any such condition, emphasising that Christ had come in grace.
6:3 And Jesus went up into a mountain, and there He sat with His disciples. Soon after coming out of Egypt, the children of Israel had assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai, to hear God speaking to them. Already in His ministry on another mountain, as found in Matthew chapters 5-7, the Lord Jesus has shown that He had not come to destroy the law given at Sinai, but rather had come to fill out its meaning, and to point out that motives as well as actions were important. Here, on another mountain, He instructs both the people, as Mark’s account makes clear, and His disciples, as Luke records.
6:4 And the Passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh. We notice again that John calls this feast a feast of the Jews, whereas in the Leviticus 23 the festivals were called the feasts of Jehovah. The nation had displaced God from His central place in their hearts and lives. Christianity has no religious festivals, but there is the injunction for believers to do everything as unto the Lord, and to His glory, 1 Corinthians 10:31. The Corinthians had made the same mistake as Israel, for they had turned the Lord’s Supper into their own supper, 1 Corinthians 11:20,21. By both His miracle and His teaching in this chapter, the Lord Jesus will restore God to His rightful place in the hearts of those who respond to His word. Peter shows that He has this rightful place in his heart when he makes his confession in verse 69.
At this point, we could contrast and compare the situation with Israel subsequent to the first Passover, and the situation in this chapter.
Passover time Passover time
Great multitude leave Egypt Great multitude
Start the journey across the desert A desert place
God shown to be Jehovah their Healer Christ healed the people
No disease if obedient to law Diseases healed without conditions
Assemble at Mount Sinai On a mountain with the disciples
People hunger in the wilderness People hunger
6:5,6 When Jesus then lifted up His eyes, and saw a great company come unto Him, He saith unto Philip, Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat? And this He said to prove him: for he himself knew what He would do. Just as a great multitude of Israelites had been brought into a wilderness by Moses, so now, another multitude is found in the wilderness, but this time, with Christ. Of old, the people had asked the question, “Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?” Psalm 78:19, and God had responded by raining bread from heaven for them, Exodus 16:4. The situation is the same in principle here, but with the difference that it is the disciples who express doubt, as the records in Matthew and Mark show.
In John’s account, however, it is Philip that is the focus of attention, and the Lord asks him a question to prove him, as the next verse says. But why Philip? And why are Andrew and Simon Peter mentioned in verse 8? We know that by this time the twelve apostles had been chosen, so why are these three singled out? On other occasions it was Peter, James and John who were specially favoured, as in Matthew 26:37; Luke 8:51; 9:28.
The answer may lie in the fact that these three were amongst the first to follow the Lord, and therefore were with Christ at the marriage in Cana. Because of this, they knew that He was able to turn water into wine. They had seen His glory and believed in Him, John 2:11. They should have appreciated that if He was competent in the matter of wine, He would be competent also in the matter of bread.
Alas, Philip, when proved, did not pass the test, but fell into the mistake of limiting God, and thinking in terms of human resources, as the next verse indicates. Not only Philip, but ten of his fellow-apostles are being prepared for the great task of feeding the souls of men with the word of God, as they went into all the world after Pentecost. They would be fortified by the thought that, although they were not sufficient for the task, as the apostle Paul confessed, 2 Corinthians 3:4,5, yet Christ was fully able to meet the need..
6:7 Philip answered him, Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little. Instead of drawing on his experience at Cana, and also his knowledge of God’s dealings with Israel in the wilderness, Philip can only think in terms of man’s currency, pennies, and man’s products, baker’s loaves. Once again, the lesson is going to be taught that God is not outwitted by any circumstance, and He is fully able to meet the need of the moment. A penny was a day’s wages for a labourer in those times, Matthew 20:3, and so is equivalent to about £50 today. 200 pennyworth would therefore equate to £10,000, and therefore was a considerable sum, indicating the vast crowd of people that were gathered.
Clearly, Philip is thinking of the fact that the need was far greater than they could supply. And even if they had such resources, only a little bread could be made available, certainly not enough to fill the hungry people and have a surplus.
6:8,9 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, saith unto him, There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many? Andrew also manifests a lack of faith in the Lord’s abilities, and shows he is overawed by the great need that confronts them. Notice that the loaves are barley loaves, the food of the poor, and the fishes are small. How appropriate that the one who “became poor”, 2 Corinthians 8:9, and who “humbled Himself”, Philippians 2:7 should use these things, not only to feed the multitude, but also to show that He had come from heaven in grace and humility to nourish the souls of men. We note the willingness of the lad to give up his lunch, in order that the work of God may be furthered. We ought to ask ourselves whether we are prepared to give anything up for God’s cause? In a very real sense, the lad did what Philip did not, even “give them to eat”. No matter how young in the faith we may be, we may do what the Lord calls us to do. Who knows what far-reaching consequences there might be? The lad did not lose out by giving up his meal, for he had the great privilege of eating a meal miraculously supplied.
6:10 And Jesus said, Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. The particular spot where this miracle took place was noted for its relatively fertile soil. Despite being classed as a desert, there would be grass here, for the people’s comfort. As to the location, we are told in Luke 9:10 that it was “a desert place belonging to the city called Bethsaida”. There are two possibilities here. We know from previous incidents in the gospel records that the journey was taken from the Capernaum side of the lake, and the return journey was to that area too, for the discourse on the bread was given, in part at least, in the synagogue in Capernaum. So either the Bethsaida Luke mentions is Bethsaida Julias, a town on the north west shore of Galilee, or the emphasis is on the expression “a desert place belonging to”, which would indicate land on the east side of the lake which was allotted to Bethsaida on the west side, where fishermen, if stranded by storms, could shelter if need be. All this serves to highlight the fact that the Lord deliberately arranged for the miracle to be performed where normal supplies were unavailable, thus casting them on divine resources, as Israel were cast in old time. After He had performed the miracle, He immediately returned to the other side of the lake.
Mark tells us that the men were made to sit down in “ranks, by hundreds and by fifties”, Mark 6:40. This may simply mean that there were two sizes of company, those of 50 people and those of 100. This raises the question why this should be. Alternatively, Mark is telling us that the companies were all of 50, and there were one hundred of them, amounting to the number 5000 mentioned in the narrative. Luke definitely tells us in his account that the command to the disciples was to make the men sit down by fifties in a company, Luke 9:14. This suggests a further link with the first Passover, for when Israel came out of Egypt, they marched “harnessed”, or, as this may be translated, “by fifties”. As they sat waiting for the bread to be distributed to them, many may have made this connection, just as when Joseph’s brothers were sitting down to eat with him, they realised that they were sitting round the table in the order of their birth, Genesis 43:33. Whatever the precise meaning, the thought is that the meal was conducted in an orderly way, for God is the God of order, not confusion, 1 Corinthians 14:33, and God manifest in flesh is showing that.
6:11 And Jesus took the loaves; and when He had given thanks, He distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would. Note that the disciples have no part in the miracle, but are simply handed a seemingly endless stream of fragments of loaves and fishes. The practice of giving thanks for food is here endorsed by the Son of God, who, as a dependant man, is thankful for His Father’s provision for the need. See 1 Timothy 4:5, where food is said to be sanctified by the word of God and prayer, the word of God in question being that found in Genesis 1:29. The disciples are learning to serve on one level, so that eventually they will be fitted to serve by feeding the souls of men, and thus fulfil the original command to the disciples, “Give ye them to eat”, Matthew 14:16. See Acts 6:1-4, with its two ways of serving, either material needs, or spiritual. The word for serve is the same for both, meaning deacon service.
6:12 When they were filled, He said unto His disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost. Philip had only thought of every one taking a little, verse 7. God is the one who “left not Himself without witness, in that He did good, and gave us rain from heaven, and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness”, Acts 14:17. Christ is demonstrating once again that He, God manifest in flesh, is the Creator and Sustainer of all things. We should not think of the fragments remaining as being crumbs dropped on the ground. These would be fragments that the Lord had broken off, which were over and above what was needed to satisfy the multitude. There was an abundant supply, with “bread enough and to spare”, Luke 15:17. The people are being tested by this provision of literal bread, to see whether they will seek for the spiritual bread. Sadly, as becomes evident later in verse 26, they did not.
6:13 Therefore they gathered them together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten. The Lord knew the need of His disciples, not only because they had waited upon thousands of people, but also because they were about to try to row across the lake. They would each have a basketful of bread to reward them for their efforts, and energise them for the task ahead. The Lord always sustains His servants if they are doing what He has commanded them to do. The apostle Paul testified that he was able to do all things, because Christ strengthened him, Philippians 4:13.
6:14 Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world. Just as the manna had been given to prove the children of Israel, to see whether they would respond to God, so here. Unhappily, the response of the people is one of mere political fervour, seeing in Christ only a person who can meet their desire for deliverance from Roman occupation, and meet their daily needs. They are still looking on Him simply as a wonder-worker, and are not prepared to own Him as the Son of God, despite the miracle just performed to prove it. Their reference to the prophet is in line with Deuteronomy 18:18, but it is not clear that they equated this prophet with the Messiah, as they should have done. The Samaritan woman had called the Lord a prophet, (and according to her understanding as a Samaritan there was only one prophet after Moses), and then described Him as the Christ, or Messiah, John 4:19,29.
6:15 When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take Him by force, to make him a king, He departed again into a mountain Himself alone. He shows that He is not subject to the whims of the people, for He will only accept the throne of Israel from His Father. “The Lord God will give unto Him the throne of His Father David”, Luke 1:32. He had been offered the kingdoms of the world by the Devil, but had rejected such an offer with the contempt it deserved, Luke 4:5-8. It is worth remembering that the title King of Israel is a Divine title, Isaiah 44:6.
SECTION 2 Verses 16-21 THE STORM ON THE LAKE
6:16,17 And when even was now come, His disciples went down unto the sea, and entered into a ship, and went over the sea toward Capernaum. And it was now dark, and Jesus was not come to them. Obeying the Lord’s command, Matthew 14:22, the disciples begin their journey across the lake., After having sent the multitudes away, indicating to them that he had no more to say to them that day, Lord had remained in the mountain to pray.
6:18 And the sea arose by reason of a great wind that blew. We should not confuse this incident with the storm on the lake, with the Lord present in the boat. Here the disciples are being taught that even though He was not in the vessel, He was still in control. The wind was contrary, according to Matthew 14:24, and it is evident that the disciples had been forced to row, rather than sail. It is to their credit that they do not turn back.. Their Lord had instructed them to go before Him to the other side, Matthew 14:22, and they were resolved to obey.
6:19 So when they had rowed about five and twenty or thirty furlongs, they see Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing nigh unto the ship: and they were afraid. To walk on the sea is to show total control over that which man cannot control. The Egyptian hieroglyphic for the word “impossible” was a picture of two feet over wavy lines representing the sea. With God all things are possible, and God manifest in flesh is demonstrating this fact. Not only is the Lord walking on the sea, but Mark tells us that He drew nigh to the ship, so He was walking faster than they were rowing. Even though He had started out later than they had, He had now reached them, and was about to pass by them, thus overtaking them, Mark 6:48. Clearly the contrary winds and the rising sea present no problem to Him. It is said of God that His way is in the sea, Psalm 77:19, the reference there being to the passage made for the Israelites to cross the sea. Now He is showing that He does not need a passage made for Him to walk through, for He walks on the sea as if it is dry land, and He leaves no impress on the sea bottom, so “His footsteps are not known”, as the psalm said. John is careful to make us aware that they are far from the shore. The “walking on the water” was not walking on sand banks in shallow water, as some infidels suggest. Galilee is approximately 11 kilometres wide. This means that 25-30 furlongs is in the middle of the lake, so they have no easy route to escape the storm. Christ comes to the rescue when we have come to an end of ourselves.
6:20 But He saith unto them, It is I; be not afraid. The “but” is in answer to the unspoken fear of the disciples The disciples now learn that they need fear no situation, for He is in control of all things. It is possible that Judas would have deduced from such an incident that the Lord was able to escape from any difficult situation, and that even if he betrayed Him He would be able to escape.
6:21 Then they willingly received Him into the ship: and immediately the ship was at the land whither they went. They had been reluctant before, since they knew not what it was that came across the water to them, but now, His word of calm makes them willing to welcome Him into the ship.
The disciples have been prepared for the sort of situation that will confront them as they are sent forth after Christ’s ascension into the world to “give them to eat”, in other words, to preach Christ to hungry souls. The apostle Paul reminded the Ephesian believers that unless they were taught by those whom Christ had sent unto them, they would be tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine, and they would be blown off course, Ephesians 4:11-14. Paul himself learned that in his most difficult experiences, he could count on the Lord being with him. When no man stood with him to plead his cause before Nero, he was conscious that the Lord stood by him, 2 Timothy 4:16-18. He could remind Timothy that the Lord is at hand, or at our elbow, Philippians 4:5. No matter how dark the hour, or how contrary the opposing forces, our Lord and Saviour is superior to all, for He is Lord of all, Acts 10:36. This truth would be a great encouragement to Peter as the whole Gentile world, (represented by Cornelius), opened out before him.
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