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  • « Word & Spirit by John Calvin | Main | The kind of faith that saves »

    Studies in John (Lesson 6: The Feeding of the Five Thousand)

    I.The Table of the Bread of the Presence

    When one first entered the Tabernacle proper, after having passed through the courtyard, he would immediately notice the table of the bread of the presence on his left (Exodus 25:23-30). This table, especially in light of the name that God had given to it, would immediately call to mind the same principle displayed in the observance of Israel's joyful feasts; that, in consequence of the blood sacrifice which God had been pleased with, his people would be invited to enjoy fellowship with God, in the manner of a great and joyous feast. Hence, it was not just bread, for feasting – but the bread of the very presence of God, for feasting in blessed fellowship with him.

    While the table of the bread of the presence certainly looked ahead to the final and eternal Sabbath-feast in God's very presence, it also had significance for the spiritual life of the believer, as long as he remained upon earth. For first, although he had been granted life, through the sacrifice which had undergone death in his place, he still needed some means for the ongoing continuance and sustenance of that life; and just as physical life must be sustained by bread, so the table signified the ongoing sustenance of spiritual life. And second, just as a believer, after he has been brought into a relationship with God, still needs the ongoing guidance of God's intimate presence, so also the table held forth, in a figure, the continuing presence of God, for guidance throughout his spiritual journey.

    As we will see in this week's lesson, Jesus became the perfect fulfillment of this symbol of the table of the bread of the presence. For, in consequence of his self-sacrifice, he provided for his people the principle by which their true life would be sustained for all eternity; and not just sustained, but ultimately culminating in a joyful and everlasting feast in the very presence of God. And furthermore, throughout the Christian's lifetime, he provides the strengthening of spiritual life, and guidance for the journey, which he mediates through his personal presence. To these truths, we will now turn our attention.

    II.Textual Analysis

    The Feeding of the Five Thousand (John 6:1-15)

    This miracle is unique in that it is recorded in all four gospels; most of the miracles that John records are found in his gospel alone. However, John is the only gospel-writer who couples this miracle with Jesus' ensuing discourse on himself as the Bread of Life; the miracle itself is not John's primary concern, but rather, what we may learn of who Christ is by means of this sign. And further, beyond the teaching on Jesus' person, John continues to develop his theme of the sort of faith the multitudes had, why it fell short of the faith which leads to eternal life, and why they possessed only the former and not the latter. This is, of course, in keeping with his stated purpose (John 20:31).

    The outstanding characteristic of this sign is the lavishness with which Jesus provides the substance of feasting and sustenance. Hence, the common emphasis on the generosity of the child who shared his lunch is certainly misplaced (although he is no doubt to be commended for his attitude). This is not a passage on generosity and goodwill among humankind – it is a passage on Jesus' self-sacrifice which results in lavish blessings, and enables a renewed humanity which is truly able to rejoice together as one body. The lavishness of this gift is emphasized by the numbers for whom Christ provided (five thousand adult males could indicate as many as twenty-thousand persons of any age or gender), as well as the degree to which he provided for them (they all ate to the point of complete satisfaction, and there remained twelve large baskets full of fragments).

    The common reaction to this sign-miracle seems at first glance to be commendable – they immediately recognize Jesus as the prophet whom Moses spoke about (as he indeed was); and also as the King which God had said he would raise up to David (as he was as well). However, even in this recognition, they betray their false understanding: for they are willing to make him king by force, and thus evince both a complete ignorance of his role as a substitutionary sacrifice, which he is demonstrating in this miracle; and they also betray their carnal natures, which are drawn to him simply for the physical benefits he provides, and refuse to look to the greater, spiritual benefits which the physical goods signify. And furthermore, as Jesus' discourse will make manifest, they still see Jesus as a mere man, the son of two human parents, and not the God of creation, as he claimed to be.

    Walking on the Water (John 6:16-21)

    It is likely that John's purpose in relating this miracle is primarily to explain how Jesus got to the other side of the lake, and to give the background for the dialogue which arises between him and the Jews. The major emphasis of the entire passage is really the miraculous provision of bread, and Jesus' teachings which follow. However, it seems reasonable to suppose that this miracle of walking on the water also possesses some theological significance which is closely connected to the imagery of the table of the bread of the presence.

    Just as the former miracle demonstrated the lavish provision for life, which Christ would accomplish, and even looked ahead to the Sabbath feast in the presence of God, this miracle seems to emphasize the fact of God's presence and guidance in the midst of our Christian lives. The disciples were rowing laboriously, and unable to make any significant progress – which is certainly the case in our spiritual journey, in which, the greatest efforts of our own strength and will avail us nothing. But then, in the midst of their struggle, God, in the person of Jesus Christ, miraculously arrives to strengthen them, and indeed to perform the work for them – just as he does today. And also, just as he miraculously brought them on their journey, so that at once, with no more expenditure of labor, they arrived at their desired destination, so with us, when Jesus comes to aid us, he not only guides us to the harbor of his eternal kingdom; but furthermore, he does all the necessary work to bring us there. And so, this miracle, when coupled with the former, truly does display every element that the table of the bread of the presence signified, and displays them as fully accomplished in Christ.

    I Am the Bread of Life (John 6:22-40)

    As soon as the multitudes found Jesus, the day following his miraculous provision of bread, they began to display the faulty nature of their faith. They still do not understand who Jesus is, as is apparent in their amazement at his inexplicable crossing of the lake. And Jesus, instead of responding to their curious questions, immediately brings to light the root of their problem, and tells them that their desire to follow him has nothing to do with what they have learned of his person, through his signs, but involves a merely natural desire for material benefits. Then, when he exhorts them to start giving more heed to the bread which truly matters, that is, the bread which gives eternal life, which Christ can give as well as physical bread, they betray even more ignorance, and ask how they can earn, or work for this bread. Surely, they should have learned from the previous day's miracle that Christ gave bread freely, not in payment for any work!

    When Jesus explains to them what they should already have known, that eternal life is given to him who believes in Christ, whom the Father sent, they are brash enough to ask of him a sign that he truly does have the ability to give life – and they demand this sign on the basis that Moses, who was sent to the people by God, provided bread in the wilderness. It is staggering that this demand takes place the day after Jesus had so miraculously provided bread, in a more powerful way than Moses, who just announced God's intention of provision. It seems as if they are just proving Jesus' point that they are seeking a way to get more physical bread, and do not have any care for the meaning of the miraculous sign. Jesus therefore rebukes their ongoing hardness with the observation that Moses did not give bread, but God sent it down from heaven; and that furthermore, the same God is the one who sends the true Bread down from heaven, and that this Bread is the One who descended from heaven to give eternal life to the world.

    As the Jews are still blindly given over to a materialistic interpretation of this teaching, Jesus then becomes unmistakably clear, and tells them, “I am the Bread of Life” (vs. 35). The one who receives Jesus himself, and not just his sign-gifts, will receive eternal life, and not just physical bread for a day. Of course, by coming to Jesus and receiving him (and we will later see, by “eating his flesh and drinking his blood”), Jesus just means “believing” on him. One must believe in who Christ is, and what he was about to accomplish on the cross, if one would partake of the eternal life that he could give.

    At this point, it seems as if Jesus' offer of eternal life must be in vain; for only those who believe in him will be given eternal life; and, as has been made poignantly clear in this discourse, the Jews do not believe in him. However, this seeming obstacle poses no problem; for Jesus does not rest his hope of bringing a people from death into life on the basis of their own ability to believe. His hope rests in something more fundamental: and that is, that the Father has promised to give a certain people to the Son; and that he will unfailingly bring this people to true faith in him. Since it is the Father's will that a people composed of definite, chosen persons believe on the Son; and furthermore, since it is his will that of those who believe, none should perish, but the Son should give them all eternal life; it is therefore absolutely certain that this people whom the Father has covenanted to give the Son will indeed be eternally saved.

    No One is Able to Come (John 6:41-51)

    At this point, the unbelieving Jews are becoming increasingly offended at Jesus' teachings. For first, they speak too highly of Jesus, making him God's equal, and the only Redeemer and Mediator of men, which they cannot accept, since they mistakenly believe that they know his two human parents, Joseph and Mary. And second, it seems that they are offended because these teachings speak too lowly of the Jews themselves, for Jesus has certainly accused them of ignorance and unbelief, and has strongly suggested that they are unable to understand and believe the Father's word. But if they are offended already, they will become more so: for Jesus now begins to speak all the more clearly to the Jews inability to believe. No one is able to come to Jesus (remember, by “coming” he means “believing,” vs. 35) unless the Father brings him to Jesus. Since Jesus had just said that all whom the Father gives him will come, it now becomes clear that all of humanity can be spoken of under one of these two categories: those whom the Father eternally chose will all believe in Jesus, without a single exception; and those whom the Father has not chosen to give to him are not able to believe – not even a single one.

    Although this offensive teaching may have seemed strange and unprecedented to the Jews, Jesus makes clear that it is not a new idea – even the Old Testament scriptures taught that everyone who is made a true partaker of the New Covenant will be “taught of God” (Isaiah 54:13; see also Jeremiah 31:31-34). All Jesus is doing is affirming that same truth: no one will be engrafted into the New Covenant, in Jesus' blood, unless God himself brings him to true faith. And it is only these, whom the Father gives to the Son, and draws unto him, who have eternal life; for it is only these who eat of Jesus' flesh and drink of his blood, which contain the provision of eternal life. The Jews of Jesus' time could eat the physical bread he provided, just as the Jews of Moses' time ate the manna. But even as those eventually died, so all who ate merely of Christ's physical bread would likewise die.

    Eating the Flesh of Christ (John 6:52-59)

    At each point in the conversation, the Jews become more offended at Jesus' difficult teachings: here, they are utterly appalled at his teaching that men should eat his flesh and drink his blood. It was unthinkable to them that he could give life to the world through his flesh; and they did not understand the symbolism of “eating” his flesh. But in actuality, the easily-grasped concept that, if one should eat physical bread his life would be sustained, was just a symbolical reality, and operated on a lesser plane of life and existence. True life, which involves eternal, joyful fellowship with God, could not be sustained by anything physical – it could only be given by Christ's sacrifice of his body, and his shedding of his blood. Anyone who believed in Christ's becoming a perfect, bloody sacrifice in his own place, and for his own sins, would pass into eternal life. This believing is signified by the eating of the miraculously-provided physical bread. Just as the Son has the principle of indissoluble, eternal life in himself, through his inter-Trinitarian relationship with the Father, so anyone who ate Christ's flesh would be given this same principle of eternal life, through his indissoluble relationship with the God-man, who can be united both to the Father and to mankind, by means of his divine and human nature, which exist in his one person.

    The Multitudes Leave (John 6:60-71)

    Now, the multitudes illustrate Christ's difficult teaching that, it is impossible for anyone to believe unless the Father grants him faith; for they all disbelieve his statements, and go away offended. In fact, they unwittingly confess as much, asking the rhetorical question, “This is a difficult saying – who is able to hear it?” (vs. 60). Jesus responds to their unbelief that he is the eternal Son of God, who descended from heaven, by predicting that he would ascend to heaven, and thus prove that he first descended from there. Then, he emphasized his teaching that, the physical signs he provided did not profit at all; but the spiritual truths they signified, which were the very things he was teaching them, had eternal, life-giving profit. However, only the Spirit could grant new life, which would believe these sayings. That was, in fact, the reason that he made the unpopular observation, “No one is able to come unto me, unless it should be given to him from the Father” (vs. 65).

    Before John concludes this almost entirely negative example of unbelief, he adds an observation which demonstrates the truth of Christ's teaching that there does exist a body of chosen persons who will indeed come to Jesus. These are represented by the twelve, who do not leave Jesus because of his hard sayings – on the contrary, they confess that Jesus' teachings are the words of life, and that they have believed in him. Jesus does not respond with relief or surprise, but simply observed that their belief came because he had chosen them. He also notes that he has selected a “devil”, an imposter and betrayer, lest Judas' future treachery should seem to invalidate his saying that all whom the Father has chosen, without exception, would be given eternal life. Judas is no exception, for, from the beginning, Jesus knew who he was and what he would do.


    We have examined many precious truths from this chapter, but the most notable may be categorized under two heads: first, Jesus fulfills in his person, and particularly through his bloody self-sacrifice, all the promises symbolized by the table of the bread of the presence. These include the impartation and eternal sustenance of spiritual life, to all who “eat his flesh and drink his blood” through faith in his substitutionary work; the Sabbath-feast of joyous fellowship in God's presence; and even a continued guiding and sustaining presence in this life, as Christ comes in miraculous ways to all of his true people. The second head is the difficult teaching on divine election and human inability. No one is naturally able to believe in Christ, and so pass into life. However, “what is impossible with men is possible with God” (Matthew 19:23-26) – and God has eternally purposed to give a people to the Son. These all will come, because the Father will unerringly draw them to him, and Jesus will not cast them out, but will give them eternal life. Let us rejoice in the Father's gracious power, and come to Christ, in whom is life eternal and free!

    Posted by Nathan on January 16, 2007 05:33 PM


    I've always found the feeding of the multitudes interesting because many believe the food was multiplied, but the text says some things that cast doubts on that...

    Mk 6:41 - And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all.

    Notice that it says he divided the "two fish".

    Jn 6:13 - So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten.

    Here it says that after all had eaten they gathered fragments from the "five" loaves.

    Whatever term you want to use, when five loaves and two fish, of such a size that they would have consituted one boy's lunch, fed a crowd containing five thousand adult men, there was some multiplication going on -- perhaps not in the number of loaves and fish, but in the sheer quantity of the substance into which those insignificant morsels became, when they were divided.

    This was certainly an extraordinary miracle, which teaches much of Christ's lavish provision of that which is necessary for eternal life.

    But does it teach us that fish and bread are our provision or that the presence of Christ is our provision?

    In Jn 6 Jesus not only gives them provision when He feeds the multitude, it is also the chapter that Jesus tells them that He is the bread of life. Saying in verse 35, "whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst."

    Perhaps the multitude was filled because of the presence of the Lord.

    Jesus is obviously teaching us that he alone is our provision for eternal life, specifically with regard to his cross work. But he is teaching us that through the sign of a literal multiplication of literal bread and fish.

    The multitudes were not filled because of the presence of the Lord. They did not believe on Christ, and so did not partake of the spiritual food and drink provided by his sacrificial flesh and blood. But they were filled with physical food, which, as Jesus said, was the real reason they came back -- for more physical provision.

    So this miracle shows us how Christ feeds us with himself. What about the leftovers?

    Why didn’t he just create exactly enough to feed/ atone for who was there?

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