By Sam E. Stone
An entire year elapsed between the healing of the lame man (John 5) and the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6). This would be two years after the first cleansing of the temple and one year before the crucifixion. John explains that his Gospel contains only a limited number of the many miracles and teachings of the Lord (John 20:30, 31; 21:25).
Seth Wilson observes that the feeding of the 5,000 was a “turning-point in Jesus’ ministry. Its importance is emphasized by the fact that all four Gospel accounts record it. This is true of surprisingly few incidents.”
Thousands were coming to Christ daily for healing and teaching. At the end of the day, the crowd remained, but there was no place nearby where they could get food. With only five small barley loaves and two fish, Jesus fed more than 5,000 men—besides all of the women and children who were there!
The people were thrilled (John 6:14). Sensing their intent to make him king by force, Jesus withdrew to the mountains by himself. During the night he walked across the Sea of Galilee on the water while his disciples rowed across in a boat. When he got into the boat, “immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading” (v. 21).
The crowd sought Jesus in the most likely place they knew—Capernaum, a town at the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee. This had become a “second home” for Jesus and his disciples. His work was headquartered there, since he left Nazareth and began his ministry (see Matthew 4:13). Scripture refers to Capernaum as “his own town” (Matthew 9:1; see Mark 2:1). The people knew that Jesus did not board the ship when the disciples left. They concluded that he must have found another boat to take him across.
Their first question was, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” When and how he made it across the lake were the big things in their mind! Jesus went to the heart of their question. “You are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” A. T. Robertson wrote, “They were more concerned with empty stomachs than with hungry souls. It was a sharp and deserved rebuke.”
Jesus did not come to give away food; he came to change lives for eternity. This is what really matters. Every person should work in order to have food to eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12). Satisfying spiritual hunger is unquestionably more important and lasting, however.
“What must we do to do the works God requires?” they asked. Like so many people, they wanted some big task they could do to make everything right with God. Millions of others have attempted the same thing over the years. It is not your doing some great thing (as the Pharisees taught), but your believing in Jesus that God expects. Paul speaks of “your work produced by faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3). Salvation is based on faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8), not works of the law (Romans 3:28). While such faith is active and obedient, no one can earn salvation by doing good deeds (compare James 2:14-26). Still wanting another free meal, the people asked Jesus what sign he would give so that they might believe in him.
The Jews then recalled what Moses had done years before. Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert. The people said in essence, “You gave 5,000 people one meal on one day using somebody else’s food. But look what Moses did! He provided manna out of Heaven for hundreds of thousands of people every morning for 40 years! Can you do this?”
Jesus corrected them. It is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. Jesus himself is the bread of God (see also John 6:41, 51). The crowd replied, “From now on give us this bread.” Like the woman at the well (John 4) and Nicodemus (John 3), the people had difficulty understanding what Jesus meant by such figurative speech. He told them clearly: I am the bread of life. For centuries bread has been the basic food for people around the world. Christ offers complete satisfaction and every provision to all who trust him.
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.