Text Study for John 6:1-21
Five weeks of the Bread of Life – here we go again! “There are perhaps few texts that strike trepidation and exasperation in the hearts of preachers,” Karoline Lewis writes, “more than the five consecutive Sundays in the season of Pentecost, Year B. How much can you preach on Jesus as the Bread of Life?” (page 83).
The appointed text for this week is John 6:1-15, but that won’t do. Both the Synoptics and John put the Feeding of the 5000 and Jesus Walking on Water back-to-back. I don’t find it helpful to ignore that obvious connection. So I would recommend, as do most commentators, that we would read verses 1 through 21 in our worship services.
Karoline Lewis sees the “Healing of the Man Ill for Thirty-Eight Years” in John 5 and “Jesus as the Bread of Life” in John 6 as linked by the reference to Moses in John 5:45-46. In addition, she notes that these discourses make clear once again the pattern in this gospel of sign, dialogue, and discourse. She writes that “the structure underscores the main theological point of all of the signs in the Fourth Gospel. Each of the miracles—or signs, as John names them—is miraculous not only on its own terms but also for what it reveals or shows about what it means that Jesus is the Word made flesh” (page 75).
I wonder if the community hearing John’s account has the same question I’ve often heard in parish ministry. Why, Pastor, doesn’t Jesus do signs and miracles among us now on a regular basis? Why were such events largely limited to the earthly life of Jesus and a few decades in the life of the early church? I’m not sure that such signs and miracles are absent from the lives of disciples and congregations. But they seem to come rarely and in their own time, for sure.
“The signs are a questionable source for assessing Jesus’ true self, his true identity,” Lewis argues. “It is worth exploring,” she continues, “the reason for the relative downplaying of the signs and the significance placed on Jesus’ interpretation of the signs” (page 76). The temptation, when we focus on the signs, is to be mesmerized by the miracles, fascinated by the fireworks. In that moment, we tend to take our eyes off of Jesus. Such a focus, I would suggest, leads quickly to aberrations such as the Prosperity Gospel and the Word of Faith movement.
“To know that the full meaning of the sign lies not in the sign itself,” Lewis suggests, “but in Jesus’ interpretation of the sign implies that listening to Jesus, hearing Jesus, is vital” (page 76). She notes that seeing the sign by itself is incomplete, “is not a fully embodied, incarnational experience without listening for the interpretation and its meaning.” Therefore, the dialogues and the discourses are necessary parts of John’s proclamation, and the sign-dialogue-discourse structure reinforces this element of John’s theology.
The mention of Moses in chapter 5 is reinforced by additional allusions in the early verses of chapter 6. This is a priority for John’s account, according to O’Day and Hylen. The double mention of going up the mountain reminds of the Sinai sojourn. They note that Jesus’ question addressed to Philip in verse 5 may remind us of Moses in Numbers 11:13 (NRSV) – “Where am I to get meat to give to all this people?” Moses whines to the Lord. “For they come weeping to me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat!’”
Malina and Rohrbaugh comment on the mountain location of the feeding. “The mountain in Mediterranean culture was a height outside inhabited and cultivated space,” they suggest, “that is, outside the city, the village of the town. A mountaintop was a well-attested place for community with God (like Sinai in the Exodus,” they continue (page 126).
Having a meal in such a space, however, would have been unusual, Malina and Rohrbaugh argue. Wilderness places were the haunts of wild animals, demons, and other chaotic and threatening spirits. They note that people didn’t picnic in wilderness places in the first-century Mediterranean world. Such locations made it hard to guarantee ritual purity, and food stores weren’t readily available (page 126).
It could only be safe and sane to have such an outdoor feast if God, or God’s representative was the host and provider. That seems to me to be an important point to keep in mind as we go along in the early part of chapter 6. “The compassionate God who cared for people with good in the wilderness wanderings,” Paul Berge writes in his Word and World article, “is present in Jesus’ ministry with provision enough for all people.”
“Verses 14–15 indicate that the crowd recognizes Jesus as a prophet like Moses on account of the signs he performs,” O’Day and Hylen write. “Jesus’ withdrawal from them is not a rejection of these associations, but indicates that the crowd does not fully understand what Jesus’ kingship means” (Kindle Location 1517). Jesus is not merely a “bread king.” Rather Jesus brings both abundance and liberation, as is prefigured by Moses in the escape from Egypt and the wilderness sojourn.
“Kings are not simply a political equivalent of a ‘president’ with rights of hereditary succession,” Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest. “Rather, kings have total control of and responsibility for their subjects,” they continue, “they are expected to provide them with fertility, peace, and abundance” (page 126). They note that the nature of Jesus’ kingship is one of the significant themes in John’s account. We should pay attention to that theme in our text.
Malina and Rohrbaugh spend some time on the social and cultural significance of bread in this account and in the first-century Mediterranean world. “Bread constituted one-half of the caloric intake in much of the ancient Mediterranean region,” they write. “Wheat was considered much superior to barley; hence barley (and sorghum) bread was the staple for the poor and slaves,” they observe (page 127).
Barley is more drought-tolerant than wheat and can be grown in a wider range of soil types. Barley flour, however, is not as easy to knead as wheat flower. The bread isn’t as tasty or nutritious and is harder to digest. Barley bread was the food of the poor. That is a fact emphasized in John’s account by the identification of the specific type of bread Jesus used in the feeding. (page 127).
O’Day and Hylen connect Jesus’ walking on the water with the Exodus story as well. This is another reason to read through verse 21. Jesus’ identity in John’s account is never really up for debate in the way it is in Mark’s gospel. The water-walking is more of a confirmation of that identity rather than a demonstration of divine power.
Malina and Rohrbaugh emphasize that Jesus walks on the “sea” rather than merely on “water.” The difference, they argue, matters a great deal. “To walk on the sea,” they suggest, “is to trample on a being that can engulf people with its waves, swallow them in its deep, and support all sorts of living beings” (page 128). The boats used at the time were open to all the threats of the environment. “Jesus’ ability to walk on the sea,” they conclude, “is evidence of his place in the hierarchy of cosmic powers” (page 128).
“When Jesus walks on the sea, it becomes apparent that he, like God, can calm the chaos of the sea. Jesus’ words in verse 20 confirm what his actions demonstrate” (Kindle Location 1538), O’Day and Hylen write. He uses the Divine identifier so common in John’s gospel – “I am.” Translations that render this identification as “It is I,” miss that connection to the assertion of Jesus’ divinity in John’s account.
O’Day and Hylen note that “the combination of the sea crossing…and reference to the divine name suggests God’s power over the waters, a familiar part of the retelling of the Exodus story” in the Psalms and the Prophets (Kindle Location 1544). “Following a miraculous meal set at the time of Passover,” they conclude, “the sea crossing appears as a parallel to the crossing of the Red Sea. Jesus appears to the disciples as the One who led Israel through the waters” (Kindle Location 1546).
The feeding takes place, according to Malina and Rohrbaugh, at the time of the second Passover during Jesus’ ministry. It is clearly spring, we should observe, since there is an abundance of green grass in the wilderness place. “The setting has a specific detail unique to John: that of much grass (6:10),” Lewis notes. “This description alludes to and foreshadows the presentation of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in chapter 10. The pasture for the sheep signals provision and abundance of life,” she suggests, “and this abundance is clearly present in the feeding of the five thousand” (page 83).
Thus, one early take on this text may be to reflect on all the signs of abundance in the story. Jesus has an abundance of time. There is an abundance of grass. There is an abundance of people. There is an abundance of food. There is an abundance of divine power. “Abundant life is predicated on the human necessity of dependence and reliance,” Lewis notes, “Above the minimal needs comes abundance and the ability to thrive” (page 83).
More than enough – that’s probably a good place to launch our five-week sojourn with John.
References and Resources
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Molina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press, 1998.
O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.