Jesus as the Bread of Life: The Miraculous Feeding of the Multitude

 

This lesson is entitled “Real Life and Commitment” in the LifeWay curriculum.

 

 Sunday School Lesson for October 13, 2002

 

Background Passage: John 6:1-71

 

Focal Teaching Passages: John 6:1-14, 35

 

The Circumstances Surrounding the Miracle

 

This sign, the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels, occurred “some time after” the events depicted in chapter five—perhaps 6 months to a year later. New Testament scholars have suggested April of A.D. 29, or one year before Jesus’ death, as the time frame for this event. At this point Jesus was experiencing the zenith of His popularity among the masses. Matthew and Mark indicate that this miracle followed closely on the heels of the death of John the Baptist who was beheaded by Herod as a favor to the daughter of Herodias (Mark 6:20-28). Luke indicates that the miracle followed the return of the disciples from their missionary labors (Luke 9:10). The composite picture reveals that, while He was gaining in popularity, it was a time of fear and weariness in the life of Jesus’ disciples.

 

The Preparation for the Miracle (6:1-3)

 

Having heard the report of His men Jesus pulled them aside for rest—“Jesus went up on the hillside and sat down with his disciples” (v. 3).  According to Mark 6:31 the men had not even had time to eat. In addition to their need for rest and food, Jesus drew His men aside because the crowds of people had obviously misunderstood the true nature of His mission and ministry—“crowds of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs” (v. 2).  The people of Israel wanted a spectacular political messiah, not a Savior who would conquer their guilt, misery, and sin by means of His sacrificial death. Yet, as the Gospel accounts are compared, we see that it was a very common practice for Jesus to withdraw to the mountains to pray and recover His strength  (John 6:15; 8:1; Matthew 15:29; 17:1; 28:16; Mark 5:5; 9:2; 14:26; Luke 9:28). The “hillside” referenced in verse 3 was likely the area known today as the Golan Heights, the region due east of the lake.

 

 

The Details of the Miracle (6:3-14)

 

Verses 3-9

This miraculous sign occurred in the vicinity of Bethsaida-Julias near the plain of Gennesaret located on the east side of the “Sea of Tiberias.”  The lake was also known by the names Kinnereth, Chineroth, and Gennaseret. According to verse 4 it was near the time of the “Jewish Passover,” likely the third and last Passover of Jesus’ life which He did not attend (7:1). D. A. Carson observes that the Passover Feast “was to the Palestinian Jews what the fourth of July is to Americans . . . . It was a rallying point for intense nationalistic zeal” [269]. This fact helps explain John’s notation regarding the crowd’s objective in verse fifteen—“they intended to come and make him king by force.”

 

In verse 5 John tells us that “a great crowd” had begun to follow Jesus.  Mark’s version specifically notes that Jesus and the disciples had traveled to Bethsaida by boat while the multitudes followed ahead of them on foot (Mark 6:33-34). When they arrived at the other side of the lake Jesus beheld this great crowd and was deeply moved with compassion (Matthew 14:14; Mark 6:34; Luke 9:11). Immediately, He began to heal them and bring instruction to them regarding the kingdom of God. Then, as evening fell in the desolate place, the disciples wanted Jesus to send the multitudes away so that they could eat (Luke 9:12). This circumstance, however, provided Jesus with an opportunity to test the faith of His men. Turning to “Philip” Jesus asked, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?  Luke records that Jesus commanded His men to feed them (Luke 9:13), while already having “in mind what He was gong to do” (John 6:6).

 

Philip and the other disciples, in a very logical approach to this problem, surmised that “eight months wages” would not be sufficient to “buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” (v.7). From a strictly human vantage point the situation looked hopeless at best. Then, “another of his disciples” (vv.8-9), “Andrew,” the brother of Simon Peter, brought a young lad to Jesus who had “five small barley loaves and two small fish.”  Such “loaves,” much different than what we are accustomed to, actually consisted of small pancake-like pieces of flat, round bread. The “fish” were pickled fish “to be eaten as a side dish with the small cakes” [Carson, 270]. Scholars have speculated that this was the food characteristic of the poorer classes in Israelite society. Andrew’s question, “how far will they go among so many?” sets the stage for what was to occur (v. 9). 

 

Verses 10-14

That there was “plenty of grass in that place” confirms that it was the spring of the year when this sign occurred.  In keeping with the Lord’s instructions—“Have the people sit down”—the multitude was seated in groups of fifty and one hundred for ease in serving (Mark 6:40). There were “about five thousand men,” not counting the women and children who were present. All totaled perhaps as many as fifteen to twenty thousand people were there. This provides the reader with a glimpse into the proportion and magnitude of the miracle.

 

In verse 11, Jesus paused to “give thanks,” and then began to have the food “distributed to those who were seated.” John is quick to state that each individual received “as much as they wanted.” Afterwards, when the people “all had enough to eat,” Jesus ordered the disciples to recover the “pieces that [were] left over” so that nothing would “be wasted” (v. 12). This clearly indicates the miraculous character of the event and destroys any suggestion that this was simply a token meal shared among the disciples that was intended to provoke generosity among the people. Following the miraculous food distribution, the disciples recovered “twelve baskets” full of fragments of the “five barley loaves” (v. 13).

 

The immediate reaction of the crowd in verse 14—“Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world”—suggests that at least some among them connected this sign to the miraculous provision of manna in the wilderness while Israel was under the leadership of Moses. With this, and the understanding that the crowd would “come and make him king by force,” Jesus “withdrew again into the hills by himself” (v. 15).

 

The Interpretation of the Miracle (6:35)

 

Following Christ’s rescue of the disciples from the storm-tossed sea (6:16-24), the crowd found the Lord on the other side of the lake (6:25). Their questions about the manna provided in the wilderness during the Exodus supplied Jesus with the platform from which to launch an interpretation of the sign they had recently witnessed (6:30-34).  In verse 35 Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry.” That is, Christ Himself will supply the hungry soul with the only “food” which will truly satisfy. The life He provides, symbolically depicted in the meal and in the twelve baskets of left over fragments, is given abundantly and comes from an unending source.  In a very real sense this verse serves to answer the question originally posed by the disciples in verse 5—“Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?

 

Major Themes for Reflection and Application

 

One:  On a practical level, we see the importance of regular renewal in the life of the Christian disciple (6:3). This should involve:

 

 

 

 

Without the discipline of renewal we are not effective in our service. We should be careful to follow the example of our Lord in this area.

 

 

Two: Secondly, we see that prayer and spiritual renewal produces a greater sensitivity to the needs of others.  The gospel writers place great emphasis upon the compassion Jesus felt for the crowds and the fact that He ministered to their physical and spiritual needs.  As we, the church, experience the renewal of our own souls, we should enjoy a similar revival of spiritual sensitivity and need–consciousness. 

 

 

Three: We see that disciples must live in the arena and atmosphere of faith in Christ (6:6). This is why Jesus “tested” Phillip and the rest of the disciples.  The lesson is obvious – that which God intends to do through us will be accomplished on the basis of faith in His power and sufficiency.  His kingdom-work is a faith-venture.  Anything else simply will not please the Lord or fulfill His will. 

 

 

Four: We see that the power of Christ is manifested most gloriously in transformation.  As the water was transformed to wine earlier, and now the little meal transformed into a banquet, Jesus performs a transformation in the lives of those whom He saves.  Little becomes much, failure becomes victory, hopelessness becomes certainty, desperation becomes peace, worry becomes hope, sadness becomes joy, and death becomes life everlasting.

 

 

Five:  As the “bread of life,” Jesus is the sole source of true spiritual satisfaction.  The gift of salvation is lavishly given, and is sufficient to save all who come to Him in faith (6:32-35; 37-40).