John 6:1-15. Bread in the desert.

John 6:1    Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias),  2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick.  3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples.  4 The Jewish Passover Festival was near.

5    When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” 8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up,  9 “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

10    Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there).  11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.

12    When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

14    After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

John 6 begins a new cycle of ‘sign-controversy-dialogue-revelation’, just as we’ve seen in chapters 4 (the woman at the well) and 5 (the cripple healed on the sabbath). Breaking the text into smaller chunks in this blog can diminish our appreciation of this pattern, so it is worth reminding ourselves.

The Passover (v4) celebrated the exodus from Egypt. Part of this celebration remembered when God fed the people in the wilderness with Manna. Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 here reminds the crowd of this event and so his claim to be ‘the bread of life’ (v35) is set against this background.

It seems that Jesus expresses a sense of responsibility for the crowd. They have come out into the wilderness because of him. He wants to look after them. If Philip were an Australian, he might have responded to Jesus’ “test” by saying, “If they were silly enough to head bush without provisions, let them go hungry.” But instead he gives the accountant’s response, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” .

It’s worth pondering the nature of the “test” that Jesus set Philip (v6). The word for “testing” also means refining. The very process of examination produces the effect being assessed. Will Philip depend upon Jesus as the provider of all things? Asking the question of Philip, and allowing the situation to unfold, will help Philip see that he really can trust himself to Jesus. More than a mere ‘provider’ Jesus shows himself to be the ‘new Moses’ at the head of a ‘new exodus.’ Philip’s faith– along with the reader’s– is refined/tested to embrace this truth.

The ‘gathering in’ of the left-overs really emphasises the super-abundance of this provision. Jesus wants the disciples and the crowd to really experience the bounty of all that God provides– so go pick up the scraps. Why? ‘…that none be lost/wasted.’ While this might just make good environmental sense, it could be a further allegorical flourish referring to the in-gathering of all nations into Jesus’ new exodus.

And the crowd seem to understand. They recognise Jesus as some kind of new Moses, at the beginning of a new exodus through the desert. They ask, “Could Jesus be the Prophet that Moses promised? The One like Moses who will speak directly from God? (See Deut 18:15-18). But the crowd’s grasp of God’s timing is all wrong. Jesus knows it is not time and he does not want to be forced into being the kind of King that the crowd has in mind (v14). So he withdraws to the mountains by himself to pray.

I am challenged by Philip’s testing. To what extent do I trust Jesus to provide above and beyond my human resources? When the crunch comes, will I follow Jesus’ instructions (sit the crowd down in groups) even when I don’t fully understand his solution, his course of action? This unit is all about bread. Jesus is the bread of life– God’s provision for my sustenance.

Lord, please help me to learn to depend upon you as the bread of life.