This story will be familiar to anyone who is at all conversant with the gospels of Jesus Christ. It is one of the few stories that makes it in to each of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John’s accounts. It is also probably on every single children’s Sunday School curriculum that is out there. I can certainly remember learning about this event in the life of Jesus, and I can remember often singing a Children’s song about it in Sunday School too.
What can you say about a passage that is so familiar?
Seriously. There is so much in here – something to write about in almost every little detail. We can blame John for that – so skilled is he and so focussed on getting the message across that no words seem to be wasted by him. I can’t comment on everything – it would take too long – but there are a couple of things that I want to point out as important.
The first thing is the ‘when’ of this event. Verse 4 informs the reader that this miracle (and the remainder of this chapter) is taking place close to the Jewish festival of Passover. Now the observant among you will notice that this is not the first time that John has highlighted Jesus’ activities around the time of Passover (and it is not the last time either.) In chapter 2 you might remember that Jesus was in Jerusalem for Passover and on that occasion he literally flipped tables and chased traders out of the Temple Courts. Now here we are four chapters later and John is again highlighting what Jesus is up to around Passover. Could it be that John is doing this on purpose? This is likely the case – remember, John does not waste words, and as N. T. Wright says, in John’s Gospel “nothing is there by accident.”
So what might his purpose be? To get to that we must first remind ourselves just what Passover is! At Passover the Jewish people commemorated God’s rescue of their ancestors from the slavery of life in Egypt – the most significant turning point in the life of their people. The Passover feast was the most important time of year for people of this particular tradition – a time to remember God’s liberating work among them. In chapter two Jesus turned tables and chased traders from the Temple as an announcement of God’s new work of liberation – seeking to liberate the sacred temple space from the clutches of commercialism. Later in chapter 6 Jesus will announce that he is the bread of life who has come to announce and enact God’s new work of liberation for all people all people. The Passover setting, for N. T. Wright, seems to be noted by John in an attempt to have his audience connect to this time in their history. Wright puts it this way:
“So when he draws our attention to the fact that the extraordinary feeding of the crowds took place at Passover time, he is clearly hoping that we will connect it in our minds both with the Passover itself – the time when God liberated the children of Israel from Egypt, and led them through the wilderness to the promised Land – and with the other Passover events in the gospel, that is, the ‘cleansing of the Temple’ on one hand, and the resurrection of Jesus on the other.”
John wants us to put it all together that Jesus is the embodiment of the ongoing work of God to bring redemption, renewal and liberation to all people. In the same way that God led the Israelite people out of their slavery in Egypt to new life in the promised land, God is again at work to bring new life to all people.
Having set this scene close to Passover John then goes on to tell the rest of the story, which I would guess most of us are familiar with. Jesus takes his disciples aside to teach them and a crowd has followed them. The crowd are hungry and Jesus is wondering what they are all going to do about food. He asks Philip, who seems to be blown away by the magnitude of the task that it would be to feed all these people (there are 5000 of them at least). Andrew rolls up with a little boy who has five loaves and two fish. Jesus gives thanks for the food and has it distributed out to all who were seated in the crowd. Then, so as not to be wasteful, Jesus invites his disciples to go clean up after the meal and they gather 12 baskets of leftover food.
I could write a lot more trying to explain what happened in there – but I am not going to. I am going to leave this miracle story hanging in the air and ask you to think about it yourself and see what answers you might come up with by way of explanation for what happened there that day. How did 5 loaves and 2 fish turn into enough food for 5000 people?
Where I want to go is to the last 2 verses of this section:
“After the people saw the sign Jesus performed they began to say, “Surely this is the prophet who is to come into the world. Jesus knowing that they intended to come and make him King by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.”
I want to offer a comment on these verses because I think that they reveal a universal truth about humans – we are always looking for the one who will lead us out of our own slavery and into a new land of promise. For Israel, Moses had been the one to lead the Hebrew people to their promised land. Ultimately, after that, Israel could not live with the idea that God would be their king and that prophets would speak for God – they wanted their own King, and that is what they got. Kings Saul, David and Solomon and many more after them some of whom were righteous leaders and some of whom were tyrannical. This hunger for a leader to lead the people into a new and better life is still the reality for the human race whether it is Martin Luther King leading the march for Civil Rights in the 1950’s and 1960’s or Donald Trump seeking election this very year based on a promise to make America great again. Human beings continue to look for the leader who will ride in on the proverbial white horse and fix things so that they are better for people.
The situation was no different for 1st century Jews. They wanted the Chosen one of God to come and rescue them, to take the throne in their land and rule them in the way they wanted and needed to be ruled.
After Jesus had performed this ‘sign’ before them it was not long until the crowd were beginning to talk to each other and state that this Jesus must surely be the Prophet they were waiting for – the one who would ride in and lead them. Jesus then made a run for it. He got out of there because he sensed that they were about to “make him King by force.” You see a political king is not the king that Jesus came to be. The work of God is not a political work – it transcends politics. Jesus is not here to over throw a political regime so that one group of people can again lord it over another and have the life they want. No, Jesus came to enact a completely new work of God in which liberation would be offered to all people. His work would establish a Kingdom, but it would have no political or geographical boundaries. His work would ultimately be a work which would invite every single human being on earth to join in on the resurrection life, a life where death loses its sting! His work is a work which would bring change not because political governance has changed, but because people are being changed from the inside out. His work will be to offer living water which when drank will become a spring within humans which will well up into eternal life. his work is a work which invites every human being to be born again and to live a completely new life shaped by his ways, his power and his grace. He had to get out of there because he knew that these people were not yet ready for the work that he had come to do.
Are we still looking for the knight in shining armor who will come and fix this broken world?
Or are we willing to read this good news of John’s gospel (with a full 2000 years of history and learning and 2020 vision as to it’s ultimate meaning) and find the king of all kings who has come so that all people, people just like you and me, can experience the new birth, and make the transition from living a life with Jesus for all eternity.
He is the Chosen one of God.
Light is shining in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
The Word has become flesh and pitched its tent among us.
We can be born again.
We can drink from living water and witness that spring welling up into eternal life.
It is time for us to receive that fully and allow it to help us come alive fully.