1 After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. 2 And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. 3 Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. 5 Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. 7 Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number.11 Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” 15Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
I have entitled this sermon “Trouble at the Church Picnic.” I do find it wonderfully ironic that this is our text and that today is our church picnic. Indeed, nothing could be worse at a church picnic than for everybody to arrive and find that there is no food! I hope that is not the case later this afternoon at our picnic, though it certainly was the case here in John 6.
You may have noticed that the first six chapters of John seem almost inordinately concerned with food, drink, and there being enough of both. Of course, Jesus’ first miracle was the miraculous provision of wine when the wine scandalously ran out at the wedding feast. Also, Jesus encounters a woman at the well who is seeking to put water into her empty vessel. He uses the occasion to speak to her of the water of eternal life. In the same story, Jesus’ disciples have found a convenient excuse to absent themselves from the Samaritan episode so that they could – you guessed it – go shopping for food.
John is a good gospel to read if you’re hungry, for John talks a lot about food and drink. Obviously, it’s talking about much more than mere food and drink. John’s gospel is consistently showing empty people how to be filled, not with food, but with the life-giving gospel of Jesus Christ.
This morning some of you likely feel filled-to-overflowing. Life is going great and you can barely contain your joy this morning. Others of you, however, feel like the men described in T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men”:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form,
shade without colour,
gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes,
to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.
Some of you feel like this. Some of you feel empty. If so, this story is the story you need to hear. More than that, this Jesus is the Jesus you need to meet.
Let’s talk about this miraculous meal.
A Meal of Expanded Expectations (vv.1-9)
1 After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. 2 And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick.
Let me encourage you to take note of the detail provided in verse 2 as we begin. Verse 2 provides us with the people’s motive for following Jesus: “because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick.” This does not necessarily mean that the faith of most or all was merely miracles-based, but we find once again that many followed Jesus less for who He was than for what He might potentially do for them. File this observation away for a moment, particularly John’s use of the word “signs.” It will be significant for us at the end.
3 Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.
This is no mere incidental observation. This miracle was performed when Passover was at hand. One commentator has noted that Passover meant more to the Jews than the 4th of July means for Americans. I suspect that is right. Passover was that time when the Jews remembered their miraculous release from bondage in Egypt. It was a time when they remembered that Yahweh God could overcome any obstacle, no matter how seemingly insurmountable. It is significant that it was at the time of this remembrance of miraculous provision that Jesus likewise miraculously provided for the hungry people.
5 Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do.
Jesus sometimes questions us to offer us opportunities to grow in our walk with Him. Have you ever experienced this? Jesus never asks us anything for His benefit. He does not need our insights to learn more. When He asks us questions, He asks for our benefit. He is wanting to offer the disciples an opportunity to show that they have learned the point of the miracles preceding this one.
7 Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”
Philip fails the test. Jesus wants to know if he is now prepared to think on the upper-story-level of God’s sovereignty or whether he is still bound to the lower-story-level of man’s own earthly view of things. Philip shows that his mind is still tragically bound to the earth. Jesus next turns to Andrew.
8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?”
R.C. Sproul, commenting on this passage, points out that “the boy was carrying the lowest quality of bread available to people at the time. Only those who lived in poverty, for the most part, ate bread made from barley.” Furthermore, these “loaves” are really more like small cakes, “similar in size to Twinkies, if you will.”
In other words, these were meager offerings indeed! It is not surprising that the disciples were skeptical. We would be too, had we lived on that side of this miracle.
Jesus’ question, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” was not accidental. It was a question leading to an answer that transcended the obvious surface answer to the question. Jesus knew what was going to happen and He also knew that this little boy was going to come forward with his lunch box and little lunch.
Jesus not only knew this was going to happen, Jesus, as sovereign Lord and God of all, orchestrated that it would. Jesus relished the seemingly impossible task and the apparently insurmountable obstacle.
Jesus drew attention to the big problem to see if the truth about Himself that He had already demonstrated and taught the disciples was beginning to take hold in their lives. In other words, would the disciples dare to believe that Jesus was bigger than this problem? Would they dare to trust that this Jesus truly was Lord and King? Jesus wanted to know if their expectations had expanded to accommodate His glory or whether their expectations had merely encrusted around their own paltry understanding of this, or any other, situation.
Do you see how Jesus takes the disciples into a moment of crisis here with an eye toward expanding their expectations? Do you see that what to the disciples was a logistical catastrophe and nightmare was to Jesus an arena for the further display of His glory? Can you begin to grasp and accept that some of the moments we fight the hardest to avoid and some of the moments we fear the most are the very moments that Jesus wants to take us into to mold us?
The disciples saw a puzzle that could not be solved instead of a Savior that could not be contained…and guess what: so do we, oftentimes.
Oh, listen: it’s in the crisis that He meets us and it’s in the silence of our own lack of answers that He whispers, “I am here!”
The point wasn’t the bread and the fish. The point was Jesus. The point wasn’t the predicament. The point was the Savior. The point wasn’t the problem. The point was the provider.
Some of us miss the growing moments of crisis because we cannot hear Jesus over our own protests about the crisis! We are like Philip: “We don’t have enough money.” We are like Andrew: “We don’t have enough food.” Except that oftentimes we keep the protest going so long that we miss the teaching moment with Christ. How often do we miss Christ in our complaints? How often do we miss Jesus in the midst of our moaning about how unfair this or that situation is?
Do you know what the disciples could have said? They could have said, “I don’t know how we’re going to do this Jesus, but I know You can do it! We don’t have enough bread, but we do have enough Jesus! Show us, Lord, and teach us.”
We can say the same. Learn to see the crisis moments not as the absence of God but rather as the desire of God to expand your expectations about who He is and what He can do.
A Meal of Revealed Power (vv.10-13)
Having failed the test, Jesus next presses His disciples to prepare for an amazing miracle.
10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.”
I would suggest that Jesus’ tone in verse 10 is markedly different from his tone in verse 5. In verse 5 His tone likely had an edge of excitement to it. “How are we going to feed them all?” It was said with a twinkle in His eye and knowing smile on His lips. It was an opportunity for the disciples to join with Him now on the inside track of God’s glory and sovereignty. The question of verse 5 drips with delicious rhetorical flavor. They should get it now! The question in verse 5 was perhaps said with a knowing wink. Jesus knew, of course, that God could overcome this. He wanted the disciples to know it too. In fact, by now they should have known it.
On the other hand, when we come to Jesus’ words in verse 10, it is perhaps not inappropriate to read this sentence with an air of exasperation: “Have the people sit down.” As if to say, “Have we really been through so much and you still fail to see what I’m continuously trying to show you? Do you really still think that the central issue here is money and food? Have you not yet grasped the point that my Father can overcome any problem? Ok. Have the people sit down.”
Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number.
There were five thousand men, not five thousand people. (I’m sorry ladies, but they did not count women and children in this day.) So who knows just how many people were actually here for this event: ten thousand, fifteen thousand? Regardless, it was an amazing crowd of people.
11 Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten.
And here we have it: an amazing, spectacular, unfathomable, display of the problem-solving, obstacle-overcoming sovereign power of almighty God. We are not given the “how” of it, we are simply told that He did it. Jesus miraculously multiplies the bread and the fish and feeds not only this vast multitude but also His own doubting disciples.
There is more happening here than meets the eye, though. Recall that John has already told us that this is happening at the time of Passover, at the time of remembering the Jews’ deliverance from Egypt. It was a time of remembering when the door of slavery in Egypt was obliterated and the children of God were allowed to exit. But remember that they exited to forty years of wilderness wandering. They faced many trials in the wilderness with Moses, not the least of which was a concern about food. In the wilderness, God Himself miraculously provided sustenance for His hungry children.
That Jesus performed this miracle at the time of the Passover was no accident. Yahweh God miraculously provided for the children of Israel in the wilderness. Now this Jesus miraculously provides for the children of Israel here. The implication would not have been lost on most of the people: in Christ God Himself was still working to provide for His children.
The Jews were still in the wilderness, a spiritual wilderness of darkness, and this Jesus, who was greater than Moses, came to lead them home. In this, Christ Jesus revealed His power and also His person. To see Christ work was to see God Himself work.
A Meal of Misunderstanding (vv.14-15)
Tragically, however, even the assembled crowd failed to understand what was being said.
14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”
Do you remember that I asked you to file verse 2 away, especially its use of the words “signs”? Here is that word again: “When the people saw the sign that he had done…”
We have seen this before. We have seen before that many people loved the signs of Jesus more than the person of Jesus. We have seen before that many loved the miracles and the power more than the One who performed the miracles and had the power. In doing so, they completely missed the point, as Jesus’ reaction illustrates:
15 Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
Jesus left the crowd because the crowd saw in Jesus a miracle worker and a solver of problems. As such, they saw in Jesus a solution to their problem of foreign domination by Rome. They saw in Jesus a way out of a predicament. After all, if Jesus could get this many people out of a predicament of hunger, then surely Jesus could get all of them out of the political, cultural, and religious predicament of their time.
The Jews wanted to make Jesus king, not because they loved the King but because they loved what the King could do for them.
I am always weary of people who run here and there to this or that “revival” looking for some miraculous display of power. I am weary of any movement that exalts gifts over the Giver of gifts and miracles over the Jesus who works miracles.
Let me ask you outright which of these you love more: Jesus or the miracles of Jesus?
The point of the miracles was not the miracles. The point of the signs was not the signs. The signs pointed to something beyond themselves. The signs pointed to the Jesus that worked the signs.
Earlier this year NPR reported on a “Pew Forum on Religion” study showing that 80% of Americans believe in miracles. Interestingly, the same report also showed that “young adults, the so-called millennial generation, don’t attend church services regularly, are less inclined to express religious preference or affiliation than their elders, but profess widespread belief in the afterlife, in heaven and hell and in miracles. Nearly 80 percent of all Americans, in fact, say they believe in miracles.”
This is very interesting, because it shows that people today believe more in miracles than they do in a solid, biblical understanding of Jesus and the body of Christ. People have stronger feelings about signs than they do about a relationship with Jesus.
Church, your God is the God of signs and wonders and power. But the signs are simply that: signs. If you love the signs more than the One to whom the signs point, have you not perverted the signs into something monstrous almost?
Marvel at the miracle-working Jesus. But marvel at Jesus more than the miracles.
 T.S. Eliot. The Complete Poems and Plays,1909-1950. (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1980), 56.
 R.C. Sproul, John. (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2010), p.101.