29 July 2012

John 6:1-21

"When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, 'Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?' He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do." (vv. 5-6)


12-07-29 drawing (1)The feeding of the 5,000 is one of the iconic Gospel stories -not only because it is a spectacular miracle, but also because that story of feeding a multitude in the wilderness picks up the Exodus 16 imagery of God feeding the Israelites with manna from heaven.

A version of this story appears in each of the four Gospels. This affords the reader a rare and wonderful opportunity to contrast and compare these accounts. When we do so, some interesting observations emerge.

In the Synoptic Gospels, so called because they express a similarity in viewpoint, Matthew (14:13-21), Mark (6:32-44) and Luke (9:10-17) each present the feeding of the 5,000 as a response to need. The massive crowd had followed Jesus into the wilderness. It was getting late and they needed to eat. The disciples recommend sending them away to seek food in the surrounding towns, but Jesus decides instead to provide food himself.

In John's account, however, the feeding of the 5,000 is not presented as a response to need. It is as the crowd was approaching, that Jesus, knowing what he is going to do, raised the question of how they were going to feed such a massive crowd. (I suspect that food venders during London's Olympic Games will be asking not dissimilar questions.)

This is a subtle but significant distinction. The Synoptic Gospels present this miracle as a divine response to human need. Simply put, had there been no need there would have been no miracle.

John's Gospel, in contrast, presents this miracle as a sign of God's glory. Here the 5,000 are not in danger of going hungry. They are not a crisis that needs to be averted. Rather they are a people who are invited, as they arrive, to share in a simple feast in which they can eat as much as they want (verse 11).

It is an act of lavish hospitality, which they receive without ever having asked. This is a textbook example of grace; a gift which is neither deserved nor sought. The people understand this act to be a sign (verse 14).

And just in case the point about God's glory is missed, Jesus immediately follows the feeding of the 5,000 with walking on water.

To Ponder

  • Whilst this story is a great one, when was the last time you can recall God demonstrating his God's own glory in your life? What happened?
  • This can be a difficult story to read in a world in which many routinely do not have enough to eat. What can we do to ensure that those who need food receive it, and without having to be reduced to asking for help?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Calvin T Samuel

The Revd Dr Calvin T Samuel is a Methodist minister, currently stationed as Director of Wesley Study Centre, Durham - a Methodist theological institution which is part of St John's College within the University of Durham. Prior to this he was New Testament Tutor at Spurgeon's College in London and Chaplain to Farringtons School in Kent