I notice that the film “Exodus: Gods and Men” is out soon. Re-creating the extraordinary scale of the Exodus accounts is something the film makers of former generations could only dream of.
But imagine trying to re-do it for real. Maybe not the plagues or the killing of the firstborn, but what about that miraculous river crossing, or the feeding of the whole nation with bread from heaven?
An impressive miracle
The feeding of the five thousand, which John records in chapter 6, is a famous miracle – in part because it is one of only two miracles that appear in all four accounts of Jesus’ life1. You may never have heard of it, but if you know a little bit about Jesus, it’s one of the first miracles you’ll hear about.
It’s also a very impressive miracle. Jesus, travelling around the Sea of Galilee, found Himself approached by a large crowd who quickly become hungry and in need of sustenance. Our narrator’s commentary helps us to recognise something exciting is coming:
Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. (vv5-6)
The disciples’ response, recognising the scale of the problem, showed little confidence that a solution could be found. But having obtained little more thank a packed lunch from one of the more prepared members of the crowd, He got them to sit, and having thanked the Father for the food, He distributed it to those who were seated.
And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. (vv12-13)
That’s impressive, right? But it wasn’t over. John’s account quickly moves on to the subsequent evening, with his disciples departing without Jesus across the sea. A rough wind blew across the sea making their journey hard work, and then…
When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened. But he said to them, “I am2; do not be afraid.” Then they were glad to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. (vv19-21)
An incredible feeding followed by a miraculous water crossing. What was going on?
It looks like John moves on. The narrative follows the following day, when the crowd followed Jesus by land to Capernaum (where Jesus had ended up). Engaging Him again in conversation, they started quizzing Him on His journey across the lake, but Jesus was keen for them to think about something else.
Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.”
It feels like we’ve moved on the topic of conversation, doesn’t it? But the topic of miracles and eating was still heavily on the agenda. In a baffling demonstration of severe amnesia, the crowd asked Jesus for a miracle, and cited an incident when God provided bread from heaven:
“Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'” (v31)
You’re expecting Jesus to bang their heads against the wall, or at least to draw their attention to the hugely significant meal they ate the night before. Instead, we hit the rhetorical peak of the passage:
Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world … I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in my shall never thirst.” (v33, v35)
The links come thick and fast
It’s all a bit puzzling, and it still looks like Jesus had moved on. We were no longer on the topic of yesterday’s signs, and Jesus had drifted into metaphor.
But the closer you look at the topic of conversation, the more you realise the miracle was never far from view. Or rather, a bigger topic had been raised by the signs of yesterday, and was dominating the horizon in such a way that the conversation could barely consider anything else.
Whether we’ve noticed it or not, John has been totting up the links throughout this chapter to that period in Israel’s history known as the Exodus. Whether it’s the time of year3, the nature of the miracles4, or the specific details5, the Exodus is heavily in view. Even the declarations of the crowd are reminiscent of that great time in Israel’s history6!
The Exodus was a time when God rescued His people from slavery in Egypt. It has been revisited by Ridley Scott in a 2014 film starring Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton, but the events are real events recorded in four of the first five books of the Bible. Following several gruelling generations in the land of Egypt, God sent plagues against the Egyptians, and finally saved His people with mighty acts and massive miracles – including the famous parting of the Red Sea and feeding of the people in the wilderness.
And here, in John 6, John is helping us to see numerous links between that act of Jesus 2000 years ago and the famous occurrence in Israel’s history which preceded it.
The bread of life
In drawing our attention to this Old Testament event with so many links, John clearly has a purpose. But what is it?
As always, John’s point is Jesus’ point, and it’s there in v35.
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”
Jesus’ claim wasn’t simply that He can miraculously deliver bread from heaven. His claim was bigger than that. His claim was to offer satisfaction to hunger and thirst – or as v33 puts it, “life to the world.” In short, Jesus was offering a kind of rescue on the scale of the Exodus – a second Exodus.
Forget the new Exodus film – this is a real life repetition, only this time it’s much better. The contrast in v32 is between a past bread from heaven, and the present giving of true bread – by implication, better bread. Jesus was offering an Exodus rescue again. And this time it’s better.
- But how do we get access to this amazing rescue – this satisfying bread? How can Jesus offer it?
- What became of those rather baffling amnesiacs? And how does this link to what John has recently been talking about?
Lots more questions, but you’ll need to read on to see John’s answers…
More on John’s gospel will be published each Wednesday evening, with a bonus blog article thrown in on most weeks at some point before the next Wednesday. Feel free to share posts using the buttons below, and you can subscribe to the blog by using the sign-up form on the right.
- The other one is Jesus’ resurrection ↩
- Many translations – including the ESV which is used throughout this blog – turn this into “It is I”. That’s not a bad way to render it. However, there are various reasons – as we are about to see – why “I am” might be a more appropriate rendering ↩
- John tells us it was the Passover, which began the Exodus and is described in Exodus 12 ↩
- The Exodus involved a miraculous water crossing (recorded in Exodus 14) and a miraculous provision of bread from heaven (recorded in Exodus 16, and explicitly mentioned in Nehemiah 9:15, to which the crowd make reference in John 6:31) ↩
- Consider that during the feeding of the 5000, they had ‘as much as they wanted’ (v11) – just as they did in the Exodus (Ex 16:16,18); or that they had to gather in such a way ‘that nothing may be lost’ (v12) – just as in the Exodus (Ex 16:19). Consider also the strong wind that was associated with the miraculous water crossing (v18), just as in the Exodus (Ex 14:21). Finally, Jesus’ statement on the sea “I am” is the same name God used for Himself in Deut 31:8, which was during the Exodus ↩
- The crowd shout “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (v14). It’s a clear allusion to Deut 18:15, showing when this promise was made – during the Exodus! ↩