(Mt. 14:13-36; Mk. 6:33-56; Lk. 9:11-17; Jn. 6:2-71)
Intro. Our study covers a brief but action-packed interval in the life of Jesus, an exciting and crucial time in his earthly ministry. In order to get the lessons suggested by events of these two days and one night, we need to have the setting in mind. The disciples had just returned from a preaching tour through Galilee, and in their joy were telling Jesus what they had done and taught. Followers of John the Baptist had just come to Jesus with the sad news that King Herod had caused John to be executed. This reminded Jesus of John’s nobleness and suggested the nearness of the great trials facing him. In order to prepare himself for these trials, and to fortify his disciples against the difficulties and disappointments which were in store for them, he took them to the east side of the Sea of Galilee for a period of rest. (We might call it a “retreat” or “R & R” today).
But the people gave them no opportunity for relaxation. As soon as they saw him setting out in the boat, they started to walk around the head of the lake in great numbers, arriving either ahead of him or while he was up in the mountains Soon they crowded around him, but he did not thrust them away. Instead, he healed their sick and taught them until late in the day. During that day and night and the next day Jesus continually tested the faith of his hearers and his followers and saw things happen that threatened his very ministry. This action-packed interval took place at three locations. Let’s look now at his testing and the results.
- A Test on a Grassy Plain
Apparently this was a smooth mesa, part of the way up a hill.
- Faith tested: “Do you trust me to supply your needs?”
As Jesus looked at size of the multitude that had followed him to a place on the northeast side of the Sea of Galilee, he asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?” Philip seemed to take the question as an inquiry into his ability to calculate costs, for he answered that 200 denarii worth of bread would not be sufficient for everyone to have even a little bread. John 6:6 clearly indicates that Jesus was testing Philip. Later in the day, “when it was already quite late” (Mk. 6:35), the apostles suggested sending the people away so they could go and buy food for themselves. Jesus challenged them, still testing: “They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat” (Mt. 14:16).
Keep in mind that these disciples had seen Jesus perform miracles. They had seen him calm a storm at sea, raise dead people to life and heal the sick. But they had a hard time understanding or imagining that if he could do one miracle he could do any miracle, so not one disciple suggested that Jesus perform a miracle to feed that crowd.
2 Test results: A meal – and a misunderstanding
A snack from one boy (Jn. 6:9) – the famous five barley loaves and two fishes — became an all-you-can-eat buffet for thousands of hungry people. They ate, they were filled (Jn. 6:26), and they were satisfied (Mk. 6:42).
But the multitudes got the wrong idea from the miracle and began making plans to take Jesus by force and make him their king (Jn. 6:15). Even the disciples’ hearts were “hardened” – that is, insensitive to the true nature of what had happened. The multitude may have thought Jesus surely could feed an entire army while it made war with the Romans to regain independence for the nation.
Each of the sacred writers contributed significant elements to make up the composite picture of what took place. Only Matthew mentions Jesus healing the sick, his command that the loaves and fishes be brought to him, and that there were women and children present in addition to about 5,000 men. Only Mark mentions “green grass.” Only Luke relates that Jesus’ command for the people to sit down was relayed through the apostles. And John records much detail not in the other accounts.
This miracle is the only one, besides the resurrection of Christ, that is recorded in all four gospel writings.
B. A Test on a Stormy Sea
The miracle of feeding the thousands had aroused the people’s enthusiasm to a high pitch, so much so that they wanted to make Jesus king by force. It is altogether possible that the apostles were sympathetic toward such a move, for Mark writes that their hearts were hardened. (For an idea of what it meant to have a hardened heart, read Jesus’ own words in (Mk. 8:17-18). Jesus saw that it was important to remove the apostles from the situation there, so he “made” them get in a boat and go ahead of him to the other side of the lake (Mk. 6:45). Then He went up into the mountain to soothe and refresh his spirit by fellowship with the Father.
The implication is that the apostles were not very anxious to get in that boat. But Jesus was facing one of the most difficult situations of his ministry, so he wanted to spent time alone in prayer (Jn. 6:46).
Maybe the disciples lingered near the shore, or perhaps they rowed out a distance and waited. When the Lord did not come, they eventually started to cross the sea. When they were about halfway across (“three or four miles,” per NASB, Jn. 6:19), they were hit by one of the sudden storms to which that body of water is subject. “The sea began to be stirred up because a strong wind was blowing” (Jn. 6:18), and they were “battered by the waves” (Mt. 14:24). Matthew writes that “the wind was contrary” (Mt. 14:24); that is, it was blowing in the direction opposite to where they wanted to go. If they had their sails up, they furled them, and they began to row. Since they left soon after dark (Jn. 6:16-17) and Jesus didn’t arrive until the “fourth watch” of the night (between 3:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m., Mt. 14:25; Mk. 6:48), they must have spent several hours rowing against the wind and making little headway. From a distance of three or four miles, at the shore, Jesus saw their difficulty (another miracle) and began walking toward their boat.
- Faith tested: “Do you trust to protect you?”
This event must be looked at as a supernatural rescue of the apostles from mortal – and moral—danger. Jesus walked on the sea to get to them, but “he intended to pass by them” (Mk. 6:48). This point is important to understanding what was at stake that night. The apostles’ hearts were hardened for a time, apparently because Jesus had dashed their hopes of making him an earthly king. If they had continued in their hardness by refusing to cry out to Jesus as he came near them, it likely would have meant the end of their apostleship and Jesus would have started over with other men.
2. Test results: calmness – and confusion
The apostles were frightened and cried out and Jesus heard them and responded tenderly. Peter’s faith was further shown as he too walked on water part of the way to meet Jesus.
The other apostles helped Jesus and Peter into the boat. Immediately the wind stopped, they were utterly astonished, and they worshiped him, saying, “You are certainly God’s Son” (Mt. 14:33).
This seems like a happy ending, but Mark points out that “they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves” (Mk. 6:52).
What insight should they have gained? They should have realized that if Jesus had the power to feed them on the plain, he also had the power to protect them on the sea. According to Mark, “their heart was hardened” (6:52). They had some understanding and appreciation of Jesus, a measure of faith, but it was hard for them to surrender their lives and hearts fully to him. That particular problem did not originate, or end, with the Twelve.
C. A Test in a Crowded Synagogue: “Do You Trust Me to Give You Life/”
There was one more miracle that night after Jesus got on the boat. “Immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going” (Jn. 6:21). How can we explain that the boat covered the two or three remaining miles to the eastern shore “immediately” without recognizing that Jesus performed another miracle? They came ashore at an area south of Capernaum (Mt. 14:34; Mk. 6:59). Jesus headed north to Capernaum, healing people as he went (Mt. 14:34; Mk. 6:54-56). Meanwhile, the crowd on the eastern shore discovered that Jesus was no longer there and rushed to Capernaum, where they expected to find him.
Those who were seeking Jesus found him in a synagogue (Jn. 6:59). Perplexed as to how he had left without their knowledge (Jn. 6:22), they asked, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” (Jn. 6:25). This was the first of many questions asked of the Lord that day. They thought they were testing him, but it was really they who were being tested. Actually, a series of tests took place, starting with the crowd and narrowing to the apostles. Jesus wanted everyone present to ask himself or herself, “What attracts me to this man?” “Why do I follow him?” “Who do I really think he is?”
- The crowd tested and found lacking in faith (Jn. 6:28-40)
Jesus accused the crowd of following him for the wrong reason (Jn. 6:26-27). He was trying to get them to examine their motives and priorities. He even stated plainly, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent” (Jn. 6:29).
The crowd did not like the direction the discussion was headed. Taking their cue from the Pharisees (see Mt. 12:38), they asked for a sign from him!
John 6:30: They said therefore to him, “What do You do for a sign, that we may see, and believe you? What work do You perform?
A sign? Just a day earlier, Christ had given them signs aplenty, of healing and miraculous feeding, and they asked for a sign? Any sign would have been insufficient to those hardened hearts that day. What they really wanted was another free meal, after all, they had acknowledged that Jesus was “the Prophet” who would come into the world (Jn. 6:14). They apparently had in mind Moses’ statement in Dt. 18:15 that God would raise up a prophet like Moses, for they added (in Jn. 6:31), “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread out of heaven to eat.’” The manna in the wilderness was supplied not just once but every day, and these folks seem to wish that continual sustenance would be repeated.
Jesus replied that it was God, not Moses, who had given them bread out of heaven, and added this statement, “For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world” (Jn. 6:32).
Bread that gives life? The crowd responded happily to that idea, saying, “Lord, evermore give us this bread” (Jn. 6:34).
Once more, Jesus response took an unexpected – and unwelcome – turn. It was the startling statement, “I am the bread of life” (Jn. 6:35). This is the first of seven “I am” statements in the book of John. Each has its distinctive significance, but each was also an affirmation of the deity of Christ; for only God can truthfully say in any day and age, “I am” (in other words, “I am the ever-existent one”; see Ex. 3:13-15).
- The Jews tested and seemingly unconvinced (Jn. 6:41-51)
At that point “the Jews” began grumbling (Jn. 6:41). John often used this term to refer to Jewish leaders, which seems to be the case here since most or all of the people in that crowd were in fact Jews. But even though they grumbled at Jesus’ claim, “I am the bread that came down out of heaven,” He refused to back down from that claim. Instead, he restated and elaborated on it:
John 6:48-51: I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they lived. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh.
In a few months Jesus would voluntarily “give” his flesh to be nailed to a cross for the life of the world. The Jews didn’t understand this and asked how Jesus could give them his flesh to eat. His response was even more puzzling:
John 6:53: Jesus therefore said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink his blood, you have no life in yourselves.”
Jesus of course was not talking about cannibalistic consumption of his literal flesh and blood, but rather about accepting him as the Messiah “in the flesh.” In fact, he had already told the skeptics how to “eat his flesh,” but they had not been listening. Look at these passages:
John 6:29: This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.
John 6:35: . . . he who believes in Me will never thirst.
John 6:36: . . . you have seen Me, and yet you do not believe.
John 6:40: For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life.
John 6:47: Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes has eternal life.
So Jesus has told them (1) “He who believes has eternal life, and (2) “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” Unless there are two ways to life (and we know there is only one; see Jn. 14:6), “eating his flesh and drinking his blood” equals “believing in him.” Clearly the first action could not be literally accomplished, so it is figurative language used to illustrate something that can be accomplished – believing in Jesus Christ.
When Jesus spoke these words he did not have in mind the Lord’s Supper. It is natural that his terminology reminds us of the Lord’s Supper, but the context is clear that Christ was not concerned here about Christians taking communion but rather about the Jews accepting him as the Messiah. Faith – or the lack of it – is the issue in Christ’s great sermon on the bread of life.
1.The disciples tested, with many failing the test (Jn. 6:60-66)
The word “disciples” here refers to all the followers of Christ who were there that day, not just to the Twelve. Keep in mind that this group of grumblers (“many” of his disciples) were not the enemies of Jesus but were his followers. But even they concluded, “This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?”
Why did Jesus’ teaching disturb them? Because it contradicted their preconception of a political Messiah. Sadly, Christ asked them:
John 6:61-62; But Jesus, conscious that his disciples grumbled at this, said to them, “Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you should behold the Son of Man ascending to where He was before?”
If they had a hard time accepting him as the Messiah because he focused on the spiritual instead of the physical, how were they going to handle it when he left the earth without setting up the kind of kingdom they were looking for?
Surely this was one of the lowest points of Christ’s earthly ministry, when “many of His disciples withdrew, and were not walking with Him anymore” (Jn. 6:66). His faith test had resulted in grumbling, argument, withdrawal and rejection. The majority simply failed the test.
- The apostles tested, with mostly good results (Jn. 67-71)
The most crucial test remained. Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” (Jn. 6:67). We see sadness and concern in those words.
Peter’s reply, though, must have warmed the heart of Jesus:
John 6:68-69: Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. And we have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.”
The key words here are “We have believed.” Was their faith perfect? Did they understand fully who Christ was? Was the true nature of the kingdom clear in their minds? No, no and no. Even so, they were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, and they were committed to him. Their faith was growing. They had passed the test!
Well, not quite all of them. Peter was unaware of it, but he spoke for only eleven of the Twelve. Our texts indicate that the incidents of these two days were a factor in Judas’s ultimate rejection of Jesus. John wrote (6:70-71): “Jesus answered them, ‘Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?’ Now he meant Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray Him.” Disappointment must have flooded Judas’s soul when Christ refused the earthly throne with its attendant benefits (Jn. 6:15), for he was preoccupied with money (Jn. 12:6). Disbelief must have overwhelmed him when Jesus’ words drove away the masses; that was no way to build an empire!
Concl. There would be other tests for the apostles, but no other time of testing, so far as I can tell, had such a broad effect on those who claimed to follow Jesus. Whether we realize it or not, you and I are still subject to the same exams:
- Do I trust the Lord to take care of my needs, or do I fret and fuss when problems arise?
- Do I trust Him to protect me, or do I wallow in fear when trouble comes into my life?
- Do I trust Him to give me life? If I do, I will give my life to him.
May the Lord give us the strength and courage to pass these tests which are continually placed in our way. That last question brings home the deep need we have to place our faith in the Lord and live up to our faith. And he will help us do that. When Jesus neared the disciples on that raging sea, they cried out to him. James has promised us, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (Jas. 4:8). May we all be encouraged and emboldened to do that — in the worst of times as well as the best of times.
Adapted from a lesson in a Truth for Today Publication, The Life of Christ, 6.
— Travis Allen, 1-28-907, a.m.