All four gospels tell the story of the feeding of the 5000. Matthew and Luke follow Mark’s account, but John includes more detail–as though from a separate memory of the event. And John also adds the critical aftermath of the event that the other writers do not. The Synoptics (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) portray the feeding as a great success (and it was). John 6 does not really disagree; like the others his story ends in wondrous success:
When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
But John goes on to tell us what happened immediately afterward. As it turns out, John reveals that the feeding of the 5000 created a crisis in Jesus’ growing movement; and not only was it a crisis for Jesus’ movement, but it seems to be a personal crisis moment for Jesus himself–as we shall see.
The Trouble Begins
John 6 continues by telling the rest of the story:
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.
What a boost this would be to Jesus’ movement and his message! It must have been tempting for him to short-cut the hard work involved in establishing the kingdom of God by accepting this instant recognition and becoming king by acclamation.
But the crowd had a different plan for Jesus. Experiencing his great power in providing miraculous food in great quantities, it seems that many in the crowd concluded Jesus was the very hero they had been expecting to come and lead them to freedom from the Roman Empire, as Judas Maccabeus had done a couple centuries earlier in regard to the Greek Empire.
A number of such leaders had appeared over recent years, developed mass followings, and contested Rome; but they all were defeated. In the minds of his followers, Jesus was certainly–finally–the ONE! However, Jesus’ purpose was not political so he escaped the crowd and its immediate temptation of kingship.
Jesus Confronts the Crowd
The crowd searched for him and soon found him in Capernaum, but Jesus was straight with them:
You are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.
The crowd responded:
“What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
They wanted more bread. If King Jesus could supply food like this at will—he could feed an army! And they would willingly BE that army following Jesus and driving out the Romans.
[I]t is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
In other words, Jesus’ significance was not his ability to provide unlimited bread; his significance was in who he was—the initiator of the kingdom of God (and not the political kingdom of Israel). But the crowd did not understand this; they were excited by his ability to perform this miracle of bread and wanted more.
Jesus was frustrated with the shallowness of his followers and declared:
“I am the bread of life…I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me…For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”
What weird talk was this? They were looking for something much more practical, but Jesus continued:
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them…the one who feeds on me will live because of me…Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
This was even more weird.
On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”…From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.”
And, just like that, Jesus’ mass movement collapsed. The feeding of the 5000 backfired—and it backfired badly.
Does This Remind You of Another Story in the Gospels?
The book of John does not contain the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, but the aftermath of the feeding of the 5000 involves all three temptations: to succeed by providing miracle bread, by drawing attention to himself with great signs (like jumping from the temple wall), or by accepting the kingdom from the hands of others rather than from the Father.
We will explore these things more fully next time.
In this series: Insights into the Feeding of the 5000
- Yes, Jesus Fed the 5000—But it Backfired Badly!
- The Temptation of Jesus in the Book of John
- Did Satan Really Tempt Jesus in the Desert or is there Another Explanation?
- The Saddest Passage in the Bible to Me (John 666)
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