The Leaving of the 5000 (John 6)



This morning, we continue our study of the gospel of John. If your bible has titles, the heading of John 6 most likely says "Jesus feeds the 5000". This is certainly true, but as usual, there is much more to uncover here.

This particular miracle is recorded in all four gospels. This makes it quite unique. The significant difference in John’s telling is that he focuses on doctrine. Time after time, rather than dwelling on details, John illuminates the spiritual truths that Jesus is conveying. Rather than simply saying what happened, he wants us to know what it means. As I mentioned at the beginning of this series, John wants us to believe. And he’s going to tell us very specifically what it is that he expects us to believe.


The Typical Message

Let’s start by recounting what most people would tell you from memory.

Typical Story: 5000 people are hungry. Jesus takes a little boy’s lunch and multiplies it miraculously for all to see. People are blown away by the miracle and recognize that he is the Messiah.

Typical Lesson: We learn that when we give what we have to God, he can take it, bless it, and do more than we could ever imagine. We don’t have much, but that’s ok – we don’t need much. The small amount we have becomes much more when it is given to God.

Truth: God could certainly do that, but that’s not what John recorded. Making that the lesson completely ignores the broader context. Of course Jesus can do miracles, but this is not the point. The miracles done by Jesus and the apostles were done to prove their authority so that people would accept the gospel message. In general, these sorts of miracles were for the unbeliever, not the believer. But I’m getting ahead of myself…  Let’s see if the lesson many of us have heard is the takeaway that John recorded, or that Jesus intended.



Let’s rewind to understand the setting that precedes John 6. Jesus had been in public ministry for about a year. John 1-5 records a bit of this – much more is recounted in the other gospels. Between the end of ch 5 and the beginning of ch 6, there is a span of time – perhaps months. The other gospels help us fill in the blanks.

After traveling with him and learning from him for nearly a year, the disciples were ready for duty. Jesus sent them out in pairs to the "lost sheep of Israel" to teach and to perform miracles just as he had.

While they were gone, Jesus continued his ministry alone in Galilee. During this time, he learned that Herod had killed John the Baptist.

Because they had split up, much more was accomplished and more ground was covered. Jesus was so well known that Herod heard about him and wondered if John had come back from the grave!

When they all returned from their travels to report to Jesus, there was much commotion. By now everyone knew who Jesus was and wanted to be close to him and the apostles. All this attention made it so hectic that they didn’t even have time to eat. Jesus said, "Let’s go somewhere quiet where we can rest, away from the crowds." ((Mark 6:30-33))

So Jesus and the twelve climbed into a boat and crossed the Sea of Galilee to a desolate place where they could escape the crowds and recover.

When they arrived, they discovered that the crowds had seen them leave, and ran on foot to greet them on the opposite shore.

SUMMARY: So keep this picture in mind. They’ve been gone. They’re exhausted, yet exhilarated. They have stories to tell each other, but they need rest. Their attempt at finding peace, quiet and safety just evaporated.

I’ve titled this message "The Leaving of the 5000". It may help to note that this chapter takes place in four locations. With that, let’s pick up the story in John 6, vs 2.



SCENE 1:  THE WILDERNESS ((John 6:1-15))


Here come the crowds

The text records 5000 men were there to greet them. In actuality, by the way they counted crowds back then, this probably means tens of thousands of people once we include women and children. It didn’t turn out to be such an uninhabited place of retreat, after all.

John tells us that the multitude had come because they had already seen and heard about many of Jesus’ miracles ((It is interesting to note that to this point, John had only recorded two of Jesus’ countless miracles. (See John 21:25) This is because John’s mission was to record the major events that Jesus used to present doctrine. He was writing theology, not an exhaustive history or biography.)). They were not there because they sought the Messiah sent by God. They see Jesus as spectacle, not savior.

Game Plan

So much for rest and discussion. This desolate place had become a festival grounds. Since there was an audience, Jesus began to teach.

After some time, Jesus and the twelve retreat into the hills to regroup. Knowing how hungry the crowd must be, Jesus has compassion on them and he asks his disciples, "How are we going to feed all these people? Where can we buy enough bread?" (Tuck this away. We’re going to come back to this later.) Discussion ensues. Philip says a year’s wages wouldn’t even buy that many people a snack. (Needless to say, they didn’t have a year’s wages, let alone enough to buy a real meal for all these people.)

Andrew points out a boy who has offered a small amount of bread and fish, though he also points out the obvious:  It’s not even enough for us, let alone the crowd.



Jesus takes the paltry lunch and multiplies it until thousands of people were stuffed. And there were still baskets of food left over!



Those who saw what Jesus had done said he must be a prophet. Why did they say that? They saw that he fed people in the wilderness like Moses had. But prophets speak and act on behalf of God. If they really believed he was a prophet, they should have treated him as one sent by God. But did they? Of course not. Just like their ancestors in the wilderness, they demanded a self-serving miracle that would only satisfy them for a few hours. This is not a great response to a messenger from God.

Some even made the connection that he might be the Messiah who was to come and desired to make him king by force. This missed the whole point. The Messiah was never intended to overthrow their earthly oppressors or rule them from Jerusalem. The Messiah was to come to change their insides, not their circumstances. He would come with an eternal solution, not a temporary one. These people expected a Messiah that they wanted – not the one God has promised. Knowing their mistaken expectations and plans, Jesus escaped to the wilderness to hide from them.



There is no indication that a single person believed he was God. People followed Jesus like they follow Criss Angel or the Long Island Medium. They saw him as a showman, not a redeemer.

People followed for the perceived benefits to their life. They sought the gifts rather than the giver. They had no inclination whatsoever to "follow his commandments" ((John 14:15)) or to "take up their cross and follow him" ((Matthew 16:24)).

Not only did they miss his identity, the crowd misunderstood Jesus’ plans and purpose as well.

The miracle should have caused them to recognize him as God, or at least as a legit prophet. The appropriate response to hearing from God is to obey, not to look for other ways to use him to our own advantage.

This does not sound like a victorious multiplication of the small offering of the believer. It sounds like a giant misunderstanding by people who were too self-consumed to see God in front of them.

In summary, what actually happened is that Jesus’ most public miracle, recorded in all four gospels, seems to have converted no one. As we’ll see by the end of the morning, this chapter does not record a miraculous church growth event, but rather a fantastic falling away.



SCENE 2:  THE SEA ((John 6:16-21))


The Twelve Leave

Due to the reaction of the crowd, Jesus told the disciples to get out of Dodge and head back to Bethsaida. So when evening came, they piled back in their boat and began rowing.

Jesus Leaves

Jesus took advantage of this time alone to retreat to the mountain.

Sometime between 3am and 6am, Jesus followed the disciples. On foot. Walking on the water.

They Meet

After they left a storm had blown up. In all their rowing against the wind, they had traveled less than four miles by the time that Jesus caught up to them.

They were initially frightened (AS YOU WOULD BE IF A MAN WALKED PAST YOUR BOAT), but they relaxed when they saw it was him.

Interestingly, the whole episode of Peter attempting to join Jesus on the water is not included in John’s account. I think it is because John saw that the focus was on Jesus here, not Peter.

Remember when Jesus pulled the twelve aside yesterday and discussed lunch? Jesus is the one who asked how they would feed all these people. Here we have God himself asking a dozen men how to plan a banquet that is at least one-hundred times larger than a wedding reception. Men. Doing event planning. With no money. No stores. No caterers. And by the way, the event is beginning in 15 minutes.

Why ask them something they didn’t have any possibility of knowing or doing? He wanted them to wrestle with the impossibility of the situation. He wanted them to recognize he was asking them to do something that could not be done. He was essentially saying: Prepare to be amazed. Pay attention and watch me prove that I am God.

Let’s return to the boat. Mark records that even the twelve did not understand what had happened the day before. He set them up. He told them to watch. They participated. And they still missed it.

And now they’re in the boat. And Jesus is not. He is Standing. On. The. Water. Matthew sums up their response when he records them all saying, "Truly, you are the Son of God."

This is why Peter is not in John’s account. The point of the story was Jesus. The point of the Bible is always Jesus. This was about Jesus’ identity as the true Messiah – God himself – sent by the Father.

The Point

Jesus didn’t walk across the water for spectacle. He didn’t call Peter to emulate him. He wasn’t making a point about taking a chance on Jesus or stepping out into the unknown. In fact, Matthew records that when Peter tried to walk on the water, he failed.

Jesus walked on the water to drive the point home to the thick-headed disciples: "I’m God, you knuckleheads. How else could I be doing this?" Jesus did this to get them to understand what they did not understand the day before: that he was God.



SCENE 3:  THE SYNAGOGUE ((John 6:22-59))


Having awakened to see the disciples’ boat missing, the crowd figured that they must have gone home. So, they piled in boats, crossed the lake, and found Jesus at the synagogue ((John 6:59)) in Capernaum. What follows is a series of questions and answers.

Question 1:  When they found him, they said "When did you get here?" (Apparently, that whole thing about making him king had passed.) This sounds like an awkward icebreaker question that they didn’t really want answered. Jesus points out what they were really after:  "you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of loaves." Jesus ignored the spoken question and cut right to the heart of the issue: you’re here because you’re selfish ((And in fact, in 12 months they would reject Jesus again demanding, "Give us Barabbas".)) and you simply want me to satisfy your appetites. In fact, this is what the false gospel does. It promises to satisfy our hunger for food, wealth, health, a better life, and so on, but it never does. The true gospel says be satisfied with Christ.

Question 2:  Figuring they need to get in his good graces, they ask, "what must we do, to be doing the works of God?" This sounds very pious, but it proves they have not been listening to his teachings. Jesus answered that there is only one work – to believe that Jesus had been sent by God. Jesus says to them "but you have seen me and yet do not believe". If they were actually sincere, this would have been a great time to repent.

Question 3:  For reasons that escape me, their next question was to ask what sign he could perform to prove his identity. (Remember, they came to see him initially because of all the healings. They themselves had just been fed food that he created from nothing.) These people asked what work he performed. SERIOUSLY? They even had the nerve to mention Moses who gave their ancestors bread in the wilderness. Jesus pointed out it was not Moses who gave the bread – it was God. (SOUND FAMILIAR GUYS? REMEMBER YESTERDAY?) He continued saying that the bread Moses gave was a symbol of a more meaningful and a more lasting "bread" that was actually a person who had come down from heaven.

Question 4:  Being the sharp folks they were, they then asked him to identify this "true bread" and give it to them. Jesus said - IT’S ME, YOU KNUCKLEHEADS! (I may have paraphrased that a bit, but it’s close.) The answers John illuminates are worth exploring a little deeper:

What’s up with the bread? When Jesus said he was the bread, he was using symbolic language. Think about how Adam "knew" Eve and that made her pregnant. No one missed what was being said there. Think about how Jesus said he was a "door". No one tried to oil his hinges. And yet, when he called himself bread, they all lost their minds.

Jesus often used figurative language to paint a picture. The bread language was to bring to mind the superabundant gift of manna that God had rained down on the undeserving Israelites to nourish them in the desert wilderness. Christ is the super-abundant gift that God sent down to his undeserving children to preserve them in the wilderness of this temporal earth, and which also would give them eternal life. Jesus was saying that he himself was the true bread.

Let me explain that a bit:

  • In the past, God gave bread – and now he gives bread.
  • In the past, the bread was manna – now the bread is Christ.
  • Neither group deserved this gift, but God gave abundantly.
  • In both cases, the bread came from heaven
  • In both cases, the bread would feed and sustain them

In the past, the food would satisfy them temporarily – now the food would satisfy them eternally. Who gets the bread, and how? Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. (This should sound familiar. Remember he said the same thing to the woman at the well?) But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me."

It seems like the crowds came to him – didn’t they? And it seems like they believed. After all, they thought he would do for them what he had done for others. Here’s the thing. Biblically speaking, "coming to Christ" does not mean going places where the miraculous seems to be happening. And Christian belief is not being convinced we’ll have a better tomorrow. But that is all we see in America these days. Christians today seem to want the dividend without the investment. The retirement without the career. The payoff without the commitment. The gifts without the giver. We criticize culture for its entitlement mentality while we expect our best life now. How are we any different? Coming to Christ is a wholehearted surrender. There are no terms to be negotiated. We are in no position to receive a reward if we are unwilling to commit ourselves to him. Don’t chase after the perceived manifestations or benefits of Christ like they did – chase after Christ himself. Trust that he is the ONLY way, truth, and life. These people did not go to Christ to get to the Father – they went for bread that would satisfy them for a moment. Certainly there can be temporal benefits to following Christ, but they are not the reason for following Christ. If you go to Christ because you think he speaks the words of God, then you had better obey them. This is truly coming to Christ and believing.

In case they didn’t track, Jesus drove it home by saying that "you have seen me and yet do not believe." So there is no question. These people still saw Jesus as a guy who did cool tricks and had stuff to offer them. Jesus’ miracles were to prove his identity. These people saw the miracles and refused to accept his identity. They were not believers.

How do we eat your body? Some people see this as a reference to the Lord’s Supper. Since that was still a year in the future, I think that’s unlikely. However, I think Jesus is laying the groundwork for that teaching. Like we often do, they got hung up on the words rather than trying to understand what Jesus meant. If we understand the figurative nature of his language, we can make sense of this pretty quickly.

What did the Israelites do with the bread Moses gave them? They ate it. That’s what you do with bread. Analyzing it will not nourish you. Hoarding it will not nourish you. The only way to take advantage of the benefits of bread is to internalize it.

You might recall a conversation ((Matthew 4:4)) Jesus had with Satan when he was in the wilderness. Recalling an account of God feeding his people wandering in the wilderness, he said ((Deuteronomy 8:3)), "man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD". What did John call Jesus in the opening of his book? The Word. Jesus was the very Word of God. Our flesh needs the food that goes in our stomach, but our spirit needs the nourishment that comes from God.

Jesus was not suggesting cannibalism. He was describing wholehearted commitment. Don’t just watch my tricks. Don’t just listen to my teaching. Do it. Be it. James would later say that anyone who listened to (or read) Jesus’ words and didn’t do what he said was like someone who stared in the mirror endlessly and forgot what they looked like. ((James 1:22-25)) Jesus was saying the only way you will benefit from me is if you stop being a consumer and internalize what I’m telling you. And in your "eating", you will become like me in your actions and motivations.



SCENE 4:  FINALLY IN PRIVATE ((John 6:60-71))


You can see that Jesus had said some things that were an obstacle for many people. Rather than seek to understand, they left him.

After everyone else had left, Jesus asked the twelve if they were going to leave too.

Peter had the proper response: "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." ((John 6:68-69))

I’m reminded of a discussion about belief that Mark records. Jesus asked a man if he believed. He answered, "I believe; help my unbelief!" ((Mark 9:24))

The twelve believed. (Well, eleven did.) Certainly questions remained. I don’t want to suggest that their belief meant that they perfectly understood everything. They had many of the same struggles and confusions as their fellow Jews. Their belief meant that they trusted that Jesus was who he said he was, and they would obey him. In short, their attitude was "you are God, and we are not". Where they did not understand, they would first submit to his authority and then seek to understand. This is the response of a true Christian, and not one who only self-identifies as one.

The church still relives this passage on a regular basis. There are numerous "hard teachings" of Jesus that cause many to turn away:

  • Two major denominations have been pushing to allow gay pastors
  • Biblically faithful churches will continue to reject same-sex marriage
  • Jesus said not everyone goes to heaven. Hell exists and people go there.
  • There is only one way to God. Other religions fail.

So this week is a good time to ponder this question: What will I do when the hard teachings come? We can all clap and holler when the pastor says abortion and homosexuality are wrong. But are we as enthusiastic when he talks about pride or gluttony or sloth?

Hard teachings will come, that is a given. That is a sign of a pastor who is faithful to God and not to men. The hard passages are in the bible, so they ought to be covered. What will you do when that happens? If we are challenged or offended, will we walk away – either from this church, or from God altogether? Please listen to Peter here. "To whom shall we go?" Sure, life is hard. Absolutely, God will stretch us. But there is nowhere else to turn. Jesus alone has the truth. Jesus alone can bring us to the Father. Jesus alone holds the words of eternal life. To whom shall we turn?


In closing, I want to suggest that the miracle to take away is not the multiplication of food to feed thousands of people. The miracle is that Jesus is willing and able to take any one of these – any one of us – and restore them to him. He can take self-absorbed people who pursue spectacle and change their hearts. If we are willing to truly believe he is who says he is, and because of that follow him in obedience, he can take a dead man and make him alive. Jesus most certainly can help us in this life, but that’s not why he came. Don’t long for temporary things from God – long for the eternal.