Let Them Eat Cake? Just Bread Will Do.

I. The event, the feeding of a multitude that included five thousand men, is told by all four gospels: See Matthew 14, Mark 6 and Luke 9. The event unfolds like a well-constructed drama.

A. Verses 1-4 introduce the occasion, time, and place (1-4).

1. It occurred after the death of John the Baptist and the return of the twelve from a preaching tour [Mk. 6, Mt. 10, Lk 9], and extensive ministry. 

2. It was in spring for Mark records that they sat on “the green grass”, near the time of Passover (John 6:4), one year before the crucifixion. 

3. It occurred on the north part of the Sea of Galilee, whether east or west of Jordan is not certain. The place was secluded geographically and elevated topographically.

B. John’s narrative unfolds the problem (5-7) – There were many people and virtually no food.

1.  Jesus saw the number of people and knew what difficulty this occasioned.

2. The first miracle was scarcity of wine at a wedding party; this is scarcity of food. Because this was Passover, many people were in Jerusalem away from home and would easily have been without food as they saw an opportunity to hear Jesus speak. 

3. Again, John emphasizes both the omniscience and omnipotence of this person, Jesus. Jesus saw the entire situation from beginning to end; he knew what he would do, and in order to establish the seeming impossibility of the situation, he asked Philip for his judgment as to what they could do. 

4. Philip calculated that one would have to work for 55% of a year to buy enough bread to feed each of these even a little. So what shall they do?

C. An examination of the situation has made the disciples draw the conclusion of the virtual impossibility of solving such a problem. We discover that Jesus has the Resolution (8-11) –  Jesus fed them all abundantly with what was available.

1. Andrew reported on the availability of present resources, five loaves and two fish, and concluded that it was virtually nothing for so many. It would provide lunch for the small boy who brought it, but would leave probably more than 6,000 other people unfed. 

2. Jesus took the bread and fish and began to distribute it through his disciples. All were fed sufficiently (“as much as they wanted”).

D. Now the denouement (12-14) – There is food left and the people confess that Jesus is “The Prophet.”

1. Having had their fill, the overage provided enough to gather twelve baskets of fragments from the barley loaves. Even though it was created by a miraculous intervention, Jesus did not waste the food but conserved it for the disciples later. We must recognize God as the immediate giver of all things, but also take care not to be slack in utilizing the means by which he has enabled us to produce daily provisions. 

2. The response of the crowd was quite predictable, in one sense, for they all had seen exactly what had occurred. They concluded that he was the “Prophet.” The Jews had asked John the Baptist earlier if he were the “Prophet” (1:21) Jesus, of course is that Prophet as predicted by Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15-18), but not exactly what the people were anticipating. They had eaten bread; That merely tantalized them for gaining more earthly security, comfort, and prominence. They wanted national liberty and times of plenty. 

3. Not willing to accept their acclaim with the wrong perception of his mission, Jesus left the crowd quickly and went to be alone.

II. What is the outworking of this event in the Gospel?

A. This miraculous feeding is the fourth of seven miracle narratives, or signs, that progressively reveal the truth about us and the truth about Jesus:  Jesus turned water into wine in chapter 2; he healed a nobleman’s son in chapter 4; he healed the lame man in chapter 5. Chapter 6 includes this event, the feeding of the multitude and his walking on the water. Chapter 9 narrates the healing of the man born blind, and chapter 11 tells of the raising of Lazarus. The culmination of this display of purposeful and unrestrained power over this world culminates with the resurrection in chapter 20.

B. John also records seven discourses in Jesus’ Public ministry. Each of these reflects a peculiarly strategic historic event in which Jesus takes a relevant idea from the event and expands it into a message about himself.  This sign leads to the fourth discourse which is on the Bread of Life. The others include:

1. In Chapter 3, Jesus talked about the new birth the new birth and how it is the moral prerequisite for true faith in him and his atoning work. He did this with a religious leader, Nicodemus who would have considered himself as a covenant child through ethnic relation and covenantal circumcision.

2. In chapter 4, Jesus spoke about his provision of the water of life. He did this in a conversation with a woman whose life was shattered even among an outcast people. 

3. In Chapter 5, Jesus makes a strong claim to essential Sonship, and thus deity. He does this after healing a lame man on the Sabbath and giving him a command that violated the folk law promulgated by the Pharisees. Jesus worked even as his Father worked. 

4. In Chapter 6, Jesus gives a discourse on the Bread of Life. He does this after the miracle of feeding several thousand people with the meager lunch of a young boy in the crowd. He called himself the “the bread of life; he who comes to me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst” (35). Again, he said, “I am the bread of life which came down from heaven” (41, 48-51. 58).

5. In Chapter 7, Jesus’ appearance at a feast prompts a controversy concerning where he is from and who he is. Jesus claims to be sent by one who is true. He also claims to speak the words that he heard from him (16, 28, 29, 33). In addition, he ties the identification and ministry of the Holy Spirit to his own work (37-39). 

6. In John 8, Jesus continues his discourse on who sent him but now being specific about the Father (16, 18, 26-29, 42, 54). Claiming to be the “Light of the World” (12), he discourses about God as his Father, the faith of Abraham (40, 56), and their status as children of the devil who was a murderer and liar from the beginning, expressing those things that are of his unremittingly perverse nature.

7. In Chapter 10, Jesus gives a discourse on the Good Shepherd. Jesus identifies himself as the door and as the Shepherd who gives his life for the sheep.

8. Jesus raises Lazarus in chapter 11 and identifies himself as the “Resurrection and the Life” (25).

9. An eighth recitation could be ranked as a discourse prompted by the coming of the Greeks concerning the coming of his “hour.” This is in chapter 12:23-36.

10. Chapters 13-16 contain private discourses to his disciples including advanced teaching on the role of the Holy Spirit in the covenant of redemption.; Chapter 17 consists of the High Priestly prayer for His people; chapter 18 begins the narrative of Jesus’ betrayal and trial, etc.

C. The miracle contributes to the feverish celebrity-stalking mentality of the crowd according to a pattern already observed [2:23, 24; 3:2, 3; 4:48;6:22-25, 30 [cf v. 66]

D. Jesus gives an intense lesson identification of himself .

1.  Father’s approval of the Son as the source of eternal life (6:26- 27, 32- 33, 40).

      • Eternal life is infinitely superior to bread. We are willing to settle for much less than is available in the grace of God.
      • This salvation can come only through the Son. The Father has determined that sinners shall be eternally grateful to his Son and in eternity will see the true glory of the Son. There he will fully reflect both the perfection of the human nature and the perfections of the Father through his own essential deity. His full messianic status as prophet, priest, and king will still operate and the glory of each office will be more clear and more powerfully manifest that any have been able to discern in this life.

2.  Jesus gives clear instruction on belief and faith (29, 35, 36, 40, 47, 64, 69).

      • Belief is set in opposition to any possibility that we achieve eternal life by our own works of righteousness.
      • Belief will gain all the satisfaction that eternity in the presence of God can grant.
      • Belief involves content of the truth of who Jesus is and what he gives. He has the words of eternal life and is the Holy One of God.
      • Belief is the action on our part of coming to Christ when we perceive the full character of the gifts he has to bestow.

3.  The Son performs and in himself constitutes the perfect fulfillment of the Father’s will (37-40).

      • The Father’s will is that the Son perform those things that are necessary to give eternal life to the ones that the Father has given the Son. This is an unvarnished affirmation of an eternal, personal, unconditional election to eternal life. The Son’s incarnation, obedience to the Father, and giving of his life is all in service of the Father’s will and for the salvation of those given to him.
      • All that the Father has given thus to the Son will without fail come to him and nothing can prompt Jesus to cast out any of them (37). The will of the Father and the action of the Son are one in intent and result.
      • Jesus’ mission is defined precisely in terms of doing all that is necessary to see to it that those given him by the Father will indeed inherit eternal life; he has no doubt that he will raise them up at the last day (39, 40, 44).
      • The cup, therefore, that Jesus drinks of divine wrath relates precisely to these the Father gave him. He will lose none of them and in looking to him they will find in him everything that constitutes the abundant entrance into eternal life. As we learn below, this involves both his life and his death. The cup that Jesus drank (John 18:11) constitutes the drinking of his blood on the part of the believer (53). If we do not believe that Jesus drank the cup of wrath from the hand of the Father, then we do not drink his blood.

4.  Father’s sovereign and unfrustrable will to draw people to the Son (37, 43-46, 65).

      • All those for whom Jesus gives himself in his incarnation, obedience to the will of the Father, finally culminating in his substitutionary death and victorious resurrection will without fail be saved. “All that the Father gives me will come to me.”
      • Conversely, all of those that are not given to the Son by the Father will never come for they will be left to their blindness. No one can come, they will without exception refuse to come, unless the Father draws him
      • But when they are drawn, they are “taught of God,” by his effectual grace they hear and learn from the Father about His beloved Son.
      • Those so drawn will be raised up at the last day. This shows the unbreakable connection between the eternal gift to the Son, the drawing to the Son, and the Son’s raising them up at the last day unto eternal life.

5.  Jesus gives vivid images pointing to the necessity of an incarnational obedience and sacrifice for salvation – 6:47-58

      • His flesh is the necessity of a human life lived in perfect obedience to the Father’s will by which his people are declared righteous. To “Eat his flesh” mean that the true believer sees the incarnation as necessary for salvation. Righteousness, obedience to the divine law must be completed in the nature of humanity. A true human righteousness is fundamental to the grace of justification. If we refuse to eat his body, that is, embrace the necessity of his righteousness for our justification, then we are not believers. 
      • His blood is the substitutionary propitiation which procures forgiveness by which his people have no charge laid against them, no condemnation. To “drink his blood” means that we receive his death as that which should have engulfed us, sinners under the completely just and holy condemnation of God. He shed his blood as a sacrifice and in so doing endured divine wrath, procuring reconciliation and forgiveness of sins. It was this difficult idea that caused many of his interested followers to turn away from him (60, 66).
      • Spirit alone can effect right belief in the Son according to the will of the Father (63-65). The Trinitarian focus of salvation comes into clarity here as the Father’s will and the Son’s work culminate in the mind of heart of the elect by the Spirit’s life-giving call. Only regeneration. The “new birth” of chapter 3 can open the eyes to see the kingdom of God and only in such a seeing can one enter the Kingdom. “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing, is of no avail.”

E. Jesus confronts sinful, selfish indulgence and outright hostility (1:51; 2:19; 3:12-15; 4:39-42; 5:19-47; 6:26, 36, 64; 8:31-38) and reveals their indignation and personal offense at the truth (2:18-20; 5:15-17; 6:41-44; 7:40-43; 12:36-43).

III. How does Jesus apply this evident hostility to the truth of his claims?

A. The fleshly-mindedness and spiritual blindness of the people renders the Spirit’s work a necessity 6:26, 63

B. This spiritual hardness gives rise to the necessity of sovereign grace to draw them (cf. 5:40; 6:37-40 [given to the Son by the Father]; 44-46 [drawn by the Father]; (65 [coming to Jesus is granted by the Father]).

C. He tests the twelve as to their understanding.

    • His work and words set him apart as the one to whom we can go for eternal life.
    • In His person he is the Holy One of God.

D. Even one of them is a devil (cf. John 13:2), that is, remains blinded by the God of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4), is in the arms of the wicked one (1 John 2:19; 4:3; 5:19) and will be used in God’s providence to turn Jesus over to the authorities who are looking for opportunity to kill him (71).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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