Last week we heard Jesus’ claim of witnesses that He was God and equal to the Father, and sent by the Father. These witnesses includes the testimony of John the Baptist, the works which the Father sent Jesus to do, the internal witness of the Father Himself, and the Scripture. In His defense of His claims was a warning that the consequences of rejecting Jesus would be devastating to the Jews and that the very Moses whom they trusted would end up as their accuser in the Day of Judgment. Yet reject Him they did.
The theme of the Jewish rejection of Jesus as Messiah goes back to the very beginning of the Gospel of John where it is written, “He came unto his own things, but His own people rejected Him. The Pharisees rejected him. The Sadducees rejected Him. The people of Judea rejected Him. The people of His own hometown rejected Him. The rich rejected Him. The poor rejected Him. In the hour of crisis, His own disciples would flee and another betray Him. And in today’s text were the events which would lead to the Galileans rejecting Him. In the Gospel, only the hated Samaritans accepted Him.
Today’s text and the following one of walking on the water are the only miracles recorded in all four gospels. It is interesting to note that each account has details which helps to explain the text of another account.
Exposition of the Text
The other Gospels indicate that Jesus had crossed over the Sea of Galilee to the Gentile side of the lake which was known as the Sea of Tiberius to them for two reasons. The first was that Jesus and the disciples were weary because of the many healings and other works of ministry they had been performing. The second was the news of the beheading of John the Baptist. Some commentators make mention that Jesus withdrew to this solitary place for fear of Herod. However, it would be strange for Jesus to withdraw to an area which was close to the city of Tiberius which was right under the nose of Herod and where Herod had imprisoned John the Baptist. Soon afterward, Jesus would go to Caesarea Philippi to make a bold statement right in the very face of Herod. So instead of it being a strategic retreat, it seemed that Jesus was going on the offensive.
Whereas the disciples of Jesus were always being taken by surprise, the Gospel of John is especially clear that Jesus never is. The disciples were surprised, and being very tired, annoyed that a big crowd made its’ way to them. But Jesus knew they were coming. A huge crowd was assembling right within sight of Herod. The fact that there were 5,000 men mentioned and that women and children were not included in that number was not a put down of them. Instead, it was to bring out that there were 5,000 men who could bear arms in a revolt against the Roman government.
John mentions that the Passover was near. Passover was the Jewish equivalent of our 4th of July. It was their Day of Independence against oppression by a foreign power (Egypt). So there were a lot of expectations in the crowd. John the Baptist was dead. He couldn’t have been the promised Messiah, even though He constantly had to deny it. But John the Baptist had pointed out Jesus as being the Messiah. Was He the One? John mentions that they were attracted by all the people He had healed. In fact, John calls these a sign. We think of a sign as something which points the way. And these signs were telling the people “Messiah ahead.”
John specifically states that Jesus was aware of the situation and already knew what He was about to do. He puts Phillip to the test by asking Phillip who came from the area where they might go to buy bread for the people. Phillip’s answer indicates that Jesus and the disciples had only 200 denarii between them. This was about 8 months wages for a common laborer, a considerable sum, but nothing considering the size of the crowd. It would have provided a meal for 200 families, but there were 5000 there. You just can’t make enough bread with that kind of dough. It simply could not happen.
Andrew, the disciple who was always bringing people to Jesus, found a child who had five small barley cakes and two sardine-sized fish. If 200 denarii worth was too small for each to have a bite, what could this provide? Obviously, the problem was far bigger than any feat of human engineering could provide. And that is just the point.
The location in the isolated area hints back to the Children of Israel in the wilderness. There they were numbered in companies just like Jesus would have them sit down in fifties and hundreds. The reason for the original numbering was to count the men able to serve in the Israeli military for the conquest of Canaan. The numbering here in today’s text is significant.
Part of the wilderness experience was God’s provision of manna. Only a very few experienced Bedouins could find enough food for their families. The numbers of Israelites far exceeded what the land could bear. Only God could provide for them in such a place. And on this day, Jesus by feeding the 5,000 men plus women and children here was pointing back to the Wilderness. What does this say about who Jesus is?
The task of feeding the people had to be the work of God. Jesus demonstrates this not by taking 200 pennyworth out of the treasury and make it enough. Instead, he takes a much smaller amount, five small barley cakes and two sardine-sized fish. It reminds us of Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel in which Elijah pours water over the sacrifice before calling fire down. This is to show that this is a true miracle from God. And there was more left than what they started out with. There was one basket of fragments left for each of the twelve disciples to take with them. This should remind them that Jesus would abundantly take care of them.
The demonstration of power was enough to electrify the crowd. They were convinced that He was the real thing, the Messiah who would overthrow the Romans. All they needed to do was to march up the river and depose Herod, and then go to Jerusalem to overthrow Pilate. They attempted to seize Jesus by force and make Him king.
Jesus, besides showing compassion for the hungry people, affirmed that He was the Messiah. But He also did not need anyone to make him anything. He already was, is, and ever will be everything He is. He has no need for a mere human or group of people to make Him king. He already is the king. He would still be Lord of Lords and King of Kings if every single person, angel, demon, or whoever/whatever denies Him.
Being Lord, it is up to Jesus to reveal to us what His mission is rather than those who would follow Him to create His agenda. We would do well to learn this. Jesus is Messiah on His own terms. He did not come to set up a kingdom on this present earth. Being King of Heaven, what significance would there be to being Lord over this little speck of dust in the galaxy? His coming to earth was not to do His will, but the Father’s. It was love which brought Him here to earth, and it was love that allowed Him to die on the cross for our sins. Jesus would have no part in the schemes of his alleged followers. He dismisses the disciples and disappears alone.
Application of the Text
What message does this passage send us? In the first part, it shows Jesus’ compassion on the crowd, even though they drew the wrong conclusions about the mission of Jesus. This shows that we must be compassionate even towards those who oppose us. Our response must be love, even though we are tempted to hate those who will not walk in the way of truth.
What does this say about the Christian’s relationship to secular governments? Jesus refused the temptation to take over the world’s government of His day, and instead submitted to the authorities, even to death. It must be said that the dictatorships of Herod and Caesar are different from the democracy we enjoy, and that we cannot make an exact application here. Nevertheless, we should be careful not to put too much confidence in worldly governments, even those by the people and for the people.
The best that can be said about secular governments is that they can rule well within the sphere of their authority. They are the 200 pennyworth solution. As long as the need can be solved for less than this amount, all is well. Beyond this they cannot go. It is good for the government to make fair and just laws, and they should be encouraged to do so. However, no one can be saved by the works of any human law. They cannot even be saved by keeping God’s law. We must realize that this is beyond the limits of government. The government should be compassionate, but sometimes the need is far greater than the government can afford to supply.
Is the salvation of this nation going to happen because we get five conservative justices to vote the Ten Commandments back into our courtrooms? The American people voted the Ten Commandments out of their hearts and lives long before the push to remove them from the courthouses. In fact most Christians cannot even sit down and write the Ten Commandments, no less talk intelligently on what they mean. We must realize that the moral problems are far greater than what even 9 conservative justices could solve. It is going to take a miracle from God to save us from our spiritual poverty. It will take ministers and lay persons who are bold and unashamed about the Gospel, and who will proclaim it to sinners. It will take prayer. In other words, it is the work of God, and the obedience of His people which is needed. The government will not rescue us.
We as Christians must decide who is going to be our Lord. If Jesus is Lord, then we should be listening to Him rather than dictating to Him.