As noted in the Context section, our verses are followed by the Johannine account of Jesus walking on the water and calming the seas (John 6:16-21). Whereas the miraculous feeding miracle was performed before the crowds, this miracle is with the disciples alone. It is with that context that I offer Gail O’Day’s reflection [597-98].
The two miracles of John 6:1–15 and 16–21 present the interpreter with two vivid enactments of the revelation of God’s grace and glory in Jesus. On the one hand, this grace and glory are revealed outside conventional human experience and expectations—in the miraculous feeding of over five thousand people with five loaves and two fish; in Jesus’ miraculous walking on water. On the other hand, the occasions where Jesus’ grace is offered and his glory revealed are familiar occasions of human need—the need for food, the need for safety and rescue from danger. The fears and needs that Jesus’ miracles meet belong to the common fund of human experience.
As in the healing of 4:46–54, Jesus’ grace is not revealed in a “spiritual” gift, but in a tangible, physical gift. A hungry crowd sat on the grass and ate bread and fish. Their spiritual needs were not the presenting problem for Jesus; their physical needs were (6:5). The interpreter, therefore, needs to be careful lest he or she adopt a purely symbolic interpretation of John 6:1–15 and cast its corporeality aside. The miraculous feeding dramatically demonstrates that Jesus has gifts and resources to meet the full range of human needs. He supplies the daily bread that people need to sustain life (cf. Matt 6:11; Luke 11:3). The feeding of the crowd thus confirms that Jesus is the source of life (cf. 6:33, 35, 58).
Jesus’ feeding miracle so impresses the crowd that they declare him to be a prophet (6:14) and intend to make him king (6:15). The crowd’s reaction shows how difficult it is to receive Jesus’ gifts on his terms without translating them immediately into one’s own categories. Jesus’ gift of food, the offer of his grace, provided the crowd with a glimpse of his identity, but they immediately tried to twist that identity to serve their own purposes. To make Jesus king is to take his grace and twist it to conform to pre-existent systems of power and authority. To make Jesus king is to judge him according to human glory (5:44) rather than to see in him God’s glory. When Jesus withdrew from the crowd (6:15), he showed that he would offer his gift of grace without claiming worldly power. In that moment his glory was revealed, because true glory has nothing to do with worldly power. In John 6:1–15, Jesus’ gift of grace thus becomes the vehicle for the revelation of his glory.
In John 6:16–21, by contrast, the revelation of Jesus’ glory is the vehicle for his gift of grace. If the crowd’s intention to make Jesus king distorts Jesus’ glory, then Jesus’ walking on water and his words to his disciples (“I am; do not fear”) counterbalance that distortion with a true picture of his glory. In 6:16–21, Jesus reveals himself to his disciples as one with God, sharing in God’s actions (e.g., Job 9:8; Isa 43:2), identifying himself with God’s name (e.g., Isa 43:25), speaking God’s words. Yet this manifestation of the divine in Jesus is not bravura, not a moment of glory for the sake of glory, but a moment of glory for the sake of grace. Jesus reveals himself to his disciples in order to allay their fears, to ensure their safe passage, to remind them that God has been, is, and will be their rescue. Jesus’ glory is not revealed for power, but for grace-filled pastoral care.
These two miracle stories raise important questions about the balance between grace and glory. In 6:1–15, the heart of the story is Jesus’ grace, Jesus’ extraordinary, unprecedented gift. Yet the crowd is intrigued by the possibilities of glory, and they want to force Jesus to be king. John 6:16–21 narrates the most dramatic self-revelation of Jesus to this point in the Gospel; yet it occurs in the solitude of his disciples’ fears. Jesus will not allow his grace to be controlled by the crowd’s desire for glory, and so he hides himself. But he will not hold back his glory from those in need, because this is his mission: to make God known (1:18). How believers hold the grace and glory of Jesus in balance is critical to the life of faith. The grace is destroyed if one tries to harness it for false power and authority, and the glory is lost if one does not recognize its presence in the quiet places of Jesus’ grace. Both the grace and the glory are essential to God’s revelation in Jesus: “and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (1:14).
- K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007).
- Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29a in The Anchor Bible, eds. William Albright and David Freeman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966)
- Neal M. Flanagan, John in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989). 990
- Colin G. Kruse, John: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003). 160-64
- Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John, vol. 4 in Sacra Pagina, Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1998)
- Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995). 299-302
- John J. McPolin, John, vol. 6 of the New Testament Message, eds. Wilfred Harrington and Donald Senior (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989)
- Gail R. O’Day, John in the New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 9, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996) 593-95
- Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources, available at crossmarks.com/brian/
- Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
- Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990) –
- The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, Gary A. Herion, David F. Graf, John David Pleins and Astrid B. Beck (New York: Doubleday, 1996).
Scripture – Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970 at http://www.usccb.org/bible/index.cfm