Commentary on John 6:1-21
This text begins our month-long lectionary “bread-based” texts. And don’t we get tired of all the bread sermons?
We give up before we make it all the way through this sixth chapter of John. We run out of things to say about simple loaves of bread. We turn to the Epistles or the Old Testament.
Perhaps we can move through these texts, allowing for the bread metaphor to hold them together, but not getting blocked in our interpretations by the dominance of the loaf.
John 6:1-21 holds together as a narrative, but it actually contains two stories. Both are included by the synoptic gospel writers. The feeding of the 5,000+ (verses 5-15) is found in Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, and Luke 9:10-17. John’s narrative of Jesus’ walking on the water is consistent with the Matthean and Markan chronology. Luke does not include this account. A reliable commentary can provide the notable comparisons and contrasts.
John’s telling is typically his own narratively and theologically. The two stories are linked as one unit. They begin to peel back another layer in the attempt to answer the question “Who is Jesus?” For John, the primary theological issue is Christological.
The answer to the question comes through the people who need Jesus. First the crowd, and then the disciples. The needs create expectations, encounters, and interpretations. It happened for them and it happens for us as we become part of the narrative.
Introduction (verses 1-4)
These verses are important because they set the stage for why the encounter with Jesus in each story is significant: the crowds are following because they saw Jesus perform SIGNS. Jesus has healed the official’s son (4:46ff) and the man by the pool (5:5ff). Impressive acts in the previous two chapters create anticipation for what is to come for the reader and a definite expectation from the crowd.
First Story (verses 5-15)
The crowds are looking for another sign, and they get one here. John states this directly in verse 14: “When the people saw the sign that he had done . . . .”
Jesus multiplies loaves of bread and fish to satisfy the hunger of the people and it is called a sign. (This is the third sign according to John’s chronology — 2:11 and 4:54.) In John’s Gospel, a sign is used to signify who Jesus is. In this miraculous feeding, the people see the sign and it signifies to them that Jesus is “the prophet who is to come into the world” (verse 14).
An interesting comparison to this should be noted in the words of the woman at the well. When confronted with the profundity of Jesus, she also calls him a prophet (4:19).
Encountering Jesus. Expecting something. Receiving food to fill their stomachs. They are interpreting the encounter in terms of who Jesus is — prophet — but they want more. They want to make him king.
Second Story (verses 16-21)
The need in the previous story was a hungry crowd in a remote location with no possibility for the provision of food. That one took a miracle.
In this story, the need requires a similarly exotic miracle. It is dark. The disciples are alone three miles out on the lake in a boat. The winds are up. The water is rough. They see Jesus walking on the water. They are SCARED.
In what may be one of the boldest Johannine understatements, Jesus simply speaks the “egō eimi” (verse 20). These words will occur again on the lips of Jesus in verses 35, 41, 48, and 51. Here, though, they stand alone. There is no fuller explanation, no expansion, no predicate adjective or predicate nominative for grammarians to haggle over.
I would suggest a simple understanding of the “I am” statement in this context. It is as if one were to open the door and enter a dark room where another is present. There is a fear over who is entering the room if the identity is not announced. A simple “It is I” suffices as a voice recognition to calm the fear over who the intruder is.
So much commentary ink is shed over two issues in the text. The first is the meaning of Jesus’ words “egō eimi.” The sermon may not be the best place to unpack that. The second issue is the debate over whether the disciples were so close to shore that Jesus was simply walking in the shallow water by the shore. This isn’t pertinent to the sermon either.
This story is similar in flow to the previous one. The disciples need Jesus. Their need came out of Jesus’ own absence. Then Jesus appears: a miracle happens through the simple voice of Jesus calling out to them, “I’m here. Stop being afraid.”
Thoughts to Build Upon
When juxtaposed, the two stories provide light into our own needs, expectations, encounters, and interpretations.
How often is it that people “come after” Jesus because of the signs? People observe the good that comes to those who follow Jesus. Expectations are awakened. We want the big things. Healing from horrible diseases. Instant money when the house is in foreclosure. A miracle for the child who cannot overcome addictions. Sometimes this is the miracle that we get.
How often is it, though, that all someone needs is a simple reassurance that, indeed, Jesus the Christ is present. “Egō eimi.” That presence can get the boat to shore, can calm the grandest of fears.
These narratives have so little to do with bread. Today’s text has all to do with how Jesus acted in order to show who he is. Jesus responded to the needs of the crowd and the disciples. Jesus is active through both miracle and simple presence.
Expectations. Encounters. Interpretations. Who is Jesus in this text? Who is Jesus?