Commentary on John 6:1-21
Like the earlier figures of Moses and Elisha, Jesus proclaims a message of God’s abundance and power to save.
John renders the feeding of the 5,000 story in a unique way. He combines elements of the Passover story in Exodus and the feeding miracle of Elisha (2 Kings 4) to portray Jesus as a powerful prophet.
This passage crafts its message through allusions to two Old Testament stories. Many ancient readers would have recognized an allusion to Elisha’s feeding miracle, told in 2 Kings 4. Elisha served a large crowd from twenty barley loaves, and they had some left over (2 Kings 4:42-44). Although not identical, the skepticism of Andrew in John is similar to the servant in 2 Kings. Andrew says, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” (John 6:9). The servant of Elisha said, “How can I set this before 100 people? (2 Kings 4:43). The parallels in the stories suggest that Jesus’ actions should evoke the memory of the earlier prophet.
The similarity to Elisha’s story may be an important reason it would make sense for John to portray the crowd as recognizing Jesus’ actions to be those of a prophet. “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world’” (John 6:14). Their acclamation suggests they interpret Jesus’ actions as similar to the great acts of the prophets.
The people’s recognition shows considerable understanding. Some modern interpreters try to distance Jesus from the Old Testament prophets, claiming that Jesus isn’t “just a prophet” but much more. Without denying that John sees Jesus as more than a prophet, it is important to recognize that John viewed prophets positively and characterized Jesus as a prophet to communicate to the reader about Jesus’ identity. Like the prophets, Jesus was sent by God (for example John 5:23-24), performs signs (for example John 2:11, 23), and has knowledge that goes beyond human understanding (for example John 2:19; 2:24-25). What is more, the work of the prophets was very important because they communicated a divine perspective regarding human events. John characterizes Jesus in this way so that readers will appreciate his high standing as a prophet.
John also conveys Jesus’ unique standing as a prophet by associating him with Moses as well as Elijah. Many of the details of these verses suggest a parallel to the Exodus story. Jesus goes up a mountain (John 6:3). The events are set at the time of Passover (John 6:4), the celebration of God’s triumph in the Exodus story. The order of events: Passover meal, sea crossing, manna discourse, also might cause readers to perceive an allusion to the Exodus. By climbing the mountain and providing the meal, John situations Jesus as Moses, who facilitated the provision of food for Israel. Like Moses, Jesus does signs that lead the people to trust in him (John 2:12; 4:46-54; see also Exodus 4:1-17).
The people respond to Jesus positively, yet Jesus rejects their desire to make him king. This response conveys information about the kind of leader Jesus is. The subject of Jesus’ kingship is taken up more fully in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, during which Jesus says, “my kingdom is not from this world” (John 18:36). Jesus’ prophetic status does not lead to the direct overthrow of human political systems, though he is still correctly identified as “king of the Jews” (for example John 19:14, 19).
Other elements of John’s story add new information alongside the idea that Jesus is a prophet. The sea crossing story communicates Jesus’ divine identity. When Jesus walks across the water toward the boat, the disciples are not confused about his identity, as they are in the Synoptic accounts, where they think Jesus is a ghost (for example Matthew 14:26-27; Mark 6:49-50). John states, “they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat” (John 6:19). Although the disciples in each case are terrified, John suggests their fear is an appropriate response to a theophany, an experience of God, rather than a misperception of the walking figure.
Thus, when Jesus says, “I am; do not be afraid” (John 6:20; New Revised Standard Version, “It is I; do not be afraid”), John’s readers are prepared to associate the words “I am” with the divine name, I am who I am (see Exodus 3:14-15). The Greek words can mean either “I am,” or “it is I.” In Matthew and Mark, when the disciples do not perceive that it is Jesus, it makes more sense to interpret these same words to mean “it’s me!” But John’s readers already know it is Jesus, and his words instead seem consistent with the power Jesus displays in walking on the water, the power God also showed in the Exodus story in the crossing of the Red Sea. Through the story, John conveys that Jesus embodies the power of the God of Israel.
What difference does it make for modern readers to see these Old Testament allusions in the story of Jesus? There are two important theological connections. First, understanding Jesus as a prophet like Moses or Elijah emphasizes continuity with Israel’s past. Instead of demanding that Jesus be distinctive from the Jewish prophets, John paints a portrait of Jesus as one who steps into these important roles for the people of his present day. God is still the same God who sought Israel through the voices of the prophets, and now God seeks people through Jesus.
Second, the “life” Jesus brings is a life shaped by the ideas of the Exodus and Elisha stories. Just as God provided abundantly for Israel in a time of dire circumstances, so Jesus brings a similar kind of life in the midst of human need. Just as God brought Israel out of slavery into freedom, so Jesus also facilitates a similar transformation (see also John 8:31-32). As Elisha was known for his many miracles of provision and raising from the dead, so Jesus stands in the line of these prophets (see also John 11; compare with 2 Kings 4:32-37). As Elisha stood against the authority of unfaithful king Ahab, so Jesus speaks and acts with power among those who do not accept him. Preachers can assist hearers to understand themselves as recipients of these same gifts through relationship with Jesus’ life-giving power.