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John 6:1-15; Matt. 14:13-21; Mark 6:33-34; Luke 9:11-17.

The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel is full of marvels. It tells of a great miracle, a great enthusiasm, a great storm, a great sermon, a great apostasy, and a great trial of faith and fidelity endured by the twelve. It contains, indeed, the compendious history of an important crisis in the ministry of Jesus and the religious experience of His disciples, — a crisis in many respects foreshadowing the great final one, which happened little more than a year afterwards,195195John vi. 4: “the passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh.” when a more famous miracle still was followed by a greater popularity, to be succeeded in turn by a more complete desertion, and to end in the crucifixion, by which the riddle of the Capernaum discourse was solved, and its prophecy fulfilled.196196Keim, while admitting the reality of a Galilean crisis, thinks the account of it in John vi. unhistorical, though he praises it as one of the finest compositions in the whole book. The historical account he finds in Matt. xvi.; and he discovers in the fourth Gospel manifest points of correspondence to the synoptical version. Peter’s utterance in the close of the chapter is simply his famous confession in another form. The devil in John’s account corresponds to the Satan of the synoptical, only John’s devil is in Judas, while the synoptical one is in Peter. Keim says that in John’s account of the crisis the rise and fall of the star of Jesus is compressed into a single chapter, and treated as the work of a day. Through feeding and storm Jesus mounts at once to the highest popularity, and loses it again as suddenly in consequence of the repulsive discourse in Capernaum. But this is a most incorrect representation. John does indeed dispose of the crisis in one chapter, but he does not make the enthusiasm of the people appear as the result of the miracle of feeding or of any one act. He takes up the Galilean ministry (of which he knows, though he does not relate it) at the point where it has already reached the crisis. And the history which he gives, consistent and intelligible in itself, as we hope to show, helps to explain things in the synoptical account not in themselves clear, e.g. Christ’s compelling the disciples to go away across the lake in great haste, of which we shall speak farther on. Vide Jesu von Nazara, ii. 578.

The facts recorded by John in this chapter of his Gospel may all be comprehended under these four heads: the miracle in the wilderness, the storm on the lake, the sermon in the synagogue, and the subsequent sifting of Christ’s disciples. These, in their order, we propose to consider in four distinct sections.

The scene of the miracle was on the eastern shore of the Galilean Sea. Luke fixes the precise locality in the neighborhood of a city called Bethsaida.197197Luke ix. 10. This, of course, could not be the Bethsaida on the western shore, the city of Andrew and Peter. But there was, it appears, another city of the same name at the north-eastern extremity of the lake, called by way of distinction, Bethsaida Julias.198198Rebuilt by Philip the tetrarch, and referred to by Josephus. The site of this city, we are informed by an eye-witness, “is discernible on the lower slope of the hill which overhangs the rich plain at the mouth of the Jordan” (that is, at the place where the waters of the Upper Jordan join the Sea of Galilee). “The ‘desert place,’” the same author goes on to say, by way of proving the suitableness of the locality to be the scene of this miracle, “was either the green tableland which lies halfway up the hill immediately above Bethsaida, or else in the parts of the plain not cultivated by the hand of man would be found the ‘much green grass,’ still fresh in the spring of the year when this event occurred, before it had faded away in the summer sun: the tall grass which, broken down by the feet of the thousands then gathered together, would make ‘as it were, ‘couches’ for them to recline upon.”199199Stanley, Sinai and Palestine, p. 382. The “desert place’ is spoken of in Luke ix. 10, the “much green grass” in Mark vi. 39 and John vi. 10 combines.

To this place Jesus and the twelve had retired after the return of the latter from their mission, seeking rest and privacy. But what they sought they did not find. Their movements were observed, and the people flocked along the shore toward the place whither they had sailed, running all the way, as if fearful that they might escape, and so arriving at the landing place before them.200200Mark vi. 33. The multitude which thus gathered around Jesus was very great. All the evangelists agree in stating it at five thousand; and as the arrangement of the people at the miraculous repast in groups of hundreds and fifties201201Mark vi. 40. made it easy to ascertain their number, we may accept this statement not as a rough estimate, but as a tolerably exact calculation.

Such an immense assemblage testifies to the presence of a great excitement among the populations living by the shore of the Sea of Galilee. A fervid enthusiasm, a hero-worship, whereof Jesus was the object, was at work in their minds. Jesus was the idol of the hour: they could not endure his absence; they could not see enough of His work, nor hear enough of His teaching. This enthusiasm of the Galileans we may regard as the cumulative result of Christ’s own past labors, and in part also of the evangelistic mission which we considered in the last chapter.202202Vide p. 104. The infection seems to have spread as far south as Tiberias, for John relates that boats came from that city “to the place where they did eat bread.”203203John vi. 23. Those who were in these boats came too late to witness the miracle and share in the feast, but this does not prove that their errand was not the same as that of the rest; for, owing to their greater distance from the scene, the news would be longer in reaching them, and it would take them longer to go thither.

The great miracle wrought in the neighborhood of Bethsaida Julias consisted in the feeding of this vast assemblage of human beings with the utterly inadequate means of “five barley loaves and two small fishes.”204204John vi. 9. It was truly a stupendous transaction, of which we can form no conception; but no event in the Gospel history is more satisfactorily attested. All the evangelists relate the miracle with much minuteness, with little even apparent discrepancy, and with such graphic detail as none but eye-witnesses could have supplied. Even John, who records so few of Christ’s miracles, describes this one with as careful a hand as any of his brother evangelists, albeit introducing it into his narrative merely as a preface to the sermon on the Bread of Life found in his Gospel only.

This wonderful work, so unexceptionably attested, seems open to exception on another ground. It appears to be a miracle without a sufficient reason. It cannot be said to have been urgently called for by the necessities of the multitude. Doubtless they were hungry, and had brought no victuals with them to supply their bodily wants. But the miracle was wrought on the afternoon of the day on which they left their homes, and most of them might have returned within a few hours. It would, indeed, have been somewhat hard to have undertaken such a journey at the end of the day without food; but the hardship, even if necessary, was far within the limits of human endurance. But it was not necessary; for food could have been got on the way without going far, in the neighboring towns and villages, so that to disperse them as they were would have involved no considerable inconvenience. This is evident from the terms in which the disciples made the suggestion that the multitude should be sent away. We read: “When the day began to wear away, then came the twelve, and said unto Him, Send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages and country round about, and lodge and get victuals.”205205Luke ix. 12. In these respects there is an obvious difference between the first miraculous feeding and the second, which occurred at a somewhat later period at the south-eastern extremity of the Lake. On that occasion the people who had assembled around Jesus had been three days in the wilderness without aught to eat, and there were no facilities for procuring food, so that the miracle was demanded by considerations of humanity.206206Mark viii. 3, 4. Accordingly we find that compassion is assigned as the motive for that miracle: “Jesus called His disciples unto Him, and saith unto them, I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now been with me three days, and have nothing to eat; and if I send them away fasting to their own houses, they will faint by the way; for some of them are come from far.”207207Mark viii. 1-3.

If our object were merely to get rid of the difficulty of assigning a sufficient motive for the first great miracle of feeding, we might content ourselves with saying that Jesus did not need any very urgent occasion to induce Him to use His power for the benefit of others. For His own benefit He would not use it in case even of extreme need, not even after a fast of forty days. But when the well-being (not to say the being) of others was concerned, He dispensed miraculous blessings with a liberal hand. He did not ask Himself: Is this a grave enough occasion for the use of divine power? Is this man ill enough to justify a miraculous interference with the laws of nature by healing him? Are these people here assembled hungry enough to be fed, like their fathers in the wilderness, with bread from heaven? But we do not insist on this, because we believe that something else and higher was aimed at in this miracle than to satisfy physical appetite. It was a symbolic, didactic, critical miracle. It was meant to teach, and also to test; to supply a text for the subsequent sermon, and a touchstone to try the character of those who had followed Jesus with such enthusiasm. The miraculous feast in the wilderness was meant to say to the multitude just what our sacramental feast says to us: “I, Jesus the Son of God Incarnate, am the bread of life. What this bread is to your bodies, I myself am to your souls.” And the communicants in that feast were to be tested by the way in which they regarded the transaction. The spiritual would see in it a sign of Christ’s divine dignity, and a seal of His saving grace; the carnal would rest simply in the outward fact that they had eaten of the loaves and were filled, and would take occasion from what had happened to indulge in high hopes of temporal felicity under the benign reign of the Prophet and King who had made His appearance among them.

The miracle in the desert was in this view not merely an act of mercy, but an act of judgment. Jesus mercifully fed the hungry multitude in order that He might sift it, and separate the true from the spurious disciples. There was a much more urgent demand for such a sifting than for food to satisfy merely physical cravings. If those thousands were all genuine disciples, it was well; but if not — if the greater number were following Christ under misapprehension — the sooner that became apparent the better. To allow so large a mixed multitude to follow Himself any longer without sifting would have been on Christ’s part to encourage false hopes, and to give rise to serious misapprehensions as to the nature of His kingdom and His earthly mission. And no better method of separating the chaff from the wheat in that large company of professed disciples could have been devised, than first to work a miracle which would bring to the surface the latent carnality of the greater number, and then to preach a sermon which could not fail to be offensive to the carnal mind.

That Jesus freely chose, for a reason of His own, the miraculous method of meeting the difficulty that had arisen, appears to be not obscurely hinted at in the Gospel narratives. Consider, for example, in this connection, John’s note of time, “The passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh.” Is this a merely chronological statement? We think not. What further purpose, then, is it intended to serve? To explain how so great a crowd came to be gathered around Jesus? — Such an explanation was not required, for the true cause of the great gathering was the enthusiasm which had been awakened among the people by the preaching and healing work of Jesus and the twelve. The evangelist refers to the approaching passover, it would seem, not to explain the movement of the people, but rather to explain the acts and words of His Lord about to be related. “The passover was nigh, and” — so may we bring out John’s meaning — "Jesus was thinking of it, though He went not up to the feast that season. He thought of the paschal lamb, and how He, the true Paschal Lamb, would ere long be slain for the life of the world; and He gave expression to the deep thoughts of His heart in the symbolic miracle I am about to relate, and in the mystic discourse which followed.”208208For the view of John vi. 4 above given, see Luthardt, Das Johan. Evangelium, i. 80, ii. 41.

The view we advocate respecting the motive of the miracle in the wilderness seems borne out also by the tone adopted by Jesus in the conversation which took place between Himself and the twelve as to how the wants of the multitude might be supplied. In the course of that conversation, of which fragments have been preserved by the different evangelists, two suggestions were made by the disciples. One was to dismiss the multitude that they might procure supplies for themselves; the other, that they (the disciples) should go to the nearest town (say Bethsaida Julias, probably not far off) and purchase as much bread as they could get for two hundred denarii, which would suffice to alleviate hunger at least, if not to satisfy appetite.209209Mark vi. 37; John vi. 7. A denarius (Eng. Ver. a penny) seems to have been a day’s wages (Matt. xx. 9), and was about the eighth part of an ounce of silver. Both these proposals were feasible, otherwise they would not have been made; for the twelve had not spoken thoughtlessly, but after consideration, as appears from the fact that one of their number, Andrew, had already ascertained how much provision could be got on the spot. The question how the multitude could be provided for had evidently been exercising the minds of the disciples, and the two proposals were the result of their deliberations. Now, what we wish to point out is, that Jesus does not appear to have given any serious heed to these proposals. He listened to them, not displeased to see the generous concern of His disciples for the hungry people, yet with the air of one who meant from the first to pursue a different line of action from any they might suggest. He behaved like a general in a council of war whose own mind is made up, but who is not unwilling to hear what his subordinates will say. This is no mere inference of ours, for John actually explains that such was the manner in which our Lord acted on the occasion. After relating that Jesus addressed to Philip the question, Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat? he adds the parenthetical remark, “This He said to prove him, for He Himself knew what He would do.”210210John vi. 6.

Such, then, was the design of the miracle; what now was its result? It raised the swelling tide of enthusiasm to its full height, and induced the multitude to form a foolish and dangerous purpose — even to crown the wonder — working Jesus, and make Him their king instead of the licentious despot Herod. They said, “This is of a truth that Prophet that should come into the world;.” and they were on the point of coming and taking Jesus by force to make Him a king, insomuch that it was necessary that He should make His escape from them, and depart into a mountain Himself alone.211211John vi. 14, 15. The prophet meant was one like Moses (Deut. xviii. 15). Such are the express statements of the fourth Gospel, and what is there stated is obscurely implied in the narratives of Matthew and Mark. They tell how, after the miracle in the desert, Jesus straightway constrained His disciples to get into a ship and to go to the other side.212212Matt. xiv. 22; Mark i. 45, Εὐθέως ἡνάγκασεν. Why such haste, and why such urgency? Doubtless it was late, and there was no time to lose if they wished to get home to Capernaum that night. But why go home at all, when the people, or at least a part of them, were to pass the night in the wilderness? Should the disciples not rather have remained with them, to keep them in heart and take a charge of them? Nay, was it dutiful in disciples to leave their Master alone in such a situation? Doubtless the reluctance of the twelve to depart sprang from their asking themselves these very questions; and, as a feeling having such an origin was most becoming, the constraint put on them presupposes the existence of unusual circumstances, such as those recorded by John. In other words, the most natural explanation of the fact recorded by the synoptical evangelists is, that Jesus wished to extricate both Himself and His disciples from the foolish enthusiasm of the multitude, an enthusiasm with which, beyond question, the disciples were only too much in sympathy, and for that purpose arranged that they should sail away in the dusk across the lake, while He retired into the solitude of the mountains.213213John vi. 15, 16. Vide p. 116, note 2.

What a melancholy result of a hopeful movement have we here! The kingdom has been proclaimed, and the good news has been extensively welcomed. Jesus, the Messianic King, is become the object of most ardent devotion to an enthusiastic population. But, alas! their ideas of the kingdom are radically mistaken. Acted out, they would mean rebellion and ultimate ruin. Therefore it is necessary that Jesus should save Himself from His own friends, and hide Himself from His own followers. How certainly do Satan’s tares get sown among God’s wheat! How easily does enthusiasm run into folly and mischief!

The result of the miracle did not take Jesus by surprise. It was what He expected; nay, in a sense, it was what He aimed at. It was time that the thoughts of many hearts should be revealed; and the certainty that the miracle would help to reveal them was one reason at least for its being worked. Jesus furnished for the people a table in the wilderness, and gave them of the corn of heaven, and sent them meat to the full,214214Ps. lxxxviii. 19, 24, 25. that He might prove them, and know what was in their heart,215215Deut. viii. 2. — whether they loved Him for His own sake, or only for the sake of expected worldly advantage. That many followed Him from by-ends He knew beforehand, but He desired to bring the fact home to their own consciences. The miracle put that in His power, and enabled Him to say, without fear of contradiction, “Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves and were filled.”216216John vi. 26. It was a searching word, which might well put all His professed followers, not only then, but now, on self-examining thoughts, and lead each man to ask himself, Why do I profess Christianity? is it from sincere faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Saviour of the world, or from thoughtless compliance with custom, from a regard to reputation, or from considerations of worldly advantage?

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