Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

John 6.1-21
Proper 12 - Year B

Other texts: 

This week begins a series of five lessons from John 6.

This chapter begins the second major ministry section in John (6:1-10:42). There are similarities to the beginning of the first major ministry section (2:1-5:47). Both sections start with miracles in Galilee that show God's abundant grace and Jesus' divine glory:

In 2:1-11, Jesus turns a whole lot of water into an abundance of wine, which is "the first of his signs," in which "revealed his glory" (2:11)

In 6:1-15, Jesus turns five loaves and two fish into an abundance of food for thousands. This is followed by 6:16-21, Jesus walking on the water, which is primarily a theophany -- an occasion where Jesus' divine glory is revealed.

O'Day (John, The New Interpreter's Bible) suggests: "It is probably no accident that the two inaugural miracles involve wine and bread, the sacramental symbols of God's grace in Jesus" [p. 591].

She also gives this brief outline of John 6 [p. 592]:

The feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle story found in all four gospels. Matthew and Mark also include the feeding of the 4000; so there are six feeding miracles that can be compared and contrasted. Brown (John, Anchor Bible) does a detailed study of the six accounts. He concludes about John's account: "There is one logical explanation for all of these features, omissions, additions, and parallels, namely, that the evangelist did not copy from the Synoptics but had an independent tradition of the multiplication which was like, but not the same as, the Synoptic traditions" [p. 239].


These verses serve as an introduction to the whole chapter. They put Jesus at the Sea of Galilee. They surround Jesus with a crowd of people. They remind the reader about Jesus' signs. They put Jesus on a mountain. They place the following events and discourse the Passover Festival.

I can make sense of some of these introductory details, but not all of them.

The large crowd, (vv. 2 & 5, see also vv. 22 & 24) contains "disciples" who do not believe! (6:64) and who will not longer follow Jesus (6:66). It also includes "the twelve" (6:67, 70, 71 -- the first time the term is used in reference to disciples), who will not go away.

Following because of signs (semeion) will prove to be insufficient. This crowd has seen signs of his healing (v. 2). They will participate in the sign of the feeding, which leads them to proclaim that Jesus is "truly a prophet" (v. 14), but the crowd looks for Jesus, not because the "sign" has led them to faith, but because they ate their fill (v. 26). Apparently the signs that they have seen are not enough to lead them to believe (v. 30). As I pointed out in the preceding paragraph, many of the large crowd who followed because of signs will leave when they can't accept Jesus' teaching.

Can we ask -- or should we ask -- those in our churches, "Why do you follow Jesus?" "Why are you here?" Are there answers, such as, "because of the good feeling I get," that suggests that they are like the crowd who follow because "they ate their fill"? How do we grow from just consuming disciples to contributing apostles. (I'm using these terms purposely: "disciples", lit. "learners" -- those taking in; "apostles" -- lit. "those sent out.") Especially with a high sacramental understanding of worship and of the means of grace, we have to be "consumers" -- Jesus weekly enters our lives through our mouths. However, at some point we also need to see ourselves as active parts of the body, doing ministry in Christ's name, seeing the church not only as a place to get something, but also as a vehicle where one's gifts and abilities can be used for others.

This past week I read an article in Word & World (Summer 2006) called "'Stewards of God's Mysteries'" Stewarding as a Model for Congregational Ministry," by Rolf A. Jacobson. Some quotes:

In today's culture, the membership model leads people to construe the congregation as similar to a club that people join of their own free will for the purpose of having their needs met. (p. 250)

Thus the consumerist stance of shopping for an organization in which your needs will be met might be replaced with a deeper, more biblical model in which church membership is more than voluntary association; it is a call from God. When I served as a parish pastor, one of my responsibilities was to coordination outreach and new-member programs. I recall being embarrassed sometimes when I had to ask a visitor, "Do you want to join?" It felt wrong, almost as if I were serving as the membership director of some sort of spirituality club, rather than as a pastor of Christ's church. Sometimes I felt as if I were supposed to be selling the virtues of the congregation, communicating to prospective members all of the wonderful programs that we had that would meet their needs ("... and over here, at no additional charge, next to our free child care, you'll find our adult education ..."). I now believe that a more faithful way to approach prospective members would have been to invite them to discern whether God was calling them to become a fellow steward in our congregation's shared ministry, to pray with them about their response to God's call to become a fellow steward of God's mission. (pp. 255-6)

I offer these quotes because I think that we often consider ourselves to be the crowd sitting on the grass, receiving food from Jesus. However, as I noted above, they were not believers. They come to the wrong conclusion about Jesus. When Jesus wasn't meeting their needs, they stop following. I think that we need to see ourselves as the disciples -- those who were called by Jesus to work. They had to make the people sit down. Although it doesn't say it in John, it is clear in the synoptics that it is the disciples who distribute the food. (My hunch is that the way Jesus distributed the food (6:11) in John was through the disciples.) Could you imagine the time and effort it would take to feed 5000+ people? At the end, Jesus tells the disciples, "Gather up the fragments left over so that nothing may be lost."

The role of the disciples -- the believers -- in this story is not to be just consumers (I presume that they ate, too,) but stewards of the bounty Jesus provided.

John account of Jesus' discourse following the miracle connects these events with Passover and remembering the Exodus. God provided the people with manna in the wilderness (Ex 16:1-36; Num 11:7-9; John 6:31, 49), yet the people complained (gogguzo in LXX) about it (Num 11:1-6), so that God will not allow any of the complainers into the promised land (Num 14:26-30). Similarly, there is a whole lot of complaining (gogguzo) after Jesus has fed this crowd (John 6:41, 43, 61), and some will not (cannot?) listen to his words of eternal life.

Malina & Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John) make this statement about the mountain:

Specifically, the location was "the" mountain. The mountain in Mediterranean culture was a high outside inhabited and cultivated space, that is, outside the city, the village, or the town. A mountaintop was a well-attested place for communing with God (like Sinai or the Exodus). Since the areas outside towns and villages were considered chaotic and uncontrolled by humans, however, they were believed to be inhabited by various spirits or demons. Meals did not normally take place there. People did not picnic (or do recreational swimming or go mountain climbing) in the first-century Mediterranean world. [p. 126]

FEEDING THE 5000 -- PART 2: MIRACLE STORY (vv. 5-15)


Jesus asks Philip, usually an obscure disciple, "From where (pothen) shall we buy bread so that these might eat?" Malina & Rohrbaugh suggest that because they were seeking to purchase food indicates that they were away from kin from whom they would have normally sought food [p. 126].

Pothen is a significant word in the Gospel of John. It comes from pou = "where?" + then = "(motion) from (a place)." It is translated with "from where?" or "whence?" or "where?". As O'Day states: "The whence of Jesus' gifts is an important christological question in the fourth Gospel (e.g., 2:9; 4:11); if one knows the source of Jesus' gifts, one comes close to recognizing Jesus' identity (cf. 4:10)" [p. 594].

The instances of this word in John are found below.

NOTE: The first five instances concern the origin of things: knowledge, wine, wind, water, food. The next six instances concern the origin of Jesus/Messiah.

The "origin" of Jesus and his deeds is a theme throughout the gospel. From chapter 1, we, the readers know that Jesus -- the Word -- was with God and was God. Jesus comes from God. He acts with the power of God -- to know the unknowable, the transform water to wine, to transform five loaves and two fish into an abundant feast.


Why does John tell us that Jesus was testing Philip? The only other time this word (peirazo) is used in John it is the scribes and Pharisees who ask a "testing" question about the woman caught in adultery so that they might accuse Jesus (8:6).

I don't think that Jesus is asking the question to "tempt" Philip (another way of translating the word), but to reveal his inadequate faith in the power of God.

In what ways does Jesus test us today? Are such testing necessary in order to strengthen our faith and trust in the power of God?

Yet, we need to live in the paradox of believing God's power to do the impossible and the reality of the world around us. Congregations can get into financial trouble when they create "faith budgets" -- expecting God to miraculously produce sufficient funds. (I've known pastors who have received only partial checks because "faith" didn't bring in enough money to pay a full salary that pay period. When does "budgeting by faith" become an excuse for deficient stewardship teaching and poor financial planning?) On the other hand, churches also get into spiritual trouble when they totally rely on business practices devoid of any sense of God's presence or power in their midst.


The word (paidarion) in v. 9 translated "boy" in NRSV is a diminutive form of pais, implying a young boy. This is its only occurrence in the NT. However, another diminutive form of pais, paidion, is used in the synoptics of one with exemplary faith (Mt 18:2-5; 19:13-14 and par.).

Could a similar model be presented here? A little boy, who doesn't know any better, offers what he has, and it is more than enough.

A few years ago, some friends were in a large city. They drove by a park that had numerous homeless people. Their young daughter, around 4 years old, at the time, asked about the people. Answered the mother: "They are homeless. They have no place to sleep. They have nothing to eat." "Well, why don't we feed them?" asked the daughter in all her innocence. "Why don't we feed them?"

Philip rationalizes that feeding the crowd is an impossible task. "We don't have enough money."

William Easum (Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers) begins chapter 1 with this statement: "Established churches worship at the feet of the sacred cow of CONTROL" [p. 9]. A powerful controlling statement that I have often heard at council meetings is, "We can't afford it." (Isn't that what Philip said?)

A workshop I attended a number of years ago, at the presenter's congregation new ideas for ministry are strongly encouraged, following these three steps:

  1. The idea

  2. Who will do it

  3. How it will be financed

The financial aspect comes third. If the idea is good. If people are willing to make it happen, then they seek ways of funding the idea -- general budget? special offerings? user fees? etc. He said that a third of their programs are financed outside of the budget. They won't let "We can't afford it" control their thinking and planning and ministry. It is not step one.

An interesting approach to this text would be to think how a congregation might try and solve the problem of feeding a crowd of people today. (1) We can't afford it, so we'll do nothing. (2) We'll form a committee to look at different options. (3) We'll call the publishing house to see if they have any study materials dealing with feeding the hungry. Etc.

A question that Easum asks in various ways throughout the book is: "What gifts do you bring to the Body of Christ that, if we equip you to use them, the body of Christ will be more whole and so will you?"

Five loaves made of barley and two fish isn't much, but it was more than enough. Perhaps solving problems in congregation needs to begin with prayer about what (little) we can offer from our gifts and resources. (This relates to the consuming/contributing or stewardship difference I noted earlier.)


Only John has the word "barley" (krithinos). Brown (John) writes: "Wheat bread was more common; barley loaves were cheaper and served for the poor. Luke 11:5 seems to indicate that three loaves were looked on as a meal for one person" [p. 233]. The offering of bread was a meager offering of poor bread.

Only John has this particular word for "fish" (opsarion) in the NT. To again quote Brown: Opsarion is a double diminutive of opson (cooked food eaten with bread); the meaning became more specifically 'fish,' especially 'dried or preserved fish'" [p. 233]. Perhaps related to the poor bread, this was not fresh fish that was presented.

The same word for fish is used in 21: 9, 10, 13; probably an intended connection by the addendum writer. However, some other LXX connections are interesting.

The only other possible occurrence of opsarion is Tobit 2:2 (some LXX versions have opson). Tobit has an abundance of food and he wants to share it with a poor person; but there has been a murder, so the planned festival feast with the poor turned into a meal of mourning. So shall Jesus feast on the hillside turn into mourning when (1) the crowd is unable to hear his words and (2) when there will be a death.

Numbers 11, which talks about the people's grumbling and the gift of manna uses a form of the word (opsos) in v. 22 (v. 23 also quoted): "Are there enough flocks and herds to slaughter for them? Are there enough fish in the sea to catch for them?" The LORD said to Moses, "Is the LORD's power limited? Now you shall see whether my word will come true for you or not."

Moses sounds a lot like Philip.


There are similarities between Jesus' thanksgiving (eucharizo) and holy communion, but not as strong in John as in the synoptics.

As I noted above, in John, Jesus distributes the food. In the synoptics Jesus gives the loaves to the disciples who distribute it. The synoptics make better historical sense. It would take a long, long time for one person to distribute food to 5000+ people. However, I believe that John seeks to present more of a picture of the Christ of faith than what the historical Jesus actually did on earth. Just as the manna in the wilderness came directly from God, so this miracle meal is presented as coming directly from the very hand of Jesus -- even if it is historically unlikely.


I am intrigued by this last line in v. 11 and the fact that they all were satisfied (or even beyond satisfied -- full = empimplemi v. 12). How often have we stressed the difference between "wants" and "needs"? Here Jesus gives the people what they wanted! The amount of food goes beyond what they needed. In addition, we are never told that the people were hungry or in need of food. It was Jesus who decided that they should eat (v. 5). What if we took that approach to more frequently Holy Communion? It's not about what the people want or need. It's about what Jesus wants to personally give.

This would support the theory that John is presenting God's abundant grace in these verses, which is more than we need or even want. Is it possible to get too much of God's grace? Why would anyone not want to receive God's grace in Holy Communion more frequently?

The "gathering" commanded by Jesus and carried out by the disciples wasn't so much the left over scraps, but of the surplus food that they crowd couldn't eat.

Brown (John) notes that the word for "fragments" (klasma) is used in the Didache (9:3, 4) for the eucharistic bread [p. 234]. The literally meaning of the word (from klao) is "that which is broken". "Breaking bread" was an early term for the eucharist and an action of Jesus in the synoptics at both the feeding story and in the upper room.


What "sign" did the people see? That Jesus was acting as almighty God by providing food in the wilderness? That their bellies were full of food from this generous "man"?

Their comment: "This is indeed the prophet who is coming into the world" is ambiguous. It may be a proper response to Jesus or it may be an inadequate understanding of the Messiah.

There was an expectation of a prophet like Moses, based on Deut. 18:15-18. Given the connection with Passover and food in the wilderness, this connection is likely. However, v. 15 removes the ambiguity of v. 14; the people's response cannot be trusted. They want to "snatch" Jesus -- "take him by force" to make him king. Malina & Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John) remind us: "Kings are not simply a political equivalent of a 'president' with rights of hereditary succession. Rather, kings have total control of and responsibility for their subjects; they are expected to provide them fertility, peace, and abundance." [p. 126]

I think that an exploration of ways that we want to force Jesus into our image of a savior could be a fruitful approach to this section of the text. What type of "savior" do we try to make Jesus? Is it Jesus' "job" to completely take care of us -- like a king for his subjects? Is it Jesus' "job" to leave us alone so that we can do whatever we want?

Although I raised the issue of wants and needs above; I also realize that meeting the people's wants was totally at Jesus' initiative. He wasn't at the beck and call of the people to do what they wanted. When they want to make him king, he leaves. He will not let them do to him what they want.

This thought just struck me: I've often heard (and used) the phrase: "If God seems far away, who moved?" The implication being that it wasn't God who moved away, but us. However, in v. 15, it is Jesus who withdraws from the crowd. We could argue that his movement was caused by the people's attempt to make him fit into their messianic mold; rather than the people fitting into Jesus' call of discipleship. The people were doing what they thought would be good for everyone, not something evil. Could there be times in our lives that we do or think things we think are good that could cause God to withdraw from us?

WALKING ON WATER (vv. 16-21)

Some quotes from O'Day (John, The New Interpreter's Bible)

In Matt 14:22 and Mark 6:45, Jesus orders the disciples to cross the lake, but in John the disciples go on their own initiative. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus watches the disciples' boat cross the rough sea (Matt 14:24; Mark 6:48), whereas in John the journey is narrated from the disciples' perspective. In John, therefore, the focus of the story is on the disciples' experience, and the story offers the reader a chance to share in that experience. ... [pp. 595-596]

Jesus' words in v. 20 are the key to understanding the miracle of 6:16-21. The words "I am; do not be afraid" are found in all three accounts (Matt 14:27; Mark 6:50) and hence belong to the common fund of oral tradition, but they have a particular meaning in the christological context of the Fourth Gospel. A good case can be made that ego eimi should not be translated as simple identification formula ("It is I," NIV and NRSV), but should be translated as an absolute: "I am". As Jesus walks across the water, he identifies himself to his disciples with the divine name, " I AM." The background for this use of the divine name can be found in the LXX of Second Isaiah (Isa 43:25; 51:12; 52:6). The Fourth Evangelist portrays Jesus as speaking as Yahweh speaks in Second Isaiah. This reading of ego eimi is supported by Jesus' second words to his disciples, "Do not be afraid." These words, too, are spoken by Yahweh in Second Isaiah. They are the words of the salvation oracle, words of comfort spoken to end the distress of God's people (e.g., Isa 43:1; 44:2, 8). "Do not be afraid" is also a standard element of theophanies (e.g., Gen 15:1; Matt 28:5; Luke 2:10). Jesus' words in v. 20 confirm that his walking on water is a theophany and that this "manifestation of the divine" is the source of the disciples' fear. [pp. 596]

Note also that there is no mention of Jesus' calming the storm in this account. In fact, the "rough sea" and "strong wind" are not presented as a deadly storm for the disciples at sea. They are afraid, not because of the sea or of an approaching death, but because of the approaching Jesus! What would make people afraid or Jesus? sinful behaviors? inadequate faith? misplaced faith?

Jesus walks on the sea. The same words are used of God in Job 9:8b LXX: "and walking as on ground on sea." In a more figurative sense, God makes a path through the sea (Isa 43:16; Pss 77:19).

Malina & Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John) add some colorful language: "The sea is an essentially different entity from water. To walk on the sea is to trample on a being that can engulf people with its waves, swallow them in its deep, and support all sorts of living beings" [p. 128].

Perhaps, in opposition to the crowds inadequate responses: He is a prophet, let's make him our king -- John, again reveals to us and the disciples, that Jesus is much more than a king, he is divine.

I have heard that the popular heresies against Jesus have changed in the last generation. Whereas our parents and grandparents tended towards thinking of Jesus as too divine and not human enough; our generation seems more likely to think of Jesus as too human and lacking in his divinity.

While it is an imperfect analogy; I think that there are some connection with church architecture and liturgy. The older-style, high-ceiling, Gothic-like worship spaces offers a greater sense of the transcendent God, as do the more formal, high-church liturgies in such structures. A few years ago, I attended a magnificent service in the chapel at Valparaiso University with outstanding music by the Lutheran Summer Music Program staff and students. The awe-some presence almighty God was in that experience.

The newer, more living-room-like worship spaces offers a greater sense of the "buddy Jesus" God, as do the more informal liturgies in such structures. I lead worship in such a place. Hopefully, the people experience a sense of the friendly, loving Jesus through what happens in that space.

We need to see in the human Jesus the power of almighty God; but we need to accept God on God's terms; not ours -- God comes as the human Jesus from Nazareth. God comes in a small bite of bread and a sip of wine. God comes in the gathering in Jesus' name of sinful people.

Perhaps similarly to the feeding story; the disciples did not need Jesus to come to them; but Jesus gives them what he knows they need; but when they want to take him into the boat; something happens to thwart their plans with Jesus.


O'Day (John, The New Interpreter's Bible) emphasizes the grace and glory aspects of these stories. She ends with this paragraph:

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 that 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 have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (1:14). [pp. 597-598]

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901