|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
With our text, the setting has changed from the mountain on the other side of the Sea of Galilee (6:1, 3) to Capernaum (6:24), but the crowd is the same. They have been following him around the area, but as we see throughout chapter 6, following Jesus and being his disciple are not the same thing.
Our text begins with a crowd seeking or looking for (zeteo in present tense) Jesus in Capernaum. Is seeking Jesus good or bad? Would they know what to do with him if the "caught" him. (I'm thinking of the image of a dog chasing a car. Would it know what to do if it caught the car?) The last time the crowd was with Jesus (v. 15), they were going to take him by force and make him king. Jesus withdrew from them. The crowd wanted to make Jesus into their image of a leader. Jesus will have nothing to do with that. Maybe Jesus doesn't want to be found.
Most often when zeteo is used in John, it refers to the Jews seeking to kill (or arrest) Jesus: 5:18; 7:1, 11?, 19, 20, 25, 30; 8:37, 40; 10:39; 11:8. Seeking after Jesus may not be a good thing -- one may be seeking to do him harm. (I wonder what this might imply for "seeker" services?)
The crowd finds Jesus. Is that good or bad? They address him as "rabbi". A somewhat less significant title than seeking to make him king in v. 15 or prophet in v. 14. The title "rabbi" is also used on John the Baptist (3:26). It is a title of respect, but not a confession of faith.
Their question: "When did you get here?" implies that they are not aware of the miraculous transportation used by Jesus: walking on water and the miraculously instantaneous boat trip (6:19-21). I might be a little cynical, but it might also be a question of control: "We want to know exactly what happened." Similar questions are heard often in congregations. "Who is that?" "When did that change?" "Who made that decision?" While such questions can be simply requests for information, they can also be asked with such a tone that indicates, "I don't like things happening without me being informed."
When I first worked on these notes I had just finished reading, Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers, by William Easum. The "sacred cow" he is trying to fry in this book is control. "Established churches must either cease worshiping the god of control, or they perish!" [p. 9]. "... making decisions and controlling what happens is more important in established churches than making disciples" [p. 12].
In our text (and larger context) I see "the crowd" trying to exert their control over Jesus. They want to make him king by force. They need to know when (and how?) he got to Capernaum.
They want to know: "What must we do to perform the works of God?" (v. 28) To me, they seem to be asking, "What can we do to control God?" [More detailed study on this verse later.]
They ask, "What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you?" (v. 30) This question seems absurd coming so closely after we have been told: "They saw the signs that he was doing for the sick" (6:2) and "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.'" (6:14) However, if their question is one of seeking to control Jesus -- to make Jesus do what we want him to do, then it follows the characterization that I have suggested of a controlling crowd.
Jesus doesn't answer their question. He makes a statement about their motives. He seems to answer a different question. The question Jesus responds to is: "Why are you, namely, the crowd, here?" His answer to that unspoken question is: "You are seeking me not because you saw signs, but because you ate from the bread and were filled." The use of the present tense for "seek" implies that the crowd is still seeking. A probable implication is that as long as their motives are centered in their bellies, they will never really discover Jesus.
The image of "the belly" as something that gets in the way of really discovering Jesus is one I have used with this text. The "belly" can refer to:
(1) the literal filling up of their bellies earlier in the chapter
(2) the symbolism of being centered on self
(a) the attitude of seeking Jesus to satisfy one's selfish desires
(b) the attitude of "wanting to do it myself" -- working for what I get
A very interesting contrast is being made with regard to the church of the future. On one hand, experts are saying that a congregation's agenda needs to be set by the needs of the consumer (e.g., the unchurched). On the other hand, I believe that most of congregations are full of "consumer" Christians -- those who are involved primarily for what they can get out of it, rather than "contributing" Christians -- those who are involved primarily for what they can give to the ministry of the body.
I also run into a theological conflict with this idea. While I strongly believe that Christianity is centered on what God gives us through Jesus Christ, e.g., the bread from heaven, which we are to consume; Christianity is also strongly anti-self-centered. Following Jesus means denying one's self.
Is it wrong to seek Jesus for what we get out of it? Is it wrong to seek Jesus for something to fill our needs? to feed our emptiness with the living bread from heaven? to promise us resurrected life when we die? to forgive our sins? to give us new life today? If such selfish motives gets people to Jesus, it can't be all bad, can it?
Perhaps the distinction is found in properly understanding the word "sign." A sign is something that points to something else. The sign isn't the important thing, but what it points to. Business pay for billboards, not so that people will be attracted to the billboard, but so that they might be directed to what it points to: the hotel or restaurant or whatever might be advertised on the hunk of wood.
The feeding miracle, as a sign, needs to point to something else besides full bellies. Can we also generalize that all the good things we receive from Jesus are signs that point to something even more important?
To approach this with another metaphor: the church is often called a hospital for sinners -- and it is that. But for any hospital to be affective in caring for its patients, it needs staff people -- both paid and volunteer -- people who are there, not to be attended to, but to tend to others. I don't mean to imply that any of us reach the point where we don't need to be patients in the "hospital for sinners," but to point out that some of us also have a roll of being workers in the hospital. Ideally, every member of a congregation sees him- or herself as both a patient and a worker in the hospital. We should understand that coming to church -- or more properly, when the church gathers together -- it is not just to get something out of the service and fellowship; but also an opportunity to give and make use of our gifts and talents.
"Do not continue to work for the food that perishes,
but the food that remains for eternal life,
which the son of man will give to you" (v. 27abc).
The food that "perishes" alludes to the feeding miracle where the disciples had to gather up the fragments, "so that nothing would be lost" or "so that nothing would perish" (v. 12 -- same word as in v. 27). A similar picture is given in Exodus 16 where the manna that wasn't gathered before morning became infected with worms (v. 20) and melted under the hot sun (v. 21). Manna was perishable bread.
The main verb is in the present tense: "continue to work," "keep on working." Does this verb also carry over to the second phrase. Do we need to understand the first two phrases as this contrast:
Do not continue to work for the food that perishes,
but [continue to work] for the food that remains for eternal life?
Or, can we assume that a second contrast is being presented with the third line?
1st contrast: food that perishes vs. food that remains for eternal life
2nd contrast: food one works for vs. food that the Son of Man gives
If we assume the two contrasts approach, then we have a typical Johannine pattern of the people misunderstanding what Jesus is talking about. He presents this food as a gift from the Son of Man, but they want to turn it into something they work for.
They ask: "What might we continue to do [present subjunctive verb] so that we might continue to work [present subjunctive verb] the work of God?" They turn the gift of food into something they want to work for. The "belly" gets in the way. They want to earn it -- do something to get it, rather than receive the gift.
There are also two ways to understand the genitive phrase "work of God." The crowd understands it as "the work God expects us to do." However, Jesus' answer in v. 29, it seems to mean, "the work God does for us." In this case the verse might be translated: "This is the work God does so that you might continue to believe [present subjunctive verb] in that One whom God sent."
Depending upon whether "work of God" is a subjective or objective genitive, our believing may be considered our work for God or God's work in us. My theological bent is to opt for the second understanding: It is God's work. However, the crowd wants to keep taking control of this work. They don't want to leave it up to God. They want to it themselves.
Malina & Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John) point out that "believing into" [pisteuon eis] is a characteristic Johannine idiom (see 6:29, 35, 40 -- and nearly every time NRSV translates "believe in"). Malina & Rohrbaugh note: "Many commentators have pointed out that this construction implies trust rather than simple intellectual assent." However, they go on:
Given the collectivist character of relationships in ancient Mediterranean societies, however, even more is implied. Collectivist persons become embedded in one another. A unity and loyalty is involved that is extremely deep. Since personal identity in collectivist cultures is always the result of the groups in which one is embedded, that too is involved. John's peculiar idiom (the Greek tense used connotes ongoing or continuous action) suggests exactly this kind of long-term solidarity with Jesus. [p. 130]
Later, they write more about the collectivist personality:
In the world of the New Testament, when someone asked, "Who are you?" he or she normally expected to hear some kind of group identifier like "son of Joseph from Nazareth" (John 1:45) or "descendant [sperma] of Abraham" (John 8:33). They saw every person as deeply embedded in a group and therefore assumed that identity is possible only in relation to the others who form this group. [p. 163]
"Believing into" or, perhaps, "entrusting [oneself] into" meant becoming part of Jesus and Jesus' group. This would mean a change in identities. It involved changing "Who I am" because of changing whom I'm identified with.
Verse 30 presents a number of key words used earlier in the discourse. Whereas the crowd asked in v. 28 "What might we continue to do...?" now they ask in v. 30, "What are you doing?" (Both use poieo.) Whereas the crowd asked in v. 28 about the work they must do, now they ask about Jesus' work. (Both use ergazomai.) Whereas Jesus tells the crowd in v. 26 that they don't see signs and in v. 29 that they need to believe, now they are asking for signs so that they might see and believe. (Same words are used for "sign," "see," and "believe".) NOTE: "see" and "believe" are aorist in v. 30, implying that they would be something that happened at a particular moment, e.g., when Jesus did the signs; but not necessarily ongoing events in the life of the crowd.
Perhaps this can be illustrated by the fact that their faith life was living in the past: what happened with our ancestors; even quoting scriptures -- although not exactly (Ex 16:15; Ps 78:24 -- both of these are part of the thematic readings in the RCL for the day.)
In my experience, people can "place in stone" a past gracious act of God so that they are unable to see the present activities of God. Adults who brag about their long line of perfect attendance at Sunday school with attendance pins to prove it, but have little contact with church as an adult. I've heard testimonies from people about the wonderful way God saved them or healed them way back in history. I wonder, "What is God doing in their lives now?" The phrase, "We've always done it this way," may blind one to the present activities of the God who is making all things new (Rev. 21:5). Even in our tradition, some people may figure, I was baptized as an infant and that's enough.
Although Martin Luther wrote some wonderful things about God's grace being conveyed through the sacrament of baptism, he ends the baptism section in the Small Catechism by talking about "daily baptism." It is our walk with God today -- in the present -- that is important.
The different tenses of our faith are illustrated in Jesus' answer to the crowd in v. 32: "Amen, Amen, I am saying to you, Moses had not given [perfect] you the bread from heaven; but my father gives [present] to you the true bread from heaven."
First of all, Jesus assumes that the people in v. 31 are implying that Moses gave them the bread from heaven to eat. However, that isn't part of the OT passages that are closest to the quote (Ex 16:15; Ps 78:24). Both clearly refer to God as the giver of the bread.
However, this assumed change in subjects can easily take place in congregations. The minister or a pillar of the church or a deeply-held tradition can become more important than God. The building and the ministries are seen only as "our work," (or "my grandparent's work") and the power and grace of God are ignored.
Secondly, what happened in Moses' time, happened in the past and it has some lasting affects in the present [meaning of the perfect tense]. However, what Jesus is presenting is the present presents of God. He is stressing what God is giving in the present.
Present tense verbs are all part of v. 33: "For the bread of God is the one who is coming down from heaven and is giving life to the world." Even the "coming down" is a continual action. Can we declare that at every communion service the bread of God is again coming down from heaven and giving life to the world?
However, the crowd changes the tense to aorist and the mood to imperative. Rather than receiving what God is continually giving (present indicative); they command Jesus (a control issue?): "Give to us this bread always." The aorist with the word "always" phrase might be interpreted that every time they want this bread, they could order Jesus to give it to them at that moment. This is a little like a young toddler I heard order his parents, I want to watch Sesame Street and I want to watch it now!" He couldn't understand that the TV show wasn't on right now (and they didn't have any videotapes of the show). Or the classic prayer, "God, please give me patience, and I want it right now!"
On one hand verse 34 can sound very good: the people want what Jesus has to give them. On the other hand it sounds very bad: they want to be in control of the gift. They almost sound like a spoiled child, "I want eternal life. I want this bread. Give it to me right now!"
The way to get the bread that comes down from heaven -- namely Jesus himself (v. 35) is to continue coming to him and continue believing in him (both present tense). Both these verbs are singular. The coming and believing are not a group effort, but an individual response. I've already suggested that believing can be seen as the result of God working in us.
There are two different ways of understanding "coming" (erchomai) given in John 6. One way it is a human effort. The crowd comes to Jesus (v. 5, 15) under their own power and volition -- but with improper motives. The other way it is the result of a divine effort. Coming to Jesus happens only because God has drawn them (v. 44), because they have heard and learned from God (v. 45), and because God granted it (v. 65, see also v. 37).
Being centered on the belly means more than just seeking to get food. It is an attitude that wants to keep self in control; that wants to tell God what to do; that wants to work for what I get rather than to receive gifts from God.
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