A Metaphor in a Miracle?

John 6:1-something

After these things Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (or Tiberias). And a great multitude was following Him, because they were seeing the signs which He was performing on those who were sick. And Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat with His disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Jesus therefore lifting up His eyes, and seeing that a great multitude was coming to Him, said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?’ And this He was saying to test him; for He Himself knew what He was intending to do. Philip answered Him, ‘Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little.’ One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, ‘There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people?’ Jesus said, ‘Have the people sit down.’ Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. Jesus therefore took the loaves; and having given thanks, He distributed to those who were seated; likewise also of the fish as much as they wanted. And when they were filled, He said to His disciples, ‘Gather up the leftover fragments that nothing may be lost.’ And so they gathered them up, and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, which were left over by those who had eaten. When therefore the people saw the sign which He had performed, they said, ‘This is of a truth the Prophet who is to come into the world.‘”

“After these things….” and so forth– John, as we have seen, does not write entirely sequentially or chronologically. However he does write thematically in order. That is these events happened after the events in chapter five but given the context, they could have been anywhere from six months to a year removed from the events in chapter five. We know this by considering the context and seeing the two feasts mentioned, at least one and possibly both, occurring around the Passover. There is also another option, one of which is farfetched but plausible– It’s the same Passover and Jesus is among those recently returning to Galilee from the same Passover but it is highly unlikely given the grammar. Nevertheless this all points to the thematic penning of John’s gospel account. John was certainly concerned with the times of the events but not as much in relationship to each other as the time that has gone by between the two events but as to how they relate to each other thematically. This sounds quite confusing but we will see how times fit into the themes as we consider the context. A hint: the Pharisees rejected Jesus but multitudes still seek him. For instance: John’s aspiration to his audience was to see the throngs of people following Jesus. He highlights this by his vocabulary and his mentioning of the time of year. Passover was an obligatory, pilgramage festival and tens of thousands of people would be gathering to go to Jerusalem.

“After these things Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (or Tiberias). And a great multitude was following Him, because they were seeing the signs which He was performing on those who were sick. And Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat with His disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Jesus therefore lifting up His eyes, and seeing that a great multitude was coming to Him, said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?'”

In many missives we have discussed the function of conjunctions– let’s look at the purpose of prepositions. Boiled down to the basics, the preposition tells the reader the when or where. For instance; “the book is on the table.” Or; “I went to the store before work.” The preposition often acts like a conjunction in that it links two situations together, no matter how arbitrary. In the first sentence the table is linked together with the book, because the table holds the book. In the second sentence, work and store are linked– I went to both, one after the other.

Please don’t consider it condescending that I gave examples of prepositions, which we use and utilize everyday. We all know these things but somehow, when the Bible is “preached” and studied, taught and read, inherent grammar that we learned from listening as children, flies out the window like a caged bird set free.

This would normally be the time where I would segway into the CAGED method of Biblical hermeneutics, where, context is king, author’s aspirations to his audience are apex, genre is the general, expository exegesis of examples enlightens and dividing rightly the word of truth either confirms or cancels our preconceived notions and presuppositions, but, I want to strike while the proverbial irony is hot (pun, not a typo). When one opens up to a chapter that begins with “after these things,” I think we can all agree that it is important to know what “these things” were. While up to a year has possibly passed in the ministry of Jesus between the end of chapter five and the beginning of chapter six, John’s aspiration is evident, he wants the reader to understand the link and the progression. John wants the reader to know that while the hierarchy in Judaism wanted Jesus dead, there are still multitudes that follow him; at this point.

Back to the CAGED method: we don’t consider the greater context, cultural context, historical context and are guilty of negligence even in the continuing context. We don’t keep reading or go back to see the continuing context. We don’t aspire to ascertain the author’s aspirations to his audience but want relevance in our lives. We don’t consider the genre or see the sublime string or themes. We often explore examples but rather than draw out, we read things in. This all makes dividing rightly the word of truth almost impossible. Let me explain.

I drive an average of 12 hours a week. While I am driving I listen to all kinds of pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers. I also listen to podcasts and the like while cooking, and even eating. The most ripped out-of-context verse for the year 2020, according to my listening, is 2 Timothy 3:1. It reads; “But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come.”

Already in our minds, simply from reading this verse, is the Coronavirus, riots, contested elections, thousands of businesses and churches shuttered, earthquakes, severe weather–and I myself had several trees fall on my house due to a powerful nor’easter. We, because of Paul’s words to Timothy and are apparent (yet relative) difficult times, apply these words to ourselves. Table but hold on to that thought.

Let’s utilize the CAGED method when looking at 2 Timothy 1. First, for time’s sake, we’ll only consider a little context. “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, according to the promise of life in Christ Jesus, to Timothy…” notice it’s a personal letter, that’s the genre, from Paul to Timothy.

Paul, writing to Timothy, not us, states, “But realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; and avoid such men as these. For among them are those who center into households and captivate weak women weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. And just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men of depraved mind, rejected as regards the faith. But they will not make further progress; for their folly will be obvious to all, as also that of those two came to be…You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them.”

Ascertaining Paul’s, the author, aspiration to his audience, Timothy, is easy. Paul is warning and encouraging Timothy about the difficulty he is about to face. Not earthquakes or famines, which have come and will, but about the dogmatic Judaisers who have hindered the church. Look at the context, notice the folly of these people will be quickly exposed as such. They will not make progress because they will be shut down. Again, to beat the proverbial dead horse, Paul is writing to Timothy about his life and times. As always, continuing to read often exposes erroneous eisegesis. To read our times into Paul’s personal penning to Timothy and his time is tantamount to applying the priestly garments in Leviticus to ourselves. Yes, we are a kingdom of priest and we learn from Paul’s letter to Timothy but we don’t take a literal, absolute application. Did I mention that Paul was writing to Timothy and not the 21st century church?

Now if you have never read one of my missives, I probably just threw a monkey wrench into your eschatology–good– welcome, read more missives. However we have much context to consider in John’s gospel account.

John jumps from, but links to, the healing of the man 38 years in sickness– one of the seven signs, to today’s sign, another one of the seven. After Jesus healed the man, he went on to deliver a divine discourse. He claimed to be one with God and that his miracles bore witness to this fact. Yet he also promised greater signs. Nevertheless, I don’t think today’s sign is one of the greater ones to come but another simple sign, however different, pointing towards the greater signs. And honestly, of the seven signs, I believe that this is the weirdest one.

Many would make the miracle of water into wine as weirdest but it is understandable that wine would run out at a wedding. It is also understandable imagery, as is today’s text but what were the people in today’s text doing in the middle of nowhere without food? Look again at the context.

One always wants to carefully consider all the information given. When I read this, I wondered why John included it because it seems superfluous; “Now there was much grass in the place.”

Perhaps it was so that the reader would know that God provided a comfortable landscape on which the people could recline. And while I believe that is part of the aspiration to the audience, I also believe it goes to the remoteness and size of the area. Nevertheless, they couldn’t have been too far from town because Jesus ask Philip about buying bread. And while Jesus asks about location, Philip is more concerned about money than where to get the bread. And as always, this goes to Philip’s mindset more than the question of Jesus.

Still, keep looking at the context and see the situation. “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Jesus therefore lifting up His eyes, and seeing that a great multitude was coming to Him, said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?'”

I ask again, what were they thinking? Why would they leave town, out into the pasture land, probably gathering to go to Jerusalem, without proper provisions? Perhaps an exploration of examples is in order. And since all four gospel accounts record this event, we have plenty of provisions for an exegesis of examples, unlike the people present. As always, for time’s sake, will hit the highlights.

Luke writes; “And the day began to decline, and the twelve came and said to Him, ‘Send the multitude away, that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside and find lodging and get something to eat; for here we are in a desolate place.‘”

Mark writes; “And when it was already quite late, His disciples came up to Him and began saying, ‘The place is desolate and it is already quite late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.'”

Matthew recorded; “And when it was evening, the disciples came to Him, saying, ‘The place is desolate, and the time is already past; so send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.'”

According to the synoptics, the place was even more desolate than I thought and the hour was late. With urgency the disciples urged Jesus to send them away. Again, the question remains– What were the people thinking, being out late, in the wilderness, without food, except for one boy?

In order to observe the alleged idiocracy in depth, let’s look at a hypothetical case in our current culture. Let’s theorize that a Christian-Woodstock sort-of-situation popped up, without warning in the desert sands of Death Valley. It’s free and all your favorite artists are in attendance. Everyone is there and it is happening immediately. You have just enough time to hop on a plane, which was provided by Joel, Joyce, John H., Benny, Kenneth and all the rich “pastors” who have recently repented (I stated it was hypothetical). Would you bring water? There is no current cultural comparison, no matter how hypothetical.

This is why we consider the continuing context and explore examples. John links this story to the divine discourse of Jesus in which he said, “But the witness which I have is greater than that of John; for the works which the Father has given Me to accomplish, the very works that I do, bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent Me.”

Jesus was on the mountain, according to the synoptics, to mourn the death of John the Baptist. This goes to the compassion of Jesus as we will see. Nevertheless we are left with the question of why the people present were away from town and without food– multitudes of them. Also remember the rejection of Jesus by the Judaic hierarchy. The leaders hated Jesus and wanted him dead yet thousands followed him and sought him in a desolate place and wouldn’t leave him even as evening came; why?

Let’s let the gospel writers explain. Matthew wrote; “Now when Jesus heard it, He withdrew from there in a boat, to a lonely place by Himself; and when the multitudes heard of this, they followed Him on foot from the cities. And when He went ashore, He saw a great multitude, and felt compassion for them, and healed their sick.”

Luke wrote; “But the multitudes were aware of this and followed Him; and welcoming them, He began speaking to them about the kingdom of God and curing those who had need of healing.”

Mark wrote; “And the people saw them going, and many recognized them, and they ran there together on foot from all the cities, and got there ahead of them. And when He went ashore, He saw a great multitude, and He felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things.”

Poor sheep!

In my last minor missive I gave a glimpse into this gathering. I titled it, Christmas Corral because the Word made flesh was manifesting himself to the people as promised by the prophets. Now that Christmas has come and gone, let’s look not at the manger but the ministry of Jesus and answer my stupid question.

Because it is a stupid question after reading John chapter 5 and seeing the miracles and the divine discourse. The followers flocked to Jesus because he is the Good Shepherd. The Pharisees didn’t flock to Jesus out of jealousy because he would put them out of work and worse; their selfish stature. Jesus was doing the works of God and without regard for food or shelter, people pressed into Jesus, albeit for selfish motives, as we will find out. Nevertheless, God was on the earth preforming what the prophets promised.

I’m with them; unfortunately. I’m blown away by the compassion of Jesus and yet, what are my motives? I’m actually hungry right now– should I continue to consider the context or get something to eat? Should I feast on the Word or grab a snack to merely tide me over until my appetite comes roaring back? I’m getting way ahead myself; it must be the hunger. The question is, the hunger for what?

Jesus “said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?’ And this He was saying to test him; for He Himself knew what He was intending to do. Philip answered Him, ‘Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little.’ One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, ‘There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people?’

Jesus, who was doing the works of the father, did not want the people to disperse. Jesus wanted the people to stay. Jesus had compassion on the multitude and wanted to feed them. And according to John, Jesus also wanted to test Philip, yet as also told by John, Jesus knew exactly what he was going to do.

While many pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers prefer to present Philip as a case study, he is not the big picture. Megachurch pastors have small sermons entitled “are you an Andrew” but Andrew’s response isn’t the big picture either. Nevertheless they do highlight the themes. Even amongst the apostles of the future, Jesus was full of suprise signs.

“Nothing like this was ever done in Israel.” Except that it was, accept that it was– and since it was, the new manna, manifested in the ministry of the Messiah, marks the last vestiges of the Old Covenant and The inauguration of the New Covenant. But again, I am getting way ahead of myself.

John tells us more about the details of the story than the other writers concerning the cast of characters. Yes, Jesus was testing Philip and Andrew expressed doubt. John also tells us of the young man with a few fish and a few loaves. What was John’s aspiration in telling this part of the story? The answer is amplification– or something similar. We see clearly from considering the context and exploring examples that the disciples were not expecting Jesus to miraculously provide food. Even with all the miracles that they saw, Jesus once again baffled his disciples, doing the unexpected.

We have the privilege of hindsight and John writes with hindsight. Yet in the moment the disciples were, well, living in the moment. They were concerned with money, distance and amounts at the time leading up to this miracle. Part of the ministry of Jesus was to train his disciples and test them. Jesus was testing his disciples and continuing to increase his ministry of miracles, with a new take on manna and multiplication. Yet this miracle is also not like the manna in many ways. Let’s zoom in on the miracle by letting John describe it to us

“Jesus said, ‘Have the people sit down.’ Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. Jesus therefore took the loaves; and having given thanks, He distributed to those who were seated; likewise also of the fish as much as they wanted. And when they were filled, He said to His disciples, ‘Gather up the leftover fragments that nothing may be lost.’ And so they gathered them up, and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, which were left over by those who had eaten. When therefore the people saw the sign which He had performed, they said, ‘This is of a truth the Prophet who is to come into the world.'”

Remember the trees that fell on my house during a recent nor’easter? Ironically enough, both the dogmatic dispensationalists and their arch nemeses the extreme environmentalists believe that it was the worsening of the weather that toppled the trees. Take it from the man at fault, it wasn’t worsening weather that toppled the trees. Yes, the weather brought the trees down but I have witnessed much worse weather in the past. The problem was not with the weather but with me. Technically speaking, the trees belonged to my neighbor but they bent over the property line and perched precariously over my house for several years.

I should have gone to my neighbor and asked permission to take the trees down while they were still small and easily cut down. Yet I opted to let the trees grow larger and lean more towards my house without nipping them in the ironic, literal and proverbial bud. Like my sin, I didn’t take control but let them grow to the point where only bad things could happen. Yet look at the picture, God is gracious and what I put off and ignored landed on us at the exact angle of my roof, limiting the damage.

My guess is that you understand my metaphor of trees growing precariously as a comparison to my sin. But can we see the metaphor in this miracle of Jesus, feeding around twenty thousand people with what wouldn’t feed me?

Unlike the manna from heaven, Jesus begins with a few fish and some bread, whereas the manna from heaven came out of thin air. Also, manna was not to be gathered for more than a day’s supply, except before the Sabbath but in this miracle Jesus wouldn’t let any of the food be wasted and had his disciples gather the leftovers.

Most pastors and preachers, theologians and teachers, even those not of the mega-church persuasion, focus on the filled people. They rely on taught traditions and little chunks of context, like loaves and fishes and then interpret the Bible. Problem; the people present also focused on themselves being filled. Notice; by Mark’s own admission, the disciples “had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, but their heart was hardened.” Yet this was about trusting in Jesus. It was much worse for the multitude.

Figuratively flip ahead in John to see the continuing context. “Jesus answered them and said, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled. Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man shall give to you, for on Him the Father, even God, has set His seal.'”

They focused on being filled by the food, which like the hungry me, who ate a large “Cuban Panini,” (ironically large pieces of bread are scarce in that country I shouldn’t have mentioned) [Insert winking emoji]) won’t last. It isn’t about the food but the metaphor of the miracle. It’s about starting small, with little but gathering up the leftovers.

Remember what Mark, Matthew and Luke stated as the reason that the people flocked to Jesus? To be sure it was to be healed but the sublime string is quite clear. Jesus was preaching and presenting the kingdom to them. Remember what Luke wrote concerning this event and why the people stayed to nightfall without food.

“But the multitudes were aware of this and followed Him; and welcoming them, He began speaking to them about the kingdom of God and curing those who had need of healing.” If Jesus was preaching the kingdom to them, is it unrealistic that he would use a miracle as a metaphor of the kingdom to demonstrate it to them?

Lord willing we will delve deeper into this next time. But for now let my diverge slightly off topic. It may sound like I am being too harsh on pastors. As it pertains to the mega-church pastors of the health and wealth “gospel,” I can’t be too harsh because they are worse than worthless. They are false teachers, leading people astray, like wolves in sheep’s clothing. As for the average, American pastor, they are not the problem, you’re the problem. That is we overwhelmingly overwork our pastors so that they cannot devote their time to the Word of God and prayer. We also inflate their heads, making them celebrities, elevating them just high enough to bring them down with our unrealistic expectations. Engage your elders and if you don’t have elders, get some. Get deacons also. Look at what they did to Jesus as he wanted to mourn John the Baptist– and our pastors are not Jesus. To the pastors out there, I’m like Jethro and not Jannes and Jembres; get help. The word of God must come before a sick pet. No, I don’t have any authority to write these things but I did consider the context and explore examples. Another thing I don’t have is television, nor do I have a sermon to write every week. What I do, I do on my leisure rather than watching TV. Imagine the gold your pastors would mine if they had half the time that I have to search the Scripture.

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