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John 6:1-21

The Feeding of the Five Thousand is the only miracle story about Jesus found in all four Gospels (Mt 14:13-21; Mk 6:31-44; Lk 9:12-16; Jn 6:1-15)–a helpful fact to know when playing your next family game of Bible trivia! (You’re welcome). And in three of the four cases this story is followed immediately by the story of Jesus Walking on the Water. (Luke is the exception). While all of the Evangelists put their own spin on these stories, John’s version is the least like the rest, as is true with nearly all Synoptic parallels in John.

The Fourth Gospel is almost certainly the latest of the canonical Gospels, and was clearly written with the assumption that the audience was familiar with at least one of the Synoptic Gospels, or the oral tradition that underlies them. In other words, they would already know the basic narrative of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Therefore, John told a number of stories that were not already a part of the written Gospel record[1], and often reframed those that were to fit his specific theological purpose. All the Gospels do the latter to some extent, but John is the most blatant about it. In this commentary, I will focus on a few distinct differences in the Johannine telling of these two stories that reveal the Evangelist’s particular purpose and specific message about Jesus.

First of all, Jesus’ physical location at the Feeding of the Five Thousand is different in John, and emphasized. Like the other three versions, John begins this section with the detail that Jesus has crossed to the “far shore” of the Sea of Galilee, and was followed there by the crowds. All the Gospels mention Jesus and his disciples “withdrawing” to a private place, probably in an attempt to get a break from the constantly following crowds (cf. Mk 6:31).

In all four stories the crowds of people follow them there. Unique to John, however, is the detail that Jesus and his disciples went to the mountainside and sat down. This formation was common for ancient teachers when speaking to large crowds: the people could gather around the base of the mountain or hill, with the speaker projecting his voice down toward them and the sound bouncing off the geographical features in the area, creating an ancient form of amplification. It was also common for teachers to sit down to teach while the students stood. So while John doesn’t say that Jesus taught the crowds at this point, we can assume from his physical position that he did, or at least intended to (cf. Mk 6:34).

His position on the mountaintop, however, likely holds greater meaning for John. To the ancient Israelites mountaintops were associated with the Prophets, particularly Moses (who was the first and greatest prophet to the Jews) because of his time on Mt. Sinai (Ex 3; 19), and Elijah for his battle with the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel (I Kgs 18:16-40). John appears to be setting up an intentional connection here, especially in light of the final statement from the crowd after they are fed: “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world” (6:14).[2] Elijah was believed to be the ultimate forerunner of the Messiah, who would return in the days before the Messiah’s coming to announce his arrival. Earlier, John the Baptist was thought to possibly be this “one who is to come.” Here, John subtly connects Jesus to this prophetic forerunner instead through common prophetic imagery.

And the narrative hints don’t end with the mountaintop reference. When the disciples bring forth the boy with a lunch of loaves and fishes, John puts a unique spin on things by specifying that the loaves are made of barley (vv. 9, 13). This is not just an incidental detail included to make the story more vivid (although it does). Rather, it is a specific reference, which would not have been lost on the Jews, to one of Elisha’s most important miracles. In II Kgs 4:42-44, Elisha multiplies bread to make 20 loaves feed 100 men. That bread is specifically said to be made of barley (v. 42). Having already connected Jesus in the story to Elijah, John is now clearly linking him to Elisha, Elijah’s prophetic successor. However, while Elisha multiplied 20 loaves for 100 men, Jesus multiplied 5 loaves and 2 fish to feed at least five thousand people,[3] Moreover, while Elisha’s story also tells that everyone ate their fill and still had food to spare (v. 44), in Jesus’ case there are twelve basketfuls leftover (v. 13).

The message would have been clear to the Jews who knew their Scripture and history: Jesus is not just any other prophet like Elijah, but is even greater than the prophets that have come before. Whatever they could do, he can do exponentially more powerfully.

One other distinctively Johannine note in this story is seen in vv. 5-6. The Synoptics describe the disciples as the ones who notice the crowds arriving and ask Jesus how they could feed them (Mt. 14:15; Mk 6:35-36; Lk 9:12). Jesus then tells the bewildered disciples to find something for them to eat. But note that in John this dynamic is reversed: Jesus asks Phillip (a narrative proxy for all the disciples) what they should do about food (v. 5). The narrator then comments that Jesus was testing them because he already knew what he was going to do (v. 6). This emphasis on Jesus’ omniscience is a typical feature of the Fourth Gospel (eg. 1:47-48; 4:17-19; 6:60-64, 70-71). John’s message is clear: Jesus is not simply one of the Old Testament prophets resurrected. He is not Elijah or another of the forerunners of the Messiah. Instead, he is the Son of God, more powerful than any previous emissary of Yahweh, and possessing some of God’s characteristics.

But, that’s not where John leaves things. To drive home the point, he uses the next story, Jesus Walking on the Water, to emphasize Jesus’s divine nature.

Before we proceed, some background information on the name “Sea of Galilee.” Although this was the popular name used in the 1st century CE, this body of water had gone by other names in the Old Testament, including the Sea of Kinneret (Num 34:11; Josh 11:2, 13:27). It was also sometimes referred to as the Lake or Sea of Tiberias (which John mentions in 6:1). But in historical and biblical instances it is most often referred to as a “sea.” And, to the notoriously sea-fearing ancient Israelites this, by far the largest body of water in their land, must have seemed like a sea. But to most people today it would probably be considered a small lake. It is about 8 miles across at its widest, and 13 miles long at its longest. (By comparison Lake Michigan is 118 miles wide and 307 miles long.)

Which means, if the disciples had indeed rowed about 3 or 4 miles, as John says, they would have been just about in the middle of the lake. No quick turning back was possible. This detail also emphasizes the fact that the sight of Jesus walking on the water was no trick of the eye. He wasn’t just walking along the sea shore at a distance which looked like walking on the sea to those dealing with mist, fog and rain. Jesus was truly performing a miraculous act.

This particular act also has very specific and intentional connections back to the Old Testament–in particular, to Yahweh’s sovereignty over the sea and all waters of the cosmos. There isn’t space here to do a comprehensive review of all OT references, but they are plentiful–from Yahweh’s spirit hovering like a dove over the waters of creation (Gen 1:2) and the separation of the waters to form the universe, to calling those waters back on the created world in the Flood (Gen 6-9), to parting the Red Sea (Ex 14:5-31), to providing water from the rock in the wilderness (Num 20:9ff), Yahweh is closely connected in Jewish history, literature and Scripture with his control of the waters. This is emphasized repeatedly by the prophets and poets alike (cf. Pss 29; 33:7, 77:16, 78:15, 104; 106:9, 135:6; Prov 3:20, 8:28-29; Job 38:8-11; Is 40:12, 44:3; 51:10; Ez 26:19; 31:15). So to John’s original audience (and his disciples, the ones who witness the event) Jesus controlling the water of the sea enough to physically walk on it would have been seen as more than just another miracle; it would be one more symbolic representation of Jesus’ connection with Yahweh himself.

John then rests his case by having Jesus state that he is one with God directly, or at least as directly as a devout Jew of that age would have been comfortable doing. In all three versions the disciples see Jesus coming to them on the waters and are afraid. However, Jesus has only to speak three simple words to allay their fears: “It is I” (Mt 14:27; Mk 6:50; Jn 6:20). In the original Greek of the text these words are the famous ego eimi in all three instances, the basic everyday way that a Greek-speaker would say “It’s me!” or “I’m here!” And in the Synoptics the phrase is used in this way. However, John imbues this phrase with much more significance. The words ego eimi can also be translated as “I am,” the same words Yahweh used to reveal his identity to Moses (Ex 3:14). Indeed the Greek translation of the New Testament commonly used by Palestinian Jews of this period (the Septuagint) translates this phrase in Exodus as ego eimi.

This OT background is relevant to all the Gospel versions, but has special significance in John, where Jesus uses this phrase in reference to himself many times, especially in the seven “I Am” statements. Although this passage is not usually included as one of these seven, it may be seen as the introduction to the motif that is about to begin. Through these statements, Jesus reveals his nature, comparing himself to the bread of life (6:35ff), the light of the world (8:12ff); the gate for the sheep (10:7ff); the good shepherd (10:11ff); the resurrection and the life (11:25); the way, the truth and the life (14:6); and the true vine (15:1). In light of this context, it hardly seems coincidental or just routine that Jesus uses “I Am” when referring to himself while walking on the water. Indeed, when the devoutly Jewish disciples saw Jesus controlling the waters of the earth as Yahweh does, and identifying himself with the same words Yahweh used to identify himself, the message would have been clear: Jesus WAS God.

So the Fourth Evangelist takes two commonly known stories about Jesus and focuses on elements that support the main thesis of his Gospel, which is found in John 20:31: “But these [signs] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah [or Christ], the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” John’s ultimate goal in telling Jesus’ narrative was to bring his audience to belief in Jesus’ divinity, his true nature as the Son of God, so that they might share in the benefits of that belief–life. These stories are merely two examples of the author’s passion for this goal.


[1] Some examples include: Changing Water into Wine (2:1-11); Teaching of Nicodemus (3:1-21); Woman at the Well in Samaria (4:1-26); Healing at the Pool of Bethesda (5:1-15); Woman Caught in Adultery (7:53-8:11–although this is textually questionable); Raising of Lazarus (11:1-44); and Jesus Washing Disciples’ Feet (13:1-17). It is estimated that as much as 90% of the material in John is not found in any of the other Gospels.

[2] All quotations are from the New International Version of the Holy Bible, 2011 edition.

[3] Only the men were counted. It’s very likely there were women and children not included in this number.