The first century historian Josephus tells us about an event that occurred a little over a decade after the one we find in our Gospel lesson this morning. He reports: “Now it came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain magician, whose name was Theudas, persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan; for he told them he was a prophet, and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deluded by his words. However, Fadus did not permit them to make any advantage of his wild attempt, but sent a troop of horsemen out against them; who, falling on them unexpectedly, slew many of them and took many of them alive. They also took Theudas alive, and cut of his head, and carried it to Jerusalem.”
Now there are several things here that should catch our attention. First, Theudas described himself as a prophet. Second, Josephus calls him a “magician” and so people must have perceived him to be able to do some kind of signs and wonders. Third, Theudas convinced a large group of people to follow him out to the Jordan River where he promised that he would divide the river, just as Joshua had done when the people of Israel entered the promised land to conquer it.
This is actually just one instance among several we know about in which an individual who was perceived to be a prophet promised to do something that repeated a miracle of the exodus and conquest of the promised land. In each case people flocked out to him because of the intense expectation that God was going to act to restore his people and rescue them from the Romans. And in each case, the Romans responded in the same way as they sent out troops to massacre them.
It is against this background that we need to understand the response by the crowd at the end of the Gospel lesson. They have followed Jesus because he is performing signs. They see him perform a great sign – a feeding miracle using bread that evokes thoughts of how God had provided manna in the wilderness – and they want to make him king. Yet they have misunderstood the sign, because it does not reveal a king who will reign now in glory. Instead it calls for faith in the One whose saving glory will be revealed on the cross.
Our text begins by telling us, “After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick.” Jesus is in northern Israel at the Sea of Galilee. We learn that a large crowd was following Jesus because they saw the signs that he was doing – the healing miracles he was performing.
John’s Gospel has a lot to say about Jesus’ signs. John calls our attention to them already in the second chapter when after narrating Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana he says: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.”
We learn that Jesus’ signs reveal his glory and that they call people to faith. Later in chapter two John tells us, “Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing.” In fact, the signs continue to do this for us today. John writes in chapter twenty: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”
However, it was possible to see the signs and not believe. John tells us about Holy Week, “Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him.” It is not a good sign when John says in our text that the large crowed was following Jesus, “because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick.” This is not language that describes faith. Instead, as our text soon reveals, they were there to see the spectacle and fundamentally misunderstood Jesus.
We learn a very important piece of information when John tell us, “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.” This explains why Jesus looks out and sees a large crowd. There would have been many Jews who were making their way to Jerusalem in order to celebrate the Passover. It also gives us some insight into the psychology of the crowd. The Passover was, of course, a remembrance of how God had dramatically rescued Israel from slavery in the exodus. The land was now under Roman rule, and it made people hope and expect that God would act again to rescue them from foreign domination. These expectations were at a peak during the celebration of the Passover, and for that very reason the Roman prefect came from Caesarea to Jerusalem bringing extra troops.
Jesus saw the large crowd and asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” Philip replied that two hundred denarii worth of bread – two hundred days wages – would not even buy enough for them to each get just a little. It was hopeless.
Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, then made the observation, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” So Jesus went ahead and showed them what they could be in his hands. He had the people sit down on the grass – a crowd of five thousand men, not counting women and children. He took the bread and fish and gave thanks, and distributed it to the people. The bread and fish never ran out. Everyone ate as much as they wanted and there were even twelve baskets of leftovers!
The people were there to see Jesus perform signs. It was the Passover and so the hope of God’s rescue was on everyone’s mind. John tells us, “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’” The prophet like Moses promised in Deuteronomy was one form of end time expectation that was present among the Jews. This prophet would be God’s instrument to work miracles just like Moses had done. Through him Israel would be rescued from oppression. The crowd’s imagination was fired and we are told, “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”
The crowd sees the sign and they view Jesus to be their ticket to the good life. Here is the one who will free them from the Romans and provide for them. But before we pile on with condemnation, how is this all that different from what we do? How often does the horizon of our concern fail to rise above those things we consider to be necessary for the “good life”? How often does the real focus of our concern zero in on the things and circumstances of this life that God just has to give us if he really loves and wants to bless us? And conversely how often do we whine and complain when God doesn’t?
Jesus had worked a great sign. It revealed his glory. It called forth faith. But like all the signs it pointed forward to the cross and resurrection through which God’s saving glory would be revealed. During Holy Week Jesus said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Then John adds, “He said this to show” – literally, to sign – “by what kind of death he was going to die.” This sign in our text called forth faith in Jesus who had said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”
Jesus revealed his saving glory by dying on the cross and rising on the third day. He did it to give us life. The next day Jesus engaged in a conversation with people who had been present at the miraculous feeding. Things turned adversarial as Jesus called them on the fact they were only interested in him because of what he could give them. Jesus said, “Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they asked him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
Jesus who had worked a great miracle using bread declared that he is the bread from heaven that gives life to the world. He said, “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The Word became flesh to be nailed to the cross and then rise from the dead. Through faith in him you now have life. Your life with God has been restored. You have life that is eternal – eternal life with God that has already begun now. And you will have resurrection life on the Last Day.
To sustain you in this life, our Lord Jesus continues to work a miraculous sign using bread. He uses bread and wine in the Sacrament of the Altar to give his true body and blood, given and shed for you. Jesus announced, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Jesus doesn’t promise us what we want. He gives us what we need. What we need is life. We need life with God. During Lent we are preparing to remember how Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead to make this possible. Born again of water and the Spirit you have been given this life. Nourished by the body and blood of Christ this life continues and leads to the day of Christ’s return when we will share in his resurrection life forever.