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We’ve been revisiting familiar bible stories with the goal of hearing them again for the very first time. For this to happen, we must come to the texts from a different perspective. This doesn’t make the process less exegetical, but it does reframe how the content is mined. Rather than using a line by line extraction, I pull back and capture the larger thoughts within the original language and textual timeline.
Today we are looking at John 6 and the miracle of feeding the five thousand. The familiar sermon is that Jesus feeds five thousand people and proves he is God. Nothing wrong with that. The common application to our faith is that God can do much with very little. Nothing wrong with that either. But is there more?
Yes. I believe so.
This miracle requires context (which proves my exegetical process). I’ve shown over the last few weeks how Jesus’ miracles cause him to gain notoriety. I’ve also shown how through his miracles, he is subverting religious institutions by proclaiming that God isn’t quarantined in ritual or religious practice.
John 5:19-46 are the “tweener” verses between his miracles. These are not filler. They are square in the face confrontations with leaders of the ruling religious class. Jesus emasculates the containment system that claims to know God (religion) but somehow questions who Jesus is. This proves that if religion had any idea of who God was or how God acts, they would be receptive to Jesus who was sent by God to do God’s work. Religion diminishes Jesus’ work because it was not done according to tradition nor does he follow the rules. Rule keeping is the best religion can offer.
Jesus offers something different.
By chapter 6, John is recording a movement. A cage fight is emerging. It’s religion in one corner and Jesus’ unorthodoxy in the other. The setting is the Passover in early Spring, the usual time for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, except Jesus is heading in another direction (v. 1). The crowd is not local. The crowd has been growing from all over the region and thus the numbers will be down at the temple. Masses are electing to follow the man who claims to come from God rather than go to the religious delivery system. Why do rituals in the temple when the power of God is clearly out among the people? (Few pastors will ever preach this.)
Barley blooms early, thus the boy with a sack lunch had barley loafs, which are the first fruits of the ground. Historically, these are offered to God (Leviticus 18:13) which Jesus does (v.11), and then he gives it back to the people. In the Jewish religion this was reserved only for Aaron and his family, a blessing for serving God in the tabernacle. Now Jesus is extending “Aaron’s portion” to everyone.
Passover isn’t for the religious elite, but all comers.
He’s saying, “everyone gets the blessing of passover”, without having to journey to Jerusalem, without homage to religious leaders, without the worthiness contest. Everyone gets plenty (v.12) no one is left out, the judgement of God has passed over everyone, no exclusions. No tribal, economic, or religious distinctions. There is bread for everyone.
The feeding of the five thousand is a countercultural passover for those who can’t or won’t buy into the religious pilgrimage. It’s for those who would rather see God than do religion. The fact that twelve baskets were left over is not incidental. This ensured each disciple would have a “memento” of what the new passover looked like. Personal experience (v.40-theoron-seeing/experiencing) with God surpasses ritual every time. “Everyone seeing the son and believing will have eternal life…” (John 6:40)
Allow me to add another layer.
This miracle is best seen within the context of the following “Bread of Life” discourse (v.22-59). These texts are Jesus’ clinic on the passover to all the religious who were in Jerusalem during the miracle and on their way back (v. 24-25).
Both passages begin with a crowd (v.2 & v.22), both sought Jesus because of his signs (v.2 & v.24), and both point to the fact that Jesus is the prophet of God who has come into the world to do God’s work (v.14 & v.29). Like the “tweener” passage in chapter five, this is square in the face of the religious who struggle with believing that God can work outside of their particular framework (v.30). Are you any better?
Back to the cage match. Have you ever talked about God with a very religious person? If so, then you know how certain they are. They bring up tradition, follow protocol, and talk historically. Jesus reframes tradition, and demonstrates something “greater than Solomon” is here right now (Matthew 12:42).
The manna in the wilderness is a great story that Judaism has retold for centuries. Yet, a day earlier, bread was given to thousands in the wilderness. Religion entombs God in the past, while Jesus proves God works here and now. The burden of belief has been lowered to believing only the miracle before us today. A bar based on historical belief is too high for most people. This is the meaning of the bread of life. Do we go back to the story of manna? Or do we wake up to the bread before us today?
I’m critical of the church not because I’m disgruntled or angry, but because I seek its reform. I believe we’ve become too focused on building the historical case for belief that we’ve lost the ability to see the bread before us. All over the world people are having transforming experiences with life. Yet the most religious among us still insist that God can only be experienced and understood within their own preferred box. This story reminds us that the bread of life is for everyone. The nuance is that the unbeliever is NOT the irreligious. The unbeliever is the religious person who can’t “see” that “the bread of God has come down from heaven and gives life to the world” (v.33).
May we all discover the bread of life within every moment of today.