[See also comments about the Gospels in general, and the book of John in particular, under the reference Matthew 6:33 – in the “Happy Conclusions” subsection. Also check out the passage from John 7 under the heading “When You Are Doubtful”].
The story behind this particular passage is fascinating. In one sense, Jesus is again addressing skepticism from some of his listeners, and therefore when we are in a skeptical mood, we might also find his response to be helpful.
In this particular response, our understanding of the context is very helpful.
Jesus seems to have taken an approach to his work which we might call today a “pyramid marketing scheme”. He worked alltogether for about three years, and for the first half of that time, worked with two pairs of disciples, Peter and Andrew; James and John – actually they were two sets of brothers.
The next thing he does is he brings on more pairs of disciples bringing the total up to 12 – and it seems that he then taught those first disciples to mentor the newcomers – so he mentored the first ones on how to do that.
After working for a while with that situation, and after giving them some field experience, Jesus then expanded his group to 72 – do the math – and he mentored the mentors how to mentor. That is, when he sent out the 72 disciples ahead of him, they worked in pairs, and it is quite likely that they were supervised by the pairs who had already been in training – two levels of them.
The next sets of numbers we hear about are 500 people who witnessed the resurrection, and about 3000 became involved after the Pentecost experience – again – do the math.
His cousin John the Baptist, had used the old approach of working directly one-on-one with each of the new disciples – but when John was executed, John’s disciples scattered, many of them coming over to follow Jesus. It is about this time that Jesus seems to have changed his tactics in order to ensure that his followers would carry on after he also was killed – and by that time he knew his enemies were already thinking along those lines, and were seeking a way to have him removed from the scene.
The passage under consideration comes just after the 12 disciples have come back from their field experience, and before the 72 disciples were recruited and sent out.
When the 12 came back Jesus tried to take them off by themselves to debrief their experience, but as they went down the shoreline in a boat, crowds ran along the shore to be with him. About halfway between the two towns he decided to pull into shore and speak with the group.
The conversation with the larger group lasted all day, and in the evening people were hungry and tired. He told his disciples to divide them up into small groups and serve them some food. There are two interpretations of what happened next. One is that he miraculously turned a little boy’s lunch into lots of food for everybody. The other interpretation is that people in those days carried their lunch in baskets hanging by their side, but nobody wanted to be the first to bring out their lunch because they were afraid they were going to have to share it with others. When the little boy offered his lunch to Jesus, Jesus broke it and started handing it out – changing a selfish crowd to an unselfish crowd – something of a miracle in itself.
It seems that the crowd was pretty impressed with Jesus’ trick, and wanted to put Him up on their shoulders carry Him back into town and declare Him king. He bundled his 12 disciples into a boat and sent him away lest they get caught up in such a stupid idea, and took off up the hill to spend some time alone.
Later on, Jesus came down the hill and struck out across the water – walking on the water – and overtook the disciples in their boat because there was a headwind and a big storm. They couldn’t get their boat to move forward at all. Jesus seemed to be in a mood to keep walking, but relented, went to the boat, and calmed the water so they could move forward again.
When they got back to town (Capernaum – a seaside town where they had been centered) they made their way to the synagogue and by this time the crowd had found their way back to town. Jesus was teaching in the synagogue and it was in this context that some of the people started to question his authority as a teacher and he made his reply. His reply is the passage which is referred to in this section.
Jesus kicks off the discussion by making a statement, “You’re just following me because you like the free lunch – but the real value is food for your souls, not food for your bodies – even though you need both.”
The skeptics asked him to perform a sign that would indicate that He is in fact sent from God, and commented that even Moses provided bread in the wilderness for the children of Israel when they were running out of food after leaving Egypt (so that didn’t really count as a sign in their minds).
Jesus came right back with a very interesting statement, he said in effect, “right story, wrong comparison”. You want to compare me to Moses who provided the bread in the wilderness, and you say, “what’s so great about me because I provided a little bread for you out there on the hillside?”
Then he continued “But you miss the point – don’t compare me to Moses, compare me to the bread he provided – because my words are like the bread in the wilderness – you were so busy looking at the lunch, you missed the point – you are spiritually hungry far more than you are physically hungry – otherwise, why did you go all the way out there and follow me when I was in the boat? You weren’t hungry when you left town – you weren’t even looking for a free lunch – you were looking for something deeper, but somehow you got sidetracked. Maybe it’s time to do something about getting back on track and feeding your soul.”
This entire passage plays on that pun – that he is the bread of life – and that his words nourish the soul because they are God’s words.
When we are feeling skeptical, similar to Jesus listeners here, we need to ask ourselves what we’re really seeking – food for our bodies, or food for our souls – and that maybe our skepticism arises from the fact that we haven’t figured out what our real need is – maybe it’s actually bread on the table, not bread for the soul. Jesus seemed to feel that our best action was to address whichever problem was the real one – and quit being so phony.