In Galilee, where resentment of, and opposition to, the Roman occupation of Israel was strongest, the Saviour miraculously fed 5,000 men as well as the women and children. For the people, the emergence of a man who could lead them and feed them was cause for them to seek to take him by force and make him a king. It is possible that the swift despatch of His disciples to the other side was the Lords means of ensuring that they were not infected by this nationalistic fervour, but the Gospel records make it clear that there were other reasons as well for this eventful voyage.
The eight signs
John records eight specific signs wrought by the Lord, signs which clearly demonstrated His deity and Messiahship to the nation. Their ultimate rejection of Him was not because of some misunderstanding on their part but the outcome of total rebellion against all that they had seen and heard in the miracles He wrought. The feeding of the 5,000 was the fourth sign to the nation and, in the immediate aftermath, the fifth sign was given when the Lord walked on the water and stilled the storm. The fact that the first three signs (the miracle at Cana (2.1-12); the healing of the noblemans son (4.43-52); the healing of the impotent man at Bethesda (5.1-15)) precede our study of the sixth chapter, and that the final three signs (sight for the man born blind (9.1-41); the raising of Lazarus (11.1-46); the draught of fishes (21.1-14)) follow it, shows that the linked events of the fourth and fifth signs are pivotal to Johns Gospel. In this chapter, four times the Lord Jesus says, "Verily, verily" (vv.26,32,47,53).
The fourth and fifth signs
The events of the fourth and fifth signs are the subject of 6.1-31. The Lord then gives an exposition of the signs (vv.32-59). It can be seen, therefore, that the first "Verily, verily" (v.26) comes at the end of the events and before the exposition of them. "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled". Thus the Saviour puts His finger right on the nations problem: they were sensual and not spiritual; blind, though they could see; dead, though they were living; ignorant, though possessors of the oracles of God. They sought the Lord, yes, but not for Himself. They had seen the miracles, yes, but they had not seen through the miracles to behold the deity of the One who wrought them. Blind, foolish, wicked nation! Our hearts are swift to condemn their folly, are they not? But wait! What of my heart towards the Saviour today? What is my appreciation of Him? It is wholly right that I love Him for what He has done for me, blessed be His name! But do I look beyond the blessing to the Blesser? Do I, by faith, look through the gift to the Giver? Do I look beyond the wonder of salvation to the worthiness of the Saviour? Poor heart of mine, so prone to be sensual rather than spiritual, so slow to believe and so dim to apprehend Christ for Himself!
In the miracle of the fifth sign (the walking on the sea and the stilling of the storm) the Lord demonstrated His deity to the nation. The multitude knew well that only one boat left the shore to go "over the sea toward Capernaum" (v.17), and the Lord Jesus was not in it (v.22). They were amazed and perplexed, therefore, when having taken shipping themselves the following day they found the Lord already in Capernaum. How had He arrived there? The more they considered the case, the more they came to realise that there was only one possible explanation. He had walked, and walked across the sea! The Holy Spirit would doubtless bring to their remembrance the Scripture in which it was declared by Job, as he considered the greatness and majesty of God, "Which alone spreadeth out the heavens, and treadeth upon the waves of the sea" (Job 9.8). Would the Spirit not have also brought to their minds the lovely words of Ethan the Ezrahite in Psalm 89? "O Lord God of hosts, who is a strong Lord like unto thee? or to thy faithfulness round about thee? Thou rulest the raging of the sea: when the waves thereof arise, thou stillest them" (vv.8-9). Again, another psalmist declared, "He maketh the storm a calm, so that the waves thereof are still" (Ps 107.29). The man who can walk across the sea and still the raging wind and waves is God! The Scriptures declare it and all ignorance of the deity of Jesus of Nazareth is thus dispelled. Will the nation receive Him, or reject Him?
There was another lesson in the fifth sign. It was a lesson for the disciples, and three of the Gospel writers speak of it but from customarily different angles. John uniquely tells us that as the disciples rowed "they see Jesus walking on the sea, and drawing nigh unto the ship: and they were afraid. But he saith unto them, It is I [lit. "I am"]; be not afraid. Then they willingly received him into the ship" (6.19-21). There is a strong contrast in Johns account between the desire of the crowd to take Jesus by force and make him king, and the desire of the frightened disciples to willingly receive Him for who He is. The Lord drew near to His own, seeking their hearts. He did not want to be made king by force but to be acknowledged as Lord by willing hearts.
Mark gives a different emphasis as his pen is guided by the Spirit of God. Recording the events of the storm and the appearance of the Lord, Mark tells us that the Lord "went up unto them into the ship; and the wind ceased: and they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered. For they considered not the miracle of the loaves: for their heart was hardened" (6.51-52). The purpose of the Saviour in sending His disciples into a storm that He knew would frighten them out of their complacency was that their hearts might be softened. Accepting that there were other reasons for the fifth sign, we cannot help but wonder if the disciples might not have been involved had their response to the sight of the Saviour been their response to the miracle on the hillside. If His work in the fourth sign had caused them to be "sore amazed in themselves beyond measure", there would not have been the need for the lesson learned in the storm. How like ourselves! So often the lessons we need to learn are not in the times of Gods evident blessing and goodness to us, but in the long, dark, terror-filled hours of night when it is "dark, and Jesus was not come to them" (Jn 6.17). The Lord knew that He was sending His disciples into a storm and He knew that they would learn in the darkness things that had not touched their hearts on the hillside. His purpose was to soften their hearts and cause them to wonder again.
Matthew tells us of Peters unique part in the event, and how that strong, brave, capable fisherman was brought to acknowledge his total dependence upon his Lord. Brought to an end of all his own strength and skill, he cried as he began to sink, "Lord, save me". The storm over, all safe and well, "they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God" (14.30,33). From being hard-hearted, unmoved, complacent disciples, these men were turned into willing, wondering worshipers who realised afresh that they were nothing and Christ was all! That is why the storm clouds sometimes come across our pathway, dear saints of God, for so often the greatest miracles of provision do not teach our hearts to worship as effectively as do the fears and tears of a night season. But all the time the Saviour is there, watching over His own, patiently waiting until proud hearts are once more willing to acknowledge Him as Lord; hard hearts are softened so that once again the needs of the lost are met with compassion; self-confident hearts are once more brought to confess total dependence on Him so that He alone is worshiped.
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not...but because ...". John earlier recorded the words of the Lord Jesus to two men who followed Him, "What seek ye?" (1.38), and it would do us no harm to take stock once more in our Christian lives of what it is we are going after. We love Him for His great sacrifice at Calvary; we love Him for His mercy and goodness; we love Him for all the precious promises He has made. That is all good and pleasing to God, but the highest worship, the sweetest peace, and "that good part" (Lk 10.42) is when our hearts are captivated by our Lord Jesus Christ for who He is in Himself. "What seek ye?", the Saviour is asking today.
To be continued.