This story just bubbles over with symbolism. It’s far from just a miracle about lunch. After all the testimony about Jesus in chapters 1-5, and Jesus’ testimony about himself in John 5, and right after speaking about Moses, Jesus goes on to perform a sign that might be expected of a new Moses, providing “manna” for all the people.
It’s also meaningful that this event happened near the time of Passover, when the coming of the Messiah was most anticipated. Thousands were following Jesus at this point. It’s a phenomenal crowd. It is probably the peak of his public popularity. They were following him because of the miraculous signs he had performed. People are so desperate for meaning and hope. At this point they had pinned their hopes on Jesus.
Jesus was pointing them towards the truth that the Kingdom of God was breaking in upon them, and that He himself was God the King. The point wasn’t the signs themselves, but what the signs were pointing to. We all understand this. It does no good to just see a sign for a fast food restaurant when it’s time for lunch. The point is that you go there and eat. It was time for some spiritual lunch, so he went up to a good place, where he could be seen and heard (a mountaintop, symbolic of a connection with God), and started to teach the deep things of God.
He challenges his disciples with a request that sounds like a request for food (and it was), but it also had a deeper meaning: where will people get spiritual nourishment? He was setting up a situation almost identical to the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness under Moses’ leadership. They needed food, but they were also spiritually wandering and in need of faith.
Philip answers him with a practical concern, obviously thinking about lunch and not about the deeper things. It’s understandable, but I can see a twinkle in Jesus’ eye. In their desire to help, they bring to Jesus a small boy with a smaller lunch that spoke of his poverty. “But how far will they go among so many? The implication is that nobody could make something worthwhile out of this. It speaks of lunch, but also of the spiritual hunger on the hillside before them.
It’s time for the sign. Jesus instructs them to sit. Isaiah 25.6-8 provides the foundation for this banquet, where God provides a rich feast for his people and removes their disgrace. He enriches their bellies and their beliefs at the same time. Their emptiness is filled on two levels. They get food and faith. It’s exactly what Moses had done about 1300 years prior. He gave them “as much as they wanted.”
Nothing was wasted. They all got exactly as much as they wanted. There was no shortage, nor any extra. Whether God ‘s love in their humanity, or faith in him as their God, it was just right. What was left? 12 basketsful—one for each disciple. It was a miracle of omniscience as well as omnipotence. (In verse 13 he specifically mentions the five original loaves to eliminate any accusation that someone else had arrived with food to feed the crowd, thus making it only a perceived miracle.)
John continues with his “courtroom witnesses.” What was the judgment of the jury? Verse 14: Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” There was a quite trendy expectation about the prophet of Deuteronomy 18.15 as being the Messiah. The crowd is electric with excitement.
What does the story mean?
- Jesus is the new Moses, with miraculous signs to prove who he is and who has sent him.
- Eating and drinking is a symbol of prosperity, and is often a symbol of God’s blessing.
- Manna was understood as the blessing of God, both physical and spiritual
- Jesus is the giver of the abundant banquet, a messianic image
- Jesus is the King who provides for his people
- Jesus loves all people
- Jesus showed he is God by his miraculous provision of food
- Jesus is spiritual food.
But Jesus knew they had misunderstood. He wasn’t interested in political power or fame or fortune. He was there to seek and to save those who were lost. There in front of him were thousands of the lost, but they were mostly thinking about lunch, magic tricks, and Rome. While they were mostly thinking, “This guy can free us from Rome,” he was really interested in showing them that he was there to free them from sin. So he left the scene.
But this scene isn’t over yet.