October 29, 2023
After Jesus miraculously fed thousands, the crowds revealed their hearts by the questions they asked. They focused on their physical needs rather than Christ’s spiritual provision, sought to earn salvation rather than receive it, and hoped for more miracles in order to be convinced of Jesus’ deity. In this study from John 6, Alistair Begg examines the needful warning, remarkable declaration, and gracious invitation Jesus offered in response. Only when we’re properly focused on eternity will we recognize Him as the true King and Bread of Life.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Well, we turn to the Gospel of John, to chapter 6, for our reading, beginning at the twenty-second verse. And here in the Scriptures we are able to see Jesus as he has been revealed to us. And having fed the five thousand and walked out to his disciples on the water, John tells us about what was happening on the following day:
“On the next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. Other boats from Tiberias came near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. So when the crowd saw that Jesus was not there, nor his disciples, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum, seeking Jesus.
“When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work 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 said to 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.’ So they said to him, ‘Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”’ Jesus then said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’
“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.’”
Almighty God, to whom all hearts are opened, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden, cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Well, verse 22 is our starting point: “On the next day…” The crowd that had on the previous day seen in Jesus possibilities for more food and for perhaps a kingly ruler that would liberate them had entirely missed their own personal need of salvation. They had seen the sign, but they had not understood its significance. And at the end of verse 15 we learn that Jesus, seeing that they had an agenda which was not his agenda, decided to withdraw from them and go to the mountain by himself.
Now, we, then—the readers—know about what happened that evening. The crowd themselves are not aware of it. And that is why as we come to verse 22, all of these individuals are left trying to figure out exactly what has happened and what is going on. Who is here, who is where, and how did they ever get there? And you see that in that little section. It’s actually a fairly complicated structure of language, and it’s translated it in various ways, but the gist of it is straightforward. There had only been one boat. They knew that. That was the boat that the disciples took, and they knew that Jesus did not go with the disciples when they left. Now there are more boats. There are smaller boats here on the lakeside, on the Sea of Tiberias. Either they’ve been blown in, perhaps, by the storm that had taken place the previous evening, or perhaps individuals have found shelter from the storm. But nevertheless, these boats are there. And interestingly, what we’re told is that the location of these boats is identified as being “near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.”
I wonder if you were reading it this week, and you said to yourself, “That’s an interesting little sentence and a half, isn’t it?” The boats were “near the place where they had eaten the bread.” They knew they’d eaten the bread, and John says, “And that was the place where the Lord had given thanks.” There’s no rehearsing of the drama that had taken place, but John actually wants to recall the fact that it was there that Jesus “had given thanks.”
I wonder—and this is just conjecture—I wonder if John was not actually more struck by the communion of Jesus with his Father than the multiplication of the loaves that had been performed as a miracle at the hands of Jesus. Because what you have there in that little sentence is God the Son thanking God the Father. You remember we’ve already seen that Jesus has really encountered the antagonism of the Jews by showing himself to be equal with the Father. “God the Father is always working,” he says. “My Father is always working. And I, too, am working.”
Perhaps as he prayed, he said, “Father, you are always working, and I am working now. Help me in this moment.”
We won’t delay on it, but it is God the invisible being addressed by God the incarnate. And I think John is struck by it, I’m sure. We’ll check when we see him. But I think that must be why he identifies that again. It would be one thing to say, “And the boats were just off to the side, where that big miracle had taken place.” No: “where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.”
And so, we’re told that they decided that since everyone was gone and that they had gone in the direction of Capernaum—that is, they had gone back to the other side of the lake—they would go themselves, and they would seek Jesus. And in verse 25, when they find him on the other side of the sea, they then address a question to him. What I’d like to do is just to note the three questions that they ask and the request that they make. That’s the way that I tried to navigate through this particular section.
“When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’” It doesn’t seem that much of a question, does it? At least it didn’t to me. They’re certainly not picking up from where they left off in verse 15. In verse 15, they were all stirred up, and they thought it’d be a terrific idea to take this man and make him a king by force. The irony, of course, is this: that Jesus is the King; that Jesus has already said to Nicodemus, “Unless you’re born again, you cannot see, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” And the one who says that is actually the King. These people completely missed that in their blindness. And they want to make him a king—the kind of king they want—while rejecting the very King they need. It’s ironic, isn’t it? They wanted to make him a king. You can’t make him a king. He is the King. “No, but we want to make him a certain kind of king.” Do you ever come across that when you talk with people? “Well, I like the idea of Jesus, but I would like a Jesus like my Jesus. I’d like to be able to fashion him myself—someone who fits in with my expectations.” Well, of course, you can’t do that.
But I still think it isn’t much of a question: “Rabbi, when did you come here?” I think “How did you come here?” might have been better, but maybe that’s part of it as well. But after all, what do you say to somebody who has just done such an amazing thing as transformed five loaves and two fish into sufficient for as many as fifteen to twenty thousand people? I mean, quite honestly, if you met him in the street, what would you say? You would be so flabbergasted by it, you might just say something like “So, have you been here for very long?” You know? It’s like, what?
No, I’m not trying to be unkind to these people. Don’t forget that at the beginning of the Gospel, when the disciples meet Jesus, that’s the best they can come up with as well. And they said to him, “So where do you stay?” That’s what they said: “Where do you stay?” Kind of a nothing question. Jesus in response to that says, “Well, if you come, I’ll show you.” But notice in this instance, he completely ignores the question. It’s not the first time he’s ignored the question. He did it with Nicodemus as well. Remember, Nicodemus comes, and he has a nice little opening gambit: “We can see that you’re a teacher sent from God, because no one could do the miracles that you do if God were not with him.” And Jesus just completely ignores that and moves on and says, “Let me tell you something: unless you’re born again…”
And so the same thing happens here: “‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you…’” And he says to them, “I know why you’re here. You’re here because of your physical need. You’re here because you got your tummies filled yesterday. You are here not because you’re aware of the spiritual provision to which that miracle pointed but simply because yesterday”—and if your Bible is open as mine is, you can look at this in verse 11 (“he distributed them to” the people, and at the end of verse 11)—“you’re here because yesterday, you had as much fish as you wanted. You had as much fish as you wanted. And you’re here because,” in verse 12, “you had eaten your fill.”
Now, this is hard to grasp, isn’t it? Because we’re affluent. I mean, when you read this, you think, “That can’t be… That’s not right. Why would Jesus say that?” Well, just think of some of the pictures that every so often come across our screens, of crowds of people moving in abject poverty, waiting and hoping for a truck from some foreign government to pull up and offload grain. Watch them as they scrabble for containers to try and fill themselves up with that which might sustain them for another day, that might provide their family for another week. That’s the kind of picture that we need to have. Most of us, who have never really seen real poverty, don’t get this—that Jesus would say, “Oh, the only reason you came was the stuff. It was the food.” Bishop Ryle says, along the same lines, “Perhaps [these] only can thoroughly understand it who have seen much of the poor in pauperized areas.”
And so, as a result of that, Jesus then goes on to warn them. He directs them. If you like, he forbids them. Verse 27: “Do not work for the food that perishes.” Now, Jesus is not introducing the idea of being lazy. This is not work from home. This is not whatever it is. This is not just an introduction to idleness. “Do not work for the food that perishes.” In other words, “Don’t put your eggs in the basket of that which is merely physical and temporal. Don’t focus on that food. Focus on the food that endures to eternal life. Don’t work for the food that perishes but for the food that endures to eternal life.”
Now, this is a principle that runs all the way through the Bible, doesn’t it? You remember Paul: at the end of 2 Corinthians 4, he says, “[This is how you need to focus in your life: looking] not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” Now, that’s why we sang that little chorus: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face,” and what happens? The things that are seen “grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.” Reverse it: when we do not live in the light of his glory and his grace, when our focus is not on the eternal but on the temporal, when it’s not on the spiritual but on the physical, then, almost inevitably, we’ve lost sight of that which is most important.
He tells them—verse 27—“I don’t want you to work for the food that perishes. There is food that endures to eternal life. That was the whole point of yesterday,” he might have said. But he didn’t say that. Notice: “which the Son of Man”—the Son of Man—“will give to you.”
Now, for those of you who are notetakers, when you come to “the Son of Man,” you’ll say to yourself, “Well, we had ‘the Son of Man,’ didn’t we, before?” And you’ll have to go back, and you’ll say, “When was the last time we focused on ‘the Son of Man’?”’ And you’ll say to yourself, “Well, it was on the first ‘Truly, truly.’” That “Truly, truly” was in 1:51: Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” And you remember as we finally got to that after a dreadfully long introduction, we said that the people would understand that in relationship to the story, in relationship to the angels ascending and descending. And we tried to make the point—and the point, I think, is fairly straightforward—that Jesus is the link between heaven and earth.
“The Son of Man” is Jesus’ favorite self-designation. Over eighty times Jesus uses “the Son of Man” of himself as a picture, as a reminder of that great anticipation in the book of Daniel: that there would be “one like [unto] the Son of man.” And he does it in order that he might make clear that in him the realities of heaven can be found on earth. In him the realities of heaven descend to the earth. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Everything was made by him, and nothing that was made was made by anybody else except him. In him was life, and that life was the light of men,” and so on. And then he steps down into our neighborhood. He is the only one who came from heaven who can speak to people about heaven. He is the only one. And here these poor souls, he has to tell them, “I wish you were here for a different reason, but the fact is, you’re only here for the food.”
Well, that gives rise to their second question in verse 28: “Well, then,” they said to him, “what must we do, to be doing the works of God?” And this question, of course, shows once again that they have missed what he has just said. What has he said in verse 27? He said, “Well, the fact of the matter is that you should be looking for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.” Will give to you. You won’t earn it. He’ll give it to you. It’s a gift!
They don’t get it again. Many people don’t get it. Some of you don’t get it. You hear the gospel preached to you Sunday after Sunday, and you’re still trying to work it for yourself. You’re still trying to earn enough points. You may even regard your attendance right now as a five-point attendance, for all I know. But I don’t know how many you need to get in order to qualify for entry. “Do you understand?” he says. “There is food that leads to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” Response: “What do we have to do? What do we have to do, to do the works of God?”
It’s the routine question of religious people. It’s the routine question of people when you talk to them in the street. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you’re playing golf, and if you happen to make a decent putt or something, they say, “Oh, it must be God on your side! You must have been doing good!” It’s blasphemous, really, although you have to make do with it as best you can. At baseline it’s this: salvation from this perspective is viewed as being as a result of human effort. “There must be something I can do to make sure of entry into heaven.” You have it in the rich young ruler, in the story that Jesus told—that the man came to him, and his opening gambit was the same: “Master, what good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Now, this is Reformation Sunday. I’m not sure all of us are alert to that. But it’s a good Sunday to remind ourselves that salvation is a gift to be received, not a reward to be achieved, not something to be sought after and provided by our own agency. And it was this, of course, which sparked the revolution in the heart of a Roman Catholic monk called Martin Luther and across into Switzerland and France and into Scotland and England and so on as suddenly people began to read their Bibles. Martin Luther was consumed with the thought that he could possibly become righteous enough for acceptance with God. That was his great design in going to Rome, in the hope that there in the center of it all, as he understood it, he may be able to finally click open that door that would provide entry to him. And he came back disillusioned, more disillusioned than when he’d gone. And then, suddenly, God opened his eyes.
Well, many of my friends are sincere in these things. They are making their journey through life. I know, because I spend time with them. They make fun of what they think is our gospel story. “Oh,” they say, “oh! I wish I could believe what you believe, and then you can just do whatever you like. All you do is you do one thing, and then you’re good to go.” Well, of course, they don’t understand, and no matter how hard I try and tell them. But mainly, they are making their journey through life feeding on a diet of good works or human merit, believing in the intercession of the saints, facing purgatory or praying for their families somehow to be removed from purgatory, and completely blind to the answer that Jesus gives. Completely blind.
You see, religion will inoculate you against the gospel. It’ll be like you had a thing here, and it’s made you now oblivious to stuff: “No, that can’t be. That possibly couldn’t be. After all, think about all the people all over the world who believe this,” and so on. Well, do you want to believe the Son of God? The work of God for you is to believe in the one whom he has sent to you. That’s verse 29: “Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’” The first and only thing you have to do, he says, is believe on the one whom he has sent.
Now, if you look back again just for a moment to chapter 1 and to the familiar verses, 11 and 12, let’s just remind ourselves of this: “He came to his own, and his own people”—that’s verse 11—“his own people did not receive him. But to all who [received] him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” This is what Nicodemus is going to encounter in chapter 3. This is what happens when people are brought to living faith in Jesus.
“Well, but,” people say, “you know, I thought we were all God’s children.” And the answer, of course, is that we are all God’s children by creation and by provision. He has created every one of us. He makes the sun to shine on the righteous and the unrighteous. He provides for those whom he has made. And so the New Testament sees God as the Father of all men in that way. But men, or women—men and women—are only the sons and daughters of God in the fullest sense when they have received all that God has given to them in Jesus.
And so you’ve got this constant interface between the idea of believing and receiving. It is not simply credence. It’s not saying, “Well, I believe the Apostle’s Creed.” It’s possible to “believe things about.” That is why the receiving-believing interface is so vitally important. Because the Shorter Catechism has it wonderfully when it says that “faith in Jesus Christ is a saving grace, whereby we receive and rest upon [Christ] alone for salvation, as he is offered to us” as a gift “in the gospel.” So when we talk about faith, we’re talking about that. When Jesus is talking about it, this is what he means. It’s a spiritual change whereby I cease to rely upon myself, upon my efforts, upon my achievements, upon my good name. That’s why, you see, we have to repent of all our good deeds. Because all our righteousness is “as filthy rags.” It is a very preventative in finally acknowledging, “I am wretched, poor, blind, sinful. I need a Savior.” It is at that point that belief moves from simply credence to commitment.
And we have to make sure that when we’re talking to our friends—and we want to be able to talk to our friends—we let them know that we’re not talking here about a program. We’re talking not about a philosophy. We’re talking about a person. You see, the Bible—and we’re going to get to this in a further study, sooner rather than later—the Bible is very, very clear that we are blind and that we are dead spiritually and that we cannot approach God on our own terms or in our own time. That’s why, as we’re going to see, Jesus says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me.” Are you sitting there this morning, you say, “Well, I’ll get round to this whenever I’m ready”? It’s not a notion of “I can believe any time I want.” No, we can’t.
And so, these people, the Jews, to whom he came, say to him—and this is their third question—“Then what sign do you do, that we may … believe [in] you?”
“What are we supposed to do?” “Well, what you’re supposed to do is believe in the one whom he sent.” You’d think that would be fine—they’d say, “Well, then, help us with that.” No: “So they said to him, ‘Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?’” “Show us a sign, that we can believe you. Show us a sign!” Jesus might have been forgiven for saying, “Excuse me? Pardon? I mean, were you there yesterday afternoon?” No, but what had taken place yesterday, although it appears to be unanswerable proof—not for them.
And not, actually, for many of our friends. I’m sure you find this as I do too. There’s a large company of people who continue to deceive themselves with the idea that if they just had one little bit more evidence, they would believe: “The feeding of the five thousand is not good enough. Apparently, you’ve been walking on water. I’m prepared to consider that, but it doesn’t move me. No, the reason that I don’t believe this gospel is because of a lack of evidence.”
The honest truth is: nobody is kept back from Christ as a result of a lack of evidence. The problem is not intellectual. The problem is moral. It is an issue of the human heart. The human heart is a rebel heart. The human heart is at enmity with God. The human heart is unable to restart itself. It has gone out and cannot be brought back except by a divine invasion. And that divine invasion is the work of God the Holy Spirit, who comes as “a light surprises” into the darkness of a life, into a moment when somebody is unthinking and not even considering many of these things, and suddenly the truth dawns.
What are they saying, though? Basically, I think they’re saying, “Look, our fathers ate manna in the wilderness. You know, we were impressed yesterday. I mean, five loaves and two fish for fifteen thousand people—that’s a big deal! But what about manna in the wilderness? How many people were there? Three million people for forty years? That’s a flash in the pan, yesterday.” The miracle was undeniable, but it was totally unacceptable to them. You see, because, to quote someone that I hardly ever quote, Paul Simon,
I [was] just a poor boy
Though my story’s seldom told.
I [had] squandered my [existence]
For a pocket full of mumbles.
Such are promises,
All lies and jest.
[Well], a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest.
That’s right. You hear what you want to hear; you disregard the rest: “I like the part about this. I don’t like the part about that. If it’s the total package, I’m not interested in it. I want a king that will serve me rather than one before whom I bow. I like the idea of a guru. I don’t want a Savior.” Whatever it might be.
Incidentally, you may have seen the video that a friend sent to me from New Zealand just two days ago. And Paul Simon is being interviewed, and the interviewer asks him, “Now, listen: time is running out for us both. What about God, and what about death?” And Paul says, “Well, as far as I’m concerned about God, I love the universe. I love where I live. If it is a God who made all this, then I want to say to him, ‘Well done. Well done. You did a great job.’ But, however, if there is another explanation for the universe, it’s still a nice place to be, and I’m happy that I’ve been here.” He previously acknowledged that at least three of his songs, he feels he was a conduit rather than the author: “The Sound of Silence,” “Bridge over Troubled Waters,” and “Graceland.” He said, “They came to me mysteriously. I don’t know where they came from.”
And then the guy says, “Well, what about death?” He said, “Well, I have a friend. He’s dead now. He was a Tibetan monk. And he told me that when you die, you’ve got, like, about three bad weeks, and then you’re incarnated.” And he said, “But I said to him, ‘I’m not inclined to believe that. But,’” he said, “‘I like you, and I admire you. And so, because you said it, maybe it’s worth consideration.’”
Has no one told this little man about Yeshua, about the Messiah, about the living Bread of Life? Not a Tibetan monk but a Galilean carpenter, who declares both by his life and by his lips a reality that is beyond the ken of everybody until God makes it known.
You see, we’ve already learned that “whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him.” You can’t get to God except through Jesus. “Truly, truly,” says Jesus back in John 5, “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.” “Whoever hears my word.” But “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”
So Jesus corrects their misunderstanding. “Moses did this.” He says, “Well, you should know that it wasn’t Moses that did it at all. It wasn’t Moses that gave you the bread. And frankly, even the bread that he gave you wasn’t the true bread that gives life to the world.” “It was[n’t] Moses who gave you the bread, … my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven”—which is the first little hint of what he’s about to say in verse 35, where we stop. “For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Gives life to the world.” Who would make such a claim? I mean, it’s fantastic! This is life for the world—for the whole world. This is not life for a special group of people. This is life given to the world. “For God so loved the world…” That God loves the world. The lost world, the world in rebellion, has drawn the compassion of God. That’s what it’s saying: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son…” “You want to get focused here on the bread from yesterday afternoon? You’re missing the point here.” And so, that stirred them up a little bit, and in verse 34 they said, “[Well then,] sir, give us this bread always.”
Now, we’re going to go on and see that despite this little moment of enthusiasm, if you like, they were still earthbound in their thinking. And it may be that their response is similar to the initial response of the woman in John chapter 4 that we don’t get to study. Because remember, when Jesus speaks to her about living water, she says, “Oh, give me that living water so that I won’t have to keep coming here every day.” And he has to explain, “No, no, no, no, no. We’re not talking about buckets and stuff like that, and hose pipes. No, no, no, no, this is something very different.” “Oh, give us that food! Help me.” You see, wishing and admiring is not the same as conversion.
And so, Jesus says to them, “I am the bread of life.” And here we must stop. “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, … whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” This is our starting point in going on. Notice: what a declaration, and what an invitation! There’s an inherent invitation: “whoever comes,” “whoever believes.” The gospel! The gospel, which is “to the Jew first and also to the Greek”—Romans 1. Jesus is the fulfillment of all that the Bible teaches us about bread.
Aren’t you burdened for your Jewish friends? Aren’t we, I hope? They know all about manna in the wilderness. They know all about the twelve beautiful loaves of bread provided on a golden table in the center of the temple to be enjoyed by Aaron and his sons, the priests. They know all about that. They know that feasting signifies fellowship. They know that it is God who provided the table; it is God who provided the temple; it is God who filled the table with that which they could eat. “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” Now somebody says, “Oh, yeah, I believe some of that stuff.” No, no: “I rely entirely upon you. I have no one except you. I have no hope. In Christ alone!” That’s it.
One of my good Jewish friends, he brings me challah bread at Rosh Hashanah, and he bakes it himself, and he always wants to deliver it personally. Because that personal delivery is an expression, again, of fellowship, of friendship, of engagement, and so on. And it moves me that he cares that much. And I want to say to him, “Man, how about the bread that comes down from heaven? That’s what this stuff that you’re giving me is all about, ultimately.”
Well, to be continued. To be continued.
Father, open our eyes that we may behold wonderful things out of your Word. Take some of us from simple credence to the kind of commitment that just turns our world upside down and changes our priorities from that which is purely temporal to the eternal. Accomplish your purposes, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.