Crowd control

John 6:1-21

Have you ever been in a really big crowd? Perhaps you’ve been to a match at the MCG, or a visit by royalty, or a Billy Graham crusade. Imagine yourself immersed in a crowd of likeminded people, who are all there for a common purpose. The crowd generates its own energy, and expectation. In some cases it causes a bit of a frenzy – and makes people do things they wouldn’t normally do, like sing songs – or even shout and shake their fists. Once I was sitting on a train carriage full of Collingwood supporters after a win, all singing the anthem together, I took pity on the one Sydney Swans supporter there – my husband!

Crowds like these followed Jesus everywhere during his ministry. There was one thing they wanted to know:

Who is Jesus, really? They followed him to the mountainside on this occasion; many had seen Jesus perform miracles. There were thousands of them. They were sick, injured, grieving, hungry, and wanted Jesus to help them. They were sheep without a shepherd.

On the mountainside, a crowd of five thousand men – one can only imagine how many people in total – they were asked to sit, and Jesus took the lunch basket of a young boy – only five loaves of bread and two fish to feed thousands of people. He gave thanks to the Father, distributed the food, there was so much food – he asked for the remaining 12 baskets of bread to be collected. This miraculous sign made it obvious to the crowd that Jesus was sent by God – as only God can provide something out of nothing! He provided abundantly for their needs.

Interestingly, Jesus uses whatever is available – he takes what we have, no matter how small and uses it to do the miraculous. Whether it be; jars of water to turn into wine, or a basket of food to feed thousands – we play an active part in his work.

The crowd said ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ When they said this, they were referring to the prophecy given by Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15. ’The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.’

This wasn’t your average crowd! They knew their Jewish law, they knew they should listen to Jesus, but this was going to be a hard crowd to convince – they may have been happy to accept that Jesus was a prophet from God, just like Moses was, but what would it take for them to believe who Jesus really was?

This miraculous sign, demonstrated to them that he was from God; Jesus says in 5:36: “The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.” Jesus fed them, healed them, – but they did not yet know who Jesus really was.

Was Jesus a prophet like Moses foretold, “a prophet who will come into the world” – Moses led the Israelites into the desert and had them eat Manna from heaven, just as Jesus was now providing a miraculous supply of bread.

In Jesus’ time, the term prophet had come to mean something of a King. So the crowd made the assumption that Jesus was destined for the throne.

The crowd were ready to take Jesus for themselves by force.

The Jewish crowd at that time may have been influenced by Zealout Judaism, proud and nationalistic – there were thousands of people ready to seize him and make him king, the King of the Jews – in the hope he would lead them in revolt against the Romans. You can understand their motives – imagine enduring hundreds of years of living as outcasts among foreigners, each generation building that expectation that their nation will be restored, and their King and prophet will be on the throne – like in the times of Old.

The sheer size of the crowd demonstrates how popular Jesus was becoming – they wanted to put Jesus on the throne, to provide for all their needs, they would never be hungry, never be sick again! He would be their prophet, ruler, and King, and defeat their enemies.

Their response to Jesus, to witnessing these miracles, was to take him by force and make him their King! Jesus knew their intentions, and disappeared up the mountain, away from them. He was not coming on their terms; the true Kingdom cannot be possessed by men through violence, as it is a gift from God through Jesus. Their expectation of what the Messiah should be, was based on their society’s expectations – not on God’s plan for their salvation.

The true King of Heaven, cannot be taken by force, He gives himself up for his people, and all who follow him, do so for the glory of God.

The crowd represents people who trust in God’s provision. We ourselves can see that God provides for our needs; we call on him, ask him for healing and help. The crowd saw Jesus provide abundantly for their needs, and they followed him. He knows their motivations for following Him, but He does not turn them away. I see myself in the crowd, seeking God to look after my needs, and for those I care about.

He has compassion on them, and does not turn them away.

The disciples must have known who Jesus was, surely they knew who he really was by now?

When the crowd was approaching Jesus on the mountainside, Jesus tests Philip by asking him ‘how will we get enough bread to feed all these people?’ Philip had already seen Jesus turn water into wine at the Wedding in Cana, but Philip still had no real answer for him. If Philip had truly believed who Jesus was perhaps he would have said, ‘Lord, you will provide’. After the feeding of the five thousand, when Jesus disappears up the mountain by himself, the disciples descend into the valley, and wait by the shore of the Sea of Galilee. When it was nearly night time; they got in the boat and started rowing. But for all their efforts would not get them to the other side, as the strong wind pushed them back.

Why did they get in the boat without Jesus? Some of the disciples were fishermen, they were perhaps used to rowing a boat in the dark, against a strong wind. These are Jesus’ men, rowing across the lake to meet a crowd of thousands, without Jesus. Why would they do that? Well, it is likely that Jesus had told them to, it was another test of their faith.

The disciples faced wind and waves, and their boat was going off course; they would never reach their destination. But the thing that scared them the most – was seeing Jesus walking out to them on the water. They were terrified; they did not recognise him, they did not believe Jesus could do that. He says to them, ‘It is I, do not be afraid’ only then did they recognise him and brought him on-board the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were headed. Jesus brought them to their destination.

Our physical and emotional needs are what draw us toward God, we are just like the crowd – we know we need God’s help. What do we believe of Jesus? Is he a miracle worker? Is he a historical prophet like Moses whose authority comes from Old Testament prophecy? Is he a King that we can sit on a throne to rule over us, and provide for our needs?

Our needs are known to God. These two miracles had one purpose, to demonstrate to the crowd and to the disciples – that Jesus was the Son of God – fully human, and fully divine. To command and defy the natural elements is what Jesus is capable of doing, these signs point to Jesus as the Son of God.

This crowd, were Jesus’ own people it was no coincidence that the feeding of the five thousand took place just before the Jewish Passover. The significance of this is explained in chapter 6:, where Jesus says that he is the Bread of Heaven, his body is the bread – we are to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood to receive eternal life. This spiritual food is what Jesus is most concerned about, not just to fill our stomachs. This is a difficult thing for the Jewish crowd to believe – they were satisfied to call him Rabbi, teacher, healer, to share his food, even to take him as a King – but to partake in his body and blood in the promise of eternal life, they could not believe it. They wanted more proof, more signs, and more miracles before they would believe.

We were not there to see these miracles happen, but we have the benefit of hindsight, to know the details of the crucifixion and resurrection. We understand the significance of Jesus’ body given as a sacrifice so that we would receive eternal life. It’s still a difficult message to understand today.

What was the response of the crowd upon hearing this? They turned away. In fact, only Jesus’ disciples were left.

Even those who saw the miracles with their own eyes, and shared bread with Jesus with their own mouths, could not believe that he was the Son of God. Why did they turn away?

There is a clue in the preceding passage where Jesus tells the Jews who are questioning him, ‘You diligently study the scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.’ John 5:39.

The reading from the Gospel of John does not just tell us who Jesus really is, it also tests our faith. It demands that we make a decision about him, and act upon it.

The crowd had to decide whether their means to salvation was their knowledge of their religion, their history and tradition, their Jewish heritage, and their circumcision – or the man named Jesus, the man from Nazareth, son of Joseph, the Son of God.

Let’s compare the crowd’s experience of Jesus with that of the disciples.

The disciples witness first hand – Jesus’ miracles, healings, hearing the parables and listening to his explanation of the Kingdom. Their act of faith in following him is both challenging and rewarding.

The crowd get to see some of this as if on the sideline – but they are not privy to the full explanation of Jesus’ teachings, or in this case to witness the most miraculous spectacle of walking on water.

We do not expect a small amount of food to feed many people, and we do not expect the surface of the water to support a human being. We do not expect our sins to be forgiven, with a few simple words. God has the bigger picture, he is more concerned about our spiritual needs; and so too we should align our lives to be more concerned about our spiritual wellbeing, not just the material.

To live by faith and do the ‘work of God is to believe in the One he has sent.’ (6:28-29)

To be a disciple, we cannot follow the crowd. We must trust in God, and believe in his Son. This takes a lot of courage, but God works powerfully in our lives, and our response is to trust Him.

To be a disciple, we are to be like him – to follow his teachings. This means being there with others in the highs and the lows, helping to provide for the needy – but always being concerned about the spiritual need – to know the love of God, by the Son, through the Spirit.

Christ’s body is the bread of life – it is what truly satisfies, and brings us to our final destination – eternal life.

Psalm 14:2-3 – The Lord looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned aside.

Psalm 14: 5-6 – God is present in the company of the righteous, and the Lord is the refuge for the poor.

Lord God, we pray to you in faith in your Son, Jesus Christ. We pray that you would be with us in the highs and lows, and that you would provide for those around us who are in need. We pray that they may experience your love and compassion, that they would also believe in your Son, and receive the gift of eternal life. Help us to be faithful witnesses, as disciples of Christ, for your glory. Amen

Photo: www.simongarnier.org/followthecrowd

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