For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.’
John 6 opens with the only miracle, other than the resurrection, that is recorded in all four Gospels – the feeding of more than five thousand hungry people on a hillside beside the Sea of Galilee. The miracle is a demonstration both of Jesus’ identity as the Good Shepherd (the act of feeding people as they rest on green grass, followed by stilling of waters is reminiscent of Psalm 23) and of His ability to provide for His sheep. It is also an illustration for the disciples of their Master’s provision for their needs (the 12 leftover baskets are perfectly sized lunchboxes for each of them) as they distribute His provision to others. Jesus provides abundantly for His people and for those who join His work in serving them. There are clear echoes in this passage of John Chapter 4 (see Part 1 of this series), where Jesus described His food as doing His Father’s will. Now, however, we have a dramatic visible demonstration through the miracle of multiplication of loaves and fishes of Jesus’ ability to ensure that His mission never lacks provision.
After a further demonstration of His power to His disciples, as He calms the storm that threatened to engulf them, Jesus meets up with the people He had fed on the other side of the lake. He uses their experience of filled bellies to teach them a lesson about empty souls and the imperishable food that can sustain their spiritual life. He calls Himself the bread of life and likens Himself to the manna God had provided in the wilderness in the time of Moses. Jesus Himself will be made available to everyone who believes in Him and He is a food that permanently dispels hunger. Yet there is a problem. These people were happy to take the food Jesus provided for their hungry stomachs, but they have not yet grasped their deeper need of spiritual life in Him. Jesus continues to explain to them that God is at work and that salvation is found in Him, the One God has sent. Yet they still don’t understand. They are puzzled by His claim to be bread from Heaven. They are scandalised by His insistence that eternal life is found by feeding on His flesh, yet Jesus, in a coded reference to the communion meal He will institute (perhaps because John records this teaching he does not record the Last Supper as the other Gospels do), He adds to the scandal by saying they must also drink His blood. It seems as if Jesus is deliberately trying to confuse them! Many of the images Jesus uses in the fourth Gospel have the same effect that the parables (absent from John) recorded in the other Gospels had: they filter out those who are only interested in what they can get from Jesus (food, entertainment or healing) from those who are eagerly seeking for God and aware of their need of forgiveness and restoration through Jesus. The result of Jesus’ challenging teaching here is that many fair-weather ‘disciples’ desert Him – from this point onwards His popularity declines.
This encounter is a challenge for those who engage in gospel ministry. We are readily tempted to make the message as simple as we can – to remove its hard edges to make it easier for people to accept. We tone down our references to judgement and big up the blessings to be had. We risk making the gospel about the needs of people rather than the glory of God. We can distort the divine call to rebels to return to relationship with Him through repentance and faith into the divine offer of healing and fulfilment for people who are really unfortunate victims of circumstances beyond their control. The gospel of God’s glorious redemption becomes a therapeutic message for self-centred people. I’m not suggesting that we should find images that are deliberately offensive or confusing to people, but we must not remove the unavoidable offense of the gospel that comes from confronting people with the fact that they simply don’t have within themselves what they need. They need to know that left to themselves they are empty and dying and that only by dependence on Christ’s provision can they have fullness and life. Our goal is not to maximise numbers of get a ‘quick response’, but to faithfully explain the gospel and trust God to work in the lives of some.
Furthermore, our ministries of mercy and compassion bring people to gratitude to us for provision for physical needs, but do not always confront them with the radical claims of Jesus and their spiritual need of Him. The miracle of loaves and fishes and the conversation between Jesus and the crowd that follows highlights the holistic nature of Christian mission. Just as Jesus met with people in their whole need, so must we. We reach out in compassion from the bounty of resource God has provided His people, bringing healing and restoration. As we do this, however, we also share the truth of Jesus’ Lordship and of people’s need of forgiveness through Him. Our desire is not simply that people’s material and social needs will be met, but that they will enter into the eternal life that can be theirs through Christ.
It is relatively easy to plan for ministries of compassion and to measure their results, but we cannot programme the response of people to the gospel. Our duty is to faithfully proclaim the truth and to leave the rest to God. We must have confidence that God is at work in drawing people to Himself and that those He draws will come. We must realise that the Father has given people to Christ and they will come to Him. We hold together the mysterious twin truths of God’s sovereignty in salvation and of the universal offer of forgiveness to all who will believe. These twin truths are woven together by Jesus throughout the second half of John 6 and they give us great confidence that God has invited us to be His co-workers in proclaiming the gospel of salvation, but that the results of our mission are not dependent upon our technique or even our faithfulness, but on Him. Jesus, the Son, was confident that His Father’s will to save through Him all who would come to Him would be fulfilled – for this reason He had come. We too can be confident that as we reach out in mission some will be saved.
In summary, the great truth for mission seen in this passage is:
· God provides for physical and spiritual needs – Jesus resources us physically and spiritually so that we can meet the needs of others, both material and spiritual, in holistic mission.