Summary: While we often seek what the crowds were looking for, Jesus offers himself as the Bread of life that truly satisfies.
We’ve all had this experience. Every one of us has found ourselves in front of the TV a couple of hours after a satisfying and filling supper and seen a commercial – and not just any commercial. You know what I mean: One of those commercials. There it is: a delicious looking triple bacon cheese-burger or maybe a pizza smothered in mozzarella cheese and pepperoni. It could be any sort of food advertisement. Maybe it’s an ad for a Dairy Queen Blizzard or those Cadbury Easter Cream Eggs. All of a sudden you’re hungry – and you didn’t even know it!
No matter how many times we eat enough to fill us up – even to make us feel stuffed! – we always get hungry again. We don’t have the option – we have to eat again. One meal will never do us forever.
Feeding the Crowd
Well, the crowd that follows Jesus in this story act just like us when we see the fast food commercials. And what I mean by this will be clear in a few minutes. First note that this crowd of people had followed Jesus because of the signs that he was doing for the sick. And while they were with him, he had fed them – all five thousand of them, not including women and children. He did so with five loaves of bread and two fish. Not only had this been enough – but there were leftovers! Twelve baskets of leftovers! Having followed Jesus on account of the signs he performed, they become witnesses to another sign: the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Our text says in v. 14, “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’” They did see the sign. They knew that Jesus had fed them miraculously. They knew something had happened that was outside the realm of common experience. They knew something was up here. And they responded by recognizing something of who Jesus was. They called Jesus a prophet. The question is: did they really understand Jesus? Did they really understand the importance and meaning of the sign?
We don’t find out until the next part of our passage. It’s the next day, and once the crowd realized that Jesus was gone they went looking for him. What was their reason for looking for Jesus? Why did they want to find him? Perhaps they wanted to confess their faith in him. Or it could be that they wanted to learn more about who he was. Did they want more teaching? Maybe something intangible about Jesus’ character compelled them to seek him.
Jesus, of course, knew exactly why the crowd sought him out. He tells them: “You are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Wow. They came because he fed them. He had met their physical need. It seems that the memory of the sign had either disappeared, or been rationalized away, or at least faded enough that all they focused on was the result of the sign: food to eat. They came to Jesus again because maybe he would feed them again. Maybe he would satisfy their hunger one more time.
Now, of course, there’s nothing wrong with asking Jesus to meet our physical needs – “Give us this day our daily bread” is our ongoing prayer – and so we shouldn’t downplay the significance and legitimacy of seeking God to meet these needs. And Jesus, we see, does meet those needs – and here he does so in an incredibly miraculous way that demonstrates the providence, power, and graciousness of God!
But you see, while because of the sign they realized that he might be the prophet “who is to come into the world,” like so many others they ended up completely misunderstanding who Jesus is. Like so many others they just didn’t get Jesus. They missed the point entirely.
That the people missed the point is clear when Jesus takes the opportunity to tell about the “food that endures”: the food that gives eternal life. Using the image of food he tells them that he can give them eternal life. The food that they work for is food that perishes. He can keep giving them loaves and fishes, but they will just get hungry again. Nothing he can give can forever satisfy this basic physical hunger – and that is not the need that Jesus is largely interested in meeting. Jesus is essentially saying to them what he said to Satan in wilderness when tempted: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” In this case, the word that comes from God is Jesus himself, the Word made flesh. It is Jesus that gives life and this is what he offers – something infinitely more important than their next meal.