John 6 contains 2 of the most popular stories in the New Testament; the feeding of 5,000 and the walking on water. I remember sitting in Sunday School listening to these stories. I was amazed. I was entertained. But what is the implication of these stories? What message do they deliver? I was not aware of these questions when I was a kid, but now I am, and therefore through this article I will try to answer these questions. The author of the gospel (let us call him the Evangelist for the purpose of this article – although I am still convinced that it is the apostle John) was probably trying to show the divinity of Jesus through this passage. Let us, therefore, analyze it. Please note that this article is intended for general audience and therefore I shall try to avoid being too technical in my analysis.
First, the setting which the Evangelist sets up is incredibly detailed. The time of the day is mentioned in verse 16 (it was evening), although it is clear that the Evangelist does not always include information about time in every account of his writing – therefore it is reasonable to assume that the information has some kind of purpose here. The Evangelist also includes some details about the situation which the disciples are in (it was dark, the sea was rough, a strong wind was blowing). I would argue here that these details do not only function as a literary strategy to support the claim of the author as an eyewitness, but they also bear a literary function to remind readers of the Exodus, in particular the crossing of the Red Sea (or Sea of Reeds). Consider the table below.
|Exodus 14||John 6|
|Darkness (v.20)||Darkness (v.17)|
|A strong wind causing water to part (v.21)||A strong wind causing rough water (v.18)|
|Following the institution of Passover (ch.12)||Passover was at hand – feeding 5,000 (v.4)|
|Closely followed by manna from heaven (ch.16)||Followed by ‘bread of life’ discourse (vv.30-35)|
If it is true that the Evangelist is trying to provide readers with this allusion, we may then ask what his purpose is. I would think that the passage itself answers this question prior to its ending in verse 21. The solution to the climax of this story is shown when the disciples take Jesus into the boat and “immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going”. The message is obvious here. If this story is an allusion to the Exodus, then it follows that the deliverance done by Jesus here is equated with the deliverance done by the LORD in Exodus. Therefore, it follows that the Evangelist is trying to show that Jesus at least bears the same power as the LORD.
Second, looking at the structure of chapter 6, it is obvious that ‘the walking on water’ is sandwiched between ‘the feeding of 5,000’ and ‘the bread of life’ discourse. I would argue that there is an intended theological message here. It seems that John intends to show the accumulation of Jesus’ miracles beginning with the feeding of 5,000, continued with walking on water, and climaxes with the expression ‘I am the bread of life’, the latter which could refer back to the feeding of 5,000 because these 2 stories presume the same audience. The claim ‘the bread of life’ then continues with, ‘If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever’ (vv.50-51). Here I would like to point out that John 6 contains several ideas about Jesus that bear striking similarities with ideas about the LORD in the Old Testament. Jesus is pictured as the one who can give eternal life (6:51), the one from whom anyone cannot be taken away – showing sovereignty (6:37-39), the one who saves and delivers (6:21), and the one who holds power over creation (6:21). The context here certainly shows the idea of the LORD delivering Israel in the Old Testament. When seen in this light, it becomes even more obvious that the Evangelist equates Jesus with the LORD. If I could choose only two verses from the Old Testament to draw a connection to John 6 I am going to go with:
“See now, that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and make alive; I wound and I heal; there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” and
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
Third, Jesus’ self identification in 6:20 using the words ἐγω εἰμι (literally means ‘I am’ or ‘it is I’) is also interesting. Scholars acknowledge the special use of ἐγω εἰμι in John’s gospel. Usually this expression is taken as a normal way of saying ‘I am’ or ‘it is I’. In John’s gospel, however, the expression is said by Jesus too many times and many times it is placed in the context where the meaning is dubious. Many scholars believe that the expression ἐγω εἰμι in John’s gospel might derive from the LORD’s self identification in multiple occasions in the Old Testaments; which the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) renders as “ἐγω εἰμι” (for example, Isaiah 41:4, Deuteronomy 32:39, etc.). Although scholars have different opinions regarding which ἐγω εἰμι are deific claims and which ones are not (Carson is one of the scholars who do not see the ἐγω εἰμι in 6:20 as a deific claim), I think it is still obvious from the context of John 6 that the Evangelist wants to highlight Jesus’ equality with the LORD.
There are more to the studies of John 6 than what I have explained so far, but, again, I am not going too much on the technical and will simply leave it here for more thoughts. There are certainly many implications that we, Christians or non-Christians, can take from this, and therefore I will let you as readers decide what you want to take from it.
Soli Deo Gloria