Read: John 6:25-69
Who can predict the ever-changing mood of a crowd? You may as well try to predict the weather, or the daily ups and downs of the stock market.
Ask John, the baptizer, for example. At the height of his popularity, it looked like everyone from the entire region followed him to the banks of the Jordan River to hear him preach, and to be baptized. It was the thing to do. (Matthew 3:5-6) If you could have asked each person in the crowd why they came, you would have heard a wide range of answers. Some were just curious. They were crowd followers. Most probably realized that Israel hadn’t seen a prophet like this since Malachi, and that was four hundred years ago! And the message, “The kingdom of heaven of heaven is at hand!” stirred everyone. (Matthew 3:1-2) Many, I’m sure, really believed this message, and their repentance was sincere. But many were just moved by the moment. You just never can be too sure about a crowd.
Then Jesus arrived, and suddenly, everyone began turning to him. John fully understood that. To his credit, he never lost sight of his purpose, which was to prepare the way for the Messiah. When Messiah finally arrived, he presented him to the people. He even baptized him. Then he quickly, and graciously began to step back, allowing Jesus to receive everyone’s full attention. (John 3:25-30) Now everyone was following Jesus.
And Jesus’ popularity continued to increase. At first, his message was strikingly like John’s. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:17) But there was more. People were being healed of every disease. He was even casting out demons. John never did that! People were coming now, not only from Jerusalem and Judea, but also Galilee and beyond the Jordan, as far away as Syria. (Matthew 3:23-25) His fame and popularity were definitely trending up, with no end in sight.
One day, Jesus looked up to see, perhaps, the largest crowd yet gathering from every direction. John numbers this multitude as five thousand men. (John 6:10) If we consider the women and children accompanying the men, the number could easily have approached ten, or fifteen thousand or more. Jesus took a seat on the mountainside with is disciples, just to watch them as they drew near. Every time he watched people coming toward him, he was moved with compassion, whether they were one or two, like Nicodemus, or the Samaritan woman at the well, or a multitude. This time was no exception. (cf. Matthew 14:14 ff.) He was first moved, of course, by their lost condition. They were” like sheep without a shepherd.” (eg. Matthew 9:36) But his compassion also extended to their physical needs. For example, he was aware that they would all need to eat dinner soon. John is careful to tell us that Jesus already knew what he would do, but he engaged his disciples in the discussion, primarily, I believe, to train them to be sensitive to the needs of the whole person standing before them. (John 6:5-6) Before the day was done, they had been fed, both physically and spiritually. As the crowd returned to their homes, many began to think about the possibilities.
If we could have asked the people in that crowd on that day why they came, we would have received a variety of answers. Just like the crowd who had followed John, many were just there to see the show. (John 6:2) Many came because they needed to be healed. Many wanted to hear his exciting message. Some truly believed. Anyway, they believed the parts they could understand. That’s the thing. Jesus continued to say things that were difficult to understand. Like when he told Nicodemus he needed to be born again. Or when he told the woman at the well the she needed the living water he could provide. It was like his words were calculated to make people stop and think. You had to think a lot if you wanted to follow Jesus.
Many in the crowd that day had other expectations. They figured, if Jesus is announcing that the kingdom of heaven is near, it’s time to finally drive the Romans from their land once and for all. They had their own ideas about what this kingdom should look like. They envisioned a kingdom like every other kingdom on earth, with a flesh and blood king, sitting on a physical throne, commanding physical armies. Imagine the possibilities of man like Jesus . . .
But suppose he wasn’t willing to go along with their plan. He had his own agenda, his own sense of timing. He had this habit of slipping away and hiding himself when everyone was looking for him. Someone suggested they should just take him, by force if necessary. The problem was, they couldn’t find him. Jesus had already left the scene. (John 6:15)
From a quiet place, further up on the mountain, Jesus was fully engaged with his personal dialogue with the Father. The disciples were getting into boats to cross the sea. It was time for everyone to go home. Tomorrow was another day. Everyone was already busy preparing their own plans for what that day would bring.
Sometime that night, the disciples were stopped in the middle of the sea by a great storm. Then they saw Jesus, walking through the storm, on top of the waves. After welcoming him into their boat, they immediately arrived on the other side.
So, the morning light revealed Jesus and the twelve on one side of the sea, and what was left of yesterday’s crowd on the other. They wasted no time getting into boats of their own, crossing the sea to find Jesus. After all, it was past time for breakfast! When they found him, they had to ask, “How did you get here?” Jesus didn’t bother to answer their question. They probably wouldn’t have believed him if he had told them. Instead, he immediately questioned their reason for being there.
Why are you here? Once again, the question must be asked of those who gathered that morning. Jesus suggested that their motives had fallen to a new low. Now, they weren’t even interested in seeing the miracles. Instead, they were simply hungry, and Jesus had fed everyone the day before, so they thought maybe . . .
Without waiting for them to respond, Jesus warns them not to work for the wrong things. The bread and the fish they had eaten the day before didn’t last. They were hungry again. Jesus wanted to give them bread that will sustain them forever. It would be like the springs of living water that never run dry. Again, and again, Jesus has been talking about spiritual truths, but the material world continued to dominate everyone’s thinking.
Some of them began to understand that Jesus was wanting them to do something radically different with their lives. But they still weren’t sure what that could be. They asked, “What must we do?” (John 6:28) Many were probably expecting Jesus to command them to take up swords and follow him in his crusade to drive out the Roman invaders. Finally!
But Jesus answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:29) He was referring to himself. In other words, “Believe in me!”
“What’s that? Believe? Is that all? Jesus, you don’t understand. We’re men of action here. We can’t waste time with wishful thinking. Give us something to do!” But Jesus was inflexible on this point. “Believe.”
“Ok, Jesus, but we’re going to need some evidence here before we’re willing to just accept what you’re saying to us. What sign can you show us? For example, Moses fed the people with manna for forty years in the wilderness. Something like that would be nice.”
Jesus must have wanted to shout, “Will you people please stop thinking about your stomachs? I’m trying to feed your souls here!” But he didn’t. Instead, he patiently began again to describe the realities of the spirit. This time he presented himself as the “Bread of life.” (John 6:35) In the lengthy conversation that followed, Jesus continued to perplex his hearers with impossible statements like “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.” (John 6:52-55, 60)
That’ when many of the people who had been following him decided it was time to go. (v.66) He just wasn’t ready to assume the role they had in mind for him. They couldn’t even understand what he was talking about half the time. They probably thought, “If we leave now, we might even make it home for dinner.” The crowds never were quite as large after that. Many of the people who walked away that day were probably among the crowd gathered at Pilate’s judgment hall, crying “Crucify him!”
Jesus watched them as they walked across the open space and disappeared over the next hill. His heart followed each one. He loved them all. He knew that before too many days, he would die for them all. If they could only believe . . . Then suddenly, he turned to face the twelve. “Do you want to go away as well?” he asked. (v.67) Behind that question was another more fundamental question. “Why are you here?” And another, “Do you really believe in me?”
Peter’s answer was immediate. “Lord, to whom shall we go?” Peter had no “Plan B.” He wasn’t holding out for one more sign, one more miracle. He wasn’t saying “Prove it!” He was humbly saying, “Teach us.” He still didn’t understand everything; but he understood enough. He recognized that Jesus’ words were living words. His words contain life, and they produce life, wherever they are received. These are the words that created the world in the beginning. “Let there be . . . and there was . . . “ (Gen. 1:3; John 1:3) More than anything else, Peter knew that he needed Jesus to continue to speak these words into the dead dark places of his own heart. He went on to say, “We have believed and have come to know that you are the Holy one of God.” (v. 68-69)
The crowds continue to wrestle with these questions to this day. Do I believe? What should I do with the parts I don’t understand? Why am I here? What do I want? What do I expect?
Peter, and many others since then, have made their decision. They stand together and declare with one voice, “We believe!”
In the end, the questions comes to you.
Why are you here?
Would you believe?