Before I became a pastor, I was a police officer here in Mount Druitt for about 5 years. Most of the time, I loved it! Sometimes it was pretty awful of course, but most of the time, it was awesome! One of the best things about being a cop was that every day was different. I never knew what would happen or what sort of situations I would find myself in. Work was nearly always exciting and often dangerous. It was like playing cops and robbers with a uniform, a fast car, and a handgun, and I got paid for it. What’s not to love?
I was on night shift one night. It was winter so it was pretty cold. It was around 2:30am. Everything was pretty quiet, so we were all playing cards in the station. There was a pizza shop just across the road from Uncle Bucks. Back then, there were only a handful of shops and they’d just opened. We used to get pizzas from these two blokes every now and then, and they weren’t bad. Anyway, at about 2:30am there was this almighty explosion. It shook the windows of the police station. We all bolted outside and saw this huge fireball going up in the sky. My mate and I ran out the back to grab a car and got over there in half a minute. What a scene! Three of the five shops were flattened and on fire. As we got closer, we saw the two blokes who owned the shop. They were lying on the ground in the car park. They were both alive, but their clothes were all burnt, their hair was gone, and they were in shock.
It turns out that the shop wasn’t going all that well, so they decided to set the place on fire and claim the insurance. We had a chat to these blokes when they were able to talk. They had overestimated the amount of fuel they’d need for the task. The shop was about five meters wide and about 20 meters deep, but they had poured five 20 liter jerry cans of petrol into the shop, ran a trail of it out into the car park (but only went about 15 meters) and then lit it. About 3 seconds later, ‘ka-boom’! Luckily the blokes weren’t hurt, so it was actually pretty funny, and completely unexpected! But that’s what being a cop was like. It was a massive adrenaline rush, and we never knew what would happen next. Work was always full of surprises!
Now, one of the things I love about Jesus is that he constantly surprises me. I’ve been a Christian for a while—which means I’ve known Jesus for a while—and yet he still constantly surprises me in so many ways. So one of the few things I’ve learned about being a Christian and following Jesus is that you’ve always got to expect the unexpected.
I want Jesus to be predictable, because predictable is safe. I can come up with all sorts of fancy philosophical reasons for this. But when you strip them all away and get real, the fact is that I like predictability, because it gives me the feeling that I’m in control. Control is a deeply human desire, isn’t it? How often do we all love saying, “Oh, yes, I knew that would happen!”? Or, “Of course I knew you were going to say that!”? We love that stuff because it tricks us into believing that we’re in control of whatever situation we’re in. But it’s a complete nonsense. All it takes is a restructure at work so that you lose your job, a car accident, a bad medical test result out of the blue, a failed exam you expected to pass, the unexpected death of someone close to you, or an exploding pizza shop in the middle of the night, and we realize that we’re not in control of anything.
All through the Gospels people want to control Jesus. They think they know what Jesus will say and do, but he constantly surprises, because Jesus has a different agenda. People expect him to do one thing, but he so often does something else. John 6 is a great example of this. This is a long chapter, so we’ve broken it up into three sermons, that you’ll hear this week and the next two weeks, Lord willing. I think the two main questions this first section answers are first, “What does God ask of us?”, and second, “What does it mean to be fed by God?”
I love John’s Gospel. The way he writes is just fantastic. John tells us about seven of Jesus’ miracles, though he calls them ‘signs’. With each sign, there is a corresponding sermon preached by Jesus. So for example, Jesus says that he is “the light of the world”, and he opens the eyes of a man born blind. Jesus says that he is “the resurrection and the life”, and he raises Lazarus from the dead. Here in John 6, Jesus feeds 5,000 men, and then tells people that he is the bread of life. The crowds of people and Jesus’ own disciples really aren’t expecting any of this stuff to happen, and when they see it, they consistently misunderstand what Jesus is saying.
Jesus is by Lake Galilee and he’s been doing miracles for a while now, so people are turning up from everywhere to be healed. It’s around April, our Easter and the Jewish Passover, a couple of years before Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead. There are hills just on the shore of Lake Galilee, John tells us its Roman name as well, ‘the Sea of Tiberias’, named after the Roman Emperor. There’s also a small city called Tiberias still there. Anyway, Jesus wandered up one of the hills and sat down with his disciples, but this massive crowd of people followed him. There were about 5,000 men. The other Gospel writers tell us that there were women and children with them, so we’re looking at a crowd of 12 or 15 thousand people.
Jesus would have been heaps of fun to hang around, I reckon. Have a look at verses 5 and 6:
When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. (NIV)
He’s having a laugh. It’s almost cheeky. “Now, where on earth are we going to find enough food for all these people?” Poor old Philip doesn’t know what’s going on and doesn’t care about where they’d find enough food. All he can think about is the cost of catering! He says, “It’d cost roughly 30 grand in our money, and that’s just for entrée!” Keeping the laughs flowing is Peter’s brother, Andrew, in verse 9:
Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many? (NIV)
Well, you asked, Jesus! There are 12,000 people or so, and I’ve stolen a poor kid’s lunch. What have you got? If this happened now, Jesus would say, “Challenge accepted!”
Jesus gets everyone to sit down, prays to give thanks for what they’ve got, and then turns a ‘happy meal’ into a feast where there’s so much food left over that the disciples get a basket each and fill them with the remains. It seems that Christians have always over-catered. I mean, seriously, how many church events have you ever been to where there’s not enough food? That’s right, none!
Anyway, the crowd are impressed, as anyone would be. They all knew they didn’t bring any food, but their tummies were now full. So they know for certain that Jesus can’t only heal the sick: he can do anything. But here’s the kicker: they totally misunderstand the reality that this sign points to. Have a look at verses 14-15:
After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. (NIV)
To understand what this means, you have to know what Jews thought in the first century AD. Jewish people were expecting a prophet like no other who had come before. They were waiting for a Messiah, a Saviour. Their Scriptures, what we call the ‘Old Testament’, are full of these promises that God makes about the one who would come and rescue God’s people. The thing is that by the first century AD, Israel had been occupied territory for about 600 years. They had been invaded first by the Babylonians, then by the Greeks, and then the Romans had control over Israel. So when Jews thought about this promised Saviour, they all thought it meant a military leader who would galvanize Israel and lead a successful rebellion against the might of the Roman Empire and restore Israel’s independence.
So when they realize Jesus can do these fantastic miracles, such as healing people or feeding thousands of people with next to nothing, they think back to Deuteronomy 18. In that part of the Old Testament, God tells Moses that someone like Moses himself (only better) would turn up. When that happens, God’s people had to follow him. The first century Jews added this genuine promise to some of their incorrect assumptions about the Messiah to come, and they figure that Jesus must be ‘the one’ they’re waiting for, and they want to make him their king by force. Jesus knows all this, so he takes off. Jesus is in fact their king, and one day everyone will see it, but his coronation won’t happen like this. Jesus will be made king through his death in our place on the cross and by being raised by God back to new life for our salvation. But Jesus has much to do before his coronation.
In the next section, John 6:16-24, John tells us about the time that Jesus walked on water in the middle of a freak storm. These sorts of storms still happen on Lake Galilee from time to time. Cold wind from the north hits the hot air from the south-east coming in from the desert. When that happens, the usually calm Lake Galilee turns into a place at which you could hold a surfing contest. I think John includes this partly because it’s just another example of Jesus doing stuff only God can do. This tells us that Jesus is not just your average punter but he is actually God. The other reason I think he gives us this story is because John is setting up the next day for us.
The crowd saw the disciples leave, but they knew that Jesus wasn’t with them. So the next morning they head north and go around the lake to find him. Lake Galilee is a decent size, but since just about everyone travelled by walking back then, no one was fazed by it. We would all complain and want a cab or an Uber Camel. Anyway, off they go, and by the time we get to verse 25, they’ve found Jesus again and ask when he got there.
His answer is vintage Jesus. No mucking around, no small talk, just this totally unexpected answer that leaves these guys floundering. Have a look at verses 26 to 29:
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” (NIV)
Do you notice their first question is small talk: “Ah, Jesus, how’d you get here mate?” You’d expect Jesus to say, “Oh, I ducked over last night after the BBQ”. Only he doesn’t. This is one of the many Ron Burgandy moments in the Bible. The crowd ask a simple question and they get this complex answer about the meaning of life. So their second question is the one just about everyone asks at some point or other: “What must we do to do the work God requires?”
Jesus contrasts what they want with what they need. They want more food. They need their sin forgiven. The last meal they had was yesterday afternoon. It’s now mid-morning the next day and they’re hungry. They want Jesus to do the magic catering thing again! Instead they get confronted with their deepest need: eternal life with God. That promise God holds out to anyone who believes in Jesus: sin forgiven; life redeemed; washed clean; ready to meet God as friends and adopted children.
Notice that Jesus speaks about what they need as ‘work’. I’ve always found this interesting. He’s doing that on purpose, of course. See, we all desperately want to contribute something to our salvation. We naturally feel as if there’s something we can do that will make God happy with us. So when Jesus says, “Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life”, they are hanging on the edge of their seats as if the greatest secret of the universe is about to be revealed. And you can hear that in their question in verse 28, “What must we do to do the work God requires?”
Again, you’d expect Jesus to launch into a long and exhausting list of all the stuff we all suspect God wants of us: strict obedience, no bacon, no prawns or lobster, perfect thoughts, perfect words, perfect actions, and some great quest or other. Instead, Jesus just says, “The work of God is this: believe in the one He has sent.” In other words, God just wants us to believe in Jesus. That’s it: no special task, no exhausting program of rigid obedience to earn God’s favour, just believe in Jesus and he takes care of everything. His death pays for your sin and mine. He gives us his Spirit who chips away at our old sinful nature and slowly but surely makes us more like Jesus.
And yes, it takes determination to persevere, because it can be quite easy to get side-tracked or disappointed with a church or with other Christians and so give up on Jesus. It can be easy to get side-tracked by suffering or sickness. It can be easy to get side-tracked by being single when you want to be married or by being married when you suspect you’d be better off single. It’s easy to get side-tracked if you’re picked on at school or bullied. It is easy to get side-tracked by mental illness that just drains away your joy in knowing Jesus. Any number of things can knock us off course. But I think when that stuff happens, the key to persevering is to keep your eyes and your heart on Jesus, because people will fail us from time to time, but Jesus never does.
That’s why Jesus can say that when you boil it all down, the only thing God wants from us is trust. That’s it. Believe in Jesus, and everything else slots into place once you get that sorted out. It won’t be perfect, but it works.
And again, the crowd just miss it by miles. And before we get all proud of ourselves, we all know that we’ve missed this point a fair few times over the years. Look at what the crowd say in response, verses 30 to 31:
So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (NIV)
One of my good mates is an atheist. He’s an excellent bloke and we have lots of great conversations about Jesus. He’s one of these people who say, “Look, I’d believe if Jesus turned up here and started doing a few miracles.” You’ve probably got a few friends who say that sort of things. And if you don’t, you probably need to get out a bit more and find some! I want to believe people who say that sort of thing, but my guess is that they could see Jesus do miracles and still not believe. They’d find some other excuse for rejecting him. Think about the vast number of people who actually did see Jesus do more miracles than you can poke a stick at over the course of three years. We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people: Jews, Romans, all sorts of visitors to Israel over that time. Yet by the beginning of Acts, there are only about 120 Christians in the world. Why? Because Jesus didn’t follow other people’s agenda. He always did the unexpected and it ticked people off.
See, this crowd is a perfect example. They followed Jesus because they knew he could make sick people well. Then they saw him feed roughly 12,000 people with a ‘happy meal’. They’ve no idea how he got to the other side of the lake in the middle of the night, but there he is. But then they have the hide to ask for another sign. They even dare to compare Jesus to Moses. They think Moses fed the people of Israel with manna for 40 years while they wandered about in the desert between leaving Egypt and getting into the Promised Land. They’re saying, “Hey you only did the food thing once. Moses did it for 40 years mate!”
I tell you the truth, you and I aren’t all that dissimilar to this. How many of us have experienced God do outrageous things in front of our eyes in years past, and yet how often do we complain that he’s not doing what we want him to do now? How many of us have seen the most unlikely of people become Christians? How many of us have seen God intervene in all sorts of ways: serious illness healed, a job provided from out of nowhere, a seemingly chance meeting with someone that proves to be a massive blessing but one that only God could organize, a baby born when there seemed little hope, or a family provided through fostering when hope was gone, a son or daughter off the rails who comes home to Jesus like the prodigal, a high school teen who is anxious and cutting and looks headed for real trouble. But then Jesus turns up and it’s like a new dawn: a mended heart and a smile and passion to help other teens who are in the same mess, addictions that are overcome that give you real freedom, or missionary work that continues despite serious persecution where thousands are saved—the list could go on and on. There are plenty of times when we pray for those things and God gives us a negative answer. But our problem is the same as this crowd in John 6. We focus on the negative so much. We focus on just what we want so much that we fail to remember all the amazing things we’ve seen God do time and time again with our own eyes—let alone all the stuff we can read about over 2,000 years of church history and what we know God did with his own people in the Bible. We close our eyes and harden our hearts, and like this crowd, we forget that Jesus is standing right in front of us, saying, “Don’t worry; don’t be afraid, just believe in me. I’ve got this. Trust me!” Look at how this first part of John 6 ends, in verses 32-34:
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.” (NIV)
Over the rest of John chapter 6 Jesus will expand on what this means. But for now we just need to understand that it wasn’t Moses who fed God’s people. It was God. And that food back in the desert in the Old Testament got stale and rotten. It didn’t last long, and as soon as they made it to the Promised Land, God stopped giving it to them. But the true bread of God that comes down from heaven to feed and give life to the whole world doesn’t come in a packet, or get stale or rotten—it is Jesus.
Remember those questions we started with? What does God ask of us? And the answer is simply to believe in Jesus, to trust in him. That’s it.
What does it mean to be fed by God? Well, the crowd misunderstand. By the end of chapter 6, they all walk away from Jesus, because he’s not what they expected.
Someone much smarter than me said it like this: “He who is already king has come to open his kingdom to people, but in their blindness people try to force him to be the kind of king they want. Thus they fail to get the king they need and also lose the kingdom he offers.”
For you and me, what it means to be fed by God is really pretty simple. We need to strip away our agendas, all our religious assumptions, our pride and self-righteousness, our health and career, our house, a boyfriend or girlfriend, a husband or wife, a fantastic HSC result or early admission into uni—anything like that or that’s our agenda. That stuff won’t ever satisfy us for more than a moment. For us to be fed by God means that we need to be completely and eternally satisfied with Jesus. He is enough. “Sir, always give us this bread.” Just give us Jesus.