Down from Heaven: context

Bread-of-Life-John-624 When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus. 25 And when they found him across the sea they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” 26 Jesus answered them and said, “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. 27 Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him the Father, God, has set his seal.” 28 So they said to him, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.” 30 So they said to him, “What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you? What can you do? 31 Our ancestors ate manna in the desert, as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” 32 So Jesus said to them, “Amen, amen, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave the bread from heaven; my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 So they said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” 35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst. (John 6:24-35)

Context. John 6 marks the beginning of a new section in the Fourth Gospel narrative. In 2:1-5:47 there was a cycle that includes the revelation of Jesus’ glory and the rejection of that glory. These chapters contain miracles and discourses by Jesus that point to the authority of Jesus’ words and works—the wine miracle at Cana (2:1–11); the cleansing of the Temple (2:13–22); two healing miracles (4:46–54; 5:1–9); Jesus’ conversations with Nicodemus (3:1–21) and the Samaritan woman (4:4–42)—and so fulfill his promise to his disciples that they would see “greater things” (1:50). Yet this cycle also contains the first story of Jesus’ conflict with the Jewish authorities (5:9–47), a conflict that includes the decision to kill Jesus (5:18). This first cycle establishes the themes and tensions that characterize Jesus’ public ministry in John—from the manifestation of Jesus’ glory (2:1–11) to the rejection of that glory (5:9–47).

The second cycle of Jesus’ public ministry follows the same pattern as the first—it begins with a miracle in Galilee, the feeding of the five thousand (6:1–15), and concludes with hostility to Jesus and renewed intention to kill him (10:31–39). The difference between the two cycles is that the urgency of that question is highlighted as the hostility to Jesus increases. There are no new theological themes introduced, instead the same themes are replayed in a new context: Jesus’ authority and relationship to God, Jesus’ ability to give life and judge, the consequences of faith or unbelief. [O’Day, 519] And, as you might imagine, the antagonism in response to Jesus’ words and deeds only grows. The second cycle poses the same basic question as the first: Will people receive the revelation of God in Jesus?

This and the following three Sundays our gospel is taken from John 6. So, perhaps it is best to see what lies ahead. John 6 follows the same basic pattern noted in chapter 5: miracle / dialogue / discourse. This pattern is more intricate in John 6 because the chapter narrates Jesus’ self-revelation to two groups: the crowd and his disciples. As such John 6 contains two miracles: one performed before the crowd and the disciples (6:1–15) and one performed in front of the disciples alone (6:16–21). This dual focus is reflected in the discourse material as well. John 6 can be outlined as follows:

Verses       Sunday        Content
6:1–15       17th               Miracle of feeding the 5,000 (with crowd and disciples)
6:16–21                          Miracle (w/ disciples alone) – Jesus walks on the water
6:22–24                          Transition
6:25–34     18th               Dialogue (crowd)
6:35–59     19th / 20th      Discourse (crowd and disciples)
6:60–71     21st               Conclusion (disciples alone)

Walking on the water. In 6:16–24, Jesus walks on the water. It is striking that John’s sequence — the loaves miracle followed by that on the Sea of Galilee — is identical to that of Mark 6:34–51 and Matthew 14:13–33. In all three accounts Jesus calms his disciples with the identical majestic phrase: “It is I. Do not be afraid” (John 6:20; Mark 6:50; Matt 14:27). This phrasing, which in the Greek has no predicate, simply reads egō eimi = I am, has strong overtones of divinity, echoing the name for Yahweh found in Isa 43:10, 13, 25. Jesus is the divine presence; the disciples need have no fear.

There is a question as to why the water miracle should be situated at this point in a chapter that otherwise speaks exclusively of bread. What is it a sign of? No answer is completely satisfactory, but the following have been offered. Flanagan [990-91] offers: “(a) The Old Testament Passover miracles were manna bread plus the crossing of the Reed Sea, and water springing from the rock. Exod 14–16 ties together in tight sequence the account of the Reed Sea crossing and the gift of the desert manna. This traditional Exodus coupling of water and bread, found also in Ps 78:13–25, may have encouraged the first Jewish Christians to attach the Christian water-sign to that of the bread. They are so found in Mark 6, Matt 14, and now in John 6. (b) John is simply extending his theme of life-giving word by presenting Jesus as life-giver in time of famine and of storm. (c) The storm scene is intended as a sign of Jesus’ divine status (the “It is I” of verse 19 masks the profound I AM of the original Greek) and his ever-helping presence, “do not be afraid” (v. 20).”

A Transition. 22 The next day, the crowd that remained across the sea saw that there had been only one boat there, and that Jesus had not gone along with his disciples in the boat, but only his disciples had left. 23 Other boats came from Tiberias near the place where they had eaten the bread when the Lord gave thanks. 24 When the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

…and a final note… What the Lectionary will divide up across four consecutive Sundays, most Scripture scholars see as a unified section: 6:25-71. This lengthy section can be outlined as follows:

  • 6:25–34     Dialogue between Jesus and crowd (our Gospel this week)
  • 6:35–42     Jesus’ first discourse and “the Jews’” response
  • 6:43–52     Jesus’ second discourse and “the Jews’” response
  • 6:53–59     Jesus’ third discourse
  • 6:60–71     Dialogue between Jesus and disciples

It will be important to see the movement between dialogues as we move from Sunday to Sunday.

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