This chapter begins the second major ministry section in John (6:1-10:42). There are similarities to the beginning of the first major ministry section (2:1-5:47). O’Day  suggests: “It is probably no accident that the two inaugural miracles involve wine and bread, the sacramental symbols of God’s grace in Jesus.” Both sections start with miracles in Galilee that show God’s abundant grace and Jesus’ divine glory:
- In 2:1-11, Jesus turns a whole lot of water into an abundance of wine, which is “the first of his signs,” in which “revealed his glory” (2:11)
- In 6:1-15, Jesus turns five loaves and two fish into an abundance of food for thousands. This is followed by 6:16-21, Jesus walking on the water, which is primarily a theophany — an occasion where Jesus’ divine glory is revealed.
Differing Accounts. The story of the miraculous feeding occupied a central place in the oral tradition about Jesus – it is the only miracle story found in all four gospels. (Matthew and Mark also include the feeding of the 4,000.) The pivotal place of this miraculous feeding occupies a central place in all the gospel traditions. The accounts are not the same there are unique features, omissions, additions, and parallels. Yet the central placement of the story means it is not necessary to conjecture if John relied upon others for the recalling of the story. Fr. Raymond Brown , after a detailed study of the all the accounts, concludes about John’s account: “There is one logical explanation for all of these features, omissions, additions, and parallels, namely, that the evangelist did not copy from the Synoptics but had an independent tradition of the multiplication which was like, but not the same as, the Synoptic traditions.” The difference, as well as the similarities, can be accounted for in John’s perspective. Seeing all the other gospels had written the factual account of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, John had set out to write the theological gospel according to Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200 AD). Such a perspective will naturally capture more the intent of the dialog as is the natural inclination of the theological undertaking.
The Setting. 1After this, Jesus went across the Sea of Galilee (of Tiberias). 2 A large crowd followed him, because they saw the signs he was performing on the sick. 3 Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish feast of Passover was near.
While short in length, each verse of the introduction contributes something significant to the narrative that follows: the location at the Sea of Galilee (v.1), the theme of seeing signs (v.2), the distinction between the followers and the crowd (v.3), and Passover (v.4). These simple verses almost act as a pause, asking the reader to reflect upon what has come before.
Consider the crowd’s response in 2:23–25 (Jesus doing other signs during Passover) and to the healing in 5:1–9 (on the Sabbath) in which great signs were done and yet not all believed. Such will be the same in John 6. As noted earlier in this commentary, Jesus’ self-revelation is to two groups: the crowd and his disciples. This pattern will repeat in John 6. Jesus’ retreat to the mountain with his disciples in v. 3 sets up the contrast between Jesus’ self-revelation to his disciples and to the crowd. The reference to Passover in v. 4 introduces the exodus theme; exodus imagery figures prominently in vv. 5–59 (e.g., vv. 12, 31–32, 49, 58).
John 6:1 (of Tiberias): the awkward apposition represents a later name of the Sea of Galilee. The later name is related to the major town, in fact, the capital of Herod Antipas’ kingdom, situated on the western shore of the Sea.
John 6:2 they saw the sign he was performing. Other characters have come to Jesus because of the signs he did (cf. 1:49-51, Nathanael; 3:1-11, Nicodemus; 4:16-26, the Samaritan woman)
John 6:3 up on the mountain. It is on up on the mountain that Moses received the Law (cf. Ex 19:20, 14:1-2; Isa 34:2-4)
John 6:4 Passover was near. Coming immediately after Jesus’ reinterpreting Sabbath theology and practice, this mention of Passover sets the theological perspective of what follows.