Working for what?

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. 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.

The implication of the narrative is the crowd who finally caught up with Jesus in Capernaum could not have known about the miraculous events (vv.16-21) of the evening nor would they have had an opportunity to react to the ego emini statement – to even ponder, “Who is this that calms the sea.” Their last encounter with Jesus was at the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 and their desire then was to take Jesus by force and make him kind. It is at this point Jesus withdrew from them as the people wanted to remake the Messiah in their own conception. Jesus would not allow that; perhaps Jesus does not want to be found by the crowd “looking for Jesus.

The verb “looking” is the present tense of zeteo. It is not a complex word; it basically means “to seek.” Is seeking Jesus a good or bad thing? Previously they sought to make him king. Most often when zeteo is used in John, it refers to the Jews seeking to kill (or arrest) Jesus: 5:18; 7:1, 11, 19, 20, 25, 30; 8:37, 40; 10:39; 11:8. Perhaps that makes too much of the simple verb; perhaps not. In any case, the crowd finds him. They address Jesus as “rabbi”; this same crowd that previously had called him prophet (v.14) and wanted to give him the title “king” in v.15. In this context, “rabbi” is certainly less significant; it is the same title given to John the Baptist (3:26). It is a title of respect, but not a confession of faith.

Their question: “When did you get here?” should be taken as a simple question, but one wonders about that. This is the same crowd that has already sought to control Jesus and make him king. Might not the question be a bit more ominous? As Stroffregen wonders, might it also be a question of control: “We want to know exactly what happened.”

Jesus does not answer the crowd’s question but instead redirects the conversation to the crowd’s motive in seeking him (v. 26). This is not the first group of people to see Jesus perform a sign and they are not the first group of people to be invited to see where, to whom the sign pointed. Jesus’ use of the noun “sign” (sēmeion) invites comparison with the two Cana signs (2:1–11; 4:46–54). The disciples saw the transformation of water into wine as a sign of Jesus’ glory; the royal official saw the healing of his son as a sign of Jesus’ ability to give life, and as a result they all believed in Jesus (2:11; 4:53). This crowd, Jesus says, hasn’t looked past the fullness of their stomach. It would be too much to give them credit for looking at least as far as Jesus being a great prophet like Moses – that conversation peeks in only with later reference to “bread from heaven.” At this point the people only respond to the miracle in terms of their full stomachs; they do not see it as a sign pointing to something greater.

For What Are You Working?

 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.”

A modern reader might be more prone to take the beginning part of v.27 for exactly what it implies: don’t work; it will be given to you – the implication being, given as a gift – and more than that the given (Jesus) has been ordained/sealed for this purpose. But then the one who are hearing these words receive them in a difference context. These are working people for whom there is family and tradition – these are gifts – everything else is earned. The crowd gives “work” (ergazomai) a new meaning. Jesus’ admonition about laboring to receive a gift of imperishable food is transformed by the crowd into a question about their performance of works. The grace in Jesus’ words disappears.

The NAB translates v.28 as “What can we do…” The word poiomen is translated in other modern translations (e.g. NSRV) as “What must we do…” which seems more consistent with the Greek. It is not a question of capability, but rather, more in the sense. “OK, so maybe we understand that is it a gift. But what’s the catch? What must we do to get this gift.” The verb is in a form that denotes continuity and regularity, as in “What must we continue you do?” This would fit in with the pattern of their lives in several ways.

Food was a perishable item. One must work for food everyday because food “did not keep”  – one must earn a daily wage and daily acquire the needed foodstuffs and ingredients to prepare the daily meals. Jesus reminds them to the transient and temporal nature of such food that perishes. (v.27). This expression has been used before with Jesus’ earlier admonition about the leftover bread fragments (v.12); “perish” and “be lost” translate the same Greek verb, apollymi. This same word will later describe the perishable manna of Exod 16:18–21.

How would they have understood food that endures for eternal life? (v.27) There are rabbinic passages and thought that understands such food as symbolizing the Torah, the Law. The Jews may have taken Jesus’ words about the food that abides to eternal life as meaning the Law. What, then, does Jesus think, they must do by way of works of the Law? The expression works of God (v.28 – note the plural) is most likely taken in this context – works pleasing to God – works expressed in the Law. For a faithful Jew it is understood that salvation would be found in the Law. It would not be a leap to then think salvation is the result of their own effort, their compliance with what God has already made clear, rather than a gift given in the person of the one upon whom God has set his seal.

Jesus replaces their “works of God” with the singular “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.” There is one thing needed: faith, trust in the person of Jesus. If they are looking for what they must do, then Jesus has answered their question. Will they make the move from “performance” to giftedness?


6:25 Rabbi. This was the term that Nicodemus used (John 3:2) when he came as the spokesman of those in Jerusalem who were impressed by Jesus’ signs (2:3) When did you get here.  Literally “When have you been here” – a question that is a cross between “When did you get here” and “How long have you been here.”

6:27 food that perishes (apollumenēn). This may be an echo of v.12 where the fragments were collected so that nothing might be wasted (apollumi) – a word also appearing in John 3:16, 10:28 and 18:9.  It may also well contain a reference to the manna collected in the desert that “perished” daily. This echo becomes clear in (v.32).

work…for the food that endures for eternal life.  Not in the sense of the effort of human endeavor alone, but in the sense of striving after, yearning.

on him the Father, God, has set his seal.  In Jn 3:33 we read that by accepting Jesus’ testimony the believer has certified (lit. “set his seal upon”) that God is truthful. Here God sets His seal (sphragizo) upon the Son, not so much by way of approval, but more by way of consecration (hagiazo, Jn 10:36)

6:28 to accomplish the works of God… Literally “work the works of God.” There is a subtle shift in the meaning of “work” from v.27 to v.28.  In v.27 the people are told not to work in the form of “work for” food produced by human hands. In v.28 “to devote oneself to” provides a good parallel to the rabbinic tradition of  “working on” or “devoting oneself” to the Torah.

6:29 This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent. The people’s response has focused on works they can do. Jesus puts the emphasis on faith

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.