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In John’s chiasm, or parallelism, the fourth and fifth signs stand in the middle and are thus set forth as the heart of his apostolic message.
4 The Heart of the message
5 The Heart of the message
These two signs are presented to us back to back before we are given any commentary on either of them. As such, these two signs are exceptional, for in all of the others, commentary immediately follows the sign.
The fourth sign manifesting the glory of God is where Jesus breaks the bread and feeds the multitude, gathering up more as leftovers than what He had at the beginning. It is a Passover sign, setting forth the purpose of Christ’s first coming. As such, it explains the purpose of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem (“House of Bread”), His death, and finally His resurrection.
When He was born in the House of Bread, He was placed in a manger to be “food” for the world. At the cross, His body was broken for us, and in His resurrection, He received back a greater portion than that which was broken.
The fifth sign manifesting His glory is a revelation of Christ’s second coming at the feast of Tabernacles. He returns in the midst of tribulation (the storm), and Peter goes out to meet Him. Jesus does not take Peter back to the mountain from which He had come (as if there were a “rapture”), but instead returns to the boat with Peter. Then they are immediately transported to Capernaum, the Greek spelling of Kippur-Nahum (“Covering of the Comforter”).
Only after the fifth sign does the apostle give us teaching about the fourth and fifth signs. The last half of the sixth chapter explains the meaning of the fourth sign, where we learn that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to have life in ourselves. Then the seventh chapter explains the fifth sign. There Jesus gives us the only New Testament example of how Jesus kept the feast of Tabernacles.
The eighth chapter of John gives us further commentary on both the fourth and the fifth signs. There we learn truth when Jesus corrects men’s faulty views of both Passover and Tabernacles. With this overview, we now proceed to our study of the fourth sign.
The introductory setting for the fourth sign is found in John 6:1, 2,
1 After these things Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (or Tiberias). 2 And a great multitude was following Him, because they were seeing the signs which He was performing on those who were sick.
Jesus and His disciples took a fishing vessel to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. The Sea was also called the Sea of Tiberias, named by Herod Antipas in honor of Tiberius Caesar, who ruled Rome at that time.
In 18 A.D. Herod built the town of Tiberias on the western shore of the lake. However, he had difficulty getting Jews to move there, because the town was built on a cemetery and was therefore considered to be unclean. This may also be one reason why Jesus chose Capernaum to set up His ministry headquarters, rather than Tiberias.
The town of Tiberias did not become prominent for another century, when a way was found to make it kosher.
In Num. 34:11 and Joshua 12:3 and 13:27 the Sea of Galilee was called the Sea of Chinnereth (“harp-shaped”), and this name was grecianized in Luke 5:1 as “Gennesaret.” But it appears that to most people it was simply the Sea of Galilee, or, more accurately, the Sea in Galilee.
We are not told how the multitudes came to see Jesus on the east side of the Sea. No doubt some followed him on boats, but most of them must have followed the eastern shoreline heading south from Capernaum and Bethsaida (Philip’s hometown). These two cities were situated near each other on the north end of the Sea.
John 6:4 tells us that this event took place near the time of Passover. It was actually after the feast, for the multitudes had already returned from Jerusalem. Likewise, as we will see, Jesus fed the multitude with barley (John 6:9), suggesting that the wave-sheaf offering had already been made in the temple, allowing men to harvest their ripe barley.
The miracle-sign of multiplying the bread is the only sign that is mentioned in all four of the gospels (Matt. 14; Mark 6; Luke 9; John 6). Each adds different details to the story that are helpful in picturing the circumstances of the event.
Because John 6:4 tells us that He fed the multitude shortly after Passover, it is evident that John the Baptist had been executed at Passover. Hence, this was actually the first Passover after Jesus was baptized. It was Passover of 30 A.D.
Luke’s account tells us that prior to feeding the multitude, Jesus had sent His disciples out to preach the Kingdom (Luke 9:1, 2). When they returned from their mission trip, they gathered at Bethsaida (Luke 9:10), and from there they took the boat to the mountain on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Later, Herod heard about the disciples’ mission trip, and because they had performed many miracles, he thought that John the Baptist may have risen from the dead with the power to do miracles (Luke 9:7). Herod obviously had a guilty conscience and did not want to confront a more powerful version of John the Baptist.
Luke also makes the point that Jesus “began speaking to them about the kingdom of God and curing those who had need of healing” (Luke 9:11). He then fed the multitude when “the day was ending” (Luke 9:12).
Matthew’s account informs us that when Herod executed John the Baptist, some of his disciples buried him and then “went and reported to Jesus” (Matt. 14:12). We are told (in Matt. 14:13) that this was the reason Jesus withdrew from the crowds and took His disciples by boat to the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. There He fed the multitude (Matt. 14:14-21). Matthew thus makes it clear that Jesus fed the multitude shortly after Herod executed John the Baptist.
Mark’s account tells us that Jesus taught the multitude until “it was already quite late” (Mark 6:35), and only then did He feed the multitude. The people would still have to walk some distance back to Bethsaida before dark, so we can imagine that Jesus fed them a late lunch in mid-afternoon.
Jesus and His disciples moored their boat and ascended to the highlands overlooking the Sea. John 6:3 says,
3 Then Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat with His disciples.
We know nothing of their conversation prior to seeing the multitude arriving. But when they could be seen in the distance, Jesus knew that a crisis was coming. The question was how to view the crisis. He knew that He was to feed them all, but He tested Philip to see how he might view the same crisis. We read in John 6:4-6,
4 Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. 5 Therefore Jesus lifting up His eyes, and seeing that a great multitude was coming to Him, said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?” 6 This He was saying to test him; for He Himself knew what He was intending to do.
None of the other gospels mention this conversation with Philip, which took place while the multitude was still gathering. Once the crowd had arrived, it would hardly be possible to carry on a private conversation with Philip. We know from the accounts of Mark and Luke that Jesus then taught the people for a few hours before the people became hungry and it became necessary to feed them.
Philip’s response is given in John 6:7,
7 Philip answered Him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little.”
Philip’s answer was more of an observation than an answer, taking note of the impossibility of feeding such a multitude by natural means. If he had answered, “This is impossible!” he would have failed the “test.” If he had answered, “Yes, let us feed the multitude!” he would have passed the test with flying colors. But he was somewhere in the middle, unsure of himself, and remaining noncommittal.
A denarius (pl. denarii) was a small Roman silver coin in those days. It was the daily wage of a soldier or a common laborer. For that reason, it was the equivalent of the Hebrew half-shekel. The denarius had been introduced in 211 B.C., when Rome overhauled its coinage after their contact with the Greeks created the demand for a silver coin in addition to bronze coins.
This new coin pictured a four-horse chariot on the reverse side. Originally, it could purchase ten asses, and hence, the word denarius means “containing ten.” Its original value was much higher than in John’s day, for Augustus Caesar debased the currency. Its weight was reduced almost by half from 1/48 to 1/84 of a Roman pound, that is, from 6.81 grams down to 3.9 grams.
The word denarius still appears today as the Kuwaiti and Iraqi dinar and in the Spanish word dinero, “money.”
John’s account then passes over all the teaching that Jesus did, which the other gospels mention. John’s account takes us directly to the miracle itself, which occurred when “the day was ending” (Luke 9:12) and when it was “quite late” (Mark 6:35).
Apparently, the other disciples had not been present during Jesus’ discussion with Philip, for their words give no indication that they suspected a miracle was about to happen. Luke 9:12 tells us that the other disciples suggested sending them away to the surrounding villages and countryside to find food and lodging for the night. But Jesus suggested that the disciples themselves should feed the people. Luke 9:13 says,
13 But He said to them, “You give them something to eat!” And they said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish, unless perhaps we go and buy food for all these people.”
John’s account tells us that Andrew had found a boy who had prepared for the occasion by bringing five loaves and two fish. John 6:8, 9 says,
8 One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, 9 “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people?”
Just as Philip had doubted if 200 dinarii could feed such a multitude, so also Andrew doubted that five barley loaves and two fish could feed them. Although they had both witnessed many miracles in recent months, they peered into the darkness and saw only the impossibility of natural solutions.
They knew that they could do little to feed such a multitude. Nonetheless, as we will see, the disciples themselves did “give them something to eat.” Jesus broke the bread and gave it to His disciples, but it was the disciples who, following His example, broke the bread again and thereby fed the multitude.
Thus, Jesus taught His disciples how to view a crisis from God’s perspective and how to bring to life that which is available. Dead bread was turned into living bread, and the immediate crisis subsided.