Scripture: John 6: 1-21
If you have a dog that likes to play fetch—like a certain spaniel that you’ve heard me mention before—then you’ve probably had this experience: Your dog wants you to throw the ball to him. But you don’t have the ball. And so you’re pointing to it. “It’s over there, dummy!” And what does the dog do? Instead of following your finger to where it’s pointing, the dog stares at your finger. The dog doesn’t understand the point of, well… pointing. Our dogs easily get confused.
And in today’s scripture we see that humans aren’t so different.
Notice verse 2: John tells us that “a large crowd was following [Jesus], because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick.” The signs he was doing on the sick. Only the apostle John in his gospel, refers to the miracles that Jesus performs as “signs.” But this gives us an important insight into the miracles of Jesus.
If Jesus’ miracles are signs, what does that mean?
It means that the miracles are not intended as ends in themselves; rather, they are intended to point to something that is more important than the miracle itself—in this case, to communicate something about who Jesus is, about what he came to accomplish, about his gospel, about God’s kingdom. Miracles, therefore, are not primarily acts of love and compassion for people in need—although they are loving and compassionate. In fact, this miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle—besides the resurrection itself—that gets repeated in all four gospels. In Mark’s account of this event, he tells us explicitly that Jesus “saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.”1
But I would argue that if Jesus worked miracles only in order to help people in this life, then he wouldn’t be loving and compassionate enough! After all, these miracles are only short-term and temporary. Even the “big” miracles of raising people from the dead—as he does with the synagogue ruler’s daughter, or the widow of Nain’s son, or Lazarus… Each of these people was brought back to life only to die again at some point in the future.
So if Jesus really has love for people, and if he really has compassion on people, then of course these miracles are signs pointing to something greater. Because ultimately the short-term miracles point to the greatest miracle of all—how it’s possible for sinners like us to find forgiveness of our sins, adoption into God’s family through faith in his Son, and eternal life through Christ. Jesus’ short-term miracles points to a miracle that lasts forever.
When my dad got diagnosed with what turned out to be terminal cancer back in 1994, my family and I were praying fervently for a physical healing for Dad. And the Lord said, “No.” Dad died a year later. Unlike with many people that Jesus encountered in the gospels, Jesus did not choose to work any kind of physical miracle for my father—although he could have through the power of the Holy Spirit. And when I used to tell the story—even in sermons—I would say, “sadly”… Sadly the Lord didn’t heal my dad. But I don’t say that anymore about Dad. Because God knows what he’s doing. And believe me, God absolutely used that last year of Dad’s life—as he was facing the end of his natural life—to get Dad’s attention, to enable him to put his entire trust and confidence in Jesus, so that he could have eternal life. If it took terminal cancer to bring Dad to faith in Christ, so that he could live forever with Christ, so that death would no longer be the worst thing imaginable, but rather, a transition to an even better kind of life…well… If it took terminal cancer, then of course it’s sad for us, but you know who’s not complaining? Dad.
My point is, we prayed for healing for Dad, and God answered our prayer in the way that matters most: by healing him eternally.
So Jesus’ miracles always point beyond themselves to the reality of eternal healing. But in today’s scripture, as elsewhere, people often get confused by this. Think of the episode Mark describes in chapter 2 of his gospel: Jesus is teaching and preaching in a house in Capernaum. As in today’s scripture, huge crowds of people are following him. It’s standing room only in the house. And there are four men who are desperate to get their paralyzed friend to Jesus… so that Jesus can heal him. So they put their friend on a mattress; climb up on the roof of the house with him; literally break a hole in the thatched roof; and lower their paralyzed friend down through the hole in the roof, plopping him at the feet of Jesus.
And what does Jesus say? “Take up your bed and walk. You’re healed!” No… He says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”2 And by every indication Jesus was prepared to leave it at that. And you can imagine the disappointment that these four friends must have felt. Surely they didn’t go to all this trouble of carrying their friend up on the roof of the house, breaking a hole in the roof, lowering him down to Jesus, just so Jesus could heal the man spiritually! They wanted something far more practical. They wanted their paralyzed friend to be able to walk again! “Why is Jesus talking about forgiving the man’s sins? That’s no big deal,” they probably thought.
And maybe we think that, too…?
By the way, if you read on in Mark chapter 2, you see that Jesus does end up performing the physical miracle… but only to prove to the Pharisees that he has the authority to forgive the man spiritually. The outward, visible miracle, in other words, proves that the inward, invisible miracle has taken place.
Something like that is happening in today’s scripture. People see an outward, visible miracle, and they’re impressed by it. But they completely miss the invisible, spiritual point of it. And for the next four weeks, we’re going to be looking at this chapter, John chapter 6, in depth. As we’ll see in the weeks ahead, the vast majority of people in this crowd do not want to hear about the inward, invisible miracle of forgiveness, of spiritual healing, of eternal life. They only want Jesus to feed them more bread. They want Jesus to meet their worldly needs.
But that’s in the weeks ahead. We get just a hint of that in today’s scripture. Today I want to focus on the disciples and their reactions to Jesus. Specifically, I want to focus on Philip and Andrew in verses 5 through 10. Look at verse 5:
Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?”
Then John tells us, “He said this to test [Philip], for he himself knew what he would do.”
Uh-oh… No one said there was going to be a test! And does Philip pass the test? Listen to his answer: “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” No, Philip does not pass the test. I’m not judging him, because I don’t usually pass the tests that Jesus gives me, either! So Philip gets an “F” from Jesus.
A friend I used to work with named Don told me a story that he swore happened to a friend of a friend—but as I know now, it’s an urban legend. But it’s still a good story. According to Don this friend of a friend was taking a Bible survey class in college. The professor gave one of those “blue book” final exams—in which you had to answer a long essay question. And every year the exam was exactly the same: “Compare and contrast the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul.” Before long, students who took the class figured out that for years the professor asked the same question. So they didn’t bother studying; each one came to the final exam prepared to answer this one question. Except at some point the professor figured it out, so he decided—after years—to ask a different question: “Describe the differences between the major prophets and the minor prophets.”
So everyone in the class was in a panic… Except for one clever student, who wrote the following: “Far be it from me to distinguish these revered men of God from one another—calling some ‘major’ and others ‘minor.’ Instead I thought you might be interested in comparing and contrasting the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul.”
The moral of the story is, “When you’re taking a test, you’re supposed to answer the question that you’re asked.” Philip’s problem is, he doesn’t answer the question that Jesus asks! Jesus asks a where question. “Where do we get bread to feed these people?” Philip tries to answer a how question: “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” Two hundred denarii was over half a year’s salary—much more money than they had. So Philip is saying, “We don’t have enough! There’s no way we can do it! It can’t be done!”
Jesus might have said, “I didn’t ask you how we were going to do it!”
By the way, John here only refers to 5,000 men; he’s not counting women and children. So scholars estimate it could have been as many as 15,000 people altogether.
So Philip is trying to answer a “how” question… But Jesus didn’t ask how. Yet isn’t it often true that what bothers us most in life—what causes us the most anxiety, what causes the most sleeplessness, what causes us to worry the most—is trying to figure out “how.”
A friend of mine—who isn’t a part of our church—was recently diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma. It’s a type of skin cancer that can be deadly serious, but usually, if it’s caught in time, it’s very treatable. And she said, “I’m not worried for myself, but I am worried for my husband”—who has all kinds of health problems. “Who will take care of him if I’m not around?”
See, that’s what I’m talking about… That’s a how question. “How will my husband be okay if I’m not there to take care of him?”
If we tend to worry about “how” questions, we’re in good company. This is a recurring theme in scripture. I mentioned this episode a few weeks ago, but it bears repeating. In Numbers 13, Moses has led Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea, to Mount Sinai, where they received the Law, and now—a few months later—they are on the brink of the Promised Land, the land of Canaan. It is right there in front of them. They can see it. Moses sends twelve spies into the land—to scout it out, to bring back fresh produce, to report to the people what it’s like.
And the spies do exactly that. And they come back and gave the majority report, which ten of the twelve spies signed off on. They said, “The good news is, it’s just like God promised. It’s a land flowing with milk and honey. But here’s the problem… The men seemed like giants in comparison to us. We seemed like grasshoppers to them. If our army goes up against their army, we’re doomed. And their cities are like fortresses. They’re impenetrable. We don’t know how we can conquer these people!”
And they stirred up the rest of the people, and God punished them by making them wait for another 40 years.
So do you get the picture? God said, “Go and do this,” and God’s people said, “How?” “We don’t know how… We don’t see a way.”
Not Caleb, by the way… He and Joshua wrote the “dissenting opinion.” But Caleb was like, “What are we waiting for? If God says, ‘Go,’ that means he’ll make a way. Let’s just do what God says, and leave the ‘how’ questions to him!”
What God wants us to do is often clear enough… and straightforward enough… It’s the how that’s the hard part. But the good news is, that’s the part that God takes care of… If he wants us to do something, he always takes care of the how.
Well, I say always… But that’s not quite right.
In today’s scripture, what did Jesus need in order to work this miracle? And you may say, “I know! He needed these five barley loaves and two small fish to get started. And then he could multiply it, and work this miracle! Once he had this small amount of bread and fish to start with, he was okay.”
But that can’t be right, can it? Jesus is God, after all—God in the flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity. Does God need to take the lunch from this little kid in order to work a miracle? Of course not! Jesus didn’t need this bread and fish to get started. The devil, remember, tempts him in the wilderness saying, “Turn this stone into bread.” It would not be a temptation if Jesus didn’t have the power to turn stones into bread. And I’m sure Jesus could have found stones around the Sea of Galilee, if he needed to!
So Jesus doesn’t need anything before he decides to work a miracle. But here’s the tricky part—and this convicts me, brothers and sisters… He doesn’t need anything before he goes to work in our lives and does something amazing. But often he does want something.
Oftentimes, before God does something powerful in the lives of his people, God wants something from us. And until he gets it, he’s willing to wait.
Let me give you an example. In Isaiah chapter 7, God sends the prophet Isaiah to bolster the courage of a really terrible king of Judah named Ahaz… a weak and wicked ruler in the southern kingdom of Israel. Ahaz is afraid. He’s afraid because the king of Israel and the king of Syria have formed an alliance against Judah, his kingdom. And soon, he fears, they’re going to attack Judah, and with their superior military might they’ll succeed; they’ll probably kill King Ahaz; and they’ll install a puppet king of their own choosing in his place. That’s what Ahaz is afraid of. Objectively speaking, who can blame him? Things look bleak for Ahaz.
And the king is asking the how question: “How are we going to survive? How am I going to survive? How am I going to protect my kingdom from my enemies?”
So he’s thinking about entering into an alliance with Assyria—which means paying the Assyrian king a lot of tribute money so that the Assyrian army will protect his nation. And in return, Judah will have to continue paying taxes to Assyria. That’s the way small nations survived back then. By paying off larger, more powerful nations. Like the mafia, except on a larger scale! But Isaiah urges Ahaz in the name of God not to enter an alliance with Assyria—and instead, to trust that God will take care of Judah! In fact, God, speaking through Isaiah, tells Ahaz, in so many words, “These two kings that you’re worried about? They’re nothing. They pose no threat to you; I’m going to destroy them. Trust in me, King Ahaz.”
And then God speaks these profound words through the prophet—in Isaiah 7, verse 9: “If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.”3 If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.
Or as the NLT puts it: “Unless your faith is firm, I cannot make you stand firm.” In other words, God is telling Ahaz this: “Unless you’re willing to actually trust in me, Ahaz—trust in my promises, trust in my power, to leave the ‘how’ questions to me and take a few small steps of faith—I’m choosing not to give you what you want… But if you’ll summon the faith to do what I say, you’ll see just how strong and fearless I can make you! You’ll see how I can enable you vanquish your enemies. You’ll see how I can do powerful things through you! But you’ve got to do that first! You’ve gotta have faith!
“So I’m waiting for you, Ahaz.”
And if you read the rest of the story, Ahaz failed… big time. He refused to obey God and leave the “how” questions to him.
And this is the difference, by the way, between Philip and Andrew in today’s scripture. Philip brings to Jesus nothing that Jesus can work with. No faith whatsoever. He says, “We can’t do it. No way!”
But Andrew, by contrast, isn’t quite like that. Let’s look at verses 8 and 9:
One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to [Jesus], “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?”
Granted, Andrew only has an infinitesimally small amount of faith. Even after pointing out to Jesus the fish and bread he says, “but what are they for so many?”
It’s not much faith. It’s almost nothing. But it’s enough… It’s enough faith for Jesus to multiply into an abundance. Poor Philip gave Jesus nothing to work with. After all, zero times a trillion is still zero. But this tiny mustard seed of faith—smaller than a mustard seed, actually—this almost nothing kind of faith is enough for Jesus to feed 15,000 people!
Again… it’s not that the disciples have this tiny amount of food, and that food is enough for Jesus to work with… and multiply; it’s that they have this tiny amount of faith, and that’s enough for Jesus to work with… and Jesus multiplies that.
What about us, brothers and sisters?
Is it possible that the Lord wants to do something powerful for you, or something powerful through you, or something powerful in you… he wants to help you overcome obstacles in your life, challenges in your life… he wants to bless you and show you his favor—indeed, that he even wants to work a miracle for you—but he’s waiting… He’s shown you what to do… He’s shown you where to go… He’s told you all the good things that are going to happen… He’s promised you time and again he’ll take care of you… And instead of embracing these promises, and trusting in him, and trusting in his Word, and stepping out on faith, you’re saying, “How, Lord? It’s not possible. I… can’t… do… this.”
And the Lord just might be saying to you, “Okay, then… I’m willing to wait.”
I wonder if he’s waiting on Toccoa First Methodist…
Remember I mentioned the Israelites earlier, standing on the border of the Promised Land… so close. They wanted God’s promise to be fulfilled for them! They wanted to enjoy this land flowing with milk and honey. They wanted to fulfill God’s mission to be a blessing to the nations—to show the world who God is, to show the world how he plans to redeem it through the future offspring of Abraham, to be a witness to the world…
And the land was just over there… within reach. A few yards away… just go there. “I’ll give it you,” God says.
And his people said, “We love you, God! We want what you want for us. We want it so badly… just not badly enough to take those few small steps of faith! God, can you just please pick up the land and drop it into our laps without asking us to do anything outside of our comfort zone? Just bring the land to us—and then we’ll be A-OK!”
And God said, “No. I’ll wait.”
Brothers and sisters, I worry that we at Toccoa First Methodist are like these Israelites…
I said earlier that Jesus saw the multitudes and had compassion on them. There were probably 15,000 in the crowd, once you counted women and children. That’s about the population of Stephens County. Do we have the same compassion on this multitude that lives around us? Because we understand, I’m sure, that most of our multitude in Stephens County is facing a crisis far worse than merely being hungry. If they die, they will be separated from God for eternity.
So… Do we have enough love and compassion for them to do the difficult thing, to take the bold step of faith and to witness to them. Jesus said, “Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.” Right now! John 4:35. “Go there,” Jesus is telling us, “Go to those harvest fields just beyond the walls of our church. You’ll see what powerful things I can do through you and for you. Leave the ‘how’ to me. But just give me a little of your faith. I’ll make you successful in this mission.”
And we say, “Yes, we love lost people, Lord. Yes, we want to make disciples, Lord. Yes, we want to reach the lost with the gospel. Yes, we want them to have eternal life… Yes, we want revival. Yes, we want our pews filled with people—like in the good old days—when Methodists would move to town and say, ‘Where’s First Methodist? Okay, let’s go there this Sunday.’ And if we didn’t mess things up too badly, people would show up. We want people to show up… like they used to. But can you just please bring them to us, Lord? Can you just drop them right here, in this church, in this sanctuary, and we promise and we’ll do our part—to love them, to teach them about Jesus, to share the love of Christ with them.”
But those white harvest fields are a few too many steps outside of our comfort zone!
I wonder if that’s not our version of “Bring the land to us!” “Bring the lost to us and we’ll show them who Jesus is!”
And brothers and sisters, I wonder if the Lord is saying to us, “No. I’ll wait.”