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THE FOURTH MIRACLE IN JOHN’S GOSPEL
This narrative of the miraculous feeding of the five thousand is introduced into John’s Gospel with singular abruptness. We read in the first verse of the chapter: ‘After these things Jesus went over the Sea of Galilee,’ i.e. from the western to the eastern side. But the Evangelist does not tell us how or when He got to the western side. ‘These things,’ which are recorded in the previous chapter, are the healing of the impotent man at the Pool of Bethesda, the consequent outburst of Jewish hostility, and the profound and solemn discourse of our Lord, in which He claims filial relationship to the Father. So that we must insert between the chapters a journey from Jerusalem to Galilee, and a lapse at all events of some months-or, if the feast referred to in the previous chapter be, as it may be, the Passover, an interval of nearly a year. So little care for the mere framework of events has this fourth Gospel; so entirely would the Evangelist have us see that his reason for narrating this miracle is mainly its spiritual lessons and the revelation which it makes of Christ as Himself the Bread of Life.
Similarly, he has no care to tell us anything about the reasons for our Lord’s retirement with His disciples from Galilee to the eastern bank. These we have to learn from the other Evangelists. They give us several concurrent motives-the news of the death of John the Baptist; and of the desire of the bloody tyrant to see Jesus, which foreboded evil; also the return of the twelve Apostles from their trial journey, which involved the necessity of rest for them; and, perhaps, the approach of the Passover, which our Lord did not purpose to observe in Jerusalem because of the Jewish hostility, and which, therefore, suggested the withdrawal to temporary retirement.
All these reasons concurring, He and His disciples would seek for a brief space of seclusion and repose. But the hope of securing such was vain. The people followed in crowds so eagerly, so hastily, in such enormous numbers, that no natural or ordinary provision for their wants could be thought of. Hence the occasion for the miracle before us.
Now I think that this narrative, with which I wish to deal, falls mainly into two portions, both of which suggest for us some important lessons. There is, first, the preparations for the sign; and then there is the sign itself. Let us look at these two points in succession.
I. First, then, the preparations for the sign.
Now it is to be observed that this is the only incident before our Lord’s last journey to Jerusalem which is recorded by all four Evangelists; therefore the variations between the narratives are of especial interest, and these variations are very considerable. We find, for instance, that in John’s account the question as to how the bread was to be provided came from Christ; in the other Evangelists’ accounts that question is discussed first amongst the Apostles privately. We find from John’s narrative that the question was suggested even before the multitudes had come to Jesus. We find in the Synoptic Gospels that it arose at the close of a long day of teaching and of healing.
Now it is possible that this diversity of time may be the solution of the diversity of the person proposing. That is to say, it is quite legitimate to conclude that John’s account takes up the incident at an earlier period than the other Evangelists do, and that the full order of events was this; that, privately, at the beginning of the day, whilst the people were yet flocking to our Lord, He, to one of the disciples alone, suggests the question, ‘Whence shall we buy bread that these may eat?’ and that the answer, ‘Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient that every one of them may take a little,’ explains for us the suggestion of the same amount at a subsequent part of the day, by the Apostles when they asked our Lord the question, ‘Shall we go and buy two hundred pennyworth of bread that these may eat?’
Be that as it may, we may pause for a moment upon this question of our Lord’s, ‘Whence shall we buy bread that these may eat?’
Now notice what a lovely glimpse we get there into the quick-rising sympathy of the Saviour with all forms of human necessity. He had gone away to snatch a brief moment of rest. The rest is denied Him; the hurrying crowds come pressing with their vulgar curiosity-for it was nothing better-after Him. No movement of impatience passes across His mind; no reluctance as He turns away from the vanishing prospect of a quiet afternoon with His friends. He looks upon them, and the first thought is a quick, instinctive movement of a divine and yet most human sympathy. The question rises in His mind of how He was to provide for them; they were not hungry yet; they had not thought where their bread was to come from. But He cared for the careless, and His heart was prophetic of their necessities, and quick to determine ‘what He should do’ to supply them. So is it ever. Before we call, He answers. Thy mercy, O loving Christ! needs no more than the sight of human necessities, or even the anticipation of them, swiftly to bestir itself for their satisfaction and their supply.
But, farther, He selects for the question Philip, a man who seems to have been what is called-as if it were the highest praise-an ‘intensely practical person’; who seems to have had little faith in anything that he could not get hold of by his senses, and who lived upon the low level of ‘common sense.’ He always lays stress upon ‘seeing.’ His answer to Nathanael when he said, ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ was, ‘Come and see.’ A very good answer, and yet one that relies only on the external manifestation of Christ to the senses. Then, on another occasion, he breaks in upon the lofty spiritualities of our Lord’s final discourse to His disciples, with the malapropos request, ‘Lord, show us the Father, and it sufficeth us.’ And so here, to the man who believed in his eyesight, and did not easily apprehend much else, Jesus puts this question, ‘Where is the bread to come from for all these people? This He said to prove him.’ He hoped that the question might have shaped itself in the hearer’s mind into a promise, and that he might have been able to say in answer, ‘Thou canst supply; we need not buy.’
So Christ does still. He puts problems before us, too, to settle; takes us, as it were, into His confidence with interrogations that try us, whether we can rise above the level of the material and visible, or whether all our conceptions of possibilities are bounded by these. And sometimes, even though the question at first sight seems to evoke only such a response as it did here, it works more deeply down below afterwards, and we are helped by the very difficulty to rise to a clear faith.
Philip’s answer is very significant. ‘Two hundred pennyworth of bread are not sufficient.’ He casts his eye over the multitude, he makes a rough, rapid calculation, one does not exactly see the data on which it was based; and he comes to the conclusion, ‘Two hundred pennyworth’ in our English money some L. 7 or L. 8 worth would give them each a morsel. And no doubt he thought himself very practical. He was a man of figures; he believed in what could be put into tables and statistics. Yes; and like a great many other people of his sort, he left out one small element in his calculation, and that was Jesus Christ, and so his answer went creeping along the low levels, dragging itself like a half-wounded snake, when it might have risen on the wings of faith into the empyrean, and soared and sung.
So learn that when we have to deal with Christ’s working-and when have we not to deal with Christ’s working?-perhaps probabilities that can be tabulated are not altogether the best bases upon which to rest our calculations. Learn that the audacity of a faith that expects great things, though there be nothing visible upon which to build, is wiser and more prudent than the creeping common-sense that adheres to facts which are shadows, and forgets that the chief fact is that we have an Almighty Helper and Friend at our sides.
Still further, among these preliminaries, let us point to the exhibition of the inadequate resources which Christ, according to the fuller narrative in the other Evangelists, desired to know. ‘There is a little lad here with five barley loaves’-one per thousand-’and two small fishes’-insufficient in quantity and very, very common in quality, for barley bread was the food of the poorest. ‘But what are they among so many?’ And Christ says, ‘Bring them to Me.’
Christ’s preparation for making our poor resources adequate for anything is to drive home into our hearts the consciousness of their insufficiency. We need, first of all, to be brought to this, ‘All that I have is this wretched little stock; and what is that measured against the work that I have to do, and the claims upon me?’ Only when we are brought to that can His great power pour itself into us and fill us with rejoicing and overcoming strength. The old mystics used to say, and they said truly: ‘You must be emptied of yourself before you can be filled by God.’ And the first thing for any man to learn, in preparation for receiving a mightier power than his own into his opening heart, is to know that all his own strength is utter and absolute weakness. ‘What are they among so many?’ When we have once gone right down into the depths of felt impotence, and when our work has risen before us, as if it were far too great for our poor strengths which are weaknesses, then we are brought, and only then, into the position in which we may begin to hope that power equal to our desire will be poured into our souls.
And so the last of the preparations that I will touch upon is that majestic preparation for blessing by obedience. ‘And Jesus said, Make the men sit down.’ And there they sat themselves, as Mark puts it in his picturesque way, like so many garden plots-the rectangular oblongs in a garden in which pot-herbs are grown-on the green grass, below the blue sky, by the side of the quiet lake. Cannot you fancy how some of them seated themselves with a scoff, and some with a quiet smile of incredulity; and some half sheepishly and reluctantly; and some in mute expectancy; and some in foolish wonder; and yet all of them with a partial obedience? And says John in the true translation: ‘So the men sat down, therefore Jesus took the loaves.’ Sit you down where He bids you, and your mouths will not be long empty. Do the things He tells you, and you will get the food that you need. Our business is to obey and to wait, and His business is, when we are seated, to open His hand and let the mercy drop. So much for the preparations for this great miracle.
II. Now, in the next place, a word as to the sign itself.
I take two lessons, and two only, out of it. I see in it, first, a revelation of Christ, as continually through all the ages sustaining men’s physical life. And I see in it, second, a symbol of Christ as Himself the Bread of Life.
As to the first, there is here, I believe, a revelation of the law of the universe, of Christ as being through all the ages the Sustainer of the physical life of men. What was done then once, with the suppression of certain links in the chain, is done always, with the introduction of those links. The miraculous moment in the narrative is not described to us. We do not know where or when there came in the supernatural power which multiplied the loaves-probably as they passed from the hand of the Master. But be that as it may, it was Christ’s will that made the provision which fed all these five thousand. And I believe that the teaching of Scripture is in accordance with the deepest philosophy, that the one cause of all physical phenomena is the will of a present God; howsoever that may usually conform to the ordinary method of working which people generalise and call laws. The reason why anything is, and the reason why all things change, is the energy there and then of the indwelling God who is in all His works, and who is the only Will and Power in the physical world.
And I believe, further, that Scripture teaches us that that continuous will, which is the cause of all phenomena and the underlying subsistence on which all things repose, is all managed and mediated by Him who from of old was named the Word; ‘in whom was life, and without whom was not anything made that was made.’ Our Christ is Creator, our Christ is Sustainer, our Christ moves the stars and feeds the sparrows. He was ‘before all things, and in Him all things consist.’ He opens His hand-and there is the print of a nail in it-and ‘satisfies the desire of every living thing.’
So learn how to think of second causes, and see in this story a transient manifestation, in unusual form, of an eternal and permanent fact. Jesus took the loaves and distributed to them that were set down.
And so, secondly, the miracle is a sign-a symbol of Him as the true Bread and Food of the world. That is the explanation and commentary which He Himself appends to it in the subsequent part of the chapter, in the great discourse which is founded upon this miracle.
‘I am the Bread of Life.’ There is a triple statement by our Lord upon this subject in the remaining portion of the chapter. He says, ‘I am the Bread of Life.’ My personality is that which not only sustains life when it is given, but gives life to them that feed upon it. But more than that, ‘the bread which I will give,’ pointing to some future ‘giving’ beyond the present moment, and therefore something more than His life and example, ‘is My flesh, which’-in some as yet unexplained way-’I give for the life of the world.’ And that there may be no misunderstanding, there is a third, deeper, more mysterious statement still: ‘My flesh is meat indeed, and My blood is drink indeed.’ Repulsive and paradoxical, but in its very offensiveness and paradox, proclaiming that it covers a mighty truth, and the truth, brother, is this, the one Food that gives life to will, affections, conscience, understanding, to the whole spirit of a man, is that great Sacrifice of the Incarnate Lord who gave upon the Cross His flesh, and on the Cross shed His blood, for the life of the world that was ‘dead in trespasses and sins.’ Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us, and we feed on the sacrifice. Let your conscience, your heart, your desires, your anticipations, your understanding, your will, your whole being feed on Him. He will be cleansing, He will be love, He will be fruition, He will be hope, He will be truth, He will be righteousness, He will be all. Feed upon Him by that faith which is the true eating of the true Bread, and your souls shall live.
And notice finally here, the result of this miracle as transferred to the region of symbol. ‘They did all eat and were filled’; men, women, children, both sexes, all ages, all classes, found the food that they needed in the bread that came from Christ’s hands. If any man wants dainties that will tickle the palates of Epicureans, let him go somewhere else. But if he wants bread, to keep the life in and to stay his hunger, let him go to this Christ who is ‘human nature’s daily food.’
The world has scoffed for nineteen centuries at the barley bread that the Gospel provides; coarse by the side of its confectionery, but it is enough to give life to all who eat it. It goes straight to the primal necessities of human nature. It does not coddle a class, or pander to unwholesome, diseased, or fastidious appetites. It is the food of the world, and not of a section. All men can relish it, all men need it. It is offered to them all.
And more than that; notice the inexhaustible abundance. ‘They did all eat, and were filled.’ And then they took up-not ‘of the fragments,’ as our Bible gives it, conveying the idea of the crumbs that littered the grass after the repast was over, but of the ‘broken pieces’-the portions that came from Christ’s hands-twelve baskets full, an immensely greater quantity than they had to start with. ‘The gift doth stretch itself as ‘tis received.’ Other goods and other possessions perish with the using, but this increases with use. The more one eats, the more there is for him to eat. And all the world may live upon it for ever, and there will be more at the end than there was at the beginning.
Brethren, why do ye ‘spend your money for that which is not bread’? There is no answer worthy of a rational soul, no answer that will stand either the light of conscience or the clearer light of the Day of Judgment. I come to you now, and although my poor words may be but like the barley bread and the two fishes-nothing amongst all this gathered audience-I come with Christ in my hands, and I say to you, ‘Eat, and your souls shall live.’ He will spread a table for you in the wilderness, and take you to sit at last at His table in His Kingdom.
‘FRAGMENTS’ OR ‘BROKEN PIECES’
The Revised Version correctly makes a very slight, but a very significant change in the words of this verse. Instead of ‘fragments’ it reads ‘broken pieces.’ The change seems very small, but the effect of it is considerable. It helps our picture of the scene by correcting a very common misapprehension as to what it was which the Apostles are bid to gather up. The general notion, I suppose, is that the ‘fragments’ are the crumbs that fell from each man’s hands, as he ate, and the picture before the imagination of the ordinary reader is that of the Apostles’ carefully collecting the debris of the meal from the grass where it had dropped. But the true notion is that the ‘broken pieces which remain over’ are the unused portions into which our Lord’s miracle-working hand had broken the bread, and the true picture is that of the Apostles carefully putting away in store for future use the abundant provision which their Lord had made, beyond the needs of the hungry thousands. And that conception of the command teaches far more beautiful and deeper lessons than the other.
For if the common translation and notion be correct, all that is taught us, or at least what is principally taught us, is the duty of thrift and careful economy; whereas the other shows more clearly that what is taught us is that Jesus Christ always gets ready for His people something over and above the exact limits of their bare need at the moment, that He prepares for His poor and hungry dependants in royal fashion, leaving ever a wide margin of difference between what would be just enough to keep the life in them, and His liberal housekeeping. Further, we are taught a lesson of wise husbandry and economy in the use of that overplus of grace which Christ ministers, and are instructed that the laws of prudent thrift have as honoured a place in the management of spiritual as of temporal wealth. ‘Gather up,’ says our Lord, ‘the pieces which I broke, the large provision which I made for possible wants. My gifts are in excess of the requirements of the moment. Take care of them till you need them.’ That is a worthier interpretation of His command than one which merely sees in it an exhortation to thrifty taking care of the crumbs that fell from the lips of the hungry eaters.
Looking at this command, then, with this slight alteration of rendering, and consequent widening of scope, we may briefly try to gather up the lessons which it obviously suggests.
I. We have that thought, to which I have already referred, as more strikingly brought out by the slight alteration of translation, which, by the use of ‘broken pieces,’ suggests the connection with Christ’s breaking the loaves and fishes.
We are taught to think of the large surplus in Christ’s gifts over and above our need. Our Lord has Himself given us a commentary upon this miracle. All Christ’s miracles are parables, for all teach us, on the level of natural and outward things, lessons that are true in regard to the spiritual world; but this one is especially symbolical, as indeed are all these recorded in John’s Gospel. And here we have Christ, on the day after the miracle, commenting upon it in His long and profound discourse upon the Bread of Life, which plainly intimates that He meant His office of feeding the hungry crowds, with bread supernaturally increased by the touch of His hand, to be but a picture and a guide which might lead to the apprehension of the higher view of Himself as the ‘bread of God which came down from heaven,’ feeding and ‘giving life to the world’ by His broken body and shed blood.
So that we are not inventing a fanciful interpretation of an incident not meant to have any meaning deeper than shows on the surface, when we say that the abundance far beyond what the eaters could make use of at the moment really represented the large surplus of inexhaustible resources and unused grace which is treasured for us all in Christ Jesus. Whom He feeds He feasts. His gifts answer our need, and over-answer it, for He is ‘able to do exceeding abundantly above that which we ask or think,’ and neither our conceptions, nor our petitions, nor our present powers of receiving, are the real limits of the illimitable grace that is laid up for us in Christ, and which, potentially, we have each of us in our hands whenever we lay our hands on Him.
Oh, dear friends! what you and I have ever had and felt of Christ’s power, sweetness, preciousness, and love is as nothing compared with the infinite depths of all those which lie in Him. The sea fills the little creeks along its shore, but it rolls in unfathomed depths, boundless to the horizon away out there in the mid-Atlantic. And all the present experience of all Christian people, of what Christ is, is like the experience of the first settlers in some great undiscovered continent; who timidly plant a little fringe of population round its edge and grow their scanty crops there, whilst the great prairies of miles and miles, with all their wealth and fertility, are lying untrodden and unknown in the heart of the untraversed continent. The most powerful telescope leaves nebulae unresolved, which, though they seem but a dim dust of light, are all ablaze with mighty suns. The ‘goodness’ which He has ‘wrought before the sons of men for them that fear’ Him is, as the Psalmist adoringly exclaims, wondrously ‘great,’ but still greater is that which the same verse of the Psalm celebrates-the goodness which He has ‘laid up for them that fear Him.’ The gold which is actually coined and passing from hand to hand, is but a fraction, a mere scale, as it were, off the surface of the great uncoined mass of bullion that lies stored in the vaults there. Christ is a great deal more than any man, or than all men, have yet found Him to be. ‘Gather up the broken pieces’; and see that nothing of that infinite preciousness of His be lost by us.
II. Then there is another very simple lesson which I draw. This command suggests for us Christ’s thrift if I may use the word in the employment of His miraculous power.
Surely they might have said: ‘If thou canst multiply five loaves into all this abundance, why should we be trudging about, each with a basket on his back full of bread, when we have with us He whose word can make it for us at any moment?’ Yes, but a law which characterises all the miraculous, in both the Old and the New Testament, and which broadly distinguishes Christ’s miracles from all the false miracles of false religions is this, that the miraculous is pared down to the smallest possible amount, that not one hairsbreadth beyond the necessity shall be done by miracle; that whatever men can do they shall do; that their work shall stop as late, and begin again as soon as possible. Thus, though Christ was going to raise Lazarus, men’s hands had to roll away the stone; and when Christ had raised Lazarus, men’s hands had to loose the napkins from his face. And though Christ was able to say to the daughter of Jairus, ‘Talitha cumi!’ damsel, arise! His next word was: ‘Give her something to eat.’ Where the miraculous was needed it was used, and not a hairsbreadth beyond absolute necessity did it extend.
And so here Christ multiplies the bread, and yet each of the Apostles has to take a basket, probably some kind of woven wicker-work article which they would carry for holding their little necessaries in their peregrinations; each Apostle has to take his basket, and perhaps emptying it of some of his humble apparel, to fill it with these bits of bread; for Christ was not going to work miracles where men’s thrift and prudence could be employed.
Nor does He do so now. We live by faith, and our dependence on Him can never be too absolute. Only laziness sometimes dresses itself in the garb and speaks with the tongue of faith, and pretends to be truthful when it is only slothful. ‘Why criest thou unto Me?’ said God to Moses, ‘speak unto the children of Israel that they go forward.’ True faith sets us to work. It is not to be perverted into idle and false depending upon Him to work for us, when by the use of our own ten fingers and our own brains, guided and strengthened by His working in us, we can do the work that is set before us.
III. Still further, there is another lesson here. Not only does the injunction show us Christ’s thrift in the employment of the supernatural, but it teaches us our duty of thrift and care in the use of the spiritual grace bestowed upon us.
These men had given to them this miraculously made bread; but they had to exercise ordinary thrift in the preservation of the supernatural gift. Christ has been given to you by the most stupendous miracle that ever was or can be wrought, and if you are Christian people, you have the Spirit of Christ given to you, to dwell in your hearts, to make you wise and fair, gentle and strong, and altogether Christlike. But you have to take care of these gifts. You have to exercise the common virtues of economy and thrift in your use of the divine gifts as in your use of the common things of daily life. You have to use wisely and not waste the Bread of God that came down from heaven, or that Bread of God will not feed you. You have to provide the basket in which to carry the unexhausted residue of the divine gift, or you may stand hungry in the very midst of plenty, and whilst within arm’s length of you there is bread enough and to spare to feed the whole world.
The lesson of my text, which is most eminently brought out if we adopt the translation which I have referred to at the beginning of these remarks, is, then, just this: Christian men, be watchful stewards of that great gift of a living Christ, the food of your souls, that has been by miracle bestowed upon you. Such gathering together for future need of the unused residue of grace may be accomplished by three ways. First, there must be a diligent use of the grace given. See that you use to the very full, in the measure of your present power of absorbing and your present need, the gift bestowed upon you. Be sure that you take in as much of Christ as you can contain before you begin to think of what to do with the overplus. If we are not careful to take what we can, and to use what we need, of Christ, there is little chance of our being faithful stewards of the surplus. The water in a mill-stream runs over the trough in great abundance when the wheel is not working, and one reason why so many Christians seem to have so much more given to them in Christ than they need is because they are doing no work to use up the gift.
A second essential to such stewardship is the careful guarding of the grace given from whatever would injure it. Let not worldliness, business, cares of the world, the sorrows of life, its joys, duties, anxieties or pleasures-let not these so come into your hearts that they will elbow Christ out of your hearts, and dull your appetite for the true Bread that came down from heaven.
And lastly, not only by use and by careful guarding, but also by earnest desire for larger gifts of the Christ who is large beyond all measure, shall we receive more and more of His sweetness and His preciousness into our hearts, and of His beauty and glory into our transfigured characters. The basket that we carry, this recipient heart of ours, is elastic. It can stretch to hold any amount that you like to put into it. The desire for more of Christ’s grace will stretch its capacity, and as its capacity increases the inflowing gift greatens, and a larger Christ fills the larger room of my poor heart.
So the lesson is taught us of our prudence in the care and use of the grace bestowed on us, and we are bidden to cherish a happy confidence in the inexhaustible resources of Christ, and the continual gift in the future of even larger measures of grace, which are all ours already, given to us at the first reception of Him into our hearts, and only needing our faithfulness to be growingly ours in experience as they are ours from the first in germ.
IV. Finally, a solemn warning is implied in this command, and its reason ‘that nothing be lost.’
Then there is a possibility of losing the gift that is freely given to us. We may waste the bread, and so, sometime or other when we are hungry, awake to the consciousness that it has dropped out of our slack hands. The abundance of Christ’s grace may, so far as you are profited or enriched by it, be like the unclaimed millions of money which nobody asks for and that is of use to no living soul. You may be paupers while all God’s riches in glory are at your disposal, and starving while baskets full of bread broken for us by Christ lie unused at our sides. Some of us have never tasted the sweetness or been fed by the nutritiousness of that Bread of God which came down from heaven. And more marvellous still, there may be some of us, who having come to Christ hungry and been fed by Him, have ceased to care for the pure nourishment and taste for the manna, and are turning again with gross appetite to the husks in the swine’s trough. Negligent Christians! worldly Christians! you who care more for money and other dainties and delights which perish with the using- backsliding Christians, who once hungered and thirsted for more of Christ, and now have no longing for Him-awake to the danger in which you stand of letting all your spiritual wealth slip through your fingers; behold the treasures, yet unreached, within your grasp, and seek to garner and realise them. Gather up the broken pieces which remain over, lest everything be lost.
THE FIFTH MIRACLE IN JOHN’S GOSPEL
Joh_6:19 - Joh_6:20 .
There are none of our Lord’s parables recorded in this Gospel, but all the miracles which it narrates are parables. Moral and religious truth is communicated by the outward event, as in the parable it is communicated by the story. The mere visible fact becomes more than semi-transparent. The analogy between the spiritual and the natural world which men instinctively apprehend, of which the poet and the orator and the religious teacher have always made abundant use, and which it has sometimes been attempted, unsuccessfully as I think, to elevate to the rank of a scientific truth, underlies the whole series of these miracles. It is the principal if not the only key to the meaning of this one before us.
The symbolism which regards life under the guise of a voyage, and its troubles and difficulties under the metaphor of storm and tempest, is especially natural to nations that take kindly to the water, like us Englishmen. I do not know that there is any instance, either in the Old or in the New Testament, of the use of that to us very familiar metaphor; but the emblem of the sea as the symbol of trouble, unrest, rebellious power, is very familiar to the writers of the Old Testament. And the picture of the divine path as in the waters, and of the divine prerogative as being to ‘tread upon the heights of the sea,’ as Job has it, is by no means unknown. So the natural symbolism, and the Old Testament use of the expressions, blend together, as I think, in suggesting the one point of view from which this miracle is to be regarded.
It is found in two of the other Evangelists, and the condensed account of it which we have in this Gospel, by its omission of Peter’s walking on the water, and of some other smaller but graphic details that the other Evangelists give us, serves to sharpen the symbolical meaning of the whole story, and to bring that as its great purpose and signification into prominence.
We shall, I think, then, best gain the lessons intended to be drawn if we simply follow the points of the narrative in their order as they stand here.
I. We have here, first of all, then, the struggling toilers.
The other Evangelists tell us that after the feeding of the five thousand our Lord ‘constrained’ His disciples to get into the ship, and to pass over to the other side. The language implies unwillingness, to some extent, on their part, and the exercise of authority upon His. Our Evangelist, who does not mention the constraint, supplies us with the reason for it. The preceding miracle had worked up the excitement of the mob to a very dangerous point. Crowds are always the same, and this crowd thought, as any other crowd anywhere and in any age would have done, that the prophet that could make bread at will was the kind of prophet whom they wanted. So they determined to take Him by force, and make Him a king; and Christ, seeing the danger, and not desiring that His Kingdom should be furthered by such unclean hands and gross motives, determined to withdraw Himself into the loneliness of the bordering hills. It was wise to divide the little group; it would distract attention; it might lead some of the people, as we know it did lead them, to follow the boat when they found it was gone. It would save the Apostles from being affected by the coarse, smoky enthusiasm of the crowd. It would save them from revealing the place of His retirement. It might enable Him to steal away more securely unobserved; so they are sent across to the other side of the lake, some five or six miles. An hour or two might have done it, but for some unknown reason they seem to have lingered. Perhaps they had no special call for haste. The Paschal moon, nearly full, would be shining down upon the waters; their hearts and minds would be busy with the miracle which they had just seen. And so they may have drifted along, not caring much when they reached their destination. But suddenly one of the gusts of wind which are frequently found upon mountain lakes, especially towards nightfall, rose and soon became a gale with which they could not battle. Our Evangelist does not tell us how long it lasted, but we get a note of time from St. Mark, who says it was ‘about the fourth watch of the night’; that is between the hours of three and six in the morning of the subsequent day. So that for some seven or eight hours at least they had been tugging at the useless oars, or sitting shivering, wet and weary, in the boat.
Is it not the history of the Church in a nutshell? Is it not the symbol of life for us all? The solemn law under which we live demands persistent effort, and imposes continual antagonism upon us; there is no reason why we should regard that as evil, or think ourselves hardly used, because we are not fair-weather sailors. The end of life is to make men; the meaning of all events is to mould character. Anything that makes me stronger is a blessing, anything that develops my morale is the highest good that can come to me. If therefore antagonism mould in me
‘The wrestling thews that throw the world,’
and give me good, strong muscles, and put tan and colour into my cheek, I need not mind the cold and the wet, nor care for the whistling of the wind in my face, nor the dash of the spray over the bows. Summer sailing in fair weather, amidst land-locked bays, in blue seas, and under calm skies, may be all very well for triflers, but
‘Blown seas and storming showers’
are better if the purpose of the voyage be to brace us and call out our powers.
And so be thankful if, when the boat is crossing the mouth of some glen that opens upon the lake, a sudden gust smites the sheets and sends you to the helm, and takes all your effort to keep you from sinking. Do not murmur, or think that God’s Providence is strange, because many and many a time when ‘it is dark, and Jesus is not yet come to us,’ the storm of wind comes down upon the lake and threatens to drive us from our course. Let us rather recognise Him as the Lord who, in love and kindness, sends all the different kinds of weather which, according to the old proverb, make up the full-summed year.
And then notice how, in this first picture of our text, the symbolism so naturally lends itself to spiritual meanings, not only in regard to the tempest that caught the unthinking voyagers, but also in regard to other points; such as the darkness amidst which they had to fight the tempest, and the absence of the Master. Once before, they had been caught in a similar storm on the lake, but it was daylight then, and Jesus was with them, and that made all the difference. This time it was night, and they looked up in vain to the green Eastern hills, and wondered where in their folds He was lurking, so far from their help. Mark gives us one sweet touch when he tells us that Christ on the hillside there saw them toiling in rowing, but they did not see Him. No doubt they felt themselves deserted, and sent many a wistful glance of longing towards the shore where He was. Hard thoughts of Him may have been in some of their minds. ‘Master, carest Thou not?’ would be springing to some of their lips with more apparent reason than in the other storm on the lake. But His calm and loving gaze looked down pitying on all their fear and toil. The darkness did not hide from Him, nor His own security on the steadfast land make Him forget, nor his communion with the Father so absorb Him as to exclude thoughts of them.
It is a parable and a prophecy of the perpetual relation between the absent Lord and the toiling Church. He is on the mountain while we are on the sea. The stable eternity of the Heavens holds Him; we are tossed on the restless mutability of time, over which we toil at His command. He is there interceding for us. Whilst He prays He beholds, and He beholds that He may help us by His prayer. The solitary crew were not so solitary as they thought. That little dancing speck on the waters, which held so much blind love and so much fear and trouble, was in His sight, as on the calm mountain-top He communed with God. No wonder that weary hearts and lonely ones, groping amidst the darkness, and fighting with the tempests and the sorrows of lift, have ever found in our story a symbol that comes to them with a prophecy of hope and an assurance of help, and have rejoiced to know that they on the sea are beheld of the Christ in the sky, and that ‘the darkness hideth not from’ His loving eye.
II. And now turn to the next stage of the story before us. We have the approaching Christ.
‘When they had rowed about five-and-twenty or thirty furlongs,’ and so were just about the middle of the lake, ‘they see Jesus walking on the sea and drawing nigh unto the ship.’ They were about half-way across the lake. We do not know at what hour in the fourth watch the Master came. But probably it was towards daybreak. Toiling had endured for a night. It would be in accordance with the symbolism that joy and help should come with the morning.
If we look for a moment at the miraculous fact, apart from the symbolism, we have a revelation here of Christ as the Lord of the material universe, a kingdom wider in its range and profounder in its authority than that which that shouting crowd had sought to force upon Him. His will consolidated the yielding wave, or sustained His material body on the tossing surges. Whether we suppose the miracle as wrought on the one or the other, makes no difference to its value as a manifestation of the glory of Christ, and of His power over the physical order of things. In the latter case there would, perhaps, be a hint of a power residing in His material frame, of which we possibly have other phases, as in the Transfiguration, which may be a prophecy of what lordship over nature is possible to a sinless manhood. However that may be, we have here a wonderful picture which is true for all ages of the mighty Christ, to whose gentle footfall the unquiet surges are as a marble pavement; and who draws near in the purposes of His love, unhindered by antagonism, and using even opposing forces as the path for His triumphant progress. Two lessons may be drawn from this. One is that in His marvellous providence Christ uses all the tumults and unrest, the opposition and tempests which surround the ship that bears His followers, as the means of achieving His purposes. We stand before a mystery to which we have no key when we think of these two certain facts; first, the Omnipotent redeeming will of God in Christ; and, second, the human antagonism which is able to rear itself against that. And we stand in the presence of another mystery, most blessed, and yet which we cannot unthread, when we think, as we most assuredly may, that in some mysterious fashion He works His purposes by the very antagonism to His purposes, making even head-winds fill the sails, and planting His foot on the white crests of the angry and changeful billows. How often in the world’s history has this scene repeated itself, and by a divine irony the enemies have become the helpers of Christ’s cause, and what they plotted for destruction has turned out rather to the furtherance of the Gospel! ‘He maketh the wrath of man to praise Him, and with the residue thereof He girdeth Himself.’
Another lesson for our individual lives is this, that Christ, in His sweetness and His gentle sustaining help, comes near to us all across the sea of sorrow and trouble. A more tender, a more gracious sense of His nearness to us is ever granted to us in the time of our darkness and our grief than is possible to us in the sunny hours of joy. It is always the stormy sea that Christ comes across, to draw near to us; and they who have never experienced the tempest have yet to learn the inmost sweetness of His presence. When it is night, and it is dark, at the hour which is the keystone of night’s black arch, Christ comes to us, striding across the stormy waters. Sorrow brings Him near to us. Do you see that sorrow does not drive you away from Him!
III. Then, still further, we note in the story before us the terror and the recognition.
St. John does not tell us why they were afraid. There is no need to tell us. They see, possibly in the chill uncertain light of the grey dawn breaking over the Eastern hills, a Thing coming to them across the water there. They had fought gallantly with the storm, but this questionable shape freezes their heart’s blood, and a cry, that is audible above even the howling of the wind and the dash of the waves, gives sign of the superstitious terror that crept round the hearts of those commonplace, rude men.
I do not dwell upon the fact that the average man, if he fancies that anything from out of the Unseen is near him, shrinks in fear. I do not ask you whether that is not a sign and indication of the deep conviction that lies in men’s souls, of a discord between themselves and the unseen world; but I ask you if we do not often mistake the coming Master, and tremble before Him when we ought to be glad?
We are often so absorbed with our work, so busy tugging at the oar, so anxiously watching the set of current, so engaged in keeping the helm right, that we have no time and no eyes to look across the ocean and see who it is that is coming to us through all the hurly-burly. Our tears fill our eyes, and weave a veil between us and the Master. And when we do see that there is Something there, we are often afraid of it, and shrink from it. And sometimes when a gentle whisper of consolation, or some light air, as it were, of consciousness of His presence, breathes through our souls, we think that it is only a phantasm of our own making, and that the coming Christ is nothing more than the play of our thoughts and imaginations.
Oh, brethren, let no absorption in cares and duties, let no unchildlike murmurings, let no selfish abandonment to sorrow, blind you to the Lord who always comes near troubled hearts, if they will only look and see! Let no reluctance to entertain religious ideas, no fear of contact with the Unseen, no shrinking from the thought of Christ as a Kill-joy keep you from seeing Him as He draws near to you in your troubles. And let no sly, mocking Mephistopheles of doubt, nor any poisonous air, blowing off the foul and stagnant marshes of present materialism, make you fancy that the living Reality, treading on the flood there, is a dream or a fancy or the projection of your own imagination on to the void of space. He is real, whatever may be phenomenal and surface. The storm is not so real as the Christ, the waves not so substantial as He who stands upon them. They will pass and quieten, He will abide for ever. Lift up your hearts and be glad, because the Lord comes to you across the waters, and hearken to His voice: ‘It is I! Be not afraid.’
The encouragement not to fear follows the proclamation, ‘It is I!’ What a thrill of glad confidence must have poured itself into their hearts, when once they rose to the height of that wondrous fact!
‘Well roars the storm to those who hear A deeper voice across the storm.’
There is no fear in the consciousness of His presence. It is His old word: ‘Be not afraid!’ And He breathes it whithersoever He comes; for His coming is the banishment of danger and the exorcism of dread. So that if only you and I, in the midst of all storm and terror, can say ‘It is the Lord,’ then we may catch up the grand triumphant chorus of the old psalm, and say: ‘Though the waters thereof roar and be troubled, and the mountains be carried into the midst of the sea, yet I will not fear.’ The Lord is with us; the everlasting Christ is our Helper, our Refuge, and our Strength.
IV. So, lastly, we have here in this story the end of the tempest and of the voyage.
Our Evangelist does not record, as the others do, that the storm ceased upon Christ’s being welcomed into the little boat. The other Evangelists do not record, as he does, the completion of the voyage. ‘Immediately the ship was at the land whither they went.’ The two things are cause and effect. I do not suppose, as many do, that a subordinate miracle is to be seen in that last clause of our text, or that the ‘immediately’ is to be taken as if it meant that without one moment’s delay, or interval, the voyage was completed; but only, which I think is all that is needful, that the falling of the tempest and the calming of the waters which followed upon the Master’s entrance into the vessel made the remainder of the voyage comparatively brief and swift.
It is not always true, it is very seldom true, that when Christ comes on board opposition ends, and the haven is reached. But it is always true that when Christ comes on board a new spirit enters into the men who have Him for their companion, and are conscious that they have. It makes their work easy, and makes them ‘more than conquerors’ over what yet remains. With what a different spirit the weary men would bend their backs to the oars once more when they had the Master on board, and with what a different spirit you and I will set ourselves to our work if we are sure of His presence. The worst of trouble is gone when Christ shares it with us. There is a wonderful charm to stay His rough wind in the assurance that in all our affliction He is afflicted. If we feel that we are following in His footsteps, we feel that He stands between us and the blast, a refuge from the storm and a covert from the tempest. And if still, as no doubt will be the case, we have our share of trouble and storm and sorrow and difficulty, yet the worst of the gale will be passed, and though a long swell may still heave, the terror and the danger will have gone with the night, and hope and courage and gladness revive as the morning’s sun breaks over the still unquiet waves, and shows us our Master with us and the white walls of the port glinting in the level beams.
Friends, life is a voyage, anyhow, with plenty of storm and danger and difficulty and weariness and exposure and anxiety and dread and sorrow, for every soul of man. But if you will take Christ on board, it will be a very different thing from what it will be if you cross the wan waters alone. Without Him you will make shipwreck of yourselves; with Him your voyage may seem perilous and be tempestuous, but He will ‘make the storm a calm,’ and will bring you to the haven of your desire.
HOW TO WORK THE WORK OF GOD
Joh_6:28 - Joh_6:29 .
The feeding of the five thousand was the most ‘popular’ of Christ’s miracles. The Evangelist tells us, with something between a smile and a sigh, that ‘when the people saw it, they said, This is of a truth that Prophet that should come into the world,’ and they were so delighted with Him and with it, that they wanted to get up an insurrection on the spot, and make a King of Him. I wonder if there are any of that sort of people left. If two men were to come into Manchester to-morrow morning, and one of them were to offer material good, and the other wisdom and peace of heart, which of them, do you think, would have the larger following? We need not cast a stone at the unblushing, frank admiration that these men had for a Prophet who could feed them, for that is exactly the sort of prophet that a great number of us would like best if they spoke out.
So Jesus Christ had to escape from the inconvenient enthusiasm of these mistaken admirers of His; and they followed Him in their eagerness, but were met with words which lift them into another region and damp their zeal. He tries to turn away their thoughts from the miracle to a far loftier gift. He contrasts the trouble which they willingly took in order to get a meal with their indifference as to obtaining the true bread from heaven, and He bids them work for it just as they had shown themselves ready to work for the other.
They put to Him this question of my text, so strangely blending as it does right and wrong, ‘You have bid us work; tell us how to work? What must we do that we may work the works of God?’ Christ answers, in words that illuminate their confusions and clear the whole matter, ‘This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent.’
I. Faith, then, is a work.
You know that the commonplace of evangelical teaching opposes faith to works; and the opposition is perfectly correct, if it be rightly understood. But I have a strong impression that a great deal of our preaching goes clean over the heads of our hearers, because we take for granted, and they fancy that they understand, the meaning of terms because the terms themselves are so familiar. And I believe that many people go to churches and chapels all their lives long, and hear this doctrine dinned into them, that they are to be saved by faith, and not by works, and never approach a definite understanding of what it means.
So let me just for a moment try to clear up the terms of this apparently paradoxical statement that faith is a work. What do we mean by faith? What do you mean by saying that you have faith in your friend, in your wife, in your husband, in your guide? You simply mean, and we mean, that you trust the person, grasping him by the act of trust. On trust the whole fabric of human society depends, as well as in another aspect of the same expression does the whole fabric of Manchester commerce. Faith, confidence, the leaning of myself on one discerned to be true, trusty, strong, sufficient for the purpose in hand, whatever it may be-that, and nothing more mysterious, nothing further away from daily life and the common emotions which knit us to one another, is, as I take it, what the New Testament means when it insists upon faith.
Ah, we all exercise it. You put it forth in certain low levels and directions. ‘The heart of her husband doth safely trust in her,’ is the short summary of the happy lives of many, I have no doubt, of my present hearers. Have you none of that confidence to spare for God? Is it all meant to be poured out upon weak, fallible, changeful creatures like ourselves, and none of it to rise to the One in whom absolute confidence may eternally be fixed?
But then, of course, as we may see by the exercise of the same emotion in regard to one Another, the under side as I have been accustomed to say to you of this confidence in God or Christ is diffidence of myself. There is no real exercise of confidence which does not involve, as an essential part of itself, the going out from myself in order that I may lay all the weight and the responsibility of the matter in hand upon Him in whom I trust. And so Christian faith is compounded of these two elements, or rather, it has these two sides which correspond to one another. The same figure is convex or concave according as you look at it from one side or another. If you look at faith from one side, it rises towards God; if from the other, it hollows itself out into a great emptiness. And so the under side of faith is distrust; and he that puts his confidence in God thereby goes out of himself, and declares that in himself there is nothing to rest upon.
Now that two-sided confidence and diffidence, trust and distrust, which are one, is truly a work. It is not an easy one either; it is the exercise of our own inmost nature. It is an effort of will. It has to be done by coercing ourselves. It has to be maintained in the face of many temptations and difficulties. The contrast between faith and work is between an inward act and a crowd of outward performances. But the faith which knits me to God is my act, and I am responsible for it.
But yet it is not a work, just because it is a ceasing from my own works, and going out from myself that He may enter in. Only remember, when we say, ‘Not by works of righteousness, but by the faith of Christ,’ we are but proclaiming that the inward man must exercise that act of self-abnegation and confession of its own impotence, and ceasing from all reliance on anything which it does, whereby, and whereby alone, it can be knit to God. ‘Labour not for the meat that perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto eternal life . . . . This is the work of God, that ye believe.’ You are responsible for doing that, or for not doing it.
II. Secondly, faith, and not a multitude of separate acts, is what pleases God.
Mark the difference between the form of the question and that of the answer. The people say, ‘What are we to do that we may work the works of God?’ Christ answers in the singular: ‘This is the work.’ They thought of a great variety of observances and deeds. He gathers them all up into one. They thought of a pile, and that the higher it rose the more likely they were to be accepted. He unified the requirement, and He brought it all down to this one act, in which all other acts are included, and on which alone the whole weight of a man’s salvation is to rest. ‘What shall we do that we might work the works of God?’ is a question asked in all sorts of ways, by the hearts of men all round about us; and what a babble of answers comes! The priest says, ‘Rites and ceremonies.’ The thinker says, ‘Culture, education.’ The moralist says, ‘Do this, that, and the other thing,’ and enumerates a whole series of separate acts. Jesus Christ says, ‘One thing is needful . . . . This is the work of God.’ He brushes away the sacerdotal answer and the answer of the mere moralist, and He says, ‘No! Not do; but trust.’ In so far as that is act, it is the only act that you need.
That is evidently reasonable. The man is more than his work; motive is more important than action; character is deeper than conduct. God is pleased, not by what men do, but by what men are. We must be first, and then we shall do. And it is obviously reasonable, because we can find analogies to the requirement in all other relations of life. What would you care for a child that scrupulously obeyed, and did not love or trust? What would a prince think of a subject who was ostentatious in acts of loyalty, and all the while was plotting and nurturing treason in his heart?
If doing separate acts of righteousness be the way to work the works of God, then no man has ever done them. For it is a plain fact that every man falls below his own conscience-which conscience is less scrupulous than the divine law. The worst of us knows a great deal more than the best of us does; and our lives, universally, are, at the best, lives of partial effort after unreached attainments of obedience and of virtue.
But, even supposing that we could perform, far more completely than we do, the requirements of our own consciences, and conform to the evident duties of our position and relations, do you think that without faith we should be therein working the works of God? Suppose a man were able fully to realise his own ideal of goodness, without any confidence in God underlying all his acts; do you think that these would be acts that would please God? It seems to me that, however lovely and worthy of admiration, looked at with human eyes only, many lives are, which have nobly and resolutely fought against evil, and struggled after good, if they have lacked the crowning grace of doing this for God’s sake, they lack, I was going to say, almost everything; I will not say that, but I will say that they lack that which makes them acceptable, well-pleasing to Him. The poorest, the most imperfect realisation of our duty and ideal of conduct which has in it a love towards God and a faith in Him that would fain do better if it could, is a nobler thing, I venture to say, in the eyes of Heaven-which are the truth-seeing eyes-than the noblest achievements of an untrusting soul. It does not seem to me that to say so is bigotry or narrowness or anything else but the plain deduction from this, that a man’s relation to God is the deepest thing about him, and that if that be right, other things will come right, and if that be wrong nothing is as right as it might be.
Here we have Jesus Christ laying the foundation for the doctrine which is often said to be Pauline, as if that meant something else than coming from Jesus Christ. We often hear people say, ‘Oh, your evangelical teaching of justification by faith, and all that, comes out of Paul’s Epistles, not out of Christ’s teaching, nor out of John’s Gospel.’ Well, there is a difference, which it is blindness not to recognise, between the seeds of teaching in our Lord’s words, and the flowers and fruit of these seeds, which we get in the more systematised and developed teaching of the Epistles. I frankly admit that, and I should expect it, with my belief as to who Christ is, and who Paul is. But in that saying, ‘This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent,’ is the germ of everything that Paul has taught us about the works of the law being of no avail, and faith being alone and unfailing in its power of uniting men to God, and bringing them into the possession of eternal life. The saying stands in John’s Gospel, and so Paul and John alike received, though in different fashions, and wrought out on different lines of subsequent teaching, the germinal impulse from these words of the Master. Let us hear no more about salvation by faith being a Pauline addition to Christ’s Gospel, for the lips of Christ Himself have declared ‘this is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent.’
III. Thirdly, this faith is the productive parent of all separate works of God.
The teaching that I have been trying to enforce has, I know, been so presented as to make a pillow for indolence, and to be closely allied to immorality. It has been so presented, but it has not been so presented half as often as its enemies would have us believe. For I know of but very few, and those by no means the most prominent and powerful of the preachers of the great doctrine of salvation by faith, who have not added, as its greatest teacher did: ‘Let ours also be careful to maintain good works for necessary uses.’ But the true teaching is not that trust is a substitute for work, but that it is the foundation of work. The Gospel is, first of all, Trust; then, set yourselves to do the works of faith. It works by love, it is the opening of the heart to the entrance of the life of Christ, and, of course, when that life comes in, it will act in the man in a manner appropriate to its origin and source, and he that by faith has been joined to Jesus Christ, and has opened his heart to receive into that heart the life of Christ, will, as a matter of course, bring forth, in the measure of his faith, the fruits of righteousness.
We are surely not despising fruits and flowers when we insist upon the root from which they shall come. A man may take separate acts of partial goodness, as you see children in the springtime sticking daisies on the spikes of a thorn-twig picked from the hedges. But these will die. The basis of all righteousness is faith, and the manifestation of faith is practical righteousness. ‘Show Me thy faith by thy works’ is Christ’s teaching quite as much as it is the teaching of His sturdy servant James. And so, dear friends, we are going the shortest way to enrich lives with all the beauties of possible human perfection when we say, ‘Begin at the beginning. The longest way round is the shortest way home; trust Him with all your hearts first, and that will effloresce into “whatsoever things are lovely and whatever things are of good report.”‘ In the beautiful metaphor of the Apostle Peter, in his second Epistle, Faith is the damsel who leads in the chorus of consequent graces; and we are exhorted to ‘add to our faith virtue,’ and all the others that unfold themselves in harmonious sequence from that one central source.
If I had time I should be glad to turn for a moment to the light which such considerations cast upon subjects that are largely occupying the attention of the Christian Church to-day. I should like to insist that, before you talk much about applied Christianity, you should be very sure that in men there is a Christianity to apply. I venture to profess my own humble belief that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, Christian ministers and churches will do no more for the social, political, and intellectual and moral advancement of men and the elevation of the people by sticking to their own work and preaching this Gospel-’This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent.’
IV. Lastly, this faith secures the bread of life.
The bread of life is the starting-point of the whole conversation. In the widest possible sense it is whatsoever truly stills the hunger of the immortal soul. In a deeper sense it is the person of Jesus Christ Himself, for He not only says that He will give, but that He is the Bread of Life. And, in the deepest sense of all, it is His flesh broken for us in His sacrifice on the Cross. That bread is a gift. So the paradox results which stands in our text-work for the bread which God will give. If it be a gift, that fact determines what sort of work must be done in order to possess it. If it be a gift, then the only work is to accept it. If it be a gift, then we are out of the region of quid pro quo; and have not to bring, as Chinese do, great strings of copper cash that, all added up together, do not amount to a shilling, in order to buy what God will bestow upon us. If it be a gift, then to trust the Giver and to accept the gift is the only condition that is possible.
It is not a condition that God has invented and arbitrarily imposed. The necessity of it is lodged deep in the very nature of the case. Air cannot get to the lungs of a mouse in an air-pump. Light cannot come into a room where all the shutters are up and the keyhole stopped. If a man chooses to perch himself on some little stool of his own, with glass legs to it, and to take away his hand from the conductor, no electricity will come to him. If I choose to lock my lips, Jesus Christ does not prise open my clenched teeth to put the bread of life into my unwilling mouth. If we ask, we get; if we take, we get.
And so the paradox comes, that we work for a gift, with a work which is not work because it is a departure from myself. It is the same blessed paradox which the prophet spoke when he said, ‘Buy . . . without money and without price.’ Oh! what a burden of hopeless effort and weary toil-like that of the man that had to roll the stone up the hill, which ever slipped back again-is lifted from our shoulders by such a word as this that I have been poorly trying to speak about now! ‘Thou art careful and troubled about many things,’ poor soul! trying to be good; trying to fight yourself, and the world, and the devil. Try the other plan, and listen to Him saying, ‘Give up self-imposed effort in thine own strength. Take, eat, this is My body, which is broken for you.’
Joh_6:48 - Joh_6:50 .
‘This is of a truth that Prophet,’ said the Jews, when Christ had fed the five thousand on the five barley loaves and the two small fishes. That was the kind of Teacher for them; they were quite unaffected by the wisdom of His words and the beauty of His deeds, but a miracle that found food precisely met their wants, and so there was excited an impure enthusiasm, very unwelcome to Jesus. Therefore He withdrew Himself from it, and when the people followed Him, all full of expectation, to get some more loaves and see some more miracles, He met them with a douche of cold water that cooled their enthusiasm and flung them back into a critical, questioning mood. They pointed to the miracle of the manna, and hinted that, if He expected them to accept Him, He must do as Moses had done, or something like it. Probably there was a Jewish tradition in existence then to the effect that the Messiah was to repeat the miracle of the manna. But, at all events, Christ lays hold of the reference that they put into His hands, and He said in effect, ‘Manna? Yes; I give, and am, the true Manna.’
So this is the third of the instances in this Gospel in which our Lord pointed to Old Testament incidents and institutions as symbolising Himself. In the first of them, when He likened Himself to the ladder that Jacob saw, He claimed to be the Medium of communication between heaven and earth. In the second of them, when He likened Himself to the brazen serpent lifted in the camp, He claimed to be the Healer of a sin-stricken and poisoned world. And now, with an allusion both to the miracle and to the Jewish demand for the repetition of the manna sign, He claims to be the true Food for a starving world. So there are three things in my text: Christ’s claim, His requirements, and His promise; the bread, the eating, the issues.
I. Here is a claim of Christ’s.
As I have already said, in the whole wonderful conversation of which I have selected a portion for my text, there is a double reference to the miracle of the loaves and of the manna. What our Lord means to assert for Himself is that which is common to both of these-viz. that He supplies the great primal wants of humanity, the hunger of the heart. There may be another reference also, which I just notice without dwelling upon it. Barley loaves were the coarsest and least valuable form of bread. They were not only of little worth, but altogether inadequate to feeding the five thousand. The palates, unaccustomed to the stinging savours of the garlic and the leeks of Egypt, loathed the light bread. And so Jesus Christ comes into the world in lowly form, like the barley loaf or the light bread from which men whose tastes have been vitiated by the piquant savours of more earthly nourishment turn away as insipid. And yet He in His lowliness, He in His savourlessness, is that which meets the deepest wants of humanity, and is every man’s fare because He will be any man’s satisfaction.
But I wish to bring before your notice the wonderful way in which our Lord, in this great dissertation concerning Himself as the Bread of Life, gradually unfolds the depths of His meaning and of His offer. He began with saying that He, the Son of Man, will give to men the bread that ‘endures to everlasting life.’ And then when that saying is but dimly understood, and yet awakes some strange new desires and appetites in the hearers, and they come to Him and ask, ‘Lord, evermore give us this bread,’ He answers them with opening another finger of His hand, as it were, and showing them a little more of the treasure that lies in His palm. For He says, ‘I am that Bread of Life.’ That is an advance on the previous saying. He gives bread, and any man that was conscious of possessing some great truth or some great blessing which, believed and accepted, would refresh and nourish humanity, might have said the same thing. But now we pass into the penumbra of a greater mystery: ‘I am that Bread of Life.’ You cannot separate what Christ gives from what Christ is. You can take the truths that another man proclaims, altogether irrespective of him and his personality. That only disturbs, and the sooner it is got rid of, the firmer and the purer our possession of the message for which he is only the medium. You can take Plato’s teaching and do as you like with Plato. But you cannot take Christ’s teaching and do as you like with Christ. His personality is the centre of His gift to the world. ‘I am that Bread of Life.’ That He should give it is much; that He should be it is far more.
And notice how, when He has thus drawn us a little further into the magic circle of the light, He not only asserts the inseparableness of His gift from His Person, but also asserts, with a reference, no doubt, to the manna, ‘I am the Bread that came down from heaven.’ The listeners immediately laid hold of that one point, and neglected for the moment all the rest, and they fixed with a true instinct-although it was for the purpose of contradicting it-on this central point, ‘that came down from heaven.’ They said one to the other, ‘How can this man say that He came down from heaven? Is not this Jesus the Son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?’ So, brethren, as the manna that descended from above in the dew of the night was to the bread that was baked in a baker’s oven, so is the Christ to the manhood that has its origin in the natural processes of birth. The Incarnation of the Son of God, becoming Son of Man for us and for our salvation, is involved in this great claim. You do not get to the heart of Christ’s message unless you have accepted this as the truth concerning Him, that ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,’ and that at a definite point in the long process of the ages, ‘the Word became flesh, and dwelt amongst us.’ He will never be ‘the Bread of Life’ unless He is ‘the Bread that came down from heaven.’ For humanity needs that the blue heavens that bend remote above should come down; and we cannot be lifted ‘out of the horrible pit and the miry clay’ unless a Hand from above be reached down into the depths of our degradation, and lift us from our lowness. Heaven must come to earth, if earth is to rise to heaven. The ladder must be let down from above, if ever from the lower levels men are to ascend thither where at the summit the face of God can be seen.
But that is not all. Our Lord, if I may recur to a former figure, went on to open another finger of His hand, and to show still more of the gift. For He not only said, ‘the Son of Man gives the bread,’ and ‘I am the Bread that came down from heaven,’ but He went on to say, in a subsequent stage of the conversation, ‘the Bread that I will give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.’ Now, notice that ‘will give.’ Then, though the Word was made flesh, and the manna came down from heaven, the especial gift of His flesh for the life of the world was, at the time of His speaking, a future thing. And what He meant is still more clearly brought out, when we read other words which are the very climax of this conversation, when He declares that the condition of our having life in ourselves is our ‘eating the flesh and drinking the blood of the Son of Man.’ The figure is made repulsive on purpose, in order that it may provoke us to penetrate to its meaning. It was even more repulsive to the Jew, with his religious horror of touching or tasting anything in which the blood was. And yet our Lord not only speaks of Himself as the Bread, but of His flesh and blood as being the Food of the world. The separation of the two clearly indicates a violent death, and I, for my part, have no manner of doubt that, in these great words in which our Lord lays bare the deepest foundations of His claim to be the Food of humanity, there is couched, in the veiled language which was necessary at the then stage of His mission, a distinct reference to His death, as being the Sacrifice on which a hunger-stricken world may feed and be satisfied.
So here we have, in three steps, the great central truth of the Gospel set forth in symbolical aspect: the Son that gives, the Son that is, the Bread of the world, and the death whereby His flesh and blood are separated and become the nourishment of all sin-stricken souls. I do not say one word to enforce these claims, but I beseech you deal fairly with these Gospel narratives, and do not go on picking out of them bits of Christ’s actions or words, which commend themselves to you, and ignoring all the rest. There is no more reason to believe that Jesus Christ ever said, ‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them likewise,’ or any other part of that Sermon on the Mount which some people take as their Christianity, than there is to believe that He said, ‘The bread which I give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.’ Believe it or not, it is not dealing with the Scripture records as you deal with other historical records if, for subjective reasons, you brush aside all that department of our Lord’s teaching. And if you do accept it, what becomes of His ‘sweet reasonableness’? What becomes of His meekness and lowliness of heart? I was going to say what becomes of His sanity, that He should stand up, a youngish man from Nazareth, in the synagogue of Capernaum, and should say, ‘I, heaven-descended, and slain by men, am the Bread of Life to the whole world’?
I was going to make another observation, which I must just pass with the slightest notice, and that is that, taking this point of view and giving full weight to these three stages of our Lord’s progressive revelation of Himself, we have the answer to the question, What is the connection between these discourses and the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper? Our modern sacramentarian friends will have it that Jesus Christ is speaking of the Communion in this chapter. I take it, and I venture to think it the reasonable explanation, that He is not speaking about the Communion, but that this discourse and that rite are dealing with the same truths-the one in articulate words, the other in equivalent symbols. And so we have not to read into the text any allusion to the rite, but to see in the text and in the rite the proclamation of the same thing-viz. that the flesh and the blood of the Sacrifice for sins is the food on which a sinful and cleansed world may feed.
II. So, secondly, let me ask you to note our Lord’s requirement here.
He carries on the metaphor. ‘This is the Bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof and not die.’ The eating necessarily follows from the symbol of the bread, as the designation of the way by which we all, with our hungry hearts, may feed upon this Bread of God. I need not remind you that in many a place, and in this whole context, we find the explanation of the symbol very plainly. In another part of this conversation we read, under another metaphor which comes to the same thing, ‘He that cometh unto Me shall never hunger, and he that believeth on Me shall never thirst. So the eating and the coming are diverse symbols for the one thing, the believing. When a man eats he appropriates to himself, and incorporates into his very being, the food of which he partakes. And when a man trusts Christ he appropriates to himself, and incorporates into his inmost being, the very life of Jesus Christ. You say, ‘That is mysticism’; but it is the New Testament teaching, that when I trust Christ I get more than His gifts-I get Himself; that when my faith goes out to Him it not only rests me on Him, but it brings Him into me, and that food of the spirit becomes the life, as we shall see, of my spirit.
That condition is indispensable. It is useless to have food on your table or your plate or in your hand, it does not nourish you there: you must eat it, and then you gain sustenance from it. Many a hungry man has died at the door of a granary. Some of us are starving, though beside us there is ‘the Bread of God that came down from heaven.’ Brethren, you must eat, and I venture to put the question to you-not Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the world’s Saviour? not Do you believe in an Incarnation? not Do you believe in an Atonement? but Have you claimed your portion in the Bread? Have you taken it into your own lips? Crede et manducasti, said Augustine, ‘believe’-or, rather, trust-’and thou hast eaten.’ Have you?
Further, let me remind you that under this eating is included not only some initial act of faith, but a continuous course of partaking. The dinner you ate this day last year is of no use for to-day’s hunger. The act of faith done long ago will not bring the Bread to nourish you now. You must repeat the meal. And very strikingly and beautifully in the last part of this conversation our Lord varies the word for eating, and substitutes-as if He were speaking to those who had fulfilled the previous condition-another one which implies the ruminant action of certain animals. And that is what Christian men have to do, to feed over and over and over again on the ‘Bread of God which came down from heaven.’ Christ, and especially in and through His death for us, can nourish and sustain our wills, giving them the pattern of what they should desire, and the motive for which they should desire it. Christ, and especially through His death, can feed our consciences, and take away from them all the painful sense of guilt, while He sharpens them to a far keener sensitiveness to evil. Christ, and especially through His death, can feed our understandings, and unveil therein the deepest truths concerning God and man, concerning man’s destiny and God’s mercy. Christ, and especially in His death, can feed our affections, and minister to love and desire and submission and hope their celestial nourishment. He is ‘the Bread of God,’ and we have but to eat of that which is laid before us.
III. So, lastly, we have here the issues.
‘Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead.’ This Bread secures that if ‘a man eat thereof he shall not die.’ The bread that perishes feeds a life that perishes; but this Bread not only sustains but creates a life that cannot perish, and, taken into the spirits of men that are ‘dead in trespasses and sins,’ imparts to them a life that has no affinity to evil, and therefore no dread of extinction.
If ‘a man eats thereof he shall not die,’ Christ annihilates for us the mere accident of physical death. That is only a momentary jolt on the course. That may all be crammed into a parenthesis. ‘He shall not die,’ but live the true life which comes from the possession of union with Him who is the Life. The bread which we eat sustains life; the Bread which He gives originates it. The bread which we eat is assimilated to our bodily frame, the Bread which He gives assimilates our spiritual nature to His. And so it comes to be the only food that stills a hungry heart, the only food that satisfies and yet never cloys, which, eating, we are filled, and being filled are made capable of more, and, being capable of more, receive more. In blessed and eternal alternation, fruition and desire, satisfaction and appetite, go on.
‘Why do ye spend money for that which is not bread?’ You cannot answer the question with any reasonable answer. Oh, dear friends! I beseech you, listen to that Lord who is saying to each of us, ‘Take, eat, this is My body, which is broken for you.’
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MacLaren, Alexander. "Commentary on John 6". MacLaren's Expositions of Holy Scripture. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 9 / Ordinary 14