John is very familiar with his Old Testament. He’s also very familiar with the life and identity of Jesus. At interesting points throughout his Gospel these two subjects intertwine in such a way that both Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures are illuminated. For example, how did God provide food for the children of Israel in the wilderness? It was that mysterious manna which came down from heaven which sustained God’s people. This was their source of life; they needed it and depended upon it. Think about that for a moment. There was something mysterious that came from heaven to earth and gave life to God’s people. Can you think of anyone who matches that description? John can.
When John reads about the manna, he cannot help but see Jesus. This is why Jesus can say, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread out of heaven, but it is My Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world…I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst”
This statement by Jesus is where the conversation leads. This is the great reveal. But let’s back up a little bit and see how John takes us here. This whole discussion is predicated on understanding a sign Jesus performed. We’ve been talking a lot about the signs of Jesus and how to read them properly. It’s not enough just to see the miracle, but you must ask what that particular miracle (or demonstration) is pointing towards. What is the spiritual lesson or purpose of the miracle? The physical miracle in this instance is feeding 5000 men with just five barley loaves and two fish. But what is the sign?
Prior to this, Jesus had been performing signs on the sick which caused a large crowd to follow Him (John 6:2). When He saw this crowd He tested His disciples, asking Philip how they could afford to feed so many (John 6:5-6). It’s an interesting test to see how Philip and the other disciples will respond to the dilemma. Both Andrew and Philip speak up about the situation: Philip says we don’t have enough money and Andrew says we don’t have enough food (John 6:7-9). They both fail the test. But they set Jesus up with the perfect opportunity for His next sign. He took a kid’s bread and fish, gave thanks, and miraculously distributed them to the whole crowd.
The crowd was so amazed by this sign that they came away with an important realization: “This is truly the prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14). This is probably a reference back to Deuteronomy 18:15-18, where Moses writes, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you.” After the death of Moses, Deuteronomy 34:10-12 says, “Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, for all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh…and for all the mighty power and for all the great terror which Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.”
Moses performed signs and God promised another great prophet like Moses to rise. Now Jesus is performing the signs. Perhaps He is that great prophet? Moses used the signs to destroy the Egyptians. Perhaps Jesus can use His signs to destroy the Romans and become king in Israel? Perhaps He can restore the kingdom to Israel and free them from subjugation to the occupying Romans. He just proved that He can feed 5000 with barely any food at all. Imagine a king whose people will never go hungry? Imagine a king who can feed an entire army with just 5 loaves of bread? As the crowds ruminated over these things, “Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone” (John 6:15). By the way, do you remember who else used to go off to a mountain alone, leaving the people behind? Maybe Moses?
The Jesus/Moses typology is glaring in this passage. But there are numerous other motifs at work. Not only do the people want a prophet like Moses, they want a warrior king. Jesus rejects this role, but takes on another. He takes on the role of God’s bread from heaven. Jesus just gave them bread and for now they want to follow Him. But as often happens, they missed the sign for the miracle. They missed the message for the meal. Jesus says, “You seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled” (John 6:26).
They are seeking Jesus because they want a meal and He’s the kingly Moses-type figure who can give them bread. They cry out, quoting Psalm 78:24, “He gave them bread out of heaven to eat” (John 6:31). They think Moses gave the people bread, so Jesus, the Prophet like Moses, should give them bread. If He does, they will believe (John 6:30-31). In response, Jesus clears up their misreading of Psalm 78 and makes a radical shift in the way they should read the wilderness narrative.
Jesus explains that it was not Moses who gave them bread, but God (John 6:32; Psalm 78:21-24). And in the wilderness narrative, more than being Moses, Jesus is the bread from heaven. Jesus is the Manna rather than the Moses. In order to have life, they need the true, God-given source of life which comes from Heaven. Moses did not give them life, God gave them life by sending something from Heaven. Rather than coming to the manna to eat, they need to come to Jesus to believe. Jesus wants them to come to Him, for, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst” (John 6:35)
To John, that’s what it meant when Jesus fed the 5000. To John that’s what it meant when God gave manna from heaven. The bread/manna is a symbol and extension of Jesus Himself. This sign illustrates the necessity of believing in Jesus unto eternal life, the necessity of Jesus for life and sustenance. Rather than manna, Jesus is the way that God gives life to the world.