In this chapter John follows the same method as in the last. He first relates the sign, and then gives our Lord's interpretation of it. As to the Samaritan woman, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so now to the Galileans, Jesus manifests Himself as sent to communicate to man life eternal. The sign by means of which He now manifests Himself is, however, so new that many fresh aspects of His own person and work are disclosed.
The occasion for the miracle arose, as usual, quite simply. Jesus had retired to the east side of the sea of Tiberias, probably to a spot near Bethsaida Julias, that He might have some rest. But the people, eager to see more miracles, followed Him round the head of the lake, and, as they went, their number was augmented by members of a Passover caravan which was forming in the neighbourhood or was already on the march. This inconsiderate pursuit of Jesus, instead of offending Him, touched Him; and as He marked them toiling up the hill in groups, or one by one, some quite spent with a long and rapid walk, mothers dragging hungry children after them, His first thought was, What can these poor tired people get to refresh them here? He turns therefore to Philip with the question, "Whence are we to buy bread that these may eat?" This he said, John tells us, "to prove" or test Philip. Apparently this disciple was a shrewd business man, quick to calculate ways and means, and rather apt to scorn the expectations of faith. Every man must rid himself of the defects of his qualities. And Jesus now gave Philip an opportunity to overcome his weakness-in-strength by at last boldly confessing his inability and the Lord's ability, -- by saying, We have neither meat nor money, but we have Thee. But Philip, like many another, missed his opportunity, and, wholly oblivious of the resources of Jesus, casts His eye rapidly over the crowd and estimates that "two hundred pennyworth" of bread would scarcely suffice to give each enough to stay immediate cravings. Philip's friend Andrew as little as himself divines the intention of Jesus, and naively suggests that the whole provision he can hear of in the crowd is a little boy's five loaves and two fishes. These helpless, meagrely furnished and meagrely conceiving disciples, meagre in food and meagre in faith, are set in contrast to the calm faith and infinite resource of Jesus.
The moral ground being thus prepared for the miracle in the confessed inability of the disciples and of the crowd, Jesus takes the matter in hand. With that air of authority and calm purpose which must have impressed the onlookers at all His miracles, He says, "Make the men sit down." And there where they happened to be, and without further preparation, on a grassy spot near the left bank of the Jordan, and just where the river flows into the lake of Galilee, with the evening sun sinking behind the hills on the western shore and the shadows lying across the darkened lake, the multitude break up into groups of hundreds and fifties, and seat themselves in perfect confidence that somehow food is to be furnished. They seat themselves as those who expect a full meal, and not a mere snack they could eat standing, though where the full meal was to come from who could tell? This expectation must have deepened into faith as the thousands listened to their Host giving thanks over the scanty provision. One would fain have heard the words in which Jesus addressed the Father, and by which He caused all to feel how near to each was infinite resource. And then, as He proceeded to distribute the ever-multiplying food, the first awe-struck silence of the multitude gave way to exclamations of surprise and to excited and delighted comments. The little lad, as he watched with widening eyes his two fishes doing the work of two thousand, would feel himself a person of consequence, and that he had a story to tell when he went back to his home on the beach. And ever and anon, as our Lord stood with a smile on His face enjoying the congenial scene, the children from the nearest groups would steal to His side, to get their supplies from His own hand.
1. Before touching upon the points in this sign emphasised by our Lord Himself, it is perhaps legitimate to indicate one or two others. And among these it may first of all be remarked that our Lord sometimes, as here, gives not medicine but food. He not only heals, but prevents disease. And however valuable the one blessing is -- the blessing of being healed -- the other is even greater. The weakness of starvation exposes men to every form of disease; it is a lowered vitality which gives disease its opportunity. In the spiritual life it is the same. The preservative against any definite form of sin is a strong spiritual life, a healthy condition not easily fatigued in duty, and not easily overcome by temptation. Perhaps the gospel has come to be looked upon too exclusively as a remedial scheme, and too little as the means of maintaining spiritual health. So marked is its efficacy in reclaiming the vicious, that its efficacy as the sole condition of healthy human life is apt to be overlooked. Christ is needful to us not only as sinners; He is needful to us as men. Without Him human life lacks the element which gives reality, meaning, and zest to the whole. Even to those who have little present sense of sin He has much to offer. A sense of sin grows with the general growth of the Christian life; and that at first it should be small need not surprise us. But the present absence of a profound sorrow for sin is not to bar our approach to Christ. To the impotent man, conscious of his living death, Christ offered a life that healed and strengthened -- healed by strengthening. But equally to those who now conversed with Him, and who, conscious of life, asked Him how they might work the work of God, He gave the same direction, that they must believe in Him as their life.
2. Our Lord here supplied the same plain food to all.
In the crowd were men, women, and children, old and young, hard-working peasants, shepherds from the hillside, and fishermen from the lake; as well as traders and scribes from the towns. No doubt it elicited remark that fare so simple should be acceptable to all. Had the feast been given by a banqueting Pharisee, a variety of tastes would have been provided for. Here the guests were divided into groups merely for convenience of distribution, not for distinction of tastes. There are few things which are not more the necessity of one class of men than of another, or that while devotedly pursued by one nation are not despised across the frontier, or that do not become antiquated and obsolete in this century though considered essential in the last. But among these few things is the provision Christ makes for our spiritual well-being. It is like the supply of our deep natural desires and common appetites, in which men resemble one another from age to age, and by which they recognise their common humanity. All the world round, you may find wells whose water you could not say was different from what you daily use, at any rate they quench your thirst as well. You could not tell what country you were in nor what age by the taste of the water from a living well. And so what God has provided for our spiritual life bears in it no peculiarities of time or place; it addresses itself with equal power to the European of to-day as it did to the Asiatic during our Lord's own lifetime. Men have settled down by hundreds and by fifties, they are grouped according to various natures and tastes, but to all alike is this one food presented. And this, because the want it supplies is not fictitious, but as natural and veritable a want as is indicated by hunger or thirst.
We must beware then of looking with repugnance on what Christ calls us to, as if it were a superfluity that may reasonably be postponed to more urgent and essential demands; or as if He were introducing our nature to some region for which it was not originally intended, and exciting within us spurious and fanciful desires which are really alien to us as human beings. This is a common thought. It is a common thought that religion is not an essential but a luxury. But in point of fact all that Christ calls us to, perfect reconcilement with God, devoted service of His will, purity of character, -- these are the essentials for us, so that until we attain them we have not begun to live, but are merely nibbling at the very gate of life. God, in inviting us to these things, is not putting a strain on our nature it can never bear. He is proposing to impart new strength and joy to our nature. He is not summoning us to a joy that is too high for us, and that we can never rejoice in, but is recalling us to that condition in which alone we can live with comfort and health, and in which alone we can permanently delight. If we cannot now desire what Christ offers, if we have no appetite for it, if all that He speaks of seems uninviting and dreary, then this is symptomatic of a fatal loss of appetite on our part. But as Jesus would have felt a deeper compassion for any in that crowd who were too faint to eat, or as He would quickly have laid His healing hand on any diseased person who could not eat, so does He still more deeply compassionate all of us who would fain eat and drink with His people, and yet nauseate and turn from their delights as the sickly from the strong food of the healthy.
3. But what Jesus especially emphasises in the conversation arising out of the miracle is that the food He gives is Himself. He is the Bread of Life, the Living Bread. What is there in Christ which constitutes Him the Bread of Life? There is, first of all, that which He Himself constantly presses, that He is sent by the Father, that He comes out of heaven, bringing from the Father a new source of life into the world.
When our Lord pointed out to the Galileans that the work of God was to believe in Him, they demanded a further sign as evidence that He was God's Messenger: "What sign doest Thou that we may see and believe Thee? What dost Thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; they had bread from heaven, not common barley loaves such as we got from You yesterday. Have You any such sign as this to give? If You are sent from God, we may surely expect you to rival Moses." To which Jesus replies: "The bread which your fathers received did not prevent them dying; it was meant to sustain physical life, and yet even in that respect it was not perfect. God has a better bread to give, a bread which will sustain you in spiritual life, not for a few years but for ever" (vv.49, 50). "I am the living bread which came down out of heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever."
This they could not understand. They believed that the manna came from heaven. Not the richest field of Egypt had produced it. It seemed to come direct from God's hand. The Israelites could neither raise it nor improve upon it. But how Jesus, "whose father and mother we know," whom they could trace to a definite human origin, could say that He came from heaven they could not understand. And yet, even while they stumbled at His claim to a superhuman origin, they felt there might be something in it. Everyone with whom He came in contact felt there was in Him something unaccountable. The Pharisees feared while they hated Him. Pilate could not classify Him with any variety of offender he had met with. Why do men still continually attempt afresh to account for Him, and to give at last a perfectly satisfactory explanation, on ordinary principles, of all that He was and did? Why, but because it is seen that as yet He has not been so accounted for? Men do not thus strive to prove that Shakespeare was a mere man, or that Socrates or Epictetus was a mere man. Alas! that is only too obvious. But to Christ men turn and turn again with the feeling that here is something which human nature does not account for; something different, and something more than what results from human parentage and human environment, something which He Himself accounts for by the plain and unflinching statement that He is "from heaven."
For my part, I do not see that this can mean anything less than that Christ is Divine, that in Him we have God, and in Him touch the actual Source of all life. In Him we have the one thing within our reach which is not earth-grown, the one uncorrupted Source of life to which we can turn from the inadequacy, impurity, and emptiness of a sin-sick world. No pebble lies hid in this bread on which we can break our teeth; no sweetness in the mouth turning afterwards to bitterness, but a new, uncontaminated food, prepared independently of all defiling influences, and accessible to all. Christ is the Bread from heaven, because in Christ God gives Himself to us, that by His life we may live.
There is another sense in which Christ probably used the word "living." In contrast to the dead bread He had given them He was alive. The same law seems to hold good of our physical and of our spiritual life. We cannot sustain physical life except by using as food that which has been alive. The nutritive properties of the earth and the air must have been assimilated for us by living plants and animals before we can use them. The plant sucks sustenance out of the earth -- we can live upon the plant but not on the earth. The ox finds ample nourishment in grass; we can live on the ox but not on the grass. And so with spiritual nutriment. Abstract truth we can make little of at first hand; it needs to be embodied in a living form before we can live upon it. Even God is remote and abstract, and non-Christian theism makes thin-blooded and spectral worshippers; it is when the Word becomes flesh; when the hidden reason of all things takes human form and steps out on the earth before us, that truth becomes nutritive, and God our life.
4. Still more explicitly Christ says: "The bread which I will give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." For it is in this great act of dying that He becomes the Bread of Life. God sharing with us to the uttermost; God proving that His will is our righteousness; God bearing our sorrows and our sins; God coming into our human race, and becoming a part of its history -- all this is seen in the cross of Christ; but it is also seen that absolute love for men, and absolute submission to God, were the moving forces of Christ's life. He was obedient even unto death. This was His life, and by the cross He made it ours. The cross subdues our hearts to Him, and gives us to feel that self-sacrifice is the true life of man.
A man in a sickly state of body has sometimes to make it matter of consideration, or even of consultation, what he shall eat. Were anyone to take the same thought about his spiritual condition, and seriously ponder what would bring health to his spirit, what would rid it of distaste for what is right, and give it strength and purity to delight in God and in all good, he would probably conclude that a clear and influential exhibition of God's goodness, and of the fatal effects of sin, a convincing exhibition, an exhibition in real life, of the unutterable hatefulness of sin, and inconceivable desirableness of God; an exhibition also which should at the same time open for us a way from sin to God -- this, the inquirer would conclude, would bring life to the spirit. It is such an exhibition of God and of sin, and such a way out of sin to God, as we have in Christ's death.
5. How are we to avail ourselves of the life that is in Christ? As the Jews asked, How can this man give us His flesh to eat? Our Lord Himself uses several terms to express the act by which we make use of Him as the Bread of Life. "He that believeth on Me," "He that cometh to Me," "He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood, hath eternal life." Each of these expressions has its own significance. Belief must come first -- belief that Christ is sent to give us life; belief that it depends upon our connection with that one Person whether we shall or shall not have life eternal. We must also "come to Him." The people He was addressing had followed Him for miles, and had found Him and were speaking to Him, but they had not come to Him. To come to Him is to approach Him in spirit and with submissive trust; it is to commit ourselves to Him as our Lord; it is to rest in Him as our all; it is to come to Him with open heart, accepting Him as all He claims to be; it is to meet the eye of a present, living Christ, who knows what is in man, and to say to Him "I am Thine, Thine most gladly, Thine for evermore."
But most emphatically of all does our Lord say that we must "eat His flesh and drink His blood" if we are to partake of His life. That is to say, the connection between Christ and us must be of the closest possible kind; so close that the assimilation of the food we eat is not too strong a figure to express it. The food we eat becomes our blood and flesh; it becomes our life, our self. And it does so by our eating it, not by our talking of it, not by our looking at it, and admiring its nutritive properties, but only by eating it. And whatever process can make Christ entirely ours, and help us to assimilate all that is in Him, this process we are to use. The flesh of Christ was given for us; by the shedding of Christ's blood, by the pouring out of His life upon the cross, spiritual life was prepared for us. Cleansing from sin and restoration to God were provided by the offering of His life in the flesh; and we eat His flesh when we use in our own behalf the death of Christ, and take the blessings it has made possible to us; when we accept the forgiveness of sins, enter into the love of God, and adopt as our own the spirit of the cross. His flesh or human form was the manifestation of God's love for us, the visible material of His sacrifice; and we eat His flesh when we make this our own, when we accept God's love and adopt Christ's sacrifice as our guiding principle of life. We eat His flesh when we take out of His life and death the spiritual nutriment that is actually there; when we let our nature be penetrated by the spirit of the cross, and actually make Christ the Source and the Guide of our spiritual life.
This figure of eating has many lessons for us. Above all, it reminds us of the poor appetite we have for spiritual nourishment. How thoroughly by this process of eating does the healthy body extract from its food every particle of real nutriment. By this process the food is made to yield all that it contains of nourishing substance. But how far is this from representing our treatment of Christ. How much is there in Him that is fitted to yield comfort and hope, and yet to us it yields none. How much that should fill us with assurance of God's love, yet how fearfully we live. How much to make us admire self-sacrifice and fill us with earnest purpose to live for others, and yet how little of this becomes in very deed our life. God sees in Him all that can make us complete, all that can fill and gladden and suffice the soul, and yet how bare and troubled and defeated do we live.
6. The mode of distribution was also significant. Christ gives life to the world not directly, but through His disciples. The life He gives is Himself, but He gives it through the instrumentality of men. The bread is His. The disciples may manipulate it as they will, but it remains five loaves only. None but He can relieve the famishing multitude. Still not with His own hands does He feed them, but through the believing service of the Twelve. And this He did not merely for the sake of teaching us that only through the Church is the world supplied with the life He furnishes, but primarily because it was the natural and fit order then, as it is the natural and fit order now, that they who themselves believe in the power of the Lord to feed the world should be the means of distributing what He gives. Each of the disciples received from the Lord no more than would satisfy himself, yet held in his hand what would through the Lord's blessing satisfy a hundred besides. And it is a grave truth we here meet, that every one of us who has received life from Christ has thereby in possession what may give life to many other human souls. We may give it or we may withhold it; we may communicate it to the famishing souls around us or we may hear unconcerned the weary heart-faint sigh; but the Lord knows to whom He has given the bread of life, and He gives it not solely for our own consumption but for distribution. It is not the privilege of the more enlightened or more fervent disciple, but of all. He who receives from the Lord what is enough for himself holds the lives of some of his fellows in his hand.
Doubtless the faith of the disciples was severely tried when they were required to advance each man to his separate hundred with his morsel of bread. There would be no struggling for the first place then. But encouraged in their faith by the simple and confident words of prayer their Master had addressed to the Father, they are emboldened to do His bidding, and if they gave sparingly and cautiously at first, their parsimony must soon have been rebuked and their hearts enlarged.
Theirs is also our trial. We know we should be more helpful to others; but in presence of the sorrowful we seem to have no word of comfort; seeing this man and that pursuing a way the end of which is death, we have yet no wise word of remonstrance, no loving entreaty; lives are trifled away at our side, and we are conscious of no ability to elevate and dignify; lives are worn out in crushing toil and misery, and we feel helpless to aid. The habit grows upon us of expecting rather to get good than to do good. We have long recognised that we are too little influenced by God's grace, and only at long intervals now are we ashamed of this; it has become our acknowledged state. We have found that we are not the kind of people who are to influence others. Looking at our slim faith, our stunted character, our slender knowledge, we say, "What is this among so many?" These feelings are inevitable. No man seems to have enough even for his own soul. But giving of what he has to others he will find his own store increased. "There is that scattereth abroad and yet increaseth," is the law of spiritual growth.
But the thought which shines through all others as we read this narrative is the genial tenderness of Christ. He is here seen to be considerate of our wants, mindful of our weaknesses, quick to calculate our prospects and to provide for us, simple, practical, earnest in His love. We see here how He withholds no good thing from us, but considers and gives what we actually need. We see how reasonable it is that He should require us to trust Him. To every fainting soul, to every one who has wandered far and whose strength is gone, and round whom the shadows and chills of night are gathering, He says through this miracle: "Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which satisfieth not? Hearken diligently unto Me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness."
 At the risk of omitting points of interest, I have thought it advisable to treat this whole representation of Christ, as far as possible, within the limits of one chapter.
 Roughly speaking, L8.
 From Psalm lxxii.16 the Rabbis gathered that the Messiah when He came would renew the gift of manna.
 The figure of eating reminds us that the acceptance of Christ is an act which each man must do for himself. No other man can eat for me. It also reminds us that as the food we eat is distributed, without our own will or supervision, to every part of the body, giving light to the eye and strength to the arm, making bone or skin in one place, nerve or blood-vessel in another, so, if only we make Christ our own, the life that is in Him suffices for all the requirements of human nature and human duty.
 On verses 37, 44, and 45 see note at the end of this volume.