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“Greater Than You Think!”

John 6:1-24
Bob DeGray
February 9, 2003

Key Sentence

No matter what your expectations, Jesus is always greater than you think.


I. Five Loaves and Two Fish (John 6:1-13)
II. Walking on the Water (John 6:14-24)


        The Spindletop oilfield, discovered in January 1901, marked the birth of the modern oil industry. The group that discovered the well was formed in 1892, but found nothing until they hired Anthony F. Lucas, a leading expert on salt dome formations. Lucas spudded in a well on October 27, 1900, using a new rotary bit. From October to January 1901, Lucas struggled to overcome the difficult oil sands. On January 10 mud began bubbling from the hole. Then six tons of four_inch drill pipe came shooting out of the ground, soon followed by mud, then gas, then oil. The Lucas geyser blew a stream of oil 200 feet high until it was capped nine days later. Before Spindletop, a big producer had flowed 50 barrels a day. This well produced an estimated 100,000 barrels a day. The world had never seen such a gusher.

        Spindletop illustrates that some things are much greater than you think. I’m sure none of those Beaumont oil men expected more than 50 barrels a day: they got thousands of times that. In the same way, people did not expect very much of Jesus, even though some called him the Messiah. They expected a mighty leader, but not one with infinite access to God and control over the very forces of creation. Jesus, we’ll see in John 6:1-24, was greater than they could imagine. They got thousands of times what they expected, because Jesus is always greater than you think.

I. Five Loaves and Two Fish (John 6:1-13)

        Our text neatly divides into two episodes - the feeding of the five thousand and walking on water, but I’ll read you just a little piece at a time. The setting is John 6, verses 1 to 4: Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick. 3Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4The Jewish Passover Feast was near.

        One characteristic of this first section of John is the scene shifts from Jerusalem to Galilee and back. Chapter 4 was set in Galilee, chapter 5 in Jerusalem. Now suddenly we’re back in Galilee again. Remember though that John, by his own admission, wasn’t trying to tell every event. Instead he wrote with a purpose. John 20:31 “These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” John selected episodes like this with the goal of building faith. In fact, the feeding of the 5000 is so important that it’s the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels. It takes place near the sea of Galilee, but not on the west side where Capernaum was located. In this case Jesus has crossed by boat to the east of what John calls the Sea of Tiberias, after the lakeside city founded by Herod Anitpas. Jesus is followed by a large crowd, which probably travels on foot along the north shore. They came not in faith, but because they saw the miracles Jesus did, especially healing the sick.

        As this crowd arrived, Jesus left the lake and went east into the hills, well known today as the Golan Heights. There he taught his disciples, and, according to the other Gospels, this crowd as well. Mark says this went on all day, and Dr. Luke adds that he was also healing. John mentions that all this occurred near the Passover, probably because both Jesus and the people he fed will associate this miracle with the manna that God provided in the wilderness after the Passover. In fact, Jesus will compare himself to bread, one of the chief symbols of the Passover celebration.

        So that’s the setting. The action begins in verses 5 to 9: 5When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, "Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?" 6He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, "Eight months' wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!" 8Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, spoke up, 9"Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?"

        By the afternoon the crowd had reached epic proportions. If you add women and children to the five thousand men there were probably fifteen to twenty thousand total. Mark points out that late in the day the disciples urged Jesus to send the crowd to find its own food. But Jesus turns to Philip and says “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat.” Philip is the natural person to ask, because he is from Bethsaida, the chief village on that side of the lake. But Jesus was not stumped by the problem; he asks the question in order to test Philip. Did Philip have a maturing faith? Did he have an idea of the greatness of the one he was following? Jesus places Philip in a situation of obvious need, and gives no clue how to handle it.

        I sympathize with this. Haven’t you been in a situation where there was no obvious human solution, no realistic hope, no clear evidence that God would provide, so that you asked ‘why is this happening?’ Many of you have struggled with situations like that. I have too, sometimes about my own situations, and often about yours. But these things could be a test. God doesn’t tempt - these things are not excuses for sin. But God does test in order to stretch and mature our faith. He wants us to depend on his Son. He places us in great need so we can learn that Jesus is greater than our need.

        Does Philip pass the test? Not exactly. He’s thinking at a human level of the natural world. Philip had an engineering kind of mind; he tried to calculate the cost of feeding these people, but he didn’t have all the data about the greatness of Jesus. He’s looking for a solution based on fifty barrels a day, when in reality he’s got a gusher on his hands. So he tells Jesus that, in his rough estimate, 200 denarii would not feed this crowd even a bite. A denairius is a days wage, so 200 denarii would be less than seven months wages, though for some reason the NIV says eight. The 200 denarii might feed a hundred families well for one day, or six hundred families for one meal. But there were more like five thousand families gathered.

        In human terms the task was impossible. Andrew’s contribution was laughable. He’s found a boy with five barley rolls and two small dried fish, but what can that do among so many? It’s laughable - but it’s also admirable. Andrew, we’ve seen, is always bringing people to Jesus. He brought Simon Peter in chapter 1, and later he’ll bring interested Gentiles to see Jesus. So it’s in character for him to bring this little boy. But it also expresses a very real faith: he’s willing to take a chance on Jesus by bringing him this minuscule amount, but he hedges his bets by saying “what can this do?” Can’t we imitate this small measure of trust in Jesus? Often we don’t.

        In the same way the boy’s part in this is worth imitating because he was willing to give the little he has, barely a lunch for himself, for the sake of others. The point is that no gift is too small. I found a great line that illustrates this. Someone said “If you think you’re too small to be effective, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito.” But truly the boy’s lunch was a meager start to a meal for 20,000. The five loaves were not really loaves at all, but rolls of barley, the cheap grain of the poorer classes. The two fish were probably very small pickled fish that would be used as a garnish for these little rolls. It wasn’t much. But we assume it was offered willingly and when something is offered willingly to the Lord he will often multiply it, whether we give time, money, worldly possessions, prayers, service, or personal sacrifice.

        So Jesus has in his hands all he needs for this miracle. Verse 10: 10Jesus said, "Have the people sit down." There was plenty of grass in that place, and the men sat down, about five thousand of them. 11Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. 12When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, "Gather the pieces that are leftover. Let nothing be wasted." 13So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten.

        In order to organize the crowd, Jesus has them sit down. Mark says it was in groups of fifties and hundreds, and that the abundant grass was green - confirmation that the event took place near Passover, in March or April when the summer sun had not yet browned the grass. All the people sat down, but only the number of men is counted, five thousand, which certainly implies a total group of 15 to 20 thousand.

        In verse 11 Jesus gives thanks. In our culture the old-fashioned habit of praying before we eat is out of date, but those who do it are imitating Jesus, who always gives thanks. Just as the examples of Andrew’s faith, and of the boy who gave what he had are worth imitating, so also is the example of Jesus who gave thanks for what he had. If Jesus used the common Jewish blessing he said “Baruch atah adonai eloheynoo melech ha'olam hamatzoi lekhem min har'aretz.” It means “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth.” Jesus blesses God, not the food. We ought to imitate that, as well, using whatever God has given us as an opportunity to praise his greatness and creative power.

        After he gives thanks Jesus distributes the bread and the fish. Apparently he just reached into the basket and pulled out loaf after loaf, fish after fish until the whole crowd was satisfied. Some liberal scholars have tried to explain away this miracle by saying that the generosity of the little boy encouraged others to share their food as well. The little boy was generous, but shame could not provide this abundance. Only the power of God could create an overflow of supply out of nearly nothing.

        What’s our big idea? That no matter what your expectations, Jesus is always greater than you think. Here the expectations of the disciples and Philip and Andrew and even this little boy were limited, earthly. But Jesus is greater than limited expectations. He doesn’t go and buy the food. He doesn’t shame people into giving the food. He simply provides the food - in abundance. If you and I believe in a supernatural God, we need to be open to abundance - not always physical supply, but an abundance of grace, an abundance of strength, an abundance of opportunity, an abundance of the Spirit in worship, an overflowing measure of Jesus in our lives. In next week’s text we’ll hear Jesus say “don’t work for the food that perishes’ – that is, physical abundance – but work for the food that endures to eternal life - spiritual food, like the food Jesus received in John 4 as he did the Father’s will. Jesus provides an abundance of life and joy and peace and strength to his people. If we will open our hands to receive it, the greatness of this abundance will exceed our expectations.

        So he nourishes these people, and then tells them to collect the leftovers, in keeping with Jewish custom. This refusal to throw out the leftovers is another simple point of imitation. Jesus doesn’t waste - even his abundance is never wasted. I don’t know who got to take the leftovers home, or whether the disciples kept some for later meals, but every one of the barley loaves not eaten, every one of the fish untouched was used. It’s as we imitate Andrew in his faith, the boy in his generosity, Jesus in his thankfulness, and the disciples in their thrift we begin to learn the main lesson, that as God, Jesus can provide everything needed, without effort.

        If we believe that we have to look to Jesus as the sufficiency for our spiritual life, for our emotional life, for our relational life, for our physical life. Paul says “My God shall supply all your needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” All of our needs! We may at times, on this side of eternity be physically lacking, financially stressed, emotionally burdened. But in the midst of those situations, at the deepest level of our souls, if we take our little to Jesus, we will find abundance.

II. Walking on the Water (John 6:14-24)

        John goes on to reveal his greatness in another way in verses 15 to 24. Let me begin with verses 14 and 15: 14After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, "Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world." 15Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

        When we studied the account of the Samaritan woman, she spoke about ‘the prophet’. But many of the Jews were also looking for this prophet promised by Moses. They read Deuteronomy 18 with the same expectation: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. . . I will put my words in his mouth.” The key phrase is ‘a prophet like me.’ When Jesus provided so much bread to so many in a wilderness area he was being like Moses. Some rabbis were sure that just as the first redeemer - Moses - brought manna from heaven, so would the promised redeemer. Could Jesus be the one?

        The thing is, they were right. Jesus was the prophet greater than Moses, the promised redeemer, the Messiah. But Jesus was greater than their expectation. They were looking for a political ruler who would overthrow the Romans and restore greatness to the nation of Israel. Having witnessed or heard of Jesus’ miracles of healing, and having been fed from food provided by his miraculous power, they were convinced he was the powerful liberator they longed for. And if he was unwilling to assume such leadership, they were more than willing to force the issue by rebelling, crowning him king, and daring the authorities to respond. Even before this event, Jesus had already aroused political desires in the people of Galilee and opposition and concern from Herod Antipas. A violent clash with Rome seemed inevitable.

        But Jesus knew that if he allowed them to make him a political leader it would derail his mission. It would distract people from his message, his establishment of a kingdom like no other. Jesus knew his kingdom would triumph not be by beating the enemy in battle, but by dying and rising from the dead. As Edmund Clowney comments, “He would go to Jerusalem not to wield the spear and bring the judgment but to receive the spear thrust and bear the judgment.” So Jesus wouldn’t be tempted by political power. He sent the crowd away, sent even his disciples away in the boat, possibly to keep them from catching the crowd’s misguided enthusiasm. Then Jesus went alone, up into the Golan heights. Mark tells us that he went there to pray.

        Jesus is greater than they expect. This is clear in verses 16 to 21: When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. 18A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. 19When they had rowed three or three and a half miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, "It is I; don't be afraid." 21Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.

        This miracle follows the feeding of the 5000 in Matthew and Mark. Luke doesn’t include it, but John does, without explanation. He probably includes it because it occurred between the miracle on one side of the lake and the explanation on the other. John needed to get Jesus and the disciples across the lake: this is how they got there.

        While Jesus was up in the mountains praying, his disciples went back to the lake and got in the boat to go back to Capernaum. I doubt that Jesus had told them how he was planning to travel. They may have assumed he would walk around the north end of the lake behind the crowd. So as evening falls, they’re crossing the lake without Jesus. Then they begin to have trouble. After three or three and a half miles, the wind and waves came up and grew rough. The Sea of Galilee lies about six hundred feet below sea level, and often cool air from the surrounding highlands rushes in to displace warm air over the lake, churning up wind and waves in a violent squall.

        Matthew and Mark tell us that the wind was so contrary the boat could make no progress. As they struggled, they saw Jesus, approaching the boat, walking on the water. Some have suggested the phrase should be translated ‘walking by the water’ so they can negate the miracle by saying the disciples were rowing around the edge of the lake and Jesus was walking on the shore. But if that’s the case, why were they terrified when they saw him? Why do Matthew and Mark tell us they thought it was his ghost. The other gospels make it clear that all this occurred in the middle of the lake. There can be no doubt that John’s intention was to describe a miracle.

        The disciples are terrified, by this appearance of Jesus, but he addresses their fear in a simple, profound way – by identifying himself. ‘It is I’; I suspect he often speaks this same calming phrase to his people today. When we’re afraid or even terrified we can find peace when we recognize that Jesus is with us no matter what, that behind whatever we fear or dread he is still at work. We find peace when we hear Jesus say “Don’t be afraid. It’s me. I’m coming to you in ways you can’t even understand, and I’m greater than the storm or whatever has stalled you.”

        Some scholars have seen the phrase Jesus uses ‘It is I’ as a foreshadowing of all the other ‘I am’ statements in John. It’s true that the two words Jesus speaks are the same two words he uses whenever he says ‘I am’ something. But the simple truth is that if you’re going to identify yourself in Greek, there aren’t very many other words you can use. It’s a common phrase. On the other hand, I wouldn’t put it past John to be giving a hint of the kind of revelations Jesus will make. After all he’s walking on the water when he says it, and that makes it a significant revelation of who he is. As for the disciples, when they realized it was Jesus they gladly took him on board. Immediately, John says, they reached shore, though Jesus met them in the middle of the lake. The matter-of-fact words hide another miracle. Jesus has such command of creation and nature that he can not only calm the storm but move the boat.

        The final few verses in this section prepare us for the bread of life discourse we’ll study next week. They also show the tenacity of the crowd that desires to make Jesus king. John 6:22 22The next day the crowd that had stayed on the opposite shore of the lake realized that only one boat had been there, and that Jesus had not entered it with his disciples, but that they had gone away alone. 23Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24Once the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and went to Capernaum in search of Jesus.

The action is complicated, but the NIV makes it pretty clear. The crowd on the east side of the lake, where the miracle occurred recognized that only one boat had brought Jesus and his disciples. Remember, the crowd had come by foot. The disciples had left in the boat, without Jesus. So where was he? A large part of the crowd seems reluctant to start for home without knowing. Some, undoubtedly, still wanted to return with him as their king. Meanwhile other boats from the city of Tiberias, on the western shoreline, landed near the crowd. Perhaps these boats brought word that Jesus had returned to the west side. Perhaps the crowd figured it out themselves. In any event, many of them got in the boats and crossed the calm lake to Capernaum, where Jesus had his headquarters. Next week’s dialogue occurs there.

        The point of all this is simple: Jesus is always greater than you expect. If you expect to be hungry, Jesus is great enough to feed you. If you expect political salvation, Jesus is great enough promise instead spiritual life, as he will in the next discourse. If you expect to be rocked and stalled by life’s storms, Jesus is great enough to come to you and calm your fears with his words: “Do not be afraid. It is I.” In multiplying the bread and walking on the water Jesus shows that He is Lord of creation. There is nothing on earth or in heaven not under his sovereign command: sickness obeys his words; water and wine and bread and fish are his instruments when he wants to provide. Storms and distance itself are at his command. Human kingship is too small for one like this - he waits to reign in the eternal kingdom he will establish.

        The big application here is simply to expect more of Jesus than you do right now. The situations you and I struggle with from day to day can feel overwhelming, but if we recognize that Jesus is greater than our circumstances we can receive his abundance on many levels. But how do you expect more? I think the small applications that we’ve noted along the way can work together to give us this greater expectation. We can start by imitating Andrew’s faith: though he had doubts, he still brought the little boy to Jesus. We can imitate the boy’s attitude, being willing to give Jesus the little we have so he can multiply it. We can strive for the attitude of Jesus himself, who praises the Father in thanksgiving for the provision. We can imitate the thrift which cherishes the leftovers, the small things in life. Finally, we can look for Jesus behind the circumstances of life, seeking the assurance of his words ‘It is I’ in the midst of storms and stalls.

        If we do these things, we will have gone a long way toward raising our expectations. I can’t help but use the example of this building to illustrate that. Most of you know that a year before we bought this building we were facing declining attendance, partially because our facility was rotting around us, we had no money in a capital fund except for a few small gifts that had once been given, we had no wealth as a congregation, and there was no human way we could buy any building. We knew land and a building would likly be two million dollars. It was a daunting situation and we were daunted - but we knew Jesus well enough to suspect he wasn’t daunted and so, by prayer, we began to ‘knock on doors that only God could open.’

        Jesus responded by showing himself greater than we expected. Two million dollars? Here’s all the building you’d want for less than half that. No money? Through this un-wealthy group I can provide all you need and more to make the move. You just bring whatever loaves and fish each of you can be generous with, and I’ll take care of the multiplication. No time to raise the money? I can do it one day. We needed $130,000 to make the down payment. We’ve received so far well in excess of $200,000. It was a door only God could open. Jesus did more than we expected.

        Don’t we need to cultivate the attitude that expects him to do more than we expect? Not necessarily in the material realm, but especially in providing for our spirits, our hearts, our emotions. Let us not make him too small in our eyes. Let us not believe the lie that he’s unable to help us. Let’s expect more than we expect.