1 After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias.
If we read this gospel account carefully, we would be somewhat bewildered to discover a conversation that was started in John 5.17 in Jerusalem ends on one of the shores of lake Kinneret – a third name for the Sea of Galilee or Sea Tiberias (see also John 5.1).
It has long been thought that John was either inaccurate or unconcerned about issues of chronology, geography and details in general; but was rather concerned with the larger theological view of Christ-related events. Since we have already walked together through first five chapters of the Gospel, we see that it is not the case. John is accurate. He writes knowing the nuanced geography and paying careful attention to details even if at times he provides a different chronological rendering to that of the synoptic gospels. This quality is characteristic of eyewitness accounts and it points away from a long held theory that the Gospels were written only 30 years after the events.
It is not clear why John tells us nothing about Jesus’ travel from Jerusalem to Galilee. A number of suggestions to solve this problem have been raised to answer it. However, all the suggestions seem to raise more questions than those they set out to answer. Rather than being a case of neglect, it is possible that this was the author’s intention and was part of his careful design that we saw earlier (Was the Gospel of John “simply” written or carefully designed?). One possibility is that John intentionally wanted us to know that conversations that began in Jerusalem always spread to other areas. Or, did this have a symbolic meaning ? (In the next section we will explore this possibility further and you may be surprised what you will see). But what is clear is that John expected it to be noticed. We know this because in the first centuries of the Common Era, the expectation (due to the absence of copy machines and printing press) was that his gospel would be read in communal settings and would be read out loud. Most probably the gospel would have been read completely or at lease read in large sections. Whatever the reason we give or allow for John’s omission it is to be likely found in his original design for this Gospel.
2 And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. 3 Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.
Very soon in vs. 10 we will read that the “large crowd” was a crowd numbering approximately 5,000 people. Taking into consideration that in ancient times only men were counted, the number may been even higher. The point here is not whether there were 3000, 5000, or 7000 people. A large crowd of people followed Jesus and witnessed his miracles. At the time when the village of Nazareth had a population of no more than 200 people (according to reliable archeological data) one can rightfully see that 5000 was a very large number of people indeed. Therefore, it can be safely assumed that Jesus’ following transitioned from local to regional. We can also imagine the concern the crowds numbering in thousands following one charismatic leader would cause to the Jerusalem authorities who struggled to expand and secure their influence in Jewish Galilee. This would have been especially true if the Jesus movement was not losing, but gaining in momentum. Even more of a concern was that Jesus purposely recast himself as the Moses-like figure. In this case, like Moses, he gives his teachings from a mountain (vs.3) and provides his followers with food. We will look at this in a future blog post.
5 Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. 7 Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. 11 Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”
Since this commentary concentrates on some aspects of the text that usually are not addressed in other commentaries, there are few other things worth mentioning. John is once again paying attention to details when he states that the place where the people gathered had a lot of grass. He was either highlighting the imagery of the shepherd pastoring his sheep, or simply mentioning this as an otherwise unconnected fact. This may then point to the fact that the memories were still fresh and vivid when he wrote the Gospel.
In vs.13 we see that Jesus has provided so much food that there were 12 large baskets of bread left when all the people had finished eating. The number 12 is significant and should not be overlooked or considered coincidental. Given the great importance of the number twelve in Israelite history – twelve tribes of Israel – the number of baskets is, therefore, a significant symbolic number. It indicates that Jesus’ provision is enough, not only for Galilean Jews plus those residing in Judea, but also for all Israel – for all twelve tribes. If I am correct that the Gospel of John understands the Israelite Samaritans as one of the major Jewish people groups to which it was addressed – this this reference to all the tribes of Israel would also make sense. In the mind of the author, they were part of the “people of Israel.”
15 Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
The mountain was a place away from people. It is a place where one could be together with God to commune with him in a personal way. All the activity, all the hustle and bustle of the nearby town was now silenced. The mountains were also often used by people for hiding. Perhaps, Jesus’ early statement, addressed in the previous section, is connected with this verse (Jn. 5.41I do not accept praise from people). Not only did Jesus not submit to the power-hungry authority of Jerusalem’s hoi Ioudaioi, but he also did not submit to the blind, but often misguided excitement of the Am Ha’Aretz (People of the Land), who in opposition to the hoi Ioudaioi wanted to make him king of Israel.
Both, hoi Ioudaioi and Galilean Jewish Am Ha’Aretz, failed to see who Jesus really was and what it was that he had come to do. If those who should have known, the hoi Ioudaioi and also Jewish Galileans although in different ways, missed the point entirely; was it not also possible that Israelite Samaritan leaders and ancient Israelite lay people among others, would also miss it? That was the indirect question that John sought to put into the minds of Israelite Samaritans who were, as he was hoping, among those who would either read or listen to his Gospel when it was read out loud.
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