The Feeding of the Five Thousand appears in all four Gospels.The details in John are in some ways more detailed. For example, the role of Andrew and Philip are unique to John, in the synoptic gospels the disciples who ask Jesus about the crowds are anonymous. The use of the disciples to react to Jesus is typical of John, as is the mention of the words and deeds of other disciples outside of Peter, James and John.
That this event occurs at the time of the Passover is extremely important for understanding the point of the miracle. Passover celebrates the rescue of Israel out of Egypt. God sent plagues on the Egyptians and took his people out into the wilderness where he provided for them both food and water. What is more, the rescue from Egypt at Passover marks the beginning of Israel as a nation.
John wants to present Jesus as a “prophet like Moses” in this section. It was Moses who provided food to the people of Israel in the wilderness after the first Passover and then led the people through the waters of the Red Sea. In Exodus 16 God provides for the people of Israel with manna and quail. Jesus provides food then walks on the water. There is even a parallel in the reaction of the crowds – the crowds “murmur” in 6:41 in such a way that implies that they have not really understood the miracle.
When Jesus provided food for a large crowd of Jews in a wilderness location, consciously re-enacting the original Passover. Like celebrating the fourth of July in America, celebrating Passover evoked a nationalistic spirit even in Galilee. Perhaps because many in Galilee thought of themselves as “occupied” by the Romans, Passover could easily develop anti-Roman sentiment.
This miracle could be taken as the beginnings of a revolution. When he seats people in groups he is organizing the people into “tribes” just as Moses did. The crowds in fact misunderstand the sign in just this way and try to force Jesus to be a king. As D. A. Carson said, “In the light of v. 15, where the people try to make Jesus king by force, it is easy to think that, at least in John, the specification of five thousand men is a way of drawing attention to a potential guerrilla force of eager recruits willing and able to serve the right leader” (Carson, John, 270).
The crowd thinks that Jesus is the Prophet, a messianic figure, a second Moses who leads Israel into the wilderness and provides manna for them. Isaiah 40-55 makes us use of the original wilderness period to describe the return of Israel from Exile. There seems to have been a general feeling among the people, perhaps especially in Galilee, that the exile was still going on because Israel’s king had not come nor has the whole nation been gathered back to the land.
This nationalism would have been especially strong during the Passover. Israel was remembering his origins. Families were re-enacting the inaugural Passover meal in their homes and talking about what God has done for them in the Exodus and journey to the land. It is very easy to see what the people thought, Jesus is like Moses, gathering a force in the wilderness which could be used to secure the land, in this he is a new Moses. But Jesus is also a new Joshua- the people of Galilee were willing to take up arms to liberate the nation.
After Jesus explains that his kingdom is not going to be an armed rebellion, the crowds begin to fall away and even Jesus’ own disciples begin to grumble about this “hard teaching” (6:60-66) . The verb used in verse 61 (γογγύζω) is used for the complaints of the Israelites in the wilderness period (they were “murmuring”). Just like Israel in the past, present Israel is complaining, questioning whether Jesus is the true messiah or not.
The Twelve, however, remain faithful (6:67-69). Peter is the disciples who responds that there is no one else to follow since Jesus has the words of life. The inner circle is committed to following Jesus since there is no life (water, bread) anywhere else. If that is true, Peter says, “What other teacher are we going to follow?” If Jesus is the teacher who has the truth, it is because he is also God incarnate – once again, who else are they going to follow? They know the truth, they cannot now turn to any other teacher.
Indeed, what other teacher are we going to follow?