Chapter 6 of John’s gospel brings us to the midpoint of Jesus’ ministry—and in many ways, an important turning point. There are three Passovers in John’s gospel: the first occurs just after the wedding at Cana; John tells us In 2:13 that “The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” Went to Jerusalem where He immediately goes to the temple and drives out the merchants and their customers; when the Jews complained, He said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (2:18). What He was really saying, although no one understood it at the time, was “You think you can get rid of me? Just try it and see what happens.”
John, in his gospel, describes people for the most part, as either Jews or disciples. A disciple is defined as a learner or student. So the disciples are the people who are willing to listen to Jesus, willing to learn from Him. The Jews are the people who are opposed to everything about Jesus.
Sometime before that first Passover, Jesus had begun to gather disciples. John only names a few of them: Peter and Andrew, John himself and his brother James, Philip and Nathanael. But the number is clearly growing. 2:23 says that “When he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name.”
So now in chapter 6, a year has gone by; 6:4 tells us that “the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.” The third Passover will find Jesus once again in Jerusalem, this time sharing His final Passover meal with His disciples just before He is arrested. The following day He will be hung on the cross.
But for this second Passover, Jesus stays in Galilee. He has only one year left in this world and there’s much to be done. It’s time to get serious. It’s time to make sure that His followers know what it really means to be His disciple. Matthew, Mark and Luke all talk about the need for followers of Jesus to take up their cross. John doesn’t mention this—he just gives us chapter 6.
Everyone seems to have an opinion about Jesus—those described as “the Jews” hate Jesus. He’s threatening their authority, He’s ignoring their rules—and they’re disturbed by the fact that the crowds love Him. Those described as “disciples” want to be with them “because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick” (6:2). So Jesus decides that it’s time to test His followers.
The tests are hard—so hard that while chapter 6 begins with “a large crowd” following Him, by the end of the chapter, John tells us that “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him” (6:66). Jesus had managed to preach this crowd down from “many” to twelve.
So this huge crowd follows Jesus “to the other side of the Sea of Galilee” (6:1) and they’re hungry. Jesus tests Philip by asking him where they can buy bread. Philip fails the test—he says that to feed all these people is impossible. The other gospels tell us that the disciples just wanted Jesus to send the crowd away.
Jesus doesn’t do that. Instead, He tells Philip and Andrew to have the people sit down and after giving thanks, Jesus passes out bread and fish to everyone. And then He tells His disciples to “gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost” (6:12).
If you’re like me, you often imagine this story as being kind of idyllic. Everyone’s sitting on the grass in this huge meadow on the side of a mountain overlooking the sea enjoying a picnic lunch.
But there are 5000 men here, along with women and children, so a certain amount of chaos is unavoidable. Children are running around, people are hungry and maybe even impatient. It would take quite a bit of time for Jesus to personally hand out the food to this many people. And that’s what John says He does—there’s no buffet line where they go through and help themselves. Jesus is never in a hurry.
Jesus serves the meal—and then He tells His disciples to gather up the leftovers. There are probably 10,000 – 15000 people present; let’s say 12,000, which means that each one of the Twelve would have to gather up leftovers from 1000 people. We read that “they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten” (6:13) and are amazed at the fact that the leftovers are more than what they started with. But to gather up enough leftovers from 1000 people to fill a basket, even a big basket, would involve lots of gathering of very small bits of bread. It would have been a lot of work.
The crowd was really happy to get this free lunch. So happy that they wanted to make Jesus their king. So “Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (v 6:15).
This day isn’t going at all the way the Twelve had expected it to go. The other gospels tell us the plan had been for Jesus and His disciples to get away together, to rest, to relax. But then the crowd showed up and everything changed.
And now Jesus goes up the mountain by Himself and the crowd leaves. The disciples are left by themselves.
It’s not hard to imagine the conversation. Being with Jesus had started out great—they’d been right there with Him as He healed the sick; they heard Him tell the Jews that He was the Son of God—and they believed Him.
But gathering up the leftovers after lunch wasn’t exactly what they had in mind when signed up to be with Jesus. Like the rest of the crowd, they wanted Him to be king—they wanted to rule with Him. They wanted other people to wait on them.
The gospels are pretty clear that Jesus calls all of us to be servants—even those in leadership positions. Maybe especially those in leadership. And many of us think of ourselves as being pretty good at serving. Because we can be—as long as we get to decide when and where and how we’ll serve.
But the real test for us is how willing we are to serve when what we’re called to do something that we don’t want to do. When we’re called to serve at a time that’s inconvenient for us or when we had something else planned. When we’re called to serve someone that we don’t really want to serve.
Has that ever happened to you? It’s happened to me lots of times. Sometimes at church. Sometimes at home with my family. And it’s these times when we’re called to serve when we didn’t volunteer or when it wasn’t our idea or our plan that tests how well we’re following Jesus. Can we serve cheerfully, with a good attitude? Or do we do it—but make sure everyone knows that we don’t really want to be doing it, that we are not happy? Or do we just refuse—and tell ourselves that it’s OK because nobody should expect us to just change all our plans for them. Not even Jesus. Nobody should expect us to put Jesus’ plans ahead of our own. And we can be pretty good at convincing ourselves that Jesus never really called us to do any of those things that we don’t want to do.
So I think it’s pretty safe to assume that Jesus’ inner circle, the twelve disciples who have been with Him from the start, aren’t very happy. And when Jesus “withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (v 15), it doesn’t say that He asked the disciples to come with Him.
It just says that Jesus left. Went up the mountain and left them behind.
It was another test.
Jesus leaves and then John tells us in 6:16-17 that “When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat and started across the sea to Capernaum.” Where are they going? Why are they going? What’s going on? Later, in v 22 John tells us that “there had been only one boat and Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but … his disciples had gone away alone.”
Now we know that Jesus can walk on water—we know that that’s exactly what He’ll do. But when the disciples get in that boat, they don’t know that. So apparently they just abandoned Jesus on the far side of the Sea of Galilee and head back to Capernaum, which is where they all live.
Did they get impatient? Were they tired of waiting for Jesus to come down the mountain? Are they irritated or offended that He didn’t invite them to go with Him? We know from other gospel accounts that Jesus is praying—He’s abiding in the Father. Are the disciples thinking, “Enough of this praying—we need to do something”? Or are they just tired and want to go home? After all, it’s been a long day. Picking up crumbs from among thousands of people is a lot of work.
Could there maybe even have been a little bit of, “He can’t treat us this way. Let’s teach Him a lesson. Let’s leave Him alone and see who He can find to pick crumbs out the grass for Him.” Maybe even, “Who does He think He is?” “Nobody’s going to treat me this way.”
Could it maybe even be that they were thinking about turning back and no longer walking with Jesus? This isn’t at all what they imagined it would be to be in relationship with the Messiah, the Son of God.
Later the crowd will grumble; right now it’s just the Twelve who are grumbling.
They get in the boat and head for home and “the sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing” (v 18).
Was the wind blowing when they started out? We don’t know. But by the time they get three or four miles from shore, they’re in trouble—big trouble. And they know it. And then “they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were frightened” (v 19). Frightened why? Because Jesus was walking on water? Because they’d left Him on the other side? Because they were afraid he’d be angry? Maybe all of these reasons and more. Maybe because they suddenly realized that Jesus didn’t need them—they needed Jesus. Needed Him desperately.
Mark, in his gospel, tells us that when Jesus “came to them, walking on the sea, He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea … they cried out. … But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I. Do not be afraid.’ And he got into the boat with them” (Mark 6:48-49).
The question people always ask about Mark’s version is “Why would Jesus be planning to pass by them?”
And I think John gives us the answer. Jesus is there—but He’s giving them a choice: follow me or turn away and go on alone.
“I’m here—I’ll always be here. But you don’t get to be in charge.”
Song: “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me.”
Jesus isn’t asking us to let Him walk with us—He’s inviting us to walk with Him, to follow Him.
If you pay attention as you read the gospels, you’ll notice that when Jesus is walking with His disciples, He’s always the one leading the way. This is the lesson He’s teaching the Twelve here. It’s the lesson that changes everything for them.
At the end of Chapter 6, vss 66-69 says, “After this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’”
The Twelve are the only ones who remain committed to Jesus even when what He tells them is hard—really hard. When He says that anyone who wants to follow Him, has to eat His flesh and drink His blood. None of them have any idea what He’s talking about. Some of the people are disgusted, others are offended. Peter and the rest of the Twelve don’t know what He’s talking about either.
But they know that when they got in that boat alone, they had nothing but trouble. For them, it was when they left Jesus behind and tried to go on their own that they realized just how badly they needed Him. It’s why John tells us that “they were glad to take him into the boat” (v 21).
They had learned what every true follower of Jesus has to learn. They’d learned that it’s foolish to try to go ahead of Jesus. They’d learned that when trouble comes, Jesus will be right there is the boat with us—if we let Him. It was in their experience of “the strong wind” that they discovered that they needed more than to just know Jesus and believe in Him than to just know about Jesus—they needed Him right there with them. All the time. They needed to remain connected with Jesus. And it was with that realization that they “were glad to take him into the boat” (ESV) or “willing to receive him into the boat” (NASB).
Back in 4:32, when Jesus was talking to the Samaritan woman and the disciples were trying to get Him to eat, Jesus told them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” They were confused. In 4:34, He said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.”
In 5:30, when Jesus was talking to the Jews who were complaining about the fact that He’d healed a man on the Sabbath, Jesus told them, “I can do nothing on my own. … I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.”
So now, in chapter 6:21, “the Twelve in the boat “were willing to receive Him.”
It’s all about our will. This is the message that Jesus is sharing in this chapter. In 6:40, Jesus tells the crowd, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Jesus never did what He wanted to do—He always did what the Father wanted Him to do. Even to the point of dying on the cross. Later, on the third Passover, as He prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, He’ll say, “Not my will, Father, but yours be done.”
This is what Jesus wants from His disciples—He wants us to say, “Not my will, but yours.”
“I Want Jesus to Walk with Me”—that’s what we all want. We don’t want to walk with Him. We want Him to walk with us.
That’s what the disciples were doing when they got in the boat and left. And when Jesus walked out onto the water, He was fully prepared to pass by them if that’s what they wanted. He never tried to force anyone to follow Him. He never tried to coerce, or manipulate; He never even argued. He just issued His invitation—to everyone: “Here I am. Follow me.”
And here in chapter 6, we begin to see what following Jesus means—and so many will turn away, no longer walking with Him.
In Scripture, the “will” is usually referred to as the heart. But John, especially in this central part of his gospel, talks about will.
Every one of us has a will—a free will. We use our will to make decisions, to decide what we’re going to do. We agree or disagree with activities, thoughts, and ideas. And in our American culture, we put a high premium on our right to choose—on our right to do whatever we want to do, whatever we think is right for us.
We have come to a time in our culture when it seems that our individual wills are, for many of us, our god. Everything is about our will. “I can choose what’s right for me.” “I can do whatever I want to do and nobody can stop me.” Even in our government, we have judges and mayors and governors and law enforcement who think that they can simply disregard laws that they don’t like. Who have elevated their own will above all else.
It began thousands of years ago in a perfect garden when Adam and Eve said to God, “Not your will but ours be done.”
And humanity has been paying the price ever since.
Jesus came to set us free from that price. He came, sent by His Father because, “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (6:40).
Jesus came to set us free from sin and death, set us free to live eternally—but to receive this free gift we must believe in Him.
And in chapter 6 of his gospel, the apostle John is beginning to make clear to us just what it means to believe in Jesus. Jesus has chosen His apostles in John’s gospel only after they have passed the test. Only after they have come to the realization that without Jesus they have nothing. At the end of the chapter, when Jesus asks them if they want to turn away from Him like the rest of the crowd, Peter answers, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the holy one of God” (6:68).
“Have come to know”—come to know through the process of trying to leave Jesus behind and discovering that without Him, they have nothing.
Have you come to this place? Are you on the way to this place? Do you know the Jesus of the Bible? Really know Him? Or are you still looking for a Jesus who will walk with you?
Discipleship is a process; for the Twelve, the first year was pretty easy. But as time goes on, Jesus expects more of us. He expects that we’ll become more and more like Him. He’s not going to let us stay comfortably in a place where everything is easy.
As we continue in this chapter next week, we’ll find that He’s calling the crowd to things that they don’t understand, things that seem to them to be too hard—and many turn away. We don’t always understand—but when we know Jesus, when we know we can trust Him in every situation, we can continue to follow even when it’s hard.