In the story of the feeding of the five thousand and of Jesus' walking on water, John describes signs which serve to reveal the true nature of Jesus' messiahship, namely, his function of feeding us with the bread of life and carrying us safe to a distant shore.
v1-2. Jesus has moved to another site on the edge of lake Galilee, later officially called the sea of Tiberias, and is, as usual, beset by crowds which have seen his miracles and want to see more.
v3. John gives us a hint, with his "went up on a mountain" reference, that what follows has Sinai/Exodus overtones.
v4. We are given another "Exodus" hint with the reference to the Passover being near.
v5-7. The wilderness scene continues with a hungry crowd pushing in on Jesus. Jesus tests Philip out to see whether he can see any way of feeding the crowd, but he is lost for a solution. Manna from heaven is not on his list of possibilities.
v8-9. Andrew has found a "little boy" with some barley bread and pickled fish, a meal for a poor person, but he, like Philip, is at a loss to see how so little can aid so many.
v10-11. Having seated the crowd, Jesus says a blessing over the food in the form of a thanksgiving and then distributes it (the disciples are not mentioned so as to maintain the focus on Jesus). We are told that the crowd is completely satisfied.
v12-13. As with the manna in the wilderness, all have enough to eat. Of the remaining pieces (these are not the scraps, but most likely food that was not distributed), twelve baskets are collected. Again, Exodus imagery is being employed by underlining the number twelve.
v14. Having witnessed the sign, the people conclude that Jesus is the coming prophet, probably the prophet like unto Moses. The trouble is, someone greater than Moses is standing before them.
v15. The crowd sees in Jesus a Moses like leader, someone who will free them from the tyranny of Rome, but Jesus escapes their intentions.
v16-17. The disciples also leave, but by boat. John gives us no reason for the boat trip, but possibly the disciples need to be removed from a situation bordering on rebellion against Rome.
v18. During the crossing of the lake the disciples are hit by a strong headwind.
v19. Having covered only about three miles because of the gail, the disciples are confronted by Jesus walking on the water (not "walking beside the sea" as some more liberal commentators suggest).
v20. Jesus reassures the disciples by showing them that he is not some water ghost, but their master. It is possible that the form of words allude to the divine name - "I am." The disciples have just had their own "burning bush" experience.
v21. The disciples "want" Jesus to get in the boat, but we are not quite sure if he does. Probably Jesus does get into the boat, the wind becomes more manageable and they make quick headway to their destination. And so we are reminded that Jesus fills and satisfies, and will carry us safely to that distant shore.
The gospel readings in the old English Payer Book use the story of the miraculous feeding twice in the Church Year. The gospels clearly underline the importance of this story, for each gospel records the story and some even duplicate the story. So, the church was right in giving the story prominence.
Yet, what's so important about the story? We have all heard the simplistic applications, in fact, as youthful Sunday School teachers we may have even run the lines ourselves - Jesus cares for us in our life's journey, gives us all that we need and protects us in the storms of life. Of course, there is truth in the idea that Jesus cares for us in life's journey, but the trouble is, life does go sour at times and it is not helpful to build faith upon unrealistic expectations.
There is also the "Jesus is God" line, and of course, he is. Yet, we know well that Jesus didn't perform miracles to prove he was God. None-the-less, the nature miracles certainly leave us with a strong impression of Jesus' divinity, even if it's not the message of the sign.
Identifying the significance of these two nature miracles is no easy business. The key to their meaning lies in John's allusions to the wilderness wanderings of the people of Israel, to the Exodus, and to the application of the feeding in the following discourse. Jesus' fulfillment of the hopes of the second Exodus, not so much as a Moses figure, but as the divine incorporate messianic son, is the key to these stories. Jesus journeys through the wilderness, divinely sustained, and crosses over the sea to the safe shore. Those who identify with him are similarly fed with spiritual bread and arrive safe at that distant shore.
As Jesus says of himself, "I am the bread of life which came down from heaven." The spiritual bread he gives is life eternal and the distant shore is eternity. Israel was sustained in the wilderness with manna from heaven and was carried over the waters to a land flowing with milk and honey. Jesus has made the journey and reached the distant shore and when we put our trust in him, when we rest on him, we also "have enough to eat" and "reach the shore."
How would you apply these two miracle stories if you were teaching a Bible class of young people?