Most of the parables considered in recent chapters were delivered at different times and places, but some of them were given in a string from a boat moored a little way from the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and were addressed to the crowd of hearers standing on the land down to the waters edge.
When he had finished his discourse on that occasion, the crowd dispersed and he landed, and proceeded up the ascending hill-country westward towards Nazareth, where arriving, "he taught them in their synagogue." There was something in his teaching that both impressed and overawed them; but in spite of this, their self-love was wounded by superiority in one with whom they had been personally familiar for nearly 30 years. Although they were astonished at the wisdom and the power displayed by the new teacher, they could not reconcile themselves to the idea that he was anything more than themselves. Discontentedly and peevishly, they asked: "Whence hath this man this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? and his brethren James, Joses, and Simon, and Judas? And his sisters, are they not all with us?" As much as to say: Is he not a common man like ourselves? Why should we look up to him? "Whence hath this man all these things?"
This disease of envy is widespread and deep-rooted. You cannot pacify it but by prostration, and this sometimes would be sheer hypocrisy, of which there was none in Jesus. He could but recognise the situation and act accordingly. He did not storm against their infirmity. He simply implied that in the present state of human nature, a prophet could not be appreciated among his own kindred. He did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief, and did not long remain among them.
A report was brought to him of John's execution in prison, Hearing it, he left Nazareth, went down to the Lake again, and took ship for one of the solitudes to be found on its remoter shores. We are not told Christ's motive in this movement. Probably the report of John's death made a deep impression upon him. Alluding to it afterwards, he said, "Likewise also must the Son of man suffer." Knowing this, he probably felt moved to get away into quietness for strengthening reflection and prayer.
Whatever the motive, the people got wind of his movement, and on foot, in crowds, followed the vessel till it came to shore, so that when Christ landed, instead of solitude, he found himself in the midst of a multitude, collected in a desert place from all parts, with sick persons of all kinds brought for healing. What did Jesus do? Not as most men seeking seclusion would have done. He did not order the people away, and he did not re-embark and sail away. He "was moved with compassion towards them." It was in no stoical spirit of "accepting the inevitable" that he surrendered to the situation. In the moral greatness exhibited as a pattern for all the sons of God, he considered the people's side of the question. He sympathised and condescended. He "healed their sick." He spoke to them and stayed with them awhile, and comforted them, though he knew most of them were as the grass that perisheth. Evening drew on.
The multitude had no provisions, and they were at a long distance from any place where they could procure any. The disciples called Christ's attention to the fact. "This is a desert place, and the time is now past. Send the multitude away that they may go into the villages and buy themselves victuals." The answer of Christ gives such an insight into his magnanimous character: "They need not depart: give ye them to eat." The disciples were perplexed. How could they feed a multitude on their scanty store? Jesus tested his disciples a little (John viii. 5). He suggested the buying of bread. Their answer was, "Whence shall we buy bread that these may eat?" John says, Jesus knew what he would do, but that he said this to prove his disciples, and particularly Philip, to whom the question was addressed. It also opened the way for doing what he intended. Philip said it would require a large sum to buy the provision necessary for such a crowd. Jesus asked how many loaves the disciples had. The answer was: "Five loaves and two small fishes," to which the disciples added the natural comment: "What are they among so many?"
The state of the case being thus distinctly manifest to all, Jesus gave command for the whole multitude to be seated in orderly companies of fifty "upon the green grass." He then proceeded to work a marvel entirely out of human power. He took the loaves and the fishes: he gave thanks: he then handed them to the disciples -- to each as much as he could carry away; and the disciples, each taking certain companies, distributed to the people. When each had disposed of what he had, he returned to Christ and received a further supply, and again and again, until all were served. Then, a sufficient time having been allowed for eating, Jesus ordered his disciples to go and gather up the fragments. Twelve baskets were near at hand -- probably belonging to the twelve apostles. The disciples set to work and gathered up the bits left by a company of "about five thousand men, besides women and children." Naturally their twelve baskets were filled. The collection of the fragments was probably ordered to emphasize the miracle, as well as to teach frugality.
The miracle itself is the striking element in the scene. It was in its nature no more extraordinary than the hundreds of other miracles that Jesus did: but it was more impressive in its form, and in the scale on which it was performed. To produce bread that had no existence the moment before, had a more wonderful appearance to men than to restore a paralytic limb to soundness: and to do it on a scale sufficient to feed about 6,000 men, women and children, left no room for disbelief, It was as easy to divine power as removing the fever from one person, but it was a more manifest and striking display. It was one of those "works" to which Jesus afterwards referred: "If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not: but if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works.... The Father who dwelleth in me, He doeth the works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me, or else believe me for the very Works' sake" (Jno. x. 37; xiv. 10). It was on their extraordinary character that he laid stress "If I not done among them works which none other man did, they had not had sin" (Jno. xv. 24). The appeal is irresistible. The modern habit of shying at the miracles, or saying they can mean nothing even if they happened, is simply the metaphysical refinement of modern stupidity. The evidence of their occurrence is of a nature that cannot be set aside. Even the mere nature of the apostolic narrative is evidence. The mere narrative is itself a miracle, as men see when they have had experience enough of human ways, and senses sufficiently sharpened by exercise to recognise an extraordinary thing when they see it.
And as for the meaning of the miracles, it is on the face of them. They show possession of power not human, and therefore authority to speak of the applications of that power. When a man shews he can dispose of a property as he likes, his word concerning that property is law. Jesus shewing control of the powers of nature, proved his ability to speak with authority concerning those future application of those powers in which we are interested. The logic of the matter cannot be more tersely stated than Jesus has done it in these words: "The works that I do, bear witness of me that the Father hath sent me" (Jno. v. 36).
The crowd shewed their apprehension of this significance of the miracle of the loaves: They said one to another, "This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world;" and they shewed symptoms of giving effect to their impressions by gathering round Christ to proclaim him King, and force him to compliance after the Roman fashion of appointing leaders by acclamation. Jesus "perceived that they would come and take him by force to make him a king." This wasaltogether outside the plan, and inconsistent with it. Christ's kingship was not only a matter of futurity, but of pure divinity. It was "not of this world." It was to owe nothing to the suffrages of the people. It was to rest on no human title, and prosper by no human favour. God would set His king on His holy hill of Zion, when the time should come to make his enemies his footstool; and it would be by acts of world astounding and king-killing power that his throne would be established in righteousness (Psa. cx.). It was therefore impossible that Jesus could for a moment tolerate the advances of the people. He had come to the spot for a very different purpose, and with very different feelings from those connected with such a movement. He had come for seclusion, and meditation, and prayer in the sadness caused by the hearing of John's execution. He longed for the opportunity. He therefore urged the disciples to get into the boat that had brought them to the "desert place" where they were; and having seen them off, he turned to the crowd and told them they must depart. He doubtless did this with an authority they could not resist, They began to disperse, and they were soon all gone. The shades of evening were fast closing on the scene, and he hastened to one of the many mountain solitudes that surround the sea of Galilee, in the darkness, and there, "himself alone," he poured out his soul to God in one of those suspirations which are the highest ecstasies of human experience, but rarely attained. Such were more natural to Christ than to the degenerate sons of Adam. He and the Father were one, and the act of communion was reciprocal, and therefore complete and soul-filling and strengthening as our poor prayers rarely are, and cannot often be -- in mis-shapen and earth-cleaving mortality. Soothed and comforted, he ceased, and then turned his attention to the disciples who were crossing the sea in the dark at his feet, and who were finding it hard work in consequence of the descent on the lake of one of those wind-gusts which frequently come down from the hills without notice. "The wind was contrary" and "the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with the waves." He descended from the mountain; he came to the water's edge. The wind was blowing hard; the sea was furious. How helpless an ordinary man is under such circumstances, and any of us can bear witness who have gone down to a stormy beach in the teeth of a gale to perhaps see, and if possible help, a distressed ship in the offing. But this was no ordinary man. He advanced into the stormy waters. They came not on him. He stepped on them as if they had been the undulations of a moorland He went on and on in the direction of the labouring vessel. The disciples were "toiling in rowing." They were trying to keep the vessel to the wind, and with very little success.
All at once, they drop their oars. They have descried the advancing figure. They cannot believe their senses. Yet there, sure enough, is a man walking on the water. Knowing such a thing to be impossible, they conclude it is something unearthly. They say one to another, "It is a spirit;" in this united conviction, they all cry out together in terror. Jesus comes close to the ship and says soothingly "be of good cheer: it is I: be not afraid." There is a pause; they recognise the voice; still the extraordinary situation has run away with their feelings. Peter breaks the silence: "Lord, if it be thou, bid me come to thee on the water." There was logic in this. Jesus takes him at his word. A single word: "Come." At once, Peter has his legs over the side of the boat. He stands on the water. He makes a step or two forward. He looks round. The darkness -- not quite total, the angry waves; the roaring wind, overwhelm him with the peril of his situation: his confidence deserts him, and he finds himself sinking. What can he do? He is too far from the boat to clutch at that. There is nothing left but petition to the wonderful man who stands before him unsinking in the tumult of waters. "Lord, save me. Immediately, Jesus stretched forth his hand and caught him" He saves him, but with a reproof that suggest profound reflections: "O thou of little faith: wherefore didst thou doubt?" They then get into the ship together: the storm suddenly ceases: and the disciples, amazed at the manifestation of power so self-evidently beyond all human possibilities, "worshipped Jesus, saying, Of a truth, thou art the Son of God." Immediately also, by the power which had stilled the tempest, they found themselves at the landing-place for which they had been making, which would be very welcome to them in the state of fatigue to which their hard rowing had brought them.
What are the thoughts suggested by Christ's remark to Peter about the littleness of his faith? The subject has been before us in a previous chapter, but it is as well to take it again. The remark shows that faith has something to do with a man's ability to use the power God may place at his disposal. This is according to experience of natural power. A confident faith can always do better with the same power than the man who unbelievingly hesitates. A man can speak better who has confidence in his abilities, than the man with the same abilities who lacks confidence. What a man can do in sleep-walking is the most striking of all illustrations. He can climb places and walk on dizzy ledges that he could not even he on with the sense of danger that usually belongs to waking life. He has no more power in his sleep-walking than he has in his waking state, but the power he has is in the hands of a sublime confidence that knows no danger, therefore he can do what he could not do without that confidence. This much is evident. But we must exercise care in the application of the principle to matters that are beyond natural power. Otherwise, we shall fall into the mistakes of the "faith healers" and some other extremists, who only cover themselves with confusion by the unskilful application of a true principle.
It is not in natural power to walk on the water: and no amount of faith will develop a power not actually present. With Christ, the power was present, and he provisionally extended it to Peter in the invitation to "come." There was an invisible hand held out to him for the moment to support him in the water. There was a something for his faith to act on which is not present in the normal relations of sinful men. His faith acting on it could hold him up. In the absence of faith on his part, he lost his hold. The case is parallel to that of a child crossing a brook by the help of its father. If a child's confidence fails, the father's outstretched hand is of little use to it. The child's faith will enable it to make the most of it, and enable it to cross with ease. But suppose there is no father there, or a father not offering his hand, no confidence on the part of the child will get it across the stream. This is the case of those who see one side of the case and imagine that faith will do all. They are mistaken. Faith may help them a little, but they will certainly fall into the water.
"Without faith it is impossible to please God:" this is true in all relations, and will probably govern the exercise of the powers of the spirit-body. The power is there, but will not act without faith to lay hold on it. Peter had power given him to walk on the water, but he doubted, and therefore his spiritual grapnel lost hold of its catch, and down he went. We have no power given us to walk on the water. To try to do it by faith in the absence of this, would be trying to fasten our grapnel in the air. A right discrimination in these matters will save us from confusion and embarrassment, without leading us into the tremendous mistake of those who regard the faith-performances of the first century as myths.
The people who had witnessed and pro fired by the miracle of the loaves had new ideas stirred in them by the event. They felt a new attachment for a teacher who could not only heal their diseases, but supply the larder without spending money. They deceived themselves as to the nature of their new feelings. They confounded their hunger for temporalities with zeal for the Messiahship. In their excitement they eagerly watch the indications of where he was next to be found. Concluding from all they saw that he would be at Capernaum, they hastened thither in numbers, and having found him, they made enquiries of him with the eagerness of self-interested partizans. Jesus was not deceived by their new-born zeal. He knew their motives better than they did themselves. "Ye seek me," he said, "because ye did eat of the loaves and were filled." He added this exhortation, "Labour not for the meat which perisheth, but for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life, which the Son of man shall give unto you." Whence all men, down to the present day, get this reliable cue, that it is according to the mind of Christ that "making a living" should not be the sole and engrossing business of life, as it is with most men, but the main object of endeavour should be the doing of the will of God, with a view to that perfect and endless life which Christ will confer, attending also to the other as a matter of duty in the confidence that God (who knows what things we have need of before we ask Him) will work with us in the matter, and ensure for us a needful supply of food and raiment while we "seek first the kingdom of God."
The crowd, thus rebuffed, professed their willingness to labour for the meat that perisheth not if they knew how. "What shall we do that we may work the works of God?" Jesus answered, "This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom He hath sent." To this the crowd, in effect, responded, "Very well, we are willing to believe if you show us cause." "What sign shewest thou that we may see and believe thee? What dost thou work?" This was a sniff in the direction of the loaves, which was the subject next their hearts. Their next remark shewed it. "Our fathers did eat manna in the desert." The remark was true, but not in the sense in which they urged it. They meant to say "Moses looked after our fathers in the matter of the meat that perisheth, for which you say we ought not to labour."
It was true manna was given, but not by Moses, and it was not given merely as an affair of sustenance, but as part of a discipline having higher objects than mere food supply: as Moses himself said, "The Lord thy God humbled thee and suffered thee to hunger and fed thee with manna ... that He might make thee know that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of Yahweh" (Deut. viii. 3). But as Jesus afterwards told them, they "knew not the Scriptures." But he knew them. "Moses," said he, "gave you not that bread from heaven, but my Father (who now) giveth you the true bread from heaven: for the bread of God is he which cometh down from heaven and giveth life unto the world." They, supposing he referred to his power of multiplying loaves, responded, "Lord, ever more give us this bread." He saw they had not taken his point, and that in fact their heart was on temporal supplies, and not enlightened or believing with regard to his mission from God, of which the miracles were the mere attestation.
He went straight to the point in his next remark: "I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger: and he that believeth in me shall never thirst." This did not suit their mood at all. They shewed symptoms of disappointment. Jesus informed them that they did not believe though they had seen him, and seen the miracles; but his mission would be a success for all that. "All that the Father giveth me shall come to me." It was a matter of plan with God, and could not be thwarted by any number of individual cases of unbelief. Jesus would receive the disciples and lovers and obedient servants required by the plan. He adds a word to fence off the discouragement at first suggested to his auditors by this view. They might say "If it is a matter of plan -- if all you want are sure to come -- we have nothing to do with it: why trouble us one way or other?" Such a feeling, though apparently reasonable in the abstract, would be unreasonable in view of the method by which God was to give to Jesus those whom his mission required. It was to be done by the testimony brought to bear upon the unfettered minds of listeners -- all listeners. Those of the right stamp would be drawn to him by this means: the other class would be irresponsive. The failure as to this other class would be no reason for refraining from the testimony that was to develop the right class; and in the process of its operation, there would be no respect of persons: and no room for any one to feel it was no use for him to try. He therefore added: "He that cometh to me, I will in no wise cast out." The fact of the coming would be evidence of the giving by the Father. It was the Father's will he should operate thus, and save those surrendering to him. Hence he continues: "I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will but the will of him that sent me.... And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one that seeth the Son and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day."
The Jews now broke out into open murmuring. They had come with a hearty disposition to support him as the promised prophet, in view of the miracles he had performed, and recognising that it would be to their immediate advantage to be friends with one who could provide daily bread without labour or expense. He had chilled them off at the first contact, and now he had said things they could not receive. He had said he had come down from heaven. They said, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that he saith, I came down from heaven." Ignorant as they would be of the real circumstances connected with his birth, it is easy to see how this would stumble them (though it would not have stumbled them had they been of the right disposition, because such a disposition, in view of the miracles, would have reserved difficulties and waited). Had they known that Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit coming upon his virgin mother, and filled plenarily therewith at his baptism in Jordan, they might have discovered the parable with which he spoke: but in probable ignorance thereof, and judging only as natural, impatient, mere food-hunting men, and being, moreover, offended at the preliminary rebuff with which he received them, they could see nothing but an occasion of difficulty in it. They murmured.
Jesus said, "Murmur not among yourselves. No man can come to me except the Father which hath sent me draw him." This was making the matter worse -- yes, for them and all such: but not for the truly reasonable and childlike, who but desire humbly and reverently to know the truth of the matter. For the sake of such, Jesus, as in the other case, immediately added words that shewed his meaning. "It is written in the prophets, and they shall be all taught of God." The Jews recognised the authority of the prophets. Here was the statement that the Messiah's children would all be God-taught. How taught? Jesus adds: "Every man therefore that hath heard and hath learned of the Father cometh unto me." Here is a process of "hearing" and "learning" by which men attain to the taught state. Hearing what? Learning what? "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit saith." By what means -- through what means -- speaketh the Spirit? "By Thy Spirit in Thy prophets" (Neh. ix. 30). "He spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets" (Heb. i. 1). Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing is possible because of the speaking of "the word of the Lord" (Rom. x. 17). This speaking reduced to writing has become "the Scriptures." Hence the Scriptures, given by inspiration of God, are "able to make men wise unto salvation" (2 Tim. iii. 16). Jesus meant then to say, that everyone truly instructed by the Father, through His spoken and written word, would recognise him as the Christ, and come to him. This is enough for those who have the docility of little children, without which, Jesus said, they could not be acceptable to the Father nor to him.
The further conversation between Jesus and the bread-hunting Jews will furnish matter for the next chapter.