John 6:1-21, The Light in Our Darkness

[July 17, 2011] Today we come to the structural center of the Gospel according to John. Specifically, the chiastic and mandalic center lies in verses 16-21, the crossing of the sea. Surrounding this on either side is the story of the Bread of Life, the sign coming before and the discourse on the sign following. Emanating on four sides of this story the gospel stretches out in four directions, in the shape of a cross. The lower beam, chapters 1—3 is matched by the upper beam of 12:12—21:25 as introduction and fulfillment. The cross beam stretches from 4—5 on the one side to 7:1—12:11 on the other as the arms of Jesus take all into their embrace. All four arms of this cross are connected in four concentric circles, circles that more or less correspond to the third to the sixth days of creation, the seventh day corresponding to the extension of the lower and upper beam (1:19-51 and 20:19-31), and the second and first day corresponding to the center. Examining this structure helps to unlock the typological movement of the Gospel according to John.

At first the story of the sea crossing does not seem to carry the weight of being the center. On a literal level, no consequences follow from it. As we approach it on a symbolic level, however, its force becomes more apparent.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand (John 6:1-15)

But first, let us consider the sign that Jesus performs in 6:1-18 without anticipating the discourse of verses 22-71. To not anticipate the discourse is, of course, unfair to the narrative, but I hope to direct our attention to the discourse in due course. Yet in anticipation, it can be pointed out that the second day of creation describes the creation of heaven (the expanse) in the midst of chaos (the waters); the Bread of Life is He who came down out of heaven to give life to the world.

In chapter 5 Jesus was in Jerusalem (“His own country”) and aroused His first real opposition; they wanted to kill Him. Now He is back in Galilee where the people love Him. Yet in chapter 6 we also see the turning of His ministry in Galilee. “From that time many of His disciples went back to what they left behind and no longer walked with Him” (6:66). After 7:9 Jesus leaves Galilee for Judea “where the Jews were seeking to kill Him” and does not return (in the gospel narrative) until chapter 21. The Galileans come to Him, however, in Jerusalem in 12:12, still adoring Him.

Two things happen in chapter 6, however, that upset their allegiance to Him. After the miracle of feeding the five thousand, they were awed and said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world,” and wanted to take Him by force to make Him King (6:14-15). This was the climax that made sense to them. It was how they came to understand their experience of Him up to this point. He, however, refused to cooperate and withdrew before they could seize the moment. This must have disappointed, confused and frustrated them.

Later, in the synagogue of Capernaum, Jesus tried to get them to think of Him in other—heavenly—terms, but these new terms offended them. “This word is hard; who can hear it?” (6:60-61). At least at that point (before the last Passover in chapter 12), their esteem of Him seemed to drop. In Matthew’s gospel, it is Jesus who is disappointed with them, in chapters 11—12—prior to this miracle, which occurs in chapter 14. After the miracle, He not only withdrew to the mountain—as John tells us—but withdrew from Galilee itself.

“The Passover, the Feast of the Jews, was near.” As chapter 5 was related to the Sabbath and chapter 7 will be related to the Feast of Booths, chapter 6 has to do with the Passover. In chapter 5 Jesus is the Sabbath, finishing the work of God on the cross. By entering Him through faith, we enter the Sabbath rest of God. Connected to this (Psalm 95 makes this connection; see Hebrews 3—4), He is the Promised Land as well. Implied in chapter 5 was the thought as well that by entering Him we also enter the Temple of God, the place of God’s abode.

In chapter 6, Jesus shows that He fulfills the Passover. In the discourse, He compares their eating the miraculous bread to the manna their ancestors ate in the wilderness, and then explains that He is “the true bread out of heaven” and they need to eat Him. As in the other gospels, there is an implied comparison of the Lord’s feeding the multitude with the church’s Breaking of Bread, which becomes even more apparent in the discourse when Jesus tells them they must eat His body and drink His blood. The last supper was the Passover Seder (see Luke 22:15), on the cusp of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (also called the Feast of the Passover).

There are two meals then that are alluded to: the Passover meal preceding the exodus and the repeated meals of manna with which God fed Israel after the exodus. The typology of the exodus itself, however, is seen in the crossing of the sea in John 6:16-21.

“Passing Over” the Sea (6:16-21)

Jesus is on the mountain, “Himself alone,” while the disciples labor in the boat. In the other gospels He was praying. The typological significance is that the ascended Jesus is in heaven interceding for the church, represented by the boat, which is in the midst of the stormy Gentile world (the sea itself).

Here, however, the emphasis is different. It corresponds to Israel’s crossing the Red Sea. The first Passover took place on the eve of Israel’s liberation from Egyptian bondage, corresponding to the Lord’s last supper on the eve of His crucifixion. The crossing of the Red Sea corresponds to His resurrection. While in the Book of Exodus, God divided the Sea and Israel walked through it on dry ground, in the Gospel according to John Jesus walks on the Sea. In the Old Testament the “many waters” of the sea signify not only the Gentile nations but chaos itself and sometimes death.

Israel passed over from slavery to freedom and escaped the power of Egypt when they passed over the Sea. When Jesus crossed over death in resurrection, He overcame the world and brought His disciples immediately to the other side—to freedom in Him.

Who was it that brought Israel out of bondage but He who declared Himself “I Am” (Exodus 3:14)? For the disciples in the boat, “it had already become dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them, and because a strong wind was blowing, the sea was churning.” They are like Israel in Egypt, longing for freedom. Jesus comes to the disciples, who like the Israelites became frightened by His approach, and He declares to them, “I Am (egō eimi). Do not be afraid.” When they were willing to take Him into the boat, immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. Perhaps the “land” is not only an allusion to the other side of the Red Sea but also to the Promised Land to which Israel was going. In Numbers 9—25 Israel struggled to be willing as they rebelled again and again. When they were “willing to take Him aboard”—when their rebellions had ceased—they are in the plains of Moab, by the Jordan near Jericho, at the entrance to the Promised Land (Numbers 26). When the Holy Spirit comes to the disciples on Easter and Christ is in them and they are in Him, they have entered the Promised Land.

The Prophets of Israel

Jesus’ announcement, “I Am,” is God’s self-designation in Isaiah (for example, Isaiah 48:12) as He who will bring Israel out of exile and fulfill His promises to them through the coming of the Messiah. Isaiah compares this fulfillment to the exodus event itself, only Israel will pass over the desert rather than the Sea (40:3). Jesus sees Himself as the Servant of the Lord that Isaiah speaks of in chapter after chapter.

Reading the Bible typologically is not a Christian invention. The prophets of the Old Testament already read the creation, exodus and Davidic stories typologically and Jesus interprets the Scriptures as they do. It is completely mistaken to attribute the origin of typology and even allegory to Philo and Origen. Seeing types, allegories and allusions in the Scriptures was typical of both Jesus and the apostles, but before them the prophets and psalmists were already doing it before the books of the Scriptures were even canonized.

The allusion to the exodus in John 6: 16-21 is not only to the story of the exodus in the Book of Exodus but also to the “exodus” spoken of by the prophets, and in particular by Isaiah. This exodus takes place when the Messiah comes and a new age begins, the age of the Kingdom of God when even the creation itself is renewed and is flooded with the glory of God. These promises have not yet been literally fulfilled in the physical and public sphere, but for the Gospel according to John they are fulfilled in Jesus Himself, in His glorified humanity when He rises from the dead. The exodus is fulfilled spiritually in us when He breathes the Holy Spirit into His disciples as those who believe into Him.

The New Creation

Isaiah compares the future exodus to God’s creation of the heavens and the earth. It will be a new creation. The story of the sea crossing in the Gospel according to John likewise points us to the creation event, in fact, to initial act of creation. In the story of the sea crossing it is dark and the disciples are in the midst of the waters of chaos. When the first day of creation dawned, “the earth was waste and emptiness, and darkness was on the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was brooding upon the surface of the waters” (Genesis 1:2).

Then “God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” Jesus said to the disciples, “I Am,” revealing Himself to them as the unique and exclusive divine Presence (in Isaiah this is the import of the divine self-designation).

Paul, contrasting the darkness of the world and the light of Christ, says, “We have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor adulterating the word of God, but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every conscience of men before God. And even if our Gospel is veiled, it is veiled in those who are perishing, in whom the god of this age has blinding the thoughts of the unbelievers that the illumination of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God, might not shine on them. For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake, because the God who said, ‘Out of darkness light shall shine,’ is the One who shined in our hearts to illuminate the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:1-6). (John Nelson Darby translates “illumination” in verse 4 and “illuminate” (photismos) in verse 6 by “radiancy” and “for the shining forth of” respectively, thus clarifying the sense of the whole passage.) When Jesus says, “I Am,” He radiates with the glory of God. When He says this within us, the revelation in our spirit shining in our heart, it is like the first day of creation when light shined in the darkness.

By this light shining within us, we are transformed into the same image from glory to glory even as from the Lord Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:18), and renewed day by day as affliction works out for us more and more surpassingly an eternal weight of glory (2 Corinthians 3:16-17). “If anyone is in Christ, he is [or there is] a new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). The creation itself waits for the revelation of the sons of God when the coming glory will be revealed in us, and together with us it groans and travails in labor pains for this new creation to be born. In the meantime, each of us experiences the new birth in ourselves by the revelation of Jesus as He comes to us and says, “I Am,” thus raising us from our spiritual death (John 5:24).

This self-revelation of Jesus as “I Am,” as the initial act of the new creation in those who believe into Him, is the structural center of the Gospel according to John. It radiates outward in all the beams and circles of the gospel. It also echoes in the Prologue at the beginning of the gospel: “the light shines in the darkness … the true light … as many as received Him, to them He gave the authority to become children of God, to those who believe into His name … and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only Begotten from the Father … no one has ever seen God; the only begotten Son, who is in the womb of the Father, He has declared (exēgeomai) Him.”

The waters of the Sea then—like the waters of creation—also can signify the amniotic waters of birth, as the revelation of Jesus imparts new life and children of God are born.

Baptism

If the following discourse alludes to the Lord’s Supper, this story alludes to baptism. The sea, which can represent the waters of birth, also, as we said, representing the waters of chaos and death. It can allude in this way not only to the chaos that was brought to order by the Word of God at the beginning, and the waters of the Red Sea that separated the Israelites from freedom, but might also remind us of the waters of the flood that brought judgment on the world. As Noah’s ark brought eight souls through judgment, Jesus walks upon the waters of judgment—via the cross—and brings our boat to the other shore, into the new creation. Romans 6 describes how we are identified with Christ in His death (we die in the death of the resurrected One who dwells in us) and in baptism bury our old life with Him, to rise on the other shore with Him in resurrection in newness of life. In Colossians 2:12 and Ephesians 2:5-6 we are not only in the likeness of His resurrection but have been made alive with Him and raised up with Him (“together” in the boat, as it were).

Jonah

Finally, the crossing of the sea also reminds us of Jonah who was in the midst of the sea, in the belly of a giant fish, when he repented and turned to God and the fish vomited him out onto the dry land. Jesus (in Matthew 12:40) compares His sojourn in Hades with Jonah’s ordeal in the belly of the fish. After Jonah was thus “resurrected” he travelled into the Gentile world and brought the message of salvation—the sign of Jonah. In doing so, he represents Christ abiding in us as the Spirit and becoming through us a light to the Gentiles.

Conclusion

The short passage of 6:16-21 is pregnant with meaning, then. With all its Biblical allusions, it points most significantly to the movement of Jesus within the Gospel according to John to the cross, through the waters of death, and in resurrection. The disciples in the boat represent us. As Jesus reveals Himself to them, He reveals Himself to us through His word, and as we hear His word, we escape the powers of the world and the judgment that lies on it and are born again in Him, who is the Promised Land “to which they were going.” (“They” of course refers to the disciples in the boat, but if we follow the Passover typology, it alludes to Israel coming out of Egypt—the land to which they were going was the Promised Land.)

If the Sabbath in chapter 5 alluded to the Promised Land into which Israel had not really entered (Hebrews 3:7—4:13), then chapter 6 depicts the land flowing with milk and honey. Christ is the bread of abundance that satisfies us with all the richness of the divine life. The central story of the sea crossing—alluding to His death and resurrection, and His self-revelation—brings us there.

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