“When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king,
he withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (John 6:15)
In the sixth chapter of John, we have John’s account of one of the most stupendous miracles of Jesus’ ministry; the feeding of the five thousand. It is one of the seven signs John chose and around which he organized his Gospel. Along with the account of this miraculous deed, John also gives us a full account of Jesus’ conversation with the Jews who had followed him after the performance of this notable deed.
Remember that John never uses the term miracle or works of power to describe these incredible works of Jesus but the more pregnant term, signs. We would do well to consider what the purpose of a sign is. A sign points away from itself and guides people to their ultimate destination. If I am driving to Nashville and come upon a sign on the highway that tells me that Nashville is one hundred miles ahead, I wouldn’t stop at the sign and think I have arrived at my destination. No; the sign, if it does its job, points me away from itself and towards my ultimate destination.
In the same way, the seven signs John chose and arranged his Gospel point away from the deeds themselves and tell us something significant about the person of Jesus. In John 6, for example, Jesus feeds five thousand men with five loaves and two fishes. But those who followed him after this miracle were not following because they learned through this sign who Jesus really was, but because they now viewed Jesus as the One who could meet all of their physical needs (see John 6:26). They saw him as sort of a built-in social system. Therefore, their immediate response was to come and coronate him as their King. Who wouldn’t want a king who multiplies loaves and takes care of every physical need they had?
But Jesus steadfastly refused to be king on that basis. Their real need was not to be fed physically but to “eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Son of man” (6:32-51). He would only be King on the basis of meeting the real need of his people. In declaring himself to be the “bread of life”, Jesus emphatically stated He alone could sustain the soul of human beings. That was their real need. He had not come to provide them with bread (although he does that), but to provide them with bread to satisfy their ultimate need.
In making these statements, Jesus exposed their desire to have a King of things instead of a King of kings. They followed him but for the wrong reasons (though they didn’t know it). They were wanting someone who would take care of all of their outward needs, not someone who promised to meet their ultimate need. That’s because they were blind to their ultimate need and how Jesus alone could meet it.
Before condemning them for their shallowness, how often do we follow for the wrong reasons as well? We want a Jesus who meets all of our physical needs, not one who ultimately came to meet our real need. Without realizing it, we follow a King of things instead of a “King of kings”. But the real Jesus cannot be followed on that basis. Two words make this abundantly clear from John 6—“Jesus withdrew”. He always withdraws from those who would use him to get their needs met while ignoring his plan to meet their ultimate need.
“Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him” (6:66). The King of kings lost his crowd that day because he refused to merely meet the physical needs of his people, but presented himself as he who would be King on the basis of meeting his peoples’ real need. And so will we (lose our crowd) whenever the true Jesus is presented; not as our ultimate need meeter who meets every one of our creature comforts, but as the One who alone can sustain our deepest need—to know God and be sustained through living communion with his Son.