According to John’s account of the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus first asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, that these may eat?” (John 6:5). John then comments on Jesus’ question, saying, “This He was saying to test him; for He Himself knew what He was intending to do” (John 6:6). In our reading today, we can’t help but wonder if Jesus was similarly testing all of His disciples when He expressed His concern for the hungry multitude. I wonder if He was hoping they would respond by saying, “Lord, there are a thousand fewer men here than when you multiplied food just a few days ago, and we have two more loaves of bread than we did last time! This should be an easy miracle for you!” Regrettably they said, “Where will anyone be able to find enough to satisfy these men with bread here in a desolate place?” (8:4). I imagine a big sigh from Jesus. Why do we always consider the difficulty of a situation rather than the power of God to overcome anything?
If Jesus wasn’t disappointed with His disciples’ lack of faith as He was about to feed the 4,000, He certainly was disappointed a short time later as they crossed the sea of Galilee. He warned them then to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, the word leaven being a metaphor for “teaching” (Matt. 16:12). Rather than interpreting the word leaven in light of its surrounding context, however, they ignored all the context and focused only on the literal meaning of leaven. Since they had forgotten to take sufficient bread with them for their crossing, they assumed Jesus was rebuking them for that. This was a small foreshadowing of how Jesus’ words would often be misunderstood for the next 2,000 years!
Jesus’ exhortation in the boat was not the only time that He warned of false teachers or false teaching. And having already read James, Galatians, and 1 and 2 Thessalonians, we have some idea how frequently James and Paul made efforts to do the same. Almost all of the book of Galatians, for example, is a warning against and an expose’ of false teaching. Today it is often considered uncharitable to preach a sermon that addresses false teaching. Pastors often feel pressured to “keep it positive.” To warn the sheep, however, is to imitate Christ and the apostles. As we continue reading through the New Testament epistles, you may be surprised to learn how often the apostolic writers dealt with false teaching and false teachers. If we only feed the sheep but never warn them, we only fatten them for slaughter.
Compounding the apostles’ misinterpretation of Jesus’ warning was their lack of faith regarding God’s ability to supply their needs. Seeing how Jesus had recently fed 5,000 and 4,000 men with only a few loaves and fish, it would seem unlikely for Him to be worried or upset that the twelve brought only one loaf of bread with them as they ferried across the Sea of Galilee. And here is good lesson for us all: God is never worried! If our Father isn’t worried, why should we worry?
Jesus’ words about the necessity of denying oneself and taking up one’s cross were not a call for heaven-bound believers to make a deeper commitment, as they are often construed. They were a call to anyone who wanted to “come after” Jesus (8:34). Jesus went on to declare that only those who lose their lives for His sake and the gospel’s sake will ultimately save their lives. All others, though they may gain the whole world, will forfeit their souls (8:35-36). These are obviously words about salvation. Thus we can safely say that only those who deny themselves, take up their crosses (an expression for accepting inevitable hardship), and lose their lives for Jesus’ and the gospel’s sake (give up their personal agendas and dedicate themselves to Jesus’ agenda) will be saved. All others will “forfeit their souls” (8:36). Such people are, in reality, ashamed of Jesus and His words. Jesus will be ashamed of them when He returns (8:38). If only this simple truth could be understood and applied by every professing Christian!