We often consider how Jesus was tempted in all points as we are, but have you ever thought about what might have been the most difficult temptation for Jesus? Perhaps there’s a clue in our reading today from John 6. In verse 15 it says, “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Why do you think when the people finally recognized he was a king did he need time alone? He had just performed the amazing miracle of feeding five thousand people with five loaves and two fish and this was their reaction. What happens next is he begins to preach in a way that was hard for them to hear and understand. Trying to have them appreciate the spiritual food as well as the physical food. But his message was misunderstood by his own disciples and we find out the people went from wanting to make him their king in verse 66 – “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” – to their reaction to the difficult things he taught, like “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” (v.56) which many of his disciples said, “is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (v.60).
So, on the one hand, we have Jesus performing a miracle to feed hungry people, and they wanted to make him king. On the other hand, he taught things hard to receive and they abandoned him. What would you or I have done in that situation? You have a very positive reaction followed by an extremely negative one. In trying to win the hearts and minds of the people one method seems to have worked, and the other dismally failed. Jesus must have felt the temptation to carry on doing things like feeding five thousand people. That’s why he had to get out of the situation, as verse 15 says, to a mountain alone. The people wanted to make him king – and he is their king! He’s the Messiah, the Son of David, and they recognize him for who he is. But by the end of the chapter all the enthusiasm of the people has gone. From a human point of view, it looks like Jesus lost a massive opportunity to keep the crowds on his side.
In many ways this is a reenactment of his wilderness temptation when he saw all the kingdoms of the world. His other wilderness temptations find their counterpart in the context too. In verses 30-31 he is tempted to show the people a sign involving the creation of bread, and in chapter 7:4 he is tempted by his half-brothers to “show yourself to the world”, just as he was tempted to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple and glide gently to the earth with the help of the angels. What Jesus is experiencing here, at the crossroads of his ministry, is what the wilderness temptations were really all about; would Jesus conform his message to the wishes of the people? They expected the Messiah to do things like perform miracles and especially become their king right then and save them from the Romans.
You’ll also notice in the context several allusions to the wilderness wanderings of the children of Israel. For instance, when they asked Jesus to perform another miracle involving bread they reminded Jesus “our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness” (v.31) and a couple of times we see the people around him grumbling (v.41, 61) just like the Israelites had done. What’s interesting about that is Moses experienced the same things as Jesus. He too performed amazing miracles that attracted the attention of the people, but when the teaching started, they didn’t want to listen to the voice of God. Moses’ ministry ended with his death before he could enter the Promised Land, and just about everyone responsible who left Egypt also died in the wilderness. His mission, from a human standpoint, was a dismal failure. Jesus’ mission was likewise going to end in abject disappointment as those he came to save didn’t want to hear his message and instead delivered him over to be crucified.
Of course, in hindsight we know what was going on. When Jesus fed the five thousand it wasn’t about feeding their bellies, it was about giving them an object lesson about what he taught in the rest of the chapter. He is the bread of life and they need to feed on his body by taking his example into themselves. We understand this now but in the heat of what was going on in John 6 the temptation to conform to the wishes of the people, to keep them on his side, must have been intense.
It is hard to resist the temptation to conform to what people expect of us, and to do and say things that will keep them on our side. The gospel message isn’t easy for our modern society to digest. Living the gospel message makes us outsiders. We can come across as naive or narrow-minded, believing in mythical folklore and ignorant of science. Our spreading the good news of the coming Kingdom can seem like we are believing in a crazy apocalyptic fantasy. We’d much rather fit in by watering down the message, and watering down our way of living. That might make us more popular, but we will be discarding the words of Christ which are “spirit and life” (v.63). However hard Jesus’ sayings might be they lead to eternal life. Let’s not be one of those who die in the wilderness of the twenty-first century because we would rather fit in with our neighbors than save them.
Simi Hills, CA