The scene in John’s Gospel now shifts to what is possibly the greatest miracle Jesus ever worked, the multiplication of loaves by the lakeside in Galilee, when Jesus fed more than five thousand people with no prior arrangements at all.
It was such an important miracle that each of the four evangelists record it in detail, some of them repeating the narrative as if a second miracle had been performed. John in particular notes that the event took place around the Passover, and in his description alludes to the eucharist. In John’s mind the loaves of bread merely anticipate Jesus’s own gift of himself, during his Passion, for the life of the world.
John further locates the venue of this miracle ‘on the hillside’. Thus he presents Jesus in the role of the Good Shepherd who is concerned about feeding his people. He is also like Moses, the great law-giver of Israel, who came down the mountainside of Sinai with the prescriptions of the old covenant . In his discourse to the crowds after the miracle Jesus invites them to a ‘new covenant’ – an invitation which was sadly rejected.
It is only John, once again, who notes Christ’s command to the disciples to gather up the fragments of the meal. In the early Church, this very word ‘gathering up’ referred to the Eucharistic bread, and soon became a symbol for the ‘gathering of the faithful’ for the first part of the Mass.
Most important of all however are the reactions of the crowd to the miracle. They realize who Jesus really is: “Surely this must be the prophet who was to come into this world !” Jesus sees that the multitudes will make him messiah by force, and acts quickly: the disciples are dispatched by boat across the lake, and he himself disappears into the darkness of the hillside.
It is not Jesus’s destiny to be a political messiah such as the popular expectations would have him. God’s plans for him are completely different!