WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?
A sermon on John 6:1-21
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
July 25, 2021
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our
Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
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
Here is an item from the “Truth Really Is Stranger Than Fiction” file…
We begin with an article that appeared in the December 22, 2000 edition of the New Jersey
Star-Ledger newspaper. I am going to read the story pretty much just as it originally appeared with only
some minor editing. And I promise that the names will not be changed to protect the innocent—or the
A daring thief who stuffed a pair of live lobsters in his pants learned that crime doesn’t pay…
Police say that the 24-year old shoplifter was leaving a Bristol, England, supermarket when he
removed the lobsters from their tank and shoved them into his trousers. The man sprinted past stunned
check-out girls, but came to a screeching halt when he felt the lobsters clutching on to his [private parts].
The thorny creatures were finally removed when emergency medics pried them loose with pliers.
Doctors say that the thief will fully recover from the frightening tangle with the lobsters, but he will never
be a daddy…
The thief’s painful prank landed him in the hospital, where he is expected to remain for three or
four weeks. But thanks to a kindhearted supermarket manager, he will not be charged with any crime.
“This guy’s gone through enough pain,” said the store manager. “I think he has learned his lesson. I
doubt if he’ll ever steal again.”
I dunno…Shoplifting live lobsters by stuffing them down the front of your pants…What could
possibly go wrong with that plan, right?…I’ll tell you that my first response to the story when I first read
it years ago was, “How did the would-be thief come to the conclusion that that was a good idea? What
was he thinking?”
Today’s gospel passage tells two of the most famous miracle stories from the life of our Lord
Jesus. The first one is the story of feeding of the five thousand with five small barley loaves and two fish.
The second story involves Jesus walking on water as his disciples were in a boat during a storm. And in
both instances, the question which comes most readily to my mind is, “What were they thinking?”
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The story of the feeding of the five thousand is contained in the first fifteen verses of the
chapter. Jesus was teaching a large group of his followers on the hillside. The hour became late in the
day. Jesus turned to Philip, one of the original twelve disciples and asked him, “Where are we going to
buy enough bread for everyone to eat?” Philip replies that six month’s wages would not be enough to
buy enough bread for everyone…
Next, another one of the disciples named Andrew came up and said, “There’s a boy here with
five barley loaves and two fish—but that would not be nearly enough to feed so many.” Jesus instructed
the disciples to get the people to sit down. Whereupon Jesus prayed over the food and began
distributing it to his disciples. The disciples took the food that Jesus gave them, passed it out among the
crowd, and miraculously, there was more than enough for everyone to eat and be satisfied. John reports
that there were about five thousand people in the crowd. And at the end of the feast, the disciples
gathered up twelve baskets of leftovers…
(Something that I’ve been wondering this week…It does not really have much to do with the
main ideas of the sermon, but still…In verse 12, Jesus gives the instructions to the disciples that they are
to gather up the fragments that were left, so that nothing would be lost. Did you ever wonder what
happened to those twelve baskets of leftovers that they gathered up at the end of the meal? What did
they do with them? Did they eat them the next day for lunch? Did Jesus and the disciples hand out
“doggie bags” to the people as they left to go home? Did they take the leftovers to some neighboring
villages to feed the poor? Or maybe they fed them to the birds? Who knows? The scriptures don’t tell
us, and I do not think that the matter is critical in interpreting the story…but I am curious about it just
Anyway…The feeding of the five thousand is one of the few miracle stories that occurs in all four
But John includes a detail that none of the other writers mention. After the meal, John tells us
in verse 15 that the people were about to take Jesus by force and make him king. When Jesus realized
what was going on, John tells us that he withdrew from them and went off to the mountain by himself.
Concerning the crowd, what were they thinking?
Up to this point in the gospel of John, Jesus has been at work teaching, healing, and doing good
deeds throughout the region. In Cana, he helped rescue a wedding celebration from disaster by turning
six barrels of water into wine. He then cleared out the moneychangers from the Temple in Jerusalem,
declaring, “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a marketplace!” He conversed with a Pharisee
named Nicodemus about what it means to be born again. He discussed theology and worship with a
Samaritan woman at the well. He healed the son of a royal official in Capernaum and very publically
healed a man on the Sabbath—a man who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. And he has verbally
sparred with the Pharisees about religious laws and traditions.
The others are Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:32-44 and Luke 9:10-17.
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When reading those early chapters, there is nothing in them to suggest that Jesus was
interested in the least in violent revolution. There is nothing among his teachings that would give one
the impression that Jesus was contemplating raising an army and leading it in an attempt to overthrow
Imperial Rome. Nothing. But amid all his talk about religion and faith and watching the miracles he
performed, some in the crowd obviously got the wrong impression of who Jesus was and what he was
about. They had misunderstood the implications of what they had just experienced. So they wanted to
take Jesus by force and make him king. Considering all of the evidence, it brings one to ask the question,
“What were they thinking?”
There was nothing about Jesus that would bring one to the conclusion that he was any kind of
military leader. He did not give any fiery, rabble-rousing speeches about a coming revolution. But the
expectation in Israel was that, when the Messiah, the Chosen One of God, arrived on the scene, he
would break the yoke of the oppressor. He would restore the dynasty of David to its rightful place of
ruling Israel. This is what the people had heard and had been taught from an early age. While Jesus
clearly did not exhibit the kind of personality that would lead one to believe that he was a military
commander, many of the people thought that he exhibited enough of the other qualities of the Messiah
in his teachings and actions. There were those who thought that he was indeed the person that they had
been expecting for hundreds of years—the one to finally free them from their adversaries. And he
was….It was just not in the way that they expected.
Later on in John, Jesus would stand trial before Pilate and address that very issue. Pilate would
ask him flat out, “Are you the king of the Jews?” After a little bit of back and forth between the two,
Jesus would tell him, “My kingdom is not of this world…My kingdom is from another place.” Pilate
responds, “You are a king, then!” Jesus replies, “You are right in saying that I am a king…”2
But he was
never a king in the way that Pilate—or many of Jesus’ followers—thought he would be. That is why their
thinking and actions were off the mark…
The second miracle story in today’s text begins in verse 16. Jesus had escaped the crowd who
had wanted to take him by force and make him king. The disciples, meanwhile, decided that it would be
a good time to take a boat out on the Sea of Galilee and go to the city of Capernaum. After they had
gone a few miles, night time fell. The waves began to be rough. The wind started picking up, and
suddenly they found themselves in the middle of a nighttime storm. And they became terrified. John
tells us that they were not afraid because of the bad weather. They became fearful when they saw Jesus
walking across the waves to them, perhaps thinking that he was a ghost. Jesus called out to them and
told them to not be afraid. They would have taken him into the boat with them, but by that time, the
boat had reached their destination and all were safe.
And the question could be asked, “What were the disciples thinking when they decided to
launch out into the deep?”
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As far as we can tell from the text, Jesus left the disciples and the crowd without giving the
disciples any instructions. He apparently left them without telling them of his intentions. If I had to
hazard a guess, I would say that the disciples got nervous about what they had witnessed when the
crowd tried to forcibly make Jesus king. They wanted to get out of there. All of a sudden, Jesus was gone
and they didn’t know what to do. So rather than do nothing, they decided to do something—even if it
was wrong. They decided to go out onto the lake…
Was it a good idea? It’s hard to tell. They left without either Jesus’ knowledge or his sanction.
That’s never a good idea. And they left at night. Now we know that several of the disciples had been
commercial fishermen before they came to follow Jesus. No doubt they had been out on the lake many
times during the night time hours to catch fish. So perhaps that was not problematic to them. And
maybe that’s why they were not frightened when the wind began to blow and the waves began to get
rougher. They had seen all that before. It was only the appearance of Jesus –in an unexpected way—
that made them feel afraid…
The majority of scholars believe that this story is John’s version of a somewhat different story
that is recorded in two of the other three gospels.3
Some believe that they are two different stories.
Regardless of whether or not they are describing the same event, there are some significant differences.
In Matthew and Mark, the disciples are out on the lake when the storm starts to blow. In
Matthew’s account, when he sees Jesus walking on the water, Peter calls out to him and asks if he can
join him. Jesus encourages him to come on. But Peter got spooked by the rising waves and became
afraid. He started to sink until Jesus pulled him up out of the water. In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus
then climbs in the boat with the disciples. And, when he does, the wind and the waves immediately
But John’s telling of the story is different. Notice that John never says that Jesus got into the
boat with the disciples. He does not say that Jesus invited Peter to join him on the water. And also
notice that Jesus never commanded the wind and the waves to “Peace! Be still!” Instead Jesus came to
the frightened disciples even while the wind was violently blowing and the waves were crashing on the
deck. Jesus did not stop the storm that threatened to engulf the disciples. NO. Instead Jesus made
himself known to them in the midst of it.
It seems to me that this is the way our Lord Jesus comes to us. The storms of life are inevitable.
No one can escape them. The howling storms of doubt and fear are going to assail us. We might be
blown to and fro by unexpected heartache and loss. We may fear that we might even founder and
become shipwrecked. The sad truth is that the spiritual landscape is littered with the lives of those
whose faith could not weather life’s storms.
3 Matthew 14:22-33 and Mark 6:45-51.
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Just like the disciples, followers of Jesus are not immune from the storms of life. Here’s the
thing: God never promised that we would have nothing but sunny skies and clear sailing once we decide
to follow Jesus. We will still know heartbreak. We will still know disappointment. We will still know
sorrow in our lives. There is no getting around it. God does not bubble-wrap his children. To the
contrary, in John 16:33, Jesus told his disciples straight up, “In this world, you will have trouble.” And
then he adds these comforting words, “But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Maybe the disciples would have had an easier time of it had they been searching the horizon for
Jesus. They didn’t. They weren’t looking for him while they were out on the water. They trusted in their
own abilities and resources. And, because of that, they put themselves in peril. And maybe that is the
takeaway for us this morning. In times of trial and trouble, in times of pain and loss, in times of
disappointment and grief, look to the horizon. See Jesus walking on the water toward you. Instead of
being frightened or discouraged, take heart. Take comfort in his love and care. And know that he is with
you always—even to the end of the world…
To God alone be the glory. Amen.