John 6 and the Passover


by Doug Ward

During His earthly ministry, Jesus Christ took full advantage of the opportunities afforded by the festival celebrations of Israel to explain His mission and demonstrate His Messiahship. The annual Holy Day seasons are rich with Messianic symbolism, and Jesus dramatically brought out the meanings of many festival types and symbols through his miracles and teachings.

A prime example of Jesus' festival teaching is recorded in the sixth chapter of John's gospel. John mentions that the events of this chapter occurred shortly before the Passover season (John 6:4), and the great significance of these events becomes apparent when we study them in the context of the Jewish Passover traditions of that era. In this article, I will describe some of those Passover traditions and show how Jesus used them to demonstrate clearly who He was and why He had come. Along the way, I will also discuss the literary structure of this remarkable chapter of Scripture, which seems to be designed for maximum impact on its original audience and may give us some clues about early Christian Passover celebrations.


Walking on Water

As Passover approached, the thoughts of the people of Galilee naturally turned to the miraculous events surrounding the first Passover, when God delivered the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt. The miracles of the Exodus included the plagues of Egypt; the crossing of the Red Sea and accompanying destruction of Pharaoh's army; the pillar of a cloud and pillar of fire that led the Israelites on their journey; the manna God sent to feed them; and the water that came from a rock when Moses struck it with his rod. In the synagogue in Capernaum, where Jesus was teaching (John 6:59), these wonders were recounted each year during this time. All of them are celebrated, for example, in Psalm 78, which is quoted in John 6:31.

Another part of the backdrop of the drama recorded in John 6 is the fact that Messianic expectations ran high in that era, particularly during the festival seasons. As had been promised in Deut. 18:15, 18, the Messiah would be a great prophet like Moses, one who would again deliver Israel, perform miracles, and bring truth from God.

With these things in mind, we can readily picture what Jesus' disciples might have been thinking when He walked across the Sea of Galilee one night to join them in a boat there (John 6:17-21). Perhaps some of them remembered Ps. 77:19, a verse which was associated with God's parting of the Red Sea:


``Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.''(NIV)


Nearly fifteen centuries before, God had opened a path for His people, enabling the Israelites to cross the Red Sea on dry land. Now Jesus was making possible something even greater for His disciples: they, like Him, would be able to walk on the water itself (Matt. 14:28-31).

As He reached the boat, Jesus said, ``It is I; be not afraid'' (John 6:21). The words ``It is I'' are significant too. These same Greek words appear often in the gospel of John when Jesus is asserting His divinity, saying He is the great ``I am'' (e.g., John 8:58).

At the end of John 6, Peter says, ``And we believe and are sure that thou art Christ, the son of the living God'' (verse 69, KJV). Jesus' miracle of walking on water was no doubt one of the pieces of evidence which led the disciples to this understanding (see Matt. 14:33), and certainly Jesus performed the miracle to emphasize for them the fact that He was indeed the promised Messiah.


Feeding the Five Thousand

Bread is one of the great symbols of the Passover season, and it is connected with the spring festival in various ways. First, of course, there is the unleavened bread that is eaten during this time. Second, there is an old tradition that Abraham's three special visitors (Gen. 18) arrived just before the time of Passover, and that Abraham's hospitality to them set a pattern later followed by God in His gracious dealings with Israel in the wilderness [2, pp. 16, 19]. As Abraham had water brought for the guests (Gen. 18:4), God gave the Israelites water from a rock; as Abraham served bread to them (verse 6), God fed Israel with manna; and as Abraham escorted the visitors toward Sodom (verse 16), God accompanied His people in the pillar of a cloud and pillar of fire.

A third connection also involves manna. When Israel arrived in the Promised Land, the manna fell from heaven for the last time at Passover (Joshua 5:10-12). After that, according to one rabbinic tradition, the manna was to remain in heaven until the coming of the Messiah [2, p.19]. Since Joshua 5 was traditionally one of the synagogue readings for the spring festival, these things were probably fresh on the minds of the people whom Jesus taught in John 6.

Keeping in mind this background, let us now consider the implications of Jesus' feeding of the 5000 (John 6:5-14). Here five barley loaves and two small fishes somehow provided enough food to fill the large and hungry crowd (vv. 9-12). The scene was reminiscent of the one described in Ps. 78:24-25:


``he rained down manna for the people to eat, he gave them the grain of heaven. Men ate the bread of angels; he sent them all the food they could eat.'' (NIV)


In fact, there was more than enough food to satisfy the assembled throng-the remaining bread filled twelve baskets! (v. 13) By mentioning the amount left over, John seems to be stressing the fact that more bread remained at the end than had been distributed at the beginning.

Daube [1, p. 42-43] observes that the wording of Jesus' instructions in v. 12 also supports the idea that all of the original bread was still there at the end. In instructing His disciples to pick up the leftover bread, Jesus says, ``Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.'' (v. 12) Notice that Jesus says ``that nothing be lost'' rather than ``that none of the fragments be lost.'' The implication of vv.12-13 is that all of the original bread-and then some-was left afterwards.

Think of the effect that these events must have had on the five thousand who were fed. Like the manna in the wilderness, the bread of Jesus' miracle had provided enough for everyone. But this bread was even better than manna. Unlike the manna, which usually rotted if kept overnight (Ex. 16:19-20), the bread they had eaten seemed to be imperishable, with more left at the end than had been available at the beginning. Who could have provided such bread but the Messiah? Given the nature of Jesus' miracle, it is no wonder that people proclaimed Him to be the ``prophet like unto Moses'' of Deut. 18 and wanted to make Him king right then and there (vv. 14-15).


Bread for Three Ages

The feeding of the five thousand was prefigured by other incidents in Israel's history besides the giving of manna in the wilderness. One such incident is Elisha's feeding of one hundred with just twenty loaves of barley bread from the spring harvest (2 Kings 4:42-44). In this case also there was some bread left over. Jesus' miracle undoubtedly led many witnesses to conclude that they were in the presence of someone even greater than Elisha.

A less obvious type of the feeding of the five thousand is found in the second chapter of the book of Ruth. When Boaz provided Ruth with grain from the spring harvest, we read in Ruth 2:14 that ``she did eat, and was sufficed, and left'' (KJV). Daube [1, p. 46] points out that the three-part structure of this phrase parallels the description of Jesus' miracle given in the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 14:20; Luke 9:17; Mark 6:42-43). In both cases, someone was fed and had plenty to eat, and food was left over.

There were in those days a number of allegorical interpretations of the book of Ruth (see [1, pp. 46-51]), in which Ruth was seen as a type of her descendant David or of the Messiah, while Boaz was often viewed as a type of God. In some of these interpretations, the three-part phrase in Ruth 2:14 was seen as a prophecy of God's blessings to His people in three different ages-the present, the time of the Messiah, and the world to come.

It is interesting to look at Jesus' teaching in John 6 in light of these traditions. In John 6, Jesus contrasts three types of bread. First there is the manna, the miraculous bread of the Exodus. Second, we have the seemingly imperishable bread that fed the five thousand, provided by the Messiah. Third, Jesus emphasizes in the rest of this chapter that He Himself is an even greater kind of ``bread.'' By accepting Christ's sacrifice through the Christian Passover or Eucharist, one could ingest this kind of bread and receive eternal life (vv. 32-57).

Daube [1, p. 50] also points out a further link between John 6 and Ruth 2. In John 6:27-29, Jesus tells His audience that the ``work'' God wants them to do is to believe on Him, the One sent by God. This passage is similar to Ruth 2:12, where Boaz blesses Ruth for actively placing her trust in the God of Israel.


John 6 and the Passover Haggadah

Since John 6 contains a dramatic and powerful message about Passover symbolism and the Christian Eucharist, some scholars have suggested that this chapter might have had a special liturgical use in early Christian Paschal services. Such suggestions are impossible to verify conclusively, but there are several points in their favor.

We do know, for example, that the apostle John and his disciples in Asia Minor were Quartodecimani-i.e., they celebrated Christ's crucifixion and resurrection on Nisan 14 in the Hebrew calendar, the anniversary of the Last Supper. The most important information that we possess about what these celebrations might have been like is contained in the Paschal Homily of Melito, a Quartodeciman bishop of Sardis during the latter part of the second century A.D (see [3]). In this sermon, whose text is Exodus 12, Melito discusses how the events of the first Passover are types which find fulfillment in Christ. Since John 6 also deals with the Christian meanings of Passover symbols and events, it would have been a natural text for a sermon at a Quartodeciman service.

Further hints that John 6 may have been used in early Christian Passover services are provided by the formal structure of this chapter. In the Jewish Passover Seders of Jesus' time, the ceremony began with the meal, which included the lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs. Then there were questions from the youngest people present about the meaning of what they were doing. Finally, the leader of the group (the father, if it was a family) would tell the story of Israel's slavery in Egypt and God's subsequent deliverance of His people. The overall pattern of the Seder consisted of (1) an unusual action, in this case the meal; (2) questions about the meaning of the action; and (3) an explanation of the action [1, pp. 186-187].

In John 6, we find a similar pattern. First, there is another unusual action, the feeding of the five thousand. Second, the Jews ask questions about the meaning of this miracle. Third, Jesus answers the questions by explaining that He is the ultimate Bread from heaven who will bring eternal life.

Interestingly, the order of events in the Jewish Passover Seder was later changed, apparently at around the end of the second or beginning of the third century. After that time, the questions and the explanation came first and the meal was eaten at the end. Daube [1, pp. 193-195] speculates that this change may have been a reaction to the Passover celebrations of Jewish Christians. If Jewish Christians held Seders in which a meal was followed by a discussion of its full Christian meaning, it might have been a natural Jewish reaction to put the traditional explanations right at the beginning of the service in an effort to ensure that the ceremony did not end up taking a ``wrong turn'' in a Christian direction.

There is also a rough correspondence between the questions asked of Jesus in John 6 and the four questions traditionally asked by the children at a Jewish Seder. Both reflect variations on a rabbinic tradition that the questions people might pose to the sages fall into four categories [1, pp. 158-169]. In one version of this four-part division, the four types of questions are: (1) questions about the requirements of the law; (2) questions about a difficult scripture or apparent contradiction in the Bible; (3) mocking or vulgar questions; and (4) practical questions about how to lead a moral and successful life. Another version replaces (4) with the category of ``stupid questions.''

In the Passover Haggadah, a ``wise'' child asks, ``What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and ordinances which the Lord our God has commanded you?'' This is a question about the laws of God and what God requires of a person. Similarly, in John 6:28, Jesus is asked, ``What shall we do, that we might work the works of God?'' This is also a question about what God asks a person to do.

A second Passover question is posed by a ``wicked'' child: ``What means this service of yours?'' This question is interpreted as being asked in a mocking or vulgar spirit, about a service that is ``yours'' rather than ``ours.'' In John 6:42, Jesus is asked a mocking question: ``Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? how is it then that he saith, I came down from heaven?''

A third question, ``What does this mean?'', is seen either as a request for a simple, straightforward, practical explanation, or as a stupid question. The question in John 6:52, ``How can this man give us his flesh to eat?'', could also be interpreted in these two ways.

In the Passover service, the fourth child is too young to ask a question. This differs from the rabbinic classification, where the remaining question would be one about the scriptures. However, John 6 does contain such a question in vv. 30-31:


``What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat.''


This may be seen as an inquiry about how Jesus' teaching relates to what the questioners understand from the scriptures.

The correspondence between the traditional Passover questions and those in John 6 is not an exact one, but the rough similarity may still indicate that John had the structure of a Passover service in mind when he wrote this chapter. Gärtner [2, p. 28] points out one more interesting similarity between the Jewish Passover Haggadah and John 6. At the beginning of a Seder, just before the four questions, the leader of the group raises the Seder dish and says, ``This is the bread of oppression, which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Everyone who hungers may come and eat; everyone who is needy may come and celebrate the Passover feast .... '' These words remind us of Jesus' invitation in John 6:35: ``I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.''


Closing Thoughts

There is no way for us to determine exactly what early Christian Paschal services were like, and it is not the point of this article to suggest that God requires us to closely imitate their liturgy. At the same time, growing numbers of Christians today do find it meaningful to gather for Christian Seders, and our study suggests that such a celebration could be designed readily around the text of John 6.

In this article, we have explored the Hebraic background of John 6. Such studies serve to bring our Savior's words and actions into clear focus by exploring their full implications in their original historical context. With a deeper understanding of this remarkable chapter of the Bible, we can have a greater appreciation of the true Bread of Life during the Paschal season and throughout the year.




1.      David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism, The Athlone Press, University of London, 1956 (reprinted in 1994 by Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts).

2.      Bertil Gärtner, ``John 6 and the Jewish Passover,'' Coniectanea Neotestamentica 17, C.W.K. Gleerup, Lund, 1959.

3.      Stuart George Hall, editor and translator, Melito of Sardis-On Pascha and Fragments, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1979.

Issue 7


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