We have already mentioned the use of “miraculous signs” in the second verse of the sixth chapter of John, as it is this instance that sent us traveling down this particular path. The sixth chapter contains another usage of the phrase, occurring following the story of the feeding of the five thousand. There, when pressed as to how it is that He had been able to make it to the place at which He was now encountered, Jesus says “I tell you the solemn truth, you are looking for Me not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate all the loaves of bread you wanted” (6:26). To that He adds, “Do not work for the food that disappears, but for the food that remains to eternal life” (6:27a). Here, as in the third chapter and the conversation with Nicodemus that stemmed from His actions in the Temple as recorded in the second chapter, the witness of miraculous signs is tied to “eternal life,” which the hearers of this story know is linked to the need for belief in Jesus as the harbinger of the kingdom of God.
The notion that Jesus’ miraculous signs, especially as they relate to the provision of bread, are connected to the kingdom of God, is given further concretion by the people’s response, which is “What must we do to accomplish the deeds God requires?” (6:28b) This, of course, as Jesus expresses the love of God, and as we desire to know what it means to express our love to and for one another in aspiration towards discipleship, is what Jesus desires from His people. Relating to the belief in Jesus in connection to the presence of the kingdom of God, Jesus says “This is the deed God requires---to believe in the one whom He sent” (6:29). Here, belief must take on the form of a loyal allegiance to God and His purposes to lead His people in an exodus and to bring them into that which He has promised to them, as the statement makes a push towards the previously mentioned reference to Moses. This push towards Moses culminates with the response to Jesus’ statement about the deeds required by God, which is “Then what miraculous sign will you perform, so that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, just as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (6:30-31)
Amazingly, the author presents the people as having already forgotten about the bread that was in fact provided, though it has just been referenced by Jesus. Interestingly enough, if we were to examine Jesus’ statement closely, which was “I tell you the solemn truth, you are looking for me not because you saw miraculous signs, but because you ate all the loaves of bread you wanted” (6:26), we might be inclined to think that Jesus draws a distinction between the performance of miraculous signs and the provision of bread. However, this might be drawing the distinction a bit too sharply. Surely, the multiplication of the loaves must be taken as a miraculous sign---as much as was the provision of manna in the wilderness. So it seems as if Jesus is indicating that it was not the miraculous sign of the bread being multiplied that has caused the people to continue to come to Him, but rather the filling of their bellies. This appears to function as a reflection upon Israel in the wilderness, in that even though daily bread was miraculously provided to God’s people, the story of their time in the wilderness is underlined by a startling lack of belief in their God’s ability to fulfill His promises. Even though the people were faithful to go out to gather the manna each and every day (excluding the Sabbath), they did not follow through on the deeds that God required, which was a faithful belief in His ability to perform on behalf of His people, according to His covenant promises, as He intended to bring them into the promised land and set them on high as a kingdom for His glory.
It might be the case that Jesus is here making the same type of point, while we also find a reflection back to the people’s desire to acclaim Him as their king, so that He might take on, overthrow, and drive out the Romans, which would be yet another instance of not following through on the deeds that God requires, with a faithful belief that God will enter into history, on His own terms and timing, to perform on behalf of His people, according to His covenant promises. This could be akin to the instances in the wilderness in which the people took it upon themselves to act to bring themselves into God’s purposed kingdom, with these instances never turning out well. While we consider all of these things, while also continuing to consider the fact that the author is making a presentation to a community that is hearing this in a single sitting, that is ensconced within an oral tradition, and is well-versed in the history of Israel, it would not be a mis-step to consider the provision of bread, prima facie, as an act of love to which disciples of Jesus should aspire. Even though it was not met with a proper response, or at least with the response that Jesus may have desired, Jesus still met a physical need, and did so, as far as this Gospel is concerned, as an action of the incarnate God of Israel. As a loving and compassionate God revealed Himself to His people on a continual basis through the provision of manna, in spite of consistent failings, so Jesus acted out of love and compassion to reveal God in much the same way.