The party was breaking up. Jesus had fed over 5,000 people and then sent them and his disciples on their way. But the people weren’t done with him yet. So they commandeered some boats that had just landed from Tiberias, and went out in search of the miracle worker.
When they found him at Capernaum, they asked when he had arrived. They may have been legitimately puzzled. They hadn’t seen him get into a boat, so how and when did he get there?
But Jesus was not inclined to make chit-chat. He knew what they wanted, and went straight to the point:
Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal. (John 6:26-27, NRSV)
It’s reasonable to suppose that many if not most of the people Jesus was speaking to that day were poor. Providing for their daily bread was no small matter, and they shouldn’t be faulted for being drawn to Jesus in that way.
The question, however, is whether they would be able to see Jesus as more than a perpetual lunch ticket.
Using their natural desire for the earthly food “that perishes” as leverage, he tries to redirect toward the heavenly food that “endures for eternal life.” It’s reminiscent of his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount: You’re always worried about where you’re going to get your food and drink, about what you’ll have to wear. Your Father knows this. Have faith, and put your energy into seeking his kingdom and righteousness instead. And stop worrying (Matt 6:25-34).
But they’re not hearing him properly. Jesus tells them to work for the food that endures; they answer, “Okay, then, tell us what we have to do.”
“This is the work of God,” Jesus replies, “that you believe in him whom he has sent” (vs. 29).
In John’s gospel, all of Jesus’ miraculous signs have been meant to point to his true identity as the one sent by the Father. Each sign is an invitation to the people to see and believe.
But they were thinking with their stomachs. Their desire to guarantee where the next meal was coming from was hindering the response of faith. They could not see who Jesus was because of who they needed and wanted him to be.
And that’s a problem for faith in any age. More on that in part 2.