As I mentioned yesterday, I’m starting 2017 by focusing on one chapter in the Bible. John 6 contains only 71 verses, but the thrust of the chapter is a challenge to believe. Or, perhaps more accurately, a challenge to reconsider who we believe in.
If you were do a Google image search of the word “believe”, one of the more popular results will be “Believe in Yourself.”
And that is the problem that causes many of our problems. All too often, we do believe in ourselves … in our abilities … our wisdom … our invincibility. From an early age, we are taught that we can do anything, be anything. The self-esteem movement was built on the premise that all we need is to feel better about ourselves and everything will be OK.
But everything isn’t OK.
What the motivational poster doesn’t tell us is that “believing in yourself” won’t fix every problem. In fact, in the fine print we find out that our human capabilities have limits. The modern era has extended the life span of the average American but it hasn’t eliminated death. Self-esteem hasn’t eradicated prejudice. In fact, by focusing so much on the self (self-esteem, self-improvement, self …), it has contributed to the breakdown in community that we are experiencing.
Someone once said that if you are wrapped up in yourself, you’ll make a very small package.
People who only believe in themselves are choosing a small-minded approach to life. That’s evident in the first 15 verses of John 6.
Jesus has been teaching a large crowd of people. We know that at least 5,000 men were present, which means that the actual number was likely a few thousand greater (in ancient times, it was common to only count the men and not the women). Knowing that they were likely hungry, Jesus asked Philip a simple question:
“Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?”
For some reason, Jesus felt a responsibility to feed a crowd that likely could have fed themselves. Philip’s answer reflects a very natural way of thinking: ““It would take more than half a yearʼs wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”
Since Philip was more spiritual than I am, let me tell you what he really said: “Jesus, are you out of your mind!”
From Philip’s answer, it’s obvious that he was believing in his own ability to solve the problem. From a purely human perspective, it would have required multiple trips to Costco to feed that many people. Not to mention how these twelve disciples were going to pay for it.
Andrew, another disciple, had been listening to the conversation between Philip and Jesus. At some point, he decided to see what he could put together. Notice his report to Jesus:
“Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”
It wasn’t just that he found a boy with five barley loaves, but they were small barley loaves. Not just two fish, but two small fish.
Why did Andrew feel the need to emphasize not just the number but the fact that they were small amounts? Did he think Jesus would not put two and two together and determine on his own that five loaves and two fish would not feed 5,000 people?
To be honest, we often miss this part of the story. In our retelling of the miracle, how often do we simply say Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish? We leave out the fact that they were small loaves and small fish.
Why is that?
To Andrew’s credit, he had gone looking for a solution. But before Jesus even had a chance to do something, Andrew began making excuses as to why it wouldn’t work. Would five large loaves of bread have made any difference?
It’s often said that Christianity is about transformation. I believe it’s also about expansion — not just of the kingdom boundaries, but of the way we think.
No matter how much you “believe in yourself”, you will always encounter a limit. “Well, there’s 5,000 people present and all we could find was five loaves of bread and two fish. Five small loaves of bread and two really small fish.” To be fair to Andrew, this logic makes sense from purely a human standpoint.
This is the challenge Jesus makes in John 6 … Will you live and move from purely a human standpoint? Those who do might call it common sense or logic or realism. Just don’t call it Christianity.
Christ-followers are believers.
Believers are to believe or else they are not believers but simply thinkers or analyzers.
As much as Andrew tried to convince Jesus that there were insufficient resources to feed so many people, Jesus never once even addressed Andrew’s concerns.
That’s often true of how Jesus handled small thinking. Rather than try to argue or debate, Jesus preferred action and results. He doesn’t get in squabble over how big or small the fish really are. He knows the size of the loaves and fish isn’t the issue. It’s the size of the disciples’ belief that really matters.
Here’s how the story concludes:
10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. 12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.
When John tells the readers that “there was plenty of grass in that place”, I’m not sure if he is simply being descriptive or if this was a slight dig at Philip and Andrew. Either way, I find it rich that the word “plenty” is used immediately after Philip and Andrew both saw only scarcity.
To believe in Jesus is to be open to possibilities that we cannot see.
That can be unsettling when what you can see is the problem, challenge, or obstacle. To believe in the power of God to do the impossible is not only unnatural, it’s supernatural. In other words, it is over and above our regular experience.
Don’t be surprised if you encounter a situation that challenges your sense of what is possible. Jesus asked Philip a loaded question and did so to test him. Jesus already knew how he was going to solve the problem but he wanted Philip to learn an important lesson: what we see is not all there is.