By the time we break into chapter 6 of John’s Gospel, we’ve already been treated to five different portraits of Jesus and His sensitivity to the present needs of those around Him. Rather than imposing a preset ministry program upon His audiences, He meets them with a genuine interest in their current situation and a compassion to bless them in whatever way they needed it most. We’ve seen Him bless people in their social, spiritual, emotional, and physical needs. And now in John 6, we can see the impact of that person-first ministry:
Then a great multitude followed Him, because they saw His signs which He performed on those who were diseased. John 6:2, NKJV
Word gets around quickly that Jesus cares about our needs and that He can actually do something about them, and the people respond with great enthusiasm and interest. Maybe that’s an understatement. Their interest turns into an initiative to crown Jesus as their king!
These people had never seen Someone who was so unselfish and caring, Someone who understood the full spectrum of their needs and was moved with no-strings-attached love to minister to those needs.
If this was the response of people to Jesus’ selfless ministry, I believe it is to be the expected response and openness of people to the selfless ministry of Jesus’ church. When our communities and neighbors feel that we take interest in them for their good and that we are not only sympathetic to but practically invested in their needs, we will see surprising receptivity.
But popularity does not always equal success. Ratings do not always translate into discipleship. Notice how the story turns on the issue of motive and ambition:
Jesus answered them and said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled." John 6:26, NKJV
In the heat of the moment, Jesus discerns what truly fuels the multitude’s fervent pursuit of His presence. The people had not in mind the things of God but the things of men, something that Jesus’ own disciples were guilty of as well (cf. Mt. 16:23). The values of the frenzied multitudes were not aligned with eternal values, and Jesus checks that swell of self-centered, short-sighted enthusiasm. He was not willing to sacrifice the mission of revealing the eternal gospel for catering to the crowd’s expectations. At the risk of letting popularity ratings fall, Jesus sets before the people what they ought to fix their hopes upon and what their souls should hunger after: the everlasting gospel, the good news of life in Jesus alone.
And Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst." John 6:35, NKJV
In meeting the needs of the whole person, our Savior prioritizes presenting the eternally transforming power of the gospel, i.e. life in Him, even if it’s hard to swallow, even if many end up walking away (cf. John 6:66).
And in the same way, Jesus’ church ought to be just as discerning and willing to stand true to what really matters. In our efforts to meet needs and invest in people’s interests, we ought never to compromise our essential commission: to lift up Jesus as humanity’s only hope. Even if that risks popularity and perceptions, we must value what Jesus values and emphasize what Jesus emphasizes. It’s not a bait and switch or an issue of serving people’s needs with ulterior motives. It’s about giving people abundant life that is felt both in this life and in the life to come.
May the Lord raise up His church to minister to real needs around us with a heart that is fixed on raising up before our communities the life-saving and life-transforming message of a crucified, risen, and soon-coming King!