Capernaum, in Galilee, served as a home base of sorts for Jesus and His disciples during their earthly ministry (Matt. 4:13). So, it was logical for them to return to that town after our Lord fed the five thousand on the other side of Galilee from Capernaum (John 6:1–21). The crowd that had been fed by Jesus, however, wanted more from Him. So, when they could not find Him near the place where He multiplied the loaves and fishes, they went to Capernaum in search of Him (vv. 22–24).
Today’s passage tells us that they soon found Jesus in Capernaum and entered into dialogue with Him. This dialogue, which consists of extended monologues on the part of Jesus and responses from the people, took place in Capernaum’s synagogue, as John 6:59 tells us. This kind of interaction between teacher and hearers was a common Jewish way of teaching in the synagogue during the first century. Moreover, this extended dialogue in John 6, which will occupy our study for the next few days, is known as the Bread of Life Discourse.
Jesus began this discourse by telling the crowd that they were not looking for Him because of the signs He performed but because He had fed them (vv. 25–26). This might seem odd, since His feeding of them, which motivated their search for Him, was one of His signs. But Jesus meant that they were searching for Him not because they understood what the signs said about His identity as the Son of God but because they were looking for wonders and for Jesus to do things for them. They were looking for a show and for the satisfaction of their physical necessities, but not for salvation.
Certainly, we need to have our physical needs met, but if we are exerting great effort to find Jesus merely for that reason, we have missed the point. That is basically what Jesus meant by telling the people not to labor for the food that perishes. Physical food satisfies us only temporarily and is something that cannot grant eternal life. To make obtaining it our chief end, then, is a waste of time and effort. We must instead labor for the food that leads to eternal life (v. 27). And when Jesus was asked what the God-ordained labor is that leads to eternal life, He said that such labor consists in believing in Him (vv. 28–29). Jesus called this a work inasmuch as belief is something that we do, but of course He did not mean that belief earns life eternal or that it is something we can work up on our own. It is a gift of grace, not a meritorious deed (Eph. 2:8–10).