In each of the Gospels that record it, Jesus’ miraculous crossing of the Sea of Galilee follows the feeding of the five thousand. In Matthew and Mark, the crossing is then followed by a miraculous healing in Gennesaret (Matt. 14:34–36; Mark 6:53–56). Not so in John. Instead, the story of Jesus walking on the sea (John 6:16–21) seems almost like an interruption of an otherwise unbroken narrative about Jesus’ feeding the five thousand and revealing His identity as the Bread of Life (John 6:1–15, 23–71).
It’s important to note that John did not have to include this miracle. The decision to include this miracle at all, including where John places it and how he describes it, therefore carries a specific significance. Happily, we don’t have to guess what it is. For while all four Gospel authors record the feeding of the five thousand, only John tells us when this miracle took place, namely, near the time of Passover (John 6:4). And this is his clue to the meaning of all that follows.
The Exodus: Take 2
To anyone familiar with the Old Testament, John 6 reads like a reenactment of the exodus story of which the Passover is a central part. First, we have the multiplication of signs and wonders as in Egypt (cf. Ex. 7–11). Instead of being terrible and punitive, however, the signs Jesus performs are gracious and restorative (John 6:2, 11).
Then we have the institution of the Passover in Exodus 12 and the allusion to the same in John 6:4. After this, Israel wandered in the wilderness, and Moses asked God where he could find food for so many people (Num. 11:13). Using similar language, Philip asks Jesus the same (John 6:5). Moses also doubts God’s ability to provide enough food (Num. 11:22), just as Philip tells Jesus that “two hundred denarii of bread would not be enough” (John 6:7). Note, too, that Moses’ doubts regarding God’s ability to provide meat came after the miraculous provision of manna (Numb. 11:7–9). Even so, Philip’s doubts about Jesus’ ability to feed five thousand come after Christ’s miraculous provision of wine for a wedding feast (John 2:1–11).
Then Jesus multiplies bread, as if from thin air, to feed the multitudes with “as much as they wanted” (John 6:11), just as God had provided “bread from heaven” to feed His people with “as much as any man could eat” (Ex. 16:4). The connections are so strong that the crowds recognize Jesus as the promised prophet like Moses (John 6:14; see Deut. 18:15–18). Hence, they attempt to make Him king (John 6:15; see Deut. 33:4–5). And though He rejects their offer of kingship without the cross (cf. Matt. 4:8–9; Luke 4:5–7), Jesus doesn’t reject the connection to Moses. In fact, He builds on the parallel, ascending a mountain alone (John 6:15) as Moses had before Him (Ex. 19:1–3). Yet, whereas Moses returned from the mountain with the law, Jesus returns with nothing but Himself.
Finally, the crowd’s response to Jesus mirrors Israel’s response to God. They grumbled against the Lord (John 6:41, 61), just as Israel had (Num. 11:1), doubting God’s ability to give what He promised to provide (John 6:52; see Ps. 78:19–20). In this way, virtually every major event in the exodus story is paralleled in John 6.
Jesus Crosses the Red Sea of Galilee
But what about the major exodus event of the crossing of the Red Sea? There is a parallel in John’s gospel as well. In addition to the clear parallels to the exodus in John 6, the Johannine account of Jesus’ walking on water also mentions “the sea” four times—more than any account in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). This is all the more remarkable given that John’s account is the shortest by far (86 words in Greek compared with 139 in Mark and 186 in Matthew). Furthermore, John mentions “the sea” four more times in the same chapter, both before and after the crossing of the Sea of Galilee (John 6:1, 22, 25). By contrast, none of the other authors mentions “the sea” before or after Jesus walks on its water. In view of all this, it seems that John wants the reader to see the crossing of the Sea of Galilee as a symbolic fulfillment of the crossing of the Red Sea in the exodus/Passover narrative. But why?
It is because John wants us to see Jesus as the greater Moses, as he has already told us both explicitly (John 1:16–17) and implicitly (Moses could only draw water from the rock, while Jesus could draw wine from the rock, the stone jars; see Ex. 17:1–7; John 2:1–12). Therefore, in John 6, Jesus is revealed as the One who brings about the new exodus, that is, the true liberation of God’s people from slavery to sin, the inevitability of death, and the just judgment of God. As the Passover Lamb (John 1:29) and the One who leads His people safely through dangerous waters (John 6:16–21), Jesus is true source of our deliverance.