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Fight fear with faith

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: John 6:5-21

Thesis: True faith in Jesus will defeat every fear we face

Bill and Vonette Bright were hard at work on the UCLA campus, seeking to win students to faith in Christ. But results were mediocre, and their supporters feared for the future of this ministry. Then, in 1951, a 24-hour prayer chain for UCLA was started in Los Angeles churches. The day was divided into 96 15-minute periods, with people praying around the clock for the students on the campus.

Following the inauguration of this prayer movement, in the first evangelistic meeting at a particular sorority house, over half the women present indicated they wanted to know Jesus Christ personally. Evangelistic meetings followed with various fraternities, sororities and athletic teams, with similar responses. Hundreds of students came to saving faith in the Lord Jesus, including the most outstanding student leaders on the campus. And Campus Crusade for Christ was born.

Are you afraid for your future? Are your results mediocre? Are your dreams stagnant? Is your purpose dim? Are your finances low? Is your health poor? You may be faced with overwhelming problems, but it’s always too soon to give up. If Jesus can use a small boy’s lunch to feed 5,000 families, then walk on a stormy sea to rescue terrified fishermen, he can help you today. But we must do what the Brights did—we must go to Jesus in faith. Not to earn his power, but to receive it.

“Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered, and there was nobody there.” Let’s learn how to answer the fear knocking at your door today.

Refuse to be discouraged (vs. 5-7)

As this week’s miracle begins, we find Jesus on the “far shore” of the Sea of Galilee (John 6:1) at “a town called Bethsaida” (Luke 9:10). This town was situated on the northeastern tip of the Sea of Galilee, near the fords of the Jordan (Barclay 201). It was known as Bethsaida Julius, to distinguish it from Bethsaida of Galilee to the west.

Skeptics have claimed a contradiction between Luke 9.10, which places this miracle at Bethsaida, and Mark 6.45, which records that after this miracle “Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida.” But Mark’s account refers to the western Bethsaida of Galilee, not the Bethsaida Julius which was the location of our story; cf. Robertson 96, Bruce 746, Barclay 201.

It was springtime, with the Passover near (John 6.4). A considerable time has elapsed since the close of John 5, from a month (if the “feast” of John 5.1 was Purim) to more likely a year (if the “feast” was the previous Passover). Jesus has been extremely busy in his public ministry, and has come under much attack from the authorities (cf. 7.1, “Jesus went around Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life”).

And so our Lord wanted time alone with his disciples for teaching and rest. However, the crowds did not cooperate: “a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick” (v. 2). So he withdrew to this remote location. But they could follow him around the shore of the Sea, so that “Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him” (v. 5).

They were 5,000 men in number (v. 10), not including their families (Matthew 14.21: “The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children”). Philip’s estimate of the money required to feed them (v. 7) would indicate that as many as 10,000 were present in total (Bruce 747).

With their arrival, the only miracle (except the Resurrection) to be recorded in all four Gospels began. Jesus spent the day with this persistent crowd, “teaching them many things” (Mark 6.34). More specifically, he “welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing” (Luke 9.11).

Now the hour was late, the location remote. The crowd has been with Jesus all day, with no food or supplies. Jesus’ disciples urged him to send them away to find their own food (Matthew 14.15, Mark 6.35-36, Luke 9.12). But he was unwilling to feed spiritual hunger while ignoring the physical. And he saw in the need of the multitude a spiritual opportunity for one particular disciple.

So Jesus said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” (v. 5). Did he ask Philip for help because he was from Bethsaida? No, for Andrew and Peter were from this town as well (John 1.44). Did he need his help? No: “He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do” (v.6). He knew already how to meet this need. But Philip did not.

Here was an opportunity for faith. A chance to believe that the One who had turned water to wine could feed this crowd as well. An opportunity to trust the Healer of the nobleman’s son and the Bethesda paralytic. Philip could have asked Jesus what he wanted done; he could have found the resources at hand and delivered them to his Master; at the very least he could have prayed.

Instead, he gave up: “Philip answered him, ‘Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!'” (v. 7). In the Greek, 200 denarii. A denarius was a Roman coin worth 18 cents (Rienecker 231), the usual pay for a day’s labor (Robertson 98); 200 would be payment for eight months of work. Even then, the people of the crowd would have only “a bite” (a detail only John supplies).

If Philip had been the only follower of Jesus present, the story would likely have ended here, with the words of a discouraged disciple. Disheartened by a need greater than he could meet, frustrated by a request he could not possibly honor, Philip responded with fear rather than faith. He was not the last.

The devil was holding a garage sale. All his tools were displayed, with prices attached: greed, bitterness, lust, gluttony, and the rest. Off to the side was an unmarked tool, worn more than any other, its price the highest of any tool. A visitor asked the purpose of this device, and the devil replied, “That’s discouragement. It’s worth more than any other tool I own because it works on nearly every human, and no one knows it is mine.”

You may feel that the Lord, or the crowd, wants more than you can give. You don’t have enough time, or energy, or money, or strength to meet your needs. But Jesus does. Heed Winston Churchill’s most famous speech: “Never give up. Never give up. Never give up. Never. Never. Never. Never.” Refuse to be discouraged. Fight fear with faith.

Bring Jesus all you have (vs. 8-13)

If Philip stands for discouragement, Andrew stands for faith. Already he had brought his brother Simon to Jesus (John 1.40-42). Now he continues his “invitational evangelism” ministry by finding and bringing to Jesus a small boy—and his even smaller lunch (v. 8).

Andrew had more faith than Philip, but not by much: “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” (v. 9). “Boy” translates the Greek for a very small or young “lad” (Rienecker 231). His mother had made him a lunch which contained “barley,” an inferior kind of bread (Robertson 98) much despised by the cultured (cf. Ezekiel 13.19). His barley was in “loaves,” not the bread loaves we use but round, flat sheets of bread. A fried tortilla is probably the closest our food comes to the boy’s, though I have eaten “flatbread” like his in Israel.

With his flatbread were “two fishes,” small, sardine-like fish caught by the thousands out of the Sea of Galilee. They were salted and used as a kind of topping for the bread; Morris calls them a “tidbit” (344). It was not much, but it was all the boy had. And he gave it—all of it—to Jesus.

So we find in Andrew the faith to bring the boy to Jesus, and in the boy the faith to give all he has. Now we find the disciples acting in faith as well: “Jesus said, ‘Have the people sit down'” (v. 10a). The disciples were to arrange the gigantic crowd for a meal to come, “in groups of hundreds and fifties” (Mark 6.40). Jesus had them so arranged so that the stronger would not prevent the weaker from receiving the food he would give (Bruce 748). But he asked his disciples to do the work.

Here we find the divine-human partnership on display again. The One who could feed this crowd with a small boy’s tiny lunch could certainly have organized the ones he would feed. But the disciples could do this. And so he asked them to step out by faith, so he could respond in power. They were to ask a hungry crowd of some 10,000 to organize for a lunch which did not exist. They were to face the questions and skepticism of an unruly mass of people. They were to step out in faith, trusting that Jesus would follow.

And the crowd had to exhibit similar faith. They were to “sit down,” “fall back” or “lie down” in the Greek. This was the position for a feast, reclining at table. Jesus would give them more than they could hold in their hands. This would not be a “fast food” meal, but a feast. And somehow they believed it would be so: “There was plenty of grass in that place, and the men sat down, about five thousand of them” (v. 10b).

Andrew could refuse to bring the boy he found, or take him to Jesus. The boy could hold back his lunch, or give it. The disciples could dismiss the crowd, or organize them. The crowd could refuse in skepticism, or recline in faith. If any had not responded with obedience, Jesus could not have performed his miracle.

But all did. With this result: “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” (v. 11). He “gave thanks,” the usual Jewish practice before eating a meal (cf. Deuteronomy 8.10: “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you”).

The Synoptics say that Jesus “blessed” the food (Matthew 14.19, Mark 6.41, Luke 9.16). (Here we find the Christian custom of “returning thanks.” We do not “say the blessing”—we ask for it from God.) Jesus spoke the traditional words of a Jewish mealtime prayer: “Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, who causes to come forth bread from the earth” (cf. Barclay 203). We are to respond in kind for every blessing from God: “Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5.20).

Once he gave thanks, Jesus then “distributed to those who were seated” through his disciples. When was the food actually multiplied? For the sake of efficient distribution, probably as it was given out. And so Jesus’ faith had to become that of his disciples, as they continued his miracle by distributing it to the crowd. Imagine their delight and surprise as the tiny lunch continued to grow until those who were seated had “as much as they wanted” (v. 11). The Greek is the imperfect active tense—they were continually fed until they wanted no more, until “they had all had enough to eat” (v. 12a).

Note that Jesus did not give them the delicacies they might have wanted, but the food they needed. The barley and fish spread were still what they were, but they were enough to fill every person. In fact, Jesus gave the crowd far more food than it was accustomed to receiving, as the typical first-century peasant seldom had enough food to eat all he wanted. Jesus always meets our needs according to his riches in glory (Philippians 4.19). Not always our wants, but always our needs.

And the miracle was not finished: “he said to his disciples, ‘Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.’ So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten” (vs. 12-13). The “pieces that are left over” were the peah, food left behind for those who had served the meal (Robertson 99, Barclay 203), something like a waiter’s tip today.

These “pieces” were not fragments left from the crowd’s meal, but the pieces of bread and fish broken by Jesus and distributed (Robertson 99). Jesus insisted that “nothing be wasted” of God’s supply. To this day the Jews possess a deep reverence for bread as the gift of God. When traveling in Israel, my tour groups are always warned not to toss bread to the birds on the ground or the fish in the Sea of Galilee, for this would be a sacrilege.

So the disciples “gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten” (v. 13). Their “baskets” were “stout wicker baskets,” not the soft and frail ones used earlier for the feeding of the 4,000 (Mark 8.8; Robertson 100). All four Gospels record these baskets as kophinoi (we get “coffin” from this word). These would be the baskets carried by itinerants as they traveled a great distance on foot. We would use backpacks for the same purpose today.

And the tiny lunch with which Jesus began became enough to feed his disciples as well, with more in abundance. The “baskets” they used were large enough that Paul could escape from Damascus in one (Acts 9.25; Hovey 149). And they were “filled” with food, much more than a man could consume in one meal. Jesus met their needs with his abundance. He always does.

Where do you need such provision in your life today? To receive his best, give him yours. Bring Jesus all you have. Surrender your abilities and ambitions, your talents and gifts, your time and resources. Make him Lord of your days and goals, plans and dreams. “Offer your body as a living sacrifice” to God (Romans 12.1). As every part of the lamb was laid on the altar, give every dimension of your life to Jesus as your Master.

Refuse to divide your life into the “sacred” and the “secular.” Step out of the compartments which separate Sunday from Monday, religion from “real life,” faith from practice. Give Jesus all you have. It may not seem like much, but if it is your best, God will do his best with it.

So bring others to Jesus, as Andrew brought the boy. Bring your resources and talents, as the boy brought his lunch. Follow Jesus’ leading in your life by faith, as did the disciples and even the crowd. Recline at your table when there is nothing to eat. For a feast is coming.

Trust the grace you cannot earn (vs. 14-15)

If you saw a person do such a miracle, how would you feel about him? Here was the crowd’s response: “After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world'” (John 6.14). Why this reaction?

The Jews were taught to pray daily that the Messiah would come soon, even that day. Jewish girls learned to pray each night that they might be the mother of the Messiah. The people expected a political leader who would overthrow the hated Romans and reestablish the nation of Israel to her place of prominence in the Kingdom of God. Now here was one who could do miracles no man had ever accomplished before. Perhaps he would be the king and ruler they longed to see. John the Baptist had asked Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11.3). Now the crowds begin to believe that they have the answer.

They thought of the coming Messiah as “the Prophet.” Moses had promised the people, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him” (Deuteronomy 18.15). Peter quoted this prophesy as fulfilled by Jesus (Acts 3.22), as did Stephen (Acts 7.37). The Jews came to identify this coming Prophet with the Messiah, as when they asked John the Baptist, “Are you the Prophet?” (John 1.21). They now believe this Prophet-Messiah to be in their midst; “the people are on the tiptoe of expectation and believe that Jesus is the political Messiah of Pharisaic hope” (Robertson 100).

To their minds, such a Messiah must be the king of Israel. He must destroy the Roman throne and replace it with his own. And the people must join in his revolt. But our Lord knew what they were about: “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (v. 15). They “intended to come”—the leaders have probably already started their movement (Robertson 100). They plan to “seize him” (the literal Greek), a violent word of force (Rienecker 232).

They would force him to the throne in place of the hated Romans. They thought they had such power over the One who had just performed a mighty miracle in their midst. They believed they could control the God who turns water into wine, heals sickness and paralysis and hunger, the One who would soon walk on stormy waters and later raise the dead.

The Lord was blunt: “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill” (Psalm 2.6). This King needs no help in ascending to his throne.

So we smile at the futility of their agenda. But then we realize it can be ours as well. Have you ever given to God in the unstated, perhaps unconscious belief that your service to him obligated his to you? If we teach a class, or sing in the choir, or lead a committee, or give financially, or write curriculum or preach sermons, perhaps God will bless us in return. If we have enough faith in God, perhaps our trust can earn his help. We don’t think out loud in these ways, but who has not considered them in his or her heart?

Noted pastor and preacher R. A. Torrey writes a chapter in his classic The Power of Prayer under the title, “Praying in the Name of Jesus Christ.” Here he relates this story: “In Melbourne, Australia, as I went on the platform one day at the business men’s meeting, a note was put in my hands. This note read:

‘Dear Dr. Torrey:

‘I am in great perplexity. I have been praying for a long time for something that I am confident is according to God’s will, but I do not get it. I have been a member of the Presbyterian Church for thirty years, and have tried to be a consistent one all the time. I have been Superintendent of the Sunday school for twenty-five years, and an elder in the church for twenty years; and yet God does not answer my prayer and I cannot understand it. Can you explain it to me?'”

Dr. Torrey relates his answer: “I took the note with me on to the platform and read it and said, ‘It is perfectly easy to explain. This man thinks that because he has been a consistent church member for thirty years, a faithful Sunday school superintendent for twenty-five years, and an elder in the church for twenty years, that God is under obligation to answer his prayer. He is really praying in his own name, and God will not hear our prayers when we approach Him in that way. We must, if we would have God answer our prayers, give up any thought that we have any claims upon God. Not one of us deserves anything from God. If we got what we deserved, every last one of us would spend eternity in hell. But Jesus Christ has great claims on God, and we should go to God in our prayers not on the ground of any goodness in ourselves, but on the ground of Jesus Christ’s claims.'”

Jesus would not surrender his agenda to theirs: he “withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (v. 15b) to pray (Mark 6.46; cf. Matthew 14.23). “Again” refers back to v. 3, “Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples” (Hovey 150). The crowds kept our Lord from his intended time of solitude with his Father, but only temporarily. He met their need, and then his own. He returned to the Lord of grace, to seek his grace for his own heart and soul.

What fear is knocking at your heart’s door today? Do not answer it with your own abilities, or finances, or status. Or with your Sunday school service, or religious activities, or spiritual commitments. Go to the God of grace. Ask him to help you, not because you have earned his support but because he wants to give it. Not out of your merit, but in your need. Appeal not to his justice but to his love. When you do, you will fight fear with faith. And faith will win.

Call to the one calling you (vs. 16-21)

Fear came knocking one last time on this remarkable day. “When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum” (vs. 16-17a). Jesus had sent them to Bethsaida of Galilee (Mark 6.45), but they set sail for Capernaum instead. Perhaps his disciples disobeyed him, but more likely, they intended to land at Capernaum and walk the distance to Bethsaida (Bruce 750).

“By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them” (v. 17b). The literal Greek paints a more graphic picture: “darkness now had come and not yet had come to them Jesus.” We sense the foreboding as it builds. It was night, and the disciples were alone in their boat on the open water. Night time is always more dangerous on the Sea of Galilee. A natural wind tunnel northwest of the Sea amplifies storms and winds as they sweep from west to east, so that sudden storms are frequent on the water. When night comes, the air cools and falls even more rapidly through this canyon to the Sea, 600 feet below sea level (Tenney 73). Fishermen would not go to sea at night unless the need was great, for the risk was equally large.

Now their worst fears were realized: “A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough” (v. 18). “Grew rough” translates “were roused,” meaning to become awakened or aroused thoroughly. Matthew adds that their boat was “tortured” by the waves (Matthew 14.24, literal translation).

The disciples had no choice but to continue trying to make land. They “had rowed three or three and a half miles” (v. 19a), halfway across the Sea (Rienecker 232). It was the fourth watch of the night, between three and six in the morning (Matthew 14.25), and they have been hard at work all night. They were in the middle of the water, fighting a deadly storm with failing strength. Then things appeared to get much worse: “they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were terrified” (v. 19b).

Why? They thought Jesus was an apparition, a ghost (Mark 6.49, Matthew 14.26). First-century superstitious sailors believed that when they were about to drown, the ghosts of sailors who had already died on that part of the water would appear. The disciples were weary and discouraged, but now they became frightened for their very lives. How often have you seen a person walking on water to you? How would you feel if you were literally in their boat?

His words to their fear are his words to yours: “It is I; don’t be afraid” (v. 20). “It is I” translate the literal words, “I am.” This is God’s name for himself (Exodus 3.14), a name so holy that no Jew would dare speak it. The scribes who copied Scripture placed the vowels for a different name (Adonai) below the consonants for this name (YHWH), to remind their readers that they were not to pronounce this most sacred of all words. But here a Galilean peasant carpenter not only spoke this name, he spoke it of himself.

As well he should: “[God] alone stretches out the heavens and treads on the waves of the sea” (Job 9.8). Only the One who created these seas could walk on them. Now he commands, “Don’t be afraid,” literally “stop fearing.” In his presence, all fear must flee.

And so, “they were willing to take him into the boat” (v. 21a). Terrified, exhausted sailors welcomed their Master into their midst. With this result: “immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading” (v. 21b). When Jesus boarded their boat they had been miles from shore (Mark 6.47), but the instant he joined them, he brought them safely home. As he will us, one day.

In the darkness, as their fear mounted, the disciples could not see Jesus, but he could see them. Darkness hid him from them, but not them from him. As he drew near, their fear kept them from recognizing him. But he walked across a storming sea to stand with his frightened followers. As he walks the distance from heaven to earth, from eternity to time, to stand beside us today.

When fear knocks, how does faith answer? By refusing to be discouraged, no matter how overwhelming the need appears to be. By giving Jesus our lives and best gifts, and trusting him to use them in meeting our need however he will. By depending on his grace, not our merit. And by calling out to the One who is already calling to us. When fear knocks and this faith answers, faith wins. Every time.

Years ago, a friend gave me a page copied out of a devotional book he had been reading. I don’t know the name of the book, but have kept the story with gratitude. It appeared in the Congressional Record and tells of a 19-year-old G.I. who was awarded a medal for bringing in a large group of Japanese prisoners, single-handed, during World War II. Here is his account:

“I want someone to know that I don’t deserve that medal. It happened this way. I was captured by the Japanese, with five of my pals. We were marched through the jungle with bayonets at our backs. I had to see my comrades one by one killed and mutilated. I said the 23rd Psalm. I said the Lord’s Prayer. Die I must, but I determined not to let my captors see my fear. Trembling from head to foot, marching in mud up to my ankles, with a bayonet sticking in my back, I began to whistle the way I used to when I was a small boy, and had to go through a dark street. So I whistled, ‘We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing; He chastens and hastens His will to make known; the wicked oppressing cease then from distressing; sing praises to His name, He forgets not His own.’

“Suddenly I became aware that someone had joined me in my whistling—it was my Japanese captor! He, too, was whistling the hymn. Soon I felt his gun fall back into place. He walked beside me then, and suddenly I jumped when, in perfect English, he said to me, ‘I never cease to wonder at the magnificence of Christian hymns.’ And a few minutes talk revealed that the Japanese soldier had learned English in a mission school to which I had contributed in my Sunday school days. The Japanese boy spoke of war and how the Japanese Christians hated it. We both agreed on the power of Christianity, and what would happen if people really dared to live it; and then we began to talk of our families and our homes. Finally, at the suggestion of the Japanese, we knelt in the mud and prayed for suffering humanity around the world, and for ‘His peace that passeth understanding’ among all men on earth.

“When we arose, he asked me if I could take him back as a prisoner to the American headquarters. He said that it was the only way that he could live up to his Christianity, and thus help Japan to become a Christian nation; and on the way back he found in various foxholes other Japanese Christians, and they too joined me. I shall never forget the hope and joy that came into their eyes as my friend unfolded to them, one by one, how we found each other, and why and where they were being taken. All the way back we talked of the Christian religion. When we neared camp, by mutual agreement they put on poker-faces and somber looks, and I, gun in hand, marched them into camp. So you see I don’t deserve a medal for the most wonderful experience of my life.”

What tune are you whistling today?