John’s telling of the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:1-15) echoes many of the themes we saw in the wedding feast at Cana and the healing of the paralytic man. Again, Jesus works to sustain life in the present world, even as the sign points toward the ultimate life he alone can offer. John 6:27-29, however, poses a particular challenge for the theology of work:
"Do not work for food that perishes, but for food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal." Then they said to him, "What must we do to perform the works of God?" Jesus answered them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent."
A quick reading reveals at least two major issues: first, Jesus appears to issue a direct command not to work; and second, he appears to reduce even work for God to belief.
The first issue is fairly easy to address. All Scripture, like all communication, must be seen in context. The issue in John 6 is that people want to keep Jesus around to serve as a Magical Baker King, who will keep the loaves coming. Thus when Jesus says, “You are looking for me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (John 6:26), he is rebuking their spiritual shortsightedness. They ate the bread, but they were unable to see what this sign signified. It is the same lesson we learned in chapter 4. Eternal life comes not from an unending supply of food, but from the living Word who proceeds from the mouth of God. Jesus ceases the preliminary work (serving loaves) when it no longer results in the desired end product (relationship with God). Any competent worker would do the same. If adding more salt ceases to make the soup taste better, a decent cook stops adding salt. Jesus doesn’t mean “stop working,” but stop working for more stuff (food) when more stuff isn’t what you need. This may sound too obvious to need the Word of God to tell us, but who among us doesn’t need to hear that truth again this very day? The apparent prohibition against working for temporal gain is a hyperbolic expression designed to focus on mending the crowd’s relationship to God.
As for the issue of work being reduced simply to belief, this must be seen against the backdrop of the rest of the Gospel and the theology of John’s letters. John delights in pushing things to extremes. On the one hand, his high view of God’s sovereignty and creative power leads him to exalt a humble dependence on God, as we see in this chapter. God’s work on our behalf is infinite—we need only to believe him and accept the work of God in Christ. On the other hand, Jesus is equally capable of laying the emphasis on our active obedience. “Whoever says, ‘I abide in him,’ ought to walk just as he did” (1 John 2:6), and again, “The love of God is this: that we obey his commandments” (1 John 5:3). We might join these two extremes with the Pauline expression, “the obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5), or James 2:18, “I by my works will show you my faith.”