Most notably, in John 6 we have an encounter between Jesus and a large crowd of people who had been fed from only five loaves of barley bread and two small fish. Extraordinarily, what was gathered up after the meal was more than what was initially used to feed them? A number of these men immediately recognized how great an advantage they would have over the Romans if Jesus could be compelled to be their king and lead a revolt. Knowing their intent Jesus separated himself from them. He sent his disciples by boat to Capernaum while he retreated to the mountain to be alone. Later in the evening Jesus intercepted his disciples by walking across the Sea of Galilee. A strong wind had arisen and the waters had become turbulent. Needless to say, when the disciples saw Jesus approaching the boat they were terrified. But Jesus consoled them with an assurance that it was he: “It is I; don't be afraid” (John 6.20). After taking him into the boat they arrived together at Capernaum.
The following day the crowd that had stayed on the opposite shore of the lake realized that only one boat had been there, and that Jesus had not entered it with his disciples, but that they had gone away alone (John 6.22). Eager to press their political case with Jesus, some people went by boats to Capernaum in search of him. However, when they found him their first question was when (or how) he come had to be there. Knowing that Jesus had not taken a boat, it did not seem possible that he had arrived there so quickly. There had not been sufficient time for him to walk along the perimeter of the lake. Jesus does not inform them; the miracle of Jesus walking on the water was apparently for the benefit of the disciples, although it also sets the stage for the discourse on the “Bread of Life.” So, in typical Johannine fashion, Jesus ignored the lesser issue and confronted them with a greater one. I tell you the truth; you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval” (John 6.26 – 27). To this statement they responded with the perennial question, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus responded, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
This is the heart of the gospel: it is the means whereby women and men are saved. While the answer to the question, “How can one gain eternal life?” is essentially the same in all the gospels, John answers the question with an emphatic emphasis on the importance of a personal relationship between the believer and Jesus. Interestingly, some of the salvific themes prominent in the synoptic gospels are absent in John. For example, John says nothing about repentance; neither the verb nor the noun appears in the fourth Gospel. The kingdom of God motif that is central to the other gospels almost disappears in John. It is replaced with the concept of life or eternal life, which for John is a present reality, as well as being a future certainty. By way of contrast, the first three gospels speak of eternal life as primarily an eschatological event. The most distinctive literary form of teaching in the synoptic gospels is the parable; however, parables in their traditional form are prevalent in John’s gospel. They have been replaced by lengthy discourses. The short epigrammatic sayings common to the synoptic Gospels are also missing in the fourth gospel. The pithy sayings and brief accounts of events in Jesus’ life joined with teaching sections are common in the first three Gospels, but they are absent in John. Moreover, the fourth Gospel lacks other important events found in the other three (e.g., Jesus birth, baptism, transfiguration, the exorcism of demons, the agony in Gethsemane, the Last Supper, and the Olivet Discourse) (cp. George Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, p. 215).
Consequently, any attempt to appreciate Jesus’ response to the crowd must include some understanding of Johannine language. In particular, what does John intend his readers to make of the expression to believe in Jesus. Precisely what is one supposed to believe about Him and will this translate into belief (or in Pauline terms, faith) in Him? Jesus responded to the Pharisees who challenged his authority with the statement: I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins” (John 8.24). So what is it that He claims to be? Well, for one thing, it is clear that John sets Christ before the reader as the eternally existent Divine Logos (1.1). He is the one sent from God (1.14). He has authority over life and death and is the judge of all humanity (5.24-27). There are a variety of definitive I am sayings wherein Jesus defines metaphorically who he is and the relationship he intends to have with his disciples. In this discourse on the Bread of Life we encounter the first of these I am sayings (6.35). This is followed by other metaphors that help the reader understand something of who Jesus is. The distinctively idiomatic I am sayings thread their way throughout the pre-passion narrative. Jesus says of himself, I am: the bread of life (6.35), the light of the world (6.12); the door (10.7); the good shepherd (10.11); the resurrection and the life (11.25); the way, the truth and the life (14.6); the true vine (15.1); and of course all of these sayings are an amplification of the passage where Jesus says, Before Abraham was, I am (8.58).
In one sense the teaching in John 6 climaxes in the upper room when Jesus confronts his disciples, “Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don't you believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in me?” They do not immediately understand what Jesus is talking about, but by the end of evening the disciples responded, “Now we can see that you know all things and that you do not even need to have anyone ask you questions. This makes us believe that you came from God.” “You believe at last!” Jesus answered (16.30-31). Those who know God know Jesus Christ whom God sent; these are the ones who have eternal life (17.2-3). Everything is written for the singular purpose that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
By way of comparison with the crowd in John’s gospel, consider the answer Jesus gave to the rich ruler in Matthew 20.1-16. Jesus had instructed the rich young man to sell all his possessions and to follow him. One must be careful not to construe that Jesus was suggesting that by divesting himself of his wealth the man would somehow merit salvation. To the contrary, poverty was not to be the object of his life – Jesus was. Wealth was the impediment. Jesus asked for a radical commitment to himself, just as he had asked Peter and John to leave their fishing nets and follow Him. But Jesus asked him to do the very thing he knew he could not do, thereby demonstrating that men are unable to procure their own salvation. This is what makes sense of the disciples perplexity expressed in their question, who then can be saved? Jesus replied that with man it is impossible but with God all things are possible. Matthew reinforced his point with a parable about the kingdom of heaven in which workers were hired at various times of the day to work in the master’s vineyard. At end of day each man was paid the same amount. God does not grant salvation because men labor for it, but he freely saves people by his grace.
It may be worth a few moments of your time to survey some of the more than 70 passages in John that speak of believing. Dietrich Bonheoffer, the German theologian and WW II martyr, wrote, “Only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient, truly believes” (The Cost of Discipleship, p. 37). There is a union between belief and obedience that is not foreign to John.
SOME BELIEVE SAYING S IN JOHN
To those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (1.12).
In Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many people saw the miraculous signs he was doing and believed in his name (2.23).
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (3.16).
“Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life” (5.24).
“How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God?” (5.44).
The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent. … Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” … “For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life.” … “I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life.” … “Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that on one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.” From this time on many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." (6.29, 35, 40, 47, 64, 69). “
I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am the one I claim to be, you will indeed die in your sins." (8.24).
“You do not believe because you are not my sheep” (10.26). “Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does” (10.37).
“When a man believes in me, he does not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me” (12.44).
These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name (20.31).
BTW: If you would like to read a bit more on this theme of the ultimate question I've posted a short piece under Essays / Second Thoughts / Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. In it you will see the contrast beween the "Rich Ruler" (Luke 18.18 - 30) and the rich tax collector, Zacchaeus (Luke 19.1-10).