Withdrawing from a Confused Crowd
“Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”- John 6:15
Historians of first-century Judaism frequently note that most Jews of the period held in common a desire to be in full possession of the Promised Land and free from Roman occupation. We see this most evidently in the failed Jewish revolt of AD 70, when the Jewish attempt to gain political independence culminated with Rome’s destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. But there were Jewish uprisings against Rome throughout the period of the occupation. Such uprisings were particularly likely to take place during Passover, a religious holiday that had become suffused with nationalistic aspirations. Since it was during the first Passover that God rescued the Israelites from the foreign control of Egypt and set them on a path to national independence in Canaan, the festival was a natural setting where similar aspirations for freedom from Rome and for political sovereignty could be fanned into a flame of revolution.
Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand in the wilderness of Galilee took place during the time of Passover, and this explains the willingness of the crowd to try to force Him into being their king (John 6:1–15). But what had Jesus done that made them think He could be a ruler who would lead them out of political servitude to Rome? Consider the event: a prophet in the wilderness provided bread miraculously for the children of Israel. This is the work of Jesus in John 6:1–14, but it also describes the work of Moses, under whose leadership the Israelites received manna miraculously in the wilderness (Ex. 16). And what else did Moses do? He led the people out from under the rule of Egypt and took them through the wilderness to a land where they would eventually enjoy political independence. Here was a chance for the crowd to experience a great political salvation again under a new prophet who was just like Moses, and the people were going to do what it took to make that rescue happen, even if they had to force Jesus to be their leader.
The obvious problem with this thinking was the crowd’s idea that redemption is chiefly political. But the kingdom of Christ is not of this world (John 18:36), and while His kingdom is not entirely apolitical, the manner of its inauguration was not by violent revolution but by His humble death on the cross, for His people need atonement long before any kind of political rescue. John Calvin comments on the crowd: “What sort of kingdom do they contrive for him? An earthly one, which is utterly inconsistent with his person.”
Jesus will be the Lord and King over us on His terms, not ours. We may not violently try to make Jesus a political ruler, but every time we sin, we are telling Jesus that He will rule over us only insofar as we agree with His law. If we try to have Jesus as our Lord on our terms impenitently, He will not have us as His citizens. And if we know Him as Lord truly, we will repent when we rebel against His reign.
Passages for Further Study