Scripture in Focus: John 6:30-31
The sixth chapter of the Gospel of John tells of the miraculous feeding of the great crowd of 5,000 people who were following Jesus in the area of Galilee. Within a day or so of this miraculous event, we find the same crowd (John mentions it was the same people) asking Jesus what seems like a very strange question. When Jesus said “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29), notice what the people answered:
“What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat’ “ (John 6:30-31).
This response of the people is often said to be strange to the point of being unbelievable. Not only had these people just witnessed a great sign, but specifically one in which they were miraculously fed, so why would they ask for a sign – especially one involving being fed? Some Bible commentaries even suggest that perhaps John’s account reflects a patchwork of original sources not agreeing with each other.
A far simpler answer is found in the fact that the verbs used in the people's reply to Jesus are actually in the present tense in the Greek of John’s account. The Greek word poieis literally means “are doing” and ergaze means “you are working.” In other words, the people’s reply was not “What sign will you give us” (emphasis added in this and the following instances), as we read in the NIV and KJV, but, more literally: “what sign are you doing … What work are you working” or “what sign do you do …What work do you perform?” (as they are translated in the ESV). This literal translation makes a great deal of difference, because the people were evidently not asking for another, future, sign, but for explanation of the sign Jesus had just given them – and which they realized was of the same nature and importance as the manna given from heaven to their ancestors in the wilderness.
We must look at the context of these verses. John tells us that after the feeding of the 5,000:
“After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (vss. 14-15).
The people were fully aware of the sign they had been given and were asking Jesus for confirmation of its meaning – they were saying in effect: “what is this sign” or “what does this sign mean” – and rightly guessing that it suggested this was the prophet like Moses (who had fed the people manna) who would come (Deuteronomy 18:15-19): the promised Messiah. This is why they wanted to make Jesus their king.