Life is filled with tests. If you want to drive a car, you have to take a test. If you want to get a job, you often have to take a test to see if you qualify. And of course the school years are full of tests. And these tests usually measure either what you know or what you can do.
In John chapter six there is another sort of a test. In this story, as in many of the stories of Jesus, there is a large crowd gathered. They are on a mountainside far from any town, it is time for lunch, and Jesus said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” Was Jesus asking for directions to the nearest grocery store? Was Jesus asking if the disciples had enough money on hand to feed five thousand people? No, Jesus already knew just what he was going to do. He was going to perform a miracle and feed all these thousands of people out of one little boy’s sack lunch. So why did Jesus ask Philip where they could buy the bread to feed them all? Verse six says, “Jesus asked this only to test him.”
Jesus wanted to test Philip, but on what? Not on what he knew– Jesus didn’t care where the stores were. And not on what Philip could do– Jesus was going to do what needed to be done. No, this was going to be a test of Philip’s faith.
And how did Philip do on the test? It doesn’t say that Philip did not believe Jesus could do a miracle, but his answer makes it clear that seeing a miracle was not what he had in mind. He replied to Jesus, “Eight months wages would not but enough for each one to have a bite.”
On the one hand, the answer indicates that Philip is not expecting anything special out of Jesus, so he doesn’t seem to have much faith. Philip, therefore, seems to have flunked this test of faith. Philip, by this time, had seen Jesus do some miracles, but perhaps he did not yet have enough faith to trust Jesus in all things.
On the other hand, it must be said in Philip’s defense that Jesus could be rather unpredictable. That Jesus could do miracles was becoming clear. It was also become clear that he would not always do a miracle, even when it seemed to be desperately needed. Jesus would heal strangers that were deathly ill, but he let his friend Lazarus die. Yes, Jesus then raised Lazarus from the dead, but he also let John the Baptist die, and he did not raise John from the dead. In some places, whole crowds were healed. All people had to do was get close to him and touch the end of his robe, and they would be made well. And yet, in his own hometown among his own people, the Bible says Jesus was able to do no miracles at all. What was one to expect from Jesus? What does it mean here that Philip was being tested? It isn’t clear that he flunked the test because he didn’t have faith in Jesus. Believing Jesus can do miracles, and expecting a miracle whenever you want one, are two very different things, as you yourself might have already found out. We can’t be sure what Jesus was testing Philip on, or whether or not Philip passed the test. The Bible tells us nothing about that. All we are told is that Jesus was testing Philip, and then, all of a sudden, Jesus did an astounding miracle to solve the problem.
We might think it would be easier to believe in Jesus if he was right here with us, doing miracles like he did for the disciples. However, as one reads through the Gospels, we see that the disciples themselves often found Jesus just as puzzling as we do, even though they saw many miracles. Not only that, but not everyone who saw the miracles came to faith. Jesus hears all of our requests now, as he did then. And now, as then, sometimes the one asking gets what they ask for, and sometimes they do not.
But faith means staying with Jesus even when the hoped for outcome is uncertain, or, does not happen at all. And if that is what Jesus meant here by testing Philip, then Philip did pass the test. He may not have been expecting the miraculous feeding of 5000 people, but here, and throughout the Gospels, he did stay with Jesus. Philip, like the rest of the disciples, often found Jesus’ words and actions puzzling, and at times even troubling. But they remained faithful throughout the ministry of Jesus, and then, after the resurrection, he, like the others, took on the task for which Jesus had prepared them. Believing that God can do a miracle in response to our simple request, and expecting such a miracle as a certainty, are two different things.
So if you hear from the preacher on TV that you should ‘expect a miracle a day,’ you don’t have to feel bad if it’s not working out that way for you. In fact, we should not be so arrogant to expect God to give us whatever we want on the day we want it. But at the same time, don’t ever stop believing that God can work miracles whenever and wherever he chooses. And then, like Philip, have the faith to stay with Jesus in faith even though (again, like Philip) you never know what to expect.
John 6:5-6 — When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.
Exodus 20:20 — Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”
James 1:2-3 — Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
O God, by thy mercy strengthen us who lie exposed to the rough storms of troubles and temptations. Help us against our own negligence and cowardice, and defend us from the treachery of our unfaithful hearts. Sustain us, we pray, as we are tested, and bring us to thy safe haven of peace and felicity. –Augustine