The Feeding of
the Five Thousand
The disciples were perplexed. Here they were, in the empty country on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, with five thousand men and a number of women and children who had spent the entire day listening to Jesus preaching. Evening was coming on and they had suggested He send the crowd away to the nearby coastal fishing villages to obtain food. He calmly replied. "They need not go away. You give them something to eat" (RSV). They looked round them and then at each other, puzzled. They knew that there was no food in sight. They had not even brought any with them for their own simple needs and Jesus knew that perfectly well. They looked at Him again. He was standing there with that well-known understanding light in His eyes and they sensed that, somehow, something new and rather wonderful was going to happen. But in the meantime there was this question of food for the multitude, and there was no food.
Philip protested a little "Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little" he said. One denarius was a normal day's wages for a working-man. Such a man expects about thirty-five to forty pounds or more for a day's work today. Eight thousand pounds would be wealth unimaginable to this little band of peasants and fishermen. They looked at their Lord again. What could He be thinking of? "How many loaves have you? asked Jesus suddenly. They all looked round rather helplessly. "There is a lad here" said Andrew "who has five barley loaves and two small fishes". He regarded the boy with his little store. "But what are they among so many" he concluded hopelessly.
Jesus turned to the boy. "Will you give them to me?" He asked him. The lad came forward rather shyly and handed them over, then stood looking to see what Jesus was going to do. "Tell everybody to sit down!" Glad of an excuse for activity, the twelve disciples separated and moved among the crowds, marshalling them into serried ranks and groups. Pandemonium was reduced to order: the hubbub ceased and there was a great silence. The twelve returned and stood before their Master. The boy who had given the loaves was still there. Holding the fishes and the five loaves in His hands, Jesus lifted His eyes to heaven. "We thank you, O Father in heaven, for this bread which you have given for the service of man". Motioning His disciples to come closer, He began to break the loaves in half and fill each man's kophinos, the little wicker basket normally used for carrying food when on a journey, dismissing each in turn to distribute his basketful among his section of the waiting crowd.
It was only when Philip came back for his second load that he realised Jesus was standing there breaking pieces of bread with no apparent diminution of those He held in His hand. The lad was standing there, open-mouthed. He stood for a moment, irresolute, a question framing itself on his lips, and then he met again that understanding look in the Master's eyes; he moved away to continue his mission, wondering.
So they came and went, and came and went, until at last all in that vast gathering had eaten their fill. And because they were satisfied, and nightfall was at hand, they began to disperse, first in ones and twos, then in groups until at last the entire field was deserted and only Jesus and His disciples were left. The lad who supplied the original loaves and fishes was gone too, gone with a story to tell that he never forgot to his dying day.
"Where are they all?"
"They have gone, Master!"
Jesus looked at twelve weary men, then at the field, littered now with scraps of bread. "Gather up the fragments that are left over that nothing be lost". Silently they obeyed. Presently they stood again before Jesus, each with his food satchel filled with scraps of bread and fish. Jesus looked at them compassionately. "The labourer is worthy of his hire. You have food now sufficient for your evening meal".
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
That was how the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand must have appeared to the disciples. It made a profound impression, for it is recalled, in practically identical terms, by all four of the Gospel evangelists. It is the only one of Jesus' miracles that is recorded in all four Gospels. It is unlikely that the recipients were similarly impressed. The vast majority of them would have had no idea of the miraculous origin of the food they were eating. All they knew was that men were coming round serving them with bread and fish; whence it came they knew not and in the main they did not care. Here was a prophet who backed up His preaching with food for the body and very acceptable it was too. They seemed more interested in the food than the preaching. Is the story literally true? Did Jesus really stand there creating bread and fish out of nothing? Of course it is literally true. Its veracity rests in the joint testimony of twelve reliable men who were there at the time and saw it happen. But it is a fallacy to talk about Jesus creating things out of nothing. Bread and fish are composed of elements common in nature, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and an admixture of other basic atoms. There was plenty of all this in the vicinity of Jesus. Divine power which at the very beginning brought together sufficient of these same elements to produce the body of Adam, was abundantly able to do the same thing when a little bread was needed. The wheat grain in the farmer's field is produced from "nothing" in much the same way. Solar energy, sunlight, acting upon the elements of the earth, builds up the ripened grain, no fraction of which was there at the start. Nature takes a year to do it; Jesus did it in a moment of time.
One criticism sometimes levelled at the veracity of the story is the assertion that it is told in two forms; in one case five thousand are fed and twelve baskets of scraps are taken, in the other case, four thousand are fed and seven baskets taken. This, say the critics, demonstrates the unreliability of the story. In point of fact, it only demonstrates the unreliability of the critics. The Gospels are clear that Jesus performed this type of miracle twice. The first time was just before the second Passover of His ministry, at the time of the death of John the Baptist, when He fed the five thousand. This one is recorded in Matt. 14. 13-21; Mark 6. 35-44; Luke 9. 10-17 and John 6. 5-13. The second occasion was some six months later at a different place when He fed the four thousand, recorded in Matt.15. 32-38 and Mark 8. 1-8. The scene of the first incident was near Bethsaida-Julias on the north-eastern shore of the lake, and Jesus then crossed the lake to the other Bethsaida near Capernaum and the people were with him for one day only. That of the second was halfway down the eastern side of the lake and He afterwards crossed to Magdala near Tiberias and they were with him for three days. The distinction is verified by Jesus Himself when in Matt. 16. 9-10. He referred to both incidents, thus removing all justification for confusing the two.
There is a more profound difference. The men of the later incident, the four thousand, glorified the God of Israel in consequence of the miracles that Jesus performed during those three days (Matt. 15. 31). There is no indication in the case of the five thousand that they manifested any such reaction. True, they regarded the man who had done this thing as perhaps John the Baptist or as Elijah or as one of the other prophets of old, risen from the dead but that was all. (Luke 9.19; John 6.14,15) There was no glorifying God for this great thing. All the evidence is that the five thousand, unlike the four thousand, were more interested in the material blessings, the "loaves and fishes", than in the spiritual content of our Lord's ministry. This is best brought out in John's account. The day after the miracle, the people came back to the scene and found that Jesus and His disciples had gone. They, or at least some of them, took to the boats and crossed the lake to Capernaum, seeking Jesus (John 6.24). When Jesus saw them, He said "You seek me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves". In other words, the food He had given them meant much more to them than the wonder of the healing He had brought to their sick. So He went on "Do not labour for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you". But they were not interested in that which was not perceptible to their natural senses. "What sign do you do" they asked "that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?" (RSV) Their interest in Jesus was only to the extent that He would give them material blessings. "Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness" they told Him (6.31) as much as to say "God did that for them; what will you do for us?" to which the Lord replied "My Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven, and gives life to the world". But they were in no mood for this abstract thinking about a spiritual bread which would give heavenly life. They only wanted to know what Jesus would give them here and now, and so impatiently they requested "Lord, give us this bread always", the literal bread of which they had tasted the day before. Here was a prophet with the power to give them bread without limit, and that was all they wanted of Him.
Sadly, Jesus replied "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me, and yet you do not believe." And when at last they perceived that there was going to be no more bread and no more fishes, they began to display their resentment "because he said 'I am the bread which came down from heaven.' They said 'Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, I have come down from heaven?'" There was no appreciation of the kingdom message of Jesus, no longing for the one who would inaugurate the promised Messianic triumph of Israel and the Abrahamic blessing for all the families of the earth. No spiritual insight; no understanding of the might and majesty of Israel's God. All they wanted was a continuation of the loaves and fishes. Anything that tried to lift their dull minds to a higher plane of thought was incomprehensible to them. "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" they queried contemptuously (6.52). Not even a prophet now; just "this man".
It may be asked why the Lord troubled to perform so signal a miracle for the benefit of so undeserving a people. It must of necessity be that it highlights a principle of God's dealings with men. After all, their own ancestors were just as unbelieving yet God wrought great signs and wonders on their behalf; the crossing of the Red Sea, the waters of Elim, the manna in the wilderness, the crossing of Jordan. Is it that in His infinite wisdom God "sends rain on the just and the unjust" (Matt. 5.45), that all may at last come to realise His patience and His mercy? It is probable that Jesus found many more followers among the four thousand than He did from the five thousand. Yet in a day that will surely come those five thousand will again stand before the Son of Man and receive of His hands something of infinitely greater and more lasting worth than the loaves they mistakenly asked Him for, on that far-off occasion. They will, at the last, realise what He really meant by the bread of heaven which is for the life of the world, and will without much doubt joyfully and believingly take of that bread of which, if a man eat, he shall live for ever.