The Feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle, apart from the resurrection itself, reported in all four Gospels. That is itself some measure of its importance. It represents the summit of the Lord’s popularity in Galilee and so, as well, the crisis point. In John 6 we learn that in the immediate aftermath of this miracle many of the people wanted to make him king then and there. But we also learn that the lessons that the Lord drew from this astonishing work of power and which he then communicated to the crowds caused many of those who had been just then so enthusiastic about him suddenly to desert him. Once they realized that Jesus was not the king they imagined him to be, once they realized what his claim actually was – that he was the Savior of the world – they turned away disappointed, uninterested, even hostile. This miracle produced, in other words, a sifting and a testing of his support among the people and proved, his miracles notwithstanding, that their support was superficial and unreliable. It was this miracle that convinced Jesus that he would not be able to move freely in Galilee much longer. [Morris, 185] It is in the aftermath of this miracle that we catch the first glimpse of the horrible things to come. To be sure, that is not as clear in Luke as in John, but, as we will soon see, in Luke too there is a shift from this point, less of the enthusiastic welcome of the Jews, more of their hostility, and more of the Lord’s investment in the preparation of his disciples.
v.10 The introduction to this paragraph is more important than the reader might at first notice. The Lord’s training of his twelve disciples was still uppermost in his mind. He intended to debrief them after their preaching tour of the villages of Galilee. He had much to tell them of the ministry that was soon to be theirs. But his plans were interrupted by crowds of people who had no interest in the Lord’s long term strategy. He had been seeking privacy for himself and the twelve but the crowds had not allowed it. “…to Bethsaida” must mean to a place near that town, because later we will read that it was a deserted place. Bethsaida was on the northeast corner of the Lake. Mark tells us that some of the crowd had gone ahead so that they were waiting for Jesus when he arrived there with the twelve; obviously the enthusiasm for Jesus was still at a fever pitch. The death of John the Baptist was quite recent and obviously Herod would not appreciate another John gathering enormous crowds throughout his jurisdiction and perhaps preaching against the king’s moral choices as John had done. Bethsaida was outside Herod’s jurisdiction. [Morris, 185]
v.11 The Lord never seemed to be put out with such interruptions. This too was instruction for the disciples: those bringing the news of Jesus to others must be unfailingly welcoming, kind, and personally interested, even if interrupted and inconvenienced. The fact that he picked up again the ministry they had been doing – preaching and healing – further reminded them that his ministry was to be indistinguishable from theirs.
v.13 In the Greek of v. 13 the “you” is emphatic: You give them something to eat. Clearly the Lord intended to teach his disciples something by what follows. We learn in John that it was a small boy who had the five loaves and two fish. To be sure, Elisha had been able to feed a hundred people with five barley loaves and some fresh ears of grain, and one greater than Elisha was here. [2 Kgs 4:42-44] Remember too, from chapter 5, the miraculous catch of fish. What Jesus was about to do was not without precedent, though it was never done on this scale before, but the disciples were still thinking entirely in the sphere of the natural; it did not occur to them to ask Jesus to provide the food.
What is clear is that the disciples were not catching on all that quickly that what was impossible with ordinary men was possible for Jesus. Again, take note of the obvious fact that the Lord is using the occasion to instruct his disciples. His intention had been to get them apart for some instruction, but since he couldn’t do that, he used the circumstances to further their education.
v.14 The word for “men” here is the term that designates men in distinction from women. There may have been a number of women and children in addition, though perhaps not so many. On the other hand it was a child’s food the Lord was about to use. So the size of the crowd was larger than five thousand.
Notice again: the twelve disciples actively participate in the miracle. They were as much or more his focus than the crowds of people. The Lord had the twelve organize the crowd in groups of manageable size because they were going to be distributing the food, though they didn’t know that yet. You can imagine them moving among the men giving instructions and organizing the groups. It is perhaps only because of this separation into groups that the size of the crowd became known. [Bock, i, 831]
v.16 Jesus began the meal the way Jews would ordinarily begin a meal, with a prayer of thanksgiving.
v.17 The twelve baskets of food left over after everyone had eaten underscored both the magnitude of the Lord’s provision and the fact that when the Lord provided for his people they would find him supplying more than they asked or thought. The people were satisfied and there was still much left over. That excess was not to be wasted and so it was gathered up, whether to be given to the needier in the crowd to take with them or for the later use of the disciples it is not said.The fact that the food was collected – presumably by the disciples – again underscores their role and the fact that the Lord made of this miracle a lesson in ministry for them.
Why twelve baskets? It has been suggested that there was one for each apostle, which is certainly possible. It is perhaps impossible to know for sure. [Bock, i, 835]
You perhaps have heard the various ways scholars of a more skeptical bent have sought to explain the feeding of the five thousand without recourse to the miraculous or supernatural.
1) Jesus’ example shamed or inspired others to share their food until all were satisfied; 2) Jesus broke the five loaves and two fish into tiny bits and gave some to everyone and so everyone was symbolically filled; or 3) Jesus hypnotized the crowd into believing that they had enjoyed a full meal. Other such suggestions have been offered. But, obviously that is not what the Gospel writers say happened, that is not what the early church believed had happened — and there were many eyewitnesses of this event — and if Jesus was God the Son come into the world as a man for men, if the other miracles of the Lord had happened as the Gospels describe, if the disciples themselves had just worked miracles in Jesus’ name, and if Elisha had miraculously fed a crowd with a small bit a food, there is no reason to stumble here. But this miracle is particularly difficult to ignore and skeptics have felt the power of the narrative and realized that, whatever the explanation, it is clear even across all the ages between then and now that these people understood a great miracle to have occurred; that Jesus actually fed a large multitude with a few scraps of food and that there was more food left over after the meal than had been present before it.
On the other hand, it does seem rather obvious that the stunning impact on the crowd who witnessed this miracle is understated in Luke’s account. Luke seems much more interested in the experience of the Lord’s disciples than he is in the experience of the crowd that was fed in this utterly phenomenal way. Jesus contrived to teach his disciples an important lesson in life and ministry from the circumstances that transpired when his time alone with them had been interrupted by crowds of people. The lesson was that they would need to rely on Jesus to provide what was needed. They were going to minister to needy people in the future and they would have to depend upon Jesus, present by his Spirit, to enable them to meet those needs. A lesson for them and a lesson for us. As Augustine wrote long ago in his commentary on the Gospel of John regarding this account of the feeding of the five thousand:
“He was the Word of God; and all the acts of the Word are themselves words for us; they are not as pictures merely to look at and admire, but as letters, which we must seek to read and understand.” [In Ev. Joh. Tract. xxiv]
The banquet was long before this an important image of the Messiah’s coming kingdom and elsewhere is used by Jesus explicitly as a metaphor for his kingdom: the bounty of it, the goodness of it, and the happiness of it. By feeding a great multitude with food provided supernaturally, Jesus was once again laying claim to the office of Messiah. The crowds certainly understood that, hence their clamor to make him their king and to announce his reign to the world. This was the high tide of his public ministry in Galilee. But their understanding of what the coming king would be and do was dramatically different from the Lord’s and their disappointment in him in the aftermath of this miracle and in his refusal to be the king they thought him and wanted him to be began the long downward spiral of his popularity among many of the Jews.
But Luke pays specific attention to none of this. He reports the miracle in a way in which the crowd recedes into the background and the disciples come to the fore. The feeding of the five thousand according to Luke – whatever else it may have been — and it was many things at once – was a grand lesson, the grandest conceivable lesson, in how we are to continue the Lord’s ministry by relying on his provision. The lesson comes in at least three parts.
- First, the Lord’s disciples must use what we have to do what we could not.
Have you ever wondered about this in reading the account of this miracle? Why did Jesus use the five loaves and the two fish? Are we supposed to believe that he couldn’t have fed the crowd had not that boy brought along his lunch that day? Of course not! The Scripture says he could turn stones to bread if he wished and there were, no doubt, many stones littering that countryside. Surely it would have been even more remarkable if the Lord had simply swept his hand over the horizon, turned all the stones into loaves of bread, and sent everyone out with instructions to pick one up for himself.
But the Lord obviously wanted to feed this hungry assembly by using his disciples to do it. He wanted to begin with what they had, or could find, and then make much more of that. That is, after all, how he intended to bless the ministry and the lives of his disciples!
That is a wonderful and important place to begin your own thinking about your service for the Lord. For all of us at one point or another feel that he asks us to do more than we can do. See yourself in these twelve disciples. He told them to feed five thousand people and more with the women and children and they answered, in effect, we would if we could, but we can’t. We don’t have enough food or enough money to buy enough food. You are asking the impossible of us. But in one way or another the Lord asks exactly that of us every day of our lives! Whether in our marriage, in the raising of our children, in the management of our money, in our dealing with people at work, in the conquest of our sinful desires, in the surmounting of our fears, in our loving others, in our witness to the lost – whatever it may be – we often think, whether or not we put it precisely this way to ourselves, we often think that the Lord is demanding more of us than we are capable of.
And, of course, we are right! But then he is not asking us to do anything by ourselves, by our own devices, or in our own strength. In giving us commands he is telling us what he will do with the little that we have. That is a completely different thing, as the disciples were soon to find out.
Many times a day you and I do not do what the Lord calls us to do because it does not occur to us to think that we can. He asks too much; we have too little, whatever it is that we have too little of: courage, brains, faith, love, self-control, money, gifts – whatever it is we have too little of it with which to do what the Lord has asked of us. We can’t love our enemy with the five loaves and two fish worth of humility and tenderheartedness and sympathy and Christ-likeness that we have. We can’t conquer a lust, or put to death a sinful desire with the five loaves and two fish worth of hatred of sin, love of holiness, zeal for the Lord’s name, and self-control that we have.
But the Lord never intended his disciples to feed the multitude with only five loaves and two fish. He took that amount – which was all they had – and made of it much, much more, sufficient to do the job and then some. And so it will be with every disciple who answers the Lord’s summons in the confidence that the Lord is able and willing to provide what we do not have.
The great Augustine is justly famous for many things. But one thing he had a great gift for was to compress great truth in pithy, memorable statements. One famous such epigram that you have heard many times no doubt is: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in you.” But another such gem from his Confessions perfectly captures the lesson the Lord taught his disciples here: “Command what you will, O Lord, but give what you command.” That is what Jesus did: he told them to do something they could not do and then gave them the means with which to do it. Say it to yourself ten times a day: “Command what you will, O Lord, but give what you command.”
- Second, what the Lord’s disciples have, Jesus must bless.
The disciples arranged everyone in groups of fifty or so, apparently arranged in some fashion around the Lord, all the people now sitting on the grass. Perhaps the anticipation was so thick one could have cut it with a knife. What was Jesus going to do now? But he did not simply have the disciples break the loaves and fish and send the food around. He took what they had from them, gave thanks, and then broke it. Then and only then did he give it to his disciples for them to distribute. It is a beautiful and timeless demonstration of the fact that it is by the power and blessing of the Lord that any good deed is done, any spiritual victory is won, and anyone else is blessed by what Christians do.
We all have some measure of power and ability. And we find it very easy to think that whether it is in succeeding at work or in raising our children, in making friends or winning others to Christ, or in doing some other difficult work of Christian service we have accomplished it with what it is ours: our talent, our fortitude, our perseverance, our good sense, even our faith. But Jesus told his disciples and then showed them that, in everything that really matters, “without me you can do nothing.” At point after point in the Gospels we see the Lord making a point of teaching his disciples this crucial lesson. At every point when they forget it, they foundered and he had to teach it to them again. Think of Peter, alone among the disciples setting out from the boat to walk to the Lord across the surface of the lake, but beginning to sink as it dawned on him what he was actually doing or, later, Peter betraying the Lord after boasting of his own loyalty to him a few hours before.
The Lord will use what we have, but he must bless it; his blessing is the key. Church history furnishes us with a thousand examples of this fact. Think of the court preachers of the French king Louis XIV. The court of later-17th and early 18th century France was as decadent and depraved as any court ever was that all the while professed its Christianity. And for its appointed preachers — perhaps some kind of moral defense mechanism on the part of that corrupt court — it had two of the greatest preachers ever produced by the Roman Catholic Church: Jean Massillon and Jacques Bossuet. The preaching they delivered to the royal family, the officers of the court and its many hangers on was eloquent and powerful for its oratory, pious, blunt, unafraid, and earnest in its matter; and for 17th century Roman Catholicism, highly evangelical. You could certainly have become a Christian listening to Massillon and Bossuet. This is the Jean Massillon who, if you remember, when appointed to preach the king’s funeral sermon, ascended into the high pulpit of Notre Dame, surveyed the great congregation before him, a congregation that included many of the crowned heads of Europe, and forever honored the office of the Christian minister by beginning his sermon: “In the hour of death, only God is great.”
But do you know what the effect of that fiery, honest, gifted, evangelical preaching was on the French court that heard it Sunday by Sunday? I will tell you: precisely nothing!
A few years later, in Cambuslang, Scotland, near Glasgow, there was a preacher with none of the gifts of Massillon or Bossuet. He was so bad a preacher that, after he was licensed, it had taken him nine years to land his first charge. He had the nickname of the “ale minister” because when he got up to preach the men of the congregation left for the local pub. His own son said of his father, “…he was not eloquent…his manner was slow and cautious, very different from that of popular orators.” [Fawcett, 39] But it was upon his inelegant, poorly constructed, and poorly delivered sermons that the Spirit of God fell in 1742 and produced a spiritual awakening such has not been seen since in the English speaking world. McCulloch was no Massillon, but then it wasn’t McCulloch’s gifts which were the key but Christ’s blessing and breaking them.
And it will be the same for you, whether your work is teaching or parenting or putting on godliness or bearing witness to an unbeliever or loving others: what you have is enough if only Christ will bless it and use it. No matter your limitations, if Christ blesses your efforts you can accomplish great things. Indeed the history of the church is a history of extraordinary things being accomplished by very ordinary people with very modest gifts. What is more, as the rest of the Bible teaches, limitations can be a positive blessing if they constantly remind us of our need for more than we have, that more that only Jesus can give us.
- Third, only when his disciples serve the Lord is his blessing given and increased.
What seems clear in the passage is that it was only as the disciples distributed the bread that there came to be more bread to distribute. Jesus did not take the five loaves and two fish and create from them a huge pile of bread and fish from which the disciples would carry away armfuls for the crowd.
We are left in darkness as to the method of this miracle, what those looking on could have seen happen and so on. But there is at least this much in the narrative. In v. 16, where the ESV reads that Jesus “gave the bread to the disciples to set before the crowd”, the tense of the verb “gave” is actually the imperfect, the past tense of continuous action. A more literal translation would read, “he was giving them the bread to set before the crowd.” This is an uncontroversial point but an important one. The NASB renders the phrase more literally: “he kept giving them to the disciples to set before the crowd.” The impression of the grammar, very clearly, is that every time the disciples came back to the Lord for more, there was more to give them, but not until then. Augustine supposed that the food multiplied in Jesus hands, but however it multiplied it did so over time as the disciples came back empty ready for more.
What a perfect picture of the manner in which we are called upon to serve the Lord in our lives. We would prefer, you and I, would we not, to have the Lord pile up the bread and fish into one great mountain of food, a sumptuous buffet. We could then come and take a plateful or an armful any time we wished. And as our hands or plate emptied, we could always glance over to the immense mounds of food still ready to be taken and distributed. We struggle against the notion that every time we find ourselves in need we have to return to the Lord once again for more, to get what, once again, isn’t there until we receive it from him hand.
We would prefer to learn all our lessons at once and be done; to have all our needs satisfied at once, to resolve all our problems at once, and then need nothing more. Our constant need is an offense to our pride, our self-sufficiency, and our internal fortitude. But it is not our Savior’s way and surely he knows best what suits our holiness and the world’s salvation.
It is no use waiting for him to pile up great mounds of bread and fish. It is not his way. You must take what he gives you as he gives it to you and then as soon as you are again in need, return to him for more. It is the Christian way of life. And the simple fact is, as the Christian ages bear constant witness to us across the years, there will be no more bread, no more self-control, no more courage, no more peace, no more love, no more endurance, no more humility, no more faith itself than we go back to get from the Lord every day. Today, tomorrow, and to the last day of your life it will be so!
Now, what I want to remind us all as we conclude is this: these twelve men were ordinary folk, folk just like you and me. I mean literally, just like you and me. The Lord could have chosen his twelve disciples from this congregation this morning and it would have been a very similar group of people. The Gospels make a point of reminding us again and again how ordinary they actually were. They made their living in ordinary ways, they had ordinary gifts and talents, and they stumbled before Jesus and one another in the ordinary ways we all stumble. But, ordinary or not, with Jesus’ provision they fed five thousand people and more with five loaves of barley bread and two fish, and when all had eaten and been satisfied there was more food left over than they had begun with. Hardly a more extraordinary thing was ever done, and only Jesus could have done it, but he used ordinary people to get it done. And even when these ordinary men were no longer performing miracles in the power of the Lord they still turned the world upside down.
No one knew better than they that it wasn’t their gifts or power but Christ’s and so every day and again and again throughout the day they asked Jesus to use what they had to do what they could not, to bless what they had to accomplish his will, and to increase that blessing as they returned to him for more hour by hour and day by day. It is the pattern of the Christian life. Paul will later talk about being able to do all things through Christ who strengthens us and how the Lord’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, but here, in the narrative of the feeding of the five thousand, we have that lesson in flesh and blood in the most remarkable and memorable way.
Do you see? The way Luke has reported this miracle is intended to make us believe that we too can do great, great things if only we will look to Jesus to do them through us! Strive to be among that great company of Christians who accomplish great things because they are always going back to the Lord Jesus Christ for more!