Both the Lord and his disciples needed rest and time to reflect on what has happened. They took a boat along the shore of the lake to an isolated spot in hopes of leaving the crowds behind. It proved to be a futile attempt to find solitude.
Once again, the Lord, in his compassion for a people that is spiritually clueless because spiritually leaderless, teaches them. This is his always his first and primary ministry: to bring them the truth about God, about themselves, and about salvation.
However impossible it might have seemed to the disciples, in fact, they eventually did exactly what the Lord told them to do. They were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem, just as Moses had been in the wilderness. “Where will I find meat for all these people?” Moses had once asked probably in much the same exasperated tone of voice. This miracle would obviously also have reminded the people of the miraculous provision of manna, a kind of bread, to Israel in the wilderness, as it would have reminded them of Elisha’s like miracle in 2 Kgs. 4:42-44. There too we have the command to feed the crowd, the protest of the disciple, the miraculous feeding of a large group with a small amount of food, with food left over at the end.
The disciples are concentrating on what they lack. Jesus draws their attention to what they have. [Edwards, 192]
The “green grass” is an eyewitness touch and an important piece of evidence for the chronology of Jesus’ ministry. It is too complicated a point to explain here, but, briefly, the fact that it was Spring, when the grass was green, helps us to know how many Passovers to count in the Lord’s ministry and so how many years it lasted.
There can be no doubt as to the reason this miracle has been for so long regarded as an anticipation of and illustration of the Lord’s Supper. The verbs in v. 41 – “took,” “blessed” or “gave thanks,” “broke,” and “gave” – are the same verbs used to describe the Lord’s actions at the Last Supper and occur again and in the same order in Mark 14:22. It is true that the verbs represent the normal actions of the head of the family at the beginning of a meal, but no Christian hearing the Gospel of Mark being read would fail to recognize the Lord’s Supper liturgy.
This is not a snack to tide them over until something more substantial can be found. Emphasis falls on the scale of the Lord’s provision for the people: all ate, all were filled. The twelve baskets amount to one for each of the disciples who collected the leftovers. Attempts have been made to attach symbolic significance to the twelve baskets, but these proposals seem to me a stretch, in the same way that attempts to find some significance in the five loaves and the two fish are a stretch.
The word used for “men” here is gender specific: 5,000 males. Matthew adds the information that there were some women and children present as well. They made the number fed more than 5,000. [14:21]
There may be some significance to the reference to the “men.” We know from the Gospel of John that in the aftermath of this miracle the crowd attempted to take Jesus by force and make him king, an attempt frustrated only by Jesus’ rapid escape to the hills. The phrase “sheep without a shepherd” in its Old Testament context does not evoke a bucolic scene pastoral scene, but a military one. The shepherd in such metaphors in the Old Testament was a leader like Moses, or Joshua, or an Israelite king at the head of the army (Isa. 63:11; Num. 27:17; 1 Kgs. 22:17, etc.). Galilee was the headquarters of the Zealot movement, the movement of political resistance to the Roman occupation of Palestine. In other words, there are reasons to think that this crowd of men followed Jesus precisely because they saw in him the makings of a revolutionary leader. In any case, Jesus had no interest in such a role and that is not Mark’s primary interest either, as he omits all reference to the intentions of this crowd of men.
What an afternoon and evening that was! A miracle so stunning, a provision so utterly incomprehensible that it casts even the Lord’s greatest miracles of healing into the shadow: feeding 5,000 men with a few scraps of food, and feeding them until no one wanted any more. No wonder that it should be this miracle, of all that Jesus performed, that is alone reported in all four of the Gospels. How was it done? What did anyone see as the food was multiplied. Archbishop Trench, in his justly famous study of the miracles of Jesus, wrote of the feeding of the 5,000:
“This miracle, even more than that of the water changed into wine, when we endeavor to realize to ourselves the manner of it, evermore eludes our grasp, and baffles imagination.”
But what are we to take away from this remarkable history as Mark has reported it to us, as Mark has reported Peter’s own vivid recollections of that remarkable day? That is an interesting question because Mark himself does not say. Surely the miracle serves, as all of the Lord’s miracles do, to accredit him as the Son of God and the Messiah. The most remarkable and wonderful thing that ever happened in the world was happening at that moment – God’s own visitation of this world in human nature to accomplish the salvation of sinners – and the Lord’s miracles are a demonstration of that fact. And, as we said, the miracles serve to demonstrate the nature and character of Christ’s salvation. A blind man seeing is a picture of the blindness of sin being overcome. A dying or even dead person being raised to healthy life is a picture of the dead in sin being given eternal life. We could speak here of the spiritually hungry being fed. And so on. Those are what we might call the general lessons of the Lord’s miracles, the lessons taught by every one of his miracles. But is there more than that? Are we meant to take away from this record more than that?
It is interesting that Mark simply reports the event. We might well have expected him to enumerate some of the implications and applications of that remarkable scene; he might well have done, in other words, what Christian preachers have been doing for these past 2,000 years: draw lessons for life from this breathtaking wonder. But Mark does not spell out the lessons of this miracle. He seems to think that they are self-evident, that any Christian with real interest will be able to draw them out easily enough. They lie face up on the page. We don’t need someone to tell us what this means and how it ought to affect our faith and our life. Any thoughtful Christian could immediately begin ticking the lessons off one by one. We already mentioned that there seems to be an anticipation of the Lord’s Supper here, the Lord feeding his disciples with miraculous food. The early church certainly took that lesson from this miracle and we are encouraged still more to draw that lesson by the account of the miracle and its aftermath in the Gospel of John. That remarkable thing the Lord did for the crowd that day is like the remarkable thing he does for his people every Lord’s Day when he feeds them with his body and blood. But there is more than that.
In a very interesting way Mark tells us that the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 teaches us important things for faith and life. Here is what I mean. You’ll notice that the next paragraph describes the Lord’s miracle of walking on the waters of the Sea of Galilee. We will read the account next time, but you remember that the disciples were rowing against the wind in the middle of the night when Jesus appeared walking across the top of the water. They were terrified, thinking they were seeing a ghost. But Jesus climbed into the boat and calmed their fears. And it is then that we read that they were amazed because they had not understood about the loaves.
In other words, the feeding of the 5,000 should have taught the disciples about Jesus, about who he is and what he has come to do, and about the way he cares for his people and what he is capable of doing for them and how there are no limits to his power or to the provision he makes for his followers. The feeding of the 5,000 should have made the disciples think and behave differently on the lake. The disciples failed to grasp its lessons. It also should have taught them about what it means to follow Jesus and how we are to serve him. After all, it is interesting that the Lord’s intention had been to take the Twelve apart and debrief them after their first experience of public ministry. He was going to teach them further about how a disciple is to live and work and how he wanted them to serve him. He was interrupted and was unable to do what he had planned, but, in a way, he found another way to do it. The disciples, after all, were the true beneficiaries of this miracle. Jesus put them right in the middle of it. They saw it close up It was they who would eventually understand it and take it to heart. There may have been some in the crowd that day who came to understand this astonishing event, but most of them remained clueless and took no understanding or insight away from it, but not so the disciples. I daresay scarcely a day passed in all of their lives afterward that they didn’t remember that afternoon and what happened there by the lakeshore. How many times did people clamor for them to tell the story? How many times did they remember it themselves and take it to heart? In how many ways did they apply it to their circumstances and situation in the years to come? This miracle has so much to teach us. It is the Christian life in a nutshell and it is ours to crack the shell and savor the nut.
As Augustine put it long ago:
‘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)
So what may we carry away from this great miracle for ourselves today?
- First, take note of the fact that the Lord uses what we have, to do what we could not.
Have you wondered about that in reading this history as many times as you have read it? Why did Jesus use the five loaves and the two fish? Could he not have done this miracle if he hadn’t had some raw material to work with? Of course not! The Scripture says he could turn stones to bread, and there were no doubt many stones littering that countryside. Why didn’t he simply turn the stones to bread and have everyone go pick himself up a loaf? That would have been, in some respects, even more remarkable. But Jesus calls for what food there is and makes use of that and multiplies that.
I think I know one reason, if not the reason why Jesus didn’t turn stones to bread. He wanted to feed this great assembly of hungry people by using his disciples and what they could muster to do it. He wanted them to participate in this remarkable event. He wanted them to have a share in it. And so he had them gather up what they could find and used what they brought him to feed these thousands of people.
That is a wonderful and remarkable place to begin in thinking about your own serving the Lord. For many of us, for all of us in one way or another feel that he asks us to do more than we can do. Just like the disciples. He told them to feed the 5,000 and they answered back: “We can’t do that! We don’t have enough food. You are asking us to do much more than we are capable of.”
In one way after another the Lord asks exactly that of us every day! Whether it is in our marriage, our home, our kindness to others, our management of our money, our conquest of our lusts, our fears, or our doubts, our loving of others we find unlovely, our presenting the good news to others in a way that they will find interesting and persuasive – whatever it is – we think exactly as these men did: that God is asking us to feed 5,000 men with food sufficient for one. He is asking of us more 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, in our own strength. He is telling us what he will do with the little that we have. That is a completely different thing as the disciples were to find out.
Many times a day you and I do not do what the Lord asks us to do or commands 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, joy, strength, self-control – we have far too little of it with which to do what the Lord is asking of us. You can’t love an enemy with your five loaves and two fishes worth of tenderheartedness and humility and devotion to the Lord Christ. You can’t conquer a lust with your five loaves and two fishes worth of hatred of sin, love of holiness, and zeal for the Lord’s honor and name.
But the Lord never intended to feed that multitude with only that amount of food. He took that amount – which was all they had – and made it much more, sufficient to do the job and then some. And so it will be with us in your serving the Lord.
Augustine the great saint and church father is known and prized by Christians for many things. But one thing he had a great gift for was to put great truth in short and very memorable sentences. One famous one that you have heard is this from early in his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until we find our rest in You.” I don’t know how many times I have read that quotation. It is known by every well-read and thoughtful Christian. But there is another of his gems, also from the Confessions, and it perfectly captures the Lord’s point here – in asking of the disciples to feed five thousand with just enough food for one – or in asking you to do what you cannot do by yourself.
Augustine wrote: “Command what you will, O Lord, but give what you command.” That is what Jesus did: he told his disciples to do what they could not do and then used the little they had made of it enough to do the very thing he had commanded. A hundred times a day tell the Lord exactly that yourself: “Command what you will, O Lord, but give what you command.”
- Then, in the second place, take note of the fact that what we have, he must bless.
The disciples arranged everyone in groups, ranged all around the Lord and sitting on the grass. But he did not simply have the disciples break up the bread and fish and send the food around. He took it from them, gave thanks, and broke it. The food was given to Jesus first. Then he gave it to his disciples and they distributed it. It is an absolutely clear, and must have been for them a most memorable demonstration, of the fact that it is by the power of the Lord that the deed is done and not by anything the disciples had done or could do.
We all of us have powers and gifts and abilities. And it is very easy to think that whether it is in succeeding at work or in raising our children or in making friends or even in winning others to Christ or doing some other difficult work of Christian service we have done it, we have accomplished it. But Jesus said and then demonstrated it in a hundred ways and certainly demonstrated it here: “without me, you can’t do anything!” Especially is this true in all that we do to serve the Lord. It is his working in us that accomplishes every good thing.
At every point in the Gospels we see the Lord teaching his disciples that lesson, as here, and at every point they fail to remember it, they founder: Peter beginning to sink as he walks on the Sea of Galilee or betraying the Lord after boasting of his own loyalty come to mind as perfect examples.
The Lord will use what little we have, buthis blessing, hisworking is the key. Church history furnishes us with a thousand grand illustrations of this fact and reality. I think, for example, of the court preachers of Louis XIV’s day. The court in mid-17th century France was as decadent and depraved as any court that ever, all the while, earnestly professed its Christianity. And for its appointed preachers it had Jean Massillon and Jacques Bossuet. Theirs was some of the greatest preaching ever produced in the history of Roman Catholicism. It was not only some of the most eloquent and powerful oratory ever heard, but it was pious, blunt, intensely earnest, unafraid, and, for 17th century Catholicism, highly evangelical. This is the Jean Massillon, you may remember, who, when appointed to preach Louis XIV’s funeral sermon, ascended into the high pulpit of Notre Dame, surveyed the great congregation including many of the crowned heads of Europe, and forever honored the office of the Christian minister by beginning: “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 that French court? I will tell you: exactly nothing!
A few years later, in Cambuslang, near Glasgow, Scotland, there was a minister, William McCulloch, who was so bad a preacher that he had been nicknamed “the ale minister,” because when he got up to speak the men left for the pubs. His own son says of his father: “…he was not eloquent…his manner was slow and cautious, very different from that of popular orators.” [Fawcett, p. 39] After being licensed, it took him nine years to land his first pastorate. 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. He was no Massillon, but then, it wasn’t McCulloch’s gifts which were the key, but Christ’s blessing and breaking of them.
And so it will be and so you should seek for it to be whether your work is preaching, or parenting, or witnessing, or studying and learning, or putting on godliness, or loving others. What you have is plenty, if only the Lord will bless and break it. Look to him, always, for everything, look to him to bless what you give him and what you have to serve him with.
- And, finally, take note of the fact that it is only when we serve the Lord that his blessing is given and increased.
It was only as the disciples distributed the bread that the bread itself increased. Had you noticed that? Jesus did not apparently 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 crowds.
We are left in darkness about the method of this miracle, exactly how it came to pass, what could be seen and what not. But there is at least this hint in the text. In v. 41, where the NIV reads “he gave them to his disciples to set before the people,” the original reads “he was giving them to the disciples.” It is the form of past tense which expresses a continuing action. The NASB, for example, renders that phrase “he kept giving them to the disciples to set before the crowd.” The same is true of “divided;” read it rather, “he was dividing.” The impression seems to be that every time the disciples came back to the Lord for more, there was more to give them.
What a perfect picture of the manner in which the Lord calls us to serve him. And what a perfect form of the lesson you and I all need to learn and master. We would prefer, wouldn’t we, for the Lord to pile up the bread in one great mountain, so that we could see it all ahead of time, and come and get an armful anytime we needed or wanted. We struggle against the notion that every time we have need we must return to the Lord for more; to get what we cannot see or taste or touch until we have sought it from his hand. How many trips do you suppose it took the disciples before they had fed this immense crowd? How many times did the disciples go back to the Lord for more?
We would prefer to learn all our lessons but once, to have our needs satisfied all at once, and resolve the whole of every one of our problems, all at once. But it is not our Savior’s way, and surely he knows best what best serves our salvation and his glory. There is no use waiting for him to pile up the bread, to fill up your pantry so you needn’t trust him for it piece by piece. It is by faith in him that we must live every day and all our lives. And there will be no more bread, no more courage, no more peace, no more love, no more strength, no more self-control, no more humility, no more zeal, no more faith itself, than we go to get from him every day.
And the promise is that if you go back to him, over and over again, you will not only find that you received all that you needed for the moment, but were, in the process, collecting much more than you had at first.
In other words, I want you to see this great miracle, in some ways the greatest of all the Lord’s miracles, for what it unquestionably is: a message to us about the way in which we are to live and serve the Lord. Always depending upon him, every day, we are to take what little we have to him that he might bless and break it and so make possible much more than we ever could have done ourselves, and when that has been consumed and used, to go back to him again for a fresh supply of whatever grace it is we stand in need of to perform whatever command he has given us. It is a lesson in the Christian life and Christian service and ministry as a life of constant active dependence upon the presence, the provision, and the faithfulness of our Lord and Savior.
If you are a thoughtful Christian, you will not deny; indeed you will readily admit that there are many things in your life which seem as impossible to you as feeding 5,000 men with a few scraps of food seemed impossible to the disciples. Rising above a sin, loving an enemy, boldly sharing your faith or standing up for the Lord before unbelievers, loving your wife or husband, raising your children in a godly, healthy, and happy way, breaking your proud heart before the Lord, breaking free of some bondage which is corrupting your life – whatever it is and, it is all of those things for everyone of us – I say to you, what you have with which to do all these things is enough, if only you will take it to the Lord to bless and break it. Ask the Lord to help you do what he has commanded you to do and then come back to him again and again for the same grace and the same help, because he gives it out by prayer-fulls and not all at once.
The feeding of the 5,000 is a call to prayer; but not only to daily scheduled prayer but to a daily life of prayer; daily living which is one long sustained dialogue with the Lord, like the disciples returning to him again and again for more food.
When it is time to pray, go back to the Lord and ask him: “Lord, fix my attention. Pour into me the Spirit of prayer.” When taking up our Bible, go back to the Lord and say to him: “Open my eyes that I may see wondrous things in your law. Enlighten my understanding; warm my heart.” When taking up a piece of business, go back to the Lord again and say to him: “Lord, establish the work of my hands.” When meeting people and entering into conversations, go back to the Lord and say: “Lord, may I do and get good. Let no unwholesome talk come out of my mouth but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs that it may benefit those who listen.” When facing a difficulty, as we do often every day, go back to the Lord again and say to him: “Lord, help me to do your will alone and direct my paths. Uphold and sustain me and help me to count it joy to fall into trials of various kinds.” When we encounter temptations, once again return to the Lord and say to him, “Let your strength, my Savior, be made perfect in my weakness; uphold me with your free Spirit.”And when we go to play, once again return to the Lord, and say to him, “Let me not forget you in this either, but keep your glory in view.”
Or to put it in the beautiful words of one old writer:
“We should neither give nor take what has not first gone round by the Head of the table!” [Laidlaw, Miracles, p. 83]