A Miraculous Feeding: Reprise


Matthew 15:29-38

Text Comment

v.29     Jesus went from the region of Tyre and Sidon, where the conversation with the Canaanite woman had taken place, across the top and then down the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee.  We know this explicitly from Mark’s account of this same incident, who says that Jesus went to the Decapolis, the Gentile area east and south of the lake, and also from the reference to “the God of Israel” in v. 31, surely an indication that those praising God were Gentiles.  Jesus had just said that he was sent not to the Gentiles but to the lost sheep of Israel.  But that did not prevent him from showing compassion to their sick, as it had not prevented him from healing the Canaanite woman’s daughter.  On the other hand, it is not said that he did any teaching there, only miracles of healing.  However, “he sat down” reminds us of 5:1 and the posture he took when he taught his disciples the Sermon on the Mount.  We can’t be sure whether Jesus also taught them.

v.30     Remember, there are more miracles of restoring sight to the blind recorded in the Gospels than of any other type, a fact all the more interesting because there is no record of such a miracle any other place in the Bible.

v.31     Remember Naaman the Syrian confessing his faith in the God of Israel after being healed of his leprosy by obeying the instructions given to him by Elisha.

v.32     The Lord’s statement invites us to ask if the lesson he was teaching his disciples here was different from the one he was teaching them at the feeding of the 5,000.  In the case of the feeding of the 5,000, as we said, the lesson seems to have been that the disciples must depend entirely on Jesus to accomplish the work he has for them to do; here the lesson seems to be that the disciples need a greater compassion for the Gentile world.  [Tasker in Morris, 407]

v.34     Remember, in the case of the feeding of the 5,000 there had been five small loaves and two fish.

v.36     Once again the Lord uses his disciples to feed the crowd.  In fact, the verb that lies beneath the NIV’s “they in turn to the people” is a verb of continuous action and suggests that the disciples took what they could carry to the crowd and, as often as they returned to Jesus, there was more food for them to distribute.

v.37     Again, as in the feeding of the 5,000, the emphasis falls on how completely and perfectly the Lord met their need.  They all ate; they were satisfied, and there was food left over.  It was no token meal.

v.38     As with the previous feeding, the approximate number of men is given; there were women and children in addition.

v.39     “Getting into the boat” suggests that he was returning across the lake to Jewish territory, ending his time with the Gentiles. Skeptical scholarship has, as you may know, always supposed that this second account of a miraculous feeding is a doublet, that is, actually a variant, second and slightly different account of a single episode.  There was but one feeding, but overtime it came to be reported in different ways and, eventually, as two separate events.  This is always their view, for some reason.  There can’t have been two stilling of the storms; can’t have been two cleansings of the temple; and so on.  Frankly, if Christ did this marvelous thing once, it almost beggars the imagination that he wouldn’t have done it twice!  He certainly healed the sick time and time again.  In fact, it is worth pointing out that both Mark and Matthew make a point of drawing our attention to the fact that the Lord did this twice, fed a multitude of people with a bit of food.  They report the differences in detail between the first feeding and the second – the number of people, amount of food, location, even time of year – and in 16:9-10 the Lord himself reminds them of the two incidents.  In all likelihood much of the importance of this second miracle lies precisely in the demonstration it provides that the messianic blessings of Israel were also being extended to the Gentiles.  The first feeding was of 5,000 Jews; the second, 4,000 Gentiles.  It is part of the extensive preparations made in the Lord’s ministry for the extension of the Gospel to the nations after he had ascended to heaven.  This explains the careful introduction to the miracle in vv. 29-31 that makes it clear that its setting was among the Gentiles of the Decapolis and that Christ had compassion on them too.

“Reprise” is originally a musical term.  It refers to the repetition of or return to the already introduced theme of a sonata or other piece of music.  So it refers to the recapitulation of a melody later in the same work.  We have such a reprise here, though, as we have already pointed out, there are some differences.  We could explore them at greater length, to be sure.

But in the repetition is found an important lesson and I want to draw that to your attention this morning.  It is an important part of a feature of a Christian mind, of Christian wisdom, of a righteous and healthy view of our life in the world.  I find this lesson particularly in the disciples’ question in v. 33:  “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”  Skeptical scholarship takes this question as evidence that there could not have been two separate miraculous feedings (they don’t really believe in one, so they could hardly believe in two!).  Their point is that surely, if the disciples had been present at and participants in the feeding of the 5,000, they wouldn’t have asked such a question.  They would have known very well that Jesus could supply the food; indeed, they would have expected him to.  That is the way an unspiritual man reads v. 33 and the disciples’ question.

But what does a discerning reader take from that question they asked here when we might have expected them to assume that the Lord would feed this multitude as he had another before?  A more honest account of the Gospel presentation of the disciples and their struggle to come to terms with what they were witnessing suggests that this denseness on their part, this inability to hold a thought was in fact entirely characteristic.  Indeed, a few verses later, in 16:8-10, the Lord Jesus himself draws attention to how slowly they were cottoning on to what was happening around them and how impenetrable their understanding seemed to be.  The brute fact of the Lord’s training of the twelve was that every step forward took much effort on his part and came slowly and haltingly on theirs.

So when, in v. 33, they ask a question that seems to suggest they had forgotten all about the miraculous thing that Jesus had done not so long before, and when, right after the miracle we are treated to another illustration of their slowness to pick up on what is happening around them, we see nothing but what we become well used to in reading the Gospel accounts of these twelve men.

And there is an important lesson for us in how slowly they learned the lessons of faith, in how many times they had to be taught the same lessons.  The Lord’s public ministry extended over most of three years and those three years were, from beginning to end, like these few days of miraculous healing and feeding.  Day after day, month after month, and year after year the Lord healed the sick in this breathtaking way and performed other works of heart-stopping power – such as feeding thousands with a few scraps of food, or raising the dead, or stilling storms with a single command.  And day after day and year after year the disciples slowly plodded onward in their understanding of the Messiah and his ministry.  They would seem to gain some insight one day and promptly lose it the next; only to find it again and lose it again as they listened to the Lord and watched him.  And, to be entirely frank, at the end of the three years we find them still thoroughly confused on vital points, on points, we think, they should have easily grasped long before.

When you take the whole Gospel narrative of the Lord’s public ministry under your view and his training of his disciples, you will think that everything moves at a tortuously slow pace.  How different from what we might have expected.  How different from what, still now, we imagine would have been the case had we been there.  In our day, when we expect our pizzas in ten minutes, when dinner takes no longer than the time it takes to drive by a fast-food restaurant’s window, when with easy credit and more disposable income than our forefathers dreamed of, we expect to possess now and at once what it took them a lifetime to accumulate, I say, in our day it is very difficult for us to appreciate how slowly the wheels of salvation turn; how plodding and slow of step is the Spirit of God in the midst of the world, his church, and with the work of Christ in his people.

No, in our day, if we stop and think about it, we find it hard to believe that one or two miracles would not have sufficed to do the job and are aghast that the disciples should have been so slow to pick up on the obvious lessons of which they were eyewitnesses.  Perhaps we think – some TV evangelists seem to think – that had there been television in the Lord’s day, the entire ministry could have been reduced to a few weeks with the same effect.

But that is, of course, a great mistake.  It is our hurry-up manner and our expectation of instant results that needs correction from the Word of God.  For it is not only in the Gospels that things move slowly in the kingdom of God.  It is not only in the Book of Acts that, once again, the disciples suffer setbacks, plod along gaining some spiritual ground only to see some of it lost, and we find, by the end that, while the gospel has made its way step by step out into the world, it remains a small and insignificant feature on the landscape of the imperial world.  But it is also in our own Christian lives that it takes so much time and so much experience for the Lord to accomplish his purposes in us.  And that is so whether we are speaking of the life of the church as a whole or the life of the individual believer.

Samuel Rutherford wrote this way of the work of God in his day, in the middle of the 17th century:

“There be many vessels to be melted: a fire for an afternoon, or a war for a morning…or a week, cannot do it.  Seven days’ sickness of a dying child, putteth David to go softly and in sackcloth.  Years are little enough to humble proud Scotland and England.  God humbled Israel 400 years and above in Egypt; and Judah must like smoking in the furnace 70 years.  One temple was 46 years in building: God hath taken 80 years to reform England, and many years to reform Scotland, and the temple is not yet built: give to our Lord time; hope, and wait on.”  [Trial and Triumph, 57]

And what is true of whole churches and epochs in the history of the church is no less true of your life and mine.  How slowly, ponderously even, how ploddingly does the Spirit seem to make his changes in you and sanctify you to himself.  How slowly does he gain his name in your life.  With what small steps does your understanding or your love or your faith or your repentance or your obedience advance.

To be sure there are crises in our lives, compacted moments in which the Lord brings to pass a great deal of change.  Conversion, the beginning of the Christian life is the greatest of these, but there are others, in which the Lord accomplishes in a moment or a day what would otherwise have taken much longer – when he grants a burst of insight, or when powerful conviction pulls down some sin in your heart or life, or when the Lord draws near and shows you his glory.  So much was the Lord a true man that there were such crises even in his own life:  his temptation in the wilderness, his transfiguration, his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, for example.  But these are the exceptions, not the rule.  Some Christians think that they ought to be the rule and not the exception, but the united witness of the Christian ages reminds them that it is not to be.

Here is James Fraser of Brea, one of the most sophisticated observers of the Christian life and experience who has ever lived, speaking to this very point.

“Whatever good comes suddenly will not continue in that height, but these tides and inundations will come to their ordinary channel again, some seeds and impressions…may remain, but ‘all flesh is grass’ (1 Pet. 1:24). ‘We walk by faith, and not by sight,’ (2 Cor. 4:7).  I never had an extraordinary enlargement, either of joy, strength, or sanctification, but the waters dried up.  There are no sudden steps in grace… ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven’ that leavens all insensibly (Matt. 13:33).  Be content to get matters wrought by degrees, strength, labor, and pains; and murmur not at the tediousness thereof, neither expect great things suddenly; or if you meet with some great thing, look not for [it to continue] till by degrees you come up to it.  God drives his work in me leisurely, and by degrees, and not at once; I know few extraordinary things.  Christ’s motion in my soul is without din or noise; I see, by this, need of patience.”  [Memoir, 154]

When we think about the Bible’s teaching concerning time and the passing of time, we are accustomed to think of how rapidly time is passing and how carefully, therefore, we need to redeem the time that is given to us.  And this is right, of course.  Moses and many other biblical writers encourage us to pray to the Lord to teach us to “number our days and so apply our hearts to wisdom.”  We drew attention to the importance of that teaching last Lord’s Day evening.

But we are also taught to ponder how much time God takes to achieve his purposes – how even omnipotence works gradually.  He kept Moses waiting 40 years in Midian before giving him his great calling.  Many years passed between David’s anointing as king and his assuming the throne.  Paul waited some 14 years between his conversion and his formal entrance upon his apostolic ministry.  And times without number Holy Scripture reminds us that, as Rome was not built in a day, so faith and Christlikeness are not built in a Christian life in a day, a week, a year, or a decade. Just as with the physical life of human beings, so it is with the soul of a Christian – growth comes slowly: by degrees.

I remember as if it were yesterday, years ago dividing a stick of gum between two of my children and my daughter asked:  “Daddy, may I have the biggest piece?”  Well she was not too young even then to learn that our Savior has called us to a life of self-denial and that we are summoned to put the interests of others before ourselves.  But here I am, already an adult those many years ago and many years more an adult now, and I am still wanting that biggest piece, and so are you, in some cases after 40 years a Christian, or 50, or 60 or more.  How slowly we put on Christ.  How often we forget the lessons of the past and must learn them as if we had never been taught them before.  Before we are too hard on the disciples here in the Decapolis, we should remember how often we have asked questions of the Lord as if he had never shown his grace and power to us.

Daniel Rowland, one of the greatest preachers of the 18th century’s Great Awakening and the greatest preacher of that Awakening in Wales, a contemporary of George Whitefield and the Wesleys, figured that he would have reached full maturity in the Christian life when he was able to do four things consistently.

  1. Repent without despairing;
  2. Believe without presuming;
  3. Rejoice without levity;
  4. And be angry without sinning.
  • That is: truly to repent of your sins, to sorrow for them and turn away from them in disgust but without discouragement, without forgetting the greatness of God’s love and forgiveness;
  • To believe, really believe all that God has promised and Christ has done for us and will do for us, without in any way relaxing my determination to serve the Lord, lest he say to me “depart from me, I never knew you”;
  • Deeply to rejoice and be glad in my salvation and the salvation of my loved ones and others, to enjoy God’s creation, God’s gifts, and my life in Christ without losing sight for a moment of the terrible seriousness of life; and, finally,
  • To be properly angry at all that is evil and stands opposed to the kingdom of God, without that anger diminishing in the least the love I have in my heart for my neighbor and, especially, for my enemies.

Are you there yet?  I’m not, by a long shot, I’m not.  I see, as clear as day, that I ought to be there, but, I’m not there.  And I’ve been a Christian all my life.  Who am I, who are you to say “tsk tsk” to the disciples for not having caught on quickly enough?  Why, it often seems to me that I have hardly begun to grow in the grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ.  I read the lives of eminent saints and realize that there is so much more that ought to be true of me as a Christian, so much more in my heart and so much more in my relationship to God and others.  And I know that the wisest of you and the godliest of you are the most conscious of the chasm that separates what you are from what you know by now you ought to be.  Oh, yes, the wheels of salvation and of sanctification turn slowly.

Now you are aware, we mentioned this in the earlier case of the feeding of the 5,000, that the action of the Lord in these miraculous feedings mirrors the action of the Lord’s Supper.  We read in v. 36:  “When he had given thanks, he broke them [that is the loaves of bread], and gave them to the disciples…”  That language is found in the institution of the Lord’s Supper four times in the New Testament.  We cannot help, we are not meant to be able to help thinking about the Lord’s Supper when we think about these miraculous feedings and vice versa.  There, at the table of the Lord, we are fed in a supernatural way, as these people were fed that day in the Decapolis.

So think about the Lord’s Supper that we will have this evening as we have it every Lord’s Day.  It is an instrument of God’s grace and of change in our lives.  The Lord instituted it for our spiritual nurture, encouragement, and strength.  But like everything else in the Christian life, it does its great and holy work over a long time, slowly and surely.  Just as one sermon rarely changes your life – it is rather the cumulative effect of many sermons – so it is with the Lord’s Supper.  We would like every Supper to be an earthshaking event for us; we would like at every Supper the Lord Christ to reveal himself to us in his glory, power and love; we would like to experience the bread and wine as living powers in our souls, transporting us to the foot of the cross and to the throne room of God and melting our hearts in joy and love.  But it is not usually so; just as it was not so with the Lord’s disciples that each wonderful thing they saw him do transformed their lives in waves of gigantic change, wiping away the old and bringing the new like some spiritual tsunami.

I can remember very well my very first Lord’s Supper.  It was in the days when it was typical in our churches that one did not begin to participate in the Supper until fourteen years of age or so.  For me, my first Lord’s Supper was at an Inter-Varsity camp near our cabin in the Colorado mountains.  We had gone to the Sunday morning service at that camp and they were having the Lord’s Supper and, a few weeks before, I had joined my church back home in St. Louis. We took the Supper infrequently in those days.

What I most remember about that first communion was that I was sitting in the balcony of the chapel and, after drinking from it, I dropped my little cup and it fell to the floor and then down underneath the pew in front and below my own making noise with each drop.  Since then I have taken the Lord’s Supper at the churches of my youth and young adulthood, at a church in Roorkee, India, in the chapel of the Divinity School of the University of Aberdeen, with its common cup and strong wine.  I took communion for three years, though only once a month at Gilcomston South Church, our home church while we were in Scotland.  I have knelt at a rail to receive the bread and wine at an immense charismatic Anglican church in York, England and at a tiny Episcopal Church in Cripple Creek, Colorado.  I have taken the Supper at churches in Holland, at Baptist churches in England and in the United States.  And, then, there are all the Lord’s Suppers I have shared with you in this congregation over the past nearly twenty-seven years.

All of these times at the Lord’s Table, all of these supernatural meals, one by one and all together, have done their work in me and for me by God’s grace and the working of his Spirit.  I have been built up and preserved and nourished in the faith of Jesus Christ.  And, yet, not a one of them, nor, for that matter, all of them combined, has yet done what must be done.  Not by a long shot.  And so I, as you, continue to come to be fed by the Lord, to have him feed me in a way not unlike the way he fed those 4,000 Gentiles in the Decapolis.  We come to have our understanding enlarged, our faith increased, our love warmed, our zeal inspired, to be reminded of what Christ has done and will do and to recommit ourselves to his name, his salvation, and his cause.  In the Supper, Christ is at work in us by his Spirit as truly as he was at work in feeding those 4,000 Gentiles.  Again and again Christ does his part – a great meal is served by his grace and power – and we disciples move a bit further forward.  Perhaps the motion is even imperceptible to us.  But not to him.  He does not despair of the slow progress of his disciples, nor should we.

That was our Savior’s way in this world during the days of his ministry, it has been his steady way through the 2,000 years since then, and it is his way still today.  It was the way of his disciples who grew slowly, step by faltering step, and it is his way with you and with me:  slow steps, one after another, up to the throne of God.  We must be content to travel at the Lord’s pace, for there is no other.  This is no argument for loitering in the way.  We are, as Paul told us last Lord’s Day evening, to press on.  But it is a summons to patience and to the acceptance of the Lord’s way with souls and the pace of sanctification in the life of his disciples.  They go furthest who seek for the most in their walk with God and their service of Jesus Christ.  But even they find that with the Lord it is line-by-line and step-by-step and few great leaps forward.  Those who wish to go faster than he proposes to go, do not go his way and it is no longer his work in them.  We are after a Christian mind, after understanding of life, and this is an important piece of that understanding.