v.13 “What had happened” refers, of course, to the death of John the Baptist. [Hagner, ii, 417] We can well imagine what a personal blow this must have been to the Lord. The one man whose life was most connected to his own; the one man who best understood who Jesus was and what he had come into the world to do; the man who, no matter the bout of confusion through which even John had passed as we read in chapter 11, the one man who had the most complete sympathy with Jesus was now gone. I suspect Jesus had never felt so alone in all his life as he did when greeted with the news of John’s execution. He must certainly have felt the shudder of knowing that John’s cruel death was a foretaste of his own. And so he sought some privacy for himself. He hoped to find a place where he could be alone to pray and think and commune with his heavenly Father. But the man of sorrows was not to be allowed even that consolation. The crowds didn’t know and didn’t care about Jesus’ burdens. They wanted his help. So when Jesus took off across the lake in a boat, they walked the long way around to meet him on the other side. The Sea of Galilee is not that large a body of water and it would be fairly obvious from the direction the boat took where they would land on the other side. [Morris, 376]
v.14 It was the mark of the Son of Man that he cared for others more than he cared for himself so, once again, forgetting his own sorrow and spiritual exhaustion he gave himself to the needs of the crowds, no matter that they had no concern for his. Mark tells us that he also taught the crowds on this occasion.
v.15 Ever practical, the disciples bring up the obvious: there are thousands of people here and the daylight is beginning to fade. It is time to think about dinner.
v.16 “They don’t need to go away.” Jesus obviously has other plans to meet their need for food. He commands the disciples to give the crowds food to eat and so draws them into what he is about to do but does not tell them how they are to do what he has commanded them to do.
v.17 To miss one meal wouldn’t have killed anybody. But Jesus intends to reveal something about himself and his kingdom to the crowds and to the disciples. Bread and fish were Galilean staples and, together, they made an ordinary meal. But the amount indicated is food for one or two not for a crowd. John tell us that it was the food one boy had brought with him.
v.18 The food the disciples saw as proof that they could do nothing, Jesus sees as a basis for action. [Morris, 378] I have written in the margin of my Bible at this point in the miracle Augustine’s famous line: “Lord, command what you will; but give what you command.” If you want me to feed the hungry, alright; but you must supply the food!
v.19 The NIV’s “to sit down on the grass” is too free a translation. The Greek verb means “to recline” which was the typical posture at a meal in that culture and, in particular, at a banquet. The verb is used, for example, in 8:11: “I say to you, that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” Take their places at the feast is the NIV’s translation there of this single verb, “recline.”
Here also is an instance of what we all have been taught to do and, by instinct, think right to do. We give thanks to God before we eat a meal. Jesus did the same. He blessed – that is the word Matthew used – which is to say, he gave thanks to God for the food. Take note, we don’t bless the food as is sometimes said. We bless God for the food. The traditional Jewish prayer was “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.” [Hagner, ii, 418] Interestingly, he did not bow to pray, but looked up to heaven. We find both postures in the Bible. The breaking of the bread was also the normal practice at the beginning of a Jewish meal.
v.20 They were satisfied, that is, they ate all they wanted; a fact confirmed by the amount of left-over food collected after the meal. Apparently, each of the disciples had a basket and filled it. Such wicker baskets were commonly carried by people and used to hold all manner of things. So it is not surprising that 12 such baskets could have been found among a crowd so large.
It is interesting that Matthew does not tell us how Jesus multiplied the food. It is the fact not the method that is important to him. In Matthew’s shorter account we are told simply that Jesus gave the food to the disciples to distribute. Luke, in his more detailed account, tells us that Jesus was giving the food to the disciples. He uses a verb of continuous action and suggests that as often as the disciples had taken what they could carry to distribute it to the crowd and came back for more, Jesus had more food to give them.
v.21 Only an approximate number – who would have taken the time laboriously to count the total – and only the men. The women and children were extra but there may not have been a great many of them. The crowd had come some distance from their homes.
It is a happy providence that we come to the account of the Lord’s feeding of the 5,000 on the Sunday following Thanksgiving. We have been recently reminded of how a wonderful meal enjoyed by people together, the enjoyment of good food in good company, suggests to us the happiest of times and symbolizes to us well-being and the fulfillment of life. One of the most powerful pictures of shalom, of true peace and fulfillment, is that of a group of people who love one another sitting around a table laden with good food. The famous picture of the Thanksgiving feast by Norman Rockwell, executed to depict “freedom from want,” one of President Roosevelt “four freedoms,” still suggests that fulfillment of life to people who see the picture today. It is one of the most copied images in the history of art.
Now this meal in the wilderness across the lake, of course, was not such a meal. It was a miraculous meal. To be sure, through the years efforts have been made by those who are scandalized by the supernaturalism of the Gospel records, to reinterpret this event in terms that do not require our believing that a crowd of more than 5,000 people were fed until they wanted no more when all the food that Jesus had to work with was five small barley loaves and two fish, one person’s lunch.
Some have argued that the “miracle” was a dramatic change in the attitude of these people. When the boy gave his lunch to Jesus, so this argument runs, he shamed many other people in the crowd to bring out their food and share it with others. With that spirit of generosity at work, lo and behold, there was food enough for the entire crowd. Another suggestion was that what Jesus provided was a token meal, something like the Lord’s Supper as it is celebrated in Christian churches today. Everyone got just a tiny fragment but understood that it symbolized much more. None of these explanations has ever been taken seriously by the believing church. Clearly the Gospels leave us in no doubt that this was a miracle. John tells us that the unbelieving crowds were amazed, dumbstruck, by what happened. The amount of food left over is a demonstration of how much food was provided for this large crowd of people. What is more they were satisfied, we read in v. 20; that is, they ate their fill.
You may remember that this miracle is the only one of the Lord’s miracles that is recorded in all four of the Gospels. It is obviously regarded as a key moment in the manifestation of Christ as the Messiah and of the coming of the kingdom of God. We learn in Mark that it occurred in the Spring, before Passover. That places this miracle about a year before the Lord’s death. That period of the Lord’s ministry was a turning point. Enthusiasm among the people reached a fever pitch, there was a movement to make him king, his own disciples seem to come into the clear in their understanding that Jesus was the Messiah and the Savior of sinners, and shortly thereafter came the Lord’s transfiguration and his conversation with Moses and Elijah about his coming death. After all of this the Lord set his face toward Jerusalem and began speaking much more openly about what awaited him there.
John tells us of a great sermon that Jesus preached after performing this miracle, the sermon in John 6 that is typically called “The Bread of Life Discourse.” Luke reminds us that the Lord used this miracle as a way of training his disciples in the ministry that would soon be theirs. But Matthew reports the miracle in the fewest words of any of the Gospel writers. His is a bare-bones account. He adds nothing in the way of interpretation or reflection on the miracle. And so here, in Matthew, we are left with the miracle itself, nothing more. What does it mean in and of itself? What does it tell us? Surely that Christ was a miracle worker and that he wielded divine power. All his miracles tell us that, including the healings mentioned briefly in v. 14. They were the authentication of his credentials as the Messiah, as a prophet from God, as the promised King. The miracle also tells us something of the Lord’s heart. No one was going to starve to death for missing one meal but the Lord met their needs. He was always meeting people’s needs. We are reminded in v. 14 that compassion for others was the animating principle of his life.
But what about this miracle in particular. The Lord’s healings were a picture of salvation we know because disease is an image of sin and death and physical healing is, therefore, a picture of deliverance from sin and restoration to life. The Lord’s raising of the dead was a still more dramatic demonstration of the Lord’s power over death and of his power to fulfill his promise to give eternal life to those who trust in him. But what is the message, the meaning, of this great miracle, the only one recorded in all four of the Gospels?
Well the answer comes in several parts. First, there is the food itself. The miracle, after all, is the multiplication of food and, thereby, the satisfaction of people’s hunger. This is not the first time God miraculously supplied his people with food in a wilderness setting. Think of the manna in the wilderness. “Bread” in the Bible is a metaphor for the food that we need to live. Because we have so many other kinds of foods nowadays, we forget how central bread was to life in biblical times. Sometimes the NIV translates the word “bread” with the English word “food,” because often that is the sense of the word. Bread is the food we need to live. God’s provision for his people is described as “bread from heaven” in Nehemiah. Troubles are described as the “bread of adversity” in Isaiah. The blessedness of people can be described in the Bible as their having a plentiful supply of bread (Prov. 28:19). So, a miracle that meant multiplying bread was thus particularly significant. It pointed to Christ’s providing the people with what was necessary for their life. [Morris, 375] The Lord’s miracle was an awe-inspiring demonstration that the blessing of life was in his hand to give.
But, it is not only an adequate supply of food that Jesus supplies these hungry people. It is a superabundance. All four Gospel writers make a point of noting this detail, of mentioning how much food there was left over. It was something they all remembered. When everyone had eaten his fill, they still could collect lots of food. There was much more food at the end of the meal than there had been at the beginning. It is not just that provision necessary to sustain life, but a wonderful abundance of provision to give people a sense of complete well-being and prosperity. In Christ one finds life and life to the full. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. There are different ways to be hungry and different ways to be satisfied. But the deepest hungers of life can be satisfied only by Jesus Christ: the hunger to be at peace with God, the hunger to be forgiven, the hunger to be good, the hunger to be happy, the hunger to live forever. And he satisfies and will satisfy them all and perfectly.
The second part of the answer to the question of the meaning of the miracle comes in the nature and character of the food. John tells us that the boy’s loaves were barley loaves. A poor man’s bread. But the bread and fish together were, on any reading, plain food. This was the food of the common people. No wine, no red meat; only the bread and fish that everyone ate. Just as the manna in the wilderness, there is nothing terribly impressive about this food. The impressive thing was the way in which it appeared. But it was food for the journey, food for ordinary people, food to sustain the body. It was not yet the food of the banquet. He could have given them banquet food, but he did not. He miraculously provided a huge amount of plain food.
What is more, it was the food that someone had. Jesus could have created the food out of thin air. He could have, as the Devil once admitted he could have, changed stones into bread. But he takes the food the disciples found and multiplies that. Who cares how many loaves and fish the boy had? What difference does that make? But every account of the miracle makes the point that Jesus took the food that his disciples found and used that to feed the multitude. There is surely a spiritual principle at work here. God uses what we have to do what we cannot. He blesses what we have and makes something much more wonderful and powerful out of it. This food that Matthew and all the Gospel writers make something of in their telling of the miracle leads to something else.
That point is the more important and interesting because it was a banquet. That is the third important feature of this narrative that helps us understand the special importance and meaning of this miracle. It was ordinary food, but Christ gave an odd commandment to the people. He told them to recline, as if there were tables around which they had gathered, as if this were an evening meal that they were enjoying in someone’s home. You miss this point if you read v. 19 as the NIV has rendered it. It doesn’t say sit. There is no “sit” in Matthew’s Greek. It says simply “recline.”
In Matthew 8:11, when the great feast at the end of the age is described, the NIV says that many “will take their places at the feast,” but there is no “take” no “places” and no “feast” in Matthew’s Greek. Just a single verb, “to recline.” It is the way people ate a main meal at home and it is particularly the way they ate a feast. The Passover in the upper room the night of the Lord’s betrayal was taken with the men reclining around the table. This may be ordinary fare, but it is a feast, if only in principle, if only in the posture that people took when they ate the common food that was served to them. It is something akin to what we would understand if we were out in the country, sitting on the ground, and someone was preparing to give us some food to eat and, before he did, he said to us, “Go into the dining room and find your place card and sit down.” We would take him to mean that, even if the setting did not permit it, even if the food did not suggest it, we were to think of the meal we were about to enjoy as a feast.
Then, finally, in the fourth place, there is the striking involvement of the disciples in this miracle. Almost no other miracle involves them in its execution. They don’t do anything when Jesus heals the sick. He doesn’t need their help to heal a leper or restore sight to the blind. They aren’t required to act in some way when he raises the dead or calms a storm. But here their involvement is very deliberate on the Lord’s part. He does not feed the people directly. He gives food to the twelve and they, in turn, feed the people. They hardly knew what they were doing; they had no idea at first that they could do any such thing, but they did feed the people. We have already seen that the disciples are the church in a representative form. The fact that there are twelve of them – a point highlighted by the twelve baskets at the end of the narrative – is surely significant. There were twelve tribes that made up the nation of Israel. Now twelve men represent the first generation of the new epoch in the life of the new Israel. And here, the church assists the Lord in feeding the hungry. He uses them to feed the multitude when he might have done it by himself. Here too is unquestionably an important principle being demonstrated. “There is but one mediator who wins God’s gifts; but there are many mediators who distribute them.” (Glover in Morris, 379n)
So we have a picture of salvation in this miracle. A mighty demonstration of what Jesus came into the world to achieve on behalf of his people. They are hungry in the wilderness and he and he alone can feed them. They must eat common food while making their way through the wilderness of this world – and he will supply them that food – but a banquet awaits them in the next. And this feeding of the hungry is a work Christ will share with us his people. The salvation that satisfies the hearts of sinful men and women will come to them through the hearts and hands and voices of the Lord’s disciples, that is, through you and me, through people who, like the disciples, are full of doubts about what can be done to feed others.
It is very interesting that loaves and fish often appear in the art of the early church. As this miracle was regarded by the gospel writers themselves, three of whom were eyewitnesses of the event, as something of particular importance even among the many marvelous things that Jesus did, so in the early church it was regarded as a particularly important picture of what they believed as Christians. They were hungry and Christ had fed them and fed them supernaturally. And though well-fed in a certain way, they were looking forward to the better meal, the banquet, of which the loaves and the fish were but a foretaste. This miracle was thus a symbol of the Lord’s spiritual provision for his people – something they knew they had received and could count on receiving more and more – and an anticipation of the wedding banquet at the end of the age.
It is very striking and often commented on that the four verbs ‘take,’ ‘bless,’ ‘break,’ and ‘give,’ that we find here in v. 19, occur with minor variations not only in all six accounts of the two miraculous feedings (the feeding of the 5,000 and the feeding of the 4,000) we are given in the Gospels, as well as in the report of the meal the Lord Jesus had on Easter Sunday with the two disciples he met on the road to Emmaus, but also in all four accounts of the Last Supper (including 1 Cor. 11:23-24). It was a daily Jewish ritual, but in Christian memory it became filled with fuller meaning, as both these experiences in the ‘lonely place’ and the last meal in the upper room pointed forward to that great feast at which Jesus would be host to all his people of every race.’ [France, 237] This is not just any “taking” and “blessing” and “breaking” and “giving.” This is a taking, blessing, breaking, and giving that brings life to the dead and sets before them the hope of an eternal future. And so, for us, every Lord’s Supper taken in faith. It is not the banquet; not yet. But it is a foretaste of the banquet and a reminder of how we came to be among those who will someday partake of that wonderful company around that table laden with the most wonderful food, with Jesus Christ himself, the host at the head of the table.
It is hard to depict spiritual well-being in a universally understood form. How do you describe in a picture the peace, joy, or love that fills a soul, its confidence in the future, its reliance on the sure promises of God? You cannot paint a soul or peace in a soul. But you can easily depict a satisfied person by showing him or her at a table, laden with good food, enjoying the best conversation and fellowship. It is a window on the true shalom that God gives to those who find life in his Son.
In human life everywhere as in the Bible, it is the meal, the feast that depicts this higher, deeper, truer, more wonderful dimension of life to which all human beings aspire, but so many do not attain. We have been reminded of this wonderfully recently. Our feasts last Thursday. Last Friday night some of us were at another, the rehearsal dinner hosted by the Arnolds in anticipation of Lonnie and Veronica’s wedding. Many of us ate together as part of the celebration of the wedding yesterday. We will have more of these through the Christmas season, the happiest of the year. It is no accident that feasts should play this role in our lives, summing up and giving expression to our happiness. It has always been so in the world that God has made, in a world that is heading to the greatest banquet every conceived.
One index of our problem in a dying culture in the West is the slow death of the feast. No longer does a large group ranged happily around a table laden with the best food stand as it once did in the middle of our sense of what it means to be happy and fulfilled as human beings. The woman in a feminist culture says that no one is going to force her back into the kitchen – that is what she says. But, what does that actually mean? It means that her family now eats Big Macs or store bought pizza standing up in the kitchen while watching TV. The individual family’s meal together – good food and good conversation – is disappearing and with it, gradually, the feast, which is only and can only be an enlargement of the ordinary family meal. A generation is growing up that does not know the feast and can hardly imagine the shalom the feast represents. One of the criticisms now commonly made of Norman Rockwell’s painting of the Thanksgiving feast is that it is unreal: the people are too happy, the scene too perfect. It makes people feel guilty because their Thanksgiving is not like that. Poor, sad America!
That shalom is not something we can create ourselves. Christ must create it and give it to us. To have that life of which the feast is but a sign or symbol, takes the miracle of Christ’s death and resurrection. But though we cannot create it, he having created it for us, we can take it from his hand and share it with others. The miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 is a picture of a Christian’s philosophy of life: where his life comes from, where it is going, the joy of it all, and the calling that comes with it. To receive by grace and to share in love.