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21. The Feeding Of The Five Thousand (Matthew 14:13-21)

Matthew records a number of parables in chapter 13, and then in chapter 14 he returns to the description of some of Jesus’ mighty works that portray Him not simply King of the Jews now but Lord of all creation. The 14th chapter begins with a report that Herod (not Herod the Great who died just after Jesus was born, but one of his sons) had had John beheaded in prison. This is the first significant sign of the growing opposition to Jesus and John. As a result, Jesus begins to widen His appeal to include the Gentiles more and more. First, in chapter 14 Jesus will do mighty deeds in Jewish land; then in chapter 15 He will be in Gentile territory. He will present Himself as Lord of all.

Reading the Text

13 When Jesus heard what had happened, He withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.

15 As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” 16 Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” 17 “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish,” they answered.

18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 And he directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to the people. 20 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.

21 The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Observations on the Text

This is a “miracle” passage again, the record of a wonderful work that Jesus did, showing that He was more than a mere teacher or prophet. He was able to take the fish and break and multiply it to feed the whole company of people, more than five thousand men, possibly ten to fifteen thousand people in all.

The passage has no Old Testament reference to explain, although there is an allusion to the feeding of Israel in the wilderness. And there is no lengthy teaching by Jesus, although there is implied teaching on a number of levels. So the interpretation will be brief and direct, but with some hints at wider teaching.

One thing that has to be settled at the outset is the parallel with the feeding of the four thousand that occurs in Matthew 15:29-39. Most liberal, critical scholars conclude that there was only one event, and that the telling of the event got altered a bit over the years, and different tellings of it got preserved in the same gospel as if they were separate events. Of course there is also a fundamental assumption behind their views, namely that Matthew did not write the gospel, but that it was the product of the Christian community that lived fifty or so years later and they did not get all their facts straight.

That view is an amazingly naive and simplistic answer to the question of the relationship of similar events. What should be done before taking such a radical approach is to try to see what the differences are between the events, and then try to explain why two accounts would be included. But if the material did come from Matthew after all, then we are dealing with the record of an eye-witness, and not some later community that was trying to sort out what people remembered. If there was only one event, then the gospel accounts really did get it terribly muddled, because the passages are not the same. The differences lead to the conclusion that there were two separate, but similar miracles that were performed to show two related but different messages (as there were similar healings). The feeding of the five thousand takes place in Jewish territory, on the western side of the division of the river Jordan flowing into the Sea of Galilee. It was a sign to Israel that the Messiah was able to feed all the people even when there was no food to be had. The fact that there were twelve baskets left over indicates that He could meet the needs of all twelve tribes of Israel. The feeding of the four thousand takes place more to the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, across the boundary in the political territories. The region in the east was not under Herod Antipas, but under his brother Philip’s reign; it was a heavily Gentile population. So by doing the miracle there as well, Jesus was showing them that as Messiah He could provide food for the nations too. The account of the feeding of the four thousand follows the miracle done for the Canaanite woman, with the lesson that the dogs (Gentiles) will take the scraps that fall from the table (what the Jews reject). According to Scripture there were seven nations living in the land when Israel arrived; this may well explain the symbolism of seven baskets of leftovers being collected afterwards. So the analysis of the contexts and a consideration of the differences shows a better solution to the parallel material than saying the community got it muddled.

One additional point is the correlation with the other gospels, for they all record this miracle. Luke says it happened in the region of Bethsaida, which would put it more to the north of the Sea; the other writers do not identify the place. We now know that there were two Bethsaidas, one on either side of the tributary that runs into the north side of the sea. This would have been the western Bethsaida, although the exact location is far from certain.

The other gospel writers have more to the conversation than Matthew (as Matthew consistently shortens and condenses the material). When the question of food came up, Jesus asked the disciples what they would feed the people, testing them. Then, when they said they had no food to give people, Jesus told them to go and see what was available. They found one little boy with the loaves and fish. And so then Jesus did the miracle.

John 6 also records the feeding of the five thousand, then the walking on the water, and then a lengthy discourse by Jesus, “The Manna from Heaven.” This sermon by Jesus was intended to explain in more detail the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves. It clearly was a sign to Israel, for it compares the provision of bread with the Manna that their fathers ate. But Jesus uses it to explain that He is the bread of life that came down from heaven. So this shows the “Jewish” orientation of the first miracle. Matthew does not include it because he is presenting the miracle of feeding the people on its own merits. The additional message about the Manna takes the application eve farther than what is implied in the story itself.

A little comment on method of Bible study here: it is helpful to study this discourse on the Manna, or the other parallel account, to get a fuller understanding of the details of the story, the chronology, and the significant application that Jesus made of the miracle. But if your lesson is centered on the exposition of the passage in Matthew, your primary ideas must come from what Matthew has. Once you have made those points that Matthew makes, then you can correlate this other material for additional thoughts. What we try to do in Bible Study is to interpret the text that we are using in its context, noting what the writer does not say, as well as what he does say. If we are teaching what the message of Matthew is, the feeding of the people, then we do not use all that John says as the main point of our lesson, otherwise we should be teaching from John. This acknowledges that there was a reason Matthew did not want to emphasize exactly what John did. If I were doing a Bible Study on John 6, then the discourse on Manna would be the critical part of the lesson.

It is often a thin line to follow. But all of this keeps our interpretation tied to the text we are actually using. An old rule to go by in teaching the Bible is: “The main thing is to make the main thing the main thing.” It is amazing how much teaching and preaching today leaves the text it seems to be expounding and goes all over the Bible. The result is that the message is somewhat “biblical,” but it did not come from the passage being studied. We have to make sure that our central idea of the lesson is actually what the author intended, and the only way to know that is to study what he actually included. This of course assumes that the passage is a unit in the argument of the book, and has something to say in and of itself.

Structure of the Passage

In Matthew 14:13-21 the structure is very simple and straightforward. The focal point is certainly the miracle that was performed to meet a need. But the conversation that leads up to it is significant to the interpretation: as always, Jesus is using the miracle to get something more across. Jesus does not simply do the miracle, but first instructs the disciples to give the people something to eat. They, of course, have nothing to give the thousands. And so Jesus gives to them, so that they might give to the people. Understanding that the miracles were to signify some truth about the person and work of Jesus, this little interchange before the miracle also has greater significance than readily meets the eye—it will be a preview of how all spiritual service in ministry will be developed.

The section begins with a transitional statement linking this event to the sad event of the death of John (13a). It then reports how the multitudes followed Jesus, and He, having compassion on them, healed them (13b-14). Then we have the interchange about food (15-17), followed by the miracle (18-20). The passage closes with a report of the number (21).

Analysis of the Passage

Transition (13a). News reached Jesus of the death of John the Baptist, recorded in the preceding paragraph, although slightly rearranged in sequence. The implication is that it moved Him deeply, because He tried to retire to a solitary place. The press of the crowds did not allow Him much time alone, and He now needed that time to rest and to think. Probably the pain of the mission was beginning to be felt; and yet what happened to John had happened to countless prophets and saints before. Nonetheless, it grieved the Lord, as indeed the death of the saints always does (Psalm 116:15). But He and the disciples were trying to get free of the crowds to rest.

Compassion 13b, 14). But the crowds followed on shore wherever they saw Jesus going, and so He landed and got out of the boat and began to heal the people. The location of this activity is somewhat disputed. Matthew does not locate it; Luke says it was in the “area of Bethsaida.” So it would be somewhere on the northwest shore of Galilee. Tradition has placed it farther south on the western shore of the sea, a little south of Capernaum. This is an early tradition, from the first couple of centuries; but it probably is not the exact spot. The churches that have been there through the ages have allowed pilgrims to contemplate this miracle, however. The whole area from Capernaum to Bethsaida is not large, and so we are not far off when we focus on any of these areas. We are told in the gospels that the area was grassy, so that the people could sit down to eat. John adds the bit of information that it was nearing Passover, so it was early spring, a little over a year before Jesus would die on the cross.

The key idea to work on in this section is the quality of “compassion” that Jesus had. A little word study on this word would be most helpful as you study the passage. It is one of the characteristic attributes of God; but it is also a quality that we have been given in our nature and so must act upon. Compassion is that internal yearning of sympathy and concern for people with great needs. It is such a deep emotion that it cannot be easily shut down; we cannot easily walk away from people in great pain, or poverty, or desperate needs. Here Jesus had compassion on the people, and so He began to heal them.

The compassion will also extend to His feeding the people. Note that Jesus’ compassion moved Him to do things for the people. He did not stop to ask which were righteous and which were not, who was wise in his finances and who would only squander it, who was Jew and who was Gentile. He had compassion on them all, and without making inquiry or setting conditions He went about healing, and then fed them all.

As we said before, the healing ministry of Jesus was a sign to all that He was the Messiah, for Messiah was to heal people. And yet, this was not the full Messianic work, only a sign that Jesus was Messiah. After all, He did not heal everyone; He did not end the curse—John had just died in prison. One can only imagine what was running through the mind of Jesus at this time. Perhaps John’s death was a reminder of the coming end to His own life and He was thinking of showing compassion to as many as He could in His limited time among them.

Need (15-17). As the day wore on it became clear that the people needed something to eat. The disciples came and advised Jesus to send the people away so that they could find food in the local villages and have something to eat. On the surface this was simply a wise and practical bit of advice. They were concerned with the need to eat, the day was long gone, and Jesus would have to stop for the day sooner or later. But there is something ironic in the disciples telling Jesus to send needy people away, when Jesus had been moved by compassion to help them. The disciples needed more of that compassion; they should have asked Jesus to do something, rather than tell him to send people away. Matthew does not tell us that Jesus was testing the disciples; he leaves it with the irony of the disciples offering advice to Jesus (who did not take their advice, of course; He does not send the people away).

But Jesus said to them, “You give them something to eat.” It is as if He was saying, if you are so concerned for them, feed them. The concern for their needs was fine; but now do something about it. They were right to see the need in the people for food; but they would have to be the ones who would feed the people. This is a brief preview of His commission for them: they are to meet the needs of the people. They may not have seen this deeper meaning at the time, but as the disciples, and all ministers, looked back on the event, they would catch it--especially as Jesus had instructed Peter and the others to feed his sheep. The whole ministry is centered on feeding people, both the physical food, which is a part of the pastoral compassion and care, and also the spiritual food, the word of God. But they do not have it in and of themselves to meet these needs; they will first receive it from Jesus, and then will give it to the people. This is the way all ministry works: the Lord has chosen to give it to some, so that they mind give it to others. Paul will say, “That which I received, I deliver to you.” This is very Rabbinic; it is also very much the way the Christian faith works.

And it is also symbolized in the way that Holy Communion was developed and instructed: Jesus broke the bread (as He will do here) and gave to the disciples in the Upper Room; subsequently, the disciples will break bread and give it to the followers of Jesus, and this continues age after age. This was only noticed later as the disciples saw a parallel between what Jesus did there and what He did in the Upper Room. But these little hints are for additional applications and insights, and do not form the main message of the text.

This may seem like we are reading too much into the text, but two considerations warrant it: one is the symbolic nature of almost everything that Jesus did in His miracles, and the second is the interpretation of the event given in John 6 that confirms this was what Jesus was getting at here. There he went on to talk about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, surely a Eucharistic application of the divine provision for people. We are not expounding John 6, but we may use it as confirmation for the additional interpretation seen here. The keys here for the interpretation are Jesus’ instruction for the disciples to give the people something to eat, and then His miraculous provision of food to give to them. The Jewish believers would have immediately seen the significance of this—God was giving them food to eat through this miracle! And they would have made the connection to the Manna in the wilderness where God had compassion on the people and fed them for forty years (although there are major differences in the details between the giving of Manna and this). And Deuteronomy 8 explains that He did this in order that they might know that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. So from the event itself, and from the background of it, the spiritual meaning was evident. The Jews would have picked up on this right away.

But the primary meaning is on the compassion for the people and the desire to feed them actual food. The disciples, of course, have no food to give to the people. They do find some bread and some fish (John tells us that a boy had them), five loaves and two fish (dried fish most likely).

Provision (18-20). Jesus took the food, looked up to heaven, gave thanks, and then broke the bread. Then He gave to the disciples and they gave to the people (not the order and the repetition of “gave”). Everyone ate and was satisfied. And twelve baskets of food was picked up afterward.

The number twelve is not explained by Matthew, but it is a common number in the Bible. Here we have to be cautious about allegorizing the number, but twelve is used frequently for the twelve tribes of Israel. If this is the intent, then the idea is that there was enough left over from this feeding to feed the whole nation of Israel. As Messiah, Jesus was fully able to meet all the needs of the nation, just as in the Old Testament the physical needs of the nation were fully met by the miraculous provision of bread from heaven. There is a subtle equation between this event and that, which according to John Jesus went on to explain, and if so an equation between the LORD of Exodus and Jesus. But there is also a foretaste here of the great messianic banquet to come in which everyone will be satisfied.

This miracle, as well as the others in the context, were designed to make people aware that Jesus was far more than a prophet. The miraculous works would authenticate His claims, and He claimed to be the Son of God, the King of the Jews, the LORD of all creation. The proper response would have been for people to follow Him and learn from Him. But we know from John that they started to leave.

Report (21). Matthew wants his readers to catch the scope of this event. There were about 5,000 men besides women and children. So we do not know the total number, but far more than 5,000 mouths to feed. This was truly an amazing thing.

Conclusion and Application

The main point of the passage is the revelation of Jesus as the Messiah, and as the Messiah He can and will meet all the needs of His people Israel (before He meets the needs of Gentiles). This He will do on the immediate occasion; but that is a harbinger of what He will do at the end of the age.

Some skeptical students of the Bible do not like this kind of miracle (a “gift” miracle). Some try to explain that what “really happened” here was that people all shared their lunches with each other, and in time it was told as a miracle of the way the Lord inspired the multiplication of the food. The healing miracles the skeptics can accept a little easier, because they feel they can explain them by psychological means. But multiplying food is different. It is the kind of thing that only can be explained supernaturally. It is a work of creation! God desires that the poor and the hungry be fed.

The primary application, then, is for Christians to have the same compassion that Jesus did. If we see the poor, the needy, the hungry, and are moved with compassion, then we must follow Jesus’ instructions: Give them something to eat. We may not have much, but we may have more than the needy. We may reason that they will only squander what we give them, or that we should not give because it will only encourage them to remain poor and dependent--but that is not what the Bible tells us to be concerned about. If we become more like Christ we will be moved by compassion, and we will start to meet people’s needs--which may mean we will have to go to the Lord to ask for more to give them.

A secondary idea suggested by these things is that with the provision of food there has a spiritual message as well. The people would have had it in their thinking that man does not live by bread alone, or, that God provides things for people in order that they will listen to Him. We too have received the word from the Lord, and so must give it to the people. Any time God provides something for people it is a call for faith, a call for them to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and that they need to trust in Him.

So the secondary application is to take the spiritual food that Christ gives us and give it to the spiritually needy people of the world. It may well be that in providing physical food for the hungry and the masses we will also have opportunity to tell them of the true food (as Jesus did with the discussion of water at the well in John 4). For those who are spiritually needy, then the provision of life from Christ is always available.

Related Topics: Miracles