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Lesson 31: How Christ Meets Needs (John 6:1-15)

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October 20, 2013

Over 36 years ago when I began as a pastor (at age 30), I was extremely unsure about whether I could do the job. I didn’t know whether I could come up with new sermons week after week without running dry. I wasn’t sure about whether I could adequately shepherd God’s flock or fulfill the other demands of the position. So I told the Lord, “I’ll try it for three years and see where I’m at.”

Although many weeks I still feel so overwhelmed with inadequacy that I think about quitting, by God’s grace alone, I’m still serving as a pastor. No text in the New Testament has helped me do what I do as much as the story of Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000. It might better be called the feeding of the 20,000, because there were 5,000 men, plus women and children. It’s not just a literal miracle witnessed by thousands of people. It’s also a parable with many lessons about the all-sufficiency of Jesus Christ to meet the vast needs of the world through His inadequate disciples. Although they were completely inadequate to meet the needs of this hungry crowd, they gave the little that they had to the Lord, who blessed it and multiplied it so that they could distribute it to the people. That’s been my experience for 36 years now.

This is the only miracle recorded in all four gospels, which shows its significance. C. H. Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 37:419) says that it’s in all four gospels so that we won’t forget how much the Lord can do with little things that are yielded to Him. The feeding of the 5.000 precedes Jesus’ discourse on being the living Bread that comes down out of heaven to give His life for the world (6:32-58). So it’s also a miracle that points to salvation. John wrote this sign “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:31).

John begins the story (6:1): “After these things Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (or Tiberias).” The last time note in John (5:1) mentioned an unnamed “feast of the Jews.” If it was the Feast of Tabernacles, five to six months have passed. The other gospels inform us that Jesus has sent out the twelve on a ministry tour. They have come back and reported their experiences to Him. Meanwhile, they got word that Herod had beheaded John the Baptist. Jesus and the disciples were so busy with all the needy people that they didn’t even have time to eat. So Jesus invited them to get away to a desolate place for some much needed rest.

So they took a boat across the northern end of the Sea of Galilee to a spot in the country north of Bethsaida (home of Philip, Andrew, and Peter). The problem was, the crowds saw them go, ran around the lake on foot, and greeted them as they disembarked (Mark 6:33). The disciples must have thought, “Oh no! We can’t get away from these needy people!” But Jesus felt compassion for them, taught them, and healed their sick (Mark 6:34; Matt. 14:14).

John (6:2) notes, “A large crowd followed Him, because they saw the signs which He was performing on those who were sick.” These people weren’t following Jesus because they recognized Him as the Son of God who could save them from their sins. Some were fascinated just seeing the miracles. Others needed miraculous healing for themselves or their loved ones. But overall their reasons for following Jesus were misguided and superficial.

John adds (6:3-4): “Then Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat down with His disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was near.” I’m not sure why John reports the detail of Jesus going up on the mountain. But coupled with the mention of the Passover, he may want us to draw a parallel with Moses, who led the people out of Egypt after the Passover. Later, he went up on the mountain receive the Ten Commandments. God also used Moses to give manna to the people in the wilderness. So the mention of the Passover being near is probably more than just a time notice. John wants us to see Jesus as the new and better Moses. He fulfilled what the Passover lamb typified. He gave Himself as the permanent manna or bread of life. He is the Prophet of whom Moses wrote (Deut. 18:15; John 6:14).

But in this case, although Jesus could have called for manna to float down from heaven, He didn’t do that. Why not? Jesus used this miracle and those that follow to train the twelve. John shows this by Jesus asking Philip (6:5), “Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?” The other gospels report that the disciples had asked Jesus to dismiss the multitude so that they could go buy their own food. But Jesus pointedly told the disciples (Mark 6:37), “You give them something to eat!” Here, John adds (6:6), “This He was saying to test him, for He Himself knew what He was intending to do.” Jesus was showing Philip and the other disciples their woeful inadequacy to meet this need, along with His all-sufficiency. So this miracle teaches us that …

Christ uses inadequate people who surrender what they have to Him to meet the overwhelming needs of others.

Note four main lessons:

1. People are needy.

There were about 20,000 people out in a remote place (Luke 9:12), with many needing healing. They were hungry and there was no place nearby to buy food. Their physical hunger and their inability to satisfy that hunger pictures the spiritual needs of this sinful world. As Jesus will later tell them (6:26-27), they were following Him because they ate their fill of the bread, but they should have been focused on the food that endures to eternal life.

They are typical of so many in this world who are living for material things that will shortly perish, but they don’t see their need for the food that endures to eternal life. While it is right for Christians to engage in ministries of mercy to meet the physical needs of the poor, our ultimate goal should be to introduce them to the Lord, who can save them for eternity. So we need to pray that the Holy Spirit will convict them of their sin so that they will see their true need for Christ to rescue them from judgment before they die.

Evangelist Ray Comfort helps people see their need for Christ by walking them through some of God’s commandments that they have broken. He asks, “Have you ever lied or stolen anything?” “Yes.” “What do you call someone who lies and steals?” “A liar and a thief.” “Have you ever taken God’s name in vain?” “Yes.” “The Bible calls that blasphemy. So you’re saying that you’re a liar, a thief, and a blasphemer!”

“Have you ever been angry with anyone?” “Yes, many times.” “Jesus said that God views such anger as murder.” “Have you ever looked on someone with lust?” “Yes, of course.” “Jesus said that to do so is to commit adultery in God’s sight. So you’re saying that you’re a liar, a thief, a blasphemer, a murderer, and a multiple adulterer! How do you think it will go when you stand before the holy God at the judgment?” It’s only when people see how spiritually needy they are that they will cry out to Jesus to save them.

2. The Lord’s people are inadequate in themselves to meet people’s needs.

As I said, the other gospels report that the disciples’ easy solution to this multitude’s need for food was to send them away so that they could buy their own food (Mark 6:36). Problem solved! Well, at least it was solved as far as the disciples were concerned! But Jesus told them (Mark 6:37), “You give them something to eat!” Specifically, the Lord asked Philip (John 6:5), “Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?”

It would have been great if Philip had responded, “Lord, I’ve seen You turn water into wine. I watched You heal the royal official’s son from a distance. I saw you heal the man who had been unable to walk for 38 years. I’ve watched You perform dozens of miracles. Surely, You can provide bread for this hungry multitude, even as God provided manna in the wilderness!” I’d like to think that that’s how I would have responded. Ha!

No, I would have responded just as Philip did. He started calculating, but he calculated without Christ. He did the numbers without considering the Lord’s power and concluded with businesslike efficiency, “Eight months’ salary of a working man (200 denarii) is not sufficient for each one to receive a little.” The problem was, they didn’t have 200 denarii and even if they did, it wasn’t enough. And even if they had more, there weren’t supermarkets just down the road that had enough bread on hand to feed 20,000 hungry people. But how often we throw up our hands and conclude that we can’t do something for the Lord because we calculate based on our inadequate resources!

Then, along comes Andrew who says (6:9), “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish ….” So far so good. But then he adds, “But what are these for so many people?” I’m not sure why Andrew even bothered to bring this boy and his little lunch to Jesus. Maybe the boy had offered and Andrew felt obligated to acknowledge the boy’s good intentions. But his comment, “But what are these for so many people?” seems to reflect his embarrassment to bring this pitiful lunch to Jesus. The loaves were not the size of our loaves of bread. They were small, flat barley cakes, probably about the size of a small pancake. Barley was the food of poor people and animals. The two fish were either pickled or dried small fish, like sardines. But Andrew’s comment accentuates the obvious inadequacy: “What are these for so many people?” So people are needy, but the Lord’s people are inadequate to meet those needs.

3. Jesus Christ is all-sufficient to meet people’s overwhelming needs.

Jeremiah prayed (32:17), “Ah Lord God! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You.” If Jesus is the Lord God in human flesh, Creator of heaven and earth, then nothing is too difficult for Him! John brings out Christ’s all-sufficiency in at least five ways:

A. Christ is in control of every situation.

John 6:6: “This He was saying to test him, for He Himself knew what He was intending to do.” Jesus never tested anyone in the sense of tempting them to do wrong. But He does test His servants so that they can learn to trust Him more. As someone has observed, “It was not bread that He was seeking from Philip, but faith.” John’s comment, “for He Himself knew what He was intending to do,” shows that Jesus wasn’t stumped and asking the disciples to brainstorm on how they could solve this perplexing problem. Rather, Jesus was in complete control. No problem that you or I ever face takes Him by surprise or causes Him to wonder, “How in the world am I going to solve this one?”

B. Christ is more concerned for needy people than we are.

The disciples wanted to solve this problem by sending the multitude away to buy their own bread. They were more focused on their own need for a break than they were with the multitude’s need for food. They viewed the hungry multitude as a bother. But Christ was concerned for them. He wants us to learn to look at needy people through His eyes. He has compassion for them and delights to meet their needs.

C. Christ is not limited by our inadequate resources.

When Philip came up with his 200 denarii estimate (that he didn’t have), Jesus didn’t say, “Go take a collection from the crowd and see how much we can get.” When Andrew offered his apology, “But what are these for so many people?” Jesus didn’t say, “I’ll bet there’s more food in this crowd. Let’s get everyone to share!” Jesus wasn’t limited in any way by this meager lunch. And, He isn’t limited today by the fact that we don’t have enough money or time or talent to get the gospel to the whole world. As Watchman Nee put it (Twelve Baskets Full [Hong Kong Church Book Room], 2:48), “The meeting of need is not dependent on the supply in hand, but on the blessing of the Lord resting on the supply.”

D. Christ doesn’t just barely meet needs; He abundantly supplies all that we want.

John draws a contrast between Philip’s “for everyone to receive a little” (6:7), Andrew’s “but what are these for so many people?” (6:9), and Jesus’ distributing to the people “as much as they wanted” (6:11). It reminds us of when God sent manna to the Israelites in the desert and we read (Exod. 16:18), “Every man gathered as much as he should eat.” To emphasize the sufficiency of the manna, the text repeats (16:21), “They gathered it morning by morning, every man as much as he should eat.” Nobody went hungry. When Jesus fed the 20,000, everyone was satisfied and there were 12 baskets full of leftovers. Paul wrote (Phil. 4:19), “And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”

E. Christ is sufficient not only for physical needs, but especially for spiritual needs.

This isn’t just a story about feeding hungry stomachs. This is about the spiritual satisfaction that Jesus brings to all who feed on Him as the bread of life. As He says (John 6:35), “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst.” As Paul put it (Eph. 1:3), God “has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ.” Are you satisfied with Jesus as your living Bread?

When Jesus was dealing with the Samaritan woman at the well, the disciples were focused on the physical: “Rabbi, eat the lunch that we brought to You!” But Jesus was focused on the spiritual food of doing His Father’s will. Here, the disciples are still looking at things on the physical plane: How much money will it take to buy bread for this many people? The multitude was also focused on the physical. After this miracle, they wanted to take Jesus by force and make Him king (6:15). “This man can solve our economic problems!” But later (6:26-27), Jesus rebukes them because they were only interested in filling their stomachs. They had no concern about the food that endures to eternal life.

Even so, today people come to Jesus because they need physical healing or they need a job or they need Him to solve some pressing problem. He can meet those needs and He often does. But He wants us to see that we all have a deeper need: We need to be reconciled to the holy God. Jesus provided the only way for that to happen by giving Himself on the cross (6:51). No matter how great your sin may be, Jesus is more than sufficient to forgive your sin and save you from God’s judgment.

So this miracle shows us that people are needy and the Lord’s people are inadequate to meet those needs. But Jesus Christ is powerfully sufficient to meet the needs of all people, especially their need to be reconciled to God. How does He do it?

4. Christ meets the needs of people through His inadequate people who yield their inadequate resources to Him.

Briefly, here are four ways that Christ meets needs:

A. Christ uses people to meet the needs of people.

John does not specifically state what the other gospels state, that Jesus used the disciples to distribute the bread and fish to the people. But he does show how Jesus involved Philip and Andrew and it’s only from John that we learn that the five loaves and two fish came from a boy’s lunch. As I said, Jesus easily could have prayed and called down bread from heaven without involving anyone else. But He used people, including a boy and his lunch, to meet the needs of other people. If you know Him, He wants to use you to meet others’ needs.

B. Christ uses inadequate people to meet the needs of people.

Jesus could have looked around the crowd for the obviously rich and appealed to them for the funds to feed the crowd. He could have asked those with plenty of food to share. But instead, He used people who were painfully inadequate to meet this overwhelming need. If you think that you’re adequate or competent to serve the Lord, you’re not ready to serve Him.

Someone asked Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to China, “Do you really expect to make an impact on that great land?” “No, sir,” Morrison replied, “but I expect God to.” Hudson Taylor, who followed in Morrison’s footsteps, said, “All God’s giants have been weak men who did great things for God because they reckoned on God being with them.” God only uses inadequate people.

C. Christ uses inadequate people who yield their inadequate resources to Him.

The boy had to give up his lunch, not knowing for sure whether he would go hungry or not. He ended up eating more than he gave up! But we can only give to others what we have first received from God ourselves. We can’t give and the Lord won’t use the 200 denarii that we don’t have. But He will use the inadequate resources that we do have if we yield them to Him. What has the Lord given you? Remember, it was the slave who only had one talent who buried it and didn’t use it for his master. If you think that you’re just a “one-talent” Christian, make sure that you yield it to Christ and use it for His purpose.

D. When Christ uses you to meet the needs of others, He always provides a basketful of leftovers for your needs.

Unlike the manna, which spoiled if they gathered too much, in this miracle the Lord directed the disciples to gather the leftovers, so that nothing would be wasted. We should learn from this to be frugal with what the Lord supplies. Even though He can provide far more than we need, we shouldn’t waste it. But this also shows how the Lord provides for those who serve Him. There were 12 disciples and there were 12 baskets full of leftovers.

We hear a lot about “burnout” today, especially among pastors and missionaries. While we all need adequate rest and time off, if we’re feeling burned out in serving the Lord, it’s likely that we’ve been trying to meet others’ needs in our own strength. We’re trying to feed the multitude with the 200 denarii that we don’t have, and it isn’t sufficient even for everyone to have a little. But if we come away tired, yes, but with the satisfaction of the fullness of Christ in our souls, then the Lord’s blessing was on us. Remember, the bread is a picture of Christ. When we yield to Him our inadequate abilities and gifts to use as He pleases, He will satisfy us with a full measure of Himself. We’ll have food to eat that others know nothing about (John 4:32).

Conclusion

I have two concerns in this message. First, if you’ve never tasted Christ as the living bread to give you eternal life, then that is your main need. Your main need is not for Jesus to heal you or give you a job or provide you with a mate. Your main need is to come to Jesus for eternal life. Just as you eat bread to sustain your physical life even though you don’t understand exactly how it works, so you need to trust in Christ for eternal life. He promises (John 6:35), “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and He who believes in Me will never thirst.”

Second, if you have trusted in Christ, my concern is that you offer yourself to Him to use to meet the needs of others. We always have many ministry needs in the church. Some are behind the scenes, servant-type jobs. But also, the Lord wants to use you to give out the bread of life to others, whether to fellow believers or to those who don’t know the Savior. Don’t live for yourself. Live to be used of God and you’ll be satisfied with a basket full of the Living Bread for yourself.

Application Questions

  1. Since there are so many needs in the world, how do you know where to devote your time, effort, and money?
  2. When is it right to say “no” to the demands of needy people?
  3. How do spiritual gifts fit in with service? How do you know if God wants to use you in an area you aren’t gifted in?
  4. Are there conditions that we must meet in order to experience God’s blessing? What are they?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2013, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Character of God, Christology, Discipleship, Spiritual Life