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The Messiah: Mightier Than Moses (John 6:1-21)

The Feeding of the 5000 in Its Historical Perspective

Matthew

Mark

Luke

John

The disciples are sent out. They preach repentance and heal many. 6:7-13

The disciples are sent out, preaching and healing everywhere, “taking nothing for the journey.” 9:1-6

John the Baptist is dead.

John’s disciples bury him and report it to Jesus. 14:1-12

The death of John the Baptist is reported. 6:14-29

Herod hears of John’s death and rumors about who the people think Jesus is. He wants to see Jesus. 9:7-9

Jesus withdraws to an isolated place and the crowds follow Him. Jesus heals the sick. 14:13-14

His disciples tell Jesus about their mission experience. Jesus tells them to come away with Him for a while to rest. 6:30-31

The disciples return, report to Jesus, and withdraw to a private spot near Bethsaida where Jesus teaches the multitude and heals the sick. 9:10-11

Feeding of 5,000

14:15-21

Feeding of 5,000

6:32-44

Feeding of 5,000

9:12-17

Feeding of 5,000

6:1-14

Jesus makes His disciples get into the boat and go to the other side. He dismisses the crowd. He goes alone to pray. 14:22-23

Jesus makes His disciples get in the boat and leave. He bids the crowd farewell, and then goes to the mountain to pray. 6:45-46

People wish to force Jesus to be their king, and so He withdraws to pray. 6:15

Jesus walks on the water.
Disciples say, “You are the Son of God.” 14:24-33

Jesus walks on the water. 6:47-52

Jesus walks on the water. 6:16-21

When Jesus and His disciples arrive, many come to Him, bringing the sick. Jesus heals them, some by touching the fringe of His cloak. 14:34-36

Crowds gather with their sick, wherever they think Jesus will be. Jesus heals many. 6:53-56

Great confession and Jesus’ instruction. 9:18-22

Call to discipleship.
9:23-27

Transfiguration. 9:28-36

Introduction

Our church recently hosted a banquet for the Urban Evangelical Mission.20 We have never attempted a banquet this large in our church. I am grateful to my wife, Jeannette, who coordinated this challenging, but rewarding, task. Our problem was in getting all the people into our one large room. We also feared we might not order enough food to feed the entire group. By the grace of God, all worked out well.

This experience gives me a greater appreciation for the feeding of the 20,00021 folks in our text, who not only show up uninvited but also stay for dinner. Can you imagine trying to feed a group this size—especially since there are no supermarkets, fast food restaurants, or sufficient funds to even begin to buy enough food? This is the dilemma facing our Lord and His disciples. It does not cause our Lord one moment’s anxiety, because He knows all along what He is going to do. The same cannot be said for the disciples, who are convinced that there is nothing they can do but pressure Jesus into sending the crowd home. When Jesus speaks to them of feeding this crowd, they cannot even imagine how it can possibly be done.

This is a very challenging moment in the lives of the disciples, one that teaches them some very important lessons. It is also the occasion on which our Lord performs two of His greatest miracles. Rather than bringing many to faith in Jesus as the Messiah, it prompts many to try to force Jesus to be their king. This leads to our Lord’s discourse on the “Bread of Life” in the latter part of chapter 6. By the end of this chapter, many of those who once considered themselves His disciples leave Jesus, never to follow Him again.

Aside from the resurrection of our Lord, the feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle found in all four of the Gospels. The closely related miracle of our Lord walking on the water is found in three Gospels, but is omitted by Luke. These two miracles in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel are a watershed. If Jesus is rejected by the religious leaders in Judea in chapter 5, He is rejected by the masses in Galilee in chapter 6. This chapter marks what we might very well call “the beginning of the end.”

The Setting
(6:1-4)

1 After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (also called the Sea of Tiberias). 2 A large crowd was following him because they were observing the miraculous signs he was performing on the sick. 3 So Jesus went on up the mountainside and sat down there with his disciples. 4 (Now the Jewish feast of the Passover was near.)

The chart on the previous page outlines the events which the Gospels include before and after the feeding of the 5,000, and our Lord’s walking on water. It is quite evident in this chart that John’s Gospel is the most pared down, bare-bones account of these events. This is not to say that John has nothing unique to contribute, for he does. It is in John’s Gospel that we learn the loaves and fishes come from a young lad, and that two disciples, Philip and Andrew, are particularly involved in the miracle of feeding the 5,000. Likewise, John informs us that the loaves were barley bread. Aside from these details, the Synoptic Gospels give us the greatest amount of detail regarding these two miracles.

Unlike the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), which give considerable attention to the “Great Galilean ministry” of our Lord (Matthew 4:12–15:20; Mark 1:14–7:23; Luke 4:14–9:17), John passes by this period, recording only the first and last miracles of this era. He has his reasons for doing this, which we shall explore a little later on. But for now let us simply review the sequence of events leading up to and beyond these miracles, as we piece them all together from the various Gospel accounts.

Two years into His public ministry, Jesus sent out His twelve disciples by two’s. They went about casting out demons, healing and preaching about the kingdom of God, and calling on men to repent wherever they went. John the Baptist, imprisoned earlier, has just been beheaded by a reluctant Herod, who has second thoughts afterwards. When he hears word of the miraculous ministry and rising popularity of Jesus, Herod fears that Jesus might be John the Baptist raised from the dead. He tries to see Jesus, but is not able to do so. The disciples return from their missionary journeys and begin to report to Jesus all that has happened. Jesus is so besieged by those seeking healing that He has very little time to spend privately with His disciples.

Jesus and His disciples withdraw to a private place near Bethsaida. It seems as though they are alone at last, away from the crowds, so that Jesus can talk with them about their ministry and further teach them. It also appears to provide a time for them to get some much needed rest. Their destination is just outside of Herod’s territory, just out of his reach. All in all, it appears to be a needed break from the frantic pace they have been keeping.

As we well know, it doesn’t work out that way. After the feeding of the 5,000, the crowds are even more intent on forcefully bringing about the promised kingdom. Jesus sends His disciples away in the boat, dismisses the crowds, and then goes off to pray by Himself. When He finishes praying, He begins to make His way across the Sea of Galilee by walking on the water. As He crosses the sea, Jesus comes across His disciples and ends up in the boat with them. Immediately, they arrive at their destination on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee, where many more miracles are performed. Some time after this, Jesus presses His disciples concerning His identity, and Peter makes his “great confession.” The transfiguration of our Lord follows. These are indeed great moments in the ministry of our Lord. The feeding of the 5,000 marks a critical moment in our Lord’s ministry.

Another factor also amplifies the impact of the feeding of the 5,000—the Passover is near (John 6:4). D. A. Carson reminds us of the patriotic and political implications of the Passover:

… the Passover Feast was to Palestinian Jews what the fourth of July is to Americans, or, better, what the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne is to loyalist Protestants in Northern Ireland. It was a rallying point for intense, nationalistic zeal. This goes some way to explaining their fervour that tried to force Jesus to become king …22

Having pointed out the chronology of events we gain from the Synoptic Gospels, I must call your attention to the fact that John does not present his account of the feeding of the 5,000 as one incident in a sequential chain of events. John is developing a theme, and therefore structures his Gospel differently. In the last part of John chapter 1, Jesus is identified as the Messiah by John the Baptist, after which our Lord begins to gather His disciples. In chapter 2, Jesus makes the water into wine and cleanses the temple in Jerusalem. In chapter 3, our Lord has an interview with Nicodemus. He then speaks with the Samaritan woman at the well in chapter 4, resulting not only in her faith, but also in the conversion of most of the citizens of Sychar.

It is here, in chapter 4, that John introduces the subject of “food.”23 His disciples are intent upon Jesus having something to eat. They cannot understand what “food” He has to “eat” other than the food they have just obtained in town. The opposition to Jesus begins to become serious in chapter 5. Jesus heals the paralytic and then commands him to carry his bed, in spite of it being the Sabbath. On top of this, when attacked as a Sabbath-breaker, Jesus justifies His actions by claiming to be equal with God. By the end of chapter 5, the Jewish religious authorities are more committed than ever to putting Jesus to death.

This brings us to John chapter 6. Jesus changes location, moving from Judea to Galilee. He leaves behind the crowds in Capernaum to be alone with His disciples in an isolated place in the wilderness. It is a time when our Lord’s popularity among the common people is skyrocketing. But by the end of the chapter, many of His would-be followers leave Him, never to follow Him again. If Jesus was rejected by the Jewish authorities in Judea in chapter 5, He is rejected by the masses in Galilee in chapter 6. From this point on in the Gospel of John, it is only a matter of time until Jesus makes His way up to Calvary, bearing a Roman cross and the penalty for our sins.

Yet one more thing should be mentioned before turning to the actual account of the feeding of the 5,000. I cannot avoid the impression that Jesus has been at this wilderness location before. Let me suggest some of my reasons for coming to this conclusion. First, John tells us “Jesus went up the mountainside” (verse 3).24 John seems to refer to a particular mountainside—the mountainside, not a mountainside. While some scholars point out that the definite article (“the”) does not necessarily indicate a particular, well-known place,25 it certainly could. I think it does.

Second, there are some interesting parallels between our text in John and Matthew’s account of our Lord’s earlier ministry, when He preached the Sermon on the Mount. The similarities between these two accounts, the one in Matthew 4 and 5, and the other in our text in John, may be summed up as follows:

The Sermon on the Mount

Jesus Feeds the 5,000 on the Mount

John the Baptist is arrested (Mat. 4:12)

John the Baptist is put to death (Matt. 14:1-12)

Jesus retreats to Galilee (Matt. 4:12)

Jesus retreats to Galilee (Matt. 14:13)

Jesus chooses His 12 disciples (Matt. 4:18f.)

Jesus sends out His 12 disciples (Mark 6:7-13)

Jesus teaches on the mount (Matt. 5:1f.)

Jesus teaches on the mount (Mark 6:34)

Perhaps it is not a point worth belaboring, but it does seem as though this “mountain” is a more familiar place to our Lord, His disciples, and even the crowds than we might think. Would this not help explain why so many people hurry to this place when they realize Jesus is in a boat, heading out across the Sea of Galilee?

Feeding the Hungry
(6:5-13)

5 Then Jesus, when he looked up and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, said to Philip, “Where can we buy bread so that these people may eat?” 6 (Now Jesus said this to test him, for he knew what he was going to do.) 7 Philip replied, “Two hundred silver coins worth of bread would not be enough for them, for each one to get a little.” 8 One of Jesus’ disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “Here is a boy who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what good are these for so many people?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” (Now there was a lot of grass in that place.) So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed the bread to those who were seated. He then did the same with the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were all satisfied, Jesus said to his disciples, “Gather up the broken pieces that are left over, so that nothing is wasted.” 13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with broken pieces from the five barley loaves left over by the people who had eaten.

In the Synoptic Gospels, it is late in the day when the disciples approach our Lord, urging Him to send the people away because there is no food to feed them. Jesus does not let the disciples off the hook. Instead, He instructs His disciples to feed the crowd (see Matthew 14:16; Mark 6:37; Luke 9:13). It is their responsibility to feed these people, and Jesus will not allow them to merely send the people away hungry.

In our text, John presents this miracle from a somewhat different perspective. It is much earlier in the day, and it is our Lord who first approaches His disciples about feeding the multitude. In John’s Gospel, our Lord raises the question before the crowds have even completely arrived. They are approaching as Jesus asks His disciples where they can purchase bread for these folks to eat (verse 5). Philip, to whom the question is posed,26 does not even comment as to “where” food can be purchased; he is more concerned about “how much” the food will cost. To Philip, it doesn’t matter where the closest “store” is. He knows they will not have nearly enough money to pay for the large quantity of food they need.

From John’s words, we see that Jesus knows all along how He will handle this situation (verse 6). Jesus raises the question of how to feed the crowd before it is time to feed them. I believe that He wants the disciples to agonize a bit over this situation. The best they can do is recommend that Jesus send the people away, letting them fend for themselves. The question Jesus asks Philip is intended to start the disciples thinking about this need long before it is a crisis. Jesus raises the problem in terms that His disciples understand and expect—buying food to feed the crowd. After all, this is what the disciples did while Jesus waited at the well in Samaria (see John 4:8). His purpose is not to have them solve the problem, but to realize that, humanly speaking, there is no solution. Philip certainly concurs, and it seems he almost brushes off the whole matter as absurd. But then evening falls, and the people are still there without having eaten for hours.

The Synoptic Gospels begin their account of the feeding of the 5,000 when evening has come. John’s Gospel describes what happened when evening falls in verses 8 and following, but only after informing us that Jesus raised the issue earlier in the day. Jesus refuses to send the crowd away, and instructs His disciples to feed them. They must have looked at each other in astonishment. How could they possibly do what Jesus required? I would imagine that there was an uncomfortable period of silence, as Jesus waited for some kind of response from the disciples. It may have been that in response to this distressing situation Andrew felt compelled to blurt out, “Well, there is this one little lad, who has five loaves and two fishes.” I know that what I am about to say is not in the text, but it does at least sound true to life, life as I understand it. I can see the other disciples rolling their eyes at each other, amazed at the stupidity of mentioning such a puny quantity of bread and fish. I can hear his fellow-disciples harshly chastising Andrew for being so foolish: “Yeah, great idea Andrew, five barley loaves and two fish—to feed this entire crowd. Great idea! Real smart! Good grief man, what are you thinking?”

Jesus makes sure that the disciples participate in this miracle. He has the 12 instruct the people to recline on the grass, in groups of 50. It would require 100 such groups to serve only the men,27 so there must be approximately 400 groups of 50 seated on this grassy slope. So far as we can tell, Jesus does not indicate what He is about to do, either to the crowds or to any of His disciples. What a curious thing this must be for the crowd—and what a troubling experience for the disciples. Imagine instructing everyone to sit down, as though a meal is about to be served, knowing there is nothing to serve but five small bread cakes and a little pickled fish for a relish.28

Those in the crowd may not be experiencing consternation over what is taking place, but they must certainly be curious, because they know there is little or no food available. They must have realized this when they began to inquire whether anyone had brought food with them. And now, Jesus is telling His disciples to have the multitude sit on the grass. It would be something like our having a group of guests sit at the dining table. The implied “message” in this is that we intend to feed them. Where will the food come from? Jesus does not promise a miracle. He simply takes the barley cakes and two fish and blesses them, then begins to pass out portions of the young lad’s lunch for His disciples to distribute.

The miracle seems to take place in the hands of our Lord, as He breaks off pieces of the barley cakes and fish. It appears He keeps reaching into the little basket where the lad had his lunch, and the food simply keeps on coming. It must be something like the widow’s oil and flour in the Old Testament:

8 Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, 9 “Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. See, I have commanded a widow there to provide for you.” 10 So he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, indeed a widow was there gathering sticks. And he called to her and said, “Please bring me a little water in a cup, that I may drink.” 11 And as she was going to get it, he called to her and said, “Please bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12 So she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I do not have bread, only a handful of flour in a bin, and a little oil in a jar; and see, I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” 13 And Elijah said to her, “Do not fear; go and do as you have said, but make me a small cake from it first, and bring it to me; and afterward make some for yourself and your son. 14 For thus says the LORD God of Israel: ‘The bin of flour shall not be used up, nor shall the jar of oil run dry, until the day the LORD sends rain on the earth.’” 15 So she went away and did according to the word of Elijah; and she and he and her household ate for many days. 16 The bin of flour was not used up, nor did the jar of oil run dry, according to the word of the LORD which He spoke by Elijah (1 Kings 17:8-16, NKJV).

Can you imagine the wonder and excitement as people begin to grasp that Jesus is performing a miracle of this magnitude? You’ve probably seen people do “the wave” in a football stadium. Can’t you just see the heads of people, making a “wave” as they spread the word that a miracle must be taking place before their very eyes? Yet here, as when He turned the water into wine, Jesus does not announce what He is doing. Jesus does not seek to attract attention; He is not attempting to attract a bigger following. Jesus is simply trying to minister to the needs of a hungry crowd, without adding fuel to the fire of their political enthusiasm.

Even when all have eaten, the task is not yet complete. Jesus instructs His disciples to collect all the leftovers. I do not believe this includes portions that have been nibbled on, but not completely devoured. I assume these leftovers are the untouched portions of bread and fish29 which remain in the basket after it has passed among the group of 50. Jesus demonstrates what we might call today “good ecology.” He does not allow any food to be wasted, nor does He allow the hillside to be trashed with garbage.

The gathered leftovers are a lesson in themselves. We are told that the crowd eats and that they are “all satisfied.” Had we been there, we would say, “I’m so full I can’t eat another bite.”30 It can hardly be a coincidence that when the unused portions are gathered, there are 12 baskets full of food. Our Lord is never stingy in His gifts. They are always bountiful. Each of the 12 disciples, who must have agonized over the shortage of food and the size of the crowd they are commanded to feed, walks away with a basket full of excess food. God supplies all our needs, and more.

We should notice one more thing about this meal our Lord provides in the wilderness. The meal is not a gourmet dinner; it is not “steak and ale.” Barley cakes are the food of the poor. They are not a bad meal, for it is a nutritional meal that satisfies their appetites and meets their physical needs. But it is not the food one expects to find at a very fine restaurant. Had our Lord provided such a meal, the crowd would have been even more determined to force Jesus to become their king.

The Hardest Task of All: Sending the Guests Home
(6:14-15)

14 So when the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus performed, they began to say to one another, “This is certainly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Then Jesus, because he knew they were going to come and seize him by force to make him king, withdrew again up the mountainside alone.

Someone has said, “A guest is like a fish—after three days, he stinks!” Imagine the mixture of curiosity, messianic zeal, and even desperation31 that draws this huge crowd into the wilderness so hastily that they do not even bring a lunch along. Jesus both teaches and heals the sick on this occasion, as well as feeds this crowd. These things certainly do not “cool down” the enthusiasm of the crowd. If anything, His words and deeds cause the crowd to conclude that Jesus is the “prophet like Moses” whom Moses had foretold (Deuteronomy 18:15).

Jesus knows that the crowd is worked up by this last miracle, and that they are about to converge upon Him in an effort to forcibly make Him their king. It is definitely not the kind of king Jesus came to be. John does not give us a very full report here. He simply writes that Jesus withdraws by Himself further up the mountainside (verse 15). We know from the other Gospels that Jesus immediately sends His disciples to the boat to begin their journey across the Sea of Galilee to Capernaum, while He dismisses the crowds (Matthew 14:22; Mark 6:45). It is my opinion that the crowds obey the voice of our Lord, as did the wind and the sea when Jesus calmed the storm (see Mark 4:35-41), or as the paralytic did when he got up, took up his mattress, and walked (John 5:8-9). I believe it is not what they want or purpose to do, but what they must do because of Him who commands it. It is then that our Lord goes up on the mountain, alone, to pray.

Walking on the Water
(6:16-21)

16 Now when evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17 got into a boat, and started to cross the lake to Capernaum. (It had already become dark and Jesus had not yet come to them.) 18 By now a strong wind was blowing and the sea was getting rough. 19 Then when they had rowed about three or four miles, they sighted Jesus walking on the lake, approaching the boat, and they were frightened. 20 But he said to them, “It is I, do not be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat came to the land where they had been heading.

The disciples are already in the boat and on their way to the other side of the lake when Jesus finishes His time of prayer. They have come in one boat, and now there seems to be only one way for Jesus to reach Capernaum, the same way the crowds came to this place from Capernaum—by walking around the Sea of Galilee. The problem is that this would require Jesus to walk past the crowds, between Him and the other side of the sea. If a boat were available, He could navigate His journey so as to keep enough distance between Himself and those on the shore. But there is no boat on hand. Once again, Jesus seems to be in an impossible situation. Once again, Jesus has no difficulty dealing with the problem. He simply crosses the Sea of Galilee by walking on the water.

As He is walking on the sea, Jesus comes upon His disciples, straining at the oars, fighting strong contrary winds. Mark tells us that Jesus “wanted to pass by” the disciples, because “the night was ending” (6:48). I think Mark means that Jesus is eager to get to shore, before daylight, so He will not attract a crowd. The crowds are not as likely to converge on the disciples if Jesus is not with them. But the disciples are having trouble, struggling against the wind. We are not told that they are in danger, and we know that at least four of these fellows are fishermen. This is nothing new to them.

But the disciples look out and see Jesus passing them by. They are terrified, not by the winds or by their difficulties in rowing the boat, but by the sight of Him whom they do not recognize as the Lord. If they have never believed in ghosts before, they surely do now! Jesus takes pity on them, assuring them that it is He, and that they need not be afraid.32 They eagerly take Jesus into the boat and are immediately at their destination.33

Conclusion

As great as these two miracles are, very little is made of them in the Gospel of John. Jesus does not even bring them up, when He could have gained great notoriety from them. These two miracles, like virtually all of our Lord’s miracles, are miracles of necessity. Jesus does not frivolously employ His power to satisfy His own desires. (This is evident by His refusal to succumb to Satan’s futile attempts to tempt Him to do so.) Walking on the sea is necessary because Jesus needs to send His disciples away as quickly as possible, before He deals with the crowds. He then needs to return to Capernaum, but in a way that keeps Him from the fanatical king-makers in the crowd. Our Lord’s walking on the water and the boat’s immediate arrival on shore are miracles of necessity.

But why is John’s account of these miracles so terse, so skeletal? Why does he not make more of them? If he does not make something of them, why does he even mention them at all? I believe that on the one hand they hardly need any defense at all, or any explanation, given their relation to the rest of John’s Gospel. John has clearly told us in chapter 1 that Jesus is God. If He, the Word, is the One who called all creation into existence, is it any great wonder that He can create a meal for 5,000 men, or that He can walk on the sea? Jesus’ actions are completely consistent with who John says He is, who God the Father testifies that He is, and who Jesus Himself claims to be. So what is there to explain or to embellish?

Let me attempt to illustrate this in everyday terms. Among other things, I am a mechanic. I fix things, especially cars. If I work outside for a few hours and then come into the house, my wife Jeannette may say to me, “What were you doing out there?” If I answer, “Oh, I was torquing a cylinder head and changing the struts,” I do not expect her to respond, “Wow! That’s incredible! Tell me more about it!” I know what my wife will say (pretty much): “Hmm.” I was doing what she expected, given who I am and what I do. In our text Jesus is doing what we should expect Him to do, given who He is. Neither Jesus nor John feel obliged to provide a drum roll before these miracles or to blow a bugle afterwards. Jesus is doing what we should expect the Son of God to do.

There is another reason John does not make more of these miracles. These miracles are not in the foreground of this chapter, but instead provide the background for what John considers more important material. The main thrust of this chapter is our Lord’s “Bread of Life” discourse, which is occasioned by the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. John records this miracle because it is the setting for what takes place in the remainder of the chapter, much like the healing of the paralytic sets the scene for the rest of chapter 5.

The feeding of the 5,000 and our Lord’s walking on the sea seem to have a definite connection with Moses and the events of the Exodus. Later in this very chapter, and again in chapter 9, Moses is a prominent figure in the Gospel of John; the Jews who are in opposition to Jesus refer to him as their hero (1:17, 45; 3:14; 5:45-46; 6:32; 7:19, 22, 23; 8:5; 9:28-29). Under the leadership of Moses, the Israelites passed through the sea on dry land, and God provided His people with manna from heaven. Jesus is the One who is greater than Moses. He personally walks on the sea, and He provides bread from heaven, the true bread which gives men eternal life. In our text, these two miracles link Jesus and Moses, and show that Jesus is the greater of the two.

There is another reason for John’s brevity. John, like our Lord (and very much unlike me) is a master of the art of understatement. In chapter 13, John records that Judas Iscariot went out to betray our Lord. Almost incidentally John adds, “and it was night” (John 13:30). This expression is pregnant with meaning, but John does not spell it all out for us. He expects us to meditate upon his words and ponder their significance. Jesus does the same thing in His teaching. When Jesus teaches, people go away scratching their heads, asking themselves, “I wonder what He meant by that?” This method requires the reader to do some thinking, rather than the teacher doing all the reader’s thinking for him or her.

Having learned that our text is preliminary to and preparatory for the “Bread of Life” discourse of our Lord in the latter part of this chapter, there are some principles to be learned from these miracles as we reflect upon them. Let me point out a few in closing.

(1) Jesus commands us to do more than we are (humanly) able, because He enables us to do what He commands. The disciples are inclined to shirk their responsibility to feed these folks because the task is “impossible.” Jesus does not let them off the hook, but rather lays the responsibility for feeding the 5,000 at their feet. What the disciples are not able to do on their own, they accomplish by the power of Jesus Christ. And not only are they able to feed this crowd so that all are filled, they even end up with a surplus.

God ministers through our weakness. He does not select “strong” people so that He can use their strengths; He chooses weak people so that He can demonstrate His power through their weakness (see 1 Corinthians 1:18–2:5; 2 Corinthians 4:7–5:10; also chapters 8, 10, 12). He gives us tasks which we do not have the strength to do ourselves, because He gives us His strength to carry them out.

(2) The magnitude of the task should not be used as our excuse for not attempting it, especially when the task is our Lord’s command. How easy it is to use the magnitude of a given task as our excuse for not obeying our Lord. The Great Commission is a command given by our Lord to His disciples, and thus to His church. The Great Commission is therefore a command we are to obey; it is not a suggestion, and not a request. We are to be about this task, in whatever ways God puts before us. Let us see the magnitude of the mission as the occasion for faith, obedience, and prayers, and not as an excuse for apathy and idleness.

(3) Wonder of wonders, God has chosen to multiply and expand our puny efforts and contributions, so as to accomplish His will. The young lad with five loaves and two fishes had little to offer, but God multiplied what he had. Our efforts are so feeble, so fallible, and yet God uses us as “clay pots” to do His will. Even our failures are used of God to bring about His purposes.34

(4) Those whom God uses to minister to the needs of this crowd are also those who gain the most from serving others. I wish to be very careful here, because I am not advocating that we “give in order to get.” But it is interesting to note that this young lad ends up with “all he could eat,” which is probably more than he had in the first place. And the disciples, who thought they had nothing to serve, each ended up with a full basket. As we give ourselves in the service of others, God cares abundantly for our own needs.

(5) The disciples are inclined to limit their ministry to what they have seen and done before. One of the great weaknesses of the church is evident in the statement: “But we’ve always done it this way before.” Some things need to be done a certain way. But often we attempt to solve problems with only those means and methods with which we are familiar, to which we are accustomed. The disciples think of feeding the 5,000 only in terms of buying food at a store. Jesus has a better way. Jesus has a different way, a way they would never expect, a way they would never believe if told about it beforehand. God delights in doing the unexpected, so that His wisdom, power and grace are displayed through His handling of “impossible” situations. When we face difficulties, we should be careful not to limit the ways we expect God to minister through us. We dare not demand or even expect the unusual, but we certainly dare not deny the possibility.

(6) Our Lord cares about and takes care of our needs. Jesus ministers to these people because of their great need for teaching and healing. He also cares about their physical needs, because they are weary and hungry. Do you trust God to care for your needs? Jesus was thinking about feeding the 5,000 long before it ever entered the minds of His disciples. Jesus knew all along what He intended to do. Our Lord cares, and He cares well for our needs. Most of all, He cares about our need for the forgiveness of our sins. As we shall soon see, He became the “Bread of Life” by dying on the cross of Calvary, by bearing the guilt and punishment for our sins. Have you trusted in Him who cared so much that He died on Calvary?


20 UEM was formerly known as BEE (Black Evangelistic Enterprise), an organization committed to planting churches in the urban community, where crime and poverty are abundant, but where there is a scarcity of Bible-believing, gospel-proclaiming churches.

21 In Matthew 14:21, the author makes it clear that there are 5,000 men there, not counting the women and children. It seems to be generally conceded that on this occasion there must have been approximately 20,000 people present.

22 D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), p. 269.

23 There is also the “wine” of chapter 2 and the “water” of chapter 3.

24 Today we know this place as the Golan Heights.

25 See the study note in the NET Bible, and also Carson, p. 268. It is interesting that Morris is more inclined to think that the definite article is significant here: “The place of these happenings is defined as ‘the mountain.’ This expression occurs several times in the Gospels (e.g. Matt. 5:1; Mark 3:13), and raises the question whether there was a particular mountain which Jesus and His immediate followers familiarly knew as ‘the’ mountain.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), p. 342.

26 Morris (p. 343) points out that Philip is the logical one to ask, since his home town is Bethsaida (John 1:44).

27 See Matthew 14:21.

28 “The ‘small fish’ (opsaria) are probably pickled fish to be eaten as a side dish with the small cakes (scarcely ‘loaves’) of barley bread …” Carson, p. 270.

29 Matthew, Luke, and John mention only taking up the portions of bread; only Mark mentions the fish (Mark 6:43).

30 There are some pathetic efforts to explain this miracle away, so that it is no miracle at all. One “explanation” is that Jesus used the lad’s contribution to shame the rest of the crowd into sharing the food they brought with them. Another is that Jesus gives the crowd a symbolic meal, something like communion. If this is the case, how can John tell us they are all satisfied?

31 It is clear from the other Gospels that Jesus healed many on this occasion.

32 It is at this point in Matthew’s account that Peter walks on water—momentarily (see Matthew 14:28-30).

33 There are different ways of understanding verse 21, but I see this as another miracle. I believe this miracle took place because Jesus needed to be on shore before daylight, when His arrival would be noted by all who looked out on the sea.

34 David’s sin with Bathsheba resulted in a marriage from which Solomon was later born. David’s foolish act of numbering the Israelites resulted in the purchase of the land on which the temple was later built. The jealous act of Joseph’s brothers was used of God to “save” Jacob and his family, to prosper them in Egypt, and to prepare them to possess the promised land.

Related Topics: Christology, Revelation