Jesus’ miracles often addressed physical needs, but their ultimate purpose was spiritual. The feeding of the multitude is a prime example of this. Jesus’ focus is on making, equipping, and sending out disciples.
This is the first time in our chronological study of the life and ministry of Jesus where all four Gospel authors write about the same event—we call it the feeding of the 5,000.
Now just before this miracle takes place, Herod the Tetrarch hears about Jesus’ ministry, and he’s so paranoid he thinks Jesus is John the Baptist resurrected from the grave. Matthew 14:2:
He said to his servants, “This is John the Baptist. He has been raised from the dead; that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.”
Beloved, Herod is being driven mad by his guilt. Mark’s Gospel tells us about Herod’s hatred for John the Baptist. John had publicly denounced the marriage of Herod and the wife he stole away from his own brother. Her name was Herodias, and she had been seething with anger over John’s preaching against their adultery.
So, at the next birthday party she threw for Herod, her daughter, Salome, danced before the king and his guests. And we cannot sanitize it here; this was an erotic dance. Herod told her he would give her whatever she wanted, and her mother knew just what she should ask for: the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Reluctantly, Herod had John beheaded.
After Jesus hears about the murder of John, Mark 6:32 tells us that Jesus and His disciples go “away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.” They go over to the north shore of the Sea of Galilee to a town called Bethsaida, where they hope to get away and rest and, I think, grieve for a while over the loss of this faithful prophet and friend.
Let me tell you, beloved, we do sorrow at the death of our family and friends; we sorrow, yet not without hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). If Jesus wanted to be alone for a while to grieve John’s death, there is certainly nothing wrong with your doing the same thing. Do not ever criticize other Christians as being unspiritual because they are grieving the loss of someone they loved.
Well, Jesus hardly has time to be alone. A crowd is waiting for Him and the disciples as they row to shore. All four Gospels tell us that there are about 5,000 men—and undoubtedly, there are women and children as well. This is a massive crowd of some 15–20,000 people. And there are two different reactions to this multitude.
The disciples want Jesus to send the crowd away, but Jesus sees this large crowd, and Mark records, “He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). Matthew 14:14 adds that He “healed their sick.”
The disciples saw the crowd as an interruption. Jesus was moved with compassion. Now, let’s pick it up in John chapter 6:
Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. (John 6:5-6)
Why test Philip? Well, because this was Philip’s hometown (see John 1:44). He knew where the bakery was located, and he knew how much it would cost in this region. I can just see Philip get out his pencil and notepad: “Let’s see, 5,000 men plus women and children; multiply that by three cents a loaf, divided by ten bites per person. Okay, Lord, I got it”—verse 7: “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.”
Two hundred denarii amounted to nearly the average annual salary in this day. Philip says, “Lord, we don’t have that kind of money.” By the way, the Lord is not testing Philip’s finances; He is testing Philip’s faith.
About that time Andrew shows up and says, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish” (verse 9). Barley was the bread of the poor people; it was baked in round flat pieces, the size of the palm of your hand.
This little boy has two fish as well. The word John uses here for fish (opsaria) refers to little minnow-sized, or sardine-sized, fish that people seasoned to add some flavor to their barley bread.
It’s like Andrew apologizes here because he adds in verse 9, “But what is this for so many people” (paraphrased). “What am I thinking?”
Listen beloved, do not apologize for what you have to offer the Lord. Do not ever say, “I don’t have much to give Him; I’m just one little person—not very much talent, not much experience.” Just put who you are and what you have in the Master’s hands.
The amazing thing is not just that Jesus does so much with so little; the amazing thing is that Jesus uses the little bit you give Him to do so much.
Look at verse 11:
Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted.
The other Gospels record that Jesus has the apostles hand out the bread and fish. He is including them in the process of ministry. They also collect the leftovers—twelve baskets full—as if to remind them the Lord will take care of them as well.
Now over in Matthew 14:20, we are told that this crowd ate until they were “satisfied.” That word could be translated, “completely full.” We would say, “They were stuffed.”
Now the liberals have said that this would have been impossible for Jesus to do; what really happened was that this crowd was so embarrassed by this little boy offering his lunch, they all took out their lunches and shared them with each other.
But 15,000 people did not miss what happened. They know an incredible miracle has taken place. That is why the crowd says in John 6:14, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” In other words, Jesus reminded them of Moses and manna from heaven. And they believe Jesus is the prophet like Moses whom God promised to raise up back in Deuteronomy 18:15.
They are ready to follow Him right then and there. The problem is, they are thinking in political terms rather than spiritual terms. They are ready to overthrow Rome; Jesus plans to overthrow Satan.
Yes, Jesus has the power to bring manna down from heaven again if He wants to. But He is also teaching His disciples here some important lessons for their future ministry—and yours and mine.
One lesson is that our personal insufficiency does not handicap His all-sufficiency. Yes, offer your barley bread and sardines to Him—and then watch what He will do.
Luke writes, “Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.” (Luke 9:16). He included them; He used them to co-labor with Him, just as He uses you and me today. We are just handing out what He offers. He is the Creator; we are just the couriers.
So, hand out what you have, then come back to Christ for more strength, more wisdom, and more resources. I love what Alexander McLaren wrote on this text over 100 years ago: “The disciples always found that whenever they returned to the Lord with their hands empty, His hands were always full.”
When you have reached the point of impossibility—when you are out of strength, out of money, out of ideas, when you are beyond your experience or talent or ability—you just need to hand Him your pieces of barley bread and a couple of sardines. And then watch what He will do.