Feeding the Five Thousand

Ordinary 17B

John 6: 1 15

Introduction

Had we continued from last week's reading (Mark 6: 30 — 34) we would have progressed to St. Mark's account of our Lord feeding the five thousand. In the international three year lectionary we now cross to reading about the same event, but as recorded by St. John. In fact, for five weeks we will cover most of John 6 which is a very long chapter that focuses on the Bread of Life. The theology of St John is complex and, if required, is best sought from a single volume commentary. Our purpose in the five meditations based on John 6 will be to bring together just a few threads from some valuable sources to help focus our attention on the self-manifestation of our Lord to those who were open to receiving it.

Some Notes On the Text

Verses 1 4

Returning from Jerusalem our Lord met the Apostles somewhere on the West of the Sea of Galilee (Tiberias) — perhaps at Capernaum — and heard their report of their mission. He then spent about a fortnight preaching and healing the sick, and afterwards, seeking retirement, sailed with them to a desert place on the North East coast belonging to a city called Bethsaida. (Dummelow)

A great crowd of people followed him because they had observed the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick. But, as Reith explains, "Curiosity, and wonder, and carnal expectancy drew the crowds; not faith."

At this point Jesus turned into some hilly countryside and found a spot on a mountainside where, at least momentarily, he could give some attention to his close disciples. The mountain, in this scenario evoked the memory of Sinai, where Moses mediated the revelation that pointed to the Messiah.

We are explicitly told, "The Jewish Passover Feast was near." Ryle explains the purpose for this:

John's habit of explaining Jewish customs for the benefit of Gentile readers should here be noticed.

The approach of the passover feast is no doubt specially mentioned in order to show the suitableness of our Lord's discourse in this chapter to the season of the year. The minds of His hearers would doubtless be thinking of the passover lamb, and its flesh about to be eaten and blood about to be sprinkled. Our Lord takes occasion to speak of that "flesh and blood" which must be eaten and drunk by all who would not perish in sin. It is an instance of that divine wisdom with which our Master spoke "words in season," and turned everything to account.

Let it be noted that our Lord did not keep this passover in Jerusalem to all appearance, but remained in Galilee. Yet He generally observed all the ordinances of the law of Moses most strictly, and "fulfilled all righteousness." The reason evidently is, as Rollock remarks, that the enmity and persecution of the leading Jews at Jerusalem made it impossible for Him to go there. It would have cut short His ministry and brought on His death before the time…

The near approach of the passover may possibly account in part for the crowds who were assembled on this occasion. Not a few of the people perhaps were on their way to Jerusalem, to keep the passover feast, and were drawn out of their road by hearing of our Lord's miracles.

Verses 5 9

At a certain point in talking to his disciples, Jesus looked up and saw the crowd making their way towards them. He was neither surprised nor openly stressed, even though he had planned a quiet break. Instead he turned the whole direction of his little group to the material needs of the approaching crowd. Quite reasonably Jesus turned to Philip who, in these parts at least, would be the one expected to answer his question, "Where shall be buy bread for these people to eat?" Ryle explains:

Our Lord's reason for asking this question is given in the next verse. But it is worth notice that there was a certain propriety in asking Philip this question, because Philip "was of Bethsaida," the very town near which they were all assembled. (John 1: 44.) Our Lord therefore might reasonably appeal to Philip, as one most likely and able to answer His question, whether it were possible to buy bread for such a multitude. He would of course know the capabilities of the neighbourhood.

Philip was quick to reply saying that it would take more than eight month's wages to give a crowd like this just a single bite, let alone supply a meal! Not a bad calculation given the situation. But our Lord, who was perfectly aware of what he planned to do, was stretching Philip's underdeveloped level of insight. Reith gives a helpful thought:

The whole course of the Christian life is a temptation, or trial, or probation, under the direct control of the Holy Spirit, Gen. 22: 1, also Job. Remark also how Jesus observes the special characteristic of each disciple, and lovingly subjects each to the discipline best suited to him, 10: 14 f., 15: 2. Philip, looking more at the limited horizon of earth and its possibilities, and less at the limitless horizon of God's power and grace, needed and would be the better for this trial.

Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, then spoke up. He was also from the local area, but obviously had no idea what to do. Typically of someone feeling slightly awkward about being caught out, he made the remark: "There is a boy here who has five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?" Ryle comments:

This expression of Andrew's is purposely reported, no doubt, in order to show how strong was the conviction of our Lord's disciples that they had not sufficient provision to feed the multitude, and then to bring out into clear light the greatness of the miracle which our Lord wrought. It also helps to prove that the wonderful feeding of the multitude was not a preconcerted and prepared thing, arranged by our Lord and His disciples. Even His own immediate followers were taken by surprise.

Verses 10 13

Without further ado, Jesus told the disciples to have the crowd get ready to eat. Echoing the prophecy of Ezechiel 34, we are told, there was plenty of grass in that place. John's account then records precisely what happened:

  • Jesus took the boy's five small loaves and gave thanks.
  • He then distributed (via the disciples) to those who were seated as much as they wanted.
  • He did exactly the same with the fish.
  • He then waited for everyone to finish eating at which point he instructed his disciples to collect any leftovers, saying, "Let nothing be wasted".
  • The disciples did just as they were told and filled twelve baskets with pieces of the five barley loaves.

We draw on two scholars to comment on this great event. First, J.C. Ryle, picking up at verse 11 says:

I think there can be no doubt that this was the point at which the mighty miracle here wrought by our Lord came in. As fast as He broke the loaves and the disciples carried them away to distribute them, so fast did the loaves multiply under His hands. It was in the act of breaking and distributing to the disciples that the miraculous multiplication took place. In fact there was a continual act of creation going on. Bread was continually called into existence which did not exist before. The greatness of this miracle is perhaps not sufficiently realized. One loaf and less than half a fish to every thousand men! It is evident there could not have been more than a small morsel for each one without a miraculous increase of the food.

Bishop Hall remarks, "He could as well have multiplied the loaves whole; why would He rather do it in the breaking? Was it not to teach us that in the distribution of our goods we should expect His blessing, not in their entireness and reservation? There is that scattereth and yet increaseth."

Then G. Reith taking an overview writes:

1. Jesus works only on the material furnished to Him by the disciples, 
2. who must do their utmost;
3. He gives God thanks for the slender repast, as if it had been sufficient for the whole; and who knows how much lay in this act? see ver. 23. It deeply impressed the beholders; 
4. He gives out with no ostentation, as if always from the slender stock before him, multiplying this by the secret of His power. A singular mark of divineness; no marvel being displayed, as in a gigantic heap of loaves, or the like; 
5. thus linking the supply closely to His own person, 
6. and impressing on the disciples the need of careful economy, even in the presence of such a supply, wrought with no trouble, apparently to be relied on to-morrow as to-day..

Note the exactness, "broken pieces from the five barley loaves."

No more were seen by human eye. Memento and proof of the miracle.

Verses 14 and 15

When the people realised what had taken place before their eyes, the common reaction was comments such as, "Beyond doubt, this is the prophet who has come into the world".

Upon hearing this, Jesus realised they were about to take him by force and make him king, and he slipped away again and withdrew further into the hills to be alone.

We offer J. C. Ryle's closing comment on the incident:

The attempts of Neologians to explain away this miracle are simply contemptible and ridiculous. It requires more faith to believe their explanations than to believe the miracle and take it as we find it. None but a person determined to disbelieve all miracles, and cast them out of the sacred narrative, would ever try to make out (as some actually have tried) that the four times repeated story of the miraculous feeding which we have considered, only meant that the multitude brought out the hidden stores of provisions which they had carried with them, and shared them with one another!

Conclusion

Yet again we cannot but notice how Jesus performed this very great miracle without all the pomp and hype of some modern "religious" self-proclaimed media evangelists who prance around on a stage and have all the attention seeking devices focussed on them.

Jesus, our model, would have none of that. The event is all the more spectacular in that it was carried out because of the love and compassion Jesus had for the common people.

St. John emphasised the link between this event, the Jewish Passover, and the solemn occasion — another Passover — when he would give himself that we might have life, and have it to the full. He gave thanks to his Father, and it would be fitting for us to do the same — often. We close with a final quotation:

Some men give help in the preparations for the meal. Andrew draws attention to the presence of a small boy, who gives what little he has. And so if what happens is far from ordinary, the natural order of things is respected. The loaves are not multiplied out of thin air, but thanks to the sharing, first, of what a child had in his bag, however inadequate that was. Whoever among us desires to be a blessing for others should bring to Jesus whatever he possesses. The master does nor ask us for what we have not got; but in the hands of Jesus, what we are prepared to share works miracles, it fills and satisfies.

(From: Glenstall Bible Missal, Collins 1983)

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