Feeding the 5000
Have you ever had a time when you felt overwhelmed, where you felt inadequate and your resources were too little to help the situation? Most of us have.
And it doesn’t matter how old or young we are – we all face times when who we are and what we have are inadequate for the problems we face.
It could be the first day of school
or Monday morning’s algebra class
Or it might be the stack of bills that grow and grow,
or waiting to hear from the doctor’s office to learn about the test results,
or the frustration about the job — or the fear that the job will be lost,
Or when you have lost a loved one to death.
Our lives are full of experiences that seem overwhelming and beyond our capacity to handle. In John 6 the disciples of Jesus face a situation that seemed impossible, but they find that Jesus is more than enough when they are inadequate. Listen to John 6:1-13
1 After these things Jesus went over the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias.
2 Then a great multitude followed Him, because they saw His signs which He performed on those who were diseased.
3 And Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat with His disciples.
4 Now the Passover, a feast of the Jews, was near.
5 Then Jesus lifted up His eyes, and seeing a great multitude coming toward Him, He said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?”
6 But this He said to test him, for He Himself knew what He would do.
7 Philip answered Him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may have a little.”
8 One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him,
9 “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two small fish, but what are they among so many?”
10 Then Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand.
11 And Jesus took the loaves, and when He had given thanks He distributed them to the disciples, and the disciples to those sitting down; and likewise of the fish, as much as they wanted.
12 So when they were filled, He said to His disciples, “Gather up the fragments that remain, so that nothing is lost.”
13 Therefore they gathered them up, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves which were left over by those who had eaten.
The feeding of the five thousand is the one miracle along with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead that is included in all four Gospels (Mt.14:13-21; Mk. 6:30-44; Lk. 9:10-17; Jn. 6:1-13). It is a familiar story to most of us. Many of us first learned it as a child in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School. It is a massive miracle when you consider the sheer number of the people involved: 5000 men, besides women and children (Matt. 14:21). It is a miracle of great significance, especially for those who knew of Israel’s experience in the wilderness when God “had rained down manna on them to eat, And given them of the bread of heaven.” (Ps. 78:24).
This miracle holds strong appeal even today for this sign shows Jesus to be the supplier of men’s needs (1 Cor. 10:3-5). He is the Living Bread (6:51), the True Bread from heaven (v. 32), the Bread of Life (v. 35, 48). He is “the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die,” (v. 50).
In his Gospel, John has already told us that Christ is the one through whom all things were created (1:3). And the other miraculous signs John gave us so far show Christ’s provision as well. He turned water into wine in chapter 2. He gave life to the nobleman’ son in chapter 4. And He healed the man at the pool in chapter 5. Christ always has been the provider of His people’s needs. He will always be.
But as chapter 6 will show, this sign will mean more than Jesus’ ability to provide bread to satisfy hungry people. It will mean He is the spiritual bread that will satisfy our souls. Jesus is greater than Moses through whom God provided manna to feed Israel. He is the One who is the hope of the new Exodus, which will lead to freedom from mankind’s slavery to self, sin, and Satan. This miracle points to Jesus as the Messiah and to a heavenly kingdom.
We won’t have time to explore all that this miracle teaches us today. We will see much more about its significance in the weeks to come as we study the rest of chapter 6.
Today I simply want you to see that Christ is the answer to the overwhelming needs of people.
1. The Setting, 1-4.
In chapter 5 Jesus had been in Jerusalem. Now He is back in Galilee. 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. In between chapter 5 and 6 many things have happened. Jesus traveled throughout Galilee teaching and preaching. He sent out His disciples in pairs giving them power to cast out demons, to heal and to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom.
Meanwhile, John the Baptist has been arrested by Herod and put to death. 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. That is one reason why in verse 1, “Jesus went over the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias.”
Jesus and His disciples withdraw to a private place near Bethsaida (Luke 9:10) to provide a time for them to get some much needed rest (Mark 6:31). As we well know, it doesn’t work out that way. Verse 2 says, “Then a great multitude followed Him, because they saw His signs which He performed on those who were diseased.”
The people came to Jesus in need. But most of these people weren’t following Jesus because they recognized Him as the Son of God who could save them from their sins. Many came wanting to be healed of their diseases. Many others came just to see the signs Jesus performed. But as the reactions of the people will show, for the most part their reasons for following Jesus were misguided and superficial. It is the great number of people and the remote location that cause the overwhelming problem.
Verse 3 tells us “Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat with His disciples.” The other Gospels tell us that Jesus taught the people and healed them there because He had compassion on them. Evidently the people knew where “the mountain” was located and had followed Jesus and His disciples there. Perhaps it was a place where Jesus had taught the crowds before, maybe even where He gave the Sermon on the Mount.
Then verse 4 informs us, “Now the Passover, a feast of the Jews, was near.” John’s mention of the Passover probably means more than just him recalling the time of year. John wants us to connect this episode 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 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). We will see more of this comparison as we get further along in John’s Gospel.
2. The Situation, 5- 7.
Jesus knows the problem and what He will do about it even before anyone brings up the situation to Him. Jesus takes the initiative here when He sees the multitude coming to Him. Verse 5, “Then Jesus lifted up His eyes, and seeing a great multitude coming toward Him, He said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?””
Jesus’ compassion was not simply for man’s lostness and sickness. He also has practical concern for these hungry and tired people. 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. 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. So verse 6 says, “But this He said to test him, for He Himself knew what He would do.” Jesus was showing Philip and the other disciples their woeful inadequacy to meet this need, along with His all-sufficiency. Jesus was testing Philip to strengthen his faith. By asking for a human solution (knowing that there was none), Jesus high lighted the powerful and miraculous act that He was about to perform.
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?”
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!” But Philip calculates the enormity of the problem, rather than seeing Him who is the solution.
7 Philip answered Him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may have a little.”
Philip’s reply stresses the hopelessness of the situation judged from the meager resources of the group. Two hundred denarii or eight months wages would not buy enough bread to give this crowd a little taste. Philip does not come up with a solution, but points out the hopeless impossibility.
Jesus wanted to teach him that financial resources are not the most important ones. How often do we throw up our hands and conclude that we can’t do something for the Lord because we calculate based on our inadequate resources! We can limit what God does in us by assuming what is and is not possible. Is there some impossible task that you believe God wants you to do? Don’t let your estimate of what can’t be done keep you from taking on the task. God can do the miraculous; trust Him to provide the resources.
3. The Solution, 8-11.
Then along comes Andrew, again bringing someone to Jesus. Verse 8, “One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two small fish, but what are they among so many?””
In contrast to Philip’s pessimism, Andrew presented a lad who had volunteered his humble lunch, knowing it was not do much but at least it was something.
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.
The disciples are contrasted with the youngster who brought what he had. They certainly had more resources than the boy, but they knew they didn’t have enough, so they didn’t offer anything at all. The boy gave what little he had. If we offer nothing to God, He will have nothing to use. But He can take what little we have and turn it into something great.
Jesus takes what has been given, something to bless, and in verse 10 Jesus takes charge. Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Then John recalls, “Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand.”
Jesus gives thanks in verse 11, “And Jesus took the loaves, and when He had given thanks He distributed them to the disciples, and the disciples to those sitting down; and likewise of the fish, as much as they wanted.” The word translated “given thanks” is eucharizo. It is a word commonly used for communion or the Lord’s Supper today.
Thanksgiving comes first and then the miracle of provision. Jesus multiplied the offered bread into more bread. 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. Each ate until they were satisfied.
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.”
4. The Result, 12-16.
The truth of Proverbs 11:24, “One man gives freely yet grows all the richer” is illustrated in verses 12 and 13. When they were filled, He said to His disciples, “Gather up the fragments that remain, so that nothing is lost.” So verse 13 says, “Therefore they gathered them up, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves which were left over by those who had eaten.”
However much amazing grace the Lord bestows there is always more left. He is never impoverished by His generosity.
Here are some simple lessons from this story:
- Christ knows our need.
- God can do great things when we are in the wilderness.
- Jesus will not send away people who need Him.
- Christ can take our little and make it much.
- Christ can meet people’s needs through us when we give our all to Him.
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 shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall 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. 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.