SynopsisIn the last passage we diverted from the storyline for a flashback of John the Baptist’s execution, but in this passage we continue on from verses 7–13. The Apostles come back and report to Jesus all that they’ve done and taught, and he brings them with him to a desolate place where they can rest. Unfortunately, the crowds that Jesus had been trying to avoid realize where he and the Apostles are going and rush to get there ahead of them, so that when Jesus gets off the boat he sees that the crowd is already there.
One might think that Jesus would have reason to be exasperated at this, all he wanted was some rest and he isn’t able to get it, but of course his reaction is not one of exasperation:
When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. (verse 34 (ESV))But eventually day turns to evening, and the disciples come to Jesus asking him to send the crowd away so that the people can go into the surrounding countryside and villages to look for something to eat. Remember, Jesus had purposely picked a desolate place for he and the Apostles to go rest, so it’s not like there are a bunch of restaurants around for the people to go to for dinner.
But Jesus’ reply is kind of surprising, even to me reading this story for the hundredth time: “You give them something to eat,” to which the disciples reply sarcastically, “Shall we go and buy [two hundred days’ wages] worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” (verse 37 (ESV)).
The text doesn’t record any reaction Jesus had to the disciples’ sarcasm, he simply asks them how many loaves of bread they have. They go off in search of bread, and come back to report to Jesus that they have five loaves of bread, along with two fish. (Maybe I’m being extra hard on the disciples, but I can almost see that last addition as being more sarcasm. “We have five loaves of bread… and two fish.” As if this tiny amount of food would place even a dent in the hunger of this huge crowd.)
Jesus then has the crowd break up into groups, looks up to heaven and gives a blessing, and breaks the loaves and divides the fish and gives them to the disciples to distribute to the people. Not only does everyone eat, they are “satisfied” (verse 42 (ESV)), so it’s more than just a microscopic amount for each person. Not only that, but there is food left over; twelve baskets of food remain after the crowd finishes eating. (If memory serves my old New Student Bible had a note mentioning that the word used here for “basket” meant that it was a very large basket, not a small one, but the main point is that they actually ended up with more food than they’d begun with.)
Verse 44 (ESV) tells us that there were 5,000 men there, meaning that there were way more than 10,000 people there altogether (assuming that most men had wives there, and many would have had children with them as well).
ThoughtsRight off the bat in this passage I like that the Apostles come back to Jesus to report to him all that they have done and taught (emphasis mine). There sometimes seems to have been a tendency in the Gospels for the people around Jesus to focus on his miracles—such as the one mentioned in this passage—and that’s no less true today; we love the power displayed by God’s miracles in the Old and New Testaments. But the true power of God is not displayed through His miracles, it’s through His Word, preached to unrepentant sinners, causing the unrepentant to repent and be changed and come to Him. The true power of God is displayed in Him accomplishing the impossible: finding a way for us to be in His presence.
It’s also interesting that Jesus’s immediate response is to bring the Apostles away on their own so they can rest. I’m sure many modern-day pastors and preachers can relate, though anecdotally I believe that many refuse to take the rest they need and end up burnt out. They may feel that they’re doing it for God’s sake, but working people to the point of being burnt out doesn’t seem to be His way of operating in the Bible. I wonder how much faith plays into this; we have to have faith that God will accomplish what He wants to accomplish, rather than feeling that we have to do it all for Him.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we can always rest when we want to, either, as this passage also demonstrates. The timing is always up to God, even the timing for our rest. As usual, when it comes to questions of the Man Jesus vs. the God Jesus, I don’t know if Jesus was truly taken by surprise when he saw the crowds there, or if he knew all along that they would be there waiting for him. His choice of location definitely made this miracle necessary, since there would be no food around other than what he miraculously supplied.
The Apostles and the disciples don’t always behave well in the Gospels, and they sometimes misunderstand Jesus’ teachings, but that doesn’t mean that they always have bad intentions or miss things. Personally, I think that they really do have the crowd’s well being in mind when they ask Jesus to send them away to find food. I don’t applaud them descending into sarcasm when he instructs them to feed the crowd, but initially I think their hearts were in the right place.
But that brings us to Jesus’ request: “You give them something to eat” (emphasis added). One’s first reaction when reading this would be to wonder what Jesus could have possibly expected them to do with this command. He can’t have expected them to know what was going to happen, he can’t have expected them to look at the miniscule amount of food they had on hand and decide that it would feed the crowd. So what did he expect? I think this passage is somewhat similar to 4:35–41 when Jesus calmed the storm; Jesus had told the disciples that they were going to the other side of the lake, so the disciples should have known that they were going to get there. Similarly, in this passage Jesus tells the disciples to feed the crowd, so the disciples should have had faith that Jesus was going to allow them to do it… somehow. He wouldn’t expect them to know the details, but he would expect them to trust him.
I find this miracle interesting because of the detail of it. Frankly, Jesus could have simply zapped the people sitting there and caused them to be full instead of going through all of the business of taking some bread and fish and dividing it amongst them. I sometimes wonder if perhaps he worked it this way to “hit them over the heads” with the fact that this was indeed a miracle that was happening; the human heart is hard, so if he’d simply caused them to be full they might have doubted that it was a miracle after all. “Hmm. Maybe we weren’t actually hungry,” they might have said. But in the way that Jesus did it, they had a distinct amount of food, which was clearly not enough to feed even the disciples let alone the whole crowd, then that small amount of food was used to feed a huge number of people, and then finally they ended up with leftover food in an amount which was clearly more than what they’d started with.