John 6:1–15: Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand
In this passage Jesus finds himself being followed by a large crowd. (5,000 men, plus women and children.) The crowd has been following Jesus because he’s been healing the sick.
Jesus turns to Philip, one of his disciples, and asks him where they can get bread to feed all of these people. Philip responds that it would take more than 200 days’ wages to buy bread for all of these people, and that still might not be enough! Andrew then comes forward with a slightly more helpful answer, mentioning that there’s a boy there with five loaves of bread and two fish, but obviously that’s not going to feed so many! (I’m freely paraphrasing all of this.)
But Jesus has the people sit, gives thanks, and then goes on to distribute the bread and fish among the people—“as much as they wanted” (verse 11). Once the people are done eating—once they’ve “eaten their fill” (verse 12)—Jesus has the disciples gather up the leftovers, and they collect twelve baskets full of bread. (John doesn’t mention any gathering up of leftover fish.)
This miracle leads the crowd to believe that Jesus really is “the Prophet,” and so he withdraws by himself before they can “take him by force to make him king” (verse 15).
For the most part, as spectacular as this event is, it’s also a pretty straightforward miracle from Jesus: the people are hungry, so he feeds them; it’s clear to everyone present (including himself) that there’s not enough food to do so, but he does it anyway, hence the fact that it’s a miracle. John tells us that there were 5,000 men, which means that the crowd was actually much larger than 5,000, but I don’t know how to extrapolate that out to the number of people who were actually there. If we assume there was at least one woman for every man present, it would mean 10,000 people, and if we assume that some of those couples had children with them then it would be even bigger than that. But I don’t know what assumptions are valid assumptions to make, so I’ll just say “more than 5,000,” knowing that I’m likely grossly underestimating how many people were actually there.
And it’s no wonder that the people would like to make Jesus king after this! He’s taking care of their basic needs—who wouldn’t want a king like that? They may not understand all this religious stuff, or have put in a lot of study on “the Prophet” and “Elijah” and “the Messiah” and all that, but they know what it’s like to have empty bellies, and a man who can fill them—at will—is someone to be followed!
But Jesus didn’t come here for that kind of power. Yes, he had compassion on this crowd, and so he fed them, but what he really came here for was much bigger than just being the monarch of a country on the Mediterranean Sea; he came to save all people, from around the world, from their sins, so that we can have a right (but undeserved) relationship with God, unhindered by sin. (Not that we have it yet, those of us who are still alive, but eventually we’ll leave behind our sinful bodies and become sinless, just as He is sinless.)
Verse 4 tells us that this happens right before the Passover, but I don’t know enough about anything to understand if or why that’s significant. Maybe it’s not, and John is just setting the scene, or maybe it has spiritual significance that I’m not aware of.
Does it mean that Jesus didn’t make it to Jerusalem for this Passover? If so, I might have been mistaken in a recent post, in which I seem to recall saying that I doubt Jesus ever wasn’t in Jerusalem for the Passover! But that would also mean that being in Jerusalem for Passover wasn’t mandatory.
A Real, True Miracle
It’s easy for 21st Century Christians (or non-Christians who are familiar with this story) to think, “It’s a nice story, but things are obviously a little exaggerated when we retell this event! There was probably more food there to start with than the Gospels record, or the people didn’t really eat, they were just overcome with the power of the whole scene and felt full, or something like that.” But if you actually read the text, John (and the other Gospel writers who capture this event) won’t let us get away with such an interpretation.
First there are the precise numbers: John tells us here that there are five loaves of bread, and two fish, and he also tells us that after the people ate twelve baskets full of bread are captured. As ignorant as we sometimes want to think people of the past were, surely we can give them enough credit to assume that they were able to count to five, and to count to twelve!
And if we compare those numbers—five loaves compared to twelve baskets of bread—we also see that the disciples ended up with more food than they started with. So this isn’t a matter of Jesus waving his hand and hypnotizing 5,000 men (plus women and children) into thinking they were fed; the food really did multiply.
And finally, John also makes it clear, twice, that the people didn’t just eat, they ate until they were full:
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. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” (verses 11–12, emphasis added)
In order to cling to a belief that this wasn’t a real miracle, but just a mass illusion, you’d have to assume the text is purposely misleading us—or at the very least, exaggerating. And if you believe that, then it calls into question everything in the Bible! What else has been exaggerated, or made up?
Doubt Your Doubts
Which is, logically speaking, a conclusion that you could arrive at. But if you do, then it’s untenable to also claim that Jesus was a good teacher, or someone to be respected, or many of the other beliefs people have when they want to show respect for Christianity while doubting its overall truth. If Christianity were trying to fool people by telling them lies, it wouldn’t be worth showing respect to. It’s hypocritical to try and claim that Christianity is trying to fool people and claim that Jesus was a good person and Christianity can be respected like any other religion.
On the other hand, if this event is true, and Jesus fed more than 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish—in other words, if he performed a miracle—then you have to ask yourself: were his other miracles true, too? And if so… what do these miracles say about him? And finally: what did he say about himself?
I recently heard a preacher advocating his listeners to “doubt your doubts.” If you’re really going to be open minded, as we all like to claim we are, then question yourself honestly: why am I doubting Christianity? Is it really because I can’t believe what’s there, or is it because I don’t want to believe what’s there? Because if I believe that God saved me, purely through His own actions and not through my own, then it means that He can demand whatever He wants of me—and maybe I don’t like that idea!
Live Your Faith
And for those of us who are Christians, who really do believe Jesus is God, and believe that the miracles recorded in the Gospels really did happen (proving His power), then we should also live like it.
Do I live my life, every day, as if I believe in a God who’d multiply five loaves of bread and two fish to feed 5,000+ people? A God who would send His Son to die on my behalf, so that I could not only have a relationship with Him, but also have power over the sin that is so prevalent in my life?
Do people look at me and think to themselves, “There’s a man who believes that Jesus was God, and follows Him”?