John 6:1-15

Feeding Five Thousand

Feed me with the food that is needful for me.—Proverbs 30:8, RSV

Aaron Kuehmichel

The feeding of the five thousand is the Lord’s only miracle that is recorded in all four gospels. A comparison of all the accounts provides a more complete understanding than reading just one of them.

Prelude to the Miracle

Jesus paired his disciples and sent them out as a witness and testimony of himself. Before sending them out he gave them power to: 1) heal the sick; 2) cleanse the lepers; 3) cast out unclean spirits; 4) raise the dead; 5) preach the kingdom of God (Matthew 10:1,8; Luke 9:2).

Receiving both ability and instruction, they dispersed “everywhere” (Luke 9:6), preaching and healing.


The gospels of Matthew and Mark record that the death of John the Baptist was the catalyst that brought the dispersed disciples together again. Matthew states that during this time of dispersion, they were still in contact with and had significant interaction with Christ Jesus. (This conflict is reconciled when one realizes that the perspective and purpose of the writers differed. Matthew took events out of sequence and combined them to make a point. Luke tries to record the events in the order in which they occurred so he does not record it similarly.)


While the disciples were dispersed, Matthew says they were participants in the Sermon on the Mount and the Kingdom of Heaven parables. The timing of Matthew 13, for our consideration, is not as important as is the affirmation the disciples gave at the conclusion of hearing the kingdom of heaven parables. Matthew records Jesus asking his disciples, after stating the parables in Matthew 13, the question: “Do you understand all these things?” The disciples replied, “Yes.” What an interesting reply! Surely they felt that they did understand! Perhaps they were embarrassed to admit the depth of their ignorance.


Upon their reply, Jesus gave the parable about the householder bringing forth good things. In effect, he told them that if they understood, they had a responsibility to teach and share the things that they have (Matthew 13:51,52). What did they have? They had the ability to work miracles and to teach. They also had been exposed to a spiritual understanding, a spiritual perspective and outlook, and knew they had a responsibility to use that ability and insight.


The Miracle

John’s death, his burial by the disciples, and the desire to tell the Master brought the disciples together. Jesus takes them apart and this is where the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand begins. It is the disciples’ first opportunity to show the Master what they learned from being sent out.

The gospel accounts differ as to exactly what Jesus and the disciples did on the day preceding the miracle, but collectively they state that Jesus preached to the multitudes about the kingdom of God, and healed as many as ­approached him. The accounts do not state whether the disciples healed or not though there is evidence they did not: 1) the Scriptures do not say that they did; 2) in humility they deferred to their Master and assumed the role of student (they were being ministered to as well as the multitudes); 3) had they participated in the physical healing and spiritual feeding of the crowd, it would have been a natural extension for them to physically feed the crowd in the evening.

At evening, the disciples implored Jesus to disperse the crowds so that they might find food to eat, but the Lord did not do it. Instead, he told his disciples to feed them (Matthew 14:6). Here was their opportunity. They had been given the miraculous ability to heal, raise the dead, and cast out demons (Matthew 10:8). Jesus also told them they had a responsibility to preach (Matthew 10:7,27). Now, the opportunity presented itself and Jesus even told them what they should do; he did not tell them how.


Although the opportunity was clearly before them, they did not see it. Jesus wanted them to stretch mentally, to not think naturally, to trust him and the ability and power he had given them (Matthew 9:16,17). But the disciples could not grasp what he was doing, so they ­replied from a practical perspective: “Philip answered him, Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little” (John 6:7). Easton’s Bible Dictionary defines a penny as a Roman soldier’s pay for one day. It would take an estimated 200 day’s pay to feed this crowd and the disciples did not have that much. They did have a different resource but they failed to use it because they did not realize the value of what they possessed. Lest we marvel at how quickly they failed, we should put ourselves in their place. How well would we have done?


Jesus did not dwell on the fact that they did not understand what he was implying. He asked what they had available; five barley loaves and two small fishes were graciously ­offered by a young boy.


All four gospel accounts say that Jesus gave thanks and then distributed the bread and fish. What a wonderful example of humility. Though Jesus performed the miracle, he acknowledged the source by which he was able to do it, so he thanked his Father before he blessed others.


The multitude was organized into groups and sat down on grassy places. Jesus distributed the food to his disciples and they distributed it to the groups. We are not told how they distributed it, but they probably did not give the food to each member of the multitude. It is more likely they distributed it to one or more representatives of each group and then these representatives further dispensed it. After all had eaten, Jesus told his disciples to gather up the fragments so nothing would be lost. The fragments filled twelve baskets. (See John 6:12,13.)


We are told that five thousand men were fed, which is where we get the name of this miracle. But was it only five thousand? Although we do not know the actual number, we do know the multitude included more than just men. After all, it was a boy who supplied what was used for the miracle. If a boy was among the multitude, it is likely that both women and children participated and were not counted. Some have postulated that as many as fifteen thousand might have been fed.


We also do not know the size of the baskets used to collect the fragments. Strong’s Concordance indicates that they were small baskets. Regardless of the size, everyone had sufficient to eat because there were fragments to be collected.


Why would the Master, who controlled wind and sea, converted water into wine, and raised the dead, care about collecting fragments of food? Was it simple frugality? Was he concerned about having provisions for the morrow? No. It is much more likely that he wanted to show that the gathering of the fragments proved the reality and scope of the miracle.


This miracle is a larger picture of how we learn. Jesus distributed to his disciples, they distributed to representatives, and these distributed to the multitude. It is a model of how our heavenly Father and his son spiritually care for his people by using spiritual leaders. This is an arrangement from which we still benefit to this day. It is also a model of the ecclesia arrangement with its spiritual leaders (representatives) feeding the people of God.


Why Miracles?

Jesus said the crowd came to him for food, not for instruction, nor because they believed he was the Messiah, the son of God. Yet he fed them anyway. Why? He fed them in fulfillment of the Law, of which love and compassion are major components. The Law, as summarized in the Ten Commandments, addressed one’s relationship to the heavenly Father and mankind. This is illustrated in the burnt and meal offerings. The burnt offering shows service to God; the meal offering shows service to man. Jesus’ miracles were fulfilling the meal offering (his service to his fellow man), while his life (the living and giving of it) fulfilled the burnt offering. Both were necessary and both were most pleasing to his Father.

Paul says, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth” (Romans 1:16). The value of a miracle was the effect it should have on those who witnessed it. The recipient was often relieved of a terrible condition, while everyone had to face the mental challenge of reconciling the miracle to the one who performed it. This was meant to stimulate and grow their faith for the purpose of salvation. Jesus performed the miracles because he was compassionate and touched with their infirmities. He wanted to convince Israel that he was the Messiah; he gave many signs to show it. The effect of these signs was to bring salvation to all who believed in him. Miracles also helped start the gathering of a people for his name.


Did Jesus walk through the crowds healing those he thought should be healed? Perhaps. But the Scriptures seldom record his performing a miracle without first being asked to do so. He healed those who recognized their need and who asked to be healed. Before approaching Jesus, each one had to acknowledge that ­Jesus could perform the miracle and believe that he would. Because of their belief those desiring to be healed had to act; they approached and asked directly, or they reached out to touch or to be touched by him. In responding to their need, Jesus’ touch wasn’t always physical.


So it is in our lives. We must first believe that God is and that he is a rewarder of them that love him. Then we must reach out in faith believing that he is both able and willing. When touched by his son, we are no longer the same! How do we react when Jesus touches us? Will we be like the nine lepers who went their way, or will we be like the one who returned glorifying God? That is a question each must answer.


Lessons for the Listeners

Jesus met the need of each one in the crowd that day. It was a mixed multitude. Some were wealthy and some were poor. Some knew when their next meal would be, others did not. Some followed hoping for bread for their stomachs, some for bread for their heads, while some hoped for both. When people are hungry and uncertain of when they will next eat, they will eat as much as they can when the opportunity presents itself. If food is plentiful, they will gather some for later use. So it was that day. They ate as much as they could, and carried away more. No one left without being fed. In fact, they were fed twice: once for the head and once for the stomach. No matter how little or how much each one ate, all were filled.

Jesus tells us, “Come unto me, all ye that are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). A “heavy laden” person may be burdened with sin, the excessive demands of religious leaders, oppressed and persecuted, weary with the concerns and cares of life, or perhaps, worst of all, be weary in the search for the meaning of life. Jesus frees everyone from all these burdens and he promises peace with God. That peace comes through an understanding of God’s love, an acknowledgment of our position before him and of the sacrifice of his son for our sins. This was the food offered that day. When Jesus feeds us, we are completely fed.


When Jesus tells us to do something, he supplies the means to do it. When we are given God’s holy spirit, we have a responsibility. Spiritual growth comes at the expense of our natural mindedness, expectations, and rights. Growth in natural things comes at the expense of spiritual growth. We must not let the ordinariness of this life, the daily natural events and concerns of this world, retard our spiritual growth. Which growth do we cultivate most: the natural or the spiritual? Would those who witness our daily life and conduct agree? Like the disciples, we also are challenged to see, and think, and act spiritually.


Jesus fed the multitude everything they wanted; there was food for both soul and body. By doing this he reminded his disciples, and all of his followers, that they have the ability and responsibility to feed others. Because of this miracle, we are confident that he can and will meet all of our needs. The lessons of this miracle performed so long ago still apply to us today.