13. Feeding the Five Thousand, Walking on Water (John 6:1-21)

Audio (21:50)

James J. Tissot, ‘Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes’ (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 7-3/8x11-9/16 in, Brooklyn Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, 'Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 7-3/8x11-9/16", Brooklyn Museum, New York.

We sometimes imagine that a cheap, non-polluting energy source would be the ultimate achievement for humankind. But in Jesus' day, where most people were subsistence farmers, finding a labor-free, inexhaustible food supply would be considered the prize.

And that's the drawing power of Jesus' miracle of the loaves and fishes, feeding 5,000 men, plus women and children. Perhaps that's why it's Jesus' only miracle that  appears in all four gospels.

In one sense, however, it is more a lesson for the disciples' and believers' benefit than for the crowds that were fed. Let me explain.

Crowds Gather (6:1-4)

Galilee in Jesus' Time
Galilee in Jesus' Time (larger image)

"1  Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2  and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick. 3  Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4  The Jewish Passover Feast was near." (6:1-4)

The miracle appears to have occurred on a mountainside above the city of Bethsaida (Luke 9:10) in the area known today as the Golan Heights.[236]Bethsaida had been the home of Philip (12:21), and, at least for a while, of several of Jesus' disciples (1:44; Mark 1:29). Bethsaida ("house of fish" or "house of fishermen") is at the northeast end of the Sea of Galilee, on a hill east of where the Jordan River enters the lake. In Old Testament times it had been the capital of the Aramean kingdom of Geshur. In the New Testament era, Herod the Great's son Philip rebuilt the city and named it Julius.[237]

John notes that it is near the time of Passover (6:4) and that there is grass on the mountainside (6:10). He probably mentions Passover because of its association with Moses and the Exodus, which he mentions in his Bread of Life discourse that we'll look at in Lesson 14.

From the Synoptic Gospels, we know that the disciples have just returned from their mission. John the Baptist has just been executed (Matthew 14:13), and that Jesus and his disciples are trying to take a break from the multitudes to a solitary place (Mark 6:31).

They take their accustomed boat (Mark 6:32), push off from the shore, and set sail toward a deserted area near the town of Bethsaida, only a few miles from Capernaum. By taking the boat, they are hoping to discourage the crowds from following them. They are trying to get away.

Involving the Disciples in Feeding (6:5-9)

However, they don't succeed in avoiding the crowds.

"5  When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, 'Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?' 6  He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. 7  Philip answered him, 'Eight months' wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!'" (6:5-7)

Jesus sees the crowds and knows they must be hungry. According to the Synoptic Gospels, he teaches them for a while before the miracle. Now he asks Philip, who is a resident of Bethsaida and who would be familiar with food sources in the area, "Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat." Jesus is testing him.[238]Will Philip look to God to provide? No.

Philip doesn't give a location where they can buy food. Rather, he explains to Jesus how expensive it would be to buy bread for them all -- "eight month's wages" (NIV), an approximate equivalent of 200 denarii (ESV). In America and Canada and Australia we would say, "That would take thousands of dollars." In the UK they would say, "That would take thousands of pounds." You substitute your own currency here. The point is, that this is a staggering sum, a sum way beyond what Jesus' band is carrying with them. It is way beyond their means. Philip's comment is probably included to emphasize how impossible it would be to buy a truckload of bread.

In each of the Synoptic Gospels the disciples urge Jesus to send the people away, rather than try to feed them, but Jesus insists: "You give them something to eat." He asks them to see what they have in store (Mark 6:38). It's interesting how Jesus seeks to involve his disciples in this feeding, both in finding what they have -- and later in distributing the multiplied loaves and fish.

After they've obeyed Jesus, and inventoried their resources, Andrew makes his report. Only John gives this disciple's name and that it is a boy who has the food.

"8  Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, spoke up, 9  'Here is a boy[239]with five small barley loaves and two small fish....'" (6:8-9a)

The poor would eat barley loaves, while those better off would eat bread made from wheat. The fish seemed to be a couple of small dried or preserved fish.[240]It's a simple lunch.

"... but how far will they go among so many?" (6:9b)

Again, Andrew emphasizes how tiny their resources are in face of the gargantuan task of Jesus' harebrained idea (so they thought) of feeding the entire crowd.

Huge Task, Tiny Resources

The lesson that Jesus is about to teach his disciples is the lesson of Gideon's army (Judges 6-7). When your resources are tiny compared to the need, you know the victory is God's, not man's.

Only now are the disciples prepared to see what God can accomplish with what they do have. At the very least, this is an adventure they will not soon forget.

Here's the sequence so far. They have examined the problem and seen no solution except to send the people away to fend for themselves. Jesus doesn't let them off the hook: "You feed them."

"We can't," they protest.

"What do you have?" Jesus asks.

"Five loaves and two fish."

"Give them to me," Jesus says.

Until the disciples are willing to commit what they do have to the enterprise, Jesus waits. Their contribution and commitment of it must be part of the solution, however tiny and inadequate.

Q1. (John 6:5-9) Why does Jesus try to get the disciples to own the task of feeding the crowds? What is the significance to the story of the boy's five loaves and two little fish?

Seating the Multitude (6:10)

Jesus is undeterred by his disciples' skepticism.

"Jesus said, 'Have the people sit down.' There was plenty of grass in that place, and the men sat down, about five thousand of them." (6:10)

 Now Jesus organizes for the miracle that is about to take place. He gets the crowds arranged in an orderly fashion, presumably with paths between groups of fifty. Now the disciples can easily determine how much bread should be brought to each group, and seated, the people won't be pushing and shoving in order to grab at what is being distributed. The distribution channel is in place.

There are 5,000 men, but in addition, women and children, probably swelling the number to more than double that. John's observation about "plenty of grass" is an indication of the season, springtime. In the summer, the grass becomes dry and brown. It is the kind of observation you'd expect an eyewitness to make.

Q2. (John 6:10) Why does Jesus have the crowds sit down before feeding them? What is the disciples' role in this? Why would you prepare for a miracle if you don't think it would happen? How ready is your congregation to see miracles take place?

Giving Thanks and Distributing (6:11)

"Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish." (6:11)

Jesus takes the loaves and fish, perhaps placing them in a basket in front of him. Then he lifts his eyes to heaven and "gave thanks." The word is eucharisteō (from which we get our English word "Eucharist"), "to express appreciation for benefits or blessings, give thanks, express thanks, render/return thanks."[241]The Jews took meals as an opportunity to offer praise and blessing to God himself. The traditional prayer is: "Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the world, who has caused bread to come forth out of the earth."[242]Oh, disciple, do you bless God before your meals like Jesus did? If not, why don't you begin today?

The disciples appear to have baskets with them, used both to distribute the food and to collect the leftovers later on. The word is kophinos, "basket," probably a large, heavy basket for carrying things.[243]In Josephus' book, Wars of the Jews, the word is used for the large baskets soldiers used to carry their equipment and rations.[244]Emmerson says, "The kophinos was probably a basket of wickerwork, such as were carried by Jews as food containers, slung on the back by means of a cord handle."[245]

Though we're not told the details, I see Jesus breaking the small barley loaves into one disciple's basket, who goes off and serves a group of 50, while Jesus fills the next disciple's basket. A couple hundred baskets later, and a lot of breaking of fish and bread, each seated group has had its first round of food. Jesus and his disciples may have served them in this way for several hours. Breaking, carrying, distributing, and then back to Jesus for more.

This continued until all had eaten their fill. Then, presumably, Jesus dismissed the crowd and the people began the long walk home, full of food and full of wonder at this Jesus.

Q3. (John 6:11) How did Jesus distribute the multiplied loaves and fishes to the multitudes? How do the disciples fit in? How are the baskets used? What impression do you think this is making on the disciples as they work hard during the ongoing miracle?

 Twelve Baskets Left Over (6:12-13)

"12  When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, 'Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.' 13  So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten." (6:12-13)

The disciples are very tired by now, but Jesus gives them one further task -- to pick up the broken pieces of bread that are scattered over the hillside. When their task is completed, they come back with all twelve baskets full.

Why does Jesus have the tired disciples do this? To make the point to them that God's provision that day has not been merely adequate, but more than enough to meet the need. Weeks later when they are short of food, Jesus reminds them by asking:

"'When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?' 'Twelve,' they replied." (Mark 8:19)

Each disciple can feel the weight of his basket of bread as he bears it back to Jesus and he will never forget the abundance of that day.

John alone notes Jesus' reason for picking up the remnants: "Let nothing be wasted" (6:12b, NIV) or "lost" (NRSV, ESV, KJV).[246]Though there is abundance, there is no waste. Collecting what was left over at the end of the meal was a Jewish custom.[247]

Q4. (John 6:12-13) Why does Jesus have his disciples pick up the left-over pieces? What does this have to do with his attitude towards waste? What does it have to do with his teaching the disciples about abundance?

The People See a Prophet and King (6:14-15)

The Feeding of the Five Thousand causes trouble for Jesus.

"After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, 'Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.'" (6:14)

People are quick to use Jesus for their own ends -- as they are today. The people quickly made the connection between Moses who brought manna (food from heaven) and Jesus' miracle. So it is natural that they see Jesus (rightly) as "the Prophet who is to come into the world," as we see elsewhere in John (1:21, 25; 7:40; Acts 3:22; 7:37). It is a reference to Moses' words:

"The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him." (Deuteronomy 18:15)

In Jesus' day, at least in some circles, this Prophet was identified with the Messiah.

Jesus knew the people's hearts. They weren't so interested in who Jesus was, but what he could do for them -- provide free food (6:26) or use him to lead a rebellion against the Romans or their Herodian puppet rulers.

"Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself." (6:15)

 Notice the strong verb used here. "By force" (NIV), "take by force" (NRSV, KJV) is harpazō, "snatch, seize," that is, take suddenly and vehemently, or take away. Here it means, "to grab or seize suddenly so as to remove or gain control, snatch/take away."[248]If the crowd used Jesus as a rebellion rallying point -- even against his will -- it would not only bring swift retaliation from the Romans, but also put an end to Jesus' mission.

Jesus puts an end to their designs by sending the disciples off, dismissing the crowd (Matthew 22:23), and leaving the scene.[249]Then he finds a place of refuge in one of the mountains on the Golan Heights where he can spend time in prayer (Matthew 14:23).

Q5. (John 6:14) How does the people's desire to make him king relate to the third temptation Jesus met in the wilderness (Luke 4:9)? What would have happened to God's plan of redemption if Jesus hadn't retreated to the hills on this occasion? Why must we resist giving in to people’s plans for our lives?

Jesus Walks on the Water (6:16-21)

Jesus had probably arranged with his disciples that, if he didn't join them by a particular time, they should disembark and go ahead to Capernaum.

"16  When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17  where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them." (6:16-17)

What follows is a miracle recorded not only here, but also by Matthew and Mark, though John shapes the retelling for the particular purpose of his Gospel.

"18  A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. 19  When they had rowed three or three and a half miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were terrified. 20  But he said to them, 'It is I; don't be afraid.'
21  Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading." (6:16-21)

Research on winds around the Sea of Galilee has found that, in addition to the constant westerly wind blowing in from the Mediterranean, in the evening as the land cools compared to the lake temperature, winds would blow from the land toward the lake, combining with the regular katabatic (gravity-driven) winds that blow down the steep slopes surrounding the lake.[250]

Among the disciples were fisherman who were well-aware of this phenomenon. The winds didn't frighten them. Nevertheless, they were fully engaged and rowing hard west towards Capernaum, not making much progress. The boat's sail had been taken in.

What did frighten them, however, was seeing an apparition (who turned out to be Jesus) walking on the water! John doesn't include Matthew's account of Peter trying to walk on water; John's purpose is to bring his readers to believe on Jesus as the Son of God.

The brave fisherman are "terrified."[251]Jesus says to them, "It is I. Don't be afraid." And, at that point, they believe him enough to let this night phantom into their boat.

The text says, "immediately" the boat reached its destination on the shore. Whether because the winds let up, they were close to shore anyway, or another miracle has occurred, we're not sure.

Some Simple Principles of Ministry

As I reflect on the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, I ask myself why Jesus performed this miracle. Was it out of compassion? Yes and no. He could have dismissed the people early enough so they could have gotten home in time to get something to eat. But he decided against it. In fact, the miracle caused him trouble before long as we see in 6:15, and raised Messianic expectations that could have quickly derailed Jesus' ministry (6:26).

John includes this miracle to show Jesus' power, help his readers believe in Jesus as the Son of God, and lead into Jesus' discourse on the Bread of Life. But I believe Jesus actually performed this miracle mainly for the disciples' benefit. Jesus could have created bread at the snap of his finger. He didn't need the disciples' pitiful five loaves and two fish. But they -- and we -- need to learn some very simple principles of ministry.

  1. Our resources are woefully inadequate to meet the need.
  2. We are to take inventory and bring what resources we have to Jesus.
  3. We place them in his hands to do what he wishes with them, and in the process, release control to him.
  4. He in turn blesses them and places them back in our hands, multiplied, more powerful than we could have imagined.

This is a faith process, a faith experience. Too often we are overwhelmed with the vastness of the need and give up. Or we belittle our resources to the point that we never release them to God, but selfishly hang on to them because that is all we know and all we have. We are inadequate, we know, but we refuse to let go.

Or we insist that God perform the task by himself, without us participating in the process even in a tiny way.

We must release our resources to him in trust. Their smallness in our eyes must not be an obstacle. He is teaching us a trust journey, and it must be accompanied by our learning to trust him by doing what he asks, even if we have no idea where he is going with it. If we can learn, if we will learn this vital lesson, then we can graduate to the next level.

  • It is the lesson of Abraham offering Isaac, his only son.
  • It is the lesson of Gideon seeing his small but inadequate army whittled down to a pitiful 300.
  • It is the lesson that you and I face more often than we would like to admit.
  • It is an essential lesson in the school of discipleship.
John's Gospel: A Discipleship Journey with Jesus, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Entire study is available in paperback, Kindle, and PDF formats.

But if we will learn to trust, then we will experience the joy of being basket-bearers of Jesus-empowered food to the multitudes. And we'll be there to pick up the left-over pieces and marvel at the weight of his abundance.

It's just a small question -- but a vital one for disciples: "How many loaves do you have? Go and see." 


Lord, too often I block you by my refusal to just trust you and go ahead as you are seeming to direct. How much ministry and blessing do I miss out on, Lord? Too much, I fear. Please forgive me. Help me to count it a joy to be a participant in the great thing you are doing rather than being a mere bystander. Lord, here are my small resources. I offer them to you unconditionally. Do with me as you will -- where you will, when you will, with whom you will. In Your holy name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verse

"Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, spoke up, 9  'Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?''' (John 6:8-9, NIV)


[236]John doesn't specify the location, but says that it occurred on the "other side" of the Sea of Galilee -- a pretty loose designation. "The far shore" (NIV), "the other side" (NRSV, ESV), "over" (KJV) is peran, "marker of a position across from something else, with intervening space, on the other side" (BDAG 796, bα). Perhaps Bethsaida was "across" the top of the lake from Capernaum, where Jesus' ministry was centered.

[237]Rami Arav, "Bethsaida," in Jesus & Archaeology, pp. 145-166.

[238]"Test" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "prove" (KJV) is peirazō, "to endeavor to discover the nature or character of something by testing, try, make trial of, put to the test" (BDAG 792, 2b).

[239]"Boy" (NIV, ESV), "lad" (NRSV, KJV) is the double diminutive of paidarion, "child," perhaps here "a youth" who is no longer a child, or it could mean, "young slave" (BDAG 748, 1b or 2).

[240]"Fish" is opsarion, "fish", the double diminutive of ospon, originally "cooked food" eaten with bread. Here "fish," especially "dried or preserved fish." (BDAG 746; Brown, John 1:233). The Synoptics use the term ichthus, "fish."

[241]Eucharisteō, BDAG 415, 2. In the Synoptics, the word is eulogeō, from which we get our word "eulogize," the root meaning of which is "speak well of, praise, extol" (BAGD 322). When the Jews prayed before meals, they didn't usually pray, "Thank you for this food that we are about to receive."

[242]For more on this, see my article, "Don't Ask the Blessing, Offer One," Joyful Heart, November 15, 1999. (www.joyfulheart.com/holiday/offer-blessing.htm)

[243]Kophinos, BAGD 447.

[244]Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 3, 5, 5.

[245]Grace I. Emmerson, "Basket," ISBE 1:437-438.


[246]The word is apollymi, "perish." In the middle voice, it can refer to things, "be lost, pass away, be ruined," of bursting wineskins, transitory beautify of gold, of flowers, of food that spoils (6:27). Also, "to lose something that one already has or be separated from a normal connection, lose, be lost," of falling hair, of wine that has lost its flavor (BDAG 116, 3b).

[247]Carson, John, p. 271, cites Strack and Billerback, 4:625-626.

[248]Harpazō, BDAG 134, 2a.

[249]"Withdrew" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "departed" (KJV) is anachōreō, "to depart from a location," here, "withdraw, retire, take refuge" (BDAG 75, 1b).

[250]Arieh Bitan, "Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) and its exceptional wind system," Boundary-Layer Meteorology, 21:4 (December 1981), pp 477-487.

[251]"Terrified" (NIV, NRSV), "afraid" (KJV) is phobeō (from which we get our words "phobia" and "phobic"), "to be in an apprehensive state, be afraid," the aorist tense is often in the sense of "become frightened" (BDAG 1060, 1a).

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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