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Acts 1-12: The Early Church
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35. Feeding the Five Thousand (Luke 9:10-17)
James J. Tissot, 'The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes' (1886-94), gouache on gray wove paper, 7.4 x 10.6 in., Brooklyn Museum, New York.
"10 When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida, 11 but the crowds learned about it and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing. 12 Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, 'Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here.' 13 He replied, 'You give them something to eat.' They answered, 'We have only five loaves of bread and two fish -- unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.' 14 (About five thousand men were there.) But he said to his disciples, 'Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.' 15 The disciples did so, and everybody sat down. 16 Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to set before the people. 17 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over." (Luke 9:10-17, NIV)
The account of Jesus Feeding the Five Thousand with five loaves and two fish may be the best-known of Jesus' miracles. It is the only miracle recounted in all four of the Gospels, and it has a way of capturing the imagination. But I believe this is not primarily a miracle, but a lesson -- more for the disciples' benefit than the crowds who were fed. To understand it, we need to put ourselves into the setting as Jesus' disciples. (Incidentally, Luke abbreviates his account, so in order to fill in the whole story, I'll bring in information from the other Gospel writers.)
Withdrawing to Bethsaida (Luke 9:10)
"When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida." (9:10)
The disciples have returned from their mission. They are both exhilarated and exhausted. Words tumble out of them as they tell Jesus the whole story of their mission and adventures. They need a rest, a break from the multitudes. And Jesus, too, is dealing with grief. He has heard of John the Baptist's death and burial (Matthew 14:13), and asks the disciples to join him in a solitary place where they can rest and regroup together. Mark's Gospel records his invitation:
"Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, 'Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.'" (Mark 6:31)
They take their accustomed boat (Mark 6:32), push off from the shore, and set sail towards toward a deserted area near the town of Bethsaida. It probably wasn't too far from Capernaum, only a few miles. But by taking the boat they are hoping to discourage the crowds from following them. They are trying to get away.
Location of Bethsaida (larger map)
The exact location of Bethsaida isn't clear. The name Bethsaida means "house of fishing" or "fisherman's house," and was the home of Phillip (John 12:21), Andrew, and Peter (John 1:44), apparently near the north end of the Sea of Galilee, just east of where the Jordan River enters the lake. But there are problems with this location, which is not quite within the district of Galilee, and John's Gospel clearly designates "Bethsaida in Galilee" (John 1:44; 12:21). Scholars seek solve this in various ways, but the exact location isn't important for our purposes.303
Jesus Welcomes the Interrupting Crowds (Luke 9:11)
What is important is that Jesus and his disciples don't succeed in losing the multitude, nor do they get their hoped-for mini-vacation. Mark tells us:
"But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd...." (Mark 6:33-34)
I can see people running along the shore, keeping Jesus' boat in sight, and calling to others, who tell yet others where the boat is headed. The crowds anticipate where the boat will land, and by the time the boat's bottom crunches onto the rocky beach, the shore is already crowded with people, with more coming all the time.
As weary as he and his disciples are, Jesus doesn't turn them away. He doesn't complain or become testy. Instead he makes them feel welcome.
"The crowds learned about it and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing." (Luke 9:11)
The word "welcomed" (NIV; KJV "received") is Greek apodechomai, "welcome someone, receive someone favorably."304
So often when we are under stress, we push away people who keep invading our privacy; we protect the space we need in order to keep our sanity. And if they don't cooperate, we can be rather nasty about it. Don't push me!
How different is Jesus' attitude here. Jesus welcomes the crowds and makes them feel wanted. Mark adds:
"He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things." (Mark 6:34)
Jesus doesn't minister just out of obligation or duty or habit. Even though he is grieving inwardly over his cousin John's death, and his disciples are tired and need a rest, Jesus has compassion. He sees the needs of others and gives over and above what he has planned.
So there Jesus is in this deserted place along the shore of Galilee, far from any town. John's Gospel explains that Jesus went to a mountainside and sat down there with his disciples. A hillside gives the crowd much better visibility and the ability to hear better, too. So for hours and hours, Jesus teaches and heals in this lonely place and speaks from his heart to the huge crowd about his Father and the kingdom of God. And the people are taking it in like a dry sponge.
You Give them Something to Eat (Luke 9:12-13a)
In each of the Synoptic Gospels, the disciples come at the end of a long day and ask Jesus to close the meeting so the people can get something to eat before they begin the long journey to their homes.
"Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, 'Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here.'" (Luke 9:12)
This has been no planned gathering. It has been spontaneous, spur of the moment. The crowds have given no thought to provisions or distance. Their only thought has been to hear Jesus and see him heal still others. Now they are miles from home, their stomachs beginning to send hunger signals, and the sun is beginning to go down. What's more, there are about five thousand men, "besides women and children" (Matthew 14:21). Surely it is time to close, the disciples say.
Jesus' reply is startling! "You give them something to eat."
Why? Why does Jesus respond this way? Why can't he be practical? John's Gospel indicates that Jesus has anticipated all this: "He asked this only to test [Philip], for he already had in mind what he was going to do" (John 6:6).
Is the Feeding of the Five Thousand a test? For whom? Not for the crowds, but for the disciples. They had a very important lesson they must learn. But first, they must be driven to the point that they realize the utter inadequacy of their own resources.
In Mark and John we hear the disciples' protest: "That would take thousands of dollars! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?" (Mark 6:37; cf. John 6:7). Of course, the text doesn't say "thousands of dollars." It says "200 denarii," which the NIV translates as "eight months of a man's wages," in order to "internationalize" the text so all can understand. 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.
The Lesson of Gideon's Army
The lesson that Jesus is about to teach his disciples is the lesson of Gideon's army (Judges 6-7). God raises up meek Gideon to challenge the oppressing Midianites in battle. Once and again Gideon "puts out a fleece" to test God and make sure he's got this right. After all, the Midianites have a hoard of more than 150,000 men. But assured that he is in God's will, Gideon sends out a call for the men of Israel to gather for battle. Thirty-two thousand respond. Gideon's spirits are buoyed, even though he realizes that his 32,000 are still vastly outnumbered. But then God says to him, "You have too many men for me to deliver Midian into their hands." If they win a victory with 32,000, God says, the people of Israel will boast that their own strength has saved them.
So Gideon obediently tells the men that any who are afraid of the coming battle are free to go home, and more than two thirds of his army walk away and return home. Gideon is shattered. What can they do with only 10,000? But God says, "There are still too many men," and tells Gideon to keep only the men who drink water at the creek in a certain manner. When all is said and done, only 300 are left.
Gideon is down to 300 men in the face of 150,000 or so. Just about the same as Jesus' disciples with five loaves and two fish to feed a multitude of 5,000, plus thousands of women and children. Pretty grim.
Or perhaps, 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.
We Have only Five Loaves and Two Fish (Luke 9:13b)
But Jesus pushes the disciples even further. Mark records his discomforting question: "How many loaves do you have? Go and see." You don't have thousands of dollars, but what do you have? Check your resources and tell me what you do have.
There is some heated discussion among the disciples at this, and they go scurrying about looking in bags and asking people close by. John fills in a personal detail that the Synoptic writers leave out:
"Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, spoke up and said, '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)
The disciples themselves don't have any bread at all. But they find some that a boy's mother has packed in a lunch for him, and he is willing for Jesus to have it. So they bring it forward, still a bit miffed that he is pushing them this way. They know there isn't enough food. Why does he want an exact count of what is clearly inadequate? But they diligently report -- after all, he is the Master: "We have only five loaves of bread and two fish -- unless we go and buy food for all this crowd." (Luke 9:13)
Here's the sequence so far. They have looked at 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.
Seating in Groups of Fifty (Luke 9:14-15)
"He said to his disciples, 'Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.' The disciples did so, and everybody sat down." (9:14-15)
Now Jesus organizes for the miracle that is to take place. He gets the crowds arranged in an orderly fashion, presumably with paths between the 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.
Giving Thanks to the Father (Luke 9:16a)
"Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them." (9:16a)
Jesus takes the loaves and fish, perhaps placing them in a basket in front of him. And then he lifts his eyes to heaven and "gave thanks." The Greek word is eulogeō, from which we get our word "eulogize," the root meaning of which is "speak well of, praise, extol."305 When the Jews prayed before meals, they didn't usually pray, "Thank you for this food that we are about to receive." Instead, they would use it as an opportunity to offer praise and blessing of 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."306
Oh, disciple, do you bless God before your meals like Jesus did? If not, why don't you begin today?
Breaking and Distributing the Loaves and Fish (Luke 9:16b)
"He ... broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to set before the people." (9:16b)
The disciples appear to have baskets with them. The Greek word in verse 17 is kophinos, "basket," in the New Testament, probably a large, heavy basket for carrying things.307 In Josephus' Wars of the Jews, the word is used for the large baskets soldiers used to carry their equipment and rations.308 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."309 The boat may have been stocked with baskets for transporting the catch of fish. In any case, each of the 12 disciples had a basket.
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. In the phrase "he gave them to the disciples," the Greek word is the imperfect tense of didōmi, "to give," indicating continued action in the past. Perhaps, better, it should be translated "Then he kept on giving them to the disciples to set before the people." 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.
Twelve Baskets Left Over (Luke 9:17)
"They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over." (9:17)
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.
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.
Some Simple Principles of Ministry
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. John 6:15 says,
"Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew to a mountain by himself."
The miracle had raised Messianic expectations that could have quickly derailed Jesus' ministry (see also John 6:26).
I believe that this miracle was mainly for the disciples' benefit. Jesus could have created bread at the snap of his finger -- poof. He didn't need the disciples' pitiful five loaves and two fish. But they -- and we -- needed to learn some very simple principles of ministry.
- Our resources are woefully inadequate to meet the need.
- We are to take inventory and bring what resources we have to Jesus.
- We place them in his hands to do what he wishes with them, and in the process, release control to him.
- 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.
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.
"You give them something to eat." (Luke 9:13)
Click on the link below to discuss on the forum one or more of the questions
that follow -- your choice.
- What was Jesus' motivation for teaching and healing on this day, even though he and his disciples were tired? How can we find a balance of attitude and ministry? When do we stop when the needs continue?
- Why did Jesus decide to feed the people rather than dismiss them earlier?
- Why didn't he create bread and fish from nothing? Why did he ask the disciples to find what they could? What is the significance of the command, "You give them something to eat"?
- What struggles have you had in surrendering yourself to be part of this ministry process of assessing the need, bringing your resources to Jesus, placing them in his hands, and receiving back the power to meet needs beyond yourself?
Lessons compiled in 805-page book in paperback, Kindle, & PDF.
 Robert H. Mounce, "Bethsaida," ISBE 1:475.
 Apodechomai, BAGD 90.
 Eulogeō, BAGD 322.
 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)
 Kophinos, BAGD 447.
 Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 3, 5, 5.
 Grace I. Emmerson, "Basket," ISBE 1:437-438.
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