Lessons From The Feeding Of The Five Thousand

A.W. Tozer once wrote, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”  A statement that beings his excellent book The Knowledge Of The Holy.  If you read the book it becomes plain rather quickly that our understanding of God is usually incorrect, incomplete, or downright idolatrous. He also states that our understanding of who God is part of the foundation of every human being and informs our entire understanding of the world. I can see now the wisdom of Tozer but I did not always.

When I was a teenager I was pretty confident I had a very good grasp on who God is.

See I prided myself on being a Realist.  As the analogy goes, The Optimist would see the preverbal cup as half-full, the Cynic as half-empty, but I would just drink it.  I looked at the world around me in my human understanding and that was enough.  To me it seemed clear and logical God was real and Yeshua was the Son of God, but miracles and God providing for us were another story.

It wasn’t that I believed they could not happen, I just believed that they were very very rare and these days God would use us to be that miracle that they came from human hands and origins.  I guess many years in Reform Hebrew School rubbed off on me.

When I was a teenager I would think of my relationship to God and His ability to provide for me like the Rocky movies.

At this point in my life I had seen the excellent four movies of the Rocky series (The fifth movie we should pretend does not exist).

All the Rocky movies follow a similar formula with Rocky being a flawed underdog fighter with abilities that need to be mentored and nurtured.  He fights against an impossible to beat foe and comes out on top.  In the first two movies his mentor is Micky, who trains him and is literally in his corner of the ring.  That was how I thought about God, that God would train me and be with me and if I followed His teachings I could overcome the enemies against me, Satan, Sin, and Death.

It wasn’t until years later I would understand the foolishness of my confidence in my theology.  God would show me through my Life, that I was no Rocky, and that I wasn’t even good enough to be Paulie.  But that I was completely dependent on Him to provide for my needs in every area of my life.  That all the things I felt I was doing and was responsible for were really only possible because the Lord was with me and had blessed me so greatly.  My paychecks named my employer, but really they came from God.  Every situation in my life I stepped into, whether they were with people, or life circumstances, I only came through thanks to the saving power of the Lord, it was not because of any cleverness on my part.

There is a story in God’s Word that helped show me the foolishness of my confidence in my own human understanding, and that God does not need us to provide for humanity, and it is found in John 6:1-15, the passage we will be looking at today.

Now this particular story is interesting because it is the only miracle that appears in all four Gospels.  There is something powerful about this miracle and story that made it necessary for God to include it four times in His Word.

This story also takes place at a very interesting time in Yeshua’s ministry.  In the previous chapter we see Yeshua powerfully debating and declaring that He is the promised Messiah and God.

Going back and forth with the crowds and Jewish leaders He makes His case that He has authority over the Sabbath and that He has experienced the Father in a way they have not.  He states plainly that He is the promised Messiah that Moses wrote about and that if they only would listen to God’s Word they could understand these truths as well.

After several months of more teaching we come to our story in chapter 6.  As we read, After this Yeshua went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. 2 And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. 3 Yeshua went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples.  Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.

At this point Yeshua has a large following wherever He goes.  So to escape the crowds who are pressing around him, Yeshua has moved to the top of a nearby mountain with his disciples, spread out below them is a crowd numbering easily over 5,000, because we only get a count of the men and not the women and children.  It can be hard to imagine what a crowd like that would look like, but as an example the town of Plymouth has a population of around 9,000.  Or if you have been to a school graduation imagine multiples of that.

I think it is relatively safe to assume with women and children that the crowds below Yeshua were close to that.  So imagine sitting on a small mountain in the middle of Plymouth, or another smaller town, with every single person in the town sitting below you spread out.  It had to be a pretty amazing sight for the disciples and anyone there.

So the day is almost over, the time of Passover is getting close and it is obvious this huge crowd is hungry.

In the other Gospels we read that the Disciples ask Yeshua to send the crowd away, so they can find some food and Yeshua responds that they should feed them.  Now why would Yeshua say something like this?  Well Yeshua has been busy teaching the crowds about who He is, but now He has a lesson for His disciples.

5 Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Yeshua said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do.

Imagine Yeshua turning to you if you were with Him and asking this question.  What would be your response?  Given some time to prepare you might have a very good and clever answer.  But without the benefit of preparation I really identify with Philip in this story.  Philip was native to this area and so it makes sense for Yeshua to ask him about the food situation in the area.  But as we see in verse 6 this is a test.

This isn’t the type of test to prove whether or not Philip loved Him, but a test to see if Philip truly understood who His Rabbi and Messiah was.  If he realized that He was more than able to provide for this situation.

So we have a problem that needs to be solved, the people need to eat! And so Philip offers his answer. 7 Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.”

I said a moment ago that I identify with Philip because this is how I think I’d have answered Yeshua as well.  Philip showed his business side or maybe even a bit of an Accountant with the answer he gave.  He looked at the situation and was able to quickly calculate that it would take over 200 Denarii, or over half a year’s wages just to give everyone a single bite.  That’s a serious pile of cash right there and underneath Philip’s calculation seems to be a simple fact, “Yeshua we don’t have enough money to feed this crowd.”  It wasn’t that Philip was being optimistic or pessimistic here, but he was being a realist, he was looking at the reality of the problem and taking the obvious conclusion.

He saw a very human problem and tried to find a human solution to it and knew he could not.

So we return to the story and Philip has given his answer, they don’t have the cash to purchase enough food for this crowd.  Andrew speaks up after looking for food in the crowd and tries his best to solve the problem. 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?”

A boy had 5 simple loaves of bread and a couple small fish.  Andrew knew this was not enough to satisfy the crowd and again he is telling Yeshua that they do not have the means to feed this crowd.  So with neither Philip nor Andrew able to see a way to solve this problem, Yeshua now steps in to save this situation.

10 Yeshua said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number.

Imagine the scene, the area was big enough for everyone to sit down in groups, which made it easy to distribute the food and count the crowd.  None of them argued with Yeshua but were willing to obey and wait to see how He would provide for them.  If you have ever worked with a group of people you know how hard it can be to get a dozen people to listen to you, let alone thousands.  Imagine looking out next to Yeshua on this mountain and seeing this huge crowd sitting down and waiting.

It is plain to see there are thousands of people waiting on Yeshua to provide food for them.  Phillip, Andrew, and the rest of the disciples were probably very nervous.  “How is Yeshua going to feed this crowd?” They might have been thinking or whispering to one another.  With the crowd seated it was probably even easier to count them, I can imagine Philip revising his calculations and realizing the crowd was even bigger than they thought.  Yeshua might have then asked for the fish and bread to be brought to him by Andrew.  It would have looked puny and inadequate when compared to this crowd.  But then we read something astounding takes place, a miracle, something that defies our human understanding.

11 Yeshua 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.

What I love about this miracle is that none of the Gospel writers tell us how exactly Yeshua multiplied the fish and bread.  Simply that he took the small amount of food from the boy, gave a blessing, and then as it was distributed it had multiplied enough to satisfy the needs of this crowd.  The reason why the mechanics of the miracle are not mentioned isn’t because this is allegorical or never happened, rather they are just not the focus.

Some make a very big deal of the blessing Yeshua gave over the food as well, they want to read into it a very deep and complex analogy of communion and I think that is also missing the point, and that is was probably just a normal Jewish blessing over the food.  It isn’t about the mechanics or even analogies and symbolism.

So what should we pay attention to?

We should understand the fact that Yeshua on His own met the real physical needs of this huge crowd and that He did not meet them but provided abundantly.  Just as Yeshua met their real needs, the Lord is also more than able to meet our needs as well.  Even if the situation seems to have no solution to us, to God all things are possible.

What’s also interesting is that between the different Gospels we get the full picture that both Yeshua and the disciples fed this large crowd.  I can imagine what it was like to realize not only was Yeshua providing a meal for you, but that you could eat as much as you want.  That He was going above and beyond your needs in that moment.  This crowd had the opportunity to literally break bread with Yeshua, and have the sinless Son of God serve them a meal.

I can also only imagine the astounded looks on the faces of the disciples, to go from complete worry about this situation, to wondering if this food would possibly run out, to realizing with joy that Yeshua had once again done what was impossible for human beings to do.  But the story does not end here.

12 And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten.

What I love about these verses is the fact that Yeshua did not want to waste anything.  We have for us the main idea of stewardship demonstrated in one verse.  That we should not waste anything the Lord has blessed us with.

But I also love what it must have been like for the disciples.  For Philip and Andrew to walk around this huge crowd and realizing they had more in their baskets then what they had started with.  That each of the disciples had bread for themselves now on top of what they had already eaten earlier.  This was probably a powerful teaching moment for them, to realize that everything was possible through the Messiah.  That there was no problem He could not solve or did not have enough power to overcome.

Eventually I had to confront the same truth that Philip and the other disciples had to in this story, that God is able, more than able, to provide for every need and circumstance without a bit of help from anyone else.  If we are involved in the process at all it is because He allows it, and it is usually to teach us, but not because He needs us.

We are not told exactly what the disciple’s responses were to this miracle but we are told how the people reacted after they had eaten and were satisfied.

14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”

The seriousness of their response can be missed if you don’t understand the context for what they are saying.  By calling Yeshua, “The Prophet” they are saying that Yeshua was the one who Moses spoke of who would come that was greater than him.

This is probably also the reason why we are told this story took place near Passover, a time when the miracles of Moses and how the nation of Egypt was defeated would have been on the minds of the crowd.  Because this crowd of close to maybe 10,000 wasn’t just hungry physically they were hungry politically and emotionally. They wanted a leader who would satisfy their hunger for political revolution, because that in their minds seems to be their most pressing concern.

Yeshua had satisfied their physical hunger and now was expected to satisfy their political hunger the same way.  Just like the disciples they were looking at this situation from their human perspective.  It made sense to them that He would throw off immediately the chains of Roman oppression and usher in an age of prosperity for the nation of Israel.  But they did not understand Yeshua’s mission, the purpose of His life, death, and resurrection and that this was not the time to do as they desired.  So our story ends how it began, with Yeshua going back up the mountain.

15 Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Yeshua withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

The ending to this story serves as an important lesson that we do not control the will of God.

It is also a lesson that just because something seems good and right from our understanding, does not mean we understand all the details.  We should never force God to do our will, but to trust in His amazing and wonderful plan for each and every one of us He is aware of our needs and the problems we face and to trust in His will and not our own.

As I began this message today I mentioned I had to confront the lessons of this passage as well.  I had to learn that the God that I prayed to and felt I understood so well from my realistic human perspective was a caricature, a false idol of my own creation.

Like Philip I had to expand my understanding of Adonai and His power.  That He can and would provide for my needs and that there was nothing too great for His power.  Today, I can still be realistic about people on their own, but completely an optimist when it comes to the power of God.  That every day in meeting our needs, in all the ways He blesses us that we know and don’t know, miracles are still occurring.

In Mark we read that the Disciples did not learn the lesson Yeshua was trying to teach them, and that their hearts were hardened and were fearful during a great storm with Yeshua.  May the Lord enable each of us to learn from the miracle of the loaves and to trust in Him and not ourselves as we walk through the wilderness of this World.