READ : Matthew 14:13-21
Do you know what it means to eat the bread of life? Jesus’ most popular miracle – the only one recorded in all four gospels – was the feeding of the 5,000. Why did he do that?
Bread is one of the most important inventions in human race. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought of it like that, but it really is true. Imagine what happened when some prehistoric baker discovered that if you took flour and mixed it with a little water and set it near a fire something miraculous came of it.
In Jesus’ day bread was not an extra item to put on the little plate next to your dinner plate, or something to hold your sandwich fixin’s together. Bread was what kept you alive. In his world bread was the basic daily nourishment, the “staff of life.” And it was also one of the Bible’s richest symbols for Jesus himself.
A Miraculous Feeding
Matthew 14 opens with some bad news. It repeats the story of the death of John the Baptist executed by King Herod. Salome, the daughter of Herodius, Herod’s wife, had danced for the king at his birthday celebration. When offered a reward she was prompted by her mother to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. So Herod, not wanting to be embarrassed in front of his guest, gave the order for John’s execution.
John was not only a great prophet and the forerunner of the Messiah, he was also Jesus’ cousin. John’s death affected Jesus deeply. Matthew says that when Jesus heard the news about John, “he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself” (v.13). It’s not hard to imagine that Jesus needs some time alone, with just his closest friends, to pray and reflect. But it was not to be.
The crowds, seeing Jesus leave, followed him along the shore, and when he reached his desert retreat, there they all were. But Jesus, the Gospel says, “had compassion on them and healed their sick” (v. 14). Never mind his own pain; Jesus always put the needs of others first. So he lays aside his own grief in order to spend the day relieving the suffering of others.
But now there’s a problem. It’s late, daylight is fading, and the disciples come to Jesus. “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over,” they tell him; “send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves” (v. 15). That’s a very practical solution. After all, there are thousands of people there, including many women and children. It’s a remote wilderness – no place for such folks to spend the night. And there’s no food anywhere close by. They had better get a move on if they’re going to find something to eat.
And besides all that, no one had invited the crowds to come along in the first place. This was supposed to be a private retreat for Jesus and his disciples. So, as far as they’re concerned, for a lot of reasons it’s high time for Jesus to send all these people packing. “But Jesus said, ‘They need not go away; you give them something to eat'” (v. 16).
That is so like him, isn’t it – and so like us. When confronted with a crowd of hungry people, the disciples say, “Send them away.” And Jesus says, “No, you give them something to eat.”
I don’t know about you, but as I look at a world full of needs and suffering of every kind my tendency is to say, “Send them all away.” There are so many problems that I can’t begin to solve, so many people that I can’t do anything for. It’s easier to just try to ignore them all, and do nothing. But Jesus says, “You feed them, you heal them, rescue them, clothe them, house them, educate them, employ them.” He tells us to stop just standing around, and do something!
The disciples are dumbfounded. This is a task utterly beyond them. They’ve managed to collect a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, but there are thousands of hungry people! Their meager resources are ludicrously inadequate in the face of such need. But little is much when given to the Lord, as will soon become obvious.
They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (vv. 17-21)
Jesus’ Most Popular Miracle
The feeding of the five thousand, as this miracle is called, is Jesus’ most popular act. I say that because it is the only miracle story that’s recorded in all four gospels. It’s also the thing, according to John, that made the people of Galilee try to crown Jesus as their king (John 6:15).
It’s easy to understand the popular enthusiasm this miracle created. After all, who wouldn’t want to have a king who could create a meal for a multitude out of next to nothing? Think of the possibilities Jesus represented: an endless supply of bread with no need to work, healing by the divine touch; and when you were happy, and well fed, and looking for some relaxation, he offered wondrous words of wisdom you could listen to. The Roman emperors, it was said, kept the citizens of Rome content by providing them with bread and circuses: free food and entertainment. Just imagine what Jesus could have done if he had wanted to be just another human king.
So we can understand why this miracle was popular with the crowd. But why did it so appeal to the four evangelists, so much that each of them made sure to include it in his gospel? Part of the reason, I think, has to do with what this story shows us about Jesus. He does care about hurting people. He is full of compassion. His own weariness doesn’t leave him short-tempered with the crowds who are seeking his help; his own pain doesn’t cause him to harden his heart. Moreover, Jesus cares about the whole person, body and soul, physical needs as well as spiritual.
One commentor says of this story that, whereas in the Sermon on the Mount Christ had fed people’s souls, “now He extends His office as shepherd to the care of their bodies.” What the feeding of the 5,000 most clearly reveals about the Lord Jesus is his readiness and ability to take care of all our needs.
But I think the appeal of this story also has to do with what it shows us about ourselves. We may have very little to offer people, little in the way of financial resources, little ability, even little faith, but if we just put our little into Jesus’ hands, much can come of it. It’s not just that Jesus fed the crowd with a handful of loaves and fish; it’s that when all the people had eaten and were full, there were twelve baskets full of leftovers. He has a super-abundance of provision. The apostolic doxology seems to me to be the only appropriate response to this story: “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think . . . to him be glory . . . forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20).
Feed on Christ
But there’s one final thing that has to be said about the feeding of the 5,000. I think it’s the most important lesson of all. It’s what this story shows us about salvation. John’s gospel reports that the crowd of people whom Jesus fed followed him around to the other side of the lake on the following day. They were interested in more bread, but Jesus began to speak to them about a different kind of bread, a deeper need, another kind of hunger.
“I am the bread of life” he told them. “He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35; cf. vv. 48, 50, 51, 57, 58). Jesus is the bread from heaven, the living bread who gives eternal life. The bread is his own body which he will give on the cross, dying for the sin of the world. Did you see the unmistakable pointer in this story to Jesus’ own death and resurrection? He took the bread and he blessed it and he broke it and he gave it to the crowd. In John we read. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life” (vv. 53-55, cf. vv. 56-58).
What does that mean? How do you “eat and drink” Christ’s flesh and blood? How do you “feed on” (v. 57) him? Not literally, of course. Jesus isn’t saying we receive eternal life by physically eating something.
What he meant is that we receive eternal life when we receive him, by faith. Faith, said John Calvin, is “the mouth and stomach of the soul.” To “come to” Christ, to “believe in” Christ, to “eat [Christ’s] flesh” and “drink [his] blood,” to “feed on” Christ, these are all different ways of describing the same thing—the experience of being personally united to Jesus through faith. Trusting in Christ is how you receive him. Believing in Jesus is how you eat and drink his body and blood. It is accepting him and giving yourself to him in love. And this is eternal life.
John says that people were scandalized by Jesus’ words, and “from this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (v. 66). Well, there goes the crowd. Jesus the bread-maker, the bread giver, is enormously popular with the masses. But Jesus the Bread of heaven, the only way to eternal life—well, he is rather offensive. As the crowds melted away, Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked if they too would leave him. But good old Peter spoke for all of us: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (v. 68).
So there it is. If you can find someone else who can feed your hungry and thirsty soul, someone else who can give you eternal life, then go ahead, leave Jesus. Go to that person. But really, where else can you go for the bread of life?