A Feast and a Lesson - John 6.1-15
Our text for today, from the 6th chapter of John’s gospel, is the story we call the feeding of the 5000 – a miracle remarkable for being about the only one, except the resurrection, that’s recorded in all four gospels. So we get a many-sided picture and we can learn from each. From Matthew’s account we learn that what turned into Jesus’ most public miracle started out as a private get-away – or at least that was the intention. We talked about that a couple weeks ago, how Jesus and the disciples heard the horrible news of John the Baptist’s beheading. And it says,
When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.
That’s where John picks up the story. John 6.1:
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.
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.
Do they still do that thing on the radio, the weird electronic noises, testing the emergency response system? Preceded and followed with the reassuring This is only a test? God does that, minus the This is only a test. Tests are harder and more telling, unannounced. My brother tells of an incident recounted by one of his professors. Back when he was a professor to be, he was going before the faculty committee to defend his master’s thesis – with such fear and trembling as would be normal under such circumstances. And one of the profs on the committee, when it came his turn to ask questions, said: I’d like you to respond to the following names. He read down a list of five names, and to the examinee’s horror, one after the other, blank - he didn’t recognize one of them. He flirting with trying something like: Sarah James – was she the one who wrote . . . to try to salvage a little. Finally he just up and admitted: I’m afraid I’m not familiar with any of them. To which the examiner responded, Actually, I wouldn’t have expected you to. They’re my neighbors. A test, to see how this aspiring scholar handles not knowing. Does he have the integrity to admit it, or does he try a snow-job?
Jesus’ disciples were becoming apostles. Jesus was beginning to say, OK, now you try it. And this was a test. As Jesus’ ambassadors they’d be confronted with terrible human need, sometimes material, sometimes spiritual, with resources – humanly speaking – pretty laughable. What would they do? Jesus says, Philip, what do you think? What should we do?
7 Philip answered him, “Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”
The NIV translators put the literal 200 denarii in a form we can make sense of. One denarius was a single day’s wages. It’s debated whether he’s giving this figure as his estimate of how much they could scrape up, or whether he was eyeballing the crowd and doing the math. One way or the other, he was facing facts: buying bread, they’d bankrupt themselves without doing anybody any real good.
How are they doing on their test? At least, give them credit for not saying, Hey, this isn’t our problem. We didn’t invite these people. They were willing to struggle with it.
8 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?”
From Mark’s account, we gather that Andrew wasn’t venturing this on his own initiative. Jesus had asked, What do you have? Go see. Still, it looks like Andrew feels enough of a fool even mentioning it that he has to add the disclaimer: but how far will that go? (A footnote on the food: according to Edersheim’s The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, these fish would have been the locally-produced specialty, about sardine size, and barley bread was the cheapest you could get. So this was a lunch to feed one poor person.)
10 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.
Again from the parallel accounts, there was some organization to this seating – grouping into 50’s and hundreds – to facilitate distribution. And the disciples, who set off on this trip imaging that they were getting away, are instead serving.
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.
The traditional prayer would have been, Blessed art thou, Lord our God, King of the world, who causes to come forth bread from the earth. One might imagine that John mentions the giving of thanks simply because it happened, that it’s part of the story. It’s what pious Jews did, before eating. In fact, though, John gives it more weight than that. Verse 23, looking back at this scene:
23 Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.
What’s the importance of giving thanks? One key element, at least: in giving thanks, we give credit, where credit is due. Thanks to you I had to walk all the way home! It was your doing. The passage Daniel read: As Moses was preparing God’s people to enter the promised land – where they’d prosper mightily – he warned them: When you’ve eaten your fill, praise the Lord your God. He says,
17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.
In thanking God, we acknowledge his hand. In thanking God, we put the menu selection and the serving size into his hands. It was barley bread, not wheat. There were 5 fish, not 12, and certainly not 5000. Thank you, Lord, this is in your hands, this comes from your hands, and you’ve promised to meet the needs of your children. Very much like when you’re hospitalized, uncovering the meal that the nurse has brought in. You may not much like the look of it – but it’s what the doctor ordered. To thank is to acknowledge the wisdom and generosity of the provider. And as such, it’s an act of faith – and sometimes not an easy one: THAT is the need, THIS is the provision, and we’re to be thankful? Yes. It’s a remarkable fact: they gave thanks before it started looking like enough. It would have been easy, after the multiplication started.
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.”
There’s a gospel song that begins, My Father is rich, in houses and lands, rubies and diamonds, silver and gold . . . I’m a child of the King! That’s certainly true, but what conclusions can you draw from it? The disciples might reasonably have thought, if God’s providing, the supply is unlimited! (true enough, I guess). And, if we’re relying on his provision, we don’t have to economize. We don’t have to pinch pennies, buy in bulk, shop for the best airfares for missionary travel . . . And our fabulously rich heavenly Father seems to reply, Yes, you do need to economize. “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.
That number 12 (there having been 12 on the serving crew) rather suggests that this was - at long last - God’s provision for the kitchen staff. Jesus said once, if you want to be first, put yourself last. If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, serve. These 12 were being groomed for greatness. They were great that day.
14 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.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.
They weren’t altogether wrong. We sing, and count it a great line, Bring forth the royal diadem and crown him Lord of all! The Coming One would indeed perform miraculous signs, and according to prophecy he would indeed reign as King. Isaiah 9.7:
7 Of the increase of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
But, in making him king by force, whom precisely were they intending to force? Not the Romans, or the Jews, but Jesus. They want Jesus for their king – which is to say, they want him to reign supreme over everything and everybody – except themselves. Jesus complained once, Why do you call me Lord, and then not do what I say? It’s easier to deal with a rebel who runs up a rebel flag. At least then both you and he know whose side he’s on. Jesus would be genuinely king, or not at all. So he withdrew into the hills, and without him the crowd evaporated.
What’s the importance of the feeding of the 5000, that it should be prominent in all 4 gospels? Certainly, as a demonstration of divine power, it’s one of the great miracles of the gospels and indeed the whole Bible. As proof that Jesus has the authority to wield divine power – that he was indeed the Coming One who would reign in power – it was convincing. But did it change much? It seems like people were impressed, more than they were changed. Some of this crowd pursued Jesus yet another day, and when they caught up with him, Jesus said,
“I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.
You’ve heard the relief and development slogan, Give someone a fish, and he’ll eat today. Teach him to fish, and he’ll eat a lifetime. The crowd had eaten for a day. One free meal and they’d be hungry again tomorrow. And if they had any illusions about King Jesus making this a daily routine, they were soon disappointed. The disciples, on the other hand, were learning how to fish. For them, this was a test. It wouldn’t be the last time they’d be faced with human need, where the numbers would so overwhelm the apparent resources that about the only conceivable response would be Andrew’s: What is this, among so many?
The parallel accounts record the disciples’ suggesting that the crowds be sent away to fend for themselves. And people could, conceivably, have gone elsewhere for food; they weren’t all that far from civilization. But the disciples would face another crowd, quite literally the population of the whole earth, with the bread of life in their hands – the only bread of life. Jesus said, I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except by me. And Peter adds, Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven, given to men, by which we must be saved. The apostles faced the whole earth, the bread of life in their hands, and Jesus says, You give them something to eat. Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. And they must have learned something by then, somewhere along the way. Because they didn’t reply to the Great Commission, It’s impossible! They’re too many, we’re too few, it’s too far, . . . etc.
What else might they have learned from this particular lesson? And what might we learn from it? For one thing, in the face of daunting need and daunting numbers, don’t despise what God has already given, however little it may seem. Thank God for it, and be willing to look for more.
Another thing? Don’t despise little contributions, or the contributions of little people – or overvalue their opposite. It’s hard for us to see the two cents from a poor widow’s purse and not ask with Andrew, but how far will they go? Equally hard not to be impressed with handfuls of big bills drawn from wallets that in fact could have furnished a whole lot more. We count the bills; God counts hearts. Bills God could multiply a thousand-fold; hearts have to be won.
Another thing? Don’t expect God to spare us his disciples bombshells on the order of YOU FEED THEM. And don’t expect him to spare us the hemming and hawing and long awkward pauses that go with such situations. He never said it would be easy to take the bread of life to the world. He never said it would be easy to be the light of the world, and the salt of the earth. He did promise to go with us.