The sixth chapter of Johns Gospel is the longest of them all and is exceptionally full. Scholars tell us that a whole year had passed between the healing of the impotent man at Bethesda, recorded in chapter 5, and the feeding of the multitude as told in chapter 6. Thus a year of the Lords Galilean ministry is encompassed in chapter 6, yet the only event that John records of that time is the miraculous feeding of the multitude and the dispute that followed it. Careful study of the synoptic Gospels will reveal that more than twenty other events during that period of the Lords ministry have been recorded by the Holy Spirit, so the feeding of the 5,000 men (besides the women and children) was clearly a crisis in the presentation of the Saviour to the nation of Israel. For this reason also, this miracle is the only one to be recorded by all four of the Gospel writers. Within the chapter lie four occurrences of the Lord uttering the words, "Verily, verily", and these demand our solemn attention. Let us remind ourselves (for we are so apt to forget) that every word spoken by the Word Himself is an utterance of the Son of God, co-equal and co-eternal with the Father. Furthermore, He spake only as the Father instructed Him: "For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak" (Jn 12.49). The words of the Saviour, therefore, emanate from the throne of God and we should revere them. When the Lord saw fit to prefix certain of His statements with "Verily, verily", how much more should we ponder the import and weight of His teaching! As we have done before, we must use this article to set the scene and then the context of these divine statements which, God willing, we will study in the next article.
The background to the miracle
Of the three Passovers mentioned by John (2.13; 6.4; 11.55), the second forms the backdrop for the miraculous feeding of the multitude. The Lord spent the first and third occasions in Jerusalem, but the second was spent in Galilee. Passover was always a time when national emotions ran high but, immediately prior to this one, John the Baptist had been slain by Herod and the apostles whom the Lord had sent forth to preach the Kingdom of God had just returned from their preaching mission (Mk 6; Lk 9). The Lords own disciples would not have been immune from the great stirring amongst the populace that was seeking a leader to deliver them from Roman oppression. There was a mood of popular revolt, and Galilee was a fertile area for insurrection (Lk 13.1). Perhaps it was for these reasons that the Lord took His disciples "and went aside privately into a desert place belonging to the city called Bethsaida" (Lk 9.10). The needed privacy was short-lived, however, as the people were quick to follow, "because they saw his miracles which he did on them that were diseased" (Jn 6.2). The Lord graciously "received them, and spake unto them of the kingdom of God, and healed them that had need of healing" (Lk 9.11). What tender patience the Saviour displayed! His earthly cousin and spiritual forerunner, John the Baptist, was freshly slain and buried, His apostles were full of "all that they had done" (Mt 14.12; Lk 9.10), and they were all needing rest and a good meal (Mk 6.31). We would all understand irritability in those circumstances, but it was never so with the Saviour. Kindly and compassionately He tended to the gathering crowd and patiently taught them all through the day.
The miraculous feeding of the multitude
Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us that the disciples initiated the feeding of the crowd by advising the Lord to send the multitude away. Advice for the Lord! He immediately responded by telling the disciples to feed them. John tells us nothing of the prelude but concentrates on the Lords proving of Philip. That disciple quickly gave his assessment of the magnitude of the problem it would cost a fortune to give this crowd a little each, even supposing such a quantity of food could be obtained locally at that time of day. As if to emphasise the futility of trying to feed the multitude, Andrew brought a young lad who had five barley loaves and two small fishes, "but what are they among so many?" (Jn 6.9). What extremes! Two hundred pence was Philips assessment of insufficiency nearly two-thirds of a working mans annual wage. Five barley loaves (the food of the poor) and two small fishes (Oh, how small!) were Andrews assessment of the futility of trying to meet the need of the crowd. Cost, quality, size, are all human measurements and will always be inadequate for the work of the Lord. Say, dear fellow-believer, how big is your God? Perhaps we are the kind of folk who "think big", the "two hundred pence" sort of folk. Even as we so think, the inadequacy of even a large amount of money dawns upon us as we realise the true extent of the need. Two hundred is a number that seems to be linked with the inadequacy of human thought and endeavour. It was the downfall of Achan (Josh 7.20-21); of Micah (Judg 17.1-5); of Absalom (2 Sam 14.26-27; 15.11), and it will be the downfall of mighty armies (Rev 9.16). More probably, we are folk who are paralysed by the smallness of our resources, both physical and spiritual. What an enemy of faith is human reckoning and reasoning in the work of God!
Why the lad was prepared when all others were not is open to speculation. It would be an unusual boy who managed to keep his lunch until the day was ended! Could he have been a young shepherd lad, bemused by the intrusion into his solitary pasture of such a huge crowd? The slopes of what we know today as the Golan Heights were lush with the spring grass, and there the Lord caused the multitude to sit down. It is always rewarding to ponder the great things that the Lord can do with a little that is submitted to His use. He didnt need the lads offering any more than He has need of the feeble resources that you and I possess. The wonder of it is, He was willing to include the boy, and His disciples, in this great work of God. How prone we are to think well of our own endeavours, of how much we contribute to the service of the Lord! The stark fact is, the work of the Lord would be far better done if He did it all Himself. He chooses to involve us and use us for His glory. Oh, the wonder of it all! God grant us the humility and the faith that we so much lack, for pride and unbelief will always be occupied with the inadequacy of cost, quality, and size.
When God remonstrated with His people in Psalm 50, it was not for lack of their religious observance of the Levitical system. It was because "thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself" (Ps 50.21). They were so proud of their formality that they had lost sight of the greatness and glory of their God. They thought God had need of their sacrifices. "If I were hungry, I would not tell thee: for the world is mine, and the fulness thereof", was the stern rebuke (v.12). What correction did God demand of His people? "Offer unto God thanksgiving (their Devotion); and pay thy vows unto the most High (their Diligence): And call upon me in the day of trouble (their Dependence)". The divine promise was, "I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me" (vv.14-15).
The notion of some that the boys willingness to share his meal set an example that everybody else then followed is as pathetic as it is unworthy of further comment. The Lord Jesus took the offered food in His hands, significantly gave thanks for it, and then distributed it to the disciples who passed it on "to them that were set down" (Jn 6.11). This was nothing less than a miracle of creatorial power by the Son of God of whom it is written that "all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist" (Col 1.16-17).
The outcome of the miracle
The expression in v.14, "those men", is quite emphatic. They had seen earlier miracles (v.2) and had followed the Lord that they might see others. They had now been participants in this mighty miracle by which they had been fed and, as a body, "they would come and take him by force, to make him a king" (v.15). Some of them, according to Lukes record, supposed that the Lord was John the Baptist risen from the dead, others Elijah, and still others that He was some other prophet. They were at least united in this, that the man who had fed them and wrought other miracles beside was the one they wanted as the leader of insurrection against their oppressors. The Lord acted immediately in three ways: "he constrained his disciples to get into the ship, and to go to the other side before unto Bethsaida"; "he sent away the people"; "he departed into a mountain to pray" (Mk 6.45-46).
To be continued.