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Feeding the 5,000 (1): Lessons for the Learners

Tan Chee Wei, Singapore

The significance of the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 by the Lord Jesus Christ is highlighted by the fact that it is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospel accounts (Mt 14.13-21; Mk 6.33-44; Lk 9.12-17; Jn 6.1-14). This point is amplified when we consider that only about seven per cent of the content in John’s Gospel is found in the three synoptic Gospels. Therefore, it will do us well to pay attention to, and learn precious truths from, this unique and important miracle. When we consider similar accounts recorded in different portions of the Word of God, there is profit in not only studying them contextually within the book on a stand-alone basis, but also collectively from the different books in which the account is recorded. In this series of three articles we will be doing both, and seeking to learn precious truths concerning the disciples (the Learners), the Lad, and the Lord Himself.

There is much we can learn from this miracle, and it ought to thrill our hearts that our blessed Lord in His wisdom could fulfil and reveal so much in just one miracle. Not only was the physical need of the multitude met, but the power of the Lord was manifested, thus authenticating His Person and His mission. The subsequent discourse in John 6.22-59 became more memorable after the miracle (or “sign”, as used in the Gospel), and the disciples were also taught precious lessons by the actions of their Master.

We will examine three lessons the disciples learnt as a result of three instructions given by the Lord during this miracle.

Three Lessons for the Disciples

In John 6, the Lord Jesus “saw a great company come unto him”, and He asked Philip “Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat?” (v 5). The Lord’s question was “to prove him: for he himself knew what he would do” (v 6). Philip responded to the test by stating that “two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little” (v 7). In other words, Philip’s conclusion from the perspective of available funds was that there was not enough money to buy food for so many.

In the same chapter, we also read that Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, told the Lord that “there is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?” (vv 8-9). Andrew is to be commended for making the effort to source the availability of food to meet the need. However, in some measure like Philip, he concluded that the paltry supply would not be sufficient to meet the demands of the multitude. In other words, Andrew’s response from the perspective of available food was that there was insufficient supply to meet the demands of so many.

In the synoptic Gospels, “when it was evening” (Mt 14.15) and “the day was now far spent” (Mk 6.35), or “began to wear away” (Lk 9.12), the disciples collectively told the Lord Jesus to “send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals” (Mt 14.15). The disciples, unconscious of the ability of the Lord to meet the need, therefore proposed that the solution was to disperse the crowd. In other words, their conclusion was that there was no solution to the problem. The multitude would need to solve it themselves!

Three Instructions by the Lord

It is wonderful to read that the Lord did not rebuke His disciples for lacking the consciousness of His ability to resolve the situation. He also did not single out the deficiencies of their conclusions. Rather, He sought to teach them, not only by His words, but also by His actions, what they needed to learn concerning their reasoning and His ability.

The words of the Lord to the disciples were heartwarming: “They need not depart; give ye them to eat” (Mt 14.16). The Lord had seen the great multitude, “and was moved with compassion toward them” (v 14). He was going to meet their need and, at the same time, use the disciples in the performance of this mighty miracle, thereby teaching them precious lessons. He did not set them aside, despite their lack of understanding.

It is interesting to note three tasks that the Lord asked the disciples to perform during this miracle. Firstly, He asked them to “make the men sit down” (Jn 6.10). He could easily have exercised His authority and commanded the multitude to sit down. Instead, He asked the disciples to make them do so. I think this was the Lord’s lesson to the disciples regarding their proposed solution to “send the multitude away”. The Lord was thus teaching them that there was no need to send them away; instead they should make them sit down! There was no need for the multitude to travel the distance “into the towns and country round about … and get victuals” (Lk 9.12). On the contrary, they were to sit down, and on “green” (Mk 6.39) and “much grass” (Jn 6.10). What a compassionate and kind Master!

Then, after the Lord had given thanks for the supply of five loaves and two fishes, “he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would” (Jn 6.11). In the distribution of the food, the Lord performed the miracle, and multiplied the supply. We will consider this further during the third part of our study (‘Lessons about the Lord’). It is interesting that the Lord distributed the multiplied supply to the disciples, and they in turn distributed it to the multitude. Could not the Lord have distributed it Himself? Why were the disciples involved? For our consideration, one reason could be to teach His disciples a lesson in relation to their earlier thoughts. Philip supposed that there were insufficient funds to buy food for the multitude. By asking the disciples to distribute what they had received from Him, He sought to teach them the vital truth that the resources of their service came not from what they had (“two hundred pennyworth”), but that which He provided (the multiplied supply). The multitude was “filled” (Jn 6.12), the Lord was glorified (v 14), and their service was fruitful (v 13).

The third, and last, action that the Lord commanded the disciples to perform was to “gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost” (v 12). At a later event, when He warned them “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees”, the Lord would use this incident to teach them further lessons (Mt 16.5-12). There may also have been another reason for the disciples to gather up the fragments. Andrew had earlier concluded that the paltry provision from the lad was insufficient to meet the needs of the multitude. The Lord would have him learn that the supply, when placed in His hands, is not only sufficient, but will be more than abundant. While He was willing and able to provide abundantly, the disciples would have missed the opportunity of being a channel of blessing if they had not obeyed His instructions. By making themselves available as channels to distribute the Lord’s provision, the need was met in an overwhelming way.

Final Thoughts

It is a joy to know that we have a great Master and Teacher in the Person of our blessed Lord. While deficiencies and failures abound in our service, like those of the disciples, may it encourage our hearts to know that He continues to use us. In applying the lessons He taught the disciples, we should emulate our Lord in being kind and showing compassion to those in need. We should also remember that the resources of our service come from Him. Finally, His resources are abundant and overflowing. May the Lord have us learn more of His gracious and merciful ways with us. We trust that these truths will challenge us to serve Him more faithfully and dependently, till we hear the commendation “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” at His soon coming again (Mt 25.21). Maranatha!

(To be continued …)


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