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17 - Feeding the Five Thousand

After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. Jesus 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. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”

Of all the incredible works of Christ recorded in Scripture, it is the feeding of the five thousand that is the only miracle recorded in every single Gospel account (aside, of course, from the Resurrection itself). Although each offers a new detail or meaningful insight, it is John’s Gospel account which is the most unique and which brings some curious additional observations to aid in our understanding of the event. John includes a question from Jesus which the other accounts do not. It seems to be an aside to Philip, which may be part of why the other accounts omit the detail. His question is a test – an odd test, given the fact that no one has ever multiplied bread and fish before. Philip has no way to process alternative options here; they have no money, insufficient food, and no way to overcome these troublesome realities.

One must wonder what an answer which passed Jesus’ test would have been. Clearly Philip isn’t going to respond, “Why not just multiply everything here with your heaven powers, Jesus?” At the same time, the Old Testament does attest to the idea that God is able to make what appears insufficient into more than enough – think of the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17. The widow is faced with the sobering and grim details of her situation and simply concludes that she and her son are about to eat their last meal. When Elijah enters the picture, this is what transpires:

Elijah said to her, “Don’t be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord sends rain on the land.’”
She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the Lord spoken by Elijah (17:13-16).

Philip almost certainly grew up hearing this story but has obviously never seen anything like this happen before his eyes. Considering the question Christ poses in light of this story, perhaps a simple response of faith is all that’s needed to pass the test – “I don’t know how, Lord, but I know You’ll provide it.”

The initial offering of food doesn’t even come from the apostles themselves, but from a boy who is assumedly a part of the crowd. Faced with the task of feeding all who are present, it appears the apostles began asking around to assess the situation and find whatever food they possibly could. All Andrew is able to locate is this meager offering of bread and fish. It wouldn’t even mean that everyone gathered could receive a crumb or a sliver. Yet Christ takes the offering which falls far short of what it needs to be at first glance and multiplies it to become more than sufficient, such that it satisfies all around.

The psalmist writes in Psalm 51:16-17,

“For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

Coming to Christ, we acknowledge our inability to bring anything to God which could be considered a satisfactory offering. All we can bring to Him are the broken remnants of hearts marred by sin, asking for His healing and wholeness. The psalmist reminds us, though, that this is exactly the pleasing offering which God desires. He is able to take the tiny and insignificant offering which we bring and multiply it to become something that is truly able to satisfy.

In every circumstance, we come before the Lord with our burdens and struggles and simply declare, “I don’t know how, Lord, but I know You’ll provide.” And we find Him faithful every time.

You are the God of peace in the trials, of hope when all seems lost, and of sufficiency when it feels like enough cannot be found. Help me, O Lord, to trust You in my circumstances, and to see that You will provide even if I cannot understand how You will accomplish it. In all things, may I know that You are enough for me.


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