As we turn our attention to John 6 we immediately find ourselves encountering one of the most amazing and significant miracles in all of Jesus’ ministry. The Feeding of the 5000 as it is known historically was such an important moment that, apart from only the resurrection, it is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels. Aside from the first fourteen verses of John 6, you will also find this event in Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:31-44, and Luke 9:12-17.
Since we know John was writing years after the other three Gospel authors and was in so many ways providing a record with the understanding much of his audience was already familiar with the other three accounts, I believe it’s wise for us to approach John’s account including the additional details provided by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
In many ways harmonizing these four narratives will aid us in understanding what actually happened and why it’s so significant. Our approach… As we read through John’s account I’m going to provide the additional details given to us in the other three Gospels records.
John 6:1-14, “(1) After these things… Though John doesn’t provide us with any specific context, Mark says the 12 disciples had just returned to Jesus following a season of ministry on their own. Matthew adds that Jesus had also just received news from a group of John’s disciples that he had been tragically executed by Herod. Luke go so far as to tell us the rumor on the street was that Herod was now seeking an audience with Jesus.
Jesus went over the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. Because John is writing to a church comprised of more Gentiles than Jewish believers (years later), he refers to the “Sea of Galilee” by its Roman name - the “Sea of Tiberias.” This Gentile audience also explains why in verse 4 John will clarify that “the Passover” was “a feast of the Jews.”
Though John simply records that “Jesus went over the Sea,” Matthew tells us that Jesus departed by boat seeking a “deserted place” He could be by Himself - presumably to grieve the loss of His cousin John. Mark adds that the 12 disciples also traveled with Jesus so they could enjoy a little rest and relaxation. Finally, Luke informs us that the ultimate destination for this boat trip was a deserted place located near the Galilean town of “Bethsaida.”
(2) Then a great multitude followed Jesus, because they saw His signs which He performed on those who were diseased. While the other Gospel narratives confirm John’s account that a “great multitude followed Jesus” by embarking on a trek around the Sea, Mark indicates a crowd had already amassed at this deserted location even before Jesus’ boat reached the shore. He adds this multitude “were like sheep not having a shepherd.”
Matthew records that upon His arrival Jesus was so moved with compassion concerning those He saw that He proceeds to spend the entire day healing the sick multitudes. Mark says that, in addition to healing, Jesus was also teaching the people. And Luke tells us that the subject of Jesus’ teaching on that particular day was the Kingdom of God.
(3-5) And Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat with His disciples. Now the Passover, a feast of the Jews, was near. Then Jesus lifted up His eyes, and seeing a great multitude coming toward Him, He said to Philip…
Though John is vague on specifics, all three of the other writers let us know that by the time Jesus sat with His disciples it was already “evening and the day far spent.” It’s likely as Jesus joins the disciples He now sees more people coming out to be ministered by Him.
It’s with this in mind that the disciples come to Jesus in order to address the obvious. Since this place along the shore was deserted and the hour late, they advise that Jesus send the people away so they can go into the surrounding villages to buy food. In response to their suggestion, Jesus commands the disciples to instead provide them something to eat.
It would seem interrupting an unrecorded discussion among the disciples… (5-7) Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?’ But this He said to test him, for He Himself knew what He would do. Philip answered Him, ‘Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may have a little.’”
According to Luke because Philip was from the town of Bethsaida it’s likely he ends up speaking on behalf of the other disciples. Mark also adds that, in response to these men, Jesus ends up asking the disciples how many loaves of bread they presently had with them.
(8-10) One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to Jesus, ‘There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two small fish, but what are they among so many?’ Then Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand.”
While Matthew confirms the number of men to be around 5000, he’s the only Gospel writer that mentions this number didn’t include all the women and children who were also present. It’s likely the size of the crowd could have been anywhere from 20 to 30 thousand!
Mark and Luke’s narratives add that in preparation for the miracle Jesus directs the disciples to have this large crowd divide into groups “of hundreds and in fifties” on this “green grass.”
(11-14) And Jesus took the loaves, (the other three add that He was looking up to heaven as He’s blessing the loaves and fish) and when He had given thanks He distributed them to the disciples (Matthew tells us the process involved breaking them into pieces), and the disciples to those sitting down; and likewise of the fish, as much as they wanted.
So when they were filled, Jesus said to His disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments that remain, so that nothing is lost.’ Therefore they gathered them up, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves which were left over by those who had eaten. Then those men, when they had seen the sign that Jesus did, said, ‘This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.’”
In order to unpack the deeper lessons Jesus intended to communicate through this unique miracle, let’s take a few minutes and really dive into the nuances of the story itself. With all four Gospel-narratives harmonized which yields a more complete picture, consider the mental, emotional, and physical conditions of both the disciples and Jesus.
The disciples were on cloud nine. There is no question they were ridding high! For the last couple of weeks, as Jesus continued His teaching circuit visiting these small towns around the Sea of Galilee, the disciples have been engaged in ministry on their own.
Luke 9:1-6, “Jesus called His twelve disciples together and gave them power and authority over all demons, and to cure diseases. He sent them to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick… So they departed and went through the towns, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere.” Upon their return, Mark 6:30-31 records that “these apostles gathered to Jesus and told Him all things, both what they had done and what they had taught.”
What an amazing time for these 12 men! For the first time since choosing to follow Jesus these men had seen the power of God manifest from their own lives. They witnessed God work in miraculous ways and they were in the center of the action. As His disciples these men had gotten a taste of what it was like to be Jesus in a lost world.
Equipped by Jesus and commissioned for the task, these men had been healing people and then using the opportunity to teach about the Kingdom of God. You can imagine under such a circumstance, while exuberant, these men returned spiritually and physically spent.
As such Mark says that “Jesus said to them, ‘Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.’ For there were many coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.” No doubt, while the ministry experience had been radicle, they were utterly exhausted.
I imagine there was a great relief when Jesus suggested they board a boat, cross the Sea of Galilee, and take some time to withdraw and rest. Knowing how challenging it would be to escape the craziness of ministry and constant needs of the masses, it made total sense to these men that the destination would be a “deserted place” away from the mob.
For Jesus you can also imagine receiving news of John the Baptizer’s death would have also warranted a little reprieve as well. Jesus loved John. Aside from the fact their ministries were uniquely intertwined, don’t forget they were also family. Sure, in His omniscience, Jesus knew what had happened to John even before He’d been informed. Yet, as a human being, Jesus was still subject to the same natural emotions of grief and loss we experience.
These men board the boat that day stoked! Peter packs his buggy board and has already applied to his nose a fresh coat of lime green Banana Boat. His brother Andrew has loaded up the 10x10 popup and Yeti. Nathaniel comes back from the storage locker with the beach chairs and bocce ball. Knowing the local scene, Philip is busy on AIRBNB looking for the right condo with beach front access. Levi’s bag is filled with some good reading material. All the while there’s Judas, the treasurer, trying to figure out how to make the budget work.
Imagine the look on their faces when, as the approach their destination, they realize their vacation had been hijacked. They were tired. They were longing for some RNR. They wanted a break. I’m sure there was a collective gasp and palpable disappointment when they saw the crowds already swarming what was supposed to be a deserted and quiet place.
One of the aspects of this story we cannot overlook is the reality that, while this reaction of the disciples would have been understandable all things considered, Jesus was not surprised in the slightest that the multitude had already gathered. It wasn’t as though Jesus would have been caught off guard or was even disappointed by this development.
In actuality, the case can be made that Jesus specifically led His disciples into this very situation in order to teach them something of vital importance - something so significant even John finds it necessary to repeat though it’d been recorded three times already!
In order to understand what this lesson was you have to discuss what happens when they finally arrive. We’re told Jesus was so moved with compassion over what He saw that He proceeded to spend the entire day doing two specific things: (1) He healed the sick of their diseases, and (2) He taught the people - specifically focusing on the Kingdom of God.
What strikes me as absolutely strange, especially when you keep the context for this story in mind, is what’s oddly missing? There is no mention of these twelve disciples doing anything!
In actuality, one of the details only included in John’s Gospel is in verse 3 when we’re told “Jesus went up on the mountain (this word simply means a higher place), and there He sat with His disciples.” This word “sat with” actually implies Jesus (when this day of ministry was finished) decided to join the disciples in the place they were already sitting!
Don’t miss that. Again, taking into account all four Gospel narratives, what can we conclude happened? Upon arriving at this deserted place, Jesus spends the entire day ministering while the disciples separate themselves, hike a hill, sit down, and do absolutely nothing! Their beach vacation has been wrecked and these 12 men are throwing a pity party!
Aside from the terrible optics, what makes this development even more bizarre is that this entire scene directly dovetails off a season of ministry in which these disciples had been empowered and commissioned by Jesus to do what two things? Exactly the two things Jesus was now doing… Healing people and teaching the Kingdom of God!
Of all the times these men should have been in the fray serving alongside of Jesus this was the moment! Healing the sick and teaching about the Kingdom was the two things they were equipped to do. Yet, while Jesus is busy ministering, you’ve got Peter, Andrew, Philip, John and the rest of the “A-Team” sitting up on a hill sulking that their vacation had been ruined.
Let’s get back to the story… Jesus spends the entire day healing and teaching. The sun is setting when He climbs the hill to take a seat with this crew of disappointed disciples. Then, in response to the fact “a great multitude was still coming towards Him,” the disciples advise Jesus to send them away into the surrounding towns to buy food for themselves.
I love Jesus’ immediate response to their council (Matthew 14:16), “But Jesus said to them, ‘They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.’” With all things considered it’s like Jesus is saying to them, “You guys have been sitting around all day doing absolutely nothing. So instead of sending them away, why don’t y’all step up and feed them.”
It’s at this point I can see this crew privately huddle together to discuss how in the world they were going to feed such a crowd when Jesus finally cuts into the conversation by asking Philip where the best place to buy bread would be in Bethsaida (which was his hometown). As John records, Jesus asked this question in order to “test” Philip and likely the others.
What’s interesting is that by this point in their discussion the disciples have figured they had roughly “two hundred denarii” in the reserve fund to purchase bread. Note: A “denarii” was a single days wage. The disciples reasoned they had about 7 months salary currently on hand.
In response to Jesus’ question and their calculations, Philip steps forward to break the bad news. Verse 7, “Philip answered Jesus, ‘Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may have a little.’” You see Philip is arguing that their resources were simply insufficient to do what Jesus was asking of them.
It’s as though Philip is saying, “Jesus you want us to feed this incredible mass of people. Well, we’ve looked over the books and have 200 denarii in the account. And yet, by our estimations, this is only going to buy enough bread for people to have a cracker, not a meal.”
Once again I love Jesus’ response… In Mark 6:38, “He said to them, ‘How many loaves do you have? Go and see.’ And when they found out they said, ‘Five loaves, and two fish.’” Keep in mind Mark’s account is that of Peter which makes this added detail of John so funny.
In verses 8-9 John gives the reader a brand new insight into what’s really happening. He writes, “One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Jesus, ‘There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two small fish, but what are they among so many?’”
As Peter recalls the story he fails to mention where his brother Andrew had gotten the five loaves and two fish. But, writing years after the fact, the Apostle John wants to make sure everyone knew Peter and his brother Andrew had stolen the loaves and fish from a kid!
What makes this entire scene so fascinating is that we have two needs being presented. The first was this initial multitude of sick that these men were actually equipped to minister too. And yet, because they were tired, they sat on the sidelines and did absolutely nothing!
Then you have the very practical need of 5,000 people (which is probably more in the range of 20 to 30K) who are hungry and need to be fed. Jesus commands them to do something about it, but they are completely ill-equipped for the task. Their resources were not sufficient.
The truth is that the best they could muster was really nothing. They were unable. Jesus asked them what they had, but the reality was they hadn’t packed any food for themselves. The “five barley loaves” (a poor man’s bread) and “two fish” (two sardines) they had taken from a kid! What a total embarrassment to admit to Jesus they had come up empty.
And yet, look at what Jesus does… In response to Andrew’s statement, “But what are they among so many?” Matthew records that Jesus commands the disciples to “bring the loaves and fish to Him.” Then “He took them” and “looking up to heaven” Jesus “blessed” them (or as John writes, “He gave thanks”) before “breaking them” and “distributing them to the disciples” to be given to the multitude. In the end, not only did everyone have “as much as they wanted,” but there were “twelve baskets left over” for the disciples!
It would appear from the construct of the narrative that the miracle of multiplying the bread and fish actually took place as Jesus was “breaking them” into pieces. In a profound senes the miracle occurred in the hands of the Creator. Again, this is not that crazy if you already believe Jesus created all things out of nothing. If Jesus has the power to speak something into existence, it’s not farfetched to believe He can multiply what already existed.
Now that we’re clear on what actually took place in this story, with our remaining time, I want to discuss the larger lessons Jesus is communicating to these disciples. Once again, of all of the miracles recorded in the Gospels, the overarching lessons behind the Feeding of the 5000 were of such importance the authors and by extension the Holy Spirit wanted this story repeated four times so we wouldn’t miss them.
Lesson #1: Even the ministry we’re equipped for still demands a complete reliance on God’s strength to be effective. I really am struck by the fact these 12 men failed in the one area of ministry they had been equipped to do. While they had just come off a season of ministry where they healed the sick and taught the people about the Kingdom of God, when given a fresh opportunity to use this equipping, they bailed and sat on the sidelines.
In the one area they were able they proved worthless… Why is this? It seems, though equipped for this type of service, there was one aspect of the ministry they didn’t fully understand. God’s equipping powered by human strength will always prove ineffective.
Why were these 12 men on the ministry sidelines as opposed to being in the fray serving alongside of Jesus? Even though they were able and gifted for the task, they were tired, burned up, and tapped out because they had been relying on their own strength, ability, and power instead of the Lord’s. This is the first lesson these men never forgot and nor should we… God’s equipping for the ministry also demands His empowering to be effective.
Christian, you may be naturally gifted by God in a particular area of service, but if you only rely on that natural gifting and don’t fully depend on the power of the Holy Spirit not only will you fail to be effective, but in the end you’ll quickly grow weary, depleted, and quit.
In their book “The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb” co-authors Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel unpack this idea. They write, “Ministry is a call to embrace our weakness, not to actualize our abilities… It is in the areas of our lives where we are most able, the places we think we are strong, where we are most often called into weakness. It is in our strengths where we think we can avoid abiding in Christ, where we sow to the flesh rather than abide by the Spirit. It is in our strengths where we trust our own personal savvy rather than the calling of God.” They later write, “Operating from our strengths is practicing atheism.”
Lesson #2: When God gives a directive it requires we factor in His involvement. Jesus gives these men a clear and undeniable mission - feed the multitude. The ministry calling wasn’t in question - The Word of Jesus indiscernible. Jesus spoke and directed His disciples to do something very specific and everyone was on the same page - zero confusion!
What hits me is how the disciples approach the task they’d been given because we tend to inexact the same methodology. Jesus directs them to feed the people, and immediately they pull up Quickbooks in order to see how much money they had on hand (200 denarii) before calculating how much bread the budget would allow them to purchase.
Once that was determined, they strategize and research how they might be able to make all of this work (everyone could have a bite or two). Finally though, they reach the conclusion their resources were woefully insufficient to do what Jesus had just instructed. They actually come back to Jesus and say what He was calling them to do was impossible.
Jesus gave them a ministry directive to feed the multitude and these men evaluated their ability to accomplish the task using their own resources. And the truth is that their conclusion was absolutely accurate! Their resources were completely insufficient! And yet, the problem was that they failed to process all the data… They didn’t account for Jesus’ involvement!
This is why Jesus eventually asks them, “Well, what do you have?” Sadly, to avoid complete embarrassment Andrew steals a few loaves of bread and a couple of sardines from a kid to present to Jesus. Even then Andrew concedes, “But what are they among so many?” Never forget… God will always push you beyond your resources so you’ll discover His!
There is no question this moment, when Jesus took the loaves and fish and fed the 5000, never left these men because of the lesson it seared into their hearts and minds… Friend, when Jesus asks you to do something or gives a vision for ministry, He’s not asking you to figure out a way to get the job done. Instead, He’s inviting you to be involved in a work He’s about to accomplish if you’re willing to give to Him your meager resources!
Lesson #3: True ministry centers upon the distribution and stewarding of God’s work. There is no doubting the ministry roles on that particular day. Jesus preformed the miraculous work of providing enough bread and fish to feed the crowd and the disciples acted as the conduit by which the crowds received the fruit of Jesus’ labor.
Don’t miss this because so many get this wrong… The disciples job in this amazing ministry was distribution, not manufacturing! Jesus produced a work He then entrusted to His disciples to distribute to the people. Beyond this, Jesus also charged them with the task of “gathering up the fragments that remain, so that nothing was lost.” Their role in the ministry - distribution and stewarding of the work Jesus had given to them to give to others.
The implications of this hits me hard as a pastor… So often, in the ministry Jesus invites us to participate in, we feel a burden to make something happen - especially when we feel as though nothing is! As a pastor I can falsely believe the lie that it’s my job to make this thing work. That the success of the ministry itself is incumbent on me and my performance.
This is another reality the book “The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb” has been challenging me personally… “The underlying assumption of the way we tend to do our church services is that we’re putting on a performance, and if we’re putting on a performance, then you want people who are stellar… This is one of the things that crushes pastors, the idea that every single Sunday they have to put on a performance. God’s provision for us and for his work through us is adequate. We do not have to make it happen. We must stop shouldering the burden of outcomes. These are safely in His hands.”
As it pertains to the fundamental question “What is ministry? Christian philosopher Dallas Willard answers, “Ministry is bringing the life of God, as it would be understood in terms of Jesus and His kingdom, into the lives of other people… You are a carrier of the power of God, the kingdom of God, and the grace of God; and so you watch that work with people and try not to get in the way… You bring the power of God, the truth of God, and the presence of Jesus into the lives of other people and you watch it work.” We’re simply conduits!
Lesson #4: There is no greater demonstration of Jesus’ power than when He uses our insufficient resources to accomplish an improbable work. Imagine the reaction of the disciples as Jesus began to multiply the bread and fish! Though it’s hard to know if the crowd really grasped what was taking place, the same cannot be said for the disciples. Because they were directly included in the work Jesus was doing, these men had a front row seat for the miracle. They saw it! Again, this story stuck with them for the lesson He was teaching.
Christian, I know this is a very difficult concept to learn, but please know… There is no better mechanism for your faith in Jesus to increase than when you witness Him work through your weakness. You see it’s often our very ableness, abilities, natural giftings, prowess, intellect, or strength that leads us into a false sense that somehow God’s work is dependent upon our involvement. Note: The same cannot be said when we allow God to work in the presence of our inabilities, shortcomings, inadequacies, frailties, and weakness.
Here’s the inescapable truth concerning ministry… If “God’s work” can’t continue without your involvement, is it really God’s work? These disciples knew they were apart of a true work of God, because if Jesus wasn’t the one working nothing would be happening!
Lesson #5: Though a work of Jesus will include your involvement, it will always result in His exaltation. Notice what resulted from a true work of Christ… The workers didn’t get any of the credit! Instead, John 6:14, “Then those men, when they had seen the sign that Jesus did, said, ‘This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.’” Jesus was glorified!
I really do believe the easiest way to evaluate whether a ministry is a work of God or a work of man is to take a step back and see who’s being exalted. In this story no one would have even dreamed of praising these disciples (and they wouldn’t have dared receive the praise), because there was no question it had been Jesus who did something amazing.
Lesson #6: The greatest ministry we have on earth is feeding hungry men the Bread of Life. In a few verses John will include an amazing sermon given by Jesus concerning the Bread of Life, and He does this within the context of this very miracle. In actuality, John is the only Gospel author who includes this narrative - which is likely the primary reason He records the Feeding of the 5000. For the sake of time we’ll get to this in the coming weeks…
As we close, let me quickly recap these six lessons: (1) Even the ministry we’re equipped for still demands a complete reliance on God’s strength to be effective. (2) When God gives a directive it requires we factor in His involvement. (3) True ministry centers upon the distribution and stewarding of God’s work. (4) There is no greater demonstration of Jesus’ power than when He uses our insufficient resources to accomplish an improbable work. (5) Though a work of Jesus will include your involvement, it will always result in His exaltation. (6) The greatest ministry we have on earth is feeding hungry men the Bread of Life.