6 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 signs he had performed by healing the sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Festival 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.
7 Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”
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?”
10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 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.
(John 6:1-11 NIV)
As we move from chapter 5 to chapter 6 of John’s gospel, John lets us know that there is a substantial time gap between his last recorded event and this one (verse 1). In verse 4, John tells us that this was near the Jewish Passover time. This Passover would be the second of the three Passovers that Jesus would celebrate during His ministry years.
If you have ever attended church as an adult or Sunday School as a child, you have likely heard this story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. This story is included in all four gospels (Matthew 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17), and we can see the entire story from the sum of the gospel accounts.
John tells us that the crowds followed Jesus because He healed their sick. The crowds knew Jesus as a healer, and they all wanted a miracle in their life or the life of someone near and dear to them. It was late in the day, and the crowds had not dispersed to find food or shelter for the night. Since they were near Bethsaida, Philip’s hometown (John 1:44) for local advice on where to buy food. Philip responds not with where, but with what – they did not have the money to buy that much food. Remember that the headcount of five thousand was men only; there were likely as many as twenty thousand there, after counting women and children as well as the men.
As we understand this context, picture the young boy’s lunch that he offered to Jesus as a child-sized meal – five saltine cracker-sized biscuits (loaves) and two sardine-sized fish. This small offering would barely be an appetizer for an adult. And Jesus deemed this enough and fed the crowds with these meager portions.
So what’s the story behind the story? What context have we missed in our modern culture?
First, this scene is reminiscent of God feeding the Israelites when they were in the desert. God provided manna and quail each day for over a million people. Feeding five thousand was child’s play compared to caring for the Israelites under Moses’ leadership.
Second, barley was considered animal food, not human food. This little boy’s family must have been quite poor to feed their kids barley and sardine-sized fish. But yet, Jesus redeemed the child’s lunch and fed the masses.
Third, Jesus gave thanks for the food. Jesus just added His blessing to what was available.
There are so many faith lessons to be learned from this passage, with more to come when we finish the story.
How many times do we discount what we have to give, either of our material substance or ourselves (our skills, abilities, talents, etc.)? Yes, some give out of their abundance, but God wants to take what we have and bless it and multiply it, not for our selfish greed, but to give it away to others. He in turn then takes care of us.
God loves to get us in the place where we cannot meet the overwhelming need in front of us, like Philip trying to feed the masses. It is only then that we will yield to Him and allow Him to fulfill what we cannot do on our own.
May we learn to live within the limits of our resources, admit our inadequacy and seek His provision each day. A bold step of faith but one to which He adds His blessing and we can receive in grateful praise and thanksgiving.