Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

92. The Feeding of the Five Thousand (Mark 6:30-46; Matt 14:13-23; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15)*

Having concluded their mission of apprenticeship to the preaching of the gospel, the twelve returned to Jesus to report progress (Mk, Lk). Appropriately, it is the only time that Mark refers to them as apostles.

Meantime, the Lord himself had not been indulging in a holiday, for “when Jesus had made an end of commanding his twelve disciples, he departed thence to teach and preach in their cities” (Mt. 11:1).

This return of the twelve is mentioned so briefly that some expositors have inferred a certain degree of failure about their first evangelism. But the gospels are always reticent about any achievements of the twelve, as individuals or as a company, so the conclusion does not follow.

Need for a break

Indeed, it might rather be that the crowds now besetting Jesus were, many of them, drawn to the Lord through the apostles’ witness concerning him: “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat” (Mk). Evidently as some in the crowd went away, feeling the need for rest after long and concentrated attention on Christ and his teaching, others arrived, so that there was never any easing of the pressure.

An accumulation of reasons combine to explain why there was this tremendous pressure of popular attention. The death of John would inevitably lead many of his disciples to gravitate towards Jesus. The preaching campaign of the twelve must have brought many more to the one they proclaimed. The recent very sensational miracles added to the pressure of popular attention. And the Passover holiday, just coming on, set people free to see and hear Jesus all the more.

Jesus knew his disciples were in need of relaxation, so he got them aboard the fishing boat. “Come ye yourselves apart (the Greek is specially emphatic) into a desert place, and rest awhile” (Mk). Not only were they in need of peace and quiet, so also was he. The news had just reached them of the brutal and senseless execution of John the Baptist, and the Lord felt this very keenly. Besides the ruthless taking away of one of his best friends, it was a sinister foreshadowing of the fate he too must suffer (cp. Mt. 14:12).

So they sailed for a quiet locality, which is precisely identifiable, near Bethsaida Julias at the north-east corner of the lake (Lk). Matthew’s word here means that “he cleared out”, or even “he fled”. The physical and emotional pressures of the ministry were becoming too great. But, as events proved, that day and the next they were to intensify to the point of crisis.

Persistent Crowds

As the now famous little ship set course across the lake, it was a simple matter for multitudes along its shores to recognize it and tell what place Jesus was heading for. So offer they had gone a mile or two, it would be obvious to all in the boat that this attempt at retreat was hardly likely to succeed.

They could see the multitudes hurrying round the shore (Mk) so as to be with them when they landed. The people were undeterred either by the distance (five or six miles) or by the need to ford the Jordan where it entered the lake. Indeed some evidently took with them their sick and suffering friends in hope of healing. Consequently, when Jesus landed and went up the hillside with his disciples, there was already a crowd to greet him (Mk), and it grew in numbers steadily.

Lifting up his eyes, Jesus could see a great multitude coming to him (Jn). The additional reason for this, supplied by John, was that Passover was coming on. The Greek text there seems to imply two different crowds, one of them probably being a great caravan of Passover pilgrims coming down from the north (from Damascus?). These found time to stay and listen and see: “they beheld the signs which he did on them that were diseased” (Jn). The word used here suggests the fascination or enjoyment of an unusual spectacle. Yet Jesus welcomed (Lk) even those who came for such inferior motives. Any other man would have showed signs of vexation at the frustration of his own need and intention.

Sheep without a Shepherd

But not so Jesus, for “he was moved with compassion towards them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd” (Mk). This expression is derived by Mark, with set purpose, from the account in Numbers (27:17) of Moses’ appeal to God to provide for the people an adequate leader to take his own place. His prayer was answered by the consecration of another Jesus (Joshua) who would bring Israel out of the wilderness and lead them into their inheritance. Now, once again, here were the people in the wilderness (both literally and spiritually), with another Joshua to provide for them better than Moses did and to give them prospect of a better inheritance.

All four narratives of this occasion echo repeatedly, both in phrase and idea, the experience • of Israel being cared for in the wilderness (see Notes for details)!

So Jesus “spake unto them of the kingdom of God” (Lk). This, almost certainly, had been the enthusiastic emphasis of the twelve during their mission. Many of the crowd now gathered here had doubtless come in response to that message.

And now they heard the same appealing message from the Leader himself.

Within an hour or two they were to find it proved in their own experience that for those who seek first the kingdom of God all other things needful would be added unto them (Mt. 6:33). They had not only the comfort of the message but also healing and food. The powers of the kingdom were demonstrated before their eyes: “he was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick” (Mt). In describing this Luke significantly uses a word which the New Testament often appropriates to describe spiritual regeneration as well as physical cure (e.g. Mt. 13:15; Lk. 4:18; 5:17; Heb. 12:13; 1 Pet. 2:24; Jas. 5:16?).

The Need for Food

Meantime, so it is possible to infer, the twelve were away from the crowd getting the rest Jesus had intended for them, and (most probably) having a meal together.

The day wore on. With deliberate allusion to the sacrifice of the Passover lambs “between the two evenings” (Ex. 12:6 mg), Matthew mentions the onset of evening twice over (v. 15, 23), two or three hours apart. (On the day “Christ our Passover” died, there were literally two evenings!).
So it was somewhere about four in the afternoon when the twelve came to Jesus insisting that he call it a day: “This is a lonely place, and time’s up (Mt). Send the crowd away so that they may go into the villages and buy themselves food (Mk) and get lodging (Lk)”.

This very practical and eminently reasonable suggestion may, even so, have been spoken with impatience, for had not the crowd interfered with their holiday? However Jesus set it aside. Once again, as on so many occasions (e.g. Jn.4:31-34), the exhilaration of the work and his eagerness to use every opportunity to the full made him reluctant to have done. “They need not go away”, he said, “you give them something to eat” (Mt).

Earlier in the day, as it would seem, Jesus had tested matter-of-fact Philip with the question: “Whence shall we buy bread that these may eat?” (Jn). One denarius would provide a day’s meals for about ten people, so “two hundred penny-worth would hardly be adequate for such a crowd as this. And, in any case, where in that empty countryside were they to find such an immense supply of bread?

Now the apostles declared themselves beaten with the problem.

They took up again Philip’s suggestion about trying to buy “two hundred penny-worth of bread”. But instead Jesus steered their thinking in a different direction (Is.55:1). “How many loaves have ye? Go and see” (Mk). Soon Andrew was back to report. They themselves had no food left at all, but they had found a boy who was willing to give or sell his own small store of victuals—five barley loaves and two fishes (John’s record uses the word meaning sauce or appetiser, which is precisely what the fishes were for). “But”, Andrew added, “what are they among so many?”

Few as they were, their precise number was not without importance, for in a later repetition of this situation there were seven loaves for Gentile disciples (Mt.15:34), making twelve for the New Israel faithful to the Son of David in the time of his rejection (1 Sam. 21:3, 6).

The Miracle

“Bring them here to me”, (Mt) Jesus now commanded, and he then went on to issue instructions that the people sit on the grassy stretch between lake and hillside in fifties and hundreds (Mk). The suggestion that they were so organized to facilitate counting is almost certainly wrong, for it is hard to believe that Jesus was interested in knowing the exact magnifying power of his miracle. The idea which many in the crowd would leap at was that of military formations for this seems to have been the normal army unit in Old Testament times (2 Sam. 15:1; 1 Kgs. 1:5; 2 Kgs. 1:9-14). So there would be even greater excitement among those who had already talked openly about replacing the despised king Herod (who had just beheaded their wilderness prophet) with Jesus, the son of David. But this fifties-and-hundreds arrangement — itself calling for a considerable feat of organization—was intended as a reminder of Moses who numbered Israel in the wilderness according to this method (Num.2). (Mark’s word for “companies” later became one of the early church’s favourite names for the Breaking of Bread).

The people did as they were bidden, expressing in this way their faith that their needs would somehow be met through the powers of the teacher of Nazareth. The word used by Mark describes the brightly-dressed groups of people as looking like so many flowerbeds in the meadow (cp. Num. 24:5,6): “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures... He restoreth my soul” (Ps. 23:2, 3).

Comment has often been made about the casual harmony — the hallmark of truth — between Mark’s mention of “green grass” and John’s time note that “the passover was nigh”. In this country grass is always green, but in sun-scorched Israel only in the spring is it both green (Mk) and abundant (Jn). This is not the only undesigned coincidence to be traced in the narratives of this incident.

However, Mark did not take the trouble to mention “green grass” merely to present another incidental credential for his gospel, but rather by allusion to Gen. 1:30 to give a further reminder of a New Creation now under way.

When they were seated and expectant, before them all Jesus took the loaves (Jn), and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks for the food (Jn) and sought a blessing on it (Lk). Then he broke each loaf and for a long time kept on distributing quantities of food to the twelve who promptly took it in their baskets to be shared out to the various groups assigned to them (Lk). Similarly with the fishes, except that this time Jesus personally shared out the marvellous increase to the seated companies. Everyone knew that they had been the sharers in a mighty miracle. The reality of it was something all would talk about to their dying day.

There has been a fair amount of guesswork as to just when those small barley loaves were multiplied. Some opine that the entire miracle happened as the Lord gave thanks. But if it is permitted to argue back from the undoubted symbolism of the miracle, then is it not likely that first the Lord multiplied the food enough to fill the basket of each apostle, and then when they came to distribute to this group and that (each ecclesia!) there was further amazing increase in quantity.

Further spiritual significance is suggested by the phrasing: “he blessed, and brake, and gave to the disciples”, so very like the description of the Last Supper (cp Mt. 14:19 and 26:26). Jesus himself gave this miracle a sacramental exposition next day (Jn. 6:23).

The loaves were leavened barley bread, the food of the poorest people and made from the last of the previous year’s harvest. The new harvest would begin to be cut during the ensuing week (Lev. 23:10, 11). After mention of the five porches where the preceding “sign” described in John’s gospel was wrought, these five loaves suggest a similar comparison with the books of the Law. But of the food given through Moses the people had complained: “Our soul loatheth this light bread” (Num. 21:5). Yet for those who are prepared to go away from the world and join him in the wilderness, Jesus adds to the old dispensation that which makes it palatable and appetizing and abundantly satisfying to those who know their own need. A “sign”, truly! And there is much more to it than this, as will be seen by and by.

The Fragments.

It was, doubtless, much to the surprise of all that Jesus at last gave instructions to the twelve to gather up all the food which had not been consumed. When such miracles of plenty could be performed at will, what need to be so punctilious about the “left-overs”? What a contrast with the manna given each day in the wilderness! Then every attempt, except at the week-end, to keep this God-given food for later use proved worse than useless. “It bred worms and stank” (Ex. 16:20). Thus those who sought to make the Law of Moses an aim in itself found their efforts ending always and only in corruption and self- condemnation.

But now Jesus added his own personal gracious elucidation and exaltation of the principles of the Law (Gal. 3:18-24). Now all was valuable, both what had come down through Moses and the Prophets and that which Jesus and his apostles were to reveal. So: “Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost” (Jn).

On the lowest level it was a rebuke of the sin of waste, even though there are times when God’s providence seems limitless. It was a safeguard against superstition — lest anyone should carry a piece of the food home, intending to keep it as a relic. It taught thoughtfulness for others — how many poor people would be glad of those broken meats later on! Especially, however, it taught the value of every crumb of the Bread of Life — there is no aspect of the character of Jesus, no detail of his work or teaching, which can be dispensed with. All is of incomparable worth.

Most of all, this gathering up of the bread and fish reminded the people that it was to be thought of as like the manna in the golden pot (Heb.9:4) which never corrupted. There is a splendid “contradiction” in that phrase “a golden pot”. It means earthenware covered with gold, and points to a unique combination of frail humanity and divine glory. Jesus, Son of man, Son of God. It may be taken as certain that in later days the early church made much of that eloquent detail: “twelve baskets, filled’ — twelve men preserving and interpreting Christ to their brethren. And when the numbers in that early ecclesia reached five thousand (Acts.4:4), the fact was deemed to be specially noteworthy.


The reaction of the multitude to this mighty miracle was just what the Lord wanted, in one respect. In another it could hardly have been more wrong that it was. “This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world” (Jn). The allusion was, of course, to Moses’ prophecy of the coming of a prophet like himself (Dt. 18:18). This miraculous provision of food in the wilderness was as plain a sign as could be wished.

So there was a great surge of enthusiasm among them for making this Jesus King of the Jews there and then, whether he wanted it or he didn’t. Was he not of the house of David? Did he not talk to them unceasingly about the kingdom foretold in the prophets. Had he not shown them in his miracles all the tokens of God’s promised Messiah? True, he was not at all as nationalistic and warlike as they would like him to be, but there were plenty among them who could make up for such deficiencies. So, in intense excitement, “they were about to take him by force, to make him king” (Jn).

What dramatic irony there was in this queer situation! At the next Passover “he says that he himself is Christ a King” (Lk. 23:2) was to be the main Jewish accusation by which the nation hoped to be rid of him!


This move to thrust political greatness upon Jesus presented him with one of the most taxing situations of his life. For himself it was the third temptation over again: “Forget the cross. The crown can be yours now, without effort.” It was a sorely-tried Jesus who now found that by his own gracious loving-kindness and compassion he had created for himself an almost overpowering temptation. For eager Jewish blood flowed in his veins. All his sympathies were with the people. And when he thought of all the good he could do them when ruling in Jerusalem, and of all the gracious uplifting influence he could then bring to bear on this unspiritual people, the prize dangled before his eyes had an allurement not easily thrust aside.

Worse still was the visible effect on the twelve. They were dazzled by the prospect far more than he. But how much of his balanced outlook and strength of character did they have to help them withstand it? Jesus saw that it was touch and go. At any moment now the twelve could be swept helplessly from their spiritual moorings by the sudden violent racing tide of nationalistic spirit which swamped both reason and godliness. Matthew’s record (14:22 Gk) very neatly implies what John says explicitly — that the crowd were creating a problem.

Drastic Action

So without staying to ponder the situation, without any attempt at remonstration, he hustled the twelve back into the boat and peremptorily bade them make sail for Bethsaida by Capernaum. Conditions were far from promising for the voyage. The last hour of daylight was badly obscured by banking clouds in the west. A lively wind — ‘Sure to get a lot worse’ said those fishermen — was already whipping the tops off the waves. It would be a wild night. But Jesus would not be gainsaid. So fearing his anger more than a bad crossing, they pushed off.

As soon as they were under way, Jesus turned and dismissed the crowd, leaving them to seek lodging in the nearest villages or to make use of the Passover full moon for the weary walk home at the end of a day in which only excitement and his gift of food had kept them going.

This dismissal took no time at all, and Jesus set out up the hillside at his strongest pace to seek the solitude of “the mountain” and the spiritual re-inforcement through prayer to his Father, which he was now so desperately in need of. Seeing him go, the crowd melted away. Soon the mellow light of the moon looked down on scores of tired folk slowly picking their way once again round the head of the lake, on a small fishing boat tossing on a choppy sea whilst brawny men pulled hard and gloomily at the heavy oars — and on a Son of man high on a mountain side, kneeling in prayer and slipping into a relaxed and quiet spirit as his strength came again; (cp. Lk. 5:16; 6:12; 9:28; Mk. 1:35).

Was there ever a day like this?

Notes Lk.9:10-17

Bethsaida Not to be confused with the Bethsaida, the fishing suburb of Capernaum, which was the home of Peter and Andrew (Mk. 6:45 = Jn. 6:17).

Departed. “Fled”, according to LXX usage. The hungry men (Mk. 6:31) would manage a snack during the crossing (if they had any food on board). Otherwise, v. 12, 13 may be taken to imply that it was then that the twelve had a meal, but not Jesus.
Filled. s.w. Ps. 107:9.

After this there is a fairly considerable break in Luke’s record. The third gospel has nothing to match Mk. 6:45 - 8:26.


Passover. This indicates a one-year gap between ch. 5 and ch. 6
A lad. Was he the only one in that great crowd who had food? Or had he just returned with this after being sent by one of the apostles to the nearest village?
The men. Then were the women and children in separate groups?

Special note

A remarkable number of details in these gospel records recall (by design?) the experience of Israel in the wilderness. These are brought together here.

Mk. 6:33
On foot. Num. 11:21
Sheep not having a shepherd. Num. 27:17
Hundreds and fifties. Num. 2.
Mt. 14:15, 23
The two evenings. Ex.12:6 mg.
Besides women and children. Num. 1:46
Lk. 9:12
Victuals; s.w. Ex. 12:39; Ps. 78:25
Twelve baskets full: s.w. Ex. 16:12
Jn. 6:7
Sufficient. s.w. Ex. 12:4. Philip’s desperation matches that of Moses: Num. 11:11, 22.
Jn. 6:12
Fragments. Contrast Ex. 16: 19, 20
The prophet that should come into the world. Dt. 18:15, 18.
41, 61
Murmuring: cp. Ex. 16:7, 8.

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