Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

101. The Feeding of the Four Thousand (Matt. 15:29-39; Mark 8:1-10)*

Jesus was back once more in the district on the east side of Galilee where earlier he had healed the man possessed with a legion of devils. No doubt the witness of that grateful man was now considerably responsible for the great eagerness of the people to see and hear Jesus. They, who formerly had required Jesus to get away from their locality without delay, now could not be persuaded to leave him in peace. Matthew's repetitious language (v.30,31)seems to imply a sustained campaign of healing as well as teaching.

It was high summer, and the people could live out of doors without discomfort —except in one respect: such food as they may have had with them was now eaten, and by the time the third day came they were desperately hungry. On the earlier well-remembered occasion Jesus had been moved with compassion for the hungry people when they had been with him less than a whole day. Perhaps it was the discouraging outcome of the feeding of the five thousand which now held him back from providing similar help to this crowd. He talked to the disciples about the problem, seeking to teach them not only his own great concern for the well-being of this crowd of strangers, but also the wisdom of carefully weighing pros and cons as to the best way of coping with the difficulties to be met with in their own later ministration.

Doubtless they recalled the earlier miracle. Indeed, it had probably been in their minds for the past two days. Yet, strangely enough, their only reaction was: "Whence can a man satisfy these with bread here in the wilderness?"

A Gentile Multitude

There are several hints in the record that this was a Gentile crowd. It was in Decapolis, an outstandingly Gentile district. The record of the miracles of healing there ends with the words: "and they glorified the God of Israel" (Mt.l5:31; cp. ls.49:3,6). Had it been a Jewish multitude, the obvious expression to use would be: "they glorified God." Also, in view of the highly undesirable outcome of the earlier miracle of providing food, it is difficult to imagine Jesus allowing a situation to develop in which he would feel himself under pressure (from his own feelings) to enact the wonder a second time. He would have foreseen this contingency, and have sent the crowd away long ago.

It may be presumed, then, that the disciples assumed no miracle of feeding would take place simply because the crowd was Gentile. And had they not quite recently heard their Master say: "It is not meet to take the children's bread and castittodogs"(Mt.15:26).

The Lord's Compassion

However, Jesus was not only intensely sympathetic towards these patient loyal folk, but, lest his disciples should fail to observe his distress on their account, he told them so: "I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now been with me (this is the operative clause) three days, and have nothing to eat: and if I send them away fasting to their home, they will faint in the way: and some of them are come from far" (Mk.8:2,3). It was a pointed attempt to impress on the twelve his own sympathetic attitude to others, even though they be Gentiles. It was also an exhortation to those who today minister at the Breaking of Bread lest they send their brethren away fasting, to faint in the way!

There is, perhaps, special point in Mark's use of the phrase: "they come from far", for instead of the commonplace Greek word there is here another which seems always to imply (from its context) "God at work" (eg. Jn.6:37; 8:42; Heb.lO:7,9,37etc). Increasingly in this last year of the ministry Jesus was having the problem of a gospel for Gentiles thrust upon him.

As on the earlier occasion, he bade the twelve muster all their resources of food: seven loaves, and a few small fishes. Elisha's disciple was appalled at having only twenty loaves for a hundred men (2 Kgs.4:42,43). Then how for would these seven loaves go round a hungry multitude of four thousand? No matter! The people were now told to sit down-but the narrative makes no mention this time of their being organized in companies. But thereafter the miracle proceeded, in its main details, exactly as the other had done. The record, in both Matthew and Mark appears to be framed to emphasize the close resemblance: "he took the loaves, and gave thanks, and brake, and gave to his disciples to set before them, and they set them before the people."ln other words,this repetition underscores the truth that the gospel to the Gentiles is as important as that proclaimed to the Jews-and it is exactly the same gospel!

Meaningful Details

There is one small but significant difference to be noted. Whereas, before, Jesus himself distributed the fishes to the multitude (Mk.6:41], this time this task also was delegated to the twelve. There was meaning and intention behind all this. Whereas Jesus himself had a ministry to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel", the work of taking the gospel to the Gentiles was to be entirely a responsibility of the disciples. In later days they would recall these miracles, so pregnant with meaning, and appreciate more the spiritual lessons behind them.

It is noteworthy, also, that he "gave thanks'" for the loaves, but he "blessed" the fishes. Here there is no distinction in procedure, but two ways of saying the same thing (as a careful comparison in the feeding of the five thousand makes clear: (Lk.9:16; Jn.6:ll). The fact needs to be well learned, that the act of thanking God for providing food is the means through which God's added blessing is imparted.


Thus this great assembly of four thousand Gentiles, "besides women and children", were privileged to receive the Bread of Heaven idol day. Again, there was scrupulous care to gather up the fragments of food. This time seven baskets were filled-a much larger quantity than the twelve baskets' full from the earlier miracles, This may be inferred from the different words used for "basket". At the first miraculous meal the baskets were the smallish kind in common use among the Jews. But now seven man-sized hampers were filled with the food left over. This basket was the sort used to let down the apostle Paul when he made his escape from Damascus (2Cor.11:33).

On the instruction of Jesus, the crowd dispersed, with plenty to talk about on the long walk home. Jesus himself, with the twelve, embarked in the fishing boat and crossed the lake to Magdala. Mark calls the place Dalmanutha, a name which the experts can apparently make no sense of. Yet if the two names are put together they are immediately intelligible: Migdolm'nath means "The watchtower of the territory". At ancient Magdala, the westernmost point of the waters of Galilee, the remains of a watchtower have been located. Perhaps Jesus and his party landed there because a difficult wind made a course to Capernaum, further north, less practicable.

Notes: Matthew 15:29-39        

Remarkably, there is no mention at all of teaching, only healing.

The dumb to speak. By putting this first Mt. seems to show awareness of the miracle in Mk. 7:32 ff.

The maimed to be whole. Missing limbs restored? Consider the implications of this with reference to Mk.9:42,45.
I will not... means: I do not wish to send them away (implying: as you asked me to on the former occasion; 14:15).
Whence... ? Num.ll:22; Ps.78:20-32; 106:210.
A few fishes. Fish and bread in7:9; 14:19; Jn21:9.
In this miracle, fewer people, more food to start with, and more left-overs. Suppose Mt. had preserved this account and omitted 14:15-21, what a field day the critics would have had, emphasizing wrong timing, distorted numbers, different kinds of baskets etc! It is interesting to note how much more emphatic Mt. is here, than Mk: they did all eat. . . seven baskets full. .. 4000 besides women and children. Remarkable too that with large baskets of surplus food the twelve were almost immediately without; 16:7.
Magdala. Not Magadan (utterly unknown), as some modern versions choose to read, following an inferior text.

Previous Index Next