The Feeding of the Fifteen Thousand
Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. is a Bible teacher at Believers Chapel, Dallas, Texas.
This is the fourth in his series of studies on the seven signs of our Lord Jesus Christ recorded in John’s Gospel prior to His death, burial and resurrection (see John 20:30-31).
Scripture Reading: John 6:1-14
This incident in the ministry of the Lord Jesus, usually entitled, “The Feeding of the Five Thousand,” may just as well, perhaps better, be called, “The Feeding of the Fifteen Thousand.” In the Matthaean account of the incident we read concerning the number of people who were there, “And they that had eaten were about five thousand MEN, besides women and children” (cf. 14:21). The use of the Greek term andres, rendered “men,” confirms the fact that there were well over five thousand people there. The term andres refers to men as males, and the mention of the women and children also makes it plain that there were probably at the least about fifteen thousand individuals present for this magnificent instance of the miracle-working power of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The miracle is the only miracle of the Lord Jesus that is recorded in all four gospels. One might justifiably conclude from this that it is in the mind of the Holy Spirit, the author of Scripture, an important sign.
Further, in the Johannine account the sign is followed by a sermon, dealing principally with the spiritual significance of the feeding of the fifteen thousand. And in the sermon there is the mention of one of John’s famous “I am” statements of the Lord. In verse thirty-five we read, “And Jesus said unto them, I am the Bread of Life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” One may say, then, without fear of contradiction that the sign and the sermon touch on some of the great and tremendous claims for deity and divine revelation that Jesus made.
Many liberal views of Christ have been espoused in the last century or so. There is Renan’s “Amiable Carpenter,” Tolstoi’s “Spiritual Anarchist,” Albert Schweitzer’s “Imminent Cataclysmist,” Joseph Klausner’s “Unorthodox Rabbi,” and Rudolph Otto’s “Charismatic Evangelist.” None of these views approach the view of Scripture, which set Him forth as the Son of God. William Temple many years ago wrote some devastating words concerning liberal interpretations of Jesus. Speaking in connection with the prejudices of scholars against the deity of Christ, he wrote, “It was held that the simple preacher of love towards God and man could be discerned behind the Marcan, Lucan and Matthaean narratives. (Why anyone should have troubled to crucify the Christ of Liberal Protestantism has always been a mystery.) But this view is now almost everywhere abandoned. It is now recognized that the only Christ for whose existence there is any evidence at all is a miraculous Figure making stupendous claims.”1
The phrase, “after these things,” which opens chapter six of the gospel, includes events not mentioned in the Gospel of John, such things as the beheading of John the Baptist (cf. Matt. 14:1-14), and the mourning and the meditation over it (cf. 14:13-14; Mark 6:30-31).
Thus, the context is close in time to the great feast that Herod gave. To pass from that feast to the feast that Jesus gave the fifteen thousand forms a remarkable and startling contrast. “At the one,” Maclaren points out, “the heavy air reeked with the fumes of wine and blood; and lust, drunkenness, and murder were guests. At the other, the cool evening breeze from the lake played round the companies on the sweet springing grass. The fare was coarse and wholesome, the eaters awed into some dim recognition of the Giver, and He Himself revealed as lovingly careful of humblest needs, as divinely able to justify these, and as, in deepest truth, the Bread of the world.”2
We might add that Herod’s feast led from sumptuousness to sin and, finally, the divine wrath. It is said that the feeding of the five thousand occurred in a “desert place” (cf. Matt. 14:13), but the real desert was in Herod’s palatial dining room.
The Situation of the Sign
The place (John 6:1, 3). We have noted that “after these things” refers to the tragic martyrdom of John the Baptist. After this sad event, Jesus, realizing that the beginning in earnest of His ministry has come and wishing to be alone for meditation, withdrew to the other side of the Sea of Tiberias. There he went up to the higher part of one of the hills about the lake and sat down with His disciples.
The multitude (John 6:2). John writes, “And a great multitude followed him, because they saw His miracles which He did on them that were diseased.” The principal verbs of the text “followed,” “saw,” and “did” are in the imperfect tense, which indicates continual action in past time. The picture is of men and women on the move, and they kept coming to Him because of the miracles which He kept doing.
The time (John 6:4). The time was the time of the Passover feast, and there is a definite connection with that feast. In that feast a significant part of it was the eating of the bread (cf. the Lord’s Supper and the Last Passover). It is not, then, surprising that the sign will suggest His ability to give the bread of life to men. A further comparison with the feeding of the children of Israel with the manna during the wilderness journey will be made (cf. vv. 32, 33, 51). He, the Lord Jesus, will give the true bread from heaven, giving to men what the mazzah, or unleavened bread of the Passover feast, as well as the manna, could never provide. He is, as Paul says, “Christ our Passover,” by reason of the sacrifice that provides life for believers (cf. 1 Cor. 5:7).
The Conversation With the Disciples
The question of the Lord (John 6:5-6). John continues, “When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him, he saith unto Philip, Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat? And this he said to prove him: for he Himself knew what he would do.”
There are several things that Matthew has in his account that John omits. He does not speak of the sense of compassion that Jesus had when He saw the multitude (cf. 14:14). It is likely that he asked Philip the question soon after He had arrived and saw the multitude approaching. Seeing them, He did not say, “I came up here for a rest, go home,” but rather, as Matthew says, “His heart went out to them.” They were longing for a true shepherd, and that true shepherd was the Lord Jesus (cf. Psa. 121:3-4). What a picture of the true humanity of the Lord Jesus. God with a sigh of compassion, God with a tear over the diseased, and God with a groan at the devastation of death characterized Him.
Two things are indicated by the fact that He took the initiative in talking to His men. In the first place, it is God who makes the move to provide bread, thus illustrating the divine grace which first moves toward its objects, causing them to seek the dispenser of grace.
And, second, it is clear from the account that the Lord knows that His resources are ample for the needs of the multitude.
The aim of the Lord in asking the question, “Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat?,” is said to be “to prove them.” He knew what He would do. In other words, they must come to know their inability in order to fully appreciate His great ability. The principle is one that touches all the areas of our lives. In fact, many of the experiences which we have are just situations in which the Lord puts us to teach us what He is able to do in them. The trials, the stresses, the problems of life are occasions in which we are forced to learn of Him and His sufficiency for our needs.
The reply of Philip (John 6:7). Someone has called Philip the “Statistical Pessimist.”3 He replies, “Two hundred denarii’s worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little.” From our Lord’s parable in Matthew twenty (cf. v. 2) we can say that a working man’s daily wage was a denarius. In today’s currency it would probably equal at the minimum about $40.00, that being something of a working man’s wage today. Thus two hundred denarii would be the equivalent of about $8000.00. In other words, Philip says that $8000.00 would not even provide such a multitude a small snack! Of course, he has not taken into consideration the infinite resources of the Lord Jesus (cf. Phil. 4:19) .
A second thing may be said about Philip’s reply to the Lord. Jesus had asked, “Whence shall we buy food?” Philip’s answer, however, is not to a “where,” but to a “how much.” He was too busy calculating to remember that the real issue turned on the source of a large amount of food for the multitude. Perhaps if he had thought seriously about the source, his thoughts may have drifted to the infinite well of blessing standing in his presence. Jesus’ words in Matthew 14:18 in response to the news of the little lad’s possession of loaves and fishes reveal the true source of the bread of life, “Bring them hither to me.”
It is likely that at this time the other disciples came and suggested to the Lord that He send them away into the villages to buy food, (cf. Matt. 14:15).
The reply of Andrew (John 6:8-9). Andrew said to the Lord, “There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?” Was he suggesting that the Lord was a bit careless of the needs of the crowd?
Two things are unfolded here. In the first place, it is clearly seen that one of the first requisites for the reception of the riches of Christ is to realize our own poverty. And this is also one of the first requisites for success in the ministry of the Lord. We ought to take stock of our resources, laying bare our poverty of mind and heart for the work, and begin to lean upon Him. “The knowledge of our own unfitness is the first condition of fitness,” MacLaren comments.4
In the second place, it becomes clear from the incident that a little is a lot, if God is in it. It was with this impossibly small store that about fifteen thousand people were fed and satisfied. As the psalmist has said, “He turneth the wilderness into a pool of water, and dry ground into water springs” (107:35). Incidentally, the loaves that they ate were flat and hard, and the fishes were probably cured, thus being similar to our hors d’oeuvres of today.
The Multiplication of the Food
The Lord feeding (John 6:10-11) . After the men and women were told to sit down by the Lord on the grass, He took the food and gave thanks for it. He then distributed it to the disciples, who, in turn, gave it to the people. They did these things with both the loaves and the fishes. What took place is an illustration of grace abounding over unbelief.
It is interesting to study the incident carefully with a view to investigating the anatomy of a miracle. One notices that the accompaniments of the miracle are described, that is, the seating, the praying, and the serving, but the essential manner of the Lord in performing the miracle is omitted. Perhaps those participating did not themselves understand what was happening, so far as the manner of the performance of the miracle was concerned.
Notice, too, that the guests were seated before the table was spread with the food. Can you not imagine that there was considerable surprise over this, perhaps a good bit of ridicule? The incident was, indeed, a trial of faith, a trial of the faith of all who participated, and particularly the trial of the twelve (cf. v. 6). What took place was multiplication of food by His touch, but dispensed by their agency. Is this not a perceptive picture of the ministry of the servants of the Lord? It is He who is responsible for the food dispensed, but at the same time it is dispensed by the agency of His servants, and what a privilege it is to be a part of His ministry in this way!
The multitude filled (John 6:12-13). After the filling of the multitude, Jesus said, “Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.” The result was that twelve baskets were filled with the fragments of the loaves. What happened, then, might be described as multiplication by subtraction. It was “Omnific omnipotence,” as someone has called it, a clear illustration of His all-creating ability, flowing from His full deity. It is amusing to read Barclay’s attempt to explain away the miracle. He suggests that there are three ways to understand the event. First, we may understand it as a simple multiplication of loaves and fishes. This would be something unique, he admits, but then says that we should not be critical and condemnatory of others who must find another explanation. Second, others may understand the miracle as a kind of sacrament. Actually each individual only received the smallest morsal of food, which strengthened them for their journey, and they were content. They were really eating the spiritual food of Christ, as we do at the Lord’s Table. Third, we may understand it this way: The people really had food with them, but they were selfish and could not bring themselves to share what they had with others. They kept their food in their boxes and bags, until the Lord and His disciples began to share what they had with others. Then all began to share, and, before they knew what was happening, there was enough for all! Thus, the miracle was not the multiplication of the loaves and fishes; it was the transformation of selfish people into generous people at the touch of Christ! He concludes, “It was the miracle of the birth of love in grudging hearts. It was the miracle of changed men and women with something of Christ in them to banish the selfishness of their hearts. If that be so, then in the realest sense Christ fed them with Himself (why does Barclay capitalize the pronoun, if Christ is only a man?), and sent His Spirit to dwell within their hearts.”5
None of the explanations of the modern critics that deny the supernatural are satisfying. The inadequacy of Barclay’s view is seen if we note that upon the occurrence of the miracle the men present were so impressed with it that they said, “This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world” (John 6:14), and then they sought to make him a king (6:15).
The men interpreting (John 6:14). John concludes his account with, “Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world.” It was clear to our Lord that the thoughts of the people were leading to the conviction that He was the Messianic King, but their thoughts only included a political leader who would restore the leadership of the nation to Israel. That is why He immediately “constrained” His disciples to get into a boat, and to go before Him to the other side of the lake. They wished to install Him as a political sovereign. Would that be the response of a multitude which had only been influenced by the unselfish example of Jesus and His disciples? The very thought lays bare the emptiness of the specious logic of Barclay.
First, the miracle shows plainly that Jesus Christ is the Messiah of Israel, and that He has the right to sit on David’s throne.
Second, it is a beautiful lesson on the sufficiency of the Lord for our personal needs. It is clear from the sermon that follows that He claims to be “the bread of life,” or the bread of spiritual salvation (cf. 6:35). Bread is made by the cutting down of the grain in the fields, the bruising of it to separate the grain from the chaff, and then by the baking of the grain in the oven. One has only to read such passages as Isaiah 53:8, where the Messiah is said to be “cut off out of the land of the living,” and 53:5, where it is said that He “was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities,” and 53:4, where it is said that He was “smitten of God, and afflicted,” to see that He was put into the oven of divine judgment for sin, finally crying out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46), as He became the sin offering and bore the punishment of sinners.
He also is sufficient for our continuing sustenance in the faith. The work that He began is continued by Him through the agency of the indwelling Spirit, who constantly continues the work of our sanctification, concluding it only when we are finally conformed to the Lord (cf. Rom. 8:28-30).
Third, there is also a lesson here for seeking souls. The manner of the appropriation of the divine blessing is shown in the word “eaten” (cf. v. 13; Matt. 14:20). Eating, as the context will show, is a figurative way of saying coming, or believing. They are synonyms (cf. v. 35, 53-56, etc.)’
As Augustine said, crede et manducasti, or, “Trust and you have eaten.”
Do we have the Bread of Life? Perhaps a reference to Dante’s great work will help. In the 24th Canto of the Paradiso of his Divine Comedy, Dante has a beautiful passage in which he envisions himself being questioned by St. Peter as to his possession of faith.
“Good Christian, speak and manifest thyself: what thing is faith?” And Dante answers, “Whereat I followed on: ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the argument of things which are not seen,’ and this I take to be its essence.”
Then Peter replies, “Right well hath now been traversed this coin’s alloy and weight; but tell me if thou hast it in thy purse.”
Then Dante replies, “Whereupon I: Yea, so bright and round I have it that for me there is no perhaps in its impression.”
That is a wonderful place to come to be, and I hope it becomes the place of all who have read the story of the feeding of the fifteen thousand. He is the Bread of Life and provides a complete personal salvation from the penalty and guilt of sin for all who come to Him to receive it as a free gift in grace. Come now, while there is still opportunity.
1 Temple, p. xxiv
2 Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, St. Matthew, II, 1-2.
3 I believe Tenney said this, but I do not have documentation for it.
4 Maclaren, II, 6.
5 William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, II, 114-15.