Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. (Matthew 14:19-21)
This is the only miracle recorded in all 4 gospels so we have a few different perspectives on it, the most interesting of which is probably John’s. In fact, pretty much everything I’ll say here today comes straight from reading John’s account of this event (Jn 6:1-15) and it’s aftermath (Jn 6:22-59). It’s easy to read this passage and see it as simply a miracle (and an awesome one at that!) that Jesus performed and move on, but the feeding of the 5,000 (men + uncounted women and children) has much deeper meaning to it. And if you read these 3 verses and don’t see it, that’s okay because we don’t have to search for the meaning here because Jesus and the apostle John illuminate it for us in John 6.
1. The feeding of the 5,000 points to Jesus as the Prophet foretold by Moses.
“The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen … I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. … And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face” (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18-19; 34:10)
In John’s gospel, the crowds that were miraculously fed find Jesus the next day, which sparks a fascinating dialogue:
“Jesus answered them, … ‘Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.’ Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ So they said to him, ‘Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, “He gave them bread from heaven to eat.”‘ Jesus then said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world. … Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.'” (John 6:26-33, 49-50)
Did you catch that? Both Jesus and the crowds associated the miraculous multiplication of the loaves by Jesus with God’s provision of manna under Moses. The feeding of the 5,000 was much more than Jesus providing a meal for a bunch of hungry people; it was Jesus claiming to be the Messiah promised by Moses and the prophets. And we see from John that this isn’t a stretch. Those who witnessed the miracle recognized it as such and asked questions about it.
2. The feeding of the 5,000 points to the Messiah as the source of provision and satisfaction.
The association of the loaves with the manna goes beyond connecting Jesus and Moses. The manna was God providing for the needs of his people, and in John, Jesus makes it clear to the crowd that providing the bread the night before was a sign that he could provide much greater satisfaction than simply satiating one’s hunger:
“Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. … I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.'” (John 6:35, 48-51)
Again, Jesus did not multiply the loaves simply to feed a bunch of hungry people. There was greater meaning and purpose behind it. The physical bread satisfying their physical hunger was an object lesson to show them that Jesus could perform an even greater work by satisfying their spiritual hunger. This is what makes the 12 baskets of extra food such an awesome thing: God not only meets our need, he provides above and beyond anything we could ever need!
3. The feeding of the 5,000 foreshadows Jesus’ death as the means by which we gain eternal life.
Did you catch the similarity between this miracle and the Last Supper?
“taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples” (Matthew 14:19)
“Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples” (Matthew 26:26)
It sounds similar in the other gospels too:
“Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated.” (John 6:11)
“And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them” (Luke 22:19)
“And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples” (Mark 6:41)
“he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them” (Mark 14:22)
But again, lest you think I’m drawing conclusions from coincidental wording, Jesus himself uses almost exactly the same language when explaining the significance of the feeding of the 5,000 as he does in the Upper Room with the disciples when he institutes the Lord’s Supper:
“‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.'” (John 6:51-58)
As the Bread of Life, Jesus provides ultimate and complete satisfaction, but in order to gain that satisfaction, you must partake of his broken body and shed blood. Jesus sets the groundwork for the Last Supper and his subsequent sufferings and death with the feeding of the 5,000. When we remember Christ’s death by participating in Communion, we are celebrating his provision of eternal satisfaction.
The feeding of the 5,000 is one of those stories whose meaning sometimes gets lost because we’ve oversimplified it. The focus almost always gets put on the boy who (according to John’s gospel) provided the loaves and fish because it makes such a good story to tell children. It’s incredible that anything can make turning 5 loaves and 2 fish into enough food to feed 5,000 men + their wives and children even more amazing, but I think the meaning Jesus puts on the miracle does just that.
Things to Reflect on in Light of this Passage:
1. Do I see Jesus as the source of ultimate eternal satisfaction or do I simply use him to gain things in this world that satisfy my physical wants and needs?
2. Do I have faith that Jesus will not only supply my needs (again don’t dwell on just the physical!), but above and beyond my wildest expectations?
3. Do I give thanks for what God has provided, to meet both my physical needs and my spiritual needs?