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The Feeding of the Five Thousand

Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
27th July 2003

John Chapter 6
Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Feast was near. When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming towards him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. Philip answered him, “Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and the men sat down, about five thousand of them. 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. When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. When they had rowed three or three and a half miles, they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; don’t be afraid.” Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.

We move this week into the Gospel of John and look at one of ‘signs’ which John tells us about. These are miraculous events, but they are much more than that they are intended to lead us deeper than the mere surface events themselves.

Today we have the feeding of the multitude, a grand miracle and the only one recorded by all of the Gospels, a fact that speaks loudly of its importance to the early church.

Note - The Feeding of the Five Thousand is recorded in Mark 6:35-44, Luke 9:12-17, and John 6:1-14.
The Feeding of the Four Thousand is recorded in Matthew 15:32-39 and Mark 8:1-10.

These feedings are reminiscent of Elisha's feeding miracle in 2 Kings 4:42-44. In that story, Elisha had only twenty barley loaves to feed a hundred people. When he ordered his servant to distribute the bread, the servant protested, "How can I set this before a hundred people?" Elisha reaffirmed the order, promising, "They shall eat and have some left." The servant distributed the bread; the people ate -- and there was bread left over in accord with the promise. The linkage between the stories is made even tighter by the reference to barley loaves in John 6:9. It is worth noting that both Elisha and Jesus involved others (Elisha's servant and Jesus' disciples) in the accomplishment of their miracles.

These feedings are also reminiscent of the manna in the wilderness (Exod 16; Num 11). Like Moses, Jesus has crossed over the water to the wilderness. Like Moses, he is surrounded by hungry people. Matthew clearly intends to portray Jesus as parallel to Moses, yet surpassing him as the bringer of a new age. Jesus makes this connection even more explicit when he refers to manna in his Bread from Heaven discourse following the feeding of the five thousand in John's Gospel.

Jesus in the miracles, and the Gospel writers in reporting them, want us to see something deeper about who Jesus really is. We not only witness a miraculous deed performed by Jesus, but through the ‘sign’ we are invited to step closer for a more thorough reflection on what it says about Jesus. The signs John narrates help those with eyes of faith to see and to believe in Jesus. Remember what John said towards the end of his gospel. He states his purpose for writing quite clearly,

"Jesus performed many other signs as well, signs not recorded here, in the presence of his disciples. But these have been recorded to help you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, so that through this faith, you may have life in his name" (20: 30-31).

For some preachers the question of whether Jesus actually performed the miracle at all has been quite significant. Was it ‘just’ that Jesus taught them all to share?

I have to say that I think that such a reasoning does not fit with what we are told today by John. Whether the story happened as presented is not the issue for John, it was rather that people saw the miracle and failed to look at the meaning.

Look at what we read in this story and we can see that John leaves us in no doubt that miracles were taking place a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the miraculous signs he had performed on the sick

After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself

The crowd were under no illusion that Jesus had multiplied the food. They just jumped to the conclusion that this meant Jesus would make a better king than the Romans. The people liked the idea of a miracle worker, they were less inclined to look for the deeper spiritual meaning. Neither the crowd, nor the Gospel writers who reported the events thought that Jesus had given a lesson in sharing. Make no mistake, to imagine that this was a triumphant lesson in generosity misses the whole impact of the reports which the Gospel writers deliver to us.

Miraculous physical events demonstrated amazing spiritual truths, take away the miracle and the sign is diminished.

So it was that -

  • The raising of the dead Lazarus therefore was a physical event with a message that Jesus was the way the truth and the life.
  • The healing of the blind man shows Jesus as the light of the World
  • Turning water into wine showed Jesus as the true vine

If we turn the feeding miracle into a sharing miracle, then the next stage is to question whether Lazarus was truly dead. To start removing all the miracle from the stories from the Gospels leaves us on shaky ground. I cannot believe that the writers of the Gospel who recorded these miracles had anything other than absolute confidence that they had happened as they reported. That’s why they were prepared to live and die for their faith.

The problem for Jesus as we see in our stories was not persuading people about the veracity of his miracles, but in getting them to see past the miracles to the deeper meaning.

In compassion he reached out to help people in their needs: he healed them and gave them food and drink, but he always did these things as a sign of something greater, something higher to which he was calling people. More often than not, people missed the higher message. They just wanted to have their needs satisfied in the easiest possible way. They tended to seek him out as a magical healer and not hear the spiritual truth that he was making to them.

These people hadn’t shared their lunch, they had been amazed at what Jesus did and wanted to make him king so that he would give them a better deal than the Romans.

Making him a physical king would be a shortcut to solving their problems. There is a lesson here for us all, as we might have the same tendency in our practice of prayer. Jesus encourages us to pray for daily bread, but for no more, our requests to God in prayer for physical comforts must be limited to that which is at the most basic. Only when we do this will we ever discover the meaning of real wealth and happiness.

So to the story

Perhaps a good way to look at the event is to do so through three of the key players and we begin with Philip

1. Philip

A large crowd has sought Jesus out. John shows Jesus open with a question to Philip about where "we" will get enough food for the approaching crowd. John tells us quite plainly, Jesus is "testing" his disciples. The story has us focus on how the disciples will respond to this test and what Jesus' own response will be.

Philip answered him,

“Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”

He couldn’t do the miraculous because he focused on what he didn’t have – not what he did have. There is a thin line between humility and negativity. One is based on strength and can be very powerful; the other is based in fear and results in powerlessness. Philip seemed trapped behind a wall of hesitation. When confronted with a task of impossible proportions he tells the Lord all he can’t do and never once thinks to ask Jesus what he can do. Philip is walled behind a facade of helplessness that Jesus must ‘pierce’ before Philip can become the man Christ knows him to be. Christ must pierce Philip’s doubt, his sense of inadequacy; his blaming and excusing or Philip would never become a man of consequence.

So we have to ask the question of ourselves -

How do I respond to the size of the needs around me? Am I like Philip? Do I look at how little I have, or do I think how much God has?

Do I say; “The problem is too big for my limited resources,” and then hope that the crowd goes away? Or do I ask for God’s strength to help me to expect great things from God.

2. Think of Andrew

Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up,

“Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

Andrew evaluate the meagre resources and what will be required of them and then express incredulity, "how are we going to feed them?" He is not blind or indifferent to the needs around and wants to address them, however he cannot see the miraculous provision of God because the answer came in the faith of a child.

This is cynicism and we all have a tendency to do it. We decry the attempts of others, we criticise those who try to do things, but have no better offer from ourselves. We must not spend our time negatively focussing on what we think is less than perfect or what we do not have, but instead embrace what there is which is honest and pure and put it to work for his glory.

3. The little boy

Thankfully there was a little boy who who wouldn’t be pushed aside by Andrew and focused solely on giving what little he had to Jesus.

This is all that the Gospels have to say about this boy (Matthew Mark and Luke don't even mention him). The boy is an unlikely candidate to save the day, just as the shepherd-boy, David, was an unlikely opponent for Goliath many years earlier. His pitiful offering is as inadequate as was David's sling. The boy has little to offer, but he offers that little bit.

It is the same message as the widow’s mite. We do not disparage the efforts of those around, we expect that even a tiny offering made to God can be put to great effect.

The message is that Jesus will transform that little bit into more-than-enough.

But, what if the boy were unwilling to share his lunch? What if he were to say, "I need this for myself" -- or "My little bit won't make any difference"? "In the parable of the talents Jesus makes it plain that... it is the one-talent people who are most likely to falter and fail him; and this on the ground that anything they could do is so trivial as to be not worth doing.... That, says Christ, is a fallacy that has disastrous consequences.

"There would have been one great and shining deed fewer in history if that boy had refused to come or if he had withheld his loaves and fishes. The fact of life is that Jesus Christ needs what we can bring Him. We may not have much to bring but He needs what we have".


We are called to an impossible task as well. The challenge to us is whether we turn to our own resources and excuse our inabilities or are faithful enough to say; “Lord, what is impossible for me is easy for you! So, where do you want me to start?” Jesus can take the smallest gift from a sincere heart and use it to do the impossible.

As individuals

The disciples were tested, but we are tested too. We face the many needs of family, friends, church, world and perhaps we too like Philip feel overwhelmed. How shall we feed them is perhaps a cry which many echo. In all sorts of ways we perhaps recognise that we do not have enough bread. Doing the work, living the life which God has set before us may seem hard. But we, like the disciples, need to believe in One who walks with us. The answer from our story today is that we don't have to do it on our own; Jesus is with us and he knows how to make our resources become enough.

As a church

The miracle asks the church the question,

"Do you believe God will provide what you need to do the ministry God wants done?"

Note the essential qualifiers --

  • what we need, not want,
  • and the ministry God wants, not necessarily the ministry we’ve planned.

Do we operate mindful of the scarcity of our own resources or the abundance of God.