Open Matthew 14:13-21.
Feeding the 5000, or walking on water. They’re favourites that capture our imagination, but why did Jesus do these things? If they were signs, what were they pointing to? Was he showing off? Was he telling the crowds he was God? What was Jesus doing?
If Jesus was showing off his divine powers, Matthew missed the point. The feeding of the 5000 in Matthew’s Gospel starts with an explanation of how they came to be in this isolated place needing food. They’d followed Jesus there. And Jesus was escaping from Herod.
Actually, Jesus had a history of withdrawing (anachōreō) from evil rulers:
- Jesus’ family withdrew from King Herod when he was little (2:12-14).
- They withdrew from Archelaus to live in Nazareth (2:22).
- Jesus withdrew when he heard of John’s arrest (4:12).
- Jesus withdrew when he heard Pharisees were conspiring to destroy him (12:15).
- Jesus withdrew when he heard Herod had executed John (14:13).
That doesn’t look like showing off divine powers, does it? It doesn’t look very regal either — heaven’s appointed king running from earth’s rulers. But you can understand it: Herod could stop at nothing if he thought Jesus was his decapitated enemy revivified (14:2).
Jesus withdrew. To grieve. To be alone. To catch his breath. To pray. To consider what could happen to him.
He got no chance to relax. The crowds pursued until they found him. They were probably grieving too, horrified by what had happened to John.
Herod’s persistent fear was that the Jews would revolt (14:5). If Jesus wanted to lead a revolt, now would be a good time. Surely it was time to take earth’s kingship from the rulers who resist God’s reign, killing any who dare question their authority?
That’s how this crowd thought. John’s Gospel says they were ready to use forceful means to make Jesus their king (John 6:15).
But Jesus refused to fight. Whatever he was feeling over John’s death, he turned that emotion into compassion for the crowd who lived under such unjust rulers. His energies were directed not into avenging his cousin’s death, but into caring for the frail who’d struggled to reach this desolate place.
What a king! With no a sword, he withdraws from his enemies. With no palace, he’s among his people in the desert. In his pain, he feels and heals theirs (14:14). Earth has never known a king like this!
Jesus withdrew to be alone. Daylight is fading now. It’s time to send the people home for their evening meal (14:15). That’s what the disciples say, but Jesus doesn’t heed their advice. Instead, he issues an impossible command to his servants: “You feed them” (14:16).
Can you relate? Do you ever look at the need around us and feel overwhelmed? The resources at our disposal never seem to be enough. Yet our king calls us to ensure that every human being is cared for, that no one goes home hungry tonight.
That’s when they admit they don’t even have enough for their own supper. Five pita bread wraps, and two dried fish won’t even feed the twelve of them.
They give it to Jesus anyway. He accepts what they give him. Everyone follows his gaze as he looks up to the sovereign who lives in the heavens and invokes divine blessing over their little meal. Then he broke the bread apart, passing the pieces to his followers.
Don’t miss the next line: His followers distributed the pieces to the crowds (14:19).
Jesus had told his followers to feed the crowd. They gave him what they had. They fed the crowd. Jesus empowered them to do what he asked of them.
Twelve people, who didn’t even have a loaf each, fed the crowd of thousands at the king’s command. And each one of them finished up with a basket-load of leftovers (14:20).
Jesus is now enthroned as king over the whole earth. He still has compassion for his people. He still cares that no one goes to bed hungry. With refugees from war and tyrants and famine, the scale of the problem feels overwhelming.
But there are more than 2 billion people today who say they follow Jesus. Can we, the followers of Jesus, ensure that no one misses out?
Perhaps we could give him what we have, and see what he does with it.
What others are saying
Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 514–515:
Now the disciples are able to do what Jesus asked them to do — give the crowds something to eat.
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 405:
In this narrative the disciples saw the size of the need and the littleness of the human resources available; Jesus recognizes the size of the need and the greatness of God’s resources available.
Michael Green, The Message of Matthew: The Kingdom of Heaven, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: IVP, 2000), 167:
By feeding the multitude in this desert place, Jesus is making a statement and a claim. He is making a statement about who he is and what he has come to do. He is indeed the Messiah, and he has come to usher in the days of salvation. He has every right, therefore, to their allegiance. The King is coming to and for his kingdom. No wonder that in John 6:15 we read that the multitude wanted to take him by force and make him king.
[next: A tale of two kings]