The feeding of the five thousand (men) is found in all four Gospels. There is something about this act that got the attention of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and even John. Apparently it made a lasting impact on the people who experienced and so God inspired each writer to include it.
There really is nothing incredibly extraordinary about it; other than the fact that at least 5,000 men were fed and there were still plenty of leftovers. Many see this event as the pinnacle of Jesus’ popularity among the masses; even today the most repressive of governments becomes incredibly popular when it starts handing out bread to the hungry.
One of the major things about this passage that just makes me puzzled is the disciples’ complete lack of confidence in Jesus’ ability to feed the crowd. Even after witnessing him silence a storm, cast out a legion of demons, and bring a girl back to life…even after performing some awesome works themselves, they still became concerned with something as small as feeding the crowd.
Now, it is understandable that the whole point of the journey to the “desolate” place was for it to be desolate. Jesus himself had instigated the trip when the disciples returned from their ministry mission for the purpose of rest and relaxation. Much to the surprise of the disciples (but not to Jesus who was connected with the Father), the crowds found out and followed them out to the desolate place ruining their break.
Jesus, of course, has compassion on them and begins to “feed” them spiritually, speaking about the kingdom. After a long day of teaching and ministering, the disciples seem ready to get rid of the crowd, but they do it in a way that makes it seem like they are concerned for their welfare. “It’s late, send the crowd away so they can grab something eat (and secretly so we can catch a break and eat ourselves).” The disciples were tired of ministering and they just wanted the crowds to leave.
What was Jesus’ response?
“Give them something to eat.”
Wait, what? No, we want you to send the crowds away to eat…you know back to their homes. Jesus could see through the veneer of the disciples’ “concern” and not wanting to deprive the crowds of what the Father had sent him to tell them, he simply exposes the disciples’ bad motives and also their lack of faith.
In another account, Phillip, the practical bean counter, is the one who looks at the money bag and goes, “We don’t have enough money for that! It would take almost half a year’s wages to feed all of these people!” The disciples clearly are still kind of naive and ignorant in relation to what Jesus can do. They probably hoped this realization would cause Jesus to go, “Oh yeah, you are right…ok, I hate to do it but send the crowds away.”
But that is not what Jesus does.
“How much food is available to us amongst the crowd; is there anyone who has brought anything?” Jesus seems to be looking for another alternative; he is determined to keep the crowd there. The disciples are likely exasperated by this point; Jesus is keeping the crowds and telling them to find some way to feed them! Ever the optimist, in another passage Andrew runs and finds a small boy who has a basket of five loaves of bread and two fishes, but asks honestly, “How can so little feed so many?”
Five loaves and two fishes.
The disciples realize that Jesus is not going to send the crowds away no matter what and now he wants them to feed the massive crowd with five loaves and two fishes. He tells them simply to have everyone sit down in fifties and hundreds, he blesses and breaks the bread, and miraculously feeds 5000+ people with five loaves and two fishes and plenty to spare.
We rightly marvel at Jesus’ act and we rightly attribute this miracles as the pinnacle of Jesus’ public ministry. However, this narrative begins the acceleration toward the cross. In John’s gospel the narrative is not a demonstration of the crowds belief but of their fickle disloyalty to Jesus based on his meeting their felt needs. When they come after him in John 6, Jesus reveals their motives and gives the infamous “I am the bread of life” speech and points them to the true bread they need for their souls to be nourished. This teaching they soundly reject because they don’t have their hearts open to understand the message and attribute cannibalism to his message; they are after a physical messiah who can give them physical bread.
The disciples don’t get it either and in fact, they seem to be hard-hearted after the later feeding of the four thousand Gentiles and Jesus tells them, “Beware of the leaven of the scribes and Pharisees,” in which they interpret to be a rebuke for “not bringing bread.” Jesus then rebukes them harshly for their lack of spiritual sight into his ability to provide after two such feeding miracles and explains to them that he is talking about the religious hypocrisy of the religious leaders.
The reason this narrative is included in all four Gospels is that this is the turning point; after this Jesus will leave the crowds further and further behind and spend more time with the disciples as he prepares for the gruesome but glorious work of the cross.