Jesus miraculously feeding 5,000 men is one of the more well-known stories from the Gospels. Yet the geographical context, the events leading up to it, and the creative power that Jesus displays is not often considered. The timing of the feeding also helps tremendously in forming a general chronology of the Gospels. This episode begins to develop these points.
Hey everyone I’m Josh Hawkins, this is epidote 74 of Opening Up the Gospels. In the last episode I introduced Jesus’ Late Galilean Ministry, a time period of about 6 months stretching through the summer and into the fall of 28AD. In this episode, I want to jump right into looking at the first event in that time period, the feeding of the 5,000. As I’ve mentioned many times before, this particular event is important in helping us form a general chronology of the life of Jesus, because all four Gospels record this event. The other two events that all four Gospels record is the ministry of John the Baptist and of course Passion Week. But because the feeding is at the very center of Jesus’ public ministry, it helps tremendously in harmonizing the events in that we can organize everything either before the feeding or after it. Now as we’ll see, the feeding of the 5000 and the events surrounding it really was the climax of Jesus’ popular sentiment in Galilee. All the crowds were at their highest. But we’ll see that these events are really the turning point when Jesus reveals who He is, the people say “no thanks” and everything shifts from that point forward, in terms of the populous up in Galilee. Before I get into the feeding of the 5000, I want to give just a little bit of back story. We didn’t cover this in the last episode, but I wanted to at least mention it here. Mark chapter 6 verses 14 through 29 gives us a good bit of information on Herod and his reaction to Jesus’ increasing fame in Galilee. Remember, Herod was the one in charge of Galilee during the time of Jesus. Luke chapter 3 tells us that. Mark tells us that Herod was wondering who Jesus was, and some had told him that Jesus was in fact John the Baptist raised from the dead. Herod had imprisoned John the Baptist, and John told him it wasn’t lawful for him to have Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. Yet Herod still feared John, knowing he was a holy man. But Herodias held a grudge against him, which eventually led to his beheading. You can read the full story in Mark 6. Now the reason why I mention this here is because undoubtedly the news of John’s beheading had reached Jesus. And we’ll see how that news shapes the story moving forward. Ok, so let’s jump in and look at how the Gospels narrate this event of the feeding of the 5000. We’ll start in Mark 6, but I’ll also pull from Luke and John’s accounts. "The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things." (Mark 6:30–34 ESV) So the Twelve return to Jesus, presumably to Capernaum where Jesus was based, and they are dialoguing and telling Him everything that happened and what they had taught on their two-by-two journey throughout the towns of Galilee. Though we can’t be sure, it likely wasn’t a long time that they were gone. Jesus I’m sure is eager to spend some time with the Twelve, so He encourages them to come away with Him for some rest from all the crowds. Mark said that there were so many people that there was no ability to get alone for a meal. Once again, the crowds are just swarming around Jesus, vying for His attention seeking more displays of His power. But they manage to get on a boat and head to a desolate place. Luke’s Gospel tells us where they were headed: "On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida." (Luke 9:10 ESV) Let’s have a quick look at our map for a second. Luke mentions that Jesus and the Twelve withdraw to a town called Bethsaida. It must not have been a long boat ride because as you can see, it was not all that far from Capernaum. Now as we read, Mark said that the crowds saw Jesus depart, and they went by foot, some even running to the place where they anticipated Jesus to come ashore. So put yourself in the shoes of the Twelve for a second. You finally get away with Jesus and there’s peace and quiet. You’re gently rowing along, tired from the journey but excited about everything that’s just happened in the cities and towns you went to. But as you get closer to the shore, you hear something more than the breaking waves of the sea - you see thousands of people just lining the edge of the shore, just waiting for Jesus again. There they are - the crowds. You just can’t get away from them. Now think about what Jesus must have been feeling. He was physically wearied from the seemingly endless ministry, grieving the death of His relative John the Baptist in His heart, excited to spend some time alone as well as with the Twelve, and He sees the crowds running in droves to meet Him at the shore. Think about that - what would it be like if everywhere you went all the time you had thousands of people with you. This was Jesus’ experience. Constantly. Unless He totally withdrew Himself, they were constantly tracking Him down, pressing about Him with their needs, and wanting things from Him. That’s what Jesus’ life was like. But what we see here in this scene is again such a beautiful display of Jesus’ compassion, patience, and servanthood. He was so tender in this moment. The Gospels say that Jesus "saw the great crowd and had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things." So what does Jesus do? Instead of shrinking back, He spends the entire day with them, teaching, healing, ministering out of His weariness, with all the things filling His heart. Amazing. Let’s keep reading in Mark 6: "And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”" (Mark 6:35–36 ESV) Let’s jump to John’s account in John 6: "Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number." (John 6:5–10 ESV) The day is now well spent - and what do the disciples say? “Jesus, there’s a lot of people here, we’re in the middle of nowhere, it’s late, make them go away.” And Jesus says “no, we’re going to take care of them.” How awesome is Jesus? After all He’s been through and now after spending the entire day ministering to them, He says “we’re not done. We’re going to feed them”. The Gospels tell us that there were 5000 men there. How did they know that? Well Mark and Luke tell us a little later that Jesus had them sit down in groups of fifty and a hundred, which would have made it much easier to count. Now what we often forget about here is that almost all of the men there would have had a spouse, and almost all of them probably would have had children. So conservatively, if there was 5000 men each with one wife and one child, there are 15,000 people there. That’s a sea of people. We’re not just talking a few hundred people the size of a Sunday morning church service. We’re talking the size of a basketball arena. And through this, it’s like Jesus is showing that the reach of His power knows no bounds. John’s Gospel says that Jesus tested Philip, asking him where it would be possible to buy enough bread for the people. But of course, the God of all creation is the one asking the question, so surely He knows exactly what He’s going to do. Philip answers and says two hundred denarii wouldn’t even be enough to give everyone just a few small bites. A denarius was a Roman coin and was the average wage for a farm worker in the first century. So we’re talking nearly 8 months of wages here. Eight months of wages is a big deal, clearly something far beyond all the disciples’ means. Imagine giving up eight months of your wages to feed 15,000 people? Talk about putting a dent in your budget... Now Andrew answers Jesus and says that he’s seen a boy who has a little bit of food. It’s kind of like saying in a crowded arena “hey, I saw some guy carrying around a McDonald’s bag! But that’s not going to feed everyone in the arena.” I bet Jesus had a confident smirk on His face - though wearied from the crowds, He was ready to show forth His power once again in hopes that they would bear the fruits of repentance. He has them sit down on the green grass, which gives us a hint that it’s indeed spring time, just before the Passover feast as John 6 says. I’m guessing that many of us probably know this story well - Jesus begins with only five loaves and two fish and the story ends with all the people are filled, even partaking of as much as they wanted. But I hope you’ve seen already that there is so much more to this scene than just the miracle. There’s the context of the last few days including the return of the Twelve and the death of John the Baptist, the attitude of the crowds, the tenderness of Jesus, and so much more. In the next episode, we’ll look again at this event, because there’s so much more to talk about that will cause us to marvel at Jesus. In the meantime, here’s a couple of points for your meditation this week: 1) Ponder what it was like to be part of the crowd on the shore as Jesus and the Twelve were arriving by boat. What would that have been like? 2) Think about what day to day life might have been like for the time Jesus was in and around the cities of Galilee. What excitement swelled in the people? What stories were shared at dinner time? Well you can find all the episodes in this series on my website, www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. Come back next time for more on the feeding of the 5000. God bless, see you then.