In our exposition of the gospel of Matthew, we have come to the story of the feeding of the 5,000, which begins in verse 13. It is probably a story that is familiar to most of you. Of all of the miracles that Jesus did, the miracle of feeding the 5,000 is the only one that is recorded in all four gospels. (You can find it in Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; and John 6:1-14.) It is a familiar story. One of the difficulties of a familiar story is that it remains a nice-sounding story. It remains so common place, that it no longer startles us. We know what takes place. It is easy to lose the magnitude of what actually took place on that day. My aim this morning in my preaching is to bring you back to think of what took place. I want you to marvel at the power of Jesus. I want you to believe in the Jesus of the Bible. He is the one who accomplishes that which is impossible. In this case, He feeds more than 5,000 people.
Let's read together of what took place on that day in Galilee.
Now when Jesus heard it, He withdrew from there in a boat, to a lonely place by Himself; and when the multitudes heard of this, they followed Him on foot from the cities. And when He went ashore, He saw a great multitude, and felt compassion for them, and healed their sick. And when it was evening, the disciples came to Him, saying, "The place is desolate, and the time is already past; so send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." But Jesus said to them, "They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat!" And they said to Him, "We have here only five loaves and two fish." And He said, "Bring them here to Me." And ordering the multitudes to recline on the grass, He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed the food, and breaking the loaves He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave to the multitudes, and they all ate, and were satisfied. And they picked up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve full baskets. And there were about five thousand men who ate, aside from women and children.
Verse 13 sets up this miracle, "Now when Jesus heard it, He withdrew from there in a boat, to a lonely place by Himself." This is a reference back to verses 1 and 2 (and not back to verse 12). Herod was convinced that Jesus was John the Baptist, risen from the dead. Jesus knew that "When such a tiger once tastes blood he is apt to thirst for more" (Charles Spurgeon, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 190). So, Jesus "withdrew" (verse 13). He went away. Now, this wasn't unusual for Jesus to do. When danger was in the air, He would often slip away. In chapter 12 and verse 15, it was the Pharisees who were counseling together to destroy Him. When Jesus knew this, He withdrew from there. When the city tried to stone Him, He slipped away (John 10:39). At this point, the danger comes from Herod, who may well go after Jesus. So, Jesus withdraws from there.
Luke tells us that Jesus arrived in Bethsaida (Luke 9:10), which was east of Galilee, on the north side of the Sea of Galilee, just east of the river inlet on the north side of the sea. Bethsaida was just outside the territory that Herod governed. While there, He would be safe from Herod's reach. Just as you are safe from the dog when you are past the length of the chain, so was Jesus safe from Herod.
The sense isn't that Jesus was scared of Herod. The sense is that Jesus simply needed to get away. He did so for two reasons. First, the hour of Jesus had not yet arrived. So, He fled the danger. In John 6:4, we are told that this took place during the Passover of the Jews. Jesus was to be crucified during the next Passover, exactly a year from now. Second, from Mark's account, we learn that Jesus retreated for the sake of rest--for Him as well as for His disciples (Mark 6:31). Yet, it was difficult for Jesus to find a place of rest. The multitudes wouldn't let Him alone....
Verse 13 continues, "And when the multitudes hear of this, they followed Him on foot from the cities." Picture the scene with me. Jesus is on the lake in a boat. The multitudes are on the shore and they have their eye on Him. They were watching where He was going, because they wanted to be where He was when He went ashore. If Jesus was rowing east in His boat, the multitudes along the shore were going east. If Jesus was rowing west in His boat, the multitudes along the shore were going west. Indeed, this is what we find.
Verse 14, "And when He went ashore, He saw a great multitude." The multitude had been following Him. You have to picture Jesus at this point. He was exhausted. He was seeking to get away to a lonely place. He was seeking rest. He was seeking solitude. But the multitudes followed Him.
Now, how did Jesus react when He came to the multitudes? Did Jesus say, "Hey, listen people, haven't I given you enough of Myself? Would you please, just let me alone? I just need to rest."? Did Jesus get in the boat again and leave them? Quite the contrary, He "felt compassion for them, and healed their sick" (verse 14). The ministry of Jesus was a ministry of self-sacrifice. As Mark 10:45 says, "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." He didn't come down to earth to live on easy street. He came down to earth to help people. This was an opportunity.
This didn't always come at the most convenient times for Him, either. There were times when it was it was incredibly difficult. This was one of those times. He was tired and seeking rest and people were clamoring all over Him. Sick people were being brought to Him. He was healing them. We aren't told what sorts of people Jesus was healing. But, we can expect that Jesus was healing all sorts of people. Sick people never left the presence of Jesus sick. The compassion of Jesus lead Him to heal all who came to Him.
At this point, I want to give a point of application with respect to ministry. Ministry is self-sacrifice. If you are waiting for a time for things to be convenient for you to minister to others, the time won't come. Ministering to others is all about you giving of your precious time for the sake of others. It means making the effort to be with people. It means making the effort to help people. It means making this effort, even when doing so is a sacrifice on your part.
Ministry is "loving your neighbor as yourself." In our annual meeting last week, we talked about the saints in the church "doing the work of the ministry" (Eph. 4:12). Rock Valley Bible Church will thrive when and only when all of you sacrifice of your life for the sake of others. It means coming to the church meetings not only to get what you can get, but to give what you can give. There are times when the convenient thing is to sleep or not attend. However, the ministry thing to do is to come and encourage. Now, I'm not telling you that you have to be involved in all of the activities that the church offers. I'm sensitive to the scope of your schedule. There are some of you that ought to stay home more than you do because of your busy schedule, rather than being involved in the church. Furthermore, the last thing that I want to do is clutter up your life with business. However, I am saying that ministry takes sacrifice. Ministry is "others centered."
Jesus had compassion. Jesus was stirred in His heart to help others. It drove Jesus to extend Himself for the sake of others. My admonishment to you is to evaluate your life. Ask yourself, "Am I being driven by my own selfish desires in the way I allocate my time?" or "Am I driven by a heart for others?" It is far more than church attendance. It is taking the opportunity to serve at the cost of great sacrifice to yourself. "Whoever serves, let him do so as by the strength which God supplies." It is God who strengthens for the task of ministry. "so that in all thing, God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever" (1 Pet. 4:11).
We don't know how long Jesus was with the people healing them. But, the disciples thought that Jesus had been with the multitudes long enough. It appears that these disciples had gathered together to assess the situation. They were saying to themselves, "Look at Jesus. Look at how engrossed He is in helping the multitudes. The sick are being brought from all around the area. There must be thousands present. I bet that He has forgotten what time it is. He has become so engrossed in helping other that I'll bet that He doesn't realize how hungry these people are. It's already getting late, and these people didn't come prepared to remain with Jesus so long. He's kept them all afternoon! Obviously, Jesus cares for these people very much. But, if we let Jesus continue on, He'll never stop, and the people will faint from lack of nourishment. Let's go help Him out by telling him that it's time to shut down the clinic."
In verse 15, we read what they actually told Jesus, "The place is desolate, and the time is already past; so send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." The disciples had it all planned out. The plan was simple and straight forward. Jesus would simply stand and say for all to hear, "Everybody! I have an announcement to make! You are dismissed!" The people would leave. The people would go into the surrounding villages. ... And the disciples could finally go and get something to eat. (The hunger of the disciples may have been how they knew that the multitudes were hungry).
The response of Jesus is shocking! Look at verse 16, "But Jesus said to them, 'They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat!'" Hear the story for the first time. Pretend that you don't know what Jesus is going to do. Jesus tells His disciples to feed the multitudes.
Perhaps their reaction was a bit like the reaction of my son this week in our home. Our life revolves around the church. It is often the case that we are discussing things of the church during dinner. We talk about the events of last week. We talk about the events coming up. We talk about what they learned in Children's Church. We talk about Keepers at home. We talk about my sermons. We talk about the needs of the people. We talk about how we can help. Usually, everything mixes together. Well, this past week, we were talking about several things. We were talking about our potluck coming up at the end of the service. We were talking about how we weren't going to stay at school, but split up into different homes. We were also talking about my upcoming sermon on the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. My son was sort of in the conversation and sort of not. All he heard was, "potluck" and "feeding 5,000 people." His eyes got real big and he said, "We are going to have 5,000 people at our church potluck this Sunday?!!" Certainly, this isn't too far from what the disciples felt, when Jesus said, "They don't need to go away; you give them something to eat!" Perhaps their eyes also got real big. They knew the size of the crowd. They also knew what little they had. They knew how impossible it was for them to feed the crowd.
In the parallel accounts, the disciples of Jesus questioned Him on this point. They were entirely confused as to how they were supposed to provide for them. They said, "Shall we go and spend two hundred denarii on bread and give them something to eat?" (Mark 6:37). A denarius was a day's wage for a common laborer. They said that that it would cost $20,000-$30,000 to feed all of these people. From the manner of expression of the disciples, it appears as if they don't have that kind of money. Judas didn't have this kind of cash in his money bag. Verse 17 tells us what they had, "They said to Him, 'We have here only five loaves and two fish.'"
John fills in the details that got these loaves from a little boy. This may have been his lunch. More likely, the boy was selling this food to make a prophet. It wasn't much. John also tells us that the bread was made of barley, a course grain, which was the food of the poor, common folk. We also get a sense from the words used that this was a "little fish" (see John 6:9). These were the staples for the people at that time. In terms of the size of the loaves, it is probably best to think of this as a subway sandwich bread. In terms of the size of the fish, it is best to think of small fish, which may have been as small as a sardine or as large as a blue gill. This fish was either salted, smoked, or pickled. It wasn't much. Five loaves and two fish is all that they had ... to feed thousands.
In verse 21 we are told exactly how many people were there. "There were about five thousand men who ate, aside from women and children." There were five thousand men. There were a significant number of women and children, otherwise they wouldn't have been mentioned. We don't know how many mouths there were to feed. Some have figured 10,000. Some have said that even 25,000 mouths may have been there. In our service this morning, there are eighty to a hundred people. Five loaves and two fish aren't even enough for our little congregation. Could you imagine trying to feed fifty congregations our size on this bread? (That's 5,000 people). Could you imagine trying to feed a hundred congregations our size? (That's 10,000 people). Could you imagine trying to feed two hundred congregations our size? (That's 20,000 people). In the minds of the disciples, it was impossible to feed all of these people, which is exactly what Jesus wanted His disciples to think. The point of the story is that Jesus did what was absolutely impossible to do!
Let's stop here for a point of application. Just because Jesus tells us to do something doesn't mean that we always have the ability to do so. Many have gone astray in their theology when they have thought that "responsibility implies ability." People reason (wrongly), "If God tells you to do something, then obviously, you have the ability to do it." In this case, Jesus' disciples were asked to feed the multitudes. The disciples knew clearly that there was now way that they were going to be able to do this. As Jesus told them this, do you think that Jesus thought that they had the ability to feed these thousands? I don't think so. John tells us that Jesus told them these things to "test" them, "for He Himself knew what He was intending to do" (John 6:6). Jesus wanted to see their response to such an impossible task. And the only proper response to such a task is to admit your utter inability to cry to Jesus for help, "Lord, I can't do it. Help me! Would you please do it?" Trust that God can do the impossible.
There are many things in the Christian life that we are told to do, for which we have no ability in and of ourselves to do. For instance, take the command that I spoke about earlier. We are told to "love our neighbor as our self." Do you think that you can do this? I don't think that it is possible at all. The Bible says that "no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it" (Eph. 5:29). This comes naturally to us. But, to love others with this same passion and commitment is not natural. It is something that we need to fight. We are not able to do this perfectly as we are told to do.
The same holds true for the greatest commandment, "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength." We are responsible to keep this commandment, though we are incapable of doing this. Every thought and intent of our hearts is only evil continually (Gen. 6:5). We have no ability to do this, yet, God commands us to. When we are commanded to "work out your salvation with fear and trembling," (Phil. 2:12), it is because we don't have the ability to do it. The next verse reads "for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13). We work, because it is ultimately God who works in us to sanctify us. We could never do it on our own.
The task of preaching is just like this as well. We have been called, "to go and make disciples of all the nations" (Matt. 28:19). But this task is impossible for us. There was a day in which God took the prophet Ezekiel "down in the middle of the valley, [which] was full of bones" (Ezek. 37:1). God asked Ezekiel, "Son of man, can these bones live?" (Ezek. 37:3). Ezekiel responded, "O Lord GOD, You know" (Ezek. 37:3). Then, the LORD told Ezekiel "Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, 'O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD.' Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones, 'Behold, I will cause breath to enter you that you may come to life. And I will put sinews on you, make flesh grow back on you, cover you with skin, and put breath in you that you may come alive; and you will know that I am the LORD'" (Ezek. 37:4-6). This is a picture of what evangelism is. As we speak forth the gospel of Christ to unbelievers, we speak to dead men, who are devoid of spiritual understanding (Eph. 2:1). We speak to those who regard our message as foolishness (1 Cor. 1:18). We speak to those who aren't seeking for God (Rom. 3:11). We speak to those who have no fear of God before their eyes (Rom. 3:18). We speak to those whose eyes have been blinded to the truth of the gospel of the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4).
It is our responsibility to go and make disciples. This means preaching to them. This means seeing them converted. This means teaching them spiritual truth. But, this is impossible, because, "a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor. 2:14). Apart from the regenerating work of the Spirit of God, the message of the gospel falls on deaf ears (Titus 3:5). Apart from the sovereign hand of God to remove the veil (2 Cor. 3:16), not a single soul would turn from his sin. Apart from God drawing a sinner to Himself, he will never find God (John 6:44). Apart from God granting repentance, a sinner will never repent (2 Tim. 2:24). Apart from God making those who are dead in their sins alive (Eph. 2:5), our preaching falls on dead ears.
Erwin Lutzer, pastor of Moody Church, in downtown Chicago, told of how he was teaching a seminary class on preaching one time. On one day, he held his class in a cemetery. He read Eph. 2:1-6, which explains how, "you were dead in your trespasses and sins, ... But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgression, made us alive together with Christ." After reading the passage, he "asked one of the students to preach to one of the dead, telling a man who had long since been buried that the day of resurrection had come. When he refused (thinking that I wasn't serious), I did it myself, 'Jonathan!' I shouted at the grave stone, 'It is the day of resurrection!' ... Then I turned to the students and said, 'I felt very foolish doing that. I knew that Jonathan, buried in 1912, would not rise. But that is how foolish we are when we preach the gospel, except for one fact: God might graciously grant a resurrection!'" (Pastor to Pastor, p. 36).
God is in the business of making those who are dead in their sins, alive so that they believe the gospel. Jesus has given us a task to accomplish: make disciples of all the nations. This is impossible for us to do. All that we can do is cry to God and say, "Help." In this way, it is just like the disciples, trying to feed the multitudes. They couldn't do it.... So, Jesus takes over.
In verse 18, Jesus said, "Bring [the five loaves and the two fish] here to me." Then, Jesus ordered "the multitudes to recline on the grass" (verse 19). We know from the other accounts that Jesus had the crowds recline "in companies of hundreds and of fifties." (Perhaps this is how they knew how many people were there). Then, "he took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed the food" (verse 19). We don't know exactly what Jesus said. Perhaps He recited the common Jewish blessing before meals, "Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who bring forth bread from the earth."
Then, Jesus broke "the loaves [and] He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave to the multitudes" (verses 19). Have you ever thought about what it takes to feed 5,000 people? I called a friend of mine this week who runs a catering business. I said, "Bob, I have a strange question for you. I'm preaching this Sunday on Jesus feeding the 5,000. Could you tell me what it would take for you to feed 5,000 people?" He told me that there are times when he brings his business to the county fair. There have been days that he has fed 5,000 people before. He told me that at his maximum, he can serve about 1,000 people per hour. He sets up three double-sided serving lines. So, there are six lines of people serving up their food. It takes nine people to work on the serving lines. This takes nine people working on the grill, cooking everything. (He also has a few cashiers and people working the drinks, but Jesus' meal was free and there is no mention of drink). If he serves fish, he will need 5,000 fish fillets. At 6-8 ounces each, this is 2,000 pounds of fish. If he serves bread, he needs 6,000 rolls of bread. (He told me that 12 roles serve 10 people). These roles are about half the size of the loaves of bread. This adds up to 250 dozen loaves of bread! This is no small dinner party!
In Galilee, 2,000 years ago, there was no lack of food. Verse 20 is clear, "they all ate, and were satisfied." I want for you to reflect for a moment at what exactly took place. We can't miss this. Jesus blessed five loaves of barley bread and two fish. He gave them to His disciples, who distributed them. Somehow, in some way, this food was multiplied. I've seen magicians take rabbits out of hats. Every time they reach in their hat, they pull out another rabbit. I believe that something like this happened with these disciples. They would reach into their bags to pull out some bread and fish. As soon as they pulled it out, there was more in the bag. When they would reach into their bags again to distribute more bread and fish, again, the supply in their bag was replenished. But, the disciples were no magicians. They weren't prepared to pull of such a stunt. They didn't have a few donkeys loaded up in the back with enough food to feed the multitudes. No, Jesus miraculously created fish and bread, ... instantly.
Notice that Jesus didn't go to some back room some place, so that He could cook some bread. No, the bread was created, fully shaped and cooked. Notice that Jesus didn't pull out some giant net of fish. No, the fish was created, possibly even picked and preserved. Notice that he did this instantaneously. I don't see any way around this, other than to say that Jesus created bread that was fully prepared. And, He created fish that was mature and ready to eat.
I believe that there must have been some similarities between what Jesus did in this miracle and what took place in creation. Jesus didn't need three hours to let the bread rise. Jesus didn't need 20 minutes to let the bread cook. Jesus didn't need three months to let the fish grow. Furthermore, my belief is that the fish was salted, pickled, or smoked, just like the fish that the boy gave to the disciples. Both the bread and the fish was created instantly with the appearance of age.
I ask you, "If Jesus created cooked bread and created mature, edible fish, could He not have also created the world in an instant? The Bible says that Jesus created the world in six days. My question concerning this is always the same, "Why did He take so long? It wasn't out of His power to create the world in a single moment. I believe that God did it this way to give us a model for our week. God told the people of Israel, "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, ... for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day" (Exodus 20:9-11).
The miracle of Jesus is only a small demonstration of His incredible power. It was a miracle! Jesus did the impossible. (This is what we are supposed to get from this miracle). Jesus satisfied the hunger of the crowds with five loaves of bread and two fish by creating 2,000 pounds of fish and creating 250 dozen loaves of bread. Jesus can do the impossible! This is the point! Jesus is God. As God, Jesus can do the impossible!
Just to make sure that the disciples knew what Jesus did, they picked up the scraps. Verse 20 tells us "they picked up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve full baskets" (verse 20). There were twelve baskets left over because there were twelve disciples, who went around to pick up the leftovers and put them in their bags. Do you know that the disciples probably ate for the next week? Leftover bread and fish! Jesus took five loaves of bread and two fish and satisfied the appetite of thousands, and created enough food for each disciple to take home a doggy bag.
Jesus is no ordinary man. Indeed, He is the God-man. He is the Messiah, who has come to fulfill all of the Old Testament prophecies. He is the One who came to "save His people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21) by dying upon the cross and raising from the dead, so that those who believe in Him might not perish, but shall have ever-lasting life. This miracle we have studied this morning is only one of many that Matthew records for us that we might look upon Him and believe that He has the power to save us. These stories weren't simply written to tell us a little nice something about Jesus. These stories were written that we might believe that Jesus is the sovereign ruler of the universe. These stories were written that we might believe Jesus to be the Christ. These stories were written that we might bow to Him as our Lord and Savior.
Jesus could do the impossible. His words are to be trusted as truthful and reliable. Do you trust Him? Does your faith rest completely in Jesus of Nazareth?
This sermon was delivered to Rock Valley Bible Church on
/February 1, 2004 by Steve Brandon.
For more information see www.rvbc.cc.