Today’s Gospel reading is among the most famous and familiar accounts in the New Testament. The superficial explanation for this is that it’s the only miracle of Jesus that’s reported in all four of the Gospels. A second explanation is that it’s among the most spectacular miracles: providing more than enough food for a crowd that may have exceeded 10,000 persons, since 5,000 accounted for only the men who were present. But the most important reason for the inclusion of this particular miracle in all four Gospels is that it tells us quite a few very important things about Jesus Himself, and it takes all four accounts to complete the picture.
Matthew and Luke actually give us the pithiest versions: a somewhat surprising fact since Mark is the Gospel writer who tends to be the most succinct. John’s eyewitness account includes several details not found in any of the others and, very significantly, John sees the miracle as leading directly to the Bread of Life discourse, given on the very next day in the hearing of many of the same persons who had been fed on the mountainside. For John, who called all of the miracles of Jesus “signs,” the Feeding of the Five Thousand had its significance not in and of itself, but because it pointed to Jesus as the true Bread, culminating in the statement of Jesus, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His Blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. Whoever feeds on this Bread will live forever” (John 6:53, 54, 58).
All three of the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, set this event in the context of Jesus’ being told of the beheading of His cousin, John the Baptist, by Herod. Only Matthew gives this as the specific reason that Jesus decided to go away to “a desolate place,” away from the crowds that were pursuing Him because of His healing ministry. But His plan failed when the crowds figured out where He was going and followed Him there. You and I would have been irritated that these people were invading our space and frustrating our need for some “alone time.” But not Jesus: Matthew tells us that Jesus looked on the pursuing crowd with compassion, and Mark adds that He saw them as “sheep without a shepherd!” We get this beautiful glimpse of the sacred heart of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, Who was in some ways just like us yet in other ways we are so unlike Him, often to our embarrassment and condemnation.
Matthew writes that not only did Jesus look on the people with compassion, but that He also continued to heal their sick. This was no restful escape for Jesus, no time for Him to contemplate the brutal murder of His forerunner who had pointed to Him as “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.” Mark adds that Jesus not only healed the sick, but also taught them “many things.” Luke writes more specifically that Jesus welcomed them and spoke to them about the Kingdom of God! What a privilege it was to be part of that crowd!
But as the day wore on, evening approached and everyone became hungry. The solution presented by the disciples was to send them away to fend for themselves. Jesus had a radically different approach. He said, “No, let’s feed them!” Here John tells us it was Philip who responded that 200 denarii, equivalent to half a year’s wages, would not buy enough food to provide even a small snack for everyone in such a crowd. And John adds that it was Andrew who spoke up about the boy with the woefully inadequate supply of five barley loaves and two fish.
But Jesus is undeterred. He tells the disciples to have everyone sit down. Mark writes that they did so in groups of 50 and 100. There are two important details recorded by everyone except John: Jesus looked up to heaven to give thanks, and He said a blessing. We are reminded immediately of the Last Supper, the Passover seder over which Jesus presided with His disciples, where again Jesus gave thanks and blessed the bread and the wine in anticipation of what we do at this holy table in remembrance of His once-for-all sacrifice for us. This table is holy because it brings before us in vivid reality all that Jesus was and is and ever shall be as the Bread of Life, the One Whose Body was given for us and Whose Blood was shed for us. It’s for that very reason that we reverence this holy table whenever we approach it or pass it in worship. We are remembering all that our Lord and Savior accomplished on our behalf, and we do this while giving our most profound thanks, which is precisely what the word “Eucharist” means. As we recall His sacrifice for us, we offer in return our sacrifices of thanks and praise, remembering also that God sanctified by His glory the altar of atonement in the tabernacle, declaring both the altar itself and all that touched it to be “holy” (Exodus 29:37-43). Things that are holy require a reverential response.
Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that Jesus looked “up” when He gave thanks for the bread and fish. I think we’ve survived a time when it was popular to make fun of Christians who look up as though God and heaven are in some mysterious way located somewhere “up.” When we look up, we’re following the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who descended in the miracle of the Incarnation, Who ascended into the clouds after His glorious Resurrection, and Who promised to return “on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30). Clearly Jesus, having come from there, had some sense of where heaven actually is. We’re not discussing astronomy in some unscientific manner. We’re acknowledging a sort of transcendence that for earthbound humans will always be “up.” We will continue to look up as Jesus Himself commanded us, saying to “look up and raise your heads because your redemption draws near” (Luke 21:28).
Returning to our story, after Jesus had given thanks and blessed the food, he broke the bread, gave it to his disciples and had them distribute it to the crowds in their groupings of hundreds and fifties. And then it happened. All three Synoptic Gospels record that everyone ate until they were “satisfied,” while John writes that they ate “as much as they wanted.” It’s not a stretch or a matter of spiritualizing this story when we say that Jesus is the bread that completely satisfies our every need, physical or spiritual or emotional. We need look no further. He is the One Who can take all that’s hopelessly inadequate and transform it into all that satisfies, all that meets our needs both for the present and for the age to come.
We live in uncertain times, and many of us have passed our threescore and ten. Our minds turn with greater frequency to end-of-life issues and their attendant questions. The message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that there are certainties that are to sustain us throughout this brief interval of our time on earth, an interval that is brief by any measurement regardless of where we might be in the “stages of life.” There will be times of great challenge. There will be times of mourning. But Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). John wrote in Revelation, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow after them” (Rev. 14:13).
Jesus told His disciples in the Upper Room, "These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). James wrote, “Whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2, 3). The great theologian and biblical scholar Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that the key is “living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.”
J.I. Packer, a leading evangelical Anglican who recently turned 91, wrote, “God uses chronic pain and weakness, along with other afflictions, as his chisel for sculpting our lives. Felt weakness deepens dependence on Christ for strength each day. The weaker we feel, the harder we lean. And the harder we lean, the stronger we grow spiritually, even while our bodies waste away.”
As often, it’s Paul who says it best in his second letter to the Corinthians where, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he writes, “We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (II Cor. 4:16-18).
That’s the perspective that leads to satisfaction, that provides for us as much as we want when we feed on Him, when we acknowledge the truth of what He said after feeding the 5,000, that “whoever feeds on My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. Whoever feeds on this Bread will live forever” (John 6:54, 58).
All four Gospel writers record that after everyone had eaten to their complete satisfaction, there were still 12 baskets full of leftovers. There is the lesson within the lesson for today: the supply of God’s abundance through Jesus Christ is inexhaustible. There always will be ample leftovers. As you approach this holy table today to celebrate the Bread of Life, come with thankful hearts filled with praise. Bow in humble adoration. Then look up and give thanks. Raise your heads because your redemption draws ever nearer. Be grateful for this day that is yours because it is His. Go away filled and satisfied.
And keep coming back for more.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen