(John 6:1-3 ESV) After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. 2 And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. 3 Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples.
Imagine that you live in First Century Galilee. Germ theory, antibiotics, anesthesia, sterilization … all the elements of modern medicine are unheard of. Women routinely die in childbirth. There’s no cure for birth defects.
Then imagine that a prophet comes along with the ability to heal even blindness and those lame from birth. Can you imagine the crowds that would have followed? People would have walked for weeks in hopes of meeting this Jesus of Nazareth, desperate to bring healing to those they love.
The press of the crowds must have been unbelievable. And desperate people do desperate things — like follow a prophet into the countryside without planning for their next meal. After all, there were no fast food restaurants! No grocery stores. There might have been a market in a nearby village, but few markets could accommodate a crowd of 5,000.
(John 6:4 ESV) 4 Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.
Why mention the Passover? Jesus does not offer a Passover meal (a seder). It seems probable that John wants us to think in terms of the Exodus. Jesus will soon be speaking in terms of manna, calling himself the “bread of life.”
(John 6:5-7 ESV) 5 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?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. 7 Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.”
Two hundred denarii would be about 8 months wages.
(John 6:8-10 ESV) 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” 10 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.
The Jewish convention was to count adult males. The actual crowd was surely much larger than 5,000.
(John 6:11 ESV) 11 Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted.
There are very few events recorded in all four gospels. The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is, of course, included in all four. The descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus at this baptism is recorded in all four. And the feeding of the 5,000 is included in all four.
What makes this event so important that all four gospel writers report it? After all, none of Jesus’ parables are found in all four. Neither is the Sermon on the Mount.
Again, imagine that you live in First Century Galilee. Your biggest worry would be having enough food to eat. You’d spend nearly every hour of every day working for wages that would barely cover the cost of food.
Droughts and famines would be common. In the modern United States, we are largely unhurt by famines. Our farmers may lose money, but few of us miss a meal. We just import the food from somewhere else. In Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, Richards and O’Brien describe their experience teaching the Parable of the Prodigal Son [Thanks to Jerry for helping me correct the mistake]. When they ask their students to prepare a summary of key points, every international student mentions the famine (Luk 15:14). Not a single American student mentions it! (I bet you forgot about it.)
To an American, the famine is mentioned as a plot device to force the prodigal son to come home. It has no significance to the story and doesn’t figure into our exegesis. To a Third-World student, the famine is about … famines. The lesson is that famines draw us all closer to God. Famines force us to humble ourselves before God. Famines have profound theological implications that they find in this very parable.
Americans wonder why feeding 5,000 men is a big deal, when a McDonalds might feed far more than that on a given day. But to the rest of the world, to a world where food is precious and hunger and starvation are common, the image of being fed by the hand of Jesus — beyond their needs — is huge. It speaks of Jesus’ concerns for our daily needs. It tells us that Jesus isn’t just about doctrine and theology but the elements of daily life. Jesus understands us where we are.
In fact, I’m aware of no biblical record of mass feedings by a prophet or apostle. The only similar examples are the Exodus, where God provided food for the Israelites, and the feeding of the 4,000 in Matthew 15.
(John 6:12-13 ESV) 12 And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten.
The Jews were all about numerology. The fact that 12 baskets were left over tells us that Jesus has power and to spare. His ability to provide for his people is given generously. It’s a lesson on grace.
But it’s also a message about Jesus’ mission. 12 baskets = 12 tribes of Israel. A First Century Jew would recognize the point — that Jesus feeds all 12 tribes, just as God fed all 12 tribes during the Exodus.
Ray Vander Laan points out that the feeding of the 4,000 in the Decapolis in Matthew 15 bespeaks a similar lesson. The Decapolis was a Gentile/Greek area near the Sea of Galilee, and is the place where 7 ancient pagan nations dwelt that God commanded the Israelites to drive out.
The First Century Jews routinely referred to the Gentiles living in that area as the “seven nations.” And after Jesus fed 4,000 at the Decapolis, he had seven baskets left over! Jesus has blessings not only for the 12 tribes of Israel but for the seven nations that were once enemies of God.
(John 6:14 ESV) 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”
The Jews considered this text from the Torah to speak of the Messiah –
(Deu 18:15-19 ESV) 15 “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers — it is to him you shall listen – 16 just as you desired of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the LORD my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ 17 And the LORD said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. 19 And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.”
The Prophet, therefore, will stand in the shoes of Moses and speak for God among the people.