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The Life of Jesus - Series 6: Episode 5

The feeding of the 5,000

| Martin Charlesworth
Mark 6:30-44
Matthew 14:13-21
Luke 9:10-17
John 6:1-15

Although Jesus is seeking rest, he has compassion on the crowd and involves the 12 fully in the miracle of multiplication. There are many lessons to be learnt.

Although Jesus is seeking rest, he has compassion on the crowd and involves the 12 fully in the miracle of multiplication. There are many lessons to be learnt.


Hello and welcome to Series 6 and Episode 5: ‘The Feeding of the Five Thousand.’ This remarkable miracle is recorded in all four Gospels - this is unusual. We're going to follow the story as described in Mark 6: 30 - 44 but we'll also be referring to the accounts given in Matthew, Luke and John which add extra and interesting details and indeed John adds another section, afterwards, which is a major event and discussion that took place after this miracle.

Introduction and Recap

The feeding of the 5000 is a well-known miracle; there were 5000 men present, the Gospels tell us, but also women and children, so the overall number is unspecified but could well exceed 10,000 people. That is a huge crowd, by any standard, and it is the biggest crowd recorded in Jesus' ministry so this is a really significant moment.

In Series 3, we saw how Jesus' ministry started: the first tour of Galilee. In Series 4, we saw the Sermon on the Mount where the newly formed group of Apostles and other disciples were being trained into Christian lifestyle and in Series 5 we saw the second tour of Galilee, where the Apostles were being trained by Jesus as he travelled round. We're now in Series 6. We've already had a number of episodes in Series 6, and those episodes have described two crucial events which are the immediate background to this dramatic miracle. The first event is the sending out of the Twelve in pairs to preach all over Galilee, so Jesus is multiplying his ministry very dramatically. This story is told most fully in Matthew 10 and we looked at that, in some detail, in earlier episodes in Series 6. Secondly, and as a real contrast, the last episode that we have looked at was the sudden and unexpected execution and death of John the Baptist. You'll remember that John the Baptist had been imprisoned by King Herod Antipas who ruled Galilee and other areas and who was the ruler over Jesus, in political terms. Quite suddenly, through the influence of his wife and his stepdaughter, at a public banquet Herod Antipas had decided to execute John the Baptist rather than keeping him in prison. He was obviously reluctant to do this but this event had taken place. 

Time Out

The news of this story comes back to Jesus and gets out into the community, and the trigger points for our story today are the coming together of information to Jesus from these two earlier events that have just taken place. First of all, we have the disciples reporting back to Jesus on their ministry and, secondly, we have Jesus hearing about the events to do with John the Baptist. Let's read a couple of verses to illustrate this. Concerning John the Baptist, Matthew 14: 13, reads:

‘When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.’

Matthew 14:13, NIV

Hearing about John the Baptist triggered Jesus to want to take some time out and pause. In Mark 6; 30 it says,

‘The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught,’

Mark 6:30, NIV

and this event also happens just at the same time. There are two separate reasons why Jesus wants to take his disciples away from the pressure of the crowds: to reflect on the growing ministry (going out in pairs) and also to reflect on the death of John the Baptist. That is the immediate context to the story that we are now going to look at in Mark 6: 30 - 44:

30The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. 31Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”32So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. 33But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. 35By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it's already very late. 36Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”37But he answered, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “That would take more than half a year's wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”38“How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.” When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.”39Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. 40So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. 41Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. 42They all ate and were satisfied, 43and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. 44The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.’

Mark 6:30-44, NIV

Jesus, first of all, is withdrawing. We discover, by reading all the four accounts together, that he's going to the region of a town called Bethsaida, which is on the north and eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. We can calculate that this is about 10 to 15 kilometres away from where he starts on the western side of the Sea of Galilee. He wants to give his disciples the time to reflect, to get strengthened and to prepare for what could be a tougher time ahead, now that John the Baptist has been executed and opposition is gradually increasing. When he got to Bethsaida area, the town near where he landed by boat on the north-east side of the lake, there was a huge crowd there already and the narrative tells us that they had travelled all the way round from the western side. Even before he started, there was a huge crowd, so huge that they couldn't find time to eat, as we've already seen. The crowd saw him getting into the boat and simply decided to walk along the lakeside while the boat was travelling directly across the sea. It's a remarkable event and the narrative is fascinating. It looks like the crowd gathers on a hillside, or a mountainside, near Bethsaida - we can see this from John 6: 3, and Luke 9: 10 - and the crowd greets Jesus with great excitement when he arrives. As I've said, it's probably the largest crowd in Jesus' ministry - it's certainly the largest recorded number of people in one place at one time - and Jesus' response is to do two things: he has compassion on them and (according to Mark 6: 34) he teaches them. According to Matthew 14: 14, he also performs miracles of healing. Matthew 14: 14

‘When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.’

Matthew 14:14, NIV

So the plan to have a time of rest and recuperation is not going forward; it's not looking as though it's going to happen - quite the opposite!

The Hungry Crowd

The crowd has got there first. This now becomes a public event and an immediate issue arises: these people have been walking a long way, they've been travelling and now they're hungry. The day is getting towards the end and so the issue of eating food becomes critical for rather a large number of people - they're fascinated to be close to Jesus; they've travelled a long way and any food that they might have brought with them they would almost certainly have eaten by this time because they've travelled that long distance (10 to 15 kilometres, I would estimate). The issue of eating becomes very critical and the discussion between Jesus and his disciples is a little bit tense because they're very keen to dismiss the crowd - they want some peace, quite urgently - they'd been quite alarmed to see that the crowd came with them when they went to try and get away from the crowd and they know that it's not practical (either in financial terms or in terms of supply) to get enough food for five thousand plus - maybe ten thousand - people. I mean it's an absurd concept! They're right there in the countryside; this is not an age of big shops and supermarkets. Where on earth are they going to get a large quantity of food and how on earth are they going to pay for it? They have a travelling purse, we know that from John's Gospel; there's always some money with them as they're travelling, but certainly not enough money to fulfil this particular need and so they're really requesting, very understandably, that Jesus dismisses the crowd.

Something very striking happens - and this is an issue that has a real bearing on Christians in our own discipleship because things like this happen to us, on a smaller scale, very often - Jesus says in Mark 6: 37, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They didn't even have their own food, so they had to find out what resources were available and we discover that the only food they can get their hands on at short notice, in response to Jesus question, are five loaves of bread and two fish from the lake, which are being prepared, and they bring these to Jesus. This is an impossible situation: a ridiculously small amount of food for a ridiculously large crowd - the largest crowd ever recorded in Jesus' ministry! What on earth is going to happen? Jesus is teaching his disciples about obedience and faith and he asked them to do something which was quite striking: he asked them to get the crowd to sit down in groups (Mark 6:39). Verse 40: ‘they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties.’ A massive organisation of the people took place, with virtually nothing to give them. The disciples are forced into a situation of extreme vulnerability because the people would be saying to them, “Why are we sitting down? What are you doing?” “Jesus is going to feed you.” “What's he going to feed us with?” Difficult question! The disciples are on the front end of ministry by faith, in a very real sense, on this occasion.

The Miracle

What is going to happen next? In verses 41 and 42, we see the miracle unfold with five different actions.

‘Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all.’

Mark 6:41-42, NIV

Five things happen. Taking the food, Jesus first of all looks up to heaven: a sign of prayer - a sign of faith, a sign of connection to his heavenly Father, a sign of listening to what his heavenly Father is doing. Here is the spiritual dynamic represented. Then Jesus gives thanks for what is already there and then he breaks the bread, gives it to the disciples and they distribute it to the people. The question arises in my mind (maybe in your mind also) when exactly does the miracle happen? Does it happen when he looks up to heaven? Does it happen when he gives thanks? Does it happen when he breaks the bread? Does it happen when he gives it to the disciples? Does it happen in the distribution? My suspicion is this miracle happens at the very last stage - in the process of distribution. As the act of faith takes place on behalf of the disciples to participate with Jesus in this extraordinarily unlikely venture, then a miracle of multiplication - of astonishing proportions - takes place before their very eyes. John records this and also in Mark 6: 43 and in John 6: 13. In Mark it says

‘and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish.’

John 6:13, NIV

That's an enormous amount of leftovers - after everyone had eaten as much as they wanted to eat. An extraordinary amount of multiplication took place in this event. So spectacular was this miracle, that in John 6: 14 - 15, says very explicitly:

‘After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.’

John 6:14-15, NIV
The Reaction

We'll have an opportunity to look at this in more detail in a subsequent episode but we need to pause and think about it now. Having witnessed this event, many people reach such a fever pitch of excitement that they identify Jesus with the Old Testament figure known as the Prophet, which is a representation of the prophecy of Moses in Deuteronomy 18 when he said that a prophet, a greater prophet than him, would come after him and the people must listen to that prophet. From that prophecy, came a tradition in Judaism that a great final prophet would come, and many people link that with the figure of the Messiah, and that's probably what the people had in mind on this occasion. ‘The prophet who is to come into the world.’

Then, astonishingly, it says they intended to come and ‘make him king by force.’ How can they do that? This is them wanting to overthrow the political system in the country and use Jesus as their new political leader. This is a very challenging situation for Jesus to be in because the king in his district, King Herod Antipas, had just exerted his authority and power by killing John the Baptist and it looks like here the people are taking the side of Jesus against King Herod Antipas and wanting to say, “We'll have you as king. We'll get rid of King Herod Antipas - who just works for the Romans, the ultimate rulers - and let's have you in his place.” Perhaps even they had a wider intention, which is to take Jesus in triumph to Jerusalem and overthrow the Roman governor as well ,and take the capital city and take the whole country, not just the northern district of Galilee. We don't exactly know the details of what they had in mind but the expression ‘to make him king by force' is dramatic. They wanted to turn Jesus into a political leader at this point. They were so impressed with this miracle and all the things that had preceded it - the other miracles that we've been recounting, the astonishing ministry of his Apostles healing all over the place and this sense of proclaiming, “The Kingdom is here! The Kingdom is here! The Kingdom is here!” that had really gripped the imagination of people. When they saw Jesus on the mountainside able, not just to heal the sick, but actually to create material resources - to create food - they thought, “Maybe this is the moment! Here's a huge crowd. Here's a dramatic event. Why don't we start the revolution for him?” That's the outcome. It's much more clearly expressed in John's Gospel than the others. That's the beauty of us working with linking together the accounts because we see different facets of the story as we see them in harmony together. The reason John emphasises this is because of the subsequent event that took place in Capernaum where a great crowd followed Jesus back to Capernaum and carried on the discussion with him about his messianic status but we'll come to that in a subsequent episode.


For those of you who may have been brought up in the Christian tradition, this is a familiar story; it's one that is taught to children in Sunday school; it's one that is regularly spoken of in Christian preaching; and it's a magnificent story. What I want to do now is to take a step back from the actual narrative and spend time reflecting on the significance of this particular event. The first thing that occurs to me is that this is a miracle of compassion. Matthew 14: 14, which we've already mentioned, says,

‘When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed (the) sick.’

Matthew 14:14, NIV

Now that compassion also caused him to want to feed people who were getting hungry and tired and were a long way from home - they weren't even in a village or town; they were out on the mountainside in Galilee.

This is a miracle of compassion and it's a miracle that opens up another dimension of God's grace to us from the miracles of healing, which are prominent in the Gospels, and the miracles of deliverance from dark spirits, which are also prominent in the Gospels. Those speak of some important themes of God's grace and his salvation but we have another theme, here, which is that our God of compassion is also a God of provision. A God who can provide material needs to his people and to needy people in the world. This miracle - and also the similar one, which we call the feeding of the four thousand, which we'll study shortly in a subsequent episode - speak very clearly of Jesus' ability and desire to provide for those who have material needs. It's not a big step from this thought to realise that this is something to do with the fact that this Gospel is good news to the poor - to the materially deprived. This is part of the coming Kingdom and so this miracle anticipates the way that God provides for his people miraculously in the book of Acts. If we take, for example, the Jerusalem church in the first few chapters of the book of Acts, we see remarkable material provision as people share and give and redistribute. We find provision for people in need, provision for poor widows, provision to people without jobs and without income, comes through the Church and, underlying that narrative, is probably some element of miraculous multiplication. Paul, in teaching in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, when he teaches about giving, talks about God's ability as we give, to give back to us and to multiply. It's a very important biblical theme and it's very clearly exemplified here by the gift of the five loaves and two fishes - as they're given, they multiply; as the small gift is given, so it multiplies. This is a miracle of compassion.

It's also a prophetic miracle because the question of bread becomes very significant: the actual bread is discussed by Jesus, in a metaphorical sense, in his subsequent discussion back in the synagogue in Capernaum, with some of the crowd who were there on the mountainside in Bethsaida. John describes this in John 6 and we're going to come to that in a subsequent episode where Jesus explicitly says that he is ‘the bread of life’ (John 6: 25 - 59).

The other thing that occurs to me, very clearly, in this passage is that this is an education in faith for the disciples. They've just been out on their ministry in pairs; they've seen God work miraculously and they've reported back to Jesus the things he's done. But here, they have to engage in a fairly startling miracle. They have to participate in a process and it all starts with that question, “You give them something to eat.” I want to describe some of the implications of this. First of all, the implication is: use what you have and God will multiply it. That's a very foundational principle of the Christian life. If we want to see God's Kingdom grow, we need to invest what we have in that Kingdom and see how God multiplies the impact of it. It's an unpredictable process but God is a God of multiplication and that is one of the great themes that we see here. They took their five loaves, they took their two fish and the temptation, of course, is to eat it because everyone's hungry, including the disciples, but no they give it and God multiplies it. This is a test of faith for the disciples because they're involved in very precise obedience. They have to obey every step: they have to get the food; they have to present it to Jesus; they have to organise the crowd (that took quite some time to do - get them to sit down in groups of fifties and hundreds - that was really quite a demanding thing to do with such a huge number of people; then they have to participate in the distribution; and they have to believe that the baskets they've got are not going to be emptied as people put their hands in and take a fish here and some bread there. Human faith and divine power are working together in this miracle in a wonderful way.

This is a lesson for us. I'm inspired by this story and have used this story even in my own life and I'm encouraging you to do the same - to think about the question: what should I be investing in God's kingdom and whose responsibility is it to multiply, or make effective, the things that we do for God? Our responsibility is to give what we have; his responsibility is to multiply it and to make it fruitful. We need to keep those two things in mind. There's a huge risk when you give money, when you give time, when you change careers, where you serve in the Church, where some people get involved in full-time church leadership, missionary work or evangelistic work - there's a risk. There's a risk for us of investment in the Kingdom but, when we think about the risk, we should think much more strongly about the investment and the opportunity. We should go back to stories like this which show us that, as we invest what God calls us to invest in the Kingdom, so there will be multiplication - a blessing whatever that type of blessing is depending on what you're investing. It might be finance, it might be time, it might be prayer, it might be direct evangelism, it might be supporting ministries in the Church, it might be witnessing to your family, it might be particularly seeking to provide for those in need and sharing what you have with the poor in one sense or another (formally or informally, through a project, through your personal work or personal relationships). There's all sorts of different ways that we might do it. My experience has been, consistently, that as we invest the little we have faithfully and as we obey the things that God calls us to do, so he is well able to multiply and make effective the things that we invest.

My final reflection is another comment on the fact that Jesus was so popular at this time. This crowd represents that popularity; it's been a considerable inconvenience for the crowd to travel all the way over to the district of Bethsaida (10 to 15 kilometres of walking just to get there, 10 to 15 kilometres to get back again). They'd made a real effort; he's at the height of his popularity but this is soon to change. The winds of opposition are building up and the cross current between his popularity and resistance to him is gradually going to be growing in the coming days. Popularity in itself can be a risky moment but Jesus is aware of that and that's why what he does next is very important. He continues in his original intention which is to find some solitude for prayer. So, having dismissed the crowd, he goes to pray. That leads us on into the next dramatic incident that takes place, which forms the subject of our next episode. Thanks for joining us.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. What does God want you to invest in?
  • Discipleship
    1. God provides. Give examples from your experience.
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. The feeding of the five thousand is a well-known amazing miracle. When do you think the miracle actually took place?
    2. Why did Jesus not want to be made king by the crowd?
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