In the Moment

Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves." But Jesus said, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." They said to him, "We have only five loaves here and two fish." And he said, "Bring them here to me." Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Matthew 14:13-21 (ESV)

I previously mentioned the account of Jesus feeding the five thousand while illustrating Jesus's character. This miracle is the only miracle performed by Jesus that is recorded in all four gospels:

  • Matthew 14:13-21;
  • Mark 6:30-44;
  • Luke 9:10-17;
  • John 6:1-15.

What I found remarkable was what Jesus said to the disciples in the moments preceding the miracle.

But Jesus said, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat."

Matthew 14:16 (ESV)

Jesus's instruction you give them something to eat is recorded in Matthew[1], Mark[2] and Luke[3]; each gospel nearly mirroring the others, with the exception of John who gives us a different perspective into the dialogue between Jesus and the disciples.

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.

John 6:5-6 (ESV)

Before going further into what Jesus is asking of the disciples, it's important to consider what transpired before all of this.

And he called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.

And they departed and went through the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere.

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 9:1-2, 6, 10 (ESV)

Here we have the disciples being sent by Jesus into the community to teach and heal, which they do. When they return they tell Jesus of all they taught and healed.

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.

Mark 6:31 (ESV)

Jesus's response is that they should move to a desolate (or secluded) area. When Jesus used the word desolate He's not talking about a desert, specifically. The words He used communicate a place that is abandoned or empty--no people or vegetation. Despite His desire to be alone the crowds followed Him.

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.

John 6:5-6 (ESV)

In the moments leading up to the feeding of the five thousand Jesus learned that John the Baptist had died. Herod had reluctantly executed him; later he heard of the miracles Jesus was performing, assumed Jesus was John raised from the dead and wanted to meet Him[4]. Jesus and His disciples venturing to Bethsaida brought them to the Philip's home town and just outside of Herod's jurisdiction.

It seems reasonable that Jesus would ask Philip where they could get food since he knew the area and where they were had no vegetation and (typically) no people. I think Jesus testing the disciples was less about Jesus providing the food and more about the disciples recognizing whom the provider is. It's bizarre that the disciples, having just returned from performing miracles, would question how the people could be fed.

A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing the man of God bread of the firstfruits, twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. And Elisha said, "Give to the men, that they may eat." But his servant said, "How can I set this before a hundred men?" So he repeated, "Give them to the men, that they may eat, for thus says the LORD, 'They shall eat and have some left.'" So he set it before them. And they ate and had some left, according to the word of the LORD.

2 Kings 4:42-44 (ESV)

God used Elisha in a similar manner hundreds of years before Jesus fed the five thousand. Not only is this probably why some thought a prophet had returned (versus John the Baptist being raised from the dead)[5] but it also becomes apparent that the disciples should have known feeding a multitude was well within God's ability. This is especially true considering all they had seen God do through them earlier.

Jesus told His disciples to give them something to eat. Even though Jesus knew what was going to happen, it's my opinion that Jesus wanted the disciples to be the ones to perform the miracle, just like Elisha did. What's particularly interesting is Jesus's word choices, which don't translate well to English. Jesus is not saying, "You give them something," He's saying, "You give them something." He is specific and emphatic. The disciples ended up being the ones who literally served food instead of the ones through whom the miracle was performed. It's not that the disciples didn't consider God capable of feeding the people, it's that they never even considered to include God in the situation[6].

Notice that Jesus didn't seem aggrieved by the disciples' behaviour. While He knew what was going to happen--was testing them--at no point did He provide admonition that they could have handled the situation differently. Instead He performed the miracle while they watched and served, allowing this to be another learning experience for them.

It's incredibly easy to not include God in situations that seem pragmatic and ordinary. It's harder to involve God when we don't think it matters or is necessary. Therein lies the challenge, God has structured His involvement to rely on our participation. And there's no demarcation point to that participation. When God moves it's often an intersection of natural and supernatural, where God does something miraculous in a seemingly normal, everyday moment.

When I wrote The Familiar I shared:

it's not that God needs us, it's that God wants us (so much so that He often limits His involvement to working through us).

[...]

most people in the Bible [...] are normal, everyday individuals who knew God and lived a life that drew both themselves and others closer to Him--focusing on their unique contribution.

This really is the key and it's where the disciples missed it. It doesn't so much matter what you do, it simply matters that, when you do, it's inclusive of God.


  1. Matthew 14:16 ↩︎

  2. Mark 6:37 ↩︎

  3. Luke 9:13 ↩︎

  4. Mark 6:16; Luke 9:9 ↩︎

  5. Luke 9:7-8 ↩︎

  6. Matthew 14:17; Mark 6:37; Luke 9:13; John 6:7-9 ↩︎