Alfred Place Baptist Church

9:10-17 The Feeding of the 5,000

Luke 9:10-17 “When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida, but the crowds learned about it and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing. Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here.’ He replied, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They answered, ‘We have only five loaves of bread and two fish – unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.’ (About five thousand men were there.) But he said to his disciples, ‘Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.’ The disciples did so, and everybody sat down. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to set before the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.”

Whenever we are into a time of testing, and particularly when it’s over, then we Christians inevitably tell the Lord Jesus everything that’s occurred. Let preachers do this at the end of each Lord’s Day, not just grumble about the embarrassments and mistakes to fellow ministers, or talk to their wives about it in the car as they drive home, but go to God with everything that’s happened. As the old hymn says,

“Are you weary, are you heavy-hearted? Tell it to Jesus, tell it to Jesus.
Are you grieving over joys departed? Tell it to Jesus alone” (Edmund Lorenz).

The disciples of John the Baptist buried the body of their beheaded master and they went and told Jesus what had happened. Mary and Martha witnessed their brother dying and they sent a message to Jesus. So the Twelve returned from their evangelism and they reported to Jesus what they’d done. Perhaps it had taken as long as nine months for them to go through all the villages of Galilee preaching the gospel to the whole province. We are not sure, but now they wanted to tell him all about it. Each of them had a hundred stories of conversions, deliverances and healings. Entire communities had been changed, and they wanted to talk about serving the kingdom of God in kingdom power, but they were exhausted too, and Jesus didn’t expect more from them than their bodily strength could give. They had withdrawn to Bethsaida for a break, but wherever the Lord Jesus is to be found becomes the front line

It wasn’t easy for them all to sit down and have a private meal with Jesus because a result of their ministry was that all Galilee was buzzing. That province had never heard anything like it and an insatiable appetite for truth was found in many families. The grapevine was very effective and thousands of people soon learned where Jesus and his preachers were to be found, and quiet little Bethsaida was invaded and began to bustle with people. So the Lord was confronted with thousands of men, stirred by the apostolic preaching, searching for him who’d been commended to them so enthusiastically by his disciples. It is a great picture of true evangelism. We are to speak to people about the Lord in such a way that people’s curiosity has been aroused.

1. THE LORD CHRIST PREACHED TO THE PEOPLE.

So we are told that Jesus, “welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing” (v.11) He didn’t show the least irritation. He sweetly smiled and kindly said ‘Welcome.’ Thousands of them had gathered and so he seized the opportunity to speak to them about the Kingdom of God. “God is Sovereign,” he told them, “in creation – he alone was there in the beginning and he made the heavens and the earth. All things were made by this mighty King. He made our first parents but they defied him and darkness came into this kingdom; sin and death was everywhere. The kingdoms of this world had mortality and corruption written everywhere across them, but God in his mercy established a new kingdom. He called Abraham to serve him and blessed his line and told the world that through the line of Abraham a great King would come who would defeat sin and death. Through his life and death all the nations of the earth would be blessed.” Then Jesus would take a break from preaching and he dealt with the cancer victim, and the man with heart failure, and the people who were blind, the lepers who came to him, and those that were paralysed, and one by one, without any jiggery-pokery or any stunts or showmanship, he healed every one without exception. That is what we are told by Doctor Luke, isn’t it? “He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing” (v.11).Everyone listening and watching was in a state of deep seriousness, and then Christ told them that they had to turn from their unbelief, they had to repent of their sinful ways because the new kingdom, the kingdom of God was here in their midst because he was here. “Come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me for I am meek and lowly of heart and ye shall find rest to your souls for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” He preached to them, and so I many others preach to you. The climactic aspect of our worship after we have addressed God is to be quiet and listen as God speaks to us.

2. THE DISCIPLES TOLD JESUS WHAT HE SHOULD DO NEXT.

It was a most impressive day, one that was repeated hundreds of times in his ministry, and at the end of the sermon, Luke tells us it was “Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, ‘Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here’” (v.12) This practice is probably exactly what they’d been doing during the last nine months as the crowds built up. It is the problem of how you end a meeting when people do not want to go away. They told the people that they had ended their preaching, and the market was still open in a nearby village and that it would be a good place –“not too expensive” – to buy some bread and dry fish on their way home or get cheap accommodation. That is what they told Jesus to do. They had developed some authority during their experiences as preachers and so they thought they could help him out.

We sometimes pray just like that, not just spreading out a problem before God, but going to the Lord with our preconceptions as to how these problems can best be solved. We go to God telling him what he must do to help people. We tell God what he has to do to work things out. We tell him . . . We can think of beautiful prayers, perfectly formed petitions, fresh, cliché-free, full of holy beauty, prayed with just the right amount of emotional intensity. Some prayers may be like that, the greatest prayers perhaps are like that, but many more are like these words. “Lord we can see a problem. We don’t know if you’ve noticed it. We feel that this is the best way it can be dealt with.” They loved their Lord, and they admired his compassion; it made them want to be compassionate just like him, so “Master, don’t let these people get increasingly hungry in this remote place. It’s getting late, and so before everybody in the surrounding villages has gone to bed dismiss this crowd so that they can go off and buy some food, and get some cheap accomodation.” Jesus cared – and they also cared. They thought of themselves as ‘practical Christian carers’.

How often have we prescribed to Jesus how we want him to act in response to some problem we are facing. “Help now Lord, and do it this way . . .” I am pointing this out to you in case my criticism of the misguided attitude of these very young disciples should stop you from speaking freely to God in prayer. I am saying that you don’t have to get everything just perfect before you speak to the Lord. We go to God through our Mediator, the Lord Jesus Christ, that is, we pray in Jesus’ name, and we ask God to hear us for Christ’s sake. We ask him to forgive all our sins, especially the sins of our prayers. No one has ever prayed a sinless prayer. That is why we pray in the name of the Lord Jesus.

I am saying to you to tell Jesus everything. Don’t let fear of sinning as you pray prevent you from praying. If you move in Christian circles you hear people’s language and especially how they talk about prayer. You can learn from them how they pray and how they think about praying to God just as well as learning from a sermon on prayer. One minister, driving me around Penzance, said, “I don’t like to pray, ‘O God give me a parking place,’ because I am to love my neighbour as myself and my neighbour needs somewhere to park too. So I pray, ‘Lord make me patient while I am looking for somewhere to park the car, and thankful when I’ve got one.’” Our praying isn’t always in focus, but our main intention usually as regenerate men and women, is the glory of God and the eternal good of our neighbours. These disciples were young in the faith and a bit self-confident and their chief concern was that these hungry crowds went off and fed themselves before it got dark – “so don’t preach any longer!”

3. JESUS TOLD THE DISCIPLES WHAT THEY SHOULD DO NEXT.

Then the Lord Jesus did something which is very typical of the way he deals with us: “He replied, ‘You give them something to eat.” (v.13). Here is another glimpse of the Bible’s teaching on human responsibility. “Lord, my friends are perishing. Save them.” The Lord says, “You go and visit them. Don’t stay in your house watching TV every evening. Knock on their doors and become a friend to them.” “Lord, people are starving, and we ant you to feed them.” “Get a job,” says the Lord, “and earn some money so that you can buy them food, or invite them to your house for a meal.”

“You give them something to eat,” he said, and they protested. “‘We have only five loaves of bread and two fish – unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.’ (About five thousand men were there) (vv.13&14).” Mark tells us that buying that amount of food would take eight months of a man’s wages. Were they to empty the money bag that Judas kept to spend that much on bread and give it to this crowd to eat? Did they have enough money with them, and wasn’t there a better use for the money than supper for these fellows? What’s your salary? Maybe you live on an old age pension of a hundred pounds a week. Eight to nine months would be about 35 weeks, three and a half thousand pounds. Do you carry that amount of money about with you? Have you got it in your pocket or handbag today? Of course not, and the disciples protest that they didn’t have such money and all they had . . . wait for it . . . all they had was . . . five loaves of bread and . . . two little dried fish. “We weren’t expecting to cater for such a crowd.”

The Lord Christ didn’t laugh. He was serious about the need to provide for these people. He is teaching them a lesson, about his own power and that soon they’re going to be facing problems like this on almost a daily basis and that they have to think of what they will do. He, of course, is going to be the provider, but they are going to be crucially important as the channels, or the dispensers of the Messiah’s food. God doesn’t use angels to take the gospel to people: he uses saved sinners. In five minutes’ time these twelve young men are going to have another taste of serving their neighbours by doing exactly what the Lord says. It won’t be long before he’ll no longer be with them physically, but when those days will come they’ll still take the Messiah’s bread, the word of God, and in the power of the Spirit they’ll offer it to the whole world. These boys are being taught huge lessons in utterly unexpected ways, and that too is the Christian life. God puts us in places where we are out of our depth facing problems we have never faced before and in our desperation we learn how God acts.

So the disciples have five loaves – one barley loaf for every thousand men, and two fishes – one for every two and a half thousand, and we suppose there were also many women sitting there in the crowd. In fact the disciples had no food with them at all, they were that unprepared. It is John in his gospel who tells us that a single lad had innocently responded to the request for any food to be shared, and then he discovered that he was the only one with his hand in the air! Still he had willingly given his loaves and fishes to the apostle Andrew who brought it to the Lord. A young person can help. He can bring something to Jesus, and the Saviour will not despise it. But the fact that it was a boy is not important nor that it was barley bread, the cheapest kind, nor that the fish were dried fish; John also tells us those details in his gospel. Incidentally this is one of the few miracles of our Lord that is recorded in every one of the gospels. It is found four times in the New Testament; it is that important. It is still important for you today. You have heard it a hundred times; then you must hear it once more and this time see its significance for you and learn its importance for what it tells you about the Lord Jesus.

4. WHAT THE LORD JESUS DID WITH FIVE LOAVES AND TWO FISHES.

If we bring together the accounts from the four gospels we see that there were five things which our Lord did:

i] “But he said to his disciples, ‘Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.’ The disciples did so, and everybody sat down” (vv.14&15) This shows the enormous authority that the Lord Christ wielded. Imagine my standing on a bench on the promenade in the summer and calling to the people as they walked up and down, “Now sit down, everyone, in groups of fifty. SIT DOWN!” You can imagine the mobile phones coming out, and people calling the local constabulary to report an idiot shouting at people and frightening children, and dogs, and the donkeys. I have no authority to do that sort of thing, but the people here on a mountain near Bethsaida all obeyed the disciples as they passed on Jesus’ instructions. Mark tells us that they sat down on “the green grass” – there is the touch of an observer of that scene – it must be the apostle Peter and it must have been the springtime. The word “groups” (v.14) was used of garden beds, so that the scene – to Peter’s wondering eyes – was of a hundred blocks of people, as we’d see flower beds in the green grass of a park. Thousands of people sitting down, with avenues in between, waiting in expectation, doing exactly what the Lord said. Think of the authority of Moses organising the ancestors of these people into groups of thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens in order to settle minor disputes. Most of the 5,000 would know of that: “Who is this man we have been listening to?” He is the new Moses bringing grace and truth.

ii] The Lord took the five loaves and the two fish into his own hands; 
iii] Christ lifted his eyes to heaven and gave thanks for the food; 
iv] The Saviour broke the five loaves up for the people; 
v] Jesus gave them to his disciples to set before the people, and he also divided the two fish among them all.

The crowds had no food. They had come walking after Jesus when they discovered that he was in Bethsaida. They were not prepared for hours away from home and they’d had no time to go back for bread. The disciples knew this. “Send the people away so they can . . . buy themselves something to eat.” There was no food at all in their own pockets or bags, just one lad on his way somewhere, caught up in the running crowd, and maybe ending up ten miles away from home with the food his mother gave him that would become famous for ever. Then Jesus broke the bread and gave it to his disciples and when they distributed it all five thousand ate, and were filled, and twelve baskets full of “broken pieces that were left over” (v.17) This happened just as Luke tells us. It was a miracle, a sign and a wonder.

Matthew Parris wrote in The Times about his lack of sympathy with the Church of England installing a homosexual bishop, even though he himself is a homosexual. He writes, “knowingly to appoint gay bishops robs Christianity of meaning. It is time that convinced Christians stopped trying to reconcile their spiritual beliefs with the modern age and understood that if one thing comes clearly through every account we have of Jesus’s teaching, it is that his followers are not urged to accommodate themselves to their age, but to the mind of God . . . The Church stands for revealed truth and divine inspiration or it stands for nothing . . . Stripped of the supernatural, the Church stands for nothing . . .” Then he adds this memory, “Even as a ten-year-old boy in Miss Silk’s Scripture class, when I heard the account of how the parting of the Red Sea could actually be explained by freak tides, and that the story of the loaves and fishes really taught how Jesus set an example by sharing his disciples’ picnic (so everybody else shared theirs), I thought: ‘Don’t be silly Miss Silk! If Jesus couldn’t do miracles, why should we listen?’” (Matthew Parris, “No, God Would Not Have Approved of Gay Bishops”, The Times, August 9, 2003).

So what happened on this occasion? It was something so important and different that all four gospel writers give their accounts of it, in Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 9 and John 6. There were thousands of people still alive when they wrote their gospels who had been at this place when Jesus fed them and investigators could go and talk with them. I am saying that if there were a perfectly naturalistic explanation, such as everybody taking out their secret picnics having been convicted by the example of the wee laddie, then many still alive when these gospels appeared could have mocked and protested at the slant all four writers put on what had been a simple, touching example of sharing. Of course, if the disciples had known that even a few people had food with them there wouldn’t have been a problem in the first place. We are not allowed to fall back on the cliché “the real miracle was in people’s hearts.” That simply avoids the issue.

You understand what Luke is explaining so clearly to us. The Lord Jesus took the loaves and fishes, looked up to heaven, gave thanks, broke the loaves, divided the fish and gave them to his disciples. This was the pattern of every Jewish father as the head of the family at mealtimes. We are told about Paul on the ship in the storm as he was being taken to Rome, that “he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat” (Acts 27:35). What was unique about Jesus’ action was the fact that he kept breaking the bread and dividing the fish. Do you see the scene? There is no table. Jesus is standing facing the crowds, and the twelve disciples gather in front of him with their baskets, and Jesus breaks the bread in his hands and divides the fish. He fills Peter’s basket and off Peter goes to the first group, and by the time the men have taken all the food he offers them, John has joined him and he is distributing the food to those in the group who have not received it yet, and soon Andrew joins him, and then James, and all the other apostles as they wait for Jesus to fill their baskets. By this time Peter has returned to the end of the line, and the other apostles are waiting for it to be their turn again. Jesus is constantly dividing this bread and fish – these five loaves and two fishes – and he is filling each basket in turn. The disciples are doing what Jesus said – “You give them something to eat” (v.13). What he commanded he enabled. Whatever he commands he enables. They are taking from his hands this food and giving it to the people, and he is constantly breaking the bread and putting it in their baskets and they are constantly hurrying back and fore to the various groups. When everyone had eaten there would have been a pause and then the twelve went out again with their baskets and gathered the fragments that were not eaten and the leftovers filled their baskets.

What, then, happened? Christ multiplied the bread and fish. As he tore pieces off and put them in the baskets there was always some food in his hand for the next basket. Let us judge that if the Lord were able to break off a large enough portion for one person each time he divided it, then that would have been at least 5,000 times he would be breaking the bread. How wearying for the Lord. The disciples came right up to him until it was their turn, and they watched with wonder as the flow of food from him never stopped. He repeated the same some months later, this time breaking the bread four thousand times. It would have been early evening before he had finished. How that gesture of the Lord breaking bread, repeated thousands of times, would register in their minds! You remember how the two men on the road to Emmaus came to recognise the resurrected Lord. He taught the Scriptures to Cleopas and his friend as they walked along, and then they urged him to come indoors and eat with them. We are told, “When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognised him, and he disappeared from their sight . . . Then they got up and returned to Jerusalem . . . Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognised by them when he broke bread” (Lk. 24:30, 31, 33, 35). No one else had that characteristic mannerism in breaking of bread that the Lord Jesus had, and the apostles had seen him do it many times.

What, then, happened? Jesus did not create barley seeds, or barley flour, or dough, but cooked bread. He did not make fish spawn, or baby fish, but fully grown fish, gutted and dried in the sun. He was able to do that, to compress a process of time into a moment. God alone can do that. So who is Jesus of Nazareth? He is the mighty Creator of Genesis chapter one, the Maker of the heavens and the earth. John tells us at the beginning of his gospel, “all things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” So it was this Jehovah Jesus who said, “Let there be light and there was light.” It was this Jesus who said, “Let the waters teem with living creatures . . . So God created the great creatures of the sea and every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kind” (Gen. 1:20 & 21). The hand of that Jesus who made the world out of nothing, and created the fish of the seas, is active on that green field in little Bethsaida. There that same Lord was holding in his hand a descendant of that first fish that he had made at the dawn of creation, and he replicates it, and speeds the processes of drying and preservation – just as he does when he turns water into mature wine, or when he repairs the eyeballs of a blind man, or ends the effects of disease in the sick. It is this same Lord who sent manna from heaven and daily fed the children of Israel in the wilderness. It is the God who guaranteed that the cruse of oil in the widow’s house never ran dry. This is the one of whom David said, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” He provided all that David needed. It is this Lord who sent a great sleep on Adam, and from his side created the first woman – not a cell, nor a baby, nor a little girl, but a mature woman – and presented her to Adam as his bride. “This is now bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. She shall be called a woman for she was taken out of man.” The greatest of all realities is the living God, and we are living in a supernatural world.

So with whom are we dealing? Jehovah Jesus: God incarnate; the Creator created; the Almighty veiled in flesh. In the Lord Jesus there is the nature of God and the nature of man in one indivisible person. That is why the winds and waves obey him. That is why he can raise from the dead Jairus’ daughter. He has limitless power. None can stay his hand or say to him, “What are you doing feeding 5,000 men with five loaves and two fishes?” The only limitations on Jesus’ power are what he wills. What a King! Not Herod, and not Caesar. There is an alternative.

“Ask ye, Who is this same? 
Christ Jesus is His name. 
The Lord Sabaoth’s Son; 
He, and no other one, 
Shall conquer in the battle.” (Martin Luther. 1483-1546).

5. ALL THE PEOPLE ATE AND WERE SATISFIED.

That’s what Luke tells us of these five thousand men, “They all ate and were satisfied” (v.17). I wish that everyone here could say that about Christ, that we have tasted for ourselves the Bread from Heaven, God’s gift to the world, and we are satisfied. I wish we could tell everyone in this town and in the university and the hospital and the National Library that we are satisfied with Jesus, that he has educated us, and atoned for our sins, and that he has enabled us and guided and protected us throughout our lives. We are no more looking for another Jesus that a happily married husband or wife is looking for another spouse. It is not that we believe that ‘you must live with a thousand people before you can know for sure that this is the right one.’ We despise such mating. We have tasted the Son of God and we are satisfied. Less would not satisfy; more is not desired, for more than all in Christ we’ve found. Can you say that from your hearts? When you sing these words do you mean them?

“We taste Thee, O Thou living Bread, 
And long to feast upon Thee still; 
We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead, 
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill.” (Bernard of Clairvaux)

This Jesus is incarnate compassion, limitless power and eternal satisfaction. I commend him to you to become your Saviour and Lord. I want you to take him so that you can testify in the years to come in words such as these:

“O Christ, in Thee my soul hath found, 
And found in Thee alone 
The peace, the joy I sought so long, 
The bliss till now unknown. 
Now none but Christ can satisfy, 
None other name for me: 
There’s love and life and lasting joy, 
Lord Jesus, found in Thee.

27th September 2009 GEOFF THOMAS