Feeding the five thousand is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels.
Matthew leads up to the account with the story of the Canaanite woman without any mention of the Twelve
Mark first has Jesus sending the Twelve on a mission trip, then he records the death of John the Baptist in some detail. Next, the Twelve return to tell Jesus what they did, and Jesus suggest they get away from the crowds.
Luke has Jesus sending the Twelve on their mission trip. Then he records a short scene where Herod asks his staff about Jesus; “I beheaded John. Who, then, is this I hear such things about?” That is followed by the Twelve returning.
John, as always, is most concerned about the why, not the when. His lead in to the feeding account is found in chapter 5 where Jesus gives a lengthy argument that he is doing his Father’s work. And, to prove the point, Jesus feeds five thousand with five loves of bread and two fish.
Another thing John does that you can watch for: he leaves the disciples out of the account until they are needed. You can read John 4:38 through 6:3 as though the disciples did not exist, even as we know they were with Jesus the whole time.
Both Matthew and Mark record that Jesus led the disciples to an eremos place. The Greek means lonesome, waste, desolate. Luke records to opposite; a city called Bethasida.
John’s account has more of the sense of being firsthand. Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near. NIV
A little sidelight. The fact that John added the Sea of Tiberias indicates that he was writing well after the fall of Jerusalem and for a, at least mostly, Gentile audience
Again, John is stressing the power of Jesus. We need to know that people tracked him down because they believed—incompletely—that he was a man of God. While the Temple leaders and Pharisees claimed only the Evil One could do such things, the people knew only God had the power.
As Bishop Theodore of Mopsuestia (early Fifth century) wrote, John reports this episode because of the doctrine that was drawn by our Lord from it and that was omitted be the others. ACCS
Another detail is added by John, The Jewish Passover Festival was near. NIV We do not know how often Jesus attended the Passover. If the family was the poor country carpenter that is so often pictured, then the trip when he was 12 was likely the only one before his ministry. But if his family was of the upstanding middle-class variety, he may have gone every year.
Do not forget that Nazareth was only five miles from the great city of Sepphoris which was being built in the years that Jesus was growing up. Also, remember that a carpenter worked in both wood and stone in those days. There was plenty of work for Joseph and his boys. No one then considered walking five miles to work and back every day a hardship.
Chrysostom (late Fourth century) writes, Why doesn’t he go up to the feast, some might ask, especially when everyone else is pressing towards Jerusalem? … He did this because he was quietly annulling the law, taking occasion from the wickedness of the Jews. ACCS Some five hundred years later, Bede the Venerable pointed out that John the Baptist was killed just before this Passover and that Jesus himself would be killed at another Passover. It does seem worth the mention.
As evening set in the Twelve could not figure out what to do about all the people. Here is how the four Gospels described it.
Matthew: As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.” NIV
Mark: By 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. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” NIV
Luke: 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.” NIV
John: When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. NIV
Why the difference? Once again, we see an insider’s touch. It is entirely possible that the Twelve approached Jesus as the Synoptics record it, but John saw the first response of Jesus, one which makes it clear that Jesus thinks it is the responsibility of the Twelve to feed the people even knowing that they do not have the resources to do so.
Matthew: We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish. NIV
Mark: “How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.” When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.” NIV
Luke: “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish—unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.” NIV
John: Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” NIV
Here we have complete agreement on what food is available, but once again, John has an extra touch. Only John records that the food comes from a child and only he records that the bread is barley.
Recall that it is Passover time. As a part of the season, the first Sunday after Passover is celebrated as the First Fruits of the field. On that day, barley is cut and brought into the Temple where the Priests mill it into flour and make bread from it. By adding this one word—barley—John is looking ahead to the first Sunday when Jesus walked out of the tomb.
We should also note some details that everyone in the First century would have known. The five loaves of bread were no more than a few ounces each. They were common ‘travel size’. Likewise, the fish would have been something like a sardine and dried to be safe for travel. In other words, there was barely enough food to feed the boy.
Here is a great description of the actual miracle written in the fourth century by Bishop Hilary of Poitiers. Five loves are then set before the multitude, and broken. While the apostles are dividing them, a succession of newly created portions passes—they cannot tell ow—through their hands. The loaf which they are dividing does not grow smaller and yet their hands are continually full of the pieces. The speed of the process baffles the sight. You follow with the eye a hand full of portions, and in the meantime you see that the contents of the other hand are not diminished. And all the while the heap of pieces grows. The carvers are busy at their task, the eaters hard at work at theirs. The hungry are satisfied and the fragments fill twelve baskets. Neither sight nor any of the other senses can discover how such an amazing miracle happened. What did not exist was created; what we see passes our understanding. It only remains for us to believe that God can do all things. ACCS
Only John includes this closing.
After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. NIV
Writing in the Fifth century, Bishop Augustine summed up John’s closing. Yet he who shrank from being made a king, was a king; not made king by people but one who would bestow a kingdom on people. ACCS
Be righteous and do good.