Lunch for Five Thousand

Gospel of John 6:1-24

1 After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (also called the Sea of Tiberias). A large crowd was following him because they were observing the miraculous signs he was performing on the sick. So Jesus went on up the mountainside and sat down there with his disciples. (Now the Jewish Feast of the Passover was near.) NET

The other side is the eastern shore. Jesus goes there a few times but only briefly because the population is mostly Gentile. The reason he goes is to perform signs. They remained on the northern shore but east of the Jordan on this occasion. The Northern Jordan River—emptying into the lake—served as the political boundary between Galilee ruled by Herod Antipas and the Tetrarchy governed by Herod Phillip.

You may remember that at the end of chapter 5, Jesus was in Jerusalem defending himself on charges of violating the Law of Moses. The next words have him on the north shore many miles north of the city. Further, Jesus was in the city for an unnamed feast. Now it is time for the second Passover during Jesus’ ministry. That earlier feast would have been in the summer or fall, long before the Passover in the spring.

We can only conclude that John skipped a great deal of the ministry, at least six months’ worth. But not to worry, John is not writing a diary or daily journal. He has critical events in mind to explain the Gospel for the new generation of Christians. Chronology is unimportant, though he does maintain it, with gaps.

We are not told how Jesus and the disciples traveled, but verse 16ff describes the disciples in a boat, so it seems safe to assume that they all sailed to Bethsaida Julias together. (Both Matthew and Mark say they sailed in a boat.) This Bethsaida is on the eastern side of where the Jordan River empties into the lake.

There has been confusion for several centuries about the location of Bethsaida. Many believed there were two cities of that name, both along the north shore of the lake. Recent archaeological work has disproved the notion; Bethsaida Julias is the only one. People seldom used the full name in ancient times.

Jesus walks up the mountain as Moses did centuries before, and he will feed people as God did with the manna.

Then Jesus, when he looked up and saw that a large crowd was coming to him, said to Philip, “Where can we buy bread so that these people may eat?” (Now Jesus said this to test him, for he knew what he was going to do.) Philip replied, “200 silver coins worth of bread would not be enough for them, for each one to get a little.” One of Jesus’ disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “Here is a boy who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what good are these for so many people?” NET

This feeding is the only miracle that all four Gospels record. Each includes different details, none of which conflict.

The Synoptics all say the Twelve asked Jesus to send the crowd away so they could buy their evening food. Only John has Jesus start the discussion of feeding them, and he names only Phillip, not the Twelve. If John overheard Jesus talking to Phillip, we could assume his account to be the most accurate. If Mark (followed by Matthew and Luke) received his report directly from Peter, his would seem the most accurate because they wrote three decades earlier than John. That all four accounts could be true is possible. Jesus may have asked Phillip before the others came to him. Pick your favorite option and stick to it.

John names three disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter, and Phillip, all of whom came from Bethsaida. That may explain why Andrew and Phillip have Gentile names since it was a Gentile region.

Phillip’s response to Jesus is to say it is impossible to buy enough food. Jesus knew that, of course, but Phillip needed to say it out loud to enhance the power of the sign.

In the last decade of the first century, many people were saying that the stories of miracles could not be true. These were people within the Christion movement. John knows the Synoptic accounts and agrees with them, but he includes small details to build the case for a miracle with no earthly explanation.

All four Gospels list five loaves of bread and two fish. John alone records Andrew finding a boy with the bread and fish, and he mentions that it was barley bread. Most people wanted wheat bread, softer with better flavor. The poor ate the barley because it was cheap. Also, the loaves would have been travel size; even the boy could hold one in one hand. Five of them would be well short of a pound in weight.

As to the fish, they would have been about the size of sardines and pickled. After pickling, ships carried the fish to Rome and other cities. The fish from Galilee was so prized that the wealthy would pay for the shipping. Probably, this boy’s mother pickled his fish. Maybe she bought them from one of the disciple’s fishing crews.

10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” (Now there was a lot of grass in that place.) So the men sat down, about 5,000 in number. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed the bread to those who were seated. He then did the same with the fish, as much as they wanted. NET

While Jesus was teaching, he sat, and the listeners stood. Now he tells them to sit. [Matthew, ‘sit on the grass.’ Mark, ‘sit on the grass in companies.’ Luke, ‘sit in companies, about fifty each.’] All four Gospels report the same number of men. Matthew alone adds, besides women and children. People were gathering for the long walk to Jerusalem for Passover, so many women and children would have been there. Women were not required to attend any feasts, so those with babies or aging parents would stay home. But with all the children, the total fed could have reached ten thousand.

The traditional prayer would have been; Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth. Because Jews ate bread at both meals, that was often the only prayer given. The Pharisees, of course, said prayers for each item of the meal.

The Greek words used make it clear that everyone ate his/her fill.

12 When they were all satisfied, Jesus said to his disciples, “Gather up the broken pieces that are left over, so that nothing is wasted.” 13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with broken pieces from the five barley loaves left over by the people who had eaten. NET

The broken pieces seem to have been the bread only. Gathering the bits and pieces was the norm, whether a feast, party, or a family meal. At a party, the servants ate the leftovers.

Here, there is a more important point to make. Later in chapter 6, Jesus will give his Bread of Life speech. How would it look if Jesus and the boys wasted all that Heavenly Bread in the green grass?

This sign was different from the Exodus manna. The Hebrews gathered the manna each morning, enough to fill every empty stomach. If anyone held some back for the next day, they found it full of worms and rot, except on the Sabbath.

This feeding of five thousand and collecting the pieces tells us that Jesus has instituted a whole new meaning to the Bread of God.

Every Jew who traveled carried three things, a water or wine skin, a bag for money, and a woven basket shaped like a jar to hold food. Each basket was made to order, so they came in all sizes.

Each disciple went round with his basket and came back full. God provided enough food for the crowd with enough left for the servants.

14 Now when the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus performed, they began to say to one another, “This is certainly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Then Jesus, because he knew they were going to come and seize him by force to make him king, withdrew again up the mountainside alone. NET

By this time, Jesus had spent a year teaching and working signs, mainly in Galilee. People all over the country, even in neighboring countries, knew of him. But people followed him primarily for what they could get out of it, not because they believed in him as the Son of God.

The quote about the Prophet comes from Deuteronomy 18, 15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me [Moses] from among you—from your fellow Israelites; you must listen to him. NET This is the first of many Scripture references to the Promised Messiah.

While Jesus wanted people to recognize him as the Messiah, he knew that most of this crowd had the wrong idea about what the Messiah was to do. They wanted him to take the throne of David and drive out the hated Romans. Even his disciples struggled with that commonly held idea—right up to the resurrection.

16 Now when evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17 got into a boat, and started to cross the lake to Capernaum. (It had already become dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.) 18 By now a strong wind was blowing and the sea was getting rough. 19 Then, when they had rowed about three or four miles, they caught sight of Jesus walking on the lake, approaching the boat, and they were frightened. 20 But he said to them, “It is I. Do not be afraid.” 21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat came to the land where they had been heading. NET

Mark and Matthew also have this account following the feeding; Luke does not have it. Matthew includes Peter asking to walk on water. He sinks when he takes his eyes off Jesus. A nice reminder to us to keep our focus on Jesus.

Mark adds one phrase that confuses the destination. He records the boat heading for Bethsaida while John records Capernaum. There seems to be no solid explanation for this difference. It could be as simple as Jesus telling them to get the boat they left at Bethsaida and then head for Capernaum.

In any case, it proved to be not so simple. The lake is well known, even today, for sudden winds sweeping down from the mountains of Lebanon. One such wind caught the boys, so they could not gain an advance against it.

Jesus, led perhaps by the Spirit, found them and walked out to the boat. For him, that seemed effortless. For the Twelve, their imaginations created unpleasant creatures coming to get them. I am not sure how I would have responded to the words, It is I. Do not be afraid. I might have shouted, ‘Who are you?’

Notice that this miracle, this sign, was witnessed only by the Twelve. So, it was not an actual sign but a learning opportunity for Jesus’ disciples. Jesus would have said, ‘There was no miracle here. God controls the whole universe. A little water is no obstacle.’ Everything we call a miracle is ho-hum for the perfect human.

22 The next day the crowd that remained on the other side of the lake realized that only one small boat had been there, and that Jesus had not boarded it with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone. 23 Other boats from Tiberias came to shore near the place where they had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks. 24 So when the crowd realized that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they got into the boats and came to Capernaum looking for Jesus. NET

The mention of Tiberias puts another twist in the storyline. That city is on the southwestern shore of the lake, some eighteen miles away [today, twenty-five miles by car]. Why were boats going north when Passover was in Jerusalem? Word may have filtered down the lake that Jesus was near Bethsaida, so they tried to find him.

Notice that John says the boats came to Capernaum. He and the others would have watched them arrive and would have reported the fact to Jesus.

Be Righteous and do Good

Mike Lawrence

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