READ : John 6:8-9
One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?”
John 6:8-9 rsv
What one miracle of Jesus, do you suppose, is reported in each of the four gospels? If you said “the Resurrection,” you’re right. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all bear witness to our Lord’s mighty victory over death. But I’m thinking now of miracles Jesus performed during His ministry. Which of these appears in all four gospels? The answer is the feeding of the multitude. In fact, accounts of that kind occur no less than six times in the four gospels. In other words, it’s the most frequently reported, most strongly emphasized, of Jesus’ mighty works.
This act of Jesus must have been signally important to the gospel writers. They saw it as revealing much about God’s saving purpose in Jesus and His way of working in the world. Let’s listen to one of their accounts. I’m reading from the Gospel according to John, chapter 6, beginning at verse 1. Listen carefully:
After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. And a multitude followed him, because they saw the signs which he did on those who were diseased. Jesus went up into the hills, and there sat down with his disciples. Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a multitude was coming to him, Jesus said to Philip, “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” This he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place; so the men sat down, in number about five thousand. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.
Later, “when the people saw the sign which he had done,” they said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
A HEART FOR PEOPLE
The first thing that strikes me here is the Lord’s heart for people, His concern for human need. One of the other gospel writers, in introducing this miracle, says that the Lord looked on the crowds and had compassion for them. That’s a very strong word in the Greek language, directly related to the visceral organs. With Jesus, it was a veritable pain of love. He couldn’t have cared more when He saw people in need. We get the same impression here. Jesus sees a multitude coming to Him out in the hills toward Him and He begins to think right away about how they can be fed.
Now remember, Jesus is not a kind of religious star, a self-styled wonder worker. He is the Son of the Father, the Word of God, the revelation here in human history of what God is like. So when you sense a deep concern in Jesus for the everyday needs of people, you’re seeing through a window, as it were, into the compassionate heart of God.
I don’t know how that affects you, but it means a great deal to me. When I think about the people starving in Somalia, in the Sudan and Bosnia, I like to remember that the Lord looks on them with compassion. It’s not because of any lack of provision on His part that those hungry ones aren’t fed. He made the world fertile and fruitful. He gave us all things richly to enjoy. Most of the instances of desperate hunger in the world are related not so much to a scarcity of food as to warfare, the displacement of populations, problems of distribution. Human hostility and greed are the chief foes of the malnourished.
Wherever the God revealed in Jesus Christ sees a multitude of needy people, His heart goes out to them. His desire is that they should be fed. We know that from looking at Jesus in this account of the feeding of the multitudes because, as He said, “He that has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus cares about the hungry, and God, blessed be His name, is like Jesus.
But I hear someone object at that. “Yeah, you say God cares. Well, why doesn’t He do something about the heartbreaking want and famine in the world?” Here we find another major message of this miracle. In His compassion, the Lord chooses to make use of human instruments. In this passage, the first of these is Philip. Jesus says to His disciple, “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He wants Philip to look at the multitude approaching, wants this follower of His to care about the needs of hungry people far from home, wants him to wrestle with how they can be provided for. “What are we going to do here, Philip?”
The gospel writer makes a telling comment, “This [Jesus] said to test him, [that is, to test Philip] for he himself knew what he would do.” It was already in the Lord’s mind to provide for these people, but he wanted to see how Philip would react to the situation. Philip was the natural one to ask since he was a native of this area, from the town of Bethsaida. Jesus wanted to test him. This is not temptation now, not the kind of thing the devil does when he tries to lure us into some evil. This is testing with gracious intent, looking to bring out the best in a true follower.
Philip’s answer was one of perplexity. “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Thousands of people had gathered. Philip made a quick calculation in his head and came up with a figure: the day’s wage of 200 workers. Even that would get everyone in a crowd like this only a morsel. And since no one in the apostolic band had resources like that, Philip was pointing to what seemed to him an impossibility. This was not a heroic response on his part, but at least it was an honest one. Humanly speaking, this feeding operation simply couldn’t be managed.
Another of the disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, had been listening in, and at the same time, looking around. It was the special gift of Andrew that every time we meet him in the Gospels he seems to be bringing someone to Jesus. This time it was a little boy who was carrying his lunch. Andrew brought him to Jesus, not thinking that the lad would become the Lord’s follower (though that might have happened), but that he might be useful in the present need.
Here’s another factor, another person to be caught up into the Lord’s plan of generous provision, this boy. We don’t know what his name was or how old he was or where he came from – just that he was a lad with five barley loaves and two fish. Quite a company Jesus makes use of in His labor of love, isn’t it? He gathers them up into His purpose, including them in the gracious work He plans to do. That apparently is His strategy now in this world: to do His works of compassion through His people. They serve as His hands and His heart here in this needy world.
MUCH OUT OF LITTLE
Notice also this encouraging thought. In this connection, in His use of human instruments, Jesus makes much out of little. It’s only the evangelist John who tells us about this little boy and his lunch. What he had brought along that day didn’t amount to much. Those five barley “loaves” were really more like biscuits. And barley bread was cheap – this boy was not from a wealthy home, by any means. And the Greek text stresses that the fish were quite small, perhaps little more than bite size, just enough to make that coarse bread a little more palatable. It might be a nourishing lunch for a youngster, but you could scarcely expect that anything would be left over after he had had his fill. But that, that lunch, is what Jesus used to feed thousands.
I’m glad He did it that way, aren’t you? He’s the Lord of creation. He could have caused food to appear out of nowhere or to fall like manna from the heavens. But He chose to take the bread and the fish that someone provided and make a meal out of it for the multitude.
There’s something enormously heartening here for many of us who see ourselves as one-talent people, without a great deal to offer. Maybe you’re older now and have only a few more years to give the Lord. I knew a man like that. His name was Jack. He decided to go into the ministry when he was past 50. He called himself “an eleventh hour laborer.” But what a ministry Jack had! Three different churches were served well before he died!
Maybe you feel that your talents are meager. Maybe you think there’s only one thing you can do, like a lady I knew named Florence. The only useful task she felt she could do well was bake pies. But you know, in the town where I lived, she used to bring pies to the homes of newcomers and to people who were going through a great sorrow. Those expressions of love were used by God to bring whole families to Jesus Christ.
Maybe you don’t have a great deal of money. Your giving to the Lord’s work seems to you like the widow’s mite, but remember how big and how wonderfully useful that was in the Lord’s sight. Little is much, as they sing, when God is in it. When you and I bring our resources, however limited, to the Lord and put them in His hands, He takes them and makes more of them than we would have dreamed possible.
That’s the great good news in this miracle of Jesus. We don’t have to have great talents, fascinating personalities, extensive training, valuable as those blessings are. We simply need to bring what we have and place it in His gracious hands. He does the rest. We stand back and shake our heads in wonder. How did He do all that with the little I had to bring?
Each of the disciples eventually got in on this remarkable event. After Jesus had taken the food and given thanks, He had the food passed out. Later the disciples gathered up what was left over. There was a part for each to play in His work of compassion.
When the people saw the sign He had done, they said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” There it was, a sign, and how people reacted to it!
We learn later that some of the people who were fed that day decided they had found a good thing. They went to where Jesus was the next day in hopes of another meal. They thought they had discovered a convenient source of supply.
Others decided, when they saw this miracle, that Jesus had powers that could be politically useful. Anyone who could feed the masses would be an enormously popular leader, maybe the one at last who could throw off the Roman yoke. Their response to what they saw was to take Jesus by force and try to make Him a king.
But still others, and they were the ones who caught the real message of the miracle, said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” They didn’t have the full picture, of course. They didn’t recognize that He was the Messiah, God’s own Son. But they saw that the miracle was a pointer to His true identity. They were on the right track.
It’s true about every word Jesus spoke and every work He ever did. There was compassion in it, genuine concern for people. There was power in it, marvelous power. But if that’s all people saw, they didn’t really get the point. In words and works like these, there was a disclosure of who Jesus really was and of the God in whose name He had come.
I really hope today that you and I will get the message here. One boy’s lunch. I hope we’ll see that God is compassionate toward human need. I hope we’ll see how He makes use of human instruments in ministering to it. I hope we’ll see how He can make much out of very little. But I hope we won’t stop there. I hope we’ll be led by all that to recognize who Jesus is and to put our faith in Him. Then perhaps we can be the heart and hands of His loving care in this world. Perhaps He can take the little that we bring and do something wonderful through it in His purposes of love. Oh, may it be so!
Prayer: Father, encourage everyone listening to believe in this Jesus Christ who embodies Your compassion in the world, and let all of us bring whatever little we have, Lord, to You, and then will you make much of it, for the blessing of others. In Jesus’ name. Amen.