What do you make of the person of Jesus? To many he was little more than one of the great figures of history. A good teacher, who said some memorable and wise things. Some doubt he even existed. To Christians, he’s much more than a good teacher. He’s our Lord and our God. Our Saviour and our King.
To work out what you make of him, you’d need to look at the evidence. It’s something many people have never done. Look at the evidence for Jesus’ claims.
Part of the evidence is his miracles. And today we’re going to look at one of his miracles in some detail: The feeding of the 5000.
It’s one of Jesus’ better-known miracles. If someone had not heard of many of the miracles he did, there’s a good chance they might have heard of this one. The feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle to be recorded in all four of the accounts we have of the life of Jesus.
Many people may know this miracle exists. But many of them may know little more than that Jesus organised some food for a large crowd. I suspect many people have never looked at the details.
So this morning, we’re going to zoom in on this miracle, as Matthew tells it.
Picture yourself in the jury, looking at the evidence for the claims of Jesus. Let’s put the feeding of the 5000 in the witness box, and cross-examine. What does this story add to the body of evidence for Jesus?
Why’s it here?
Before we get into the story, let’s look at why this is here in Matthew’s gospel.
And at this point, I’m going to own up to being a bit stuck.
Maybe this is be a general miracle, to demonstrate Jesus’ extraordinary power and authority. Or maybe it’s here for a more specific purpose, here to show something specific about Jesus.
The trouble is: I’m not persuaded by either option.
This certainly does show Jesus’ extraordinary power and authority. There’s no doubting that. But I’m not sure this is why it’s here.
In chapters 8 and 9, Matthew recorded a string of miracles that were designed to show exactly this. Then, at the start of chapter 11, John the Baptist was wondering if Jesus was the promised Messiah. Jesus sent a message back to John. Jesus quoted from the prophet Isaiah, listing all the miracles the Messiah would do when he came. Which were precisely the miracles Matthew had recorded Jesus doing in chapters 8 and 9.
So Matthew’s already recorded exactly the miracles he needs to prove that Jesus is the promised Messiah. He’s moved on. He doesn’t need one further general miracle.
So maybe this miracle is doing something more specific. But what?
There are two possibilities.
One is that Jesus is being portrayed here as a new Moses. In the Old Testament, Moses led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. God then sustained them in the desert with bread from heaven, called manna.
Another possibility is that Jesus is being portrayed here as a rerun of the prophet Elisha. Elisha also fed people by miraculously multiplying bread. Elisha was the successor to the prophet Elijah. We’ve seen that John the Baptist styled himself on Elijah in some ways. So it might make sense for Jesus to cast himself as a re-run of Elisha, Elijah’s successor.
The trouble is that there just aren’t enough parallels with those stories to make this really work. The story of Jesus feeding 5000 people is more unlike those Old Testament parallels than it is like them.
So that’s why I’m stuck. Matthew doesn’t need any more general miracles. But neither of the options works for something more specific.
So I’m not going to speculate. It’s so important to handle the Bible responsibly. We must never use the Bible just as a peg to hang our ideas on.
Let’s stick to what is clear. In some way or other this miracle contributes to Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as the Messiah.
You’ll remember that the Jews had been waiting for a king God would send. This king would bring about God’s rule on earth. He’d take everything that’s broken with this world and make it better again. He’d get rid of all pain and suffering, and bring in a reign of perfect peace and joy for all of God’s people. One day, God would send this Messiah. And Matthew has been showing us that the Messiah is Jesus.
So rather than speculate on exactly which bit of being the Messiah is in view here, let’s look at the details of the miracle. Let’s allow Matthew to convince us that this was the action of no ordinary man.
I’d like to draw out 5 details from this story.
Number 1: This happened in the middle of nowhere.
Jesus was trying to get away from the crowds. Verse 13: “When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” There was no Waitrose and no Asda. Quite what the disciples thought they would eat I don’t know: We’ll get to that.
Indeed the disciples see that the remoteness is the problem to be solved. Verse 15: “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 that they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
In other words: “They won’t get anything to eat around here.”
Perhaps you’ve been for a walk in somewhere like the Scottish Highlands. You’d not taken any food with you because you planned on finding a café or a pub somewhere. It gets towards lunchtime, and you realise this really is the middle of nowhere. There is absolutely nothing to eat.
At least the Scottish Highlands are green and fertile. This miracle happened in semi-desert surroundings. There really was nothing to eat. When she got there, the cupboard was bare, and so the poor dog got none.
The middle of nowhere.
Number 2: Jesus started with just a few crumbs.
OK, he had more than a few crumbs, but not if you divide it 5000 ways.
Jesus tells the disciples to feed the crowd. Verse 17: “We have here only five loaves of bread and two fish.” That’s bread a bit like our pitta. Each loaf of bread would have been a modest lunch for one person. Provided they weren’t too hungry. And a bit of fish, maybe dried or pickled, for a filling. They had 5 small rounds of sandwiches. That was it.
As I say, that wasn’t enough to feed Jesus and the disciples. They were a group of 13, and they’d barely brought enough lunch for 5. There’s no way this could be made to stretch to 5000.
You spot someone new at church, invite them back to yours for lunch on Sunday. You hadn’t planned this, so there’s nothing special in, but you’ll manage. Add a few extra ingredients to what you’d planned, and you can make it stretch. That’s commendable.
But it wasn’t what happened here. There’s no way they could make this stretch. Literally, they’d have been on one crumb each. If they were lucky.
Just a few crumbs.
Number 3: The number of people fed.
OK, so you know what this miracle is called: “The feeding of the 5000”.
That comes in verse 21: “The number of those who ate was about five thousand men.”
This miracle is also recorded in John’s gospel as one of his seven “signs”. We looked at in our all-age services as we worked through John. When we did that, I made the point that when John says “5000 men”, the word for “men” is male. It really means just the men. Women and children were extra.
I wasn’t making that up. Matthew is explicit. Look more closely at verse 21: “The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.” That means the total was probably more like 15 or 20 thousand.
Let’s try and picture the size of this crowd. The population of Kemsing is about 4,500. So if the number was 5000, it would be Kemsing village, plus a few. But it’s not. It’s more like 20,000. In the 2011 census, the population of Sevenoaks Town was 20,409. Jesus did not feed the people of Kemsing. He fed the people of Sevenoaks.
The number of people fed.
Number 4: The response to the customer satisfaction survey was excellent.
Imagine they handed out response cards. “Circle which applies, the smiley face or the sad face. On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the menu, where 1 means you couldn’t eat even a mouthful and where 10 means it was delicious.” And then there’s this question: “Please underline your answer: (a) I had more than enough to eat, (b) It was alright, but I could have done with more, (c) I’m still hungry.”
OK: They didn’t really do that. They didn’t have response cards. But we do know the answer to that last question. Verse 20: “They all ate and were satisfied.”
It was (a): “I had more than enough to eat.”
We mustn’t picture the crowd after Jesus had finished, desperately trying to be polite. “Mm: It was delicious. Lovely meal. Thank you.” Whilst saying under their breath: “Don’t give up the day job yet, Jesus. I’ll get some proper grub when I get home.”
I love a good Indian. Many years back a group of us had been out for a curry, and we were stuffed. A friend of mine said: “Think about it. Do you ever go out for a curry, and you come away going, ‘It was OK, but … I could have done with a bit more.’?”
The crowd were absolutely stuffed.
The customer satisfaction survey.
And number 5: You should see the leftovers.
Verse 20: “The disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.” 12 baskets. These were 12 rigid wicker baskets. The size of a modern linen basket.
Here’s the point: Even after they’d all eaten and were stuffed, there was far more food left over than Jesus began with. Even if nobody had eaten a thing, this was still an astounding miracle. He’d turned 5 pitta breads and two dried fish into 12 basketfuls of food.
But he hadn’t. He’d done something even greater than that.
He had turned 5 pitta breads and two dried fish, into enough to feed 20,000 people until they were absolutely stuffed, leaving 12 basketfuls of leftovers, and all of that in the middle of nowhere.
So what do you make of Jesus? Many people dismiss Jesus without having properly examined the evidence.
Matthew told this story with great attention to detail. What happened was witnessed by many people. About 20,000 in fact. And his gospel was published while majority of them still alive. This is no ordinary man. His claim, and the claim of Matthew, that he is the promised Messiah, who came to remake the world is well founded. His invitation to us to follow him and to join him in that is one we should listen to.
Looking carefully at these details should also give those of us who do follow Jesus some much needed reassurance.
The Jesus who did this is the Jesus we love and worship today.