One of the grand themes of Scripture is that the Lord is the Provider for His people. This is a chief way of glorifying Him, for as we look to Him for all we need, and away from ourselves (not denying that we often have a responsible role to play, just that we are not the ultimate Source), we exalt and honor Him as the All-Sufficient, Self-Sufficient One who out of His own glorious fullness meets our needs. In other words, we need Him, but He could never need us. He glorifies His utter sufficiency by coming to our aid and rescue as our wonderful Patron Lord.
This, then, is part of the reason why we see our Lord performing food miracles on a massive scale twice in the same gospel. We are quite prone to forget that the Lord can and will meet our every need as we trust Him (evidently, the Twelve did not make these and other connections easily, if their response following the miracle in vv. 14-21 is any indication). But another nuance to this account make it different than the feeding of the 5,000 recorded earlier: Jesus is providing in this way for Gentiles. This is a staggering expansion of His ministry and work and deserves thoughtful explication as we turn to the passage below.
A. The Setting (v. 1)
Jesus is still on His mission to the Decapolis, begun in 7:24 with His traveling through Tyre and Sidon to rescue the demonized daughter of the Syrophoenician woman. This Jewish rabbi is preaching the things of the Kingdom to Gentiles—noteworthily, after the rejection of the Jewish leadership prompted His revelation of how the nation Israel would be set aside and the Kingdom would be established progressively and expand to Gentiles in the interadvent age (Matthew 13). And surprisingly, yet not surprisingly, Gentiles are receiving the kingdom’s message in droves, foreshadowing the millions that will come as God gives the kingdom to a people bearing its fruit, a people He has called out of all nations to bear His name (Matthew 21:42-43; Acts 15:14-17; cf. Amos 9:11-12; Psa. 33:8, 67:2, 86:9; Isa. 40:5). So I believe that these Gentiles Jesus is ministering to, along with the many thousands of Jews that did receive their Messiah during His ministry (yet a remnant compared to the entirety of that nation), have come to know Him as Savior and are joyfully being discipled in His word and ways.
This is the Decapolis, that region of ten densely Gentile cities that were something of an economic and cultural hub in those days. Recall that Jesus has sent a pair of redeemed men into that place to testify of His glorious overcoming, saving power, and I believe that at least some of the crowds Jesus is ministering to came to faith in Him at that point (others, especially women, through the testimony of the Syrophoenician woman). Word has spread that Jesus is here, and the crowds have come out for the most elevated, articulate, Spirit-led Bible conference a group of Gentiles will ever experience.
Part of why I believe these Gentiles are converted is because I do not think unsaved people would have stayed hearing Jesus teach for three days straight. As congenial and lovely as He was to sinners, and as truly (and rightly) attractive as they found Him, the truth He proclaimed would have not been acceptable to people unwilling to part with their unbelief and sin.
I would like to know what He talked about, what the people felt as He unfolded the glories of His person and plan to them. I’ll find out in heaven.
B. Jesus Shows Compassion (vv. 2-3)
Three days have gone by, and though the people sit with doubtless rapturous attention, our Lord is well aware that the distant setting of the gathering (in “the wilderness” likely because that was the only place with enough room for all) will not only prevent them from eating presently, but will also exacerbate their hunger as the journey home is lengthened. They might even faint on the way home from hunger.
This verse is important. Many times in the Scripture the word “compassion” or its cognates is used of our Lord. Only here (and in the parallel account of the same event in Matthew) does Jesus use the word of Himself. It is a sweet word, one that carries the idea of being moved in the belly with feeling for someone else. God, and God in Christ, is not a stoic, and He commands us not to be, either. In Christ, our affections and emotions are increasingly sanctified and renewed to reflect the image of our Creator God. Our risen Lord moved Paul about 60 AD to write to a group of Jews and Gentiles who had believed on Him to “put on a heart of compassion” towards one another (Col. 3:12). Elsewhere, he writes that we are to be “tenderhearted” towards each other—feeling quickly, easily, and deeply (Eph. 4:32).
Note as well that this compassion was not primarily for their spiritual needs (as it was with the feeding of the 5,000), but for earthly, physical ones. It might be easy to rationalize this, since food is so essential to life, but the example of Jesus is instructive here. He did not scowl and say, “Well, why are you feeling hunger pains? Aren’t I sufficient, you unbelieving rebel?” Ought not this compassion be applied elsewhere, to other needs as well? Or ought we crush the heart of a hurting believer by simply saying, “God is sufficient, and if you feel He isn’t, then you need to repent”? My point is not to impugn the genuine sufficiency of God, or to deny that we often make idols out of things we want and even need. My point is to push back against the simplistic, shallow tendency unimaginative enough to grasp (a) God usually mediates His sufficiency through other, explicitly necessary means and (b) it is perfectly legitimate to need things besides God as long as those needs do not become idols. Jesus does not allow us to be simplistic. He pushes us to precision and thoughtfulness in the way we interpret ourselves, our world, and others.
We must pray God enlarges our hearts to see and be moved by the genuine needs of others, especially other Christians. And we must also fight to believe that in all of our needs—spiritual and material, large and small—our risen Lord is still the same compassionate Savior to whom we can appeal for all things!
C. Dull Disciples (v. 4)
I am much comforted by the Twelve. They are about as obtuse as me. This is another reason why I think this narrative is in Scripture when it is so similar to the previous miracle: The Twelve, like us, need to be very frequently reminded of God’s power, grace, and willingness to redeem, bless, and provide. You see, they were still thinking at a human level. And at a human level, quite understandably, meeting the need was impossible. Recall that with the 5,000, that number was only the men, but thousands of women and children were there as well. Matthew tells us that similarly, the 4,000 was only the number of the men, so conservatively the crowd numbered 16-20,000 people!
Now, how pitifully blind are the Twelve? How pitifully blind are we? And how patient is our compassionate Savior! Where we see only the problem, and our small human minds cannot even comprehend all its moving pieces and precarious implications, our Lord only sees divine possibility. “Of course,” you say, “that’s easy. He’s omnipotent God!”
But dear believer, don’t you realize His power and authority over all things are available to you as you trust Him? Part of faith is looking at a thing and seeing what God sees—that includes what it could become through His power and sovereign grace. The Twelve have recently seen unbelievable expressions of divine power…and they’re still thinking, “Well, how on earth are we gonna get food for 20,000 people?”
Problems and trials are a blessing. They force us to look away from ourselves and rely completely upon the Lord—and it is only to those people that God will manifest His saving, redeeming, renewing, providing ability. The very thing that forces you to come to the end of yourself is the means God is suing to make you trust Him, which is the only way redemption, deliverance, and provision can come to you in the first place! He loves to exalt Himself as the great Giver of all that is good, the Redeemer of what is lost, the Resurrecter of the dead, the Savior of the world. Your trials are an opportunity for Him to do just that, according to His will and as you persistently trust and obey Him.
D. The Miracle (vv. 5-9)
Once again, the Lord asks the Twelve how much food they have. Only seven loaves and a few fish. This is a small exclamation point on their inadequacy, but note that it also highlights their responsibility. While God can certainly, for example, miraculously part the Red Sea, or multiply a poor widow’s oil, or raise a boy dead from heatstroke, rarely if ever does He do so apart from some expression of human responsibility. Could Jesus have created food out of nothing? Certainly. But I believe He chose to multiply already-existing food in part because He wanted to underscore both our utter, pitiful inadequacy, and the glorious potential that inadequacy has when it is surrendered (in this case, quite literally) into His hands. Jesus did not do the miracle apart from what they gave Him—not because He needed it or they merited it, but because He is demonstrating they have a part to play in the expression of His power and its application to people. Of course, given that eleven of the Twelve will soon go out on their own mission of world redemption, this personal connection to His power was a necessary lesson. It is no less necessary for us.
Every need, ministry, lack, relationship, endeavor, etc., must be surrendered into His hands. If it stays in ours, we will only have human ability and resources, with corresponding results. If it is surrendered to Him, it will be blessed.
Jesus thanked His Father for the food, modeling faith-filled gratitude for what is divinely possible even in small things. And as He broke the bread, He kept breaking, and the apostles kept giving, and the thousands were fed until they were full. Seven baskets were left over—these are not the smaller baskets after the original miracle, but large, hamper-like baskets big enough for a man to hide in (cf. Acts 9:25). There is an infinite supply of grace and goodness from our Creator God. Little is much when God is in it!
After all have eaten, Jesus dismisses the thousands. They go back home, minds filled with truth and bellies filled with a reminder that the One who is both Truth and Grace can effortlessly meet the most tangible, obvious, blatant need—for His glory and our joy.