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 had 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. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten. When the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!” John 6:1-14
There is a certain rock known as a geode. From the outside it is but a dull looking stone. Yet crack it open and one discovers a breathtaking array of crystals in a hollow core.
I feel like I’m holding an uncracked geode in my hands when I look at a Bible text. I know there is a powerful blessing in the passage. It must simply be opened to the light by preaching.
So to the text, the story of the feeding of the multitudes, we now turn.
“There Was a Need!”
Our text begins with a human need.
Jesus had been busily ministering from Jerusalem to Galilee. The healings, the preaching, the conflict left Him spent. So He got in a boat with His disciples and sailed across the lake to take a break. But the throngs of people had not had enough of the Master’s words and deeds. They wanted more. So they tramped around the lake’s north shore, perhaps a distance of 15 or 20 miles, in order to be where Jesus was.
The text tells us it was the time of Passover. So the roads would have been filled with pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. How quickly word spread of Jesus and His whereabouts. And so it was that the crowd swelled as men, women, and children detoured to have a look at Jesus. They were looking for Passover bread and found Jesus instead!
So, there stands Jesus atop a hillside overlooking Lake Galilee. The crowd He sought to be rid of has followed Him and even grown into the thousands. By now it is late in the day, supper time nears and stomachs begin to rumble for want of food.
But, wait! There’s more need than for a meal. The sick are in the crowd. The ignorant are present. So, too, are the lonely, the adulterous, the confused, the lost, the misguided. All these Jesus sees as He looks over the vast throng gathering at His feet.
Such needs are still with us today. We see the teeming refugees of Rwanda on the evening news. The papers day after day print the gun shot and bleeding victims of inner city crime. The famine ravaged throngs are vividly heralded in our weekly news magazines. Through the miracle of modern mass communication we see more needy crowds than Jesus did in His day. Sociologists are beginning to identify in people a syndrome that is a direct result of the information age. It seems we see so many hurts, can do so little about it, that we feel powerless. So we avert our eyes, stop our ears to the wails, grow calloused in our hearts. Result is, the poor hurting masses become increasingly invisible to us.
I have a friend who ministers in a large western city among the Chinese. He shares with me how church groups call and ask for their group to be allowed to tour the Chinese ghetto. He obliges, showing them up close and personal the poverty, the ignorance, and depravity that breeds like flies in the ghetto. One group saw all this, sat for a moment in sullen silence, then all but spoke in unison, “Can you tell us where the best Chinese restaurant in town is so we can go eat?”
It is so easy to see and not see, to hear and not hear, to become so self-absorbed in what we want that we miss what others need.
So many times I speak with ministers who desire a change, a larger church. It’s just not “happening” where they are. They want to move. But, open your eyes! We each pass by more hurting people, more potential ministry in a single day that any one person could do in a lifetime!
There on the hillside where you stand, do you see the throngs of hurting people all around you? Jesus did. Ask Christ to open your eyes to the lost there in your factory, in your neighborhood, at your family holiday gathering.
“There Was an Inadequacy”
Passing on, the text further points out that there was an inadequacy. Verses 5-7, “Lifting up His eyes, then, and seeing that a multitude was coming to Him, Jesus said to Phillip, ‘How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?’ This He said to test him for He knew what he would do. Phillip answered Him, ‘Two hundred denarii would not be enough bread for each of them to get a little.’” “200 denarii” is equal to roughly half a year’s wages. In other words, Phillip surveyed the multitude, and, standing right beside Jesus declared the situation hopeless. “There is nothing that can be done!” he said.
Notice the text reveals how Christ had set up this situation and used it to test Phillip. John 1:44 tells us Phillip was from this region. He knew the towns, the valleys, the roads and lake. He would have known what local resources could be brought to bear on the needs, so Jesus queried him, “How are we to buy bread so that these people may eat?” And Phillip did the math in his head. Standing beside Jesus he looked at the hillside crowd, surveyed the contents of his own purse, and declared his resources woefully inadequate.
Phillip wasn’t the first to feel inadequate in the face of life. The children of Israel stood on the edge of the promised land and listened to their returning spies describe the giants. “We seemed as grasshoppers to them,” they moaned. And immediately there was a move to return to Egypt. They simply couldn’t see God for the giants.
Solomon, newly crowned Israel’s king, besought the Lord. He confessed, “I don’t know how to go in and out before this people.”
I knew when my first church had 47 people in it that it was too big for me.
Inadequacy. That’s what a missionary in Zaire feels as he walks through a village smitten with the Ebola virus. It’s what the parents of an angry teenager feel. And it is what Phillip felt standing beside Jesus looking at a hungry crowd of 5000.
And it was a test. Would Phillip stress the difficulties presented or the resources possessed? Would he measure his powers or his problems? Would he focus on the hillside of people or the basket? Would he count the crowd or the loaves? Would he look at his ability to begin the work or his inability to finish the work?
Jesus was testing Phillip, even as He still tests you and me today. He was educating the disciples to do what they could, and leave the rest to God. He was illustrating the universal law: Resources and powers are given to those who use what resources and powers they have.
“There Was an Offering”
So, Phillip flunks the test. He can’t see Jesus for the crowd. He considers his and the area’s human inadequacy to meet the need, never once considering God. And so he is pessimistic. “Half a years wages would barely give each a morsel. The situation is hopeless. Nothing can be done.”
Meanwhile there is Andrew. In the crowd he discovers a lad with five barley loaves and two fish. This he carefully explains to Jesus. Then he despairs, “But what are they among so many?”
To be sure, Andrew sees the crowd, the hunger, the expense. But he also sees Jesus. To be sure he sees the daunting task, but he also sees a way to begin.
Andrew could say, “I am only one. I can’t do everything. But I can do something. And just because I can’t do everything, I will not fail to do that which I can do.”
We are told in the text that the little boy carried with him a picnic lunch of five barley loaves and two small fish. Barley bread was the cheapest sort of food. And the fish were likely pickled, not unlike today’s sardines.
This is what Andrew found. This is what the lad offered to Jesus in the midst of 5000 rumbling stomachs. There was a huge need! There was a woeful inadequacy! And these few loaves and fishes were the paltry offering.
But see what happened next!
“There Was a Miracle”
Jesus received the scant fish and bread, and, causing the masses to be seated, gave thanks to God, and began to break the loaves and distribute them. The Bible says the crowd ate until they were “filled,” in the Greek they were literally “glutted.”
And Phillip so pessimistic, and Andrew so full of questions, and the little child so naive, and the multitude so full of hunger all learned of God’s caring provision even for their stomachs. And they learned the spiritual law that God can do a lot with a little if He has it all. They learned that little is much when God is in it. They learned not to look at the multitudes or the lack or what lines ones own pockets. Look at Jesus. Give Him what you can. And leave the rest to God.
I asked a church that had recently hired a new pastor, “How is it going?” And I’ll forever remember the answer. “Stephen, things are going great! Our new pastor is asking God for things our former pastor didn’t even know He had!”
Poor Phillip. Isn’t he so like you and me? Here we stand beside Jesus looking out on a need so vast that our own yearly salary couldn’t satisfy even one meal. All the while standing beside us is Jesus, the God who sees the need, is never inadequate, and is willing to receive what we’ve got, add His own blessing to it, and make it enough!
Rembrandt could take a two dollar canvass, paint a picture on it and make it a priceless masterpiece. That is art. John D. Rockefeller could take a worthless check, sign his name to it, and make it worth a million dollars. That’s capital. A mechanic can take a piece of scrap metal, bend and shape it into a $500 automobile part. That is skill.
Jesus Christ can take the commonest bread and pickled fish, bless and multiply it, and make a banquet for 5000! That’s a miracle.
Likewise can God Almighty take a vile sinner, wash his sins away, fill him with the Holy Spirit, and make him a blessing to humanity. That’s salvation, and something of what it means to be a Christian.
You see, it is not what we are in and of ourselves. It is what God does in us and through us.
God can take our paltry offerings in His hands, He can receive our lives, our faith, inadequate as we are, and make us enough on every hillside in every land in every generation.
In the Old Testament, it was considered a sign of a king’s prowess in how many people he could feed. Pharaoh and Joseph fed all Egypt during a famine. Moses fed Israel for forty years in the wilderness with manna from heaven. And here Jesus acts as the father of the table spread out along a vast hillside.
There is some debate over the exact nature of this miracle. Some Christians see it as a simple and mighty act of Divine multiplication. Just as Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana, just as God rained manna and quail in the wilderness, so Jesus fed the 5,000 by doing a miracle.
Others say, “Not so fast!” At his temptation Jesus refused to turn stones into bread. Instead he opted to bring the world spiritual bread. Earlier in this century German theologian Rudolph Bultmann sought to deny the miraculous of the Bible. He would cynically see Jesus storing a hillside cave with bread, guiding a crowd out there, and having a disciple quietly hand the bread out to Him so He could give it to an adoring crowd.
Still others point to something else, perhaps even more of a miracle. These persons point out that the crowd was not stupid. They would not have started a Passover pilgrimage without provisioning themselves. So, when 5,000 souls gathered to Jesus on a hillside and supper time drew near, the food was really there. It’s just that no one wanted to pull theirs out for fear others would mooch off them and their personal provisions be seriously eroded.
So, as the story goes, meal time comes and no one wants to share. There is bread enough but it’s being hoarded selfishly. And Jesus shames the crowd with the child’s sacrificial trusting offering. And the secret stores of food are opened and passed around. Thus the miracle was not in fish and bread, but a greater miracle of the human heart. For no mere fish were changed, nor even the loaves, but selfish men and women were changed.
I love the story of a Christian missionary hiking the high Andean trails to a remote village in Peru. He found a rock along the road, a curious geode, and put it in his pack as a souvenir.
That evening he strode into the village to a very unfriendly welcome. No one offered him a bed. No one asked him to sojourn by their fire. He learned that a famine had hobbled the Indians for over a month now. And the people were starving. Each was simply afraid to share amidst so much depravation.
Praying to Jesus how to help them, he got an idea. Calling the Indians around a campfire he preached God’s loving care in Christ. Then he said, “I’m going to feed you by making some stone soup. Ummm! It’s tasty! I grew up on it! And you’ll like it just fine!” Then he opened his rucksack and produced the rock he’d found that morning.
The Indians demurred, “Stone soup! Why that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!”
“Trust me,” the missionary soothed. “See! I’ve brought the stone. But I’m going to need a pot to put it in.”
An Indian woman quickly volunteered her pot.
“And I’ll need about 2 large buckets of water to boil the stone in.” A man, his eyes ablaze, quickly brought water.
So, in went the stone, in went the water, and over the fire the pot was suspended.
Curious, now, the villagers began to gather around the pot, peering into its contents.
The missionary began to stir the pot and drool. You know, stone soup sure is good with carrots!”
To which an Indian said, “I’ve got 6 carrots!” He quickly fetched them and they were cut up into the pot.
Then the missionary smelled deeply of the bubbly broth and sighed, “Some potatoes sure would add to the flavor. From pockets and other hiding places came dozens of spuds. They were quickly added to the soup.
Soon people were bringing onions, celery, and bits of meat to top off the pot of stone soup.
And within the hour a community formed around that stew pot. All ate. And all were filled and they heard the story of Jesus Christ.
Believe John 6:1-14 as a miracle of Jesus in multiplying the bread and fish, if you will, or believe Jesus’ miracle in the selfish human heart causing the multitudes to share. But above all this: The next time you see a need or feel inadequate, don’t look at the hillside, look in the basket. Don’t count the difficulties presented. Look at the resources possessed. Don’t measure your problems, measure God’s power! Jesus is standing beside you. And you plus Christ are enough!