13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 15 Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children. – Matthew 14:13-21 ESV
When Jesus received the news that John the Baptist had been beheaded by Herod, Matthew says that “he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself” (Matthew 14:13 ESV). While Jesus was fully aware that John had completed His God-given assignment, his death must have hit Jesus hard. And it would have been a reminder to Jesus that His day of suffering was comingas well. He too, would end up on the wrong side of the Roman government, facing His own inquisition before Herod. And the outcome of His encounter with this Roman-appointed ruler over Israel would just as deadly.
Yet, even in the face of mounting opposition, repeated rejection by His own people, and the inevitability of His own death, Jesus did not lose heart or abandon His mission. He remained faithful to the task given to Him by His heavenly Father. And He continued to restore the sick and teach all those who would listen, displaying compassion for the masses who flocked to Him for healing and hope.
In Mark’s account of this same story, he records Jesus describing the crowd as “sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34 ESV). They were lost, confused, and hungry for the truth. And Luke records that Jesus “spoke to them of the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:11 ESV). Whether they realized it or not, here was the Great Shepherd of Israel, standing right in front of them. They were in the presence of the Messiah, the one for whom they had long waited and hoped for. But they would fail to recognize Him and so, they would refuse to accept His offer of the kingdom. Jesus had told the disciples that the stubborn refusal of the people was in direct fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy found in Isaiah 6:9-10.
When you hear what I say,
you will not understand.
When you see what I do,
you will not comprehend.
For the hearts of these people are hardened,
and their ears cannot hear,
and they have closed their eyes—
so their eyes cannot see,
and their ears cannot hear,
and their hearts cannot understand,
and they cannot turn to me
and let me heal them. – Matthew 13:14-15 NLT
But Jesus continued to perform miracles and proclaim the message of the kingdom of heaven. Why? Because He was attempting to prepare His disciples for what would come after His death and resurrection. In fact, the events in this passage, recorded by all four of the Gospel authors, took place for the benefit of those whom Jesus had called.
Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. – John 6:5-6 ESV
This whole scene was intended as an object lesson for the disciples. Jesus would use it to test their faith and to expose their inadequacy. The disciples saw the crowd as an obstacle to be avoided, while Jesus viewed the situation as an opportunity to teach a valuable lesson about God’s provision.
Weary from a day full of ministering to the needs of the people, the disciples begged Jesus to send the crowds to one of the nearby towns to find food.
“This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” – Matthew 14:15 NLT
But Jesus revealed that he had something else in mind, demanding that the disciples feed the people. This command was met with incredulity by the disciples. Philip responded, “Even if we worked for months, we wouldn’t have enough money to feed them!” (John 6:7 NLT). Andrew, assessing the situation and the available resources on hand, told Jesus, “There’s a young boy here with five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that with this huge crowd?” (John 6:8 NLT).
From the perspective of the disciples, the crowd was too large and the resources were too small. There was no way they could fulfill the demand Jesus had made of them. It was impossible.
These men, who had seen Jesus restore sight to the blind, cast out demons, and even raise the dead back to life, were unable to envision a solution to the problem facing them. In their humanity, they were left looking for earthly solutions and found themselves to be lacking the resources necessary to meet the need. Andrew’s discovery of the young boy’s meager meal of five loaves and two fish was totally inadequate, or so he thought. There were more than 5,000 men present in the crowd, and that doesn’t take into account the women and children who were there.
But Jesus was nonplused by the size of the crowd, the lack of financial resources, or the inadequacy of the food on hand. He simply instructed the people to sit down and then took the five loaves and two fishes, blessed them, then had the disciples distribute them among the people.
Don’t fail to notice that it was the disciples who were tasked with the distribution of the loaves and fishes. They took what Jesus gave them and shared it with the people. And Matthew records, “they all ate and were satisfied” (Matthew 14:20 ESV). The needs of the people were met – in full. No one went hungry. No one did without. Not only that, when the disciples picked up what remained uneaten, there were exactly 12 baskets full of leftovers. Each disciple held in his hands a tangible proof of God’s power and provision. While they had doubted, Jesus had trusted, turning to His heavenly Father to provide – not only food for the people, but faith for the disciples.
Jesus was preparing these men for their future ministry, the one that would begin after His death, resurrection, and ascension. In fact, John records that on one occasion, when Jesus appeared to His disciples in His resurrected body, He ate breakfast with them by the Sea of Galilee. And the meal Jesus prepared for them was a familiar one.
When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. – John 21:9 ESV
The disciples had been fishing all night, but had caught nothing. But Jesus, appearing to them on the seashore, had instructed them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat. Failing to recognize that the individual speaking to them was Jesus, the disciples did what they were told and John records, “So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish” (John 21:6 ESV).
This time, Jesus served the disciples.
Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. – John 21:13 ESV
After eating, Jesus asked Peter a series of three questions, each time repeating, “Do you love me?” And the third time Peter responded,“Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” And Jesus simply stated, “Feed my sheep.”
After His death and resurrection, when Jesus returned to heaven, the food the disciples would end up distributing to the sheep would be spiritual in nature. They would take what Jesus had given them, eternal life, and share it with all those who would believe. They were to feed the sheep who lacked a shepherd. They were to take the bread of life, broken for them, and distribute it among the spiritually hungry, making available to the people the gracious provision God had made available through His power.
“I tell you the truth, anyone who believes has eternal life. Yes, I am the bread of life! Your ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, but they all died. Anyone who eats the bread from heaven, however, will never die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and this bread, which I will offer so the world may live, is my flesh.” – John 6:47-51 NLT
The miracle the disciples witnessed that day by the Sea of Galilee was a foreshadowing of what was to come. After the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the people had walked away with full stomachs. But the day was coming when the disciples would preach about the bread of life, and all those who believed and received their message would experience permanent relief from their spiritual hunger and thirst. As Jesus told the woman at the well, “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again. Whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35 NLT).
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.