32 Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.” 33 And the disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?” 34 And Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” 35 And directing the crowd to sit down on the ground, 36 he took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 37 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 38 Those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children. 39 And after sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan. – Matthew 15:32-39 ESV
According to Mark’s gospel, Jesus left the region of Tyre and Sidon, where He had healed the Canaanite woman’s daughter and went to the region of Decapolis. The name of this area literally meant “Ten Cities,” because it was based on an alliance formed by ten cities located on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. During Jesus’ day, these cities were predominantly Gentile and heavily influenced by the Greek culture. And it is most likely the Gentile character of the population that explains the disciples’ surprising behavior in this story.
For three days, the crowds had gathered around Jesus, many waiting their turn to receive healing from the hands of Jesus. Others were simply curious spectators who were drawn to the miracles of Jesus. Knowing that the people had grown hungry after three days in the desolate surroundings, Jesus expressed His concern to His disciples.
“I feel sorry for these people. They have been here with me for three days, and they have nothing left to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry, or they will faint along the way.” – Matthew 15:32 NLT
At first glance, the response of the disciples seems to indicate a remarkable lapse in memory.
And the disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?” – Matthew 15:33 ESV
This is very similar to what Philip had said when Jesus had commanded the disciples to feed the 5,000.
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?” – John 6:5 ESV
It seems highly unlikely that the disciples would have already forgotten the earlier miracle. After all, they had each walked away from that experience carrying a basket full of leftover bread and fish. But this circumstance was different. They were in a Gentile region on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. In essence, they were in enemy territory and out of their comfort zone. The disciples were probably questioning the very fact that Jesus was performing miracles among non-Jews. And the thought of Him replicating what He had done for the Jewish crowds on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee was impossible for them to consider. After all, they had heard Jesus tell the Canaanite woman, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26 ESV).
These people were non-Jews and, in the minds of the disciples, undeserving of Jesus’ compassion, let alone His miraculous feeding of them.
Recognizing His disciples’ reticence, but desiring to teach them yet another valuable lesson, Jesus asked them to report what they had in the way of food. Their meager supply included seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. This would have been their dinner. And the disciples could see what was coming. They had been through this drill before. But in this case, because of the location and the ethnic makeup of the crowd, they were not overly excited about the prospect of Jesus duplicating His earlier miracle. But Jesus took the loaves and fishes, broke them and gave them to the disciples to distribute among the people.
To appreciate the full import of this scene, it is essential to recognize the extreme hatred that the Jews held toward Gentiles. Just coming into contact with a Gentile could make a Jew ceremonially unclean. And here was Jesus commanding His disciples to distribute their food to a crowd full of impure and unholy Gentiles.
But that was the whole point of the miracle. These were Gentiles and yet, Jesus was doing for them exactly what He had done for the Jews. And Matthew records that the people ate and were satisfied. Their need was met by the Messiah. Their racial background and religious affiliations did not matter. Jesus’ compassion was non-discriminatory. Not only had He been willing to heal their infirmities, but He had also chosen to satisfy their hunger. And it’s interesting to note that Matthew records no response on the part of the people. They didn’t thank Jesus. They didn’t marvel at what they had just witnessed. They simply ate and then Jesus sent them away.
This is in direct contrast to the reaction of the Jewish crowd in Jesus’ earlier miracle. When they had seen what Jesus had done, they had exclaimed, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (John 6:14 ESV).
And John went on to explain that they desired to take Jesus by force and make Him their king. They weren’t grateful. They were simply greedy and wanting to see Jesus put His miraculous powers to work on a permanent basis on their behalf. But Jesus had simply walked away.
The Gentiles had no Messianic hopes and expectations. They weren’t looking for a Savior or anticipating the arrival of the Son of David. And yet, much to the chagrin of the disciples, Jesus treated these Gentiles the same way He had done the Jews. He showed them compassion and He fed them.
All the way back in His sermon on the mount, Jesus had said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6 ESV). In these two miracles, Jesus had met the physical needs of the two crowds, filling their stomachs with food, leaving them satisfied. But in both cases, they had demonstrated no hunger or thirst for righteousness. Jews and Gentiles alike had come to Jesus in order to have their physical needs met, but they expressed no desire for or need of righteousness.
So much of what Jesus was doing was in order to teach His disciples. He was attempting to open their eyes to the reality of His real mission. Their eyes were focused on the here-and-now. They were still believing and hoping that Jesus was going to set up an earthly kingdom and restore the Jewish people to power and prominence. But Jesus was trying to reveal that His was a spiritual kingdom and it would be all-inclusive, consisting of Jews and Gentiles, the rich and poor, men and women, so-called saints and the sorriest of sinners.
After the feeding of the 5,000, the crowds showed up the next day and Jesus exposed the motivation behind their seeking of Him.
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” – John 6:26-27 ESV
Then, Jesus went on to explain:
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” – John 6:35 ESV
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life.” – John 6:47-48 ESV
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” – John 6:51 ESV
“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” – John 6:53-54 ESV
Jesus was revealing new truth to His disciples. He was attempting to get their focus off the temporal and on to the eternal. Their perspective was limited. They had a myopic view of life that centered on themselves as Jews. They were looking for a reestablished Jewish kingdom, made up of God-fearing Jews and ruled by their Jewish Messiah. But Jesus came to do far more than improve their lot in life. He came to offer eternal life. And not only to Jews but to all mankind. But it was going to take time for the disciples to recognize the eternal nature of His kingdom and the ethnic diversity of its citizens.
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.