by Dr. Donald T. Williams
Luke 9:10 And when the apostles returned, they gave an account to him of all that they had done. And taking them with him, he withdrew by himself to a city called Bethsaida. 11 But the multitudes were aware of this and followed him. And welcoming them, he began speaking to them about the kingdom of God and curing those who had need of healing. 12 And the day began to decline, and the twelve came and said to him, "Send the multitude away so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside and find lodging and get something to eat; for here we are in a desolate place." 13 But he said to them, "You give them something to eat!" And they said, "We have no more than five loaves and two fish, unless perhaps we go and buy food for all these people." 14 (For there were about five thousand men.) And he said to his disciples, "Have them recline to eat in groups of about fifty each." 15 And they did so, and had them all recline. 16 And he took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he blessed them and broke them and kept giving them to the disciples to set before the multitude. 17 And they all ate and were satisfied; and the broken pieces which they had left over were picked up, twelve baskets full.
The very familiar story we have read today is the only miracle (except the Resurrection) to be recorded in all four Gospels. That striking fact raises the obvious question, "What made this incident so important, so significant in the memory of the disciples? Let's keep that question in the back of our minds as we study Luke's account, which contains at least three elements: a feat accomplished, faith elicited, and a future embraced.
I. A FEAT TO BE ACCOMPLISHED
In some ways, The Feeding of the Five Thousand was the most impressive miracle (to the crowd at least) yet. For, you see, many of the others could have been explained away by those with the inclination to do so. This one could not. Everyone but the servants at Cana of Galilee might have thought some kind of switcheroo had occurred when the water was turned to wine. We have had faith healers who looked very impressive to their audiences exposed as frauds in our own day; maybe some of these healings could have been faked too. Jairus' daughter, after all, despite all appearances to the contrary, must have really just been asleep. Had not Jesus said so himself? Only the disciples--not exactly the most objective and unbiased witnesses, as far as the Pharisees were concerned--saw the Miraculous Draught of Fishes or the Calming of the Storm. But this event could not be dismissed or explained away--and if it cannot, then why bother trying to explain away the others?
Three factors made the Feeding of the Five Thousand into what today we would call a "media event." First is the fact that there were five thousand witnesses, not an insignificant number even by today's standards. Second, they were in a desert place. There was literally no place where enough food to feed that big a crowd could have been stashed or hidden. While only a few at the event saw the actual transformation of the water into wine, here everyone could see with his own eyes the five loaves being multiplied into five thousand. And third, the miracle met an immediate need, not just of one person among many onlookers, but of every single person in the crowd (compare John 6:25-26). So they were all focused on what was happening. You cannot shut up five thousand people, and you cannot dismiss their testimony. Jesus was already popular; he was already being looked on as a person who might be the One who was coming. But this miracle ups the ante in several significant ways.
What then is the theological point, the spiritual significance of the feat Jesus accomplished here? In the first place, he is revealed as the Lord of Creation, the One who multiplies food in Nature. In his classic work Miracles, C. S. Lewis shows how many of the miracles take what God normally does slowly in Nature and speeds it up dramatically as a kind of flourished signature, signifying, "the One who always multiplies fish and grain is here." Even the pagans recognized that there was a divine power behind Nature's ability reproduce so richly as to be able to feed mankind. So Ceres presided over the grain in the field, Poseidon over the fish of the sea, Bacchus over the grape in the vine, Persephone over the life-giving revival of Nature in the Spring. What those Greek pagans glimpsed through a glass darkly in debased and fragmented form, Jesus revealed in all its unified and holy splendor: The God of Nature, Yahweh, the glad Giver of Life, is here!
The ancients worshipped what they did not know: Corruptible men and beasts and creeping things Enthroned in splendor, deathless. From below, They scaled the sky with such imaginings, But for that trip they needed stronger wings. The glimpses filled their hearts with holy dread; They could not see the way the King of Kings Joins all the scattered hints into one Head: Atropos, who snips thread after thread; Poseidon, master of the raging sea; Hera of the hearth and marriage bed; Life-giving power of Persephone; Aphrodite's beauty; Ares' might; Zeus's thunder; and Apollo's light. (D.T.W.)
Jesus is revealed not only as the Power that gives life and multiplies it in nature, but also as the Old-Testament Jehovah Jireh, the Lord who Provides. What does he provide here? What is the promise that he keeps? What is the need that he meets? If you read the story carefully, you will see something very interesting. He has commanded the disciples to feed the people, only to elicit their admission that they cannot. Then he tells them to sit the people on the grass anyway. What is my point? The need being met here is not so much the people's need for full bellies, though of course that is richly provided for. But the more important need that is met is the disciples' need to be able to minister! It is not the people's ability to eat so much as the disciples' ability to serve, not so much the people's need to be fed as the disciples' ability to feed them, that is being supplied. And thus our Lord still provides for his servants today. For not one of us could so much as give a cup of cold water in his name in a way that would truly glorify him apart from his grace. Do we wish to serve the Lord? After all he has done for us, what other desire could we have? Do we confess our utter inability to do so worthily? Then receive today his promise afresh and his provision anew! Do you have just five loaves and two fish? No talent or ability, certainly no holiness in yourself that could allow you to stand as Christ's ambassador, his representative before men? Then you are in the same position as Jesus' disciples were on this day. And so, rejoice! He has not changed. It is your job only to make your inadequate loaves and fishes available. It is his job to make them enough. And that leads us to our next point.
II. A FAITH TO BE ELICITED
The people got a good meal of fish and hush puppies, but the disciples received something far more significant. They got another of the series of lessons in faith that Luke seems to be presenting. We have already seen at the Stilling of the Storm that faith is an understanding of who Jesus is that produces confidence in his solution of our problems. We saw with the healing of the Woman with the Issue of Blood that it is a personal response to Jesus as Lord and Savior, not a superstitious trust in externals. What will Luke add to that understanding today?
The disciples begin with a perception of a problem, a need to be met: what are we going to do with all these people out here in the middle of nowhere? And that was good. So they came to Jesus with a solution to the problem already in mind: we'd better send the people away to the villages to try to find some food and lodging. And that was not bad either. But as often happens, Jesus had a different solution in mind: You feed them! At this point, the disciples must have recognized that they were being asked to do the impossible. They freely confess their inability. And what is Jesus' response to that? O.K., tell the people to sit down in groups to facilitate our passing out the food!
It is this moment that I think is the most interesting and instructive moment in the whole story. For it shows that the disciples had learned something from those previous lessons. It is one of their best moments, one of their most impressive acts (they will have plenty of opportunity to embarrass themselves before the Gospels are over!). And it was very simple. They obeyed. What is more, they did it immediately. Before Jesus had multiplied a single loaf or fish, they obeyed. Boy, were they sticking their necks out! They were going to look pretty foolish if something didn't happen! And Jesus has not even told them what he was planning to do. He just takes the pittance they have and tells them to arrange the people for food service. If only the disciples could have responded like this more consistently! If only we would.
The disciples obeyed, and in that obedience they learned another important lesson about faith, one whose elements are still present in every mighty work of God. We can express it in the form of an equation, or a recipe if you will. Need seen plus desire felt plus inadequacy confessed plus Christ obeyed equals the opportunity for God to work in ways that may be miraculous. We start with an awareness of a need and the desire to meet it. But we must add to that an awareness (and admission) of our own inability to meet that need, of the inadequacy of our resources. Then we add a determination to obey Jesus in the face of that inability. And then we have set the stage for God to meet the need--and he will do it by using those very resources that were so inadequate when they were still in our hands. It is your job only to make your inadequate loaves and fishes available. It is his job to make them enough. And faith is the determination to obey in spite of our inadequacy, to consider our own inability irrelevant in the light of his ability, and to act on that basis. The more we do so, the more we will find our own paltry loaves and fishes multiplied.
III. A FUTURE TO BE FACED
In each of the four Gospels, this event is a turning point in the earthly life and ministry of Jesus. It marks the apex of his popularity with the multitudes, and understandably so. But that popularity from this point declines most precipitously. Why? Because Jesus now begins in each Gospel to concentrate his teaching increasingly, with ever increasing tension and intensity mounting to a grand climax at the end, on preparing himself and his disciples for the Cross. The people were ready to make him king, but he had not come to be the kind of king they wanted, and in their disillusionment they turned from him as fiercely as they had followed him. From this moment he sets his face like flint to go to Jerusalem and take the way of the Cross. It is not easy to obey, to sit people down at the table when you do not yet see any fish or bread to set before them. But the real test of faith is something greater even than that: it is our ability to follow Christ on this road, the road that leads to the Cross. Will we walk with him on the Calvary road when it means giving up the very popularity that seemed our greatest opportunity to serve him? Will we walk with him on this road if it means giving up our very lives? We are as inadequate to this as we were to feed five thousand people with five loaves and two small fish. But those people got fed. And we can remember how they did when the even tougher obediences of faith are asked of us.
The Cross, Christ's sacrificial death for our sins, is at the center of the Gospel message. It is also at the center of the Christian life. We have foretastes of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb like the one we read about today; we have foretastes of the Resurrection itself. But until our Lord returns, we will have them as refreshments and encouragements on the Calvary road. So let us deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. For that is to know life more abundant, both now and forevermore. Amen.
Sermons and Bible Commentaries for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost
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