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 What would you do if five people unexpectedly showed up at your house for supper?  

You would probably feed those five guests as a caring and responsible host or hostess.  

Now, what if more than 5,000 showed up? That’s a problem of a different magnitude. Nevertheless, that’s what faced the disciples.  

To Jesus, this was not a problem: “he already had in mind what he was going to do.” (John 6:6)  

We’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s look at the text.  

The text  

Reading the biblical text is essential. Here is John 6:1-15 (NASB):  

6:1 After these things Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee (or Tiberias). 2 A large crowd followed Him, because they saw the signs which He was performing on those who were sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on the mountain, and there He sat down with His disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was near.  

5 Therefore Jesus, lifting up His eyes and seeing that a large crowd was coming to Him, said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?” 6 This He was saying to test him, for He Himself knew what He was intending to do. 7 Philip answered Him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little.” 8 One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, 9 “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people?”  

10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. 11 Jesus then took the loaves, and having given thanks, He distributed to those who were seated; likewise also of the fish as much as they wanted. 12 When they were filled, He said to His disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments so that nothing will be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up, and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves which were left over by those who had eaten.  

14 Therefore when the people saw the sign which He had performed, they said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 So Jesus, perceiving that they were intending to come and take Him by force to make Him king, withdrew again to the mountain by Himself alone.  

Verses 1-4 introduce the general time and place. The concluding verses (14-15) show the people’s response. We will consider the problematic attitude of the crowd in a future post. For now, we will focus on the “sign” itself.  

The sign  

Although Jesus had done many signs already (John 2:23; 3:2; 6:2), the sign we refer to as the “feeding of the 5,000” is generally acknowledged to be the fourth sign described by John.  

John gives us a few clues that orient us. Here are four:  

  • 6:4 – “the Jewish Passover Feast was near.” The attentive reader recalls the Israelites were brought out of the slavery of Egypt into the challenges of the Wilderness. Later in John 6, there will be a connection with Yahweh’s provision of manna to the Israelites in the wilderness 1,400 years earlier.  
  • 6:7 – Philip expresses the sheer magnitude of feeding the crowd: “Eight months’ wages [200 denarii] would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” (NIV)  
  • 6:9 – “five barley loaves and two fish.” Not much, and perhaps even less, when we understand that it is a meal for a “lad” (paidarion), meaning a “little boy.” The word for “fish” (opsarion) refers to small dried or pickled fish. 
  • 6:10 – (as in other gospels) the 5,000 refers to men (anēr), indicating there are even more when we include women and children.

However, some prefer denying the evidence.

A denial  

A good friend and I were chatting about this sign some time ago. He mentioned the main attempt of some to deny this miracle.  

To discredit this miracle, some imagine that the little boy sharing his lunch became an example that others followed. These “others” shared their food resulting in enough for everyone.  

Given the evidence, this challenge fails for several reasons, including:  

  • There is nothing in the text to support this conjecture—absolutely nothing.
  • A careful reading states that “Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed ... the fish …” (6:11). The definite article (the) must refer specifically to the five loaves and the two fish provided by the little boy. No other loaves or fish are mentioned to which “the” can refer.
  • When the disciples collect the leftovers, John writes that they “filled twelve baskets with the fragments from the five barley loaves which were left over” (6:13). Again, there were no other sources of food.    

A reasonable reading leads us to conclude that 5,000 men (plus women and children) were fed “as much as they wanted” (6:11) from the five loaves and the two fish supplied by a little boy.   

Who is Jesus?   

First, keep in mind the reference to the Passover. Add to this the location and nature of the sign: feeding a multitude in the wilderness. Then, as I said earlier, Jesus will mention the manna provided by Yahweh to Israel in the wilderness (John 6:31-33 compare to Exodus 16).    

In the same way that Yahweh provided food to Israel in the wilderness, Jesus supplies food to this crowd of people. So what does this say about Jesus?  

Jesus is standing before the people as Yahweh!      

Second, what impact did this sign have on the disciples?  

We read in 6:11-12 that the disciples “filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over.” Again, the language is exact. They “filled” twelve baskets, and they filled them with “the pieces of the five barley loaves.”  

What was going through the disciples' minds as they watched Jesus distribute the five loaves and the two fish among the thousands of people? Then, each disciple held a basket full of the little boy’s loaves.  

I don’t know about you, but if I were one of those disciples, I would have been silent and astounded by what had just happened.   Who is this man that he can do such things?

Is this not “the Christ, the Son of God!”  


Third, what impact is this sign making on you?  

So far, John, an eyewitness, has recorded how Jesus:

What can Jesus do with you and me and the meager resources we offer?  

Are we beginning to realize there is no limit to what this man can do?  

Let me know what other insights you have. You can contact me here.    

FORWARD TO the next post in this series

BACK TO “At the third sign of Jesus.”

Photo credit: “Loaves and Fishes 2” by Graham Braddock. [] An earlier version of Mr. Braddock’s home page stated: “You are welcome to browse and download any of the images for personal, powerpoint, or non-profit use.” This is a non-profit use.   

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