Feeding the Multitude
Stewardship, Compassion, Vision
At some point in your life, you have been involved in the preparation of a meal for a large group of people. This may have been a holiday meal, a wedding reception or rehearsal dinner, food for a party, or even being involved in a fundraising dinner for some organization. If you’ve done this before, you know the importance of good planning.
Some of the real unsung heroes of our church are the ladies who prepare meals for families before or after a funeral. When we perform funerals for families in our church, these ladies offer to feed them on the day of the funeral. It is a great opportunity to minister to grieving families in a very practical way. The only thing the ladies who prepare these meals ask for is a good estimate of how many people will be coming to the meal. The times when we have guessed on the low side have seen quite the flurry of activity in the kitchen and me running to the store to pick up more food!
As we look at the story of the feeding of the five thousand this morning, there is a sense in which the disciples faced a similar situation. They were probably planning to prepare a meal for thirteen people (the twelve of them and Jesus), but instead, several thousand hungry people showed up! Can you imagine the panic of preparing a meal for 13, only to find you were short by thousands of servings?
That probably how the disciples felt in the story we will be looking at today. This is a story that is familiar to many people both inside and outside the church. Because of that, it is easy for us to miss some very important elements. Jesus worked a miracle that stuns us even to this day, but if all we take away from this account was that Jesus was the greatest dinner host that ever lived then we have missed some really important lessons. The feeding of the five thousand is recorded not just so we can marvel at what Jesus accomplished 2,000 years ago—but to be instructive to us even today.
Luke begins by telling us that the disciples had just returned from their “internship” where Jesus had sent them out on their own for the first time. They all came back together and reported to Jesus what had happened, and he decided to take them off to the wilderness for some alone time. They got together and headed out for a town called Bethsaida. They were probably looking for a place to rest and debrief in the wilderness outside Bethsaida…but the crowds had other plans.
Luke 9:11 tells us,
But the crowds learned about it and followed Him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God and healed those who needed healing.
We get the sense that they didn’t even really get a chance to get started on their retreat before they were once again met with a mass of humanity. I can imagine some frustration on the part of the disciples, because they were surely worn out from their experience. You can probably relate; it would be like on the day you finally get to sleep in, you are awoken by a phone call from work. The disciples were probably looking forward to a little time to relax. But Jesus understood the opportunity that lay before Him, so even though they were probably all exhausted Jesus welcomed the people and began to teach.
After Jesus had been teaching and healing for a while, the disciples came to him and warned him that it was getting late in the day and the people would be getting hungry soon. So, they told Jesus (notice that they didn’t ask!) to send the people back to the surrounding villages so they could find food and lodging. Jesus’ response was, “You give them something to eat.”
Luke tells us in verse 14 that there were about 5,000 men there. The word here used for men doesn’t mean “people” as it often does when we read the word “men” in the Bible. In this case it means “males”, so it seems likely that there were even more than 5,000 people there. It’s possible that if many of these people had brought their families along with them that 15,000 to as many as 20,000 people could have been there. We have a difficult time imagining how many people this is, but it is a huge group of people.
They got frustrated with Jesus’ response, saying
“We have only five loaves of bread and two fish—unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.” (Luke 9:13b)
In another of the gospel accounts, we are told that one of the disciples complained that it would take eight month’s wages to feed this crowd. The disciples only counted 7 things that they had available to them—5 loaves and 2 fish—but they really had 8 things. They did have 5 loaves and 2 fish, but they also had Jesus. They had forgotten about their greatest resource, they had the One who had created the universe!
Jesus told the disciples to have the crowd sit down in groups of about 50. Then he took the food they had and said a prayer over it. He thanked God for meeting their needs and providing this food. Jesus emphasized that God provided the food, and would be the one providing food for the entire crowd.
After Jesus finished praying, he told the disciples to hand it out to the people. None of the gospels say that Jesus explained what he was going to do, just that he told the disciples to start handing out the food. In my mind I see them all looking at each other, wondering how in the world he thought that this tiny bit of food would even make it through the first group of 50. But they did what he said, and they kept handing out food until everyone had eaten enough to be satisfied, then they went back and collected all the leftovers—12 baskets full of broken pieces!
Some people take issue with this passage of Scripture. They think this is just too far-fetched to happen. They argue that if the disciples picked up 12 baskets full of pieces, that someone else had to have food—because it’s impossible to end with more than what you started with. As a result, people have proposed all sorts of naturalistic explanations for how this could have happened.
I’m sorry, but I think that’s silly. This is certainly a miracle, but I have no problem believing it happened. If we can accept that God created the entire universe out of nothing, that Jesus was able to come to earth as both fully man and fully God, that Jesus was able to come back to life after having been dead for three days, then I do not find it difficult to believe that he could also multiply a basket full of food into enough to feed a multitude! Yes, Jesus had to have made food appear out of thin air—but if He created the universe out of nothing, why is it so hard to believe He could make food! If we can accept the other miracles of Scripture, there is no need to try to explain this one away—we can just recognize that we worship a God who can accomplish things we can’t explain.
If we just come away from this passage thinking about what a neat story it is, then we’ve missed the point. I think there are a number of interesting elements to the story, and there are at least three very practical lessons from the responses of Jesus and the disciples.
First, God can multiply our meager resources to accomplish great things. We see in this story that the disciples didn’t think what they had available was enough to meet the need of the 5,000 or more people gathered to hear Jesus. They looked at what they would be able to do with five loaves and two fishes in their own strength and (rightly) concluded that there was no hope. Unfortunately, they failed to see what God could do with those same materials!
We sometimes fall into this same trap. We look at the needs around us and conclude that we don’t have the resources to help. We must remember that God is not just in the business of multiplying loaves and fishes—He can multiply anything we will give to Him. That means that we can give of our talents, our time, or our treasure, and God can use those things to accomplish far more than we could ever imagine.
You may look at your checkbook and feel discouraged, or you may see your lack of education as a hindrance to your ability. You may see your shyness or lack of skill in a certain area as preventing you from doing great things. Let me remind you that God can take whatever you give and multiply it to do great things.
Chuck Colson, the founder of Prison Fellowship, told a story about how God can do great things through the faithfulness of people we might ignore. He and his team did a seminar in a prison, with him preaching, a reformed inmate sharing his testimony, and a famed gospel singer sharing the gift of song with the inmates. At the end of the several days of the seminar, one inmate stood up to thank Mr. Colson for the ministry of his team. But he wasn’t grateful for what you might have thought. He said that he appreciated all that the others had done, but what really impacted him was that the ladies on the team came in after all the hubbub had died down and sat down to eat with the inmates. This man said that the actions of these women changed his view of Christ more than anything else he had experienced.
I suspect these ladies didn’t think much would come out of sitting down to dinner with these hardened criminals, but they felt it was the right thing to do. They knew they couldn’t get up and preach or sing or share a powerful story of God’s action in their lives, but they could spend time with people who everyone else viewed as outcasts. They didn’t have much to offer, but that didn’t matter to God. God was happy to use whatever they would give to change people forever.
What do you have to offer the Lord? Whatever it is, God can use it to accomplish great things. Whether you feel that you have some talents to offer, or you have financial means to give, or that you can offer nothing but your time—all of these are resources that God can multiply for use in His kingdom. The key is to trust Him enough to give whatever we have, even if we think it is insignificant.
Second, sometimes the greatest opportunities for ministry come at the times that seem most inconvenient to us. The disciples were exhausted from their time out ministering on their own. They finally got back to spend some time with Jesus, and I imagine that they just wanted to have some time to recharge, and to talk with Jesus about what happened while they were out on their own. It is at this time, when they finally felt like they had an opportunity for some much-deserved down time, that the crowds showed up again. Jesus didn’t hesitate, he didn’t tell the people to come back later, he didn’t complain about how busy he was and how he was getting tired; He immediately seized the opportunity to minister to the people.
I’ll admit this isn’t a truth that I like very much, but it seems to be a common theme in Jesus’ teaching. Think back to another familiar story that Jesus told—the parable of the Good Samaritan. The first two people who walked past the injured man were prominent religious leaders. You can imagine that they were probably busy—they probably had important things to do. After all, they were on their way to teach the people in Jerusalem. That was where their time was going to be best spent. Jesus disagreed with that assessment. He said that these men were actually the villains of the story, because their self-important view caused them to miss an opportunity to truly share the love of Christ with another—which is the most important thing we can do.
This is difficult to apply. If you’re like me, there are many times when you just want to tell people to leave you alone, because you’re doing something important. Let me encourage you (as I encourage myself) to look at interruptions differently. When you are working on something, or are finally getting two minutes to yourself, or are on a mission as you fly down the aisles of a store and someone interrupts you, try to look for what ministry opportunity might be standing in front of you. This may be a chance to minister to your spouse, your kids, your boss, the people you work with, your neighbor, or friend, or even a complete stranger. Instead of looking at these interruptions as intrusions into our busy schedules, we should look at them as divine appointments—a time God has set aside for you to touch another person.
Jesus knew the importance of getting some down-time, but He also knew that standing in front of him was a chance to minister to others—an opportunity He wasn’t about to miss.
The third lesson is that God expects us to be part of the solution. The disciples saw a problem—it was getting late in the day and everyone was getting hungry—and they told Jesus that He needed to do something about it. Jesus didn’t do what they told him to do, and He didn’t just feed everyone right then and there. Jesus’ response was interesting—He told them to meet the need they saw. He told the disciples to feed the people.
A while ago I read a book called The No Complaining Rule. In it, the author laid out a principle that I think is eminently biblical—you aren’t allowed to complain about a problem unless you also say how you plan to solve it. I think this principle is sound—God may help you or me to see a problem, but in doing so, He also gives us a responsibility to be a part of the solution.
We struggle with this a lot. Most of us are very good at seeing problems, and knowing what other people should or shouldn’t do. Unfortunately, we don’t do much to fix the problem—other than complaining or pointing fingers (which really doesn’t solve the problem either.) A better approach is to look at problems and say, “What can I do to make this better?” Unfortunately it is a lot easier to point fingers than to be a part of the solution—because sometimes the solution isn’t something we want to do.
This struggle is very common in marriage. It’s not uncommon for a couple to get into a rut in their marriage, with each party feeling like their needs aren’t being met. When they talk to their friends or even a counselor, one partner will often say, “If he/she would just do this, then I’d have no problem giving them what they want.” The problem is that neither one feels like the other is meeting their needs. Both are just waiting for the other to change. So what’s the solution? The solution is for us to take the first step, trying to do what our spouse wants, even if we don’t feel like they deserve it. Complaining and blaming gets us nowhere, but taking steps toward a solution does.
This principle is applicable in a lot of different areas. We could apply this to politics. Rather than just complaining about what our government is doing, we should do something about it. We should pray that God would help our leaders to govern well instead of praying ill will upon them. We should cast our vote, or even get our own name on a ballot. Simply complaining does nothing. The same is true at work. Instead of complaining that everyone is lazy and entitled, you should lead by example, working hard whether anyone is watching or not. Instead of complaining you aren’t being paid enough, the solution might be to be grateful you have a steady paycheck. Instead of complaining that your kids aren’t doing what they should, you should see what you can do to encourage them in the things they are doing well.
Being part of the solution is how many ministries have been started. I used to work for a company called Stephen Ministries. Thirty years ago the founder of the organization saw that there were lots of hurting people in churches and that pastors didn’t have enough time to meet with everyone that needed a listening ear. He had a background in psychology, so he did a workshop for some local churches to teach laypeople how to be good listeners to people who were hurting. These churches told others and more churches started asking him to teach their members these skills. Three decades later, God has used this man to teach thousands of churches these skills, and hundreds of thousands of hurting people have been helped by the people he’s taught. This man saw a problem and sought to be part of the solution.
The same is true with organizations like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association or Prison Fellowship. Billy Graham and Chuck Colson were people who saw a need and sought to meet it. You may not feel like you can do what they did—and you can’t….But God can if you will just be willing to take the first step.
Most of us have had times where we have seen a need and said, “Somebody should do something to help these people out.” But true ministry begins when a person says, “I’m somebody! I should do something to help these people out!” Look around your life, and see what problems you see, then ask yourself, how can I be part of the solution? Maybe Jesus is saying to you, “I’ve helped you to see that the people are hungry—now I’ll help you to feed them.”
The feeding of the five thousand is a wonderful story that showcases Jesus’ power and majesty. It is not simply a myth that arose about Him, it is a historical account attested to by all of the gospel authors in detail. It is not simply meant to teach us about Jesus’ ministry on earth or about the disciples (though we can certainly learn about both from this account), it teaches us that God expects us to be a part of the solution, and that He won’t ask us to do it alone. This passage reminds us that even though it may not always be easy, convenient, or risk-free, God can use even you and me to do things we never dreamed were possible.
Chances are that there will be times when you see a solution, but you think it is bigger than you can handle. Let me challenge you not to make the same mistake the disciples did. They overlooked the biggest resource they had available to them: The Divine Multiplier! Take what you have and give it as an offering to the Lord and then watch what He can do.
You don’t have to be rich, exceptionally talented, or anything else in order for God to use you greatly. You simply need to be willing to do everything you can to be part of the solution—and trust God to provide what you can’t. If we will fix our eyes on God and His ability to provide, we can boldly seek to meet the needs we see—no matter how many people show up.