When we think of Jesus’ feeding the 5,000, most of us probably think of it in terms of the miracle itself: Jesus multiplies the five physical loaves of bread and two fish so that the real physical hunger of at least 5,000 people is satisfied. As important and awe-inspiring as the physical miracle itself is, however, much more is happening in this passage.
Jesus knows the road ahead will lead to his death—but he won’t tell the disciples that for a few more chapters, and even then it won’t sink in. But Jesus knows that now, and he’s busy at work preparing the Twelve to be better followers and disciples, but also to be leaders after he departs. The disciples are followers in training to become leaders.
Notice that Jesus’ first concern isn’t with the physical hunger of the people, which is what the miracle seems to be about. In vv. 31-32, Jesus’ concern is actually that the disciples need time to rest and to eat away from the people. Jesus is trying to withdraw. It is the disciples who will later ask Jesus to “send [the people] away to … buy themselves something to eat” (v. 36).
When the crowds of people hurriedly run ahead to meet them where they come ashore in a desolate place, Jesus has compassion “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” What does he do at this point? Does he feed them? Yes, he feeds them: “And he began to teach them many things” (v. 34).
The shepherd’s responsibility is to lead the sheep to green pasture where they may safely graze (notice the “green grass” in v. 39), and here Jesus feeds them abundantly, teaching them many things. Remember, “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Having just returned (v. 30) from going two-by-two with God’s word that people should repent, Jesus models for them how a shepherd cares for his sheep. When the disciples express concern about the people’s physical needs, Jesus says, “you give them something to eat” (v. 37). It’s a perplexing statement until you realize that Jesus has been enacting a parable of how they, as shepherds of God’s flock, should carry out the life-giving ministry of feeding people with God’s word, just as they had begun to do in their two-by-two mission.
Today, that ministry of the word Jesus first entrusted to the Twelve is continued by pastors and elders in the church. Behind the scenes each week, Pastor John devotes a great deal of time laboring in the word of God, preparing rich and wholesome food to feed us on Sunday morning. (That’s one reason it’s so important that we get him a quiet office.) Do you come on Sunday morning hungry and expectant, ready to be fed? Some sermons may have a greater impact on you than others, but every one will nourish your spirit and strengthen you for the week ahead. Come to church every Sunday expecting to feast on God’s word. Thank your mama after supper every night, and thank your pastor for preparing a hearty and delicious Sunday meal.
In closing, let’s be clear that there is no sharp divide between spiritual and physical well being, and Jesus will provide for both in this passage. Likewise, we as a church are not to minister to people spiritually while neglecting their physical needs—we must do both. And that’s why a strong diaconate is an important aid to the work of the pastors and elders and will be important in the future ministry of this church as well (see Acts 6:2-4).