- Main Text: Matthew 14:13-33
- Accompanying text: Psalm 95:1-5
What this passage means to us
The miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 is recorded in all four gospels, and it is clear in Mark’s account that Jesus intended his disciples to learn from this miraculous event, but they did not understand it initially. After Jesus walked on water during the storm on the sea of Galilee, “he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:51-52), which means that their minds were closed. The disciples did not see the significance of the miracle. Was there something more to what happened than just satisfying the hunger of the people? What is it that they had not understood?
To find the answer we need to go to John’s record of what happened the next day, when Jesus preached in the synagogue in Capernaum. Some scholars suggest that the reading that day was taken from Exodus 16:13-36 or Numbers 11:4-9, about the manna which God had provided for the Israelites. Crowds had followed Jesus because, as Jesus said to them, “you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:26-27). The “food that spoils” refers to the manna which would rot if not collected according to how Moses had instructed. This manna, his hearers noted, was “bread from heaven” (John 6:31). Jesus replied, “I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world”.
Just as when Jesus had explained to the Samaritan woman that he had the water of life and she had replied “Sir, give me this water” (John 4:15), so now, on hearing of the bread of life, his audience replied, “‘Sir…always give us this bread’. Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life’” (John 6:31-35). This was confusing. What did Jesus mean? Jesus continued, “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world”, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them” (John 6:49-51,56). The spiritual lesson for the disciples and for us is this “powerful metaphor stating that a share in the life of God, eternal life, is granted to those who in faith come to Jesus, appropriate him, enter into union with him” . Matthew does not record a version of John’s account and neither does John record Matthew’s account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26), but we can see that the former conveys the same truth in words as the latter conveys in sacramental action.
For some of his disciples this lesson was a step too far: “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’” (John 6:60). We are called to accept this lesson and its implications. It’s not the only lesson to glean from the passage. Another is to note how the disciples are involved in distributing the bread and in collecting the baskets of leftovers. Jesus uses others in his ministry. He uses us in the work of the gospel, in distributing the bread of life and also in what happens afterwards, in mission and in church. In addition, we can see how Jesus can take what little we have available, and with it perform a miracle.
When it comes to the walking on water, the “theological point of the story is this: the sea in the old Testament symbolises the mysterious power of chaos and death which is in constant threat to God’s reign. In Jesus therefore, God is asserting his kingly power over Satan’s realm. The moral of the story is the same as Jesus’ thematic proclamation through his healing work: ‘the reign of God is at hand’” . “The sea is his, for he made it” (Psalm 95:5). Peter’s walking down into the water and sinking until Jesus reaches out to help him has inspired many a Christian in the journey of faith. Did Peter have it in the back of his mind when he wrote, “Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming” (I Peter 1:13)?
Context and Story-line
Matthew 14 begins with the story of two contrasting meals. The first involves a birthday banquet where the head of John the Baptist is presented on a serving platter, and the second involves a miracle, when Jesus fed over 5000 people and the disciples gathered the leftovers in twelve large baskets. There was no miraculous intervention for John, no superhuman strength like Samson’s to bring Herod’s palace down, no Jesus coming through physical walls to rescue him, no angels on hand to deliver him. The only miracle was the miracle of John’s witness. John had done his job. He had prepared the way for Jesus, and now Jesus had to get on with his messiahship, which he does. Jesus sends out his disciples, and “they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the good news and healing people everywhere” (Luke 9:6). When they return, they witness and get involved in a miracle that has nothing to do with healing and the casting out of demons, but all to do with the compassion that Jesus had towards the crowds that followed him. After John’s death Jesus moves out of the kingdom of Herod Antipas (who had killed John) and goes by boat across the sea (Lake of Galilee) to Bethsaida, but the crowds follow him on foot. Jesus is with them all day and in the evening the disciples want them to go home, but Jesus has other ideas. He tells the disciples to feed the multitudes and the disciples protest that they have no food. But Jesus always finds a way to help us to do the work he calls us to do. Note that he involves the disciples in the work. The rest of the story is well known. There are leftovers…Jesus’ sufficiency is always more than enough. It’s also of note, perhaps even of environmental interest, that Jesus doesn’t leave the leftovers to rot in the fields. They get gathered up and put into baskets for later use. The miracle involved more than the 5,000 men – it included women and children besides. Some have tried to explain miracles away in terms of tricks or of using mind over matter, but this is one miracle that defies such explanations.
Following this Jesus sent the disciples by boat ahead of him, intending to see them later. He dismissed the multitudes and went up one of the nearby hilltops to pray, a dedicated time of communion with the Father. Out in the middle of the sea, however, a storm had arisen, and the disciples were caught up on it, and Jesus “went out to them, walking on the lake” (Matthew 14:25). Jesus performed both the miracles — the feeding of the 5,000 and the walking on the water — for other people, and not for his own amusement or advantage. In their darkest hour Jesus went out to them, and he does the same for us today. But when the disciples saw Jesus they reacted out of their own culture and thought they had seen an apparition. Jesus’ response was to give them words of comfort, not of rebuke. He “immediately said to them: ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid’” (Matthew 14:27). Peter wanted to prove that it really was Jesus who was walking on water, and Jesus invited him to join him on the water. Initially Peter seemed to do well, but then he took his eyes off Jesus and looked around at the storm, and he began to sink, crying out to Jesus to save him. Without any hesitation Jesus catches Peter and saves him from drowning. Jesus explained that Peter needed to have faith in who Jesus is, that Jesus is faithful to who says he is. The outcome is an act of worship, and a re-affirmation that Jesus is the Son of God. “And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. Then those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God’” (Matthew 14:32-34).
- Mark 6:30-52
- John 6:1-59
- Luke 9:10-17
Footnotes and references
1. F. F. Bruce, The Hard Sayings of Jesus (London, UK: Hodder and Stroughton Ltd, 1998). 24.
2. Morris Maddocks, The Christian Healing Ministry, (London, UK: SPCK, 1995). 42.