The Feeding of the Four Thousand
Food miracles occur frequently in the Bible. When Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, the Lord miraculously fed them with quail and manna, and gave them water from a rock. Ravens brought bread and meat to Elijah twice each day while he was at the brook Cherith, and then the Lord worked through him to multiply the oil and flour of the widow of Zarephath. Likewise, Elisha multiplied oil to provide for the widow of one of the sons of the prophets, removed the poison from a pot of stew, and fed a hundred men with twenty barley loaves and some corn.
The use of these food miracles can also be found in the New Testament. Jesus’ first miracle in Cana of Galilee was the turning of water into wine. Later he fed five thousand with five barley loaves and two small fish. This food miracle, by the way, received the longest and most in-depth treatment of any of Jesus’ miracles. Almost the entire sixth chapter of John, which has more than seventy verses, is devoted to it. And in our text, Jesus fed four thousand with seven loaves of bread and a few small fish.
These miracles use food for a purpose. We concern ourselves with food every day. Our lives depend on it. But even more important is spiritual food, viz., the blessings of the gospel. Without these, our depraved would remain in the spiritual death in which we were born. The use of food in miracles testifies to the fact that, just as the Lord provides for the outward needs of our bodies, so he also gives us food unto everlasting life. This can also be seen in the fact that several of the sacrifices also involved food — some were intended only for the priests, while others were also enjoyed by worshipers. In the book of Revelation, everlasting life is pictured by a wedding banquet and by fruit trees lining the street.
Yet, the greatest food of all is Jesus himself, who is the bread of God … which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world (John 6:33; cf. vv. 35, 48, 51). Ultimately, all the food miracles, sacrifices and representations of heaven as a banquet direct our attention to him.
The Multiplication of Food
The miracle recorded in today’s text most closely resembles the miracles of Elijah and Elisha that we’ve already mentioned. Their miracles bore witness to the fact that God had called them to be prophets. Jesus’ miracles also give evidence that he was also God’s prophet, but they go beyond that. Inasmuch as they go far beyond the miracles of all the Old Testament prophets, they demonstrate that Jesus is the greatest of all the prophets, a prophet greater even than Moses. His miracles demonstrate that he was sent by the God the Father to do the Father’s will. They were, therefore, part of his Messianic ministry.
Interestingly, Jesus performed the miracle of multiplying food on two separate occasions. That fact raises questions in our minds. If he could multiply food once, why would he do it a second time? Once shows that he can do. Or was there a different point being made with each of the two feedings?
There are several similarities between the two miracles. After each Jesus crossed the sea (6:45–56; 8:10), was challenged by the Pharisees (7:1–23; 8:11–13), talked about bread (7:24–30; 8:14–21), healed someone whose senses were not working (7:31–36; 8:22–26), and gave the gift of faith (7:37; 8:27–30).
In fact, these miracles and the events surrounding them are so similar that many liberals insist that the two accounts are really reporting only a single story. I use the word “story” advisedly here, since that is all that these accounts are to them. They do not report history, i.e., events that actually took place in the world of space and time, but mere stories — myths, legends, folklore. The problem, though, is that one miraculous feeding is as problematic as two. They get around this by claiming that the Biblical stories had a completely different purpose. Instead of giving history, they give hope. They were given to arouse the church to an existential response of faith. If we believe in the impossible, then we’ll have the courage to face the difficult. But this answer only exposes their hypocrisy. If one miracle gives hope, then why wouldn’t two distinct miracles give greater hope? A second miraculous feeding would only add to their existential experience that much more.
Just to be clear about this: the real purpose of liberal theology is NOT to give hope, but to undermine the accuracy, and therefore the authority, of Scripture. By denying the second miraculous feeding, they leave you with the impression that the Word of God cannot be trusted. This is nothing but the devil’s lie: has God really said?
The claim that both feedings depict only one incident is based on the similarity of the two accounts. But that’s only part of the truth. The dissimilarities are equally as significant because they help explain why Jesus performed the same miracle a second time.
The first dissimilarity is the location where the miracles took place. Mark doesn’t say specifically where Jesus fed the five thousand. He reported only that Jesus had gone into his own country (i.e., Capernaum) and then went round about the villages (cf. 6:1, 6). Luke, on the other hand, gives us the exact place: Jesus fed the five thousand in a deserted area just outside the city of Bethsaida (Luke 9:10). This places the first miracle on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, in an area primarily inhabited by Jews, who should have connected it with all the food miracles of the Old Testament. But they did not do so. Instead, after Jesus miraculously fed them, they asked him to give them a sign that was like one of the food miracles. John wrote, They said therefore unto him, What sign shewest thou then, that we may see, and believe thee? what dost thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert; as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat (John 6:30–31). The Jews should have seen in the feeding of the five thousand powerful evidence supporting Jesus’ messianic claim.
However, the second feeding took place on the southeastern side of the Sea of Galilee, exactly opposite the site of the first miracle, in a region known as Decapolis (cf. Mark 7:31; Matt. 15:29–32). Although some Jews lived in Decapolis, it was predominantly a Gentile region. We cannot assume, therefore, that those who witnessed this miracle would have been as familiar with the Old Testament, and particularly with the food miracles that we read there. This gives a completely different perspective to the feeding of the four thousand.
Another dissimilarity in the two feedings has to do with the reason for Jesus’ compassion. Mark 6:34 explains why Jesus did the first miracle. It says, And Jesus, when he came out, saw much people, and was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd: and he began to teach them many things. The prophets of the Old Testament often spoke of the Jews as God’s sheep, but in the first century they were sheep without a shepherd. They had rejected God’s reign. They no longer had a king like David to lead them out and to bring them in, and they refused to acknowledge that David’s greater Son had arrived. Jesus had compassion on them because they were stumbling around blindly without a guide. The Lord’s concern was the spiritual well-being of the people. But the reason for the second miracle was exactly the opposite. In this case, the people had severely inconvenienced themselves in order to be led by the Good Shepherd himself. Jesus noted this in verse 2 of our text when he said, I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now been with me three days, and have nothing to eat. Jesus was concerned that they would faint on their way home because they had devoted themselves to following him. His concern was for their physical welfare.
A third dissimilarity is the dinner blessing. The first feeding followed the common custom of the Jews, viz., a single prayer of blessing for the entire meal (6:41). In the second feeding, however, Jesus gave thanks for the bread, distributed it, and then offered thanks for the fish (8:6–7). Again, Jesus may have adopted different approach because the multitude was mostly Gentile. Not being accustomed to prayer before meals, the double blessing would have emphasized the fact that God supplies all of a believer’s needs through Jesus Christ, and therefore we must express our gratitude to him in everything. The double blessing in the Lord’s Supper probably has the same significance.
Just to wrap this part of the discussion up, the size of the crowds for the two feedings was different, the amount of fish and bread at hand was different, and the amount of food gathered after the meal was different. But perhaps the most decisive point of all comes from the lips of Jesus himself. In verses 19 and 20, he spoke of the two feedings as distinct events. He said, When I brake the five loaves among five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? They say unto him, Twelve. And when the seven among four thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? And they said, Seven.
A Gentile Audience
So far, I’ve indicated a few times that the multitude that witnessed the second feeding consisted mostly of Gentiles. And this is really what the second miracle was about, viz., God visiting the Gentiles with the blessings promised to Abraham. We can see this if we examine the flow of the narrative up to this point.
We’ll begin immediately after the feeding of the five thousand. John’s gospel makes it clear that Jesus’ teaching turned the Jews away. He reports that many … of his disciples … said, This is a hard saying; who can hear it? A few verses later he added, From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him (John 6:60, 66). Some time after this, the Pharisees came to Jesus and quizzed him about eating with unwashed hands (Mark 7:1–23). They believed that a man could be defiled by outward things that he comes into contact with, but Jesus made it clear that defilement begins in the heart. This was not just a theological truth. It was also a judgment against the Pharisees, who had become completely disinterested in inward righteousness.
Following this, and perhaps because of it, Jesus went northward into the land of Tyre and Sidon for his one and only recorded trip outside of Palestine. There he met a pagan woman whose daughter was possessed by a demon. She begged and pleaded with him to cast the demon out of her child. But no matter how earnest her cries, Jesus insisted that the bread of the gospel was for the children, i.e., the children of Abraham or the children of the covenant. It would therefore be inappropriate to take bread from the children and cast it to the dogs. But this woman responded with the faith of Abraham when she said, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs (Mark 7:28). She recognized that she was a dog by birth, but she knew that she did not have to remain a dog forever. By embracing the promises of the gospel, the Lord had transformed her into a child of God — a worthy recipient of covenant blessings. This is exactly what God had promised Abraham many years earlier. On this basis, the Lord sent her away with the assurance that her daughter’s healing was a done deal.
Together these two stories show that the Jews missed what the Gentiles were learning. Of course, the inclusion of one Syro-Phoenician woman in the blessings of the covenant does not qualify as an earthshaking change. Though it was an important lesson, much more would be needed.
This takes us to the next story found in the last few verses of Mark 7. Jesus left Tyre and Sidon and entered into an area known as Decapolis, where he healed a deaf mute. The multitude that brought this man to Jesus made up, at least partially, the four thousand whom Jesus later fed. The first verse of chapter 8 indicates that the multitude was constantly growing in an area where Jews and Gentiles live together. But not everyone in this crowd was from the Decapolis region. The end of verse 3 says that some of them came from far, i.e., they had followed him from the pagan lands of Tyre and Sidon. In any case, the important point here is that the announcement made to the Syro-Phoenician woman — that the covenant would be opened to non-Jews — was followed almost immediately by a very large crowd with a significant Gentile contingent coming to Christ, believing that he was the Messiah who could open the ears of the deaf.
Thus, we see that the benefits of the gospel, which are represented as bread, extended to both Jews and Gentiles. Jesus gave the Jews of his day a miraculous bread, a bread that he had multiplied, a bread that reminded them of the extraordinary care that God had given to their ancestors in the days of Moses. Then, after teaching that this bread was also available to those whom the Jews regarded as dogs, Jesus gave the same miraculous bread to a crowd that would have included Jews and Gentiles together. This was a practical illustration of the fact that, as far as the gospel is concerned, there is no difference between Jews and Gentiles: both are sinners in need of a Savior. Thus, the door was opening wider and wider for the Gentiles to come in.
And this was only the beginning. God had promised Abraham that through his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed. More would follow. Just look at the book of Acts or pick up a volume on church history. All true believers, whether Jews or Gentiles, comprise one church of the Lord Jesus Christ, gathered by his Spirit through the preaching of his Word.
The Disciples’ Understanding
In spite of the food miracles of the Old Testament, Jesus’ disciples failed to grasp what was going on. When Jesus told them to feed the people in the first incident, Philip asked in a somewhat sarcastic manner, Shall we go and buy two hundred pennyworth of bread, and give them to eat? (6:37). He assumed that earthly sources would satisfy their needs. But in our text their question became, From whence can a man satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness? They did not want to presume that Jesus would perform a second miraculous feeding, but that they weren’t about to be as fresh as they had been the first time. So, they simply asked how he planned to feed them.
The fact that they were in the wilderness should have clued them in. Wasn’t it in the wilderness where God provided the Jews with quail, manna and even water from a rock? Wasn’t it also in the wilderness where God fed Elijah through ravens? And the drought conditions that prevailed when Elijah multiplied the widow of Zarephath’s oil and flour and when Elisha did similar miracles made it wilderness-like. Remember that the Lord bestows his greatest gifts upon us when we really understand how little we actually have.
The feeding of the four thousand is no exception. The people were hungry. They had not eaten in three days because they placed a higher value on following Jesus than satisfying their own needs. Look at how well God took care of them. Their hunger was satisfied and afterward they gathered up the leftovers in seven baskets. These baskets (σπυρίδας) were made of rope or mat and were sometimes large enough to carry a man. The same word is used in Acts 9:25, where the disciples let Saul down over the wall of Damascus in a basket. It’s a different word than the one used for gathering the food after the feeding of the five thousand. Although twelve baskets were used then (Mark 6:43), the baskets were smaller and held less. Here the point is that they had significantly more left over after they had finished eating than they started with. This shows us how much the Lord Jesus takes care of our physical needs. And if he does this much for our outward man, think about the vast blessings of salvation that are ours in the covenant of grace.
But the disciples continued to be rather thick-headed. After the feeding miracle, they traveled with Jesus to the land of Dalmanutha. The Pharisees immediately came to Jesus, looking for a sign from heaven. They had missed the significance of the first feeding. Apparently, they were not there for the second feeding. But they wanted a sign. Jesus refused to accommodate them, having given them more than enough already. The economist Stuart Chase once said, “For those who believe, no proof is necessary. For those who don’t believe, no proof is possible.” In any case, when the disciples left, they forgot to take bread. When Jesus told them to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod, they assumed that he was laughing at them for not bringing bread. They were still thinking of bread in earthly terms. Although they knew what had happened, they completely missed its significance.
The slowness and dullness of the disciples should be a warning to us all. Yes, we need to be like the Berean Jews, who did not blindly accept everything that Paul and Silas told them, but carefully searched the scriptures daily to make sure that their message was in line with all previous revelation (Acts 17:11). On the other hand, once something is demonstrated to be Biblical, we should again followed the Bereans’ example and receive it with all readiness of mind. We should incorporate it into our thinking and into our lives as quickly as possible. The disciples failed to do this and consequently missed these powerful displays of Christ’s glory.
What exactly was this glory of Christ that they were supposed to see? We need to see it, too. But we need to know what it was.
In the miracles that Jesus performed between and including the two feeding miracles, he was showing the new period of deliverance had come — a period of messianic deliverance. It was foreshadowed in the miracles of the exodus and in the ministries of the prophets, particularly Elijah and Elisha. The Jews were its first beneficiaries, but Jesus also preached to the Gentiles. The prophet Isaiah wrote about this deliverance in the thirty-fifth chapter of his book as follows:
The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing: the glory of Lebanon shall be given unto it, the excellency of Carmel and Sharon, they shall see the glory of the LORD, and the excellency of our God. Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees. Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompence; he will come and save you.
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as an hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. And the parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water: in the habitation of dragons, where each lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes. And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein. No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there: and the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
Beloved, this is your salvation. This is the Savior that God commands you to believe in, to love with all your heart, and to serve body and soul all your days. Amen.
 The difference may even be greater than a casual reading would suggest. The number 5000 in the first miracle did not include women and children, who, according to Matt. 15:38, were also present. However, the number 4000 in the second miracle probably includes any woman and children who may have been present, though the supposition that women and children were present is itself unlikely since the people went three days without food.