(A) Introduction. Read: John6v1to15 and Mark6v30to45 and Luke9v10to17.

The feeding of the five thousand is a very important miracle. It is the only one reported in all four gospels. It represents the high water mark of Jesus' popularity. From this point his support haemorrhages.

It is impossible to understand the significance of the miracle without reading both the account of John and Mark. Only John gives us the crucial information that Jesus asked Philip where bread could be bought to feed the crowd as a test. When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming towards him, he said to Philip, "Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat? He asked only to test him. For he already had in mind what he was going to do.

I wonder why Jesus asked Philip this question. He was quite a pragmatic disciple. When his friend Nathanael doubted that any good thing could come out of Nazareth Philip replied, "Come and see." John1v46. After Jesus told his disciples that: "No-one comes to the Father except through me." Philip says: Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us." John14v8. Perhaps, Philip, the practical man, was the quartermaster of the group - in charge of getting in the provisions.

Philip who was a bit of a worrier undoubtedly consulted the other disciples over the matter of feeding 5000 plus. I expect Judas had plenty to say! They were all put to the test. So when the disciples came to Jesus in late afternoon or early evening to give him the benefit of their considered opinion they had spent several hours discussing the problem. They advised Jesus: "This is a remote place, and it is already very late. Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat." Mk6v36and37. They failed the test!

(B) What was Jesus testing?

(1) The disciples' grasp of reality.
The disciples had just returned from a successful preaching and healing tour. The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going they did not even have a chance to eat. Mk6v30and31. It was all happening as the apostles anticipated. Capernaum was inundated with supporters - so much so that Jesus had no time to be alone with his disciples. But they did not mind because interest in their leader was growing. Even King Herod wanted to meet him. The apostles were so busy - Judas collecting donations, Philip preparing meals that never got eaten and James and John jockeying for position. They could visualise Jesus being swept to power at the head of a popular mass movement. The Kingdom was indeed at hand!

Jesus was not happy! He knew that the disciples needed some quiet instruction. So he said: "Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest." Mk6v31. When his plan was thwarted he decided to inject some realism into the deliberations of the disciples. He gave them a practical problem to solve. He asked them if they were really up to feeding the troops. Had they the organisational skills to provision an army. This was a rude awakening for the apostles. They spent all day talking about the food situation and did absolutely nothing. Jesus brought home to his disciples that they hadn't begun to appreciate the difficulty of organising an armed uprising against the Romans.

I am afraid that there remain many religious leaders who are happier pontificating on political issues than preaching the gospel or expounding Scripture. They have very limited understanding of the practical implications of the policies they espouse. It is the politicians who take responsibility for the repercussions of disarmament, trade agreements and attempts to improve the environment. How can carbon emissions into the atmosphere be reduced to slow down global warming? Is it religious leaders that would be held accountable for rationing petrol, placing a penal tax on air flights and limiting each household to one car? These policies would reduce Britain's contribution to global warming!

(2) The disciples' concern for the masses.
How much did the disciples really care for the crowd? It was good to have a crowd and even better to use a crowd to achieve your end. Did the disciples' commitment to the people extend to spending 200 denarii (10, 000) on food? Mark suggests that there was enough money in the kitty. When Jesus told the disciples: "You give them something to eat", they retorted: "That would take 200 denarii. Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?" Mk6v37. The disciples did not say bluntly that the money wasn't there to spend.

The twelve did not want to exhaust their fund. They were not prepared to take the boat round the shore to nearby coastal settlements to buy bread. The disciples were unanimous. They told Jesus angrily: "Send the people away." Mk6v36. This led to the very sharp exchange between Jesus and the apostles recorded by Mark.

Plenty of Christians are unhappy to be told what to do with their money. We do not like making financial sacrifices. I don't. Appeals on behalf of the destitute still produce mutiny in the ranks.

(3) The disciples' spiritual insight.
It is possible that Jesus was probing the disciples' understanding of the work God wanted him to do. The unjustified execution of John the Baptist prompted Jesus to think about his own death - the ultimate sacrifice. It was while the apostles were on their preaching expedition that John's disciples buried his body. Then they went and told Jesus. Mark14v12.

When Jesus saw the crowd move up the hillside towards him Mark tells us he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a Shepherd. Mk6v34 They were restless, lost and vulnerable. They had no-one to direct, protect or provide for them.

Jesus question to Philip: "Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?" was a stiff test. He was asking his disciples: "What can satisfy their hunger? Who will provide for them?" The answer Jesus hoped for was: "Master - you can satisfy their need." The Saviour was certainly thinking along these lines for next day he told the crowd: "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry." John6v35.

The disciples failed the test Jesus set them. They were thinking along different lines to Jesus. The disciples wanted God's Kingdom to be established on earth. Religious revival and moral rearmament were necessary before the new Kingdom could be set up. The disciples, including Judas, no doubt accepted much of Christ's ethical teaching and desired God's appointed king to rule in righteousness. What they got wrong was the king's domain. They expected Jesus to be ruler of a free and independent Israel where he would bring justice and blessing to the Jews and eventually to the wider world. The place Christ reigns is in the hearts of those who love him. His Kingdom consists of all who love him and do his will wherever they might be.

It is as well to remind ourselves in these days that Christians are not under the authority of any earthly leader whether it be the Pope or a charismatic pastor; they are not beholden to mother church or any other church; they are not ruled by a set of doctrines, interpretations of Scripture or even Scripture itself - their allegiance is to Jesus Christ alone. I am afraid that too many see the church as an earthly kingdom. That is why so much fuss is being made this week about the Pope's death. He is the leader of millions of Catholics. He is the emperor of a mighty kingdom wielding real power. He will be buried with the pomp and ceremony of a great statesman or revered monarch. In the end every knee will bow to the carpenter from Nazareth who died on a cross and was buried with the minimum of ceremony in a borrowed tomb. He, and only he, can save us. He is my living head. I am beholden to none other. Jesus said: "For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." John6v40.

(C) The Second Test.

Early in the evening, after the disciples told Jesus to send the crowd away to fend for them selves, he asked them another question. "How man loaves do you have?" he asked. "Go and see." When they found out, they said, "Five - and 2 fish." Mk6v38. Let us look at the response of:

    (1) The disciples.
    The apostles didn't save their lunch to feed the crowd. It seems they ate such provisions as they bought with them. Nor did the twelve try very hard to get bread from the crowd. It is pathetic that they only managed to collect 5 loaves from 5000 men. Surely most folk would have brought something to eat with them.

    I think Andrew's words are almost a protest spoken on behalf of his best friend Philip: "Here is a boy with 5 small loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?" John6v8. Andrew is defiantly showing his disapproval of Jesus by presenting him with a lad's packed lunch and saying ironically, "We're not going to feed very many with this!"

    We may be guilty of thinking, like Andrew and the other disciples, that big resources are needed to tackle big problems. It is surprising what individuals acting alone can achieve. An East Anglian dinner lady waged a lone campaign to improve the quality of school meals and through her efforts has introduced thousands of children to healthy eating. When individuals and the Holy Spirit join forces it is amazing what results ensue - 3000 converted by one sermon on the day of Pentecost.

    (2) The crowd.
    Not many of the crowd were prepared to hand over their supper to the disciples. Some had it with them - but they intended keeping it to eat on the way home. That's how most of us are! One relatively warm April afternoon during a Geography fieldtrip I climbed Red Pike in the Lake District with a party of sixth formers. By the end of the long haul to the summit my students were hot and thirsty. I was the only one who still had a can of fruit juice left. The boys pleaded with me for a drink. I hardened my heart and drank it all myself.

    (3) One boy.
    I think it was a miracle that the boy's packed lunch remained intact. In my long experience of organising school trips boys start eating their sandwiches as soon as they get on the bus. It says much for the lad's self-discipline that he kept his food for the long walk home. It says even more for his devotion to Jesus that he was prepared to give his evening meal to him. Boys and their packed lunches are not easily parted. This lad was not from a well to do home. Barley bread was the food of the poor. The two pickled fish were about the size of sardines.

    Some of the greatest gifts that Jesus receives are small. A small gift may be very costly to the giver. Jesus knew that the certain poor widow who put 2 mites into the temple collecting-box was giving all she possessed. She was donating to God her only meagre meal for the day - a bread-roll and a spoonful of sauce. It is hard to give like that! Occasionally a simple act of kindness sets off a chain of events that brings great blessing to many. Jesus remains able to multiply the loaves and fishes!

(D) Why did Jesus perform the miracle?

It wasn't strictly necessary for the purpose of the test for Jesus to perform the miracle. He could have explained to Philip and the others that he asked the question about bread to test them and then gone ahead and dismissed the multitude.

It is unlikely that Jesus fed the crowd out of compassion. It was not really necessary to provide them with food. The disciples said: "Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat." Mk6v36. This was a realistic proposition. There were plenty of closely spaced fishing villages around Lake Galilee. It is unlikely that anyone was much further than 7 or 8 miles from home. Jesus and his disciples had only sailed 4 miles across the northern end of the lake from Capernaum to Bethsaida.

The situation was quite different when Jesus fed the 4000 with seven loaves. See Mk8v1to8. In this instance the people had been 3 days with little to eat in the desert and faced a long trip home.

Jesus expected the disciples to draw a lesson from both the feeding of the 5000 and 4000. In Mark8v10to21 another trip across the lake is described. Jesus sailed from Damanuth to Bethsaida with his disciples who had forgotten to buy any bread. While in the boat Jesus warns the twelve against the yeast of the Pharisees who would not believe in him without a sign. The disciples are puzzled and decide they are being reproved for not stocking up with bread. That is what preoccupied them at the time! Jesus said to them: "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don't you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up? Mk8v17to19.

Jesus miraculously fed the five thousand to teach his disciples a lesson. He probably hoped they would grasp that if his work consisted of providing people with food and drink it could be accomplished easily. Miracles of this sort did not present Jesus with a problem. The big problem he faced was exemplified by the yeast or unbelief of the Pharisees and Herod. The vast majority of the 5000 who enjoyed the free meal Jesus provided were little better than the Pharisees. The food was very good but they did not find the miracle impressive! The sheep for whom Jesus felt so sorry were not willing to adopt him as their Good Shepherd.

The disciples heard Jesus say to the people he fed on the mountain side: "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent." John6v28. "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. John6v35."

The apostles still did not realise that Jesus could supply all the believer's needs. Faith in Jesus, and in him alone, is the one thing needful to benefit from all he has to offer. I wonder if we really believe that.

(E) Different reactions to the miracle.

(1) The crowd were impressed.
They were impressed by the food but not the miracle! I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. John6v26.

The feeding of the five thousand was a crowd pleaser. It was unusual in that people benefited en mass. They had more than enough because 12 basketfuls were left over. The quality was terrific - no-one had tasted the equal of the barley loaves and pickled fish Jesus provided.

So as the huge open air picnic drew to a close the people were full of enthusiasm for Jesus. They said: "Surely this is the Prophet who is come into the world." Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. John6v14and15. Jesus was not going to be made king by anyone and certainly not by folk who had their own agenda. Jesus never was an earthly king and Christian leaders should beware of assuming royal trappings.

So many through the years have made Jesus just what they want to make him. Jesus the Partisan is claimed by this side and that - he is the Protestant Jesus or the Roman Catholic Jesus, the Calvinist Jesus or the Arminian Jesus. In the past he was the Warrior Jesus marching out to war at the head of campaigns against the infidel. Today he is likely to be the Revolutionary Jesus - standing up for the poor and oppressed and opposed to capitalism. There are some who follow the Indulgent or Hippy Jesus. They deck him out in beads, give him a guitar and make him an advocate of free love. I have known a few Grace Baptists in my time who champion a Disapproving or Sniffy Jesus who looks down on those who enjoy a pint, a fag and a game of bingo.

Jesus is not having any of this. He does not belong exclusively to any group, cause or special interest. Our commitment to him must be unconditional and wholehearted.

(2) The disciples were piqued.
They had a rotten day in that isolated spot near Bethsaida. They spent most of it worrying about feeding the crowd and all the time Jesus had in mind what he was going to do. John6v6. Then Jesus expected them to act as glorified waiters - distributing food and clearing up the bits and pieces afterwards. Just when things were beginning to look interesting and the disciples anticipated getting what they wanted Jesus packed them off like naughty children. Mark records: Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. Mk6v45.

I believe we can discern the extent of their resentment in the apparent differences in John and Mark's account of the journey back across the lake. Mark tells us that the disciples were sent straight away to Bethsaida - the nearest settlement to the quiet hillside where Jesus spent the day - to wait for him there. John writes: "When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, where they got into a boat and set off across the lake for Capernaum. By now it was dark, and Jesus had not yet joined them. John6v16and17. Jesus got rid of the twelve at once because they were egging on the mob who wished to make him king. Judas was really excited! He told them to go to Bethsaida and wait for him there. The disciples waited until it got dark and when Jesus didn't turn up they left without him. They were fed up with Jesus and to be kept hanging about was the final straw! None of us like waiting for someone who is late! Mark informs us: They had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. Mk6v52. It was fortunate for the disciples that Jesus could walk on water!

Once again there are lessons for us. Things don't always work out as we expect in Christian service. Our plans are not Christ's. We may feel unaccepted and unwanted. In such circumstances it easy to be disappointed and piqued. We can't wait for Jesus and set sail without him. He has provided us with no explanations and no consolation and we are resentful. It is time to retreat from the battle and lick our wounds. We set sail for home waters - for a safe and familiar shore. We are on our way to Capernaum when the storm breaks and then how much we need him and how glad we are to take Jesus back on board.

(3) Jesus himself.
He, too, is sad and troubled and seeks consolation, wisdom and strength through prayer to his Father above. Whenever we have a major set back in the church this should be the first thing we do - consult God.

(4) The boy.
I hope the lad went home happy. He accomplished more than he expected and his example has inspired many through the years. He gave what he could, all he could, to the best banker any one could wish for! The boy put his lunch, such a little lunch, into the Saviour's hands. We must place our lives into his hands. They may be very insignificant lives - pretty coarse-grained and common - like those barley loaves - but Jesus will ensure we play our part in Redemption's Story.