Posted by: mikebackup | July 27, 2012

I’m having trouble with feeding the five thousand

John 6:1-21

New International Version – UK (NIVUK)

Jesus feeds the five thousand

6 Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing those who were ill. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.

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 this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, ‘It would take more than half a year’s wages[a] to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!’

Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, ‘Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?’

10 Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.

12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, ‘Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.’ 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.

Jesus walks on the water

16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, 17 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. 18 A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. 19 When they had rowed about three or four miles,[b] they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on the water; and they were frightened. 20 But he said to them, ‘It is I; don’t be afraid.’ 21 Then they were willing to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the shore where they were heading.

I’m going to be honest; I really struggle with this Gospel story on a number of levels. What I’m about to share isn’t just so you can listen to my theological woes, but to hopefully give greater strength to your own faith journey. Like Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32, it’s really good to wrestle with God through parts of the Bible you have problems with, to then be touched by God sometimes painfully but with the knowledge God has moved you on in your discipleship.

            I’ve found that it’s often well-known parts of the Bible you learnt in Sunday School that cause a real headache – Noah’s ark is a classic example and for me this is the same. An interesting fact that compounds my difficulty is that the feeding of the five thousand is the only Gospel story that’s present in all four Gospels, so it was really important to the original writers and sharers of the Gospel. My first difficulty is illustrated with a conversation I had once with someone who knows the Bible well but is sceptical. Talking about this story they said ‘You and I both know that it isn’t true and didn’t happen’. Right let’s unpack that a little more, historically, evangelistically and scientifically. Historically if it isn’t true what’s it in there for and why is it presented as historical fact? In terms of evangelism, sceptical people are going to dismiss it as a made up story to make Jesus look good, certainly not convince them to start a journey of faith. The reason they dismiss it is because scientifically it oversteps the miracle mark. In my own resolve on miracles I firstly take the line that everything is a miracle. Then in terms of most Biblical miracles (of which for me the resurrection is ultimately the one I’m really bothered about) I’ve taken Scientist and Theologian John Polkinghorne’s stance that in unprecedented circumstances the unprecedented can happen. It’s an argument that reconciles both what science and theology know. This miracle (far more than when Jesus walks on water) breaks that for me because Jesus creates new matter out of nothing. Science has shown that nothing in creation gets created or destroyed just transformed. You could say that my stance on miracles can still cope with this but if I conceded that it then opens the door to a massive theological problem. If God in human form can create food why isn’t it something we are endowed with to help the starving millions of the world? God is turned into a divine show off that doesn’t actually care when a starving child in acute pain breathes their last in their Mother’s arms. As the protest Atheists say, no future heaven is ever worth that. Like the entrepreneurs on Dragon’s Den who listen to a promising proposition that sadly on deep probing reveals deep flaws the only answer you can give is ‘I’m out’. So is this cuddly story about Jesus actually a faith killer? It could be if you don’t let God give you a response. I’ve wrestled with today’s reading for weeks and I’ve been very reassured and challenged by God’s response. Ultimately I have no definite answer as to whether it’s historically true, but I have more than enough to challenge you and me into being better human beings and closer to the love I truly believe is at the heart of God.

            First off is a response to my theological objection why we can’t feed the starving millions. The very real truth is that God has provided enough food out of nothing, we just don’t share it. Others have commented on this story saying the real miracle was that the food was shared in an organised and loving fashion. It’s a reality that shames us as individuals and as a rich nation. Talk to Mwaka the Pastor for the Hope of Glory church. Congo where they come from is in deep trouble and at present 130,000 people are refugees in Uganda and have no food. Mwaka and the rest of his congregation know people who today will have nothing to eat. They didn’t have anything yesterday nor will they tomorrow. Be bothered about this please, along with every other starving person on the planet. Do what you can to make a difference, write letters, fundraise, donate, come up with a new initiative that may help. The task seems massive and that’s because we’ve all been party to a massive sin, but we can make a difference which leads me onto my next reflection.

It was a young boy who was prepared to give all his food to Jesus. The boy would have known about Jesus but what could he do with it in the face of a massive feeding challenge? At one point the boy had nothing; he had given it all to Jesus. In faith he gave what he had in order for Jesus to do something amazing with it. Don’t get confused here, I’m not suddenly drop kicking my historical, evangelistic and miraculous objections out the window; I’m moving past them in order to listen to what God can say to you and me today. In my own testimony and those I know on a long walk with God, when you give everything to God he does something amazing with what you have given. This reminds me to do that daily and I want it to remind you to do the same.

            Beautifully intertwined with that is the reality that we are asked to be co-creators with God. God takes whatever we have even if we think it is nothing impressive, transforms it, then gives it us back to share and do something amazing with it until we give it back again to God to transform it into something bigger, a bit like a snowball going down a hill. His love is shared and the kingdom grows. So what can you do? Well ideas are free, you’ve just got to come up with them and then share them to make them happen. I want to be overrun with good ideas from people. I want it to be a headache for us!

Then there’s sharing. If you read the local paper, develop an eagle eye for what good things are happening locally along with local needs. Jot these things down and share them. You might not think much about them but your observations could trigger an idea in someone else that is massively transforming. If you feel God speak to you through a radio or TV program or book, share it.

Bringing this together, firstly, be honest when you struggle with a Bible passage. God nor I call you to be a nodding dog. Tease out why it’s difficult and then wrestle with it, sharing your thoughts and difficulties. Remember you’re never going to get an absolute answer but you can get peace and more importantly God can speak through it in a way that challenges your core.

At a literal ‘is it true’ level I will always struggle with the feeding of the five thousand. However I’ve got peace with that struggle because God opened the door to something deeper. Through this scripture he has taken me away from my theological struggles and focused me on the real life struggles of others. God is calling me to work with him to make a difference to the people of Alvaston, the United Kingdom and the whole world. I do this by giving him what I have, letting him transform it and then sharing the result. I pray that you feel that call to. Give to God what you have and you will be amazed when the result is shared. You might even call it a miracle.

A personal prayer

God with us,
in all my speaking this week
fill me with your word.
In all my thoughts this week
grant me your generosity of spirit.
In all my deeds this week
show me how to share my bread.

Jesus, show us how to work with you
as we pray for those who long for peace…

Jesus, show us how to work with you
as we pray for those who cry out for justice…

Jesus, show us how to work with you
as we pray for those looking for signs of hope…

Jesus, show us how to work with you
as we pray for those in search of a way this day…

Jesus, show us how to work with you
as we pray for those in need of healing…

Jesus, show us how to work with you
as we pray for those on the brink of eternity…

Thanks be to the God of heaven.
Thanks be for the coming of the kingdom.
Thanks be for our daily bread.
Thanks be for the forgiveness of sins.
Thanks be for times of testing.
Thanks be for deliverance from evil.
Thanks be to God for all things.


  1. Someone I know who believes in the humanistic values of Jesus follows this explanation. There were many people out that day going about their business. Many of them had prepared their meals for the day, as per usual. However, on this day, they noticed a great teacher and were so enticed by him that they chose to follow him and listen to his teachings. They remained with these man for hours and their growling stomachs let the sage know it was time to eat. But how was this teacher and his disciples to provide for these people? They had little money and only five loaves of bread and two fish. Unbeknown to the disciples, the people in the crowd did have meals, but said nothing out of selfishness. They didn’t want to share their meals with those around them. The teacher, however, was wise and knew what they were hiding in their hearts. So he gave thanks for the little food he had, broke the bread, and told his disciples to give out the food. The people, watching this man and his followers forgo their meals for complete strangers, were moved and also chose to share. By the group sharing and partaking together, every stomach was filled and there was even some left over. To any outsider, it would seem that food came from nowhere, miraculously. To those few present, however, the real miracle was the moving of hearts.

  2. How often do we use the phrase “it’s like feeding the 5,000”. And how often with God’s will do we manage it. We often hold church events where we have no clue to how many will turn up and how hungry they will be. We always get the “right number” and always have the “right” amount of food and always have the “right” number of chairs. I’ve seen it countless times. How often do we get the “right” amount of money to solve a problem almost to the penny. We experience these miracles every day when we share and pull together and by the grace of God. We shouldn’t be that surprised that Jesus had such amazing experiences himself. I partly go along with the idea above. We would only need the “right” hearts to rid the world of starvation and poverty.

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