The Feeding of the 5000
Bible Background for Sunday School Teachers
The following is an excerpt of the Bible Background I created for use with my 5 Loaves ~ 2 Fishes CD, but is suitable for all workshops.
What is this story REALLY about?
Traditionally, Sunday School has compressed this story into a "story about sharing what you have", and "Jesus will multiply our gifts". Those ideas are certainly good ones to teach and IN the story by God's Spirit. And these are great images and metaphors for "feeding the hungry". The music video song in my 5 Loaves CD DOES highlight some of those sentiments. But it sneakily also points to the more original, or "PRIMARY" meaning of this miracle story, which is this: BELIEVE IN JESUS. In this miracle, Jesus is reaching out to the crowd and to us.
The miracle announces that Jesus was the Messiah, the One who had the Authority. He wasn't merely a "good teacher" with a lesson about sharing. And this is typical of Jesus and his other miracles as well. They ANNOUNCE, POINT TO, REVEAL his identity to people who weren't expecting God and had lost hope in the Messiah.
One preacher described the meaning of this story as, "the hunger beneath the hunger".
We hunger for God to be made real to us, to come and lead us.
Jesus hungers for us to know who he is and believe in his name.
This miracle really isn't about "sharing what we have to feed others". In the miracle of the Feeding of the 5000, Jesus was NOT concerned that people would starve. And indeed, the 5 loaves and 2 fish were hardly "gifts" from a crowd so large.
We also have to look at "context" to understand the writers' original intentions. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, this story follows on the death of John the Baptist, which further reinforces the point that this miracle is Jesus' calling card: "I am indeed The One, The Messiah whom John foretold". In John, the miracle comes after a long section on Jesus addressing his authority. Thus....
The "Primary Meaning" of this story is that Jesus is the One Sent By God.
- The miracle CONFIRMS his authority.
- It puts the STAMP of God's approval on his message.
- It REVEALS to the Disciples who their master really was.
- The Feeding of the 5000 is primarily a SIGN**.
**Notice I keep saying "primarily"...and that's because Gospel stories can have several meanings and insights evolve from them by the power of the Spirit, even though there was an original context and intent. My goal in this Bible Background is not to throw the "small boy" and "sharing/multiply the gifts" under the bus. Rather, I think we need to REBALANCE our teaching of this story, and not let it simply be a nice story with a moral platitude about "sharing".
Yes, Jesus wants us to share, but the question is WHY? The answer is not "because it's a good idea", but rather, we share because we believe in him. And we believe in him because Jesus has shown us to be The One, The Savior.
The crowd, like us, has heard Jesus and wondered,
"WHO IS THIS MAN?" "IS HE THE SON OF GOD?"
"WHERE DOES HIS AUTHORITY COME FROM?"
and "IS HE WORTHY? SHOULD I FOLLOW HIM?"
So Jesus gives us and them a sign. He reveals who he is to us. And now we have a choice.
So the focus shouldn't be on the boy and his lunch, but what happened AFTERWARDS. Hence the lyrics in the CD's theme song: "5 Loaves, 2 Fishes, O Lord don't you know what my wish is, -just to be with you and serve you all my life".
Is the bread in this story "something about Communion"?
Not really. The sharing of the bread might seem to indicate "yes", but that day by the shore "bread" was simply an important daily ration of food. Only later, did the Early Church latch on to the bread in this story with a prophetic, or "predicting, pre-figuring" meaning. That day, however, bread was merely a prop, and there was fish too, --another "diet staple" of people living by the Sea of Galilee. So, while you can make an interesting connection between bread and Eucharist, Jesus' didn't perform this miracle to some-how "predict" Communion. Like the mud he spit in to restore sight to the blind man, Jesus is using what was at hand as PROPS to make a bigger point.
Jesus used the bread and fish as a prop to reveal who he is to the disciples and crowd. The importance was not the bread, but The One doing the miracle. Yes, John's Gospel laster goes on "Jesus bread of life", and of course, all four Gospels have the Last Supper's bread as "my body broken for you". But taken on its own, the bread that day wasn't food for the soul. Jesus says nothing about the bread or the fish having significance. It is the miracle of "multiplication" which is the SIGN, not the bread itself.
Is this a story about "sharing"?
Probably not. If so, it's a paltry example. 5000 people and all that was shared was 5 loaves and 2 fish? If Jesus had wanted to make it a story about sharing, he probably would have upbraided the crowd or the disciples, but he doesn't. In fact, Jesus saw this as an opportunity to reveal who he was. (And he had probably already covered "sharing, love and taking care of the less fortunate during his long day of teaching). The point he made was that he has the AUTHORITY --shown that can take any thing and do something wonderful with it. The paltry few fish and loaves might as well have been stones. And as Jesus said elsewhere, God can take stones and make children of Abraham, or make the stones sing.
So rather than turn this into the traditional mere "parable about sharing" which ignores what Jesus was trying to show, let's take Jesus' point of view in the story. The Disciples at first think Jesus' demand to feed the crowd is IMPOSSIBLE, and even after he prods them, they can only come up with 5 loaves and 2 fish. That's when Jesus demonstrates how the IMPOSSIBLE CAN BECOME POSSIBLE. And frankly, it seems IMPOSSIBLE that God has sent his Messiah here in our midst, that this simple man from Nazareth is The One. So no, it's not about us sharing, it's about God sharing himself, showing himself, fulfilling his promise.
If you over-focus on the sharing/gifts/bread, you miss Jesus' original point in doing the miracle: KNOWING WHO HE IS. And that's what most of the miracles are about.... God revealing his presence to those ready to see, and moving people towards faith. When we get to "faith" ...certainly sharing becomes part of our response. But by the shore that day, the crowd wasn't there yet. And most of our kids are not there yet either. They need you to help share/announce/reveal Christ, not turn this into a platitude about sharing.
The hard work of "sharing to change the world" is left to another day and other stories, --to people who finally BELIEVE in the presence of God and get organized. THOSE people will be expected to bring A LOT MORE than just 5 loaves and 2 fish. And God will be in that work too. But today, by the sea, among the crowd, Jesus needs to be listened to, and believed that HE IS THE ONE SENT BY GOD, to be accepted as our Lord and Savior.
Is this a story about "a small boy like our children giving his all to Jesus" ? Old-timey preachers and traditional lessons love that image. But only John includes the small boy, the other Gospels do not, so you could say NO, it's not a story for our children to "be like that small boy". And yet, there he is. But rather than focusing on his bread and fish, let's focus on the FACT that THE SMALL BOY WAS THERE LISTENING TO JESUS! Like our children today, the small boy could have stayed home, or gone out to play with his friends. But he choose to be there and listen to Jesus. So if you're going to EXTOL THE VIRTUES OF THE BOY in the story, extol his desire to share his time going hear Jesus, not his lunch. (The music video in the software speaks to this).
Life Application for our Kids:
This miracle tells us that Jesus chooses to reveal himself in our lives, often in surprising ways. But note that it happens after a long day (or morning!) of teaching and listening! We need to BE THERE, to put ourselves in a position to experience Jesus in a deeper way beyond his words.
Even after Sunday School, we still need to know Jesus, and not just "about" Jesus. Many that day had their eyes opened, some probably not.
Do you walk away from the shore that day seeking to FOLLOW Christ? Needing to tell others about him? Needing to learn more and get closer? That's what Jesus wants.
At the end of the day by the shore, or the end of the morning at church, after you have been with Jesus, WHAT DO YOU NEED and WANT?
Now you know why the music reflection song says..."5 Loaves, 2 Fishes, O Lord don't you know what my WISH IS, -just to be with you, and serve you all my life." Like the boy that day, we want our kids to walk away feeling Jesus is their Savior, and that with Jesus, anything is possible, ...even their FAITH is possible, even it if only looks like a paltry gift of bread and fish. Jesus can show himself to us, and leave us transformed by the experience.
Differences in the Four Gospels
The four Gospel versions of the Feeding of the 5000 are not identical. There are some subtle and incidental differences, which challenged the design of our 5 Loaves ~ 2 Fishes CD. For example, where did the story take place? There’s no agreement. And only John mentions the small boy --which goes to support the interpretation that the miracle wasn't really about the boy and his small gift. They are supporting 'props'.
Matthew 14: Jesus and his disciples seek a “deserted place” to rest somewhere along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus sees the crowd gathered and comes ashore to teach them. Afterwards, Jesus sends the disciples back by boat while he goes off to pray.
Mark 6: Jesus and his disciples seek a “deserted place” to rest somewhere along the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Seeing the crowds on the shore, Jesus comes ashore and begins to teach the multitude. After the miracle, Jesus sends his disciples to Bethsaida by boat, while he goes off on his own.
Luke 9: Luke places the miracle near Bethsaida, which is just up the road from Capernaum, Peter’s hometown and an early base for Jesus’ missionary efforts. Luke does not mention where Jesus and the disciples went afterwards. We chose Luke's location for our CD.
John 6: Jesus and his disciples go up a mountain somewhere along the Sea of Galilee. After the miracle, John says Jesus and his disciples went by boat back to Capernaum, -which is just south of Bethsaida. Only John’s Gospel mentions the little boy with his 5 loaves and 2 fish.
Background written by Neil MacQueen
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