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With the question of Jesus' identity still at the forefront, Luke narrates a miracle that appears in all four Gospels (Mt 14:13-21; Mk 6:32-44; Jn 6:1-15). The extended commentary on this event occurs in the Bread of Life discourse in John 6, but the miracle's importance is underlined by its appearance in all the Gospels. The event serves two purposes: (1) to help identify Jesus and (2) to teach the disciples something about trust and provision. Both Moses (Ex 16; Num 11—manna) and Elijah (2 Kings 4:42-44) were prophetic vessels in similar miracles of provision. But these connections were only conceptual. This miracle is unusual in that no reaction from the crowd is recorded—a detail showing that the lesson is for the disciples.
The miracle's setting is simply stated. Luke notes that the disciples have withdrawn privately to Bethsaida, a city located on the Sea of Galilee's northeast corner. The effort at solitude failed, for the crowds, having discovered their locale, descend upon them. Jesus welcomed them, teaching about the kingdom of God. As the subsequent context makes clear, he moves into the desolate countryside outside Bethsaida to accomplish this. Healings also occur, as they often do with Jesus. The pairing of preaching and healing recalls the disciples' mission in verses 1-5.
As the day draws to a close, the Twelve sense a developing problem. How can provision be made for all the crowd? Where will the evening meal come from? In the ancient world, of course, "fast food" was not a possibility. Prompted by a sense of responsibility and the need to wrap up and go home, the disciples approach Jesus. Their request seems very reasonable.
But Jesus' response is surprising. He wants the disciples to provide the meal. This severely limits the options, as well as raising the issue of resources, which were currently limited to five loaves of bread and two fish. Buying food would be an expensive proposition and a logistical nightmare. Jesus advises that the five thousand men be divided into groups of fifty. With the groupings in place, Jesus teaches a visual lesson on his ability to provide and the disciples' ability to serve.
All the elements of this miracle focus on Jesus' authority. He is the one who breaks the food and gives it to the disciples after prayer and blessing. Here is a picture of Jesus leading people at supper, suggesting a foretaste of the messianic banquet (Stein 1992:275; Ps 81:16; Is 25:6; 65:13-14). Luke gives no detail as to how the food multiplies, because he is more interested in the result and what it pictures than in detailing the miracle. The messianic association is set up by the context. Herod's question in verses 7-9 and Peter's response in verses 18-20 indicate that this event, sandwiched as it is, provides a point of identification. The picture is of a Messiah who provides and makes full (6:21, 38; of God—1:53; in the Old Testament, Ps 23:1-2; 37:19; 78:24; 105:40; 107:9; 132:15; 145:15-16, with God's provision of manna in the wilderness as the prototype example).
In addition, the disciples learn that Jesus is the source of provision for their own ministry. They are to model Jesus' style of ministry as they depend on what he can give them (22:24-27). They are to provide the food for the crowd, and through Jesus they do so. He supplies with abundance, and they are the vessels bearing the provision.