Although Jesus attempted to withdraw to a solitary place (v. 13), he was now too popular to escape notice. This narrative teaches us about the host sponsoring the messianic banquet it foreshadows (5:6; 22:2). In the context of other attempted signs workers in the wilderness in Jesus' day, Jesus' sign in the wilderness involves a clear messianic statement (Witherington 1990:91, 100). But the narrative especially instructs us concerning God's caring provision for his people in this age (6:11; 7:9-10; 15:25-28, 29-39). It also stands in deliberate contrast to the drunken feast of the evil ruler Herod Antipas in 14:6-11 (Lane 1974:227); had we titled the former "Herod's party," we might have titled this passage "God's party."
Some problems require God's direct intervention. The disciples were right to be concerned about the people's hunger but intended to solve the problem in a purely natural way (vv. 15, 17). Our expectations of what God can do often are too small; providing food in the wilderness was technically impossible, but God had used Moses, Elijah and Elisha for feeding miracles. (The present miracle especially resembles one performed by Elisha-2 Kings 4:42-44.)
Feeding multitudes by natural means is, of course, appropriate (as in 2 Kings 6:22); rabbis also delegated to disciples the task of managing an academy's food (for example, Pes. Rab. 25:2). But few towns were nearby, and towns were generally small, at most accommodating only a few visitors in towns of a few thousand people. Further, most of the day's bread would be consumed by evening (Mt 14:15). It would have been nearly impossible for roughly ten thousand people (five thousand men plus women and children-v. 21) to fend for themselves in the countryside.
In this light, the disciples' practical objection (v. 17) merely recalls that of Elisha's disciple (2 Kings 4:43): the master's command (Mt 14:16; 2 Kings 4:42; compare 1 Kings 17:16) was impossible. But both Elisha's disciple and Jesus' disciples should have been with their master long enough to expect that what the master said he had power from God to perform. The God of the exodus, who divided waters (Ex 14:21) and provided manna from heaven (Ex 16:14-18), was at work in history again (2 Kings 2:8-14; 4:38-44; Mt 14:13-33).
God often begins with what we have. Jesus often takes what we bring to him and multiplies it (vv. 16-19). When Moses insisted that he needed a sign to take with him, God asked him what was already in his hand and then transformed it (Ex 4:1-3), using what had been merely a shepherd's rod even to part the sea (Ex 14:16). When a widow needed financial help, Elisha asked what she had in her house; she responded that she had only a small amount of oil, so he commanded her to borrow jars into which to pour the oil and then multiplied it until all the jars were full (2 Kings 4:1-7). Although God created the universe from nothing, he normally takes the ordinary things of our lives and transforms them for his honor (see, for example, Judg 6:14; 15:15-19). The narrative does not even report that Jesus prayed for the food to multiply; confident that he represents the Father's will, he merely gave thanks (the meaning of the Greek expression that some translations render "blessed"; "blessing" food merely means giving thanks for it), which was the standard Jewish custom before and normally after meals (as in m. Berakot 6:5-6; Safrai 1974-1976c:802).
God does miracles only when we need them. This miracle is greater than the manna of the exodus; none of the manna would be left over (Hooker 1983:50). But manna was never left over because it was to be provided every day, whereas this miracle is a rare one. So much was left over that each of the twelve disciples gathered food in his wicker basket (v. 20). The leftovers stress the lavish abundance of God's miraculous power in Christ (compare Theissen 1983:67); many people felt that a good host should provide enough food that some would always be left over (as in Plut. Table-Talk 7.4 and Mor. 702D-704B).
Yet the gathering of the leftovers (compare 2 Kings 4:7, 44; 7:1-2, 16-20; 1 Kings 17:16; Jn 6:12) teaches us something further. Most moralists condemned wastefulness and emphasized thrift (for example, Juv. Sat. 1.58-60; Ps-Phocyl. 138). Jesus trusted that God's provision would always be available when it was needed (compare 16:9-11), but like most moralists he refused to squander what was available. The extra bread, which was more than the amount started with, could be used for other meals.
Everett Cook, a retired Pentecostal minister running a street mission, confronted an associate who had a growth on his nose but refused to see a doctor. "God will heal me," the man insisted.
"If you needed a miracle, God would give you one," Everett retorted, "but right now he's given you a doctor and medical insurance. You need to use what he's given you."
The next time they met the man's growth was much bigger, but the man still insisted, "I am healed." The third time they met the growth had spread further, and finally the man was thinking that perhaps he needed to see a doctor.
God performed a miracle when he created the world and set its laws in motion, and we are often wise to start with natural means when those are available. God performs miracles to meet our genuine needs, but he will not perform them merely to entertain us.
God is not intimidated by the magnitude of our problem. The disciples saw the size of the need and the littleness of the human resources available; Jesus saw the size of the need and the greatness of God's resources available. Often God calls us to do tasks for him that are technically impossible-barring a miracle.
The day before I was going to call my prospective Ph.D. program to say I was not coming because I had no money, God unexpectedly met my need. And in the summer after I finished my Ph.D., I found myself still unable to locate a teaching position for the fall. After much prayer, one night I finally determined the bare minimum I needed to live on and to store my research that year, and I cried out in despair. Barring a miracle, I thought, I will be on the street this year. Less than twenty-four hours later Rodney Clapp called from InterVarsity Press and offered me a contract to write the IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament I had proposed-plus an unexpected advance that was, to the dollar, what I'd decided I needed for the year. Undaunted by the magnitude of my need, God was teaching me that he alone has the power to meet my needs.