We have here an account of Christ’s feeding five thousand men with five loaves and two fishes, which miracle is in this respect remarkable, that it is the only passage of the actions of Christ’s life that is recorded by all the four evangelists. John, who does not usually relate what had been recorded by those who wrote before him, yet relates this, because of the reference the following discourse has to it. Observe,
I. The place and time where and when this miracle was wrought, which are noted for the greater evidence of the truth of the story; it is not said that it was done once upon a time, nobody knows where, but the circumstances are specified, that the fact might be enquired into.
1. The country that Christ was in (John 6:1): He went over the sea of Galilee, called elsewhere the lake of Gennesareth, here the sea of Tiberias, from a city adjoining, which Herod had lately enlarged and beautified, and called so in honour of Tiberius the emperor, and probably had made his metropolis. Christ did not go directly over cross this inland sea, but made a coasting voyage to another place on the same side. It is not tempting God to choose to go by water, when there is convenience for it, even to those places whither we might go by land; for Christ never tempted the Lord his God, Matt. 4:7.
2. The company that he was attended with: A great multitude followed him, because they saw his miracles, John 6:2. Note, (1.) Our Lord Jesus, while he went about doing good, lived continually in a crowd, which gave him more trouble than honour. Good and useful men must not complain of a hurry of business, when they are serving God and their generation; it will be time enough to enjoy ourselves when we come to that world where we shall enjoy God. (2.) Christ’s miracles drew many after him that were not effectually drawn to him. They had their curiosity gratified by the strangeness of them, who had not their consciences convinced by the power of them.
3. Christ’s posting himself advantageously to entertain them (John 6:3): He went up into a mountain, and there he sat with his disciples, that he might the more conveniently be seen and heard by the multitude that crowded after him; this was a natural pulpit, and not, like Ezra’s, made for the purpose. Christ was now driven to be a field preacher; but his word was never the worse, nor the less acceptable, for that, to those who knew how to value it, who followed him still, not only when he went out to a desert place, but when he went up to a mountain, though up-hill be against heart. He sat there, as teachers do in cathedra—in the chair of instruction. He did not sit at ease, not sit in state, yet he sat as one having authority, sat ready to receive addresses that were made to him; whoever would might come, and find him there. He sat with his disciples; he condescended to take them to sit with him, to put a reputation upon them before the people, and give them an earnest of the glory in which they should shortly sit with him. We are said to sit with him, Eph. 2:6.
4. The time when it was. The first words, After those things, do not signify that this immediately followed what was related in the foregoing chapter, for it was a considerable time after, and they signify no more than in process of time; but we are told (John 6:4) that it was when the passover was nigh, which is here noted, (1.) Because, perhaps, that had brought in all the apostles from their respective expeditions, whither they were sent as itinerant preachers, that they might attend their Master to Jerusalem, to keep the feast. (2.) Because it was a custom with the Jews religiously to observe the approach of the passover thirty days before, with some sort of solemnity; so long before they had it in their eye, repaired the roads, mended bridges, if there was occasion, and discoursed of the passover and the institution of it. (3.) Because, perhaps, the approach of the passover, when every one knew Christ would go up to Jerusalem, and be absent for some time, made the multitude flock the more after him and attend the more diligently on him. Note, The prospect of losing our opportunities should quicken us to improve them with double diligence; and, when solemn ordinances are approaching, it is good to prepare for them by conversing with the word of Christ.
II. The miracle itself. And here observe,
1. The notice Christ took of the crowd that attended him (John 6:5): He lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come to him, poor, mean, ordinary people, no doubt, for such make up the multitudes, especially in such remote corners of the country; yet Christ showed himself pleased with their attendance, and concerned for their welfare, to teach us to condescend to those of low estate, and not to set those with the dogs of our flock whom Christ hath set with the lambs of his. The souls of the poor are as precious to Christ, and should be so to us, as those of the rich.
2. The enquiry he made concerning the way of providing for them. He directed himself to Philip, who had been his disciple from the first, and had seen all his miracles, and particularly that of his turning water into wine, and therefore it might be expected that he should have said, “Lord, if thou wilt, it is easy to thee to feed them all.” Those that, like Israel, have been witnesses of Christ’s works, and have shared in the benefit of them, are inexcusable if they say, Can he furnish a table in the wilderness? Philip was of Bethsaida, in the neighbourhood of which town Christ now was, and therefore he was most likely to help them to provision at the best hand; and probably much of the company was known to him, and he was concerned for them. Now Christ asked, Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat? (1.) He takes it for granted that they must all eat with him. One would think that when he had taught and healed them he had done his part; and that now they should rather have been contriving how to treat him and his disciples, for some of the people were probably rich, and we are sure that Christ and his disciples were poor; yet he is solicitous to entertain them. Those that will accept Christ’s spiritual gifts, instead of paying for them, shall be paid for their acceptance of them. Christ, having fed their souls with the bread of life, feeds their bodies also with food convenient, to show that the Lord is for the body, and to encourage us to pray for our daily bread, and to set us an example of compassion to the poor, Jas. 2:15, 16. (2.) His enquiry is, Whence shall we buy bread? One would think, considering his poverty, that he should rather have asked, Where shall we have money to buy for them? But he will rather lay out all he has than they shall want. He will buy to give, and we must labour, that we may give, Eph. 4:28.
3. The design of this enquiry; it was only to try the faith of Philip, for he himself knew what he would do, John 6:6. Note, (1.) Our Lord Jesus is never at a loss in his counsels; but, how difficult soever the case is, he knows what he has to do and what course he will take, Acts 15:18. He knows the thoughts he has towards his people (Jer. 29:11) and is never at uncertainty; when we know not, he himself knows what he will do. (2.) When Christ is pleased to puzzle his people, it is only with a design to prove them. The question put Philip to a nonplus, yet Christ proposed it, to try whether he would say, “Lord, if thou wilt exert thy power for them, we need not buy bread.”
4. Philip’s answer to this question: “Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient, John 6:7. Master, it is to no purpose to talk of buying bread for them, for neither will the country afford so much bread, nor can we afford to lay out so much money; ask Judas, who carries the bag.” Two hundred pence of their money amount to about six pounds of ours, and, if they lay out all that at once, it will exhaust their fund, and break them, and they must starve themselves. Grotius computes that two hundred pennyworth of bread would scarcely reach to two thousand, but Philip would go as near hand as he could, would have every one to take a little; and nature, we say, is content with a little. See the weakness of Philip’s faith, that in this strait, as if the Master of the family had been an ordinary person, he looked for supply only in an ordinary way. Christ might now have said to him, as he did afterwards, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? Or, as God to Moses in a like case, Isa. the Lord’s hand waxen short? We are apt thus to distrust God’s power when visible and ordinary means fail, that is, to trust him no further than we can see him.
5. The information which Christ received from another of his disciples concerning the provision they had. It was Andrew, here said to be Simon Peter’s brother; though he was senior to Peter in discipleship, and instrumental to bring Peter to Christ, yet Peter afterwards so far outshone him that he is described by his relation to Peter: he acquainted Christ with what they had at hand; and in this we may see,
(1.) The strength of his love to those for whom he saw his Master concerned, in that he was willing to bring out all they had, though he knew not but they might want themselves, and any one would have said, Charity begins at home. He did not go about to conceal it, under pretence of being a better husband of their provision than the master was, but honestly gives in an account of all they had. There is a lad here, paidarion—a little lad, probably one that used to follow this company, as settlers do the camp, with provisions to sell, and the disciples had bespoken what he had for themselves; and it was five barley-loaves, and two small fishes. Here, [1.] The provision was coarse and ordinary; they were barley loaves. Canaan was a land of wheat (Deut. 8:8); its inhabitants were commonly fed with the finest wheat (Ps. 81:16), the kidneys of wheat (Deut. 32:14); yet Christ and his disciples were glad of barley-bread. It does not follow hence that we should tie ourselves to such coarse fare, and place religion in it (when God brings that which is finer to our hands, let us receive it, and be thankful); but it does follow that therefore we must not be desirous of dainties (Ps. 23:3); nor murmur if we be reduced to coarse fare, but be content and thankful, and well reconciled to it; barley-bread is what Christ had, and better than we deserve. Nor let us despise the mean provision of the poor, nor look upon it with contempt, remembering how Christ was provided for. [2.] It was but short and scanty; there were but five loaves, and those so small that one little lad carried them all; and we find (2 Kgs. 4:42, 43) that twenty barley-loaves, with some other provision to help out, would not dine a hundred men without a miracle. There were but two fishes, and those small ones (dyo opsaria), so small that one of them was but a morsel, pisciculi assati. I take the fish to have been pickled, or soused, for they had not fire to dress them with. The provision of bread was little, but that of fish was less in proportion to it, so that many a bit of dry bread they must eat before they could make a meal of this provision; but they were content with it. Bread is meat for our hunger; but of those that murmured for flesh it is said, They asked meat for their lust, Ps. 78:18. Well, Andrew was willing that the people should have this, as far as it would go. Note, A distrustful fear of wanting ourselves should not hinder us from needful charity to others.
(2.) See here the weakness of his faith in that word, “But what are they among so many? To offer this to such a multitude is but to mock them.” Philip and he had not that actual consideration of the power of Christ (of which they had had such large experience) which they should have had. Who fed the camp of Israel in the wilderness? He that could make one man chase a thousand could make one loaf feed a thousand.
6. The directions Christ gave the disciples to seat the guests (John 6:10): “Make the men sit down, though you have nothing to set before them, and trust me for that.” This was like sending providence to market, and going to buy without money: Christ would thus try their obedience. Observe, (1.) The furniture of the dining-room: there was much grass in that place, though a desert place; see how bountiful nature is, it makes grass to grow upon the mountains, Ps. 147:8. This grass was uneaten; God gives not only enough, but more then enough. Here was this plenty of grass where Christ was preaching; the gospel brings other blessings along with it: Then shall the earth yield her increase, Ps. 67:6. This plenty of grass made the place the more commodious for those that must sit on the ground, and served them for cushions, or beds (as they called what they sat on at meat, Est. 1:6), and, considering what Christ says of the grass of the field (Matt. 6:29, 30), these beds excelled those of Ahasuerus: nature’s pomp is the most glorious. (2.) The number of the guests: About five thousand: a great entertainment, representing that of the gospel, which is a feast for all nations (Isa. 25:6), a feast for all comers.
7. The distribution of the provision, John 6:11. Observe,
(1.) It was done with thanksgiving: He gave thanks. Note, [1.] We ought to give thanks to God for our food, for it is a mercy to have it, and we have it from the hand of God, and must receive it with thanksgiving, 1 Tim. 4:4, 5. And this is the sweetness of our creature-comforts, that they will furnish us with matter, and give us occasion, for that excellent duty of thanksgiving. [2.] Though our provision be coarse and scanty, though we have neither plenty nor dainty, yet we must give thanks to God for what we have.
(2.) It was distributed from the hand of Christ by the hands of his disciples, John 6:11. Note, [1.] All our comforts come to us originally from the hand of Christ; whoever brings them, it is he that sends them, he distributes to those who distribute to us. [2.] In distributing the bread of life to those that follow him, he is pleased to make use of the ministration of his disciples; they are the servitors at Christ’s table, or rather rulers in his household, to give to every one his portion of meat in due season.
(3.) It was done to universal satisfaction. They did not every one take a little, but all had as much as they would; not a short allowance, but a full meal; and considering how long they had fasted, with what an appetite they sat down, how agreeable this miraculous food may be supposed to have been, above common food, it was not a little that served them when they ate as much as they would and on free cost. Those whom Christ feeds with the bread of life he does not stint, Ps. 81:10. There were but two small fishes, and yet they had of them too as much as they would. He did not reserve them for the better sort of the guests, and put off the poor with dry bread, but treated them all alike, for they were all alike welcome. Those who call feeding upon fish fasting reproach the entertainment Christ here made, which was a full feast.
8. The care that was taken of the broken meat. (1.) The orders Christ gave concerning it (John 6:12): When they were filled, and every man had within him a sensible witness to the truth of the miracle, Christ said to the disciples, the servants he employed, Gather up the fragments. Note, We must always take care that we make no waste of any of God’s good creatures; for the grant we have of them, though large and full, is with this proviso, wilful waste only excepted. It is just with God to bring us to the want of that which we make waste of. The Jews were very careful not to lose any bread, nor let it fall to the ground, to be trodden upon. Qui panem contemnit in gravem incidit paupertatem—He who despises bread falls into the depths of poverty, was a saying among them. Though Christ could command supplies whenever he pleased, yet he would have the fragments gathered up. When we are filled we must remember that others want, and we may want. Those that would have wherewith to be charitable must be provident. Had this broken meat been left upon the grass, the beasts and fowls would have gathered it up; but that which is fit to be meat for men is wasted and lost if it be thrown to the brute-creatures. Christ did not order the broken meat to be gathered up till all were filled; we must not begin to hoard and lay up till all is laid out that ought to be, for that is withholding more than is meet. Mr. Baxter notes here, “How much less should we lose God’s word, or helps, or our time, or such greater mercies!” (2.) The observance of these orders (John 6:13): They filled twelve baskets with the fragments, which was an evidence not only of the truth of the miracle, that they were fed, not with fancy, but with real food (witness those remains), but of the greatness of it; they were not only filled, but there was all this over and above. See how large the divine bounty is; it not only fills the cup, but makes it run over; bread enough, and to spare, in our Father’s house. The fragments filled twelve baskets, one for each disciple; they were thus repaid with interest for their willingness to part with what they had for public service; see 2 Chron. 31:10. The Jews lay it as a law upon themselves, when they have eaten a meal, to be sure to leave a piece of bread upon the table, upon which the blessing after meat may rest; for it is a curse upon the wicked man (Job 20:21) that there shall none of his meat be left.
III. Here is the influence which this miracle had upon the people who tasted of the benefit of it (John 6:14): They said, This is of a truth that prophet. Note, 1. Even the vulgar Jews with great assurance expected the Messiah to come into the world, and to be a great prophet, They speak here with assurance of his coming. The Pharisees despised them as not knowing the law; but, it should seem, they knew more of him that is the end of the law than the Pharisees did. 2. The miracles which Christ wrought did clearly demonstrate that he was the Messiah promised, a teacher come from God, the great prophet, and could not but convince the amazed spectators that this was he that should come. There were many who were convinced he was that prophet that should come into the world who yet did not cordially receive his doctrine, for they did not continue in it. Such a wretched incoherence and inconsistency there is between the faculties of the corrupt unsanctified soul, that it is possible for men to acknowledge that Christ is that prophet, and yet to turn a deaf ear to him.