This passage of story, concerning Christ’s feeding five thousand men with five loaves and two fishes, is recorded by all the four Evangelists, which very few, if any, of Christ’s miracles are: this intimates that there is something in it worthy of special remark. Observe,
I. The great resort of people to Christ, when he was retired into a desert place, Matt. 14:13. He withdrew into privacy when he heard, not of John’s death, but of the thoughts Herod had concerning him, that he was John the Baptist risen from the dead, and therefore so feared by Herod as to be hated; he departed further off, to get out of Herod’s jurisdiction. Note, In times of peril, when God opens a door of escape, it is lawful to flee for our own preservation, unless we have some special call to expose ourselves. Christ’s hour was not yet come, and therefore he would not thrust himself upon suffering. He could have secured himself by divine power, but because his life was intended for an example, he did it by human prudence; he departed by ship. But a city on a hill cannot be hid; when the people heard it, they followed him on foot from all parts. Such an interest Christ had in the affections of the multitude, that his withdrawing from them did but draw them after him with so much the more eagerness. Here, as often, the scripture was fulfilled, that unto him shall the gathering of the people be. It should seem, there was more crowding to Christ after John’s martyrdom than before. Sometimes the suffering of the saints are made to further the gospel (Phil. 1:12), and “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Now John’s testimony was finished, it was recollected, and more improved than ever. Note, 1. When Christ and his word withdraw from us, it is best for us (whatever flesh and blood may object to the contrary) to follow it, preferring opportunities for our souls before any secular advantages whatsoever. When the ark removes, ye shall remove, and go after it, Josh. 3:3. 2. Those that truly desire the sincere milk of the word, will not stick at the difficulties they may meet with in their attendance on it. The presence of Christ and his gospel makes a desert place not only tolerable, but desirable; it makes the wilderness an Eden, Isa. 51:3; Isa. 41:19, 20.
II. The tender compassion of our Lord Jesus towards those who thus followed him, Matt. 14:14. 1. He went forth, and appeared publicly among them. Though he retired for his own security, and his own repose, yet he went forth from his retirement, when he saw people desirous to hear him, as one willing both to toil himself, and to expose himself, for the good of souls; for even Christ pleased not himself. 2. When he saw the multitude, he had compassion on them. Note, The sight of a great multitude may justly move compassion. To see a great multitude, and to think how many precious, immortal souls here are, the greatest part of which, we have reason to fear, are neglected and ready to perish, would grieve one to the heart. None like Christ for pity to souls; his compassions fails not. 3. He did not only pity them, but he helped them; many of them were sick, and he, in compassion to them, healed them; for he came into the world to be the great Healer. After awhile, they were all hungry, and he, in compassion to them, fed them. Note, In all the favours Christ shows to us, he is moved with compassion, Isa. 63:9.
III. The motion which the disciples made for the dismissing of the congregation, and Christ’s setting aside the motion. 1. The evening drawing on, the disciples moved it to Christ to send the multitude away; they thought there was a good day’s work done, and it was time to disperse. Note, Christ’s disciples are often more careful to show their discretion, than to show their zeal; and their abundant affection in the things of God. 2. Christ would not dismiss them hungry as they were, nor detain them longer without meat, nor put them upon the trouble and charge of buying meat for themselves, but orders his disciples to provide for them. Christ all along expressed more tenderness toward the people than his disciples did; for what are the compassions of the most merciful men, compared with the tender mercies of God in Christ? See how loth Christ is to part with those who are resolved to cleave to him! They need not depart. Note, Those who have Christ have enough, and need not depart to seek a happiness and livelihood in the creature; they that have made sure of the one thing needful, need not be cumbered about much serving: nor will Christ put his willing followers upon a needless expense, but will make their attendance cheap to them.
But if they be hungry, they have need to depart, for that is a necessity which has no law, therefore, give you them to eat. Note, The Lord is for the body; it is the work of his hands, it is part of his purchase; he was himself clothed with a body, that he might encourage us to depend upon him for the supply of our bodily wants. But he takes a particular care of the body, when it is employed to serve the soul in his more immediate service. If we seek first the kingdom of God, and make that our chief care, we may depend upon God to add other things to us, as far as he sees fit, and may cast all care of them upon him. These followed Christ but for a trial, in a present fit of zeal, and yet Christ took this care of them; much more will he provide for those who follow him fully.
IV. The slender provision that was made for this great multitude; and here we must compare the number of invited guests with the bill of fare.
1. The number of the guests was five thousand of men, besides women and children; and it is probable the women and children might be as many as the men, if not more. This was a vast auditory that Christ preached to, and we have reason to think an attentive auditory; and, yet it should seem, far the greater part, notwithstanding all this seeming zeal and forwardness, came to nothing; they went off and followed him no more; for many are called, but few are chosen. We would rather perceive the acceptableness of the word by the conversion, than by the crowds, of its hearers; though that also is a good sight and a good sign.
2. The bill of fare was very disproportionable to the number of the guests, but five loaves and two fishes. This provision the disciples carried about with them for the use of the family, now they were retired into the desert. Christ could have fed them by miracle, but to set us an example of providing for those of our own households, he will have their own camp victualled in an ordinary way. Here is neither plenty, nor variety, nor dainty; a dish of fish was no rarity to them that were fishermen, but it was food convenient for the twelve; two fishes for their supper, and bread to serve them perhaps for a day or two: here was no wine or strong drink; fair water from the rivers in the desert was the best they had to drink with their meat; and yet out of this Christ will have the multitude fed. Note, Those who have but a little, yet when the necessity is urgent, must relieve others out of that little, and that is the way to make it more. Can God furnish a table in the wilderness? Yes, he can, when he pleases, a plentiful table.
V. The liberal distribution of this provision among the multitude (Matt. 14:18, 19); Bring them hither to me. Note, The way to have our creature-like comforts, comforts indeed to us, is to bring them to Christ; for every thing is sanctified by his word, and by prayer to him: that is likely to prosper and do well with us, which we put into the hands of our Lord Jesus, that he may dispose of it as he pleases, and that we may take it back from his hand, and then it will be doubly sweet to us. What we give in charity, we should bring to Christ first, that he may graciously accept it from us, and graciously bless it to those to whom it is given; this is doing it as unto the Lord.
Now at this miraculous meal we may observe,
1. The seating of the guests (Matt. 14:19); He commanded them to sit down; which intimates, that while he was preaching to them, they were standing, which is a posture of reverence, and readiness for motion. But what shall we do for chairs for them all? Let them sit down on the grass. When Ahasuerus would show the riches of his glorious kingdom, and the honour of his excellent majesty, in a royal feast for the great men of all his provinces, the beds or couches they sat on were of gold and silver, upon a pavement of red, and blue, and white, and black marble, Est. 1:6. Our Lord Jesus did now show, in a divine feast, the riches of a more glorious kingdom than that, and the honour of a more excellent majesty, even a dominion over nature itself; but here is not so much as a cloth spread, no plates or napkins laid, no knives or forks, nor so much as a bench to sit down on; but, as if Christ intended indeed to reduce the world to the plainness and simplicity, and so to the innocency and happiness, of Adam in paradise, he commanded them to sit down on the grass. By doing every thing thus, without any pomp or splendour, he plainly showed that his kingdom was not of this world, nor cometh with observation.
2. The craving of a blessing. He did not appoint one of his disciples to be his chaplain, but he himself looked up to heaven, and blessed, and gave thanks; he praised God for the provision they had, and prayed to God to bless it to them. His craving a blessing, was commanding a blessing; for as he preached, so he prayed, like one having authority; and in this prayer and thanksgiving, we may suppose, he had special reference to the multiplying of this food; but herein he has taught us that good duty of craving a blessing and giving thanks at our meals: God’s good creatures must be received with thanksgiving, 1 Tim. 4:4. Samuel blessed the feast, 1 Sam. 9:13; Acts 2:46, 47; 27:24, 35. This is eating and drinking to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31); giving God thanks (Rom. 14:6); eating before God, as Moses, and his father-in-law, Exod. 18:12, 15. When Christ blessed, he looked up to heaven, to teach us, in prayer, to eye God as a Father in heaven; and when we receive our creature-comforts to look thitherward, as taking them from God’s hand, and depending on him for a blessing.
3. The carving of the meat. The Master of the feast was himself head-carver, for he brake, and gave the loaves to the disciples, and the disciples to the multitude. Christ intended hereby to put honour upon his disciples, that they might be respected as workers together with him; as also to signify in what way the spiritual food of the word should be dispensed to the world; from Christ, as the original Author, by his ministers. What Christ designed for the churches he signified to his servant John (Rev. 1:1, 4); they delivered all that, and that only, which they received from the Lord, 1 Cor. 11:23. Ministers can never fill the people’s hearts, unless Christ first fill their hands: and what he has given to the disciples, they must give to the multitude; for they are stewards, to give to every one his portion of meat, Matt. 24:45. And, blessed be God, be the multitude ever so great, there is enough for all, enough for each.
4. The increase of the meat. This is taken notice of only in the effect, not in the cause or manner of it; here is no mention of any word that Christ spoke, by which the food was multiplied; the purposes and intentions of his mind and will shall take effect, though they be not spoken out: but this is observable, that the meat was multiplied, not in the heap at first, but in the distribution of it. As the widow’s oil increased in the pouring out, so here the bread in the breaking. Thus grace grows by being acted, and, while other things perish in the using, spiritual gifts increase in the using. God ministers seed to the sower, and multiplies not the seed hoarded up, but the seed sown, 2 Cor. 9:10. Thus there is that scattereth and yet increaseth; that scattereth, and so increaseth.
VI. The plentiful satisfaction of all the guests with this provision. Though the disproportion was so great, yet there was enough and to spare.
1. There was enough: They did all eat, and were filled. Note, Those whom Christ feeds, he fills; so runs the promise (Ps. 37:19), They shall be satisfied. As there was enough for all, they did all eat, so there was enough for each, they were filled; though there was but little, there was enough, and that is as good as a feast. Note, The blessing of God can make a little go a great way; as, if God blasts what we have, we eat, and have not enough, Hag. 1:6.
2. There was to spare; They took up of the fragments that remained, twelve baskets full, one basket for each apostle: thus what they gave they had again, and a great deal more with it; and they were so far from being nice, that they could make this broken meat serve another time, and be thankful. This was to manifest and magnify the miracle, and to show that the provision Christ makes for those who are his is not bare and scanty, but rich and plenteous; bread enough, and to spare (Luke 15:17), an overflowing fulness. Elisha’s multiplying the loaves was somewhat like this, but far short of it; and then it was said, They shall eat and leave, 2 Kgs. 4:43.
It is the same divine power, though exerted in an ordinary way, which multiplies the seed sown in the ground every year, and makes the earth yield her increase; so that what was brought out by handfuls, is brought home in sheaves. This is the Lord’s doing; it is by Christ that all natural things consist, and by the word of his power that they are upheld.