Have you heard the story about a Jewish rabbi and a Catholic priest were good friends? “At a picnic one day, the priest was eating a ham sandwich. ‘You know,’ he said to his friend, ‘This ham sandwich is delicious. I know you’re not supposed to eat ham, but I don’t understand why such a good thing would be forbidden. When will you break down and try it?’ And the rabbi replied, ‘At your wedding.’” [i]
Today I want to talk about a different rabbi and a different picnic—a kosher picnic that had a surprise ending, even without a ham sandwich. We’re going to take a look at the only miracle described in all four gospels—the feeding of the 5,000 with five loaves and two fish.
In his teaching and preaching mission, Jesus often found himself so occupied with other people that he neglected to take care of his own physical needs. In John 4.31-34[ii], “the disciples were urging him, saying, ‘Rabbi, eat.’ But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.’ So the disciples said to one another, ‘Has anyone brought him something to eat?’ Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work.’” Two chapters later, Jesus again demonstrated His spiritual ability to overcome this physical lack of food—yet on a much grander scale.
Chapter five reveals that some “were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God (v.18).” So, by the time we get to chapter six, we see Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee in an effort to escape those who would kill him, and also hoping to get some alone time with his disciples. But news of his miracles reached far and wide, and by the time they landed on the shore, a large crowd had already begun to gather. Jesus spent two years of His ministry in the towns that surrounded this fifteen-by-eight-mile freshwater lake. It wasn’t difficult to find him in a place that size. So they came, hoping for more miracles. Jesus went up on a mountain, creating a natural amphitheater, and sat down with his disciples.
It was then that the problem came to His attention: the people had nothing to eat. There was no place to buy food for them. Even if there were, it would take a fortune to feed them all. Five thousand men had gathered, and if we figure that they brought their wives and children, and even if we conservatively estimate a family of four, then that makes 20,000 mouths to feed. Only one small child has brought anything to eat: five barley loaves and two small fish. But Jesus has an idea. He had the people sit down, thanked God for the food, and distributed that paltry amount among all those people. Miraculously, not only were all the people fed, but they were full—and there were twelve baskets of food left over. In and of itself, this was a great miracle. “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world (v. 14)!”
But as great as the miracle was, the people didn’t understand the spiritual significance behind it. “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself (v. 15).” Yet still they followed him. When He crossed the lake again, they followed Him, hoping for more miracles. It must have broken Jesus’ heart that they just didn’t get His point. They were chasing a wonder worker because they wanted Him to heal their diseases and feed them and save their lives. He wanted to show them that He was life itself—and could provide everything needed not only for physical life, but, more importantly, for spiritual life.
“I have food to eat that you do not know about,” he had said. Now, He reminded them of this spiritual food. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you (vv. 26-27).” Still, they didn’t understand. So He said, “’…The bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ They said to him, ‘Sir, give us this bread always.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst (vv. 33-35).’” No matter how He explained it, the people still didn’t understand. By the end of chapter six, Jesus’ Galilean ministry ends in rejection, the people shaking their heads in confusion.
Lest we pursue Jesus simply for the miracles He can perform—or, lest we abandon his cause for lack of understanding—let us learn what He truly meant. “For my flesh is true food,” He said, “and my blood is true drink (v. 55).” This did nothing but offend people, and we will be offended too if we don’t get what He was saying about the connection between real food and spiritual food. The key is found in verse 4, which says, “Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand.” In order to understand what Jesus said and did, we have to see it in the context of Passover.
Passover was the annual festival in which the Jewish people celebrated a ceremonial meal that memorialized their divine rescue from slavery in Egypt. Every year, lambs were slaughtered in memory of the Passover lambs that were killed fifteen hundred years before. Under God’s direction through Moses, the blood of those Passover lambs was used to mark every Jewish household, so that when God’s judgment of death came to every Egyptian dwelling, the homes of the faithful would be spared. By performing His miracle of loaves and fish at the time of Passover, and by telling the people that He was the spiritual food that would give them life, Jesus equated Himself with that Passover lamb.
Just a year later, Jesus would be killed at the Passover. He would become the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Because He sacrificed His own blood, we can know His eternal life. When we apply His blood to our hearts, like the lamb’s blood that was applied to believing households, Death passes over us. Like the Hebrew people released from Egypt, we are set free from our bondage to sin. This is what the miracle of loaves and fish pointed to. This is what He meant when He said that He was real food.
On the night before Jesus was arrested, He shared a final meal with His disciples—a meal of bread and wine—foreshadowed by His multiplying of loaves. Churches around the world observe the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist, or Communion, as a sign of covenant relationship with the Lamb who gave Himself so that we might live. The next time your church celebrates Communion, I hope that you’ll see more than bread in your hand. I hope you’ll see the Bread of Life—multiplied from one to many, so that a multitude might receive their spiritual food and be saved. I hope you’ll see more than grape juice or wine. I hope you’ll taste the sweetness of God’s life poured out for your salvation. Then, like the boy on the hillside, I hope you’ll be willing to share that meal with others.