Here is the full-version of my meditation on the feeding of the 5,000 story. You may be a bit unfamiliar with it. If so, you can read up on it in Matthew 14, Mark 6, Luke 10, and John 6. I hope you find this encouraging.
So, I’m thinking about the whole narrative here and especially the perspective of the disciples as it all unfolds. First off, we know that they have just gotten back from what was essentially a short-term mission trip. They’ve been going through towns and villages, preaching repentance, casting out demons, and anointing with oil to perform healings. When they came back, they were all very excited. They began reporting to Jesus all that they had seen and done. Meanwhile people were still coming to them. In fact, so many people where coming and going that the disciples were skipping meals in order to meet the needs of the crowds. And just when this rapidly growing revival was really starting to get going, Jesus broke in. Word had come to him at some point that John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, had been executed – no doubt, this deeply affected Jesus. So, in the midst of the craziness, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let’s get out of here for awhile. You guys come with me to a quiet place, we’ll rest and eat.” So they left the revival – this powerful Messianic movement – to take a day off.
It wasn’t to be however. By the time they had anchored their boat at the “lonely place,” the crowds had found them. Now it seemed there were more people than ever. Thousands had gathered, bringing their sick with them. The weary disciples must have sighed when Jesus, filled with compassion, began healing and teaching. But he had looked at that crowd with a look the disciples had seen before – Jesus had been deeply moved. He saw a “shepherdless” sheep. “Here we go again,” the disciples must have thought.
Well, of course Jesus did and said amazing things as he ministered to the crowd all that day. The busy disciples grew more exhausted with every passing hour, but they couldn’t help but feel the excitement as well. Soon, the sun began to make its move towards the western horizon and the disciples agreed that it was time to wrap things up. Someone managed to pull Jesus aside for a minute to suggest that he send the crowds away to the surrounding towns and villages to find food and shelter.
And then, Jesus threw them all for a loop again, “They don’t need to go away. You give them something to eat.” I wonder if at this point the disciples began to try to figure this whole thing out. It seems they counted the people, scouted for food, and calculated the cost of feeding the vast multitude. Andrew had found the boy with the loaves and fish. Phillip had determined the budget was too small to provide such a meal. Their consensus? Nope. This can’t be done. Jesus has finally lost it.
And so, Jesus put them to work again. Now they were organizing the masses, bunching them up in groups of 50 or 100, getting them to sit down together on the grass. All of the sudden, the sheep didn’t seem so “shepherdless.” Here they were on a quiet day, in a lonely and beautiful hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee—sitting together in the lush green grass, listening to Jesus’ wonderful words, experiencing his healing, and eating a satisfying meal. Truly, it seemed, the Lord was their Shepherd, they lacked nothing. He made them lie down in this green pasture, he led them beside these still waters, he was refreshing their souls.
So Jesus took the bread and fish, gave thanks to God, and fed the vast multitude. We don’t know whether or not the masses knew about this miracle, we only know that they ate and were filled. The disciples, while they didn’t fully understand what was happening, knew Jesus was doing something amazing. Perhaps it reenergized them, but they certainly didn’t have much time to take it in—to process it. After all, it takes a long time to serve thousands of people even if the food is being produced miraculously. And then there was the clean up. No sooner did they finish distributing the bread, did they have to begin gathering the leftovers. By the time they were finished, the adrenaline rush must have long passed. Each disciple stood before Jesus with a basketful of leftovers. They were panting, sweating, and wondering when their break would really begin.
The night had fully set in by now. Darkness shrouded the landscape and a strong wind was beginning to blow in from the sea. Perhaps the disciples were beginning to consider sleeping arrangements when Jesus surprised them once again. “Tell you what, guys, why don’t you get in the boat and cross the lake for Galilee. I’ll dismiss the crowd and catch up with you later.”
What?! He had to be kidding. The disciples were exhausted at the beginning of the day. The day had been extremely demanding and they all felt they could sleep for solid week. Not to mention the fact that in the midst of the miracle feast, the disciples-turned-waiters had barely had a chance to get a nibble. They were hungry and tired – physically and spiritually. And now they were supposed to pull an all-nighter struggling to row their boat against the wind for miles? But the look in Jesus’ eyes was unmistakable, so they got in the boat and set out.
Of course, even though it was very late, the crowds were still feeling very excited. Some were talking about Jesus as the Messiah, calling him “The Prophet.” Some had thoughts of making him their king—forcefully if necessary. For his part, Jesus calmed the crowd, bid them goodnight, and quietly slipped away. He knew what they intended and wanted no part of it. Besides, he had set out to pray many hours ago and now was the perfect opportunity. He had let his prayer plans be delayed, but not destroyed.
So, Jesus went up into the surrounding mountains, found a quiet place and spent the rest of the night praying. We don’t know what he prayed about. I’m sure he had to talk to God about his Cousin John’s death, about the crowds and Herod, about the disciples, and about where to go from here. I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a lot of worship happening during that prayer time and psalms quoted and sung.
Meanwhile, as the night dragged on, the disciples continued struggling to make headway against the contrary winds. Their arms and legs screamed with pain as they continued rowing. The fishermen among them were weak with hunger. The less-seaworthy were green with nausea. They all wished they were someplace else, preferably asleep. I wonder if they thought about Jesus’ invitation hours ago – to come away with him alone, to rest, to eat. The invitation was to get away from the swarming crowds. Now, as they fought the wind and waves, I wonder if any of them thought about how it was the crowds who ultimately got to spend time with Jesus, who ate their fill, and who were, even now, resting peacefully. The disciples, however, were still working, still hungry, and had left Jesus back on the shore. By now, the confusion and frustration had really set in. Hearts were hard. There was likely anger and hurt – no doubt, some of it directed towards Jesus. What the heck was going on anyways?
It was almost dawn when they saw it. It was still quite dark, the wind was still gusting, and the waves were still tossing the boat back and forth, but there it was—in the distance a figure was moving upon the water. Terror gripped them when they realized that it was a man—a ghost, it seemed. Funny, here was the same group of men who had just days ago been out in the villages casting out demons. Their report to Jesus must have included tales of the evil spirits that had fled. Now, at the end of themselves, they shrieked in terror at the sight of a single spirit.
Jesus knew they were afraid. Here they had been struggling for hours, 12 men at the oars and they had barely made it half-way across the sea. Jesus, in just a few minutes, strolled upon the sea effortlessly – gaining on them, heck, it seemed at first that he would pass them altogether—the wind and waves seemed to have no affect on Jesus, let alone the fact that you just aren’t supposed to be able to walk on water. But, as he neared the boat, Jesus took pity on his beloved disciples, shouting, “Take courage, it’s me! Don’t be afraid.”
The disciples cast skeptical looks at each other while they continued to wrestle with the oars. “Only one way to find out,” thought the impetuous Peter. “Lord, if it’s really you, tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” replied the Lord.
And then, before the disciples fully knew what was going on, there was Peter slowly creeping towards the mysterious figure on the water – walking on the water! The wind was still raging, so perhaps only the seasick tax collector, Matthew, hanging his head over the side of the boat witnessed the whole ordeal. There was Peter walking towards the ghost. A moment later he was looking disoriented and panicky at the sight of the wind and waves. And then he was sinking. A desperate hand was extended, a cry for help, and then there was Jesus firmly clasping the fisherman’s hand. Now, the two were making their way back to the boat, now climbing into the hull—Peter, wet and panting, practically falling in.
And then there was the Lord. Standing there in the middle of the boat like a conquering hero. Quite obviously now to everyone, not a ghost. And quite clearly no mere man. The oars were still now, like the sea which had all of the sudden grown strangely calm. The fierce wind had just as quickly become nothing more than a gentle, whispering breeze as the morning sun began to peak up over the Golan Heights in the distance. The disciples gaped, then knelt, then gave their spent and broken selves over to worship—“Truly you are the Son of God!” someone said. That seemed about right.
It wasn’t long now before the boat reached the shore. They dropped anchor at Gennesaret, near Capernaum. The disciples, bleary-eyed and racked with pain from hours of strenuous work, stumbled out of the boat and onto the beach. Their heads were spinning as they watched Jesus, the Son of God, wondering, “What’s next?”
And then someone recognized them. “It’s Jesus of Nazareth!” they heard a voice call out in the distance. As Jesus made his way towards the town, the Twelve followed closely behind and watched as the news of his arrival rapidly spread. Soon the crowds were swelling again. People were bringing the sick and afflicted, even carrying them on mats. They were pressing in, begging just to touch the edge of his cloak – this they did and were healed.
Jesus then made his way towards the synagogue of Capernaum. The disciples began noticing people from the night before and must have wondered if the whole world was now clamoring to see him. And then Jesus stopped. They were at the synagogue now and Jesus was standing looking at the crowd. Thousands had gathered—the multitude seemed countless, greater than the day before. A voice broke in, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
The Twelve looked on as Jesus delivered a stinging rebuke to the crowd. He began to say things that the disciples weren’t sure they really understood, but couldn’t help but believe—after, well, everything. And then the grumbling began. It started slowly but it soon infected the whole crowd. Now people were shouting at and arguing against Jesus. Fact is, it all happened so fast and the disciples where so physically and emotionally drained, that they weren’t exactly sure of everything that took place that day. Somehow, someway, they found themselves at the end of the day—alone with Jesus. All they knew was that during the course of that day thousands had walked away from their Rabbi—what had only a short time ago seemed like the greatest spiritual awakening in generations had dwindled into nothing in a matter of mere hours.
Now, after all that time, they were finally alone with Jesus. They finally had some peace and quiet. But none of them, it seemed, could either speak or sleep. The sleep they had been so long deprived of now seemed to elude them further. Their bodies ached with soreness as their muscles slowly stiffened. The sensation of being on that storm-tossed boat was still felt by some of them as they sat in silence. Their minds were cluttered with images of Jesus multiplying bread and walking on water and the sound of his voice, “Come away with me. You give them something to eat. Don’t be afraid. I am the bread of life. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” The rollercoaster of the past couple of days had left them feeling utterly and completely wasted, confused, and broken.
“You don’t want to leave too, do you?”
Jesus’ words had broken the silence. They looked up at him and saw that wildness that was always in his eyes. Just then something seemed to click for a number of them. This Jesus-thing was simply not what they thought it would be. Maybe they’d never get their heads around it completely. Clearly, Jesus was not at all interested in following their game plans or the culturally acceptable scripts. As long as they followed him, he would continue to inspire, surprise, frighten, and confuse them. One day, he might even get them killed. But, what had been said about him last night on the boat was true—he really was the Son of God, the Christ sent from above. And they, or most of them, really did believe. Leave? No, this was it for them. Whatever fallback plans they had, had gotten lost somewhere between Capernaum and the middle of the sea of Galilee.
And so, after a moment, there was Peter, speaking again for them all—and, they had to admit, this time doing a pretty good job:
“Where are we gonna go, Jesus? Who else are we going to turn to? You have the words of eternal life. The bottom line is, we believe you. We know you are the Holy One of God!”