The twelve apostles are excited about the great ministry that they have just accomplished — the demons cast out and the miracles they've performed. However, they are in need of rest and would like some time to celebrate the results of their efforts with Jesus.
Jesus is grieving the loss of his cousin, John the Baptizer. He also knows that John's death signals the growing hostility that will lead to his own death. Jesus needs time to be alone with the Father and time to be away from the crowds with his apostles. He wants to get them away from the crowd and to get them all some rest.
But, there was the problem with the crowd. They had figured out where Jesus and his apostles were going to land. The restless and needy crowd were waiting for Jesus when he arrived. He had compassion on them. He taught them. He healed their sick. Now, as the long day moved toward evening, the Lord used the situation as an opportunity to further train his closest disciples about his power in their insufficiency. He would teach them this lesson with a touch of good humor and grace.
When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.
Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” (John 6:5-7)
[T]he disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.”
“They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat” (Matthew 14:15-16).
Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”
Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.
When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten (John 6:8-13).
Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand is one of his most famous miracles. Each of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in the New Testament) records this story. Natural human skepticism about this miracle doesn’t match the skepticism of Jesus’ apostles. Only one disciple, Philip, seems to have any hint of faith in Jesus’ ability to solve the problem. The Lord's apostles are skeptical about their ability to help even though they are freshly returned from a miracle-filled tour of Galilee. None of them senses Jesus' playfulness in a plan to feed the crowd that will end with each apostle holding the proof of Jesus' power in their hands.
Jesus told them, “You give them something to eat.” He already knew what he was going to do. He had a plan to teach them a joyful lesson about provision.
Their cumulative response amounted to the phrase, “I doubt it!”
“I doubt we can do anything to help their hunger and their weariness. There are simply too many of them and too few of us with too little resources to address such a big problem. I doubt it!”
Having been around churches for over four decades of ministry, I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard those words or something similar to them. "I doubt it!" We don't have... the budget for it... the resources to accomplish it... the people to pull it off... the facilities to house it... "I doubt it!"
Other times, I’ve heard money raisers use this same passage to whip folks into a frenzy about building facilities or raising money for themselves. The goal is to try to get folks to take huge financial risks for things that benefit themselves. "Just bring the Lord your two fish and five loaves and if we all pitch in, imagine what the Lord can do." Right words, wrong situation.
Jesus' feeding of the five thousand speaks clearly about the wrongheadedness of both the doubters and the fundraisers. So, let’s take a few minutes and see if we can hear the voice of Jesus through this event in his ministry.
First, notice how the story ends. The twelve apostles picked up twelve baskets full of leftovers. They not only saw and experienced the miracle of Jesus’ provision, but they also held the results of the miracle in their hands. Their “I doubt it!” became more of a feeling of “how about that!”
Second, notice the important principle about being on mission for Jesus. This miracle occurs as the apostles join Jesus in living out his mission — sharing his message of the kingdom of God and helping meet the hurting needs of people (Matthew 4:23; Matthew 9:35). Far from doing anything to benefit themselves, Jesus and his closest followers are being sensitive to the needs of the lost, weary, and broken who came to them for help.
When we are doing Jesus’ mission in the world, we will often find ourselves under-equipped, under-resourced, and exhausted in the face of great need. We might even be bone-weary and grief-stricken when the needs present themselves.
What do we do?
What we DON’T DO is “send them away.”
What we DON’T DO is freeze because we are overwhelmed.
What we DON’T DO is quit because we are insufficient or tired or grieving.
What we DON’T DO is refuse to help because we want to celebrate a recent ministry victory.
Instead, we DO find ways to help. We muster what (meager) resources we have and we bring them to Jesus. Then, we begin to serve, bless, minister, and care for those in need. We may not have enough to meet the need, but we begin to address it the best we can.
In my experience, Jesus invariably surprises us at how he can use our insufficiency to meet needs greater than we can imagine. We love the people God puts in front of us the best we can. We do the next right thing that Jesus would have us do. We trust him for the results and the power to make our efforts and our resources sufficient. When we do, God will do “immeasurably more than all [I] could ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20) as we live out Jesus’ mission and trust him for the results.*
The key to all of this, I believe, are a few principles we see revealed by Jesus and his apostles in the feeding of the five thousand:
- Center my life in the mission of Jesus — sharing the good news of the kingdom and helping the hurting in Jesus’ name. (Remember, this is not a story about raising money to spend on ourselves or on our stuff, but it’s about blessing others in need in our times of insufficiency!)
- Find what resources I do have, bring them to Jesus to bless, and begin to serve others in an orderly way using what we have, urging those around us to do the same.
- Trust Jesus to begin with what we have and multiply it to be enough if we will stay on mission.
- Clean up after serving those in need and give thanks for the blessing God has provided through our service out of our insufficiency.
- Recognize the good humor and grace of our Lord in the ways he both uses us and amazes us in our insufficiency.>
Will what we do always be enough? We will never know till we try!
Will we hold a miracle in our hands? My experience says, “Yes!”
You may still want to say, “I doubt it!”
I understand the doubt, but I’m hoping you will step out in faith only to discover the miracle of the Lord's sufficiency you can hold in your hands. After all, these tests of our commitment to live out our mission become the Lord's playful ways of astounding us and blessing a world in need.
* On April 3, 1996, Paul Lee and I (Phil Ware) launched heartlight.org. Later, with Ben Steed’s help, we added Verse of the Day to the ministry. We had no money or experience when we began. However, we knew God had called us to this ministry. So, we launched with what we had. The Lord led us to key people who provided support, offered their high-tech skills, partnership, and ongoing prayers. What began with 10 or 12 visitors per week has now become closer to 300,000 users per day across multiple platforms — the web, email, Facebook®, email forwards, reprinted articles, graphics used in worship, and radio broadcasts. So no matter how you are reading this article, please know, you are holding one of the baskets full of leftovers in your hands.