God’s Word for You
Luke 9:12-15 The Five Thousand
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, April 27, 2018
John tells us that this miracle took place just a few days before the Passover (John 6:4), which was the Passover one year before Jesus’ crucifixion. Perhaps this provides a little more insight into the large number of people that were here, since many people would have been traveling south through Bethsaida and Capernaum on their way to Jerusalem from Gilead, Mount Hermon, and other places to the north.
12 As the day was ending, the Twelve came and said to him, “Send the crowd away to go to the villages and farms around here to find lodging and food, for this is a deserted place we’re in.” 13 But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.”
The disciples were concerned about the people. There was no food, it was getting late, and soon there would be a problem with so very many people to care for. Jesus was equally concerned about the people’s needs, but he wanted to use the difficulty before them to teach an important lesson in trust. Luther said:
“Christ gives us another lesson in faith, that we should not be overanxious about our daily bread and our temporal existence, and stirs us up by means of a miracle; as though to say by his act what he says by his words in Matthew 6:33: ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.’” (Sermons of Martin Luther, Volume 2, p. 166)
Jesus’ command: “You give them something to eat,” stands out in the passage. Was it a test of faith? Could the disciples, like Peter attempting to walk on water (Matthew 14:29), have performed this miracle themselves? The answer is yes and no. Yes, because Jesus said, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move” (Matthew 17:20). No, because they were not thinking in terms of trusting Jesus for absolutely everything.
“We don’t have much,” they said, “five loaves and two fish—unless we go and buy food for all these people.”
Luke does not mention that Philip had done the math about how much it would cost to feed everyone (“Eight months’ wages,” John 6:7), or that Andrew was the one who found the boy with the five loaves and two fish (John 6:8-9). The meager meal was even smaller than many people imagine. The barley “loaves” were probably not much larger than dinner rolls. It was the boy’s meal; not one to be shared.
14 (There were about five thousand men.) He said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15 They did so, and they had them all sit down.
Mark’s account (which we think was from Peter’s memory and preaching) says that Jesus’ command was to arrange the people symposia symposia, “group by group” (Mark 6:39) on the grass. A symposium is a group gathered to share a meal. Children would understand if we said, “Picnic group by picnic group.” A symposium was arranged in a U-shape, open on one side, so that a meal could be easily served to everyone, and we can well imagine pathways or aisles between such groups. It was a very orderly arrangement. In fact, Mark even adds that they were prasiai prasiai, like “flower bed after flower bed” (Mark 6:40, NIV “in groups”). Perhaps Mark used this expression because of the bright clothes in addition to the orderly arrangement of the people—like gorgeous and orderly flowerbeds (Mark 1:30).
The crowds followed Jesus’ directions and sat just as the Lord commanded them. By doing this, they were arranging themselves for a banquet—a symposium was no mere snack. Jesus was helping them to understand that what was coming wasn’t to be rationed, but that he was going to provide for them with ample food.
Recent preaching in some Christian churches has reduced this miracle into a mere sharing of wealth, as if the boy’s gesture inspired other people to share what they had, and so on. This completely ignores the testimony of the text, which depicts a crisis and a miracle. This was no potluck; it was a miracle, a sign, and a wonder.
We know that since there were five thousand men (pentakiskilioi, πεντακισχίλιοι), the total number was certainly much larger. Matthew remembered that it was “about five thousand men, besides women and children” (Matthew 14:21). Whether it was fifteen thousand or thirty thousand people, we can’t say, and it doesn’t matter. Jesus was not going to inspire them to share; he was going to teach them to trust in him completely, for everything.
When Jesus told us to ask the Father for our daily bread, he didn’t just mean bread, but everything. This is what Luther describes in his explanation to the First Article:
“I believe that God still preserves me by richly and daily providing clothing and shoes, food and drink, property and home, spouse and children, land, cattle, and all I own, and all I need to keep my body and life. God also preserves me by defending me against all danger, guarding and protecting me from all evil. All this God does only because he is my good and merciful Father in heaven, and not because I have earned or deserved it. For all this I ought to thank and praise, to serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.”
Pastor Timothy Smith
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