When you set out to study a passage, sometimes the more familiar that passage is, the more difficult it is to work with. The story of the feeding of the 5000ish is Exhibit A. If you’ve grown up in the church and heard the story a zillion times, what more can you get out of it? How can you think through it in a fresh and new way? Answer: It ain’t easy. Unfortunately, as humans we are prone to boredom with things we know well, thus the expression “familiarity breeds contempt.”
What is the point of the feeding of the 5000ish? Why is it at this particular place in John’s gospel? Here are some answers served up by those who have studied the passage:
- When Jesus is in charge of a situation, available human resources are irrelevant. (Holman New Testament Commentary)
- a signal that the new age has begun in which God will provide for his people; (Open Door on John)
- The purpose of this miracle was twofold: first, to instruct the apostles in the nature of their ministry…; second, to prove to Israel that Jesus is indeed the prophet like Moses (Life of Christ)
- Salvation brings satisfaction (Wiersebe)
Whew! That is a lot of possibilities. It’s not that one answer is right and the others are wrong per se. All of these answers contain some of the truth, however, I don’t think any of them get at the passage in its context. Why did John put this particular story here? I think it’s because Christ’s great discourse proclaiming “I am the Bread of Life” is coming up next. This chapter has two signs: the feeding of the 5,000 (#5 in John’s scheme of 7) and walking on water (#6) and one proclamation by word: “I am the Bread of Life.”
When Jesus stands up and says, “I am the Bread of Life,” what does John want us to do? He wants us to think back to the miracle just performed, in which Christ took five loaves and two fish—laughably inadequate to feed 5000ish people—and not only fed them, but there were leftovers! What Jesus spoke, he had already demonstrated: “I am the Bread of Life and the life that I bring is more than sufficient for anyone who comes to the table.” And isn’t this the same message he had communicated when he turned water into gallons and gallons of wine at Cana? Isn’t this what he had already demonstrated to the hapless Samaritans at Sychar? He had living water for all who were thirsty.
“If you come and are spiritually hungry, you will be filled with the Bread of Life.” This is the message of the feeding of the 5000ish. Are you hungry, dear reader? Come. Eat. Be Filled.