In Luke, chapter 8, Jesus went about teaching and healing. Chapter 9 starts with Jesus giving the twelve “power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, (and sending) them forth to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick” (9:1-2). Then there is a comment about Herod’s perplexed response to the word that he received about Jesus’ ministry. Herod wonders “who is this, about whom I hear such things?” (9:9).
The story of the feeding of the five thousand is followed by Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah (9:18-20), Jesus foretelling his death and resurrection (9:21-27), and the Transfiguration (9:28-36).
Thus, the stories before and after the feeding of the 5000 ask “Who is this?” (9:9) or give Peter’s answer to that question—”The Christ of God” (9:20). The issue is Jesus’ identity. The feeding of the five thousand helps to answer that question. Jesus is a prophet like Elisha, who fed a hundred men with only five barley loaves—but the men ate their fill and there was bread left over (2 Kings 4:42-44). He is also a Moses-like figure who feeds the people with heavenly bread (see Exodus 16; Numbers 11).
The story of the feeding of the five thousand is found in all four Gospels (see Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; and John 6:1-15). It accomplishes what Mary said in the Magnificat: “He has filled the hungry with good things” (1:53), and fulfills what Jesus said in the Beatitudes—that those who are hungry now will be filled (6:21).
LUKE 9:10-11. HE WELCOMED THEM
10The apostles, when they had returned, told him what things they had done. He took them, and withdrew apart to a deserted place of a city called Bethsaida. 11But the multitudes, perceiving it, followed him. He welcomed them, and spoke to them of the Kingdom of God, and he cured those who needed healing.
“The apostles, when they had returned, told him what things they had done“ (v. 10a). This is the apostles’ return from the preaching/healing mission on which Jesus sent them in 9:1-6.
“He took them, and withdrew apart to a deserted place of a city called Bethsaida” (v. 10b). Matthew and Mark say, “to a deserted place” (Matthew 14:13; Mark 6:31), which is the way that the disciples also describe the place in verse 12). This is most likely a deserted area in the vicinity of Bethsaida.
Bethsaida is a city on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee—the home of Peter, Andrew, and Philip (John 1:44; 12:21). Jesus takes the disciples there to have some private time with them.
“But the multitudes, perceiving it, followed him” (v. 11a). But the crowds encroach on Jesus’ private time with his disciples. Jesus’ popularity and the crowd’s hope of teaching and healing draws them to him.
“He welcomed them, and spoke to them of the Kingdom of God, and he cured those who needed healing” (v. 11b). This twofold statement of Jesus’ activity (proclamation of the kingdom of God and healing) is precisely what Jesus sent the apostles to do on their mission (vv. 1-2).
LUKE 9:12. SEND THE MULTITUDE AWAY
12The day began to wear away; and the twelve came, and said to him, “Send the multitude away, that they may go into the surrounding villages and farms, and lodge, and get food, for we are here in a deserted place.”
“The day began to wear away; and the twelve came, and said to him, ‘Send the multitude away, that they may go into the surrounding villages and farms, and lodge, and get food, for we are here in a deserted place'” (v. 12). The apostles do what any competent lieutenants would do for their leader. They assess the situation, identify a problem before it becomes a crisis, and recommend a solution.
The situation is, indeed critical. The crowd is quite large—verse 14 says that there are five thousand men. Matthew 14:21 says that there were also women and children, so the crowd could easily be ten thousand people. The place is deserted. Evening is drawing nigh. People need food and water, and a crowd of this size needs lots of both. In the Gospel of John, Philip says, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, that everyone of them may receive a little” (John 6:7).
But even assuming a generous treasury, there would be insurmountable logistical problems associated with the procurement and transportation of such a large quantity of food. Even if the disciples could collect sufficient funds, they could hardly expect to find bread already baked in sufficient quantities to feed thousands. How many ovens would be required? How many bakers? How much flour? How long would it take for the dough to rise? To bake? How could the disciples transport thousands of loaves of bread? What about water? What about toilet facilities? If the disciples were to tackle this monumental task and gather the necessary food, how could Jesus reorganize the crowd for teaching again after dinner? Doesn’t it make more sense to dismiss them now and let them find their own dinner?
The disciples are concerned for the crowds, but they are also concerned for Jesus. A crowd can quickly become a mob if not managed properly. Even if things don’t go that far, the good will that Jesus has generated will dissipate if the crowd goes away hungry. The disciples are also concerned for themselves. In a crisis, Jesus will want them to do something—and they can’t imagine what they can do.
And besides that, Jesus took the apostles to Bethsaida to have some private time with them (v. 10). Wouldn’t it be nice to get rid of this crowd so the apostles would have an opportunity to talk to Jesus about their mission!
But the disciples have forgotten the miracles that Jesus has so recently worked: the calming of a story (8:22-25); the healing of a demoniac (8:26-39); and the raising from the dead a young girl and the healing of a woman (8:40-56). While none of these were abundance miracles like the great catch of fish (5:4-7) or the wine at the Cana wedding feast (John 2:1-11), it doesn’t take much imagination to realize that a man who could work these miracles could also feed a great crowd.
LUKE 9:13-14a. YOU GIVE THEM SOMETHING TO EAT
13But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish, unless we should go and buy food for all these people.” 14aFor they were about five thousand men.
“You (the “you” is emphatic in the original Greek) give them something to eat” (v. 13a). This is the first of several links to the story of Elisha feeding a hundred men with twenty barley loaves and some grain. In that story Elisha tells his servant, “Give to the people, that they may eat” (2 Kings 4:42).
The apostles have just returned from their preaching/healing mission (vv. 1-6). When Jesus sent them on that mission, he instructed them, “Take nothing for your journey—neither staffs, nor wallet, nor bread, nor money; neither have two coats apiece” (9:3). They were to rely on the hospitality of the people whom they would serve on their mission. Having just returned from that mission, they have not had an opportunity to replenish their food supply—as we will see in the next verse.
After the miracle has taken place, the question could be asked, “Who fed these people?” The answer, of course, is that God fed them. However, Jesus challenges the disciples to give the people something to eat, thus making them his partners in the miracle. The obedience of the disciples was important to this miracle just as our obedience is important to the kingdom today. Christ takes our contribution, however modest, and makes it enough.
“You give them something to eat” continues to challenge Christians today. We live in a world full of hungry people and pray that Jesus might do something. He responds, “You give them something to eat.” The church has often risen to the challenge, providing food, clothing, shelter, and medical care to people in the far corners of the world.
“We have no more than five loaves and two fish” (v. 13b). This objection is a second link to the Elisha story, where Elisha’s servant protested, “What, should I set this before a hundred men?” (2 Kings 4:43).
The twelve are able to produce only five loaves and two fish from their nearly-bare pockets—hardly enough to feed themselves and a drop in the bucket for a large crowd.
The disciples emphasize not what they have, but what they haven’t. They see not possibilities, but problems. Their assessment is right on the mark. The disciples have five loaves and two fish—seven items—enough for a family—but the crowd spreads to the horizon. Centuries earlier, the Israelites had spoken against God, saying, “Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?” (Psalm 78:19). Now the doubt of Jesus’ disciples comes close to replicating the earlier sin (Bruner, 531).
We are always tempted to believe, as the disciples did, that we have nothing to offer in the face of overwhelming need. Millions of people are hungry, and we have nothing to offer except a small box of canned goods. Millions of people are infected with the AIDS virus, and we have nothing to offer except a few dollars and a shoulder to cry on. Millions of people lose their homes and livelihood to war or natural disaster, and we have nothing to offer except prayers and a few blankets.
In such situations, we are prone either to despair or to defer to Big Government—the true Higher Power in the minds of many people today. The church is poor, but Congress has plenty—perhaps we can fulfill our religious obligation by persuading politicians to do something. One problem with that approach is practical. Bureaucrats and tyrants often siphon off much of the government aid, leaving little for the people who need help. The other problem is spiritual. In whom do we really trust? Where do we believe power really lies?
“unless we should go and buy food for all these people” (v. 13c). The twelve raise the possibility of buying food—but where can they go at the close of the day to find such a large quantity of food—and how will they pay for it—and how can they transport and distribute it? These questions are implied in the disciples’ statement, “unless we should go and buy food for all these people.” Perhaps there is a touch of sarcasm in their comment about buying food (Green, 364).
“For they were about five thousand men” (v. 14a). It is typical that they include only men in this number. That does not mean that there were not women and children present, but it was a patriarchal society in which it was customary to count only the number of men present. For instance, to determine whether they had a minyan (the minimum number [ten] of people required for Jewish worship) they counted only men. Matthew specifies that there were “about five thousand men, besides women and children” (Matthew 14:21).
LUKE 9:14b-17. THEY ATE, AND WERE ALL FILLED
14bHe said to his disciples, “Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15They did so, and made them all sit down. 16He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to the sky, he blessed them, and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the multitude. 17They ate, and were all filled (Greek: echortasthesan – from xortazein). They gathered up twelve baskets of broken pieces that were left over.
“He said to his disciples, ‘Make them sit down in groups of about fifty each.’ They did so, and made them all sit down” (vv. 14b-15). When Jesus has the disciples seat this great crowd, he signals that he is about to give them something—whether bread or teaching is not clear yet. He raises expectations—heightens the tension like a tightrope walker taking the first step onto the rope.
There seems to be no particular symbolism involved in the number fifty in this instance. Jesus simply has the disciples divide the people into manageable groups to be served.
“He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to the sky, he blessed them, and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the multitude” (v. 16). Jesus takes action once the disciples bring him the five loaves and two fish. He does more than share the crowd’s pain—he feeds them. The verbs (taking, blessed, broke, and gave) are similar to those used at the Last Supper (took, had given thanks, broke, gave –22:19). They are also similar to the verbs used in the Emmaus Road story (took, blessed, broke, gave – Luke 24:30). In that story, Cleopas and the other disciple recognized Jesus when he performed these actions.
“They ate, and were all filled (echortasthesan – from xortazein). They gathered up twelve baskets of broken pieces that were left over” (v. 17). This is a final link to the Elisha story, where Elisha “set it before them, and they ate, and left some of it, according to the word of Yahweh” (2 Kings 4:44).
This is the first indication that anything special has happened. It would have been difficult for each of those people to receive a few crumbs from the small quantity of food that was available. The miracle, though, is that the people “were all filled” (xortazein)—satisfied. They are no longer hungry. Not only were the people satisfied, but there is food left over—twelve baskets of broken pieces—one for each apostle to use as needed—one for each tribe of Israel.
In the manna miracle, people were not permitted to keep leftovers, but Jesus, greater than Moses, has the disciples gather twelve baskets of food after they have eaten their fill.
There is no mention of wonderment on the part of the crowd. Perhaps they are unaware that a miracle has taken place. Nor is there any mention of wonderment on the part of the disciples—and they do know that Jesus has somehow multiplied the little bit of food that they brought him.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Bruner, Frederick Dale, Matthew: Volume 2, The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28 (Dallas: Word, 1990)
Evans, Craig A., New International Biblical Commentary: Luke (Peabody, MA, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1990)
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Copyright 2007, 2010, 2012, Richard Niell Donovan