The four Gospels record more than 35 miracles, but apart from Jesus’ resurrection, feeding the 5,000 is the only one mentioned by all four. Each gospel author wrote with a specific goal, leading them to focus on or emphasize particular events.
The fact that this miracle makes it into Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John seems to indicate a special significance—especially when you consider that John is the only one who mentions something as amazing as the resurrection of Lazarus.
Let’s look at the feeding of the 5,000 as told by John’s Gospel and consider what makes this miracle so significant.
The feeding of the 5,000
In John’s Gospel, the feeding of the 5,000 is found in chapter six. This section of John is steeped in references to Moses. Chapter five ends with Jesus saying, “But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say” (John 5:45–47, New International Version)?
John immediately launches into this story. He tells us that the following story begins “some time after” these words were spoken, but then he tells us that Passover was near, which also connects this story to Moses. (Passover commemorates Moses leading the Israelites out of Jerusalem.)
Let’s examine John’s version of the story:
Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.
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!”
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.
After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself (John 6:1–15, NIV).
Feeding the 5,000: the Moses connection
Jesus says that Moses pointed Israel to Him (John 5:46). John then pulls a story into his narrative that isn’t necessarily chronological. This miracle happened sometime later, but John thinks it’s helpful to tell the story now, linking it back to Jesus’ words about Moses through its connection to Passover.
Immediately after this story, John will tell his readers about Jesus walking on water. In John’s readers’ minds, these two stories will be directly linked to Moses and Exodus. The feeding of the 5,000 hearkens back to Israel being fed by manna from heaven. And Jesus walking on water would have been a reminder of Moses leading God’s people through the Red Sea.
The crowd picks up the Moses/Jesus connection here. But their understanding of the Messiah is still nationalistic. They want a Messiah who will rally Israel to overcome her enemies and put the nation in its rightful place above all other nations.
Through feeding the 5,000, they recognized that Moses was pointing to Jesus. And their response is to force Jesus to take up the mantle of conquering king. Jesus sends the disciples off (Mark 6:45–46) and withdraws to the mountains to pray.
After the story of Jesus walking on water, John brings everything back to the connection between these miracles and Moses.
The crowd follows Jesus for bread
John wraps this section up with a challenging discussion between himself and the crowds following Him.
When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?”
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval” (John 6:25–27).
There are many times in the gospels when Jesus is having a deep metaphoric discussion with people, and they’re caught up in the physical immediacy of the situation. His discussion with the woman at the well is a perfect example. He talks to her about spiritual springs of life-giving water, but she doesn’t immediately understand the metaphor. We’ll see the same thing in this conversation, too.
John specifically told us earlier that the boy offered up barley bread. This is significant because barley was the grain of the poor. It could be grown in lousy soil and grew easily. It was used throughout Palestine and Egypt to feed cattle. But in Israel, impoverished people baked it into bread.
Often exploited by Israelites with more money, the fishing villages weren’t well off. Jesus calls them out for following Him for free bread, and of course, they were. No wonder they wanted to force Him to be king. Imagine having a king who could conquer your enemies and give you free bread.
But Jesus is moving them away from discussing food toward more spiritually minded pursuits.
What sign will you give?
Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?”
Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.”
So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written: ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”
“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread” (John 6:28–34).
They press Jesus to tell them what God requires of them to receive this eternal food. Jesus tells them they must believe in Him, who God has sent. The sly crowd requests a sign (more free bread), pointing to Moses’ example of providing manna.
Knowing that Jesus can feed 5,000 people from nothing, they press Him to justify their belief by offering them more free food. After all, Moses gave them free manna for 40 years. But Jesus really wants them to understand that they’re not really having the same conversation—Jesus isn’t talking about literal bread.
I am the bread of life
Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”
At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’” (John 6:35–42).
Jesus ignores their request for a lifetime supply of free bread to share the gospel message with them. Whoever comes to Him will have eternal life and be raised on the last day. Their response to realizing they’re not about to get some more bread? They grumble.
Suddenly, they’re worried about Jesus’ pedigree. “We know this guy’s parents, and He wants to convince us that He’s come down from heaven? Give us a break. We’ll take His miracle food, but we’re not buying this idea that He’s come directly from heaven.”
This bread is My flesh
The crowd begins to murmur about what Jesus is saying. But He doesn’t backtrack and clarify His words. In fact, He’s going to double down on what He’s saying—eventually confusing and frustrating His audience to the point of walking out.
“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat” (John 6:43–52)?
Jesus points out that the manna the Israelites ate in the wilderness only sustained their life for a short time, but they eventually died. The bread that He’s offering will give them eternal life. And He is that bread.
He goes on to tell them “this bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” This is a distinct reference to His coming sacrifice on the cross. In the same way that a loaf of bread needs to be broken to be shared, Jesus’ flesh will be broken for the world.
And then He tells them something extremely challenging.
Unless you eat of my flesh
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum (John 6:53–59).
Jesus’ words are extremely challenging for His audience. The Jews were forbidden to drink blood (Leviticus 3:17, Deuteronomy 12:23) and references to eating flesh in the Old Testament had to do with malice and bitterness (Psalm 27:2). The fact that Jesus was saying He was living bread that had come down from heaven was confusing enough, but this would have been shocking.
For Christians, it’s easy to read these words and not be stunned. We’re used to this language. It echoes the language we might use in communion or sing about from our hymnal, but this crowd would never have heard teaching like this. In fact, John goes on to tell us that many of Jesus’ followers abandoned Him at that moment: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66). Thankfully, the 12 apostles stayed.
Making Jesus a part of us
There’s a lot about the miracles of the loaves and fishes that is interesting. We can talk about the fact that the disciples weren’t sure how to handle the large, hungry crowd. We can zero in on the boy who supplied his lunch for Jesus to work a miracle with. We can meditate on the fact that Jesus’ miracle went above and beyond what was necessary for feeding the crowd, and how they walked away with 12 baskets of bread.
But John wants his readers to make the connection between Moses and this miracle. He wants them to understand that Jesus is the one Moses pointed to and that Jesus’ miracles (and ultimately His purpose) is beyond Moses’.
John uses this miracle to make the point that there is something more important than our daily bread. In the same way that the food we eat gets inside of us, nourishes us, and energizes us, we need Jesus to nourish and energize us.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Gospel of John, watch the entire Life of Jesus film.