Jesus repeats a miracle: Feeding 4,000.

by K.W. Leslie, 29 May

Mark 8.1-9 • Matthew 15.32-39.

So you know the bible’s full of miracles. They’re there not just so we have feel-good Sunday school stories, nor so we can read about what God did in the past and think, “Bible times were cool; how come God doesn’t do such things anymore?” He does do such things. Still! If you’ve never seen it, it means your church has done a lousy job of putting you in the path of miracles. Or it’s full of unbelievers. Either way, not good.

The miracles aren’t just there to give us happy thoughts. They show us what God has done—and therefore can still do. He hasn’t lost power; he hasn’t abandoned us like cessationists insist. He’s ready when we’re willing.

And when a certain miracle happens more than once in the bible, it means God’s particularly willing to repeat that one. Because he already has repeated that one. Like when Jesus repeated feeding a huge crowd with a small amount of food.

Mark 8.1-9 KWL
1 In those days, with again many people who had nothing to eat,
Jesus, summoning his students, told them,
2 “I feel bad for the crowd; they’ve been with me three days and have nothing to eat.
3 When I send home those who’ve been fasting, they’ll collapse on the road:
Some of them have come from far away.”
4 Jesus’s students replied, “How will we get buns to feed them here, in the wilderness?”
5 Jesus asked them, “How many buns do you have?” They said, “Seven.”
6 Jesus commanded the crowd to sit on the ground, and took the seven buns.
Giving thanks, he broke and gave the buns to his students so they could distribute them.
They distributed them to the crowd. 7 They also had a few sardines;
blessing them, Jesus said to distribute them too.
8 They ate and were full, and they picked up abundant fragments—seven baskets.
9 There were maybe 4,000 people. Jesus released them.
Matthew 15.32-39 KWL
32 Summoning his students, Jesus said, “I feel bad for the crowd;
they’ve been with me three days and have nothing to eat.
I don’t want to send home those who’ve been fasting, lest they collapse on the road.”
33 Jesus’s students told him, “How will we, in the wilderness, get so many buns to feed so great a crowd?”
34 Jesus told them, “How many buns do you have?” They said, “Seven and a few sardines.”
35 Commanding the crowd to sit on the ground, 36 Jesus took the buns and sardines;
blessing them, he broke and gave them to his students, and the students to the crowd.
37 They all ate and were full, and they picked up abundant fragments—seven full baskets.
38 Those who ate were 4,000 men, not counting women and children.
39 Jesus released the crowd, entered the boat, and went to the Magadan border.

Certain scholars speculate this isn’t really a second miracle of feeding thousands: It’s just another telling of feeding the 5,000, but some of the details got mixed up. The reason they guess this is because Jesus’s students somehow seem to have forgot the previous miracle. Didja notice?—Jesus talks about how he’s got a huge crowd here and wants to feed them, and the students ask him how they’re gonna do that. Did they forget they already did that? Did they forget how the bread and fish multiplied in their very own hands?

But let’s be fair: Every Christian seems to have forgotten Jesus can empower his followers to miraculously feed large masses of people. ’Cause we don’t do this anymore either.

Well, we do it with smaller crowds. Loads of Christians can tell you a story of when they were feeding the needy, realized they were short of food, yet God managed to miraculously stretch what they had so it fed everyone. Or a communion service where there shouldn’t have been enough wafers but there were; or a potluck which managed to feed more people than you’d think. People love to repeat these stories… yet never seem to trust God enough to try it with Jesus-size crowds.

I suspect if we did, we’d be stunned: Jesus is so willing to do it again.

The differences in the stories.

Most folks who read this story like to compare feeding the 5,000 with feeding the 4,000:

  • Different sides of the lake; different provinces. So the 5,000 were Galilean Jews, and these were Syrian Greeks of the Dekapolis. Yep, Jesus was preaching to gentiles. Hey, they were interested in his kingdom; why not?
  • A thousand fewer people. (Ish. The 5,000 seem to have only been men; Matthew implies there were women and children among the 4,000.)
  • Different number of loaves. Probably different number of fish. (Probably still a fish spread of some sort.)
  • Different amount of leftovers. There, 12 laundry baskets’ worth of leftovers; here, seven equipment baskets, which held maybe five gallons. Full, but still fewer.

Plus different cultures. Fr’instance the LORD commanded the Hebrews to leave the edges of their fields for the poor and needy, and to let the needy gather what they dropped once they harvested. Lv 23.22 The Greeks didn’t have this command. So if Jesus sent away the 5,000, they could’ve picked at the nearby fields for food… but if he sent away the 4,000, this wasn’t an option. If they did it anyway, their culture considered it theft—same as it is in our culture. Jesus knew his listeners might have to travel some distance before they found food at all, and might keel over enroute. So they’d have to feed them.

Various Christians are big on numerology, and try to read something into the seven baskets of leftovers here, versus the 12 baskets among the 5,000. They note in Acts there were 12 apostles but seven deacons, and try to claim the apostles were Jews but the deacons were gentile… except they weren’t gentile; they were Greek-speaking Jews. Ac 6.2-4 Even so, they try to claim there’s a deliberate parallel between the baskets of leftovers, and the ethnic backgrounds of the people who were fed. And there’s not. It’s just coincidence.

(Do try to avoid adding numerology to our interpretations when we’re not dealing with apocalyptic stories. It doesn’t apply. It implies there’s a secret or mystery in this story when there’s no such thing, and gets people to utterly miss the point in their pursuit of false knowledge.)

Why not do it again?

It’s not all that hard to understand why Jesus’s students didn’t instantly say, “Hey Jesus, could you do that bread-multiplying thingy again?” He’d only done it once before, and they might’ve assumed it was a one-time deal. He’d done it with their countrymen in their homeland, and they might’ve assumed it was a miracle he’d only do for Jews. Plus you remember once he did it, the people wanted to king him, and what if that happened again? (Well, the gentiles were far less likely to king him, so I wouldn’t worry about that one.)

Generally, we too often figure miracles are once-and-for-all. Hence Jesus has to demonstrate they aren’t.

Can he do it again? Of course he can. Will he? If we ask him to. We’ve likely seen him do it in small settings; why not large? The only thing stopping it from happening time and again, is the smallness of our faith. We gotta get bigger faith!

Christ Almighty!