And still they come...
Pp Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-13
Taking and Breaking
1. They gave to Jesus
2. The Principle
a. Jesus takes it
b. Our offering blesses God
c. Jesus breaks it
d. Jesus gave it back
We saw on the previous web page that Jesus, having heard of the attention with which Herod was beginning to regard Him, decided to withdraw from the area (Mtw 14:13) to a ‘lonely place apart’. Although the writer went on from the statement concerning Herod that he believed Jesus was John the Baptist raised from the dead to outline the circumstances surrounding the prophet’s death, we noted that this should be considered to be more as a parenthesis detailing a previous event to Herod’s pronouncement rather than a situation which was prompting Jesus to react.
In Matthew’s Gospel, then, the only reason presented to the reader why Jesus now withdraws to a lonely place is that Herod is beginning to regard Him as the resurrected John the Baptist.
Mark offers an alternate reason and one that’s fully in keeping with what’s presented to us by Matthew. In Mark 6:14, we see that Herod first begins to direct his attention towards Jesus not because of some great miracle which He’s done and which has come to the ears of the king but because the twelve disciples have gone out through all Galilee and have been doing great signs and wonders in the name of Jesus.
It can be noted, therefore, that Mark’s explanation of why Jesus now withdrew ‘to a lonely place’ (Mark 6:31) is tied in with the return of the disciples to Jesus and of their relating to Him all that’s been done in the places to which they came. It would appear that so popular had the thirteen of them become that they were drawing even greater crowds than ever before and that they had no time even to eat - let alone to sit down and rest for half an hour!
Jesus, concerned that there seemed to be no let up in this situation and that there only seemed as if there would be a continuation, calls them apart and takes them across the lake away from the crowds that were pressing in all about them (Mark 6:32). There’s a need to remember here that excessive and continuing ministry was something which even Jesus was aware could be a problem and that a ‘wilderness experience’ (in the sense that no ministry was to come from His followers) was an integral part of their calling to serve God. There are recorded instances throughout Church history of men and women ‘burning out’ for God through their excessive work to the people to whom they’re called and, though it would be wrong for me to state categorically that such cases were against God’s will for the believer’s life, it has to be noted that there are times for rest and recuperation that even Jesus realised.
It’s in the wilderness experience - which sometimes can go on for a great many years - that men and women discover the strength and power to be able to begin again where they left off and to grow even stronger than they were before they experienced it.
Both explanations given in the first two Gospels are perfectly adequate to show the considerations which were being assessed and which caused them to withdraw from the scene for, having attracted large crowds, the disciples needed rest and Jesus needed to get away from the area to protect both Himself and His twelve disciples from the increasing attention of Herod Antipas.
Luke also notes that the withdrawal of the disciples was tied in with their return to Jesus from ministering to Israel (Luke 9:10) but goes further than the other two in stating that it was to the city of Bethsaida that they travelled to escape the crowds. Luke doesn’t inform us that they travelled by boat and, just reading this Gospel, one could imagine that they skirted the shores of the Sea, outpacing those who were clamouring after them. But a quick withdrawal by sea enabled them to leave them far behind without the need to rush away at breakneck speed.
Bethsaida ties in well with Jesus’ desire to remove Himself from the attentions of Herod Antipas as it lay within the tetrarchy of Philip, the wife of whom Herod had taken and who was possibly not on the best of terms with his brother.
Being in a region that was controlled by another overlord, it would immediately have had the effect of removing any sinister intent that Antipas may have had in thinking that he could send his own soldiers and seize Jesus to bring him away into one of his fortresses for imprisonment - after all, if Jesus was John the Baptist as he believed (Mtw 14:1-2), he would have presented a similar threat to the security of his throne and to civil peace.
There appears to be some difficulty with Luke’s statement that they went to the city of Bethsaida, however, when compared to Matthew and Mark’s that they withdrew to a lonely place, the one seemingly negating the other - for you would naturally expect large crowds of people in and around a city whereas the place they arrive at seems only to have had a few small villages (Mtw 14:15).
It’s best to follow the AV of Luke 9:10 here which reads (my italics) that the band of disciples
‘...went aside privately into a desert place belonging to the city called Bethsaida’
The Nestlé Greek text of this passage upon which the RSV is based removes any such mention that the area was only that which belonged to the city and runs that it was the city itself. Whatever the arguments for and against the alternate reading here, it has to be noted that the AV gives the best explanation of the text - namely that the place which the disciples and Jesus had now withdrawn to was regarded as being under the control of the city of Bethsaida but that it was also some distance away so that it was sparsely populated.
This incident is one of the very few recorded by all four Gospel writers and John seems to include it in His account (John 6:1-14) to go on to incorporate the teaching that Jesus gave the crowds on the true bread from Heaven when they caught up with Him back on the Galilean side of the lake (John 6:22ff) and which would lack a direct context if it was omitted.
The writer simply notes that they travelled to ‘the other side of the Sea of Galilee’ and gives the alternate name of the lake as ‘the Sea of Tiberias’. Apart from this, John gives no certain label that can be identified easily and no explanation as to why they had come there in the first place.
I have previously noted that the area must have been situated in a region where there were only small groups of houses and where it was fairly easy to move about unhindered - had they not been identified. There are a few other descriptions of the place which help us to think about what it must have been like.
That Jesus is recorded as going up onto the mountain on two instances - both as the crowds were gathering to Him (John 6:3) and after they were fed (Mtw 14:23, Mark 6:46, John 6:15) - should indicate to us that there were certainly ‘lumps’ nearby which were easily and quickly accessible. The region of Bethsaida is one which rises from the Galilean Sea level fairly quickly upwards, the Jordan and Lake being below sea level even at this point before flowing southwards into the Dead Sea.
We needn’t think that this was a place of only mountains and that there was nothing here that could remotely be considered as being flat because we’re told that there was a sufficient area upon which around five thousand men (and probably a greater number if women and children were present) could be seated to eat (John 6:10). It may even be that we should consider the place where they ate as being on a mountainside somewhere for John records that the decision to feed the people came about while they approached Jesus when He was sitting on the side of one (John 6:3).
We’re also told that there was ‘much grass in the place’ (John 6:10 see also Mtw 14:19, Mark 6:39) but this could be somewhat deceptive in its description for we also know that the Passover was nearly upon them (John 6:4), the festival which occurred at the very end of the rainy season when the wilderness areas can spring into life almost overnight at the beginning and then continue to flourish until the drought of the summer takes it’s toll on the vegetation.
We may be looking at a fairly barren area that came to be used by pastoral farmers only for certain months of the year and the place where they were would be more likely to have been relatively closely cropped by the grazing cattle, sheep and goats that would be led here to feed (I have dealt with this description more extensively in a subsequent section).
This could fix the location in any number of places even at great distances in land but that Jesus, having ascended the mountain to pray that evening after the feeding of the multitudes, was able to see the disciples making little progress as they attempted to go to the other side of the Lake (Mark 6:48) would point us toward a place which couldn’t be very far removed from the shores of the Sea of Galilee and certainly within the boundaries of the tetrarchy of Philip for reasons stated above.
Five thousand men certainly couldn’t be hidden on any mountainside and they must have been quite some sight to anyone who was in the immediate vicinity. It’s probably true to say that, when Jesus was in Galilee ministering to the people, you simply had to look around oneself to see the way great crowds of people were moving or look to the hills to see which one was discoloured by the garments of the multitudes to work out where Jesus and His followers were!
Although this scene is done ‘in a lonely place’, it must also have been observable by those on the west bank of the Lake who could have been five miles or less from the area.
And still they come...
Mtw 14:13-14, Mark 6:32-34, Luke 9:10-11, John 6:1-2
That’s the problem with sheep - they tend to follow the shepherd wherever he goes once they find him. It was also the case with Jesus and no matter that the thirteen of them were finding it nigh on impossible to even eat because of the ‘pressure of work’ (Mark 6:31), the crowds still came to Him to have their physical needs met. Matmor thinks that
‘...it may well be that some unrecorded action of Herod’s had convinced people that Jesus might not appear much more in Galilee’
and that they were concerned not to lose out on the chance to have their needs met and other miracles witnessed. While this is definitely a possibility, they appear to have followed Jesus rather because, as we’ll see below when we quote John
6:2, they came as a result of what they’d already seen on the west side of the Sea of Galilee.
Jesus’ withdrawal to the far side of the Lake has already been seen to be for the reason both that the disciples may find a short time of peace and that Jesus needs to move away from the attention that Herod is now giving to the movement and which appears to be increasingly unhealthy and potentially destructive.
Boat was probably the quickest way of escape for the thirteen of them and they must have hoped that the crowds would disperse to their homes and let them take some time to come to terms with what was going on. However, the trouble with the Sea of Galilee is that it isn’t too difficult for people to watch a departing ship and to follow it across the lake as it moves towards its destination - and this is exactly what they appear to have done (Mtw 14:13, Mark 6:33, Luke 9:11, John 6:2).
Mark 6:33 notes specifically that this wasn’t a gentle stroll after the boat but that (my italics)
‘...many saw them going, and knew them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them’
and John 6:2 informs us that the reason for them doing this was that they had witnessed
‘...the signs which He did on those who were diseased’
not because of the teaching that they had heard from Him, possibly preparing the way for John’s comments that, following the feeding of the multitudes, Jesus perceived that the crowds
‘...were about to come and take Him by force to make Him King’
In one sense, Jesus must have despaired that He was ever going to be able to care for the twelve disciples when the crowds were so anxious to follow after Him that they would use all their strength to be at the place where He was known to be heading for (an observation by Mark that must surely indicate that they couldn’t have been very far from their destination when they first set off - perhaps in the general vicinity of Capernaum - so that the sea journey was only a matter of two or three miles. Had they crossed into the Decapolis, it’s unlikely that the crowds could have made it to where the boat came ashore before it had arrived. Besides this, it may have been that the wind which they needed to move the boat across the lake was sufficiently calm for their journeying to be slow). It’s also fairly certain that, although many had arrived before Jesus landed, the people must have come in waves as slower and more frail Israelites found themselves lagging behind the younger and fitter - this would give good reason for the fact that the Gospel writers record the multitudes as coming to Jesus at different points in their narratives (Mtw 14:14, Mark 6:33, Luke 9:11, John 6:5).
Jesus could have taken the attitude that the situation was intolerable and departed immediately for another undisclosed location which was further away from the point at which they’d come to land but, instead, Mtw 14:14 records that
‘...He had compassion on them, and healed their sick’
and Mark 6:34 that they resembled
‘...sheep without a shepherd; and He began to teach them many things’
Luke 9:11 records both these aspects of healing and teaching and we should note that, although only healing is mentioned by the author of Matthew, even when this occurs elsewhere, we shouldn’t think of teaching being a part of His ministry that was suppressed while physical healing was taking place.
The disciples had been recognised as needing rest before Jesus had chosen to leave the east side for some peace and quiet (Mark 6:31) and He now appears to take it upon Himself to solely minister to the crowds that are gathering before Him.
This is only an inference, it’s true, for the disciples seem to have carried on the work of the Kingdom even when Jesus was absent from them (Mtw 17:14-16) and a silence on the part of the Gospel writers is by no means proof positive that they didn’t wander about the crowds ministering to those who had obvious needs.
I noted on my web page dealing with Jesus’ visit to Nazareth that this entire passage which runs to the end of Mtw 15:20 could be labelled as ‘Indifference and Attention’ and we’ve already observed the former label as being adequate in the case of those in His home town. The ‘attention’ of others, however, is the more common label to be applied, however, and following Herod’s gaze at the growing ministry which potentially threatened its success (Mtw 14:1-2), we now arrive at the general response of the ordinary men and women who seem to have come to Jesus regardless of what the religious leaders were beginning to say about Him (Mtw 12:24). They certainly haven’t put two and two together and realised the full implications of what this ministry actually meant (Mtw 12:23) and there are vast crowds of people who have rejected the message of repentance that’s being brought (Mtw 11:20-24), but they have decided that there’s power present in Jesus to meet their physical infirmities.
This is repeated in Mtw 14:35-36, an incident which occurs after the journey which isn’t followed by the multitudes who still think Jesus is on their side of the Lake having not witnessed Him get into the boat with the disciples (John 6:22-24).
I have previously noted that the mention of ‘grass’ in the Gospel accounts of this incident and of the statement from John 6:4 that the festival of Passover was drawing near is a good indication that it took place early on during the Spring of the year, and we may hazard a guess at March or April - but it could even have been late February if the Festival had been arranged on one of its earlier dates.
That the grass was ‘green’ according to Mark 6:39 is a good harmonisation with John’s account for the reader may have felt that the grass had been roasting under the hot sun during late spring and summer and was, even now, turning brown and discoloured, the seeds of which were maturing and falling to the ground.
‘Green’ grass, however, pulls us away from such an interpretation and we must picture a scene that is alive with the freshness of Spring, when there’s a newness in the air even amongst Creation as the air grows steadily warmer and the clouds begin to disperse to make way for the Summer sun.
With such a picture before us, it’s difficult in our own minds to conceive of Matthew’s use of a Greek word that the RSV translates as a ‘lonely’ place (Mtw 14:13) and which is used elsewhere to indicate a wilderness area such as that of Judea in Mtw 3:1.
The word (Strongs Greek number 2048) more rightly is used to denote a place of ‘abandonment’ as Kittels observes and is generally used not in connection with the type or lack of vegetation that’s found in the region but to the fact that it’s
‘...a desolate or thinly populated area...’
and which can, because of the sparsity of food plants, be used consequently of a desert place. The RSV is correct, however, to translate the word as ‘lonely’ for it’s to this sort of area that Jesus is concerned to withdraw with the disciples and the presence of some villages and towns close nearby gives the reader the impression that their were professions that could sustain the inhabitants rather than for it to be regarded as a bleak and barren sandy expanse where no one dared so much as tread (Mtw 14:15).
It’s quite true, however, that places such as the wilderness of Judea weren’t barren wildernesses throughout the years but that, when rain eventually reached them, they would suddenly become green and vibrant with plant life that had been hiding away until the water fell.
But the area near Bethsaida (Luke 9:10) seems to have been something very different to the Judean wilderness seeing as the quantity of rainfall here was some 500mm a year compared to the wildernesses mean of 100mm - and the latter’s precipitation often came condensed into one year!
Vines comments on the word group that
‘It does not always denote a barren region, void of vegetation; it is often used of a place uncultivated but fit for pasturage’
and this appears to have been the set up where Jesus and His disciples now find themselves. Although the population is somewhat sparse, there are sufficient growths of plant life to be able to maintain pastoral employment in some small measure and the ‘green grass’ that’s spoken of here was probably fairly well chewed down to soil level - at the very least, we shouldn’t think of the areas into which the crowds now come as over grown with four foot high stalks of grass and weed that are developing their seed heads and which were to ripen during summer.
If cattle were being fed here as seems likely, the areas on which it was near on impossible to have sown crops - either due to the undulating terrain or to the rocky nature of the soil - was probably fairly easy to travel across and, when the crowds sit down in anticipation of being fed (Mtw 14:19), there’s very little stopping them from doing so. That is, they didn’t peer out from behind stalks of grass wondering what was happening further up the hill which was being obscured from their vision.
John’s Gospel goes on from the incident of the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:1-14) to record a discussion Jesus had the following day about the significance of the bread which they’d eaten, which had been multiplied beyond natural possibility (John 6:25-71) and, if this incident is a good example of the way He drew out truth even from the miracles that were being performed in their midst, similar discussions must have arisen when signs and wonders were being performed throughout Galilee.
Although John’s recollections of the event are outside the scope of this commentary, we should note that Jesus is recorded as speaking of Himself as being the true manna from Heaven, a declaration which is soundly misunderstood but which points back to the children of Israel’s experience in the wilderness in Exodus chapter 16.
There are more than a few parallels here, however, which should be noticed. For instance, the incident takes place when the entire nation, having seen the great signs which God had done on their behalf in the land of Egypt, enter the area known as the wilderness of Sin (Ex 12:1) and begin to grow hungry because of the lack of provision (Ex 16:2-3). Even though the provision was miraculous in itself, there appears to have been a further wonder in the implied multiplication (and division!) of the food resources gathered for (Ex 16:18)
‘...when they measured it with an omer, he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack; each gathered according to what he could eat’
Therefore, even without Jesus’ exposition of the incident and how it related to Himself being the true manna which came down out of Heaven from God, the more perceptive reader and person who was present at the event, would already have begun to realise that God was on the move in their midst in like manner to the ways He’d dealt with their fathers.
But there’s another principle here (and yet one more which I intend dealing with under the next heading ‘Taking and Breaking’) which sees what’s transpiring in their midst as an indication that the prophetic Scriptures towards the nation are being fulfilled as they find an abundance of provision where there wasn’t anything that was remotely sufficient.
For a great many years, the nation of Israel had yielded nothing that was useful to the Lord and, ultimately, Jesus was to see it as a fig tree which He’d come to find useful fruit on but on which He found none (Mark 11:11-21 - see also Luke 13:6-9, Mtw 21:43). Here, however, the spiritual barrenness of the nation was being potentially transformed by the streams of Living Water (John 7:37-39) that were being poured out into the nation through Jesus’ ministry.
As Hosea recorded the Lord God as saying to the nation (Hosea 14:5-7)
‘I will be as the dew to Israel; he shall blossom as the lily, he shall strike root as the poplar; his shoots shall spread out...they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom as the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon’
concerning a time when desolation in matters of spirituality were to be removed from them by God’s provision into their barrenness. Likewise, Isaiah wasn’t concerned to speak of the natural wilderness areas of the nation when he proclaimed to them (Is 35:1-2) that
‘The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing...They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God’
and the phraseology makes it plain that it’s the people that are being referred to rather than to a desert land. Similar is Is 41:18-20 which speaks of God Himself bringing vegetation into deserted and desolate places by pouring water into them so that
‘...men may see and know, may consider and understand together, that the hand of the Lord has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it’
Here was Jesus, then, dispensing supernatural food through His teaching and healing to all who were coming to Him in the wilderness area near Bethsaida, paralleled in the food provision from a resource that was barely sufficient even to satisfy the band of disciples and Jesus themselves. Just as Jesus meets their hunger for natural food, so He also meets their desire for a supernatural provision from God the Father and, in so doing, provides sufficient resources to the barren wilderness of a nation that had yielded nothing of any great worth to the Farmer who’d come looking for spiritual worth.
That the grass was green and yet it was a wilderness and that the people had food provision and yet nothing which was sufficient are contrasts which point to a supernatural outworking of God’s power to bring about a blossoming of the nation before Him.
Unfortunately, as I’ve previously noted, although Israel should have grown and developed fruit useful to God, they failed to benefit by the resources given them and, instead, continued to be generally barren and of little value to the One who had called them into being through Abraham.
Taking and Breaking
We saw briefly in the previous section that the author of John’s Gospel decided to include the discussion that Jesus had with the crowds who came to Him and who had witnessed the miracle of the feeding of the multitudes the previous day on the opposite side of the Sea of Galilee (John 6:25-71) and where He spiritualised the incident and drew out implications from it as to how it testified to who He was and what He’d come to do.
This section is a further spiritual application of the feeding of the five thousand (a misnomer in reality for we know simply that there were about five thousand men and have no numerical assessment of the amount of women and children present - Mtw 14:21, John 6:10) but taken a different way to teach us concerning what Jesus requires that followers give to Him and what use He makes of it.
It would be very easy for the reader to think that this incident is nothing more than another recorded parable such as those we’ve previously encountered in Matthew chapter 13 and that the author of all four Gospels never once felt that it was a real event that people could have borne eyewitness to after Jesus’ death.
However, for all the spiritualisations that this passage lends itself to, one has to realise that to take the passage as anything other than a record of an event which all four writers believed to have occurred is to do it an injustice.
Neither is the belief that the people present didn’t actually eat of the food provided for them fair to the implication of the text as it stands. Matmor summarises one of these views well when he writes that
‘The miracle has been understood as a miracle that took place in people’s attitudes. When the small boy gave his lunch to Jesus, this reasoning runs, he shamed those many who were keeping the food they had brought with them well hidden lest they have to share it’
so that the miraculous multiplication of food was, rather, not a demonstration that God was bringing something into being from nothing (as in the Creation account - Genesis chapter 1) but that Jesus pricked the human conscience so that it gave to others what it had hoped to keep back for itself. There’s nothing too much that can be said against this theory from the text in question except that, seeing as the crowds speedily followed the boat as it crossed the lake (Mtw 14:13, Mark 6:33), there was little time to acquire any food provision and such considerations seem to have been far from their minds.
There’s also the belief that the meal was only a token one similar to present day communion when each person simply took a little of what was offered to assert their unity with the movement of the Kingdom of Heaven. Although this cuts against the traditional Jewish idea of sharing a meal together - for the Passover meal or Last Supper was quite an extravagant affair - it’s flatly contradicted by Jesus’ statement in John 6:26 where He speaks of the multitudes eating ‘to the full’.
But such viewpoints are normally accompanied by the explaining away of other miraculous records in the Gospels where Jesus, in the incident which follows this one (Mtw 14:22-33), manages to perceive where the sandbank is which makes Him look as if He’s walking on water. Peter, of course, begins to sink because either the bank begins to give way beneath him or because he doesn’t know where the edge of it is and so steps off it.
But all such arguing against the simple and obvious meaning of the text undermines not the truth of the Gospel account but the extent to which God will be experienced in the life of those who hold such a view. After all, if God isn’t the God who can create something out of nothing where a conclusion to a matter can’t possibly come about, then how can He heal? Or how can He deliver from danger? Or how could one man dying on a cross miraculously cleanse everyone who believes and so put them into a right relationship with God?
Therefore, what such belief does is to hinder one’s experience of the fulness of God - even to the point of it being impossible to accept the work for salvation of Jesus on the cross. In this situation it’s true that faith is the necessary possession which causes God to be received from fully.
So, affirming belief in the authenticity of Mtw 14:13-21, that it’s a true account of the feeding of over five thousand people by the miraculous multiplication of five loaves and two fish, we shall go on to look at a spiritualisation of the passage in question.
1. They gave to Jesus
Our resources are always too minute to satisfy the hunger of a needy world (see my web page here for a lighter view of this problem) - whatever we have must be brought to Jesus for Him to increase it. All we need to do is simply to be willing to give everything we have and are directly into His hands, whether that be in the shape of relationships (Luke 14:26), our own selves (Luke 14:27) or our material possessions (Luke 14:33). Notice in this Lukan passage the word ‘hate’ which often goes misinterpreted - it means roughly the same as the word translated ‘hated’ in Mal 1:2-3 which carries the meaning of something more akin to ‘loved less than’.
Our love for Jesus must be so intense that the love we have for both other people (which includes ourselves) and other things is as nothing compared to it. To say that all our belongings are Christ’s and yet not to give to Him what He asks from us shows that we’re unwilling to back up the words of our mouths with the actions of our lives.
It’s important in the Kingdom of God to let go of what we consider to be selfishly ours - whether they be material possessions, relationships or love of our own lives. This latter problem can manifest itself even in the pride of one’s ministry before God for God gives gifts to believers in order that they may ‘build up’ the body of Christ (I Cor 12:7, 14:12, 14:26, Eph 4:11-12), not that they should be kept for ourselves (Luke 19:11-27, Mtw 25:14-30). If we’ve received the ministry from God as a free gift, it’s only right that we neither glory in the fact of what we have or expect monetary payment for it before we allow it to function through us (I Cor 4:7, Mtw 10:8) - after all, ‘the ministry’ isn’t an employment position where we invest our time and resources to achieve more for ourselves but the outworking of what has already been done for us and which we commit ourselves to as a freewill response to the work of God in Christ.
In this story of the feeding of the multitudes, the disciples gave to Jesus what was theirs - though, strictly speaking, this came from a young lad (John 6:9) who appears to have been willing to make the food available to the disciples for their physical nourishment.
God will always ask believers to give Him what they have (Mtw 14:18) and it should normally be by a revelation that they give to Him what is theirs and not in any legalistic sense, devoid of the Spirit of life. The believer should be careful never to mix up what they feel obligated to do by a written command (which may or may not be God’s direct word to them) with the anointed and life-changing word that comes in an instant from the presence of God Himself.
Notice in Gen 22:1-2 that Abraham was told what to give God by a direct personal message to him. He didn’t wake up one morning and think
‘I’ll offer my son as a burnt offering to God today to show Him how much I love Him’
but responded positively in obedience when he perceived what it was that God required.
In our current passage, we need to note simply that the disciples gave to Jesus what was theirs (which, in turn, seems to have been given to them) because He asked them for it - and that they realised that the provision they had was insufficient to meet the needs of the people that were gathered about them.
2. The Principle
We’ve noted above that it’s only by a revelation that a believer should give to God that area of their lives that He specifically asks for. There’s a sense in which everything belongs directly to God to be used for His will and purpose once a person comes to place their faith in the work of Jesus on the cross and that, whenever we use anything from that time onwards, we should seriously consider just how God would have it to be used.
Although Abraham was given a son, Isaac, his willingness to offer him back to God (Gen 22:1-19) was proof enough that he comprehended that all things are His (Ps 24:1-2) and that there’s nothing - not even the treasures of one’s own heart - that should be withheld from Him.
But what happens when believers offer up to God those things that He requires from them? This is what we’ll deal with here and, although we’re taking the passage in Matthew as our explanation, the spiritualisation in this section shouldn’t be limited solely to external physical objects that are given over to the Lord for His use.
Offering to God the internal and hidden parts of one’s life are just as necessary so that He might be sovereign over all things in all people. So, for instance, one’s imagination and intellect which are integral parts of what makes a human need to be given over to God for His use and which, in themselves, are not sinful components of a person’s nature and yet, further, that one’s aspirations and dreams - even those idols which are held within the heart - must be submitted to the will of God and given to Him (Rom 6:13, 12:1).
a. Jesus takes it
The first thing to note is that, when a believer offers to God what is required from him, He’ll take it freely. This might sound like a silly sentence and an unnecessary point but there remain many who don’t feel that their simple offering to God from what they have is sufficient enough for Him to be willing to accept it.
After all, God is so ‘big’ and awesome, what has He to do with the smallest of offerings?
It was a good job that the widow had no such preconceived ideas in her own head when she approached the offering box to put in her two coins for God’s use (Luke 21:1-4). In the grand scale of things, her money meant very little for they represented the smallest of percentages of the total amount of offerings that were being collected - but, to her personally, they represented a massive proportion of the earthly possessions which she owned.
God isn’t too bothered by the actual size of our offering but, in the case of the widow in Luke, upon the offering in relation to the sum total of all that we are. Even the little that we think is unacceptable becomes a point of example to others and God readily receives it for He knows what it actually represents.
b. Our offering blesses God
Some translations render what next happened with the words that Jesus ‘blessed it’, the ‘it’ referring to the bread and fish that were taken up, but the text actually records simply that Jesus ‘blessed’ and this would be the normal practice for the Jew who gave thanks to God - a blessing of God for the provision would be spoken rather than a pronouncement over the food to bless it.
According to Mathag, the traditional and usual blessing said at the time of a meal ran
‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who bringest forth bread from the earth’
and the Jew was obligated according to Rabbinic tradition to utter it even to the point of returning to the place where he ate the meal if he forgot to do so when he first began to eat (Berakoth 8:7 ). The limit placed on time was that he needed to return
‘...until the food in his bowels is digested’
though just how this might be ascertained, I have no way of knowing. It’s probably unlikely that Jesus used this exact verbal formula but the point is that He wouldn’t have blessed the food but blessed God for providing it for them.
The disciples may have thought their Master to have rather lost it in what He was now doing but, equally so, they may have wondered just what was going on. I noticed in the film ‘Jesus’ that Jesus lifts two baskets up to heaven, gives thanks and then, when they’re returned to the disciples’ gaze, there’s already been a miraculous increase in the amount of loaves and fish, thus stimulating them to believe that the same thing would take place as they distributed the resources amongst the crowd.
This is a clear interpretation of the Scripture, however, that relies not on anything being recorded in the text. What the Gospels actually record is that, after the blessing, Jesus gave the food to the disciples who then gave them to crowd with the implication that it was as they distributed them amongst the people that the miracle took place - it appears that they would have been initially perplexed with Jesus’ instruction rather than realised that something great was about to transpire.
Whatever, when a believer acknowledges that what they have is insufficient for the situation and they offer to Him the little that they do have, they’re living in a state of humility and it blesses God that they’re turning to Him for help in the situation.
It may seem strange to some believers but God takes a very positive attitude towards His followers, rejoicing over them even when they aren’t particularly doing very much (Phil 4:18, Luke 15:7, Zeph 3:17-18, Is 62:5, 65:19). So long as there’s a willingness to give what little one has for the Lord’s use, God takes delight and, from this point, the miraculous begins to happen.
c. Jesus breaks it
Having been given the bread and fish, Jesus breaks them up before handing them back to the disciples.
Self, sin and satan - a believer’s three enemies - all must be broken from a disciple’s life in Christ so that ministries can be more effective, and so that what they’ve given to Christ may be increased many times over. What often holds back revival and renewal from a nation - even from individual areas and households - is the believer for, until they find a breaking free from those things which hold them fast, there seldom can be a sustained increase in their own lives which will overflow to others round them. Parts of believers - some of which are so integral a part of who the person is that they may wonder how they might ever do without them - need to be broken.
Unsurprisingly, many followers are unwilling and fearful to let God break areas of their lives. But what must be remembered is that, firstly, there’s a total difference between having lives broken up due to sin and having areas broken up to release more of the fragrance and resource of Christ.
Sin can cause emotional, physical and mental breakdowns - not that all these three are necessarily sin-related but they can be a conclusion of a life that’s set itself in hardening the heart against God’s will, resisting God’s purposes to the point where there occurs a limited judgment upon a person’s life.
Fundamentally, satan is the author of the breakdown, not God. Judas, satan’s instrument against Jesus, was used to attempt to destroy Him but the consequence of his actions were such that he ended up destroying himself (Luke 22:3-6, Mtw 27:3-5).
On the other hand, allowing God to break up an area of one’s life as it’s offered to Him, releases the provision and multiplication of God into it. When areas of a believer’s life are given over to Jesus, He never breaks the person - that only occurs on occasions when a follower refuses to open up to Him and the life is found to be both crushed and broken (Prov 17:22, 18:14). In Jer 19:10-13, God shows through the prophet that He’ll take steps to break the people because they’ve rebelled against His will for their lives and this is individually possible in people who know what God requires from them but who are not willing to follow after it.
If love pervades our relationships, there will never come a time where one person deliberately hurts the other, but at all times will have the interests of the other person close to their heart. So it is with Jesus.
Another parallel in the NT which again needs to be spiritualised is the picture of the alabaster flask of perfume (Mark 14:1-9, John 12:1-8) which needed to be broken before the fragrance which was contained within could be released throughout the house.
We should note also here that, sometimes, a break takes place in a believer’s life but for their benefit even when they fail to follow after God wholly because of a weakness or problem in their lives which they’re unable to come to terms with.
Such was the case in the life of Peter who found that the anguish of denying Jesus on the night before the crucifixion brought him face to face with the person he really was - but from which he’d been trying to hide - so that Jesus was able to restore him as a disciple with even greater perception than he had before.
Certainly, Peter still made mistakes - and he appears in the Book of Acts to sometimes be as negatively impetuous as always - but, without the break in his life, he could never have gone on to achieve what he did at a later time (see my notes on the web page where I’ve dealt with this subject extensively).
Sometimes, the break will be in the form of a cessation of ministry where it appears as if what one had has now dwindled away and disappeared and this state of affairs may go on for a period of years. But the ministry returns at the right time and with a greater depth and provision upon it than it ever could have had if it had simply been allowed to continue unbroken and unmultiplied.
d. Jesus gave it back
Just to give to God and to find that the area is broken and removed from the believer would be to find that one’s life would become increasingly empty. It’s a characteristic of God, however, that what He takes and breaks, He also multiplies and returns to the disciple so that the resource is even more able to meet need.
Jesus gave the disciples back the provision but there was still a need for the disciples to give what they had away - even when they must have wondered just what had changed. However, now the disciples were able to feed over five thousand people and had enough provision left to have a basket of it each for themselves (Mtw 14:20 - twelve baskets for twelve disciples)! It wasn’t until they started giving away that new resource, however, that they began to realise that it was going further than they could have thought possible - as opposed to the film ‘Jesus’ that I noted above which implies that they already witnessed an increase before Jesus broke the bread and before they began handing out the meagre resources they had to the crowds.
Although Luke 6:38 is primarily spoken in the context of judging one another, it appears equally relevant in the context of giving over to God what one has, where resources become multiplied beyond measure in His hands. When Peter observed that the disciples had left everything to follow after Jesus (Mark 10:28-30), Jesus noted that what had been given up would be restored in this life with an increase added to it and probably more than they would ever have imagined to have been possible.
Even in the incident when Abraham was asked by God to give back to Him what had been given (Gen 22:1-19), we find that an increase is observable. It seems likely that the reason for such a request was to make sure that Abraham gave up the high regard he had for his son which seemed to border on idolatry and to get his sight back onto the One who had given him the gift in the first place.
That removed, the blessing upon Abraham increased (Gen 22:15-17) where we find the promise given to him also being extended. Not only is this the first place where God takes upon Himself an oath to show the surety of what He’s about to declare but we see the additional promise that
‘...your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies’
thrown in for good measure.
Having said all this, we must remember, as we noticed at the beginning, that giving to God in this manner comes about primarily as a result of hearing what God has to say to us and of responding to that. Some of the ‘teachers’ I’ve had the misfortune to watch on the tv have gone on to the point of asserting that whatever is given to them by the people who watch will be returned with an increase to the giver in a short space of time, thus prompting larger and larger offerings to be received for whatever ‘work’ the speaker has in mind.
But this is like dangling a carrot in front of a donkey which can never be reached even though one attempts to move towards it. The first principle in the feeding of the five thousand was that Jesus asked for what the disciples had and, acknowledging that it was too meagre to meet the need, they gave in accordance with His request.
Just giving in the hope that one might receive more than is given - although it does sometimes ‘work’ - is dangerous to say the least and presumptuous at best.
If we were to ask the question as to who fed the five thousand, what should be our answer?
While it’s certain that Jesus provided for it, it was the disciples who fed them out of what they had.
The disciples, then, to whom Jesus gave the instruction that they were to give the crowds something to eat (Mtw 14:16), were the ones who satisfied the hunger of the people by the provision given to them by God (Mtw 14:19-20).
The Church’s call is identical to this even though we have more often than not failed to fulfil it. That is, through what we receive back from God, greatly multiplied, we are to meet the needs (whether physical, emotional or spiritual) of the world.
As an individual fellowship in a specific geographic location, each grouping of believers is responsible to meet the needs of the community in which we live and not leave it to more recognised bodies such as the welfare systems of our nation, psychiatrists, doctors and the like because these groups of people - although doing a job which is useful - are necessarily taking the place of the ministry of Christ.
But this doesn’t come about by simply going out into the streets and expecting provision to be poured out through us - there’s a Church need that must be satisfied very often before the need in the world can be met. That need is to have the individual and corporate areas of our lives given over to God and broken that the blessing and multiplication of God can begin to flow out from them and into a world in need.
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