Behind the story, a deeper look at Jesus feeding the 5000 in John 6
There aren’t many stories from the first three gospels that John repeats in his book. Here in chapter 6 we have both the recounting of Jesus feeding the five thousand and walking on water. With the other books already in circulation, John didn’t feel the need to include all the same details. In order to get a fuller picture of what was happening on that eventful day, it will be helpful to read the account from each of the other gospel writer’s point of view.
First, Matthew starts off with the tragic news that John the Baptist had been recently beheaded. After they bury the body, John’s disciples go to find Jesus. Not only was the Baptist a family member, but he had played an important role for Jesus and his ministry. Anyone who has lost someone close to them can understand Jesus’ desire to be alone with only his closest friends.
Matthew 14: 9 – 16 –“The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison… (John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus. When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”
In Mark we learn that Jesus had sent the disciples out in pairs to teach the people to repent and heal the sick. He also gave them the ability to drive out demons. They are probably getting back to Jesus just after John’s disciples come with the news of the Baptist’s death. They are excited to report about their trips and haven’t had a chance to eat yet. Reading Mark, you get the feeling that there is a lot of commotion going on at that moment. It is understandable that Jesus would want to take them away to a quiet place. He wants to hear what they have to say, and he has some bad news for them.
Mark 6: 6 – 13 – “Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he sent them out two by two and gave them authority over evil spirits. These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff-no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave, as a testimony against them.”
Mark 6: 30 – 44 – “The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even get a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”
Luke also tells us about the journey Jesus sent the twelve on, and the beheading of John the Baptist. With this information, we can have a new appreciation for the events leading up to the miracle of Jesus feeding the 5000. Suddenly the account in John becomes even more amazing. We can now understand that the disciples were hungry, exhausted from their journeys, emotionally overwhelmed, and possibly in shock over the news of John the Baptist’s death. They needed the peace and quiet and the alone time Jesus suggested. I can only imagine how disappointed they were when they saw the crowds. I think that Jesus was also looking forward to some down time so he could grieve his friend’s death. But when he saw the crowds waiting, he had compassion for them. He put aside his own desires to minister to them. This is a good lesson for us. How do we react when someone needs us and we just don’t think we have anything left to give? Do we get grumpy and disagreeable, like the disciples? Or do we offer kindness and compassion, like Jesus did?