All of Jesus’ miracles are, well, miraculous. But some seem to invite more reflection than others. Two of the miracles that have always stood out to me are incredibly similar: the feeding of the five-thousand-plus and the feeding of the four thousand-plus. These have appealed to me both for their physical and spiritual import, but also for the debate that they spark.
A Bible Mistake?
And there is a lot of debate. And not entirely unwarranted. Why are there two mass feedings recorded in Jesus’ ministry? As I studied in preparation, I found that some say that Matthew mistakenly wrote the same story twice. Other people say that one of his sources included a story about Jesus feeding five thousand, and another source included a story about Jesus feeding four thousand. Matthew couldn’t figure out which was correct, so he just threw them both in. Others say that someone copying Matthew accidentally included the same story twice, with minor changes. Still others say that both stories are just fictionalized attempts to make Jesus seem greater than he actually was.
All of these attempts at explanation miss some critical elements:
- Matthew wasn’t an idiot: It’s exceedingly unlikely that Matthew would have either mistakenly wrote the same miracle twice in such a short span and with the differences entailed. Nor would he have just thrown two similar stories in if he was working from the source material. No, Matthew was meticulous in his writing, always pointing each subsection towards the main theme: Jesus is different, the kingdom he rules over is different, Jesus changes everything you thought you knew about God and his people.
- This isn’t just Matthew writing, but the Holy Spirit inspiring: It is important to affirm what Scripture itself indicates: the Holy Spirit had a direct role in the writing of the Bible. 66 books make up the Protestant canon. These books were written by about 44 different human beings, with their individual personalities, backgrounds, and styles coming through. But, as 2 Timothy 3:16-17 affirms, they were also written under inspiration by the Holy Spirit. God himself, guiding, directing, breathing, guarding the words that were being written.
- There are too many differences between the two stories for it to be a copying error: It is easy to make a mistake when you’re copying large sections of text. Remember, no printers, not printing presses, no means of reproducing text than by hand-copying it. And there were mistakes made in copying. Sometimes, when we look at ancient copies of Scripture, we see where a scribe omitted a letter. We see a repeated word. In one instance, we see a scribe who copied the same line three times in a row before moving on. Copying errors did happen. But not like this in Matthew, not similar stories but with different details.
Errors In The Bible?
Let me interrupt this post by briefly talking about the issue of errors in the Bible. There were copying errors in the Bible. But that doesn’t disprove the accuracy of the Bible. Why? Because scholars can compare the different copies we do have, note any errors, and by putting all the similarities together, know with almost one hundred percent certainty what the original said. Look at it this way: people have no problem accepting other ancient books even when they have copyist errors. Why? Because they can compare the copies to other copies and figure out what the original said.
All it means is that you have to have multiple copies. Maybe people reject the Bible as accurate but accept other ancient works. Let’s look at some works that people have no trouble accepting, and then let’s look at the Bible:
- Plato: We have 7 manuscripts. That’s enough for scholars to compare them and present the text as historically reliable, accurate, and worthy of study.
- Aristotle: 49 manuscripts. That’s like seven times as many as Plato.
- Homer’s Iliad: 643 manuscripts. That’s like 92 times as many as Plato.
- The New Testament: 5686 manuscripts. 812 times as many as Plato.
And the copying errors in the 5686 copies are minor: 99.5% of the text is the exact same.
So, while copies of the Bible sometimes have errors, we can compare the various copies and thus trust that what we read is accurate to the originals and that the originals were without error.
Back To Two Feedings:
Which brings us back to Matthew. If Matthew wasn’t an idiot, and the Holy Spirit was inspiring what he wrote, and there’s no reason to think that a copyist botched up by sharing the same story twice, so we have to determine why both are there. Why did Jesus feel the need to feed one group of five thousand and one group of four thousand? Why did Matthew feel the need to record both?
Let’s look at the two:
The Feeding of the Five Thousand-plus (Matthew 14:13-21)
 Now when Jesus heard this [the death of John the Baptist], he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.  When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick.  Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”  But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”  They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.”  And he said, “Bring them here to me.”  Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.  And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over.  And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
The Feeding of the Four Thousand-plus (Matthew 15:29-39)
 Jesus went on from there and walked beside the Sea of Galilee. And he went up on the mountain and sat down there.  And great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and many others, and they put them at his feet, and he healed them,  so that the crowd wondered, when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled healthy, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they glorified the God of Israel.  Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.”  And the disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?”  And Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.”  And directing the crowd to sit down on the ground,  he took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.  And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces left over.  Those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children.  And after sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.
So why two stories? Because Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is revealing that Jesus wasn’t just a Jewish Messiah: he is the king of a kingdom that is offered to people of every tribe and tongue and nation. Jews and Gentiles are both the recipients of his provision. Consider:
The Number of Baskets:
- The five thousand-plus: 12 baskets gathered up = 12 tribes of Israel
- The four thousand-plus: 7 baskets gathered up = the seven nations (Deut 7:1 – “When the LORD your God brings you into the land where you are entering to possess it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and stronger than you,”)
The Words Used:
- The five thousand-plus: “The hour is late” was a common Jewish phrase used to remind people it was time for evening prayers.
- The four thousand-plus: vs. 31 “They glorified the God of Israel.” These are people whose praise of Israel’s God is noteworthy, i.e. these people typically worshiped other, Gentile gods.
The Canaanite Woman:
Another helpful interpretative key is found in verses 21-29 of chapter 15, immediately preceding the feeding of the four thousand-plus:
 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon.  And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.”  But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.”  He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”  And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Matthew takes pains to note that Jesus goes to a Gentile region and meets a Gentile woman. Many are shocked by Jesus’ response (or lack thereof) to the woman, but what would have shocked the Jews of his day would have been his willingness to even go to the region and risk running into a Gentile.
Jesus is doing a little bit of theater for the disciples’ sake (and for ours). He uses the parable of the master’s bread and anticipates her response about master’s dogs to connect the encounter to both of the feeding miracles. He is illustrating the truth: He is the bread of life for all the lost sheep of Israel, whether they are native Jews or elect Gentiles (Romans 9:6-7). The disciples interpreted his statement of ministering only to the lost sheep of Israel in an ethnic sense: Jesus intended it to be interpreted in a spiritual sense.
The Disciple’s (Apparent) Forgetfulness
 And the disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?”
Much homiletic hay is made at the disciples’ expense: “Can you believe how dumb they are?” “You’ll never guess what the disciples forgot this week!” But, in this instance, it’s misplaced. The disciples, for all their failings, are not simpletons. They would have had no trouble remembering the previous feeding when Jesus asks them about food for the second feeding.
The logical explanation is not that they forgot, but that the context of the second feeding led them to imagine that the same miracle would not be performed in this instance. They couldn’t imagine Jesus performing the same miracle, one that harkened back to God’s provision of bread from heaven for the Israelites, for the Gentile crowd in front of them.
Their doubt was not founded in forgetfulness but in a failure to see the scope of Jesus’ kingdom. They knew from prior experience that Jesus could do it, but they doubted that he would do it. But Jesus was not just a Jewish Messiah: he is the King of Kings, sovereign of a nation of people drawn from every nation.
Jesus’ Injunction Against the Teaching of the Pharisees
Particularly noteworthy in this discussion is Jesus’ reminder to his disciples in chapter 16 of Matthew:
 When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread.  Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, “We brought no bread.”  But Jesus, aware of this, said, “O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread?  Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?  Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered?  How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”  Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
What was Jesus reminding them of? His two miraculous feedings. And, he is explicitly connecting the symbolic numbers of each miracle with his own teaching and warning them to avoid the Pharisees’ teaching.
What was the teaching of the Pharisees? In short:
- God didn’t care how you treated other people so long as you mask it with religious promises and rules.
- God needs some strong men to exercise power over others for him. The Pharisees volunteered. They had to make sure other people kept the rules.
- God loves the Jews. Avoid Gentiles at all costs, don’t interact with them: they’re inferior.
Jesus tells his disciples: “Don’t buy it. Don’t buy the teaching of the Pharisees. I am the Bread of Life.” He warns his disciples not to be fooled by false piety. He reminds them that these two miracles demonstrate how his own teaching was the polar opposite of the Pharisees’. This is why, for all the debate about why there are two feeding miracles, we need to come back and simply own his message for us today:
- Don’t think that you make God happy by keeping rules. You don’t. You make God happy by accepting His Son as the Bread of Life. God doesn’t care about the religious promises you make or the religious rules you keep: he expects you to love him and love others. Heart, not words. Character, not pragmatism.
- Don’t think that you make God happy by making sure other people keep rules. You don’t. You make God happy by sharing His Son as the Bread of Life. God doesn’t need strong men in power: he loves to use the weak things of the world to demonstrate his power and salvation.
- Jesus is the Bread of Life for all people. He fills those who know him and invites those who don’t to be filled by him. God doesn’t love one ethnicity, gender, or “tribe” more than another: he offers love and acceptance to everyone who submits to Jesus as Lord, regardless of their ethnicity.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28
Jesus is the Bread of Life for all people.