Summary of the text:
Context: The feeding of the 5,000 in Matthew occurs within a section where questions of Jesus’ identity are heightened. Two incorrect answers of who Jesus truly is are given in 13:55 (“isn’t this the carpenter’s son?”) and 14:2 (where Herod thinks Jesus is John the Baptist raised from the dead). The feeding is followed immediately (14:22) by the account of Jesus walking on water which culminates with those in the boat worshipping him as the Son of God (14:33). Having presented the second major block of Jesus’ teaching in chapters 10-13, this section of Matthew’s narrative shows Jesus at the height of his healing ministry and culminates in Peter’s declaration of Jesus as the Messiah (16:16) and the transfiguration (17:1-13).
All of this context shapes how we read the feeding narrative. Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness is prompted by the death of John the Baptist, who Jesus will describe as Elijah who has already come unrecognized (17:12-13). Twice already Matthew has used this combination of “heard” and “withdrew” as a response to danger (2:22 and 4:12; see also 12:15), the context suggests that Herod’s actions towards John mean danger for Jesus now.
God in the Wilderness: Jesus withdraws to a “deserted place” (NRSV). The Greek ἔρημος (deserted/desolate) also translates as “wilderness.” This calls to mind firstly John, the voice crying in the wilderness (3:3), but also Israel’s period of exile, wandering in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. Jesus wants to be alone (perhaps with his disciples), but the crowds won’t allow this. Rather than sending the crowds away (v15), Jesus has compassion on them; his heart goes out to them and he heals the sick amongst them (v14).
There are suggestions here of God providing manna in the wilderness during the exodus (more fully brought out in the parallel at John 6:1-15) and closer parallels to Elisha’s miraculous feeding miracle in 2 Kings 4:42-44. More important in the Matthean context is “the absolute sovereignty of Jesus, who concretely demonstrates his power over illnesses and hunger.” In this episode we see God’s compassion and provision embodied in Jesus, who provides food in abundance “without money and without price” (Isa 55:1). The abundant feeding from a small amount is perhaps a sign of the breaking through of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is like a small mustard seed which grows into a large plant (Matt 13:31ff).
As well as looking back to God’s provision in the OT, this episode looks forward to Jesus’ provision for his disciples and church at the Last Supper. The sequence of verbs “took,” “blessed,” “broke,” and “gave” (v19) is identical to Matt 26:26. Might this suggest that the church today is also a recipient of Jesus’ abundant gift in this meal? It is not wrong to ask whether we should serve as the disciples are commanded to or look on others with compassion as Jesus does. But we might also see ourselves amongst the crowd, as objects of Jesus’ compassion and provision today. As in biblical times, the wilderness and desolate places of our lives are places where we can expect to be encountered by God still today.
Jesus, Discipleship, and Faith: While the crowd intrudes on Jesus’ solitude, they are also “following” him. Six other times in Matthew crowds follow Jesus, usually related to his healing and teaching (4:25; 8:1; 12:15; 19:2; 20:29; 21:9). Could it be that those in the crowd have some sense of who Jesus is, and are on the path of discipleship?
From the disciples themselves, we get a different picture. Where Jesus has compassion on the crowds, the disciples want to send them away (v15). Rather than responding with obedience, the disciples question Jesus’ command: “you give them something to eat” (v16 – the ‘you’ is emphasised in the Greek). They do not address him as “Lord,” as is the case elsewhere in Matthew. The response of v17 – “we have nothing here but five loaves and two fish” ignores the fact that Jesus is also present with them. Perhaps the disciples still have little faith (cf. 8:23-27; 14:29-31), not even the size of a mustard seed (13:33; 17:20).
Nonetheless, Jesus takes what little they do have and in his hands it becomes all that is necessary for many to be blessed. We should not allow the simplicity of Jesus’ instruction to “bring [the loaves and fish] here to me” (v18) to pass us by. The disciples bring what little they have and place it in Jesus hands, despite their earlier objections.
As we preach, we might note the faith of the crowd, who trust that Jesus will have compassion, heal, and provide for them. We might also notice the uncertainty of the disciples, who nevertheless follow Jesus’ command and place what little they have in his hands. This too, is faith. What we should not miss is the object of this faith. It is Jesus who has compassion, who heals, who takes the disciples’ small offering and provides for many. Just who is this man, and what does he mean for us today?
 Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8-20, ed. Helmut Koester, trans. James E. Crouch, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 315.
Jacob Traeger is a Church Planter and Mission Facilitator in Canberra, Australia with the Lutheran Church of Australia. He currently serves at Immanuel Woden Valley Lutheran Church. Jacob studied Jacob is passionate about equipping God’s people to live all of their lives out of their identity as children of God, as well as pointing those who don’t know God yet towards their creator and savior.
Jacob is married to Kate, whom he met while studying at university in Adelaide. They enjoy playing board games and hiking in Canberra’s bushland.
Jen Pollock Michel
For as long as there is a compassionate Father, there will be a home, a table, and a feast. This was Israel’s great consolation: exile was the middle act of the drama, but it was not the final scene.
Key Sermon Illustration
The Discipline of Dependence
I turn to John Wyatt [professor of ethics and perinatology at University College Hospital in London] for an eloquent expression of the priority of dependence: “God’s design for our life is that we should be dependent.”
We come into this world totally dependent on the love, care and protection of others. We go through a phase in life when other people depend on us. And most of us will go out of this world totally dependent on the love and care of others.
And this is not an evil, destructive reality. It is part of the design, part of the physical nature that God has given us. I sometimes hear old people, including Christian people who should know better, say, “I don’t want to be a burden to anyone else. I’m happy to carry on living so long as I can look after myself, but as soon as I become a burden I would rather die.”
But this is wrong. We are all designed to be a burden to others. You are designed to be a burden to me and I am designed to be a burden to you. And the life of the family, including the life of the local church family, should be one of “mutual burdensomeness.” “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).
Christ himself takes on the dignity of dependence. He is born a baby, totally dependent on the care of his mother. He needs to be fed, he needs his bottom to be wiped, he needs to be proper up when he rolls over. And yet he never loses his divine dignity.
And at the end, on the cross, he again becomes totally dependent, limbs pierced and stretched, unable to move. So in the person of Christ we learn that dependence does not, cannot, deprive a person of their dignity, of their supreme worth. And if dependence was appropriate for the God of the universe, it is certainly appropriate for us.
Taken from The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling by John R. W. Stott Copyright (c) 2010 by John R. W. Stott. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com