(Preach, The Seed, 2023-04-23)

Other than the resurrection itself, this is the only miracle to be found in all four gospels. It is the account of how Jesus feeds 5,000 people with 5 loaves and 2 fishes.

This account can be found in: John 6v1-15, Matthew 14v13-21, Mark 6v32-44 & Luke 9v10-17.

All four passages bear all the hallmarks of eyewitness accounts, each notices something different, or describes the event differently. I will be reading from and referring to John’s account, but do feel free to follow along in one of the other accounts, it is often interesting and informative to see the differences and nuances between gospel records. Why one gospel writer chooses to write down a detail where another doesn’t consider it important can help us to better understand something of God’s love and nature. So while I am focusing on John’s gospel, I have had an eye on what the other gospel writers have recorded.

Read John 6v1-15 📖

John doesn’t record this next detail—Matthew & Mark do: Jesus is seeking quiet and privacy at this point. He’s trying to withdraw to recharge his batteries, and the crowds get wind of his whereabouts and follow him. Jesus doesn’t send the crowds away—He preaches to them. In fact, Mark records his motivation, that He had compassion on them because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

We all need to understand that Jesus will never turn us away. Many people have a belief that they are not important enough to trouble God, or that their particular problem is far too inconsequential for him to be bothered with.

I have met people who will articulate that they don’t feel they can come to God with their anxieties and requests. After all, Paul writes in Ephesians 6v13 that we should come to the Lord “with all kinds of prayers and requests” and in Philippians 4:6 not to be “anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God”.

Neither of these verses give any hint at all that God is too busy with more significant matters. If you take nothing else away this morning, understand that Jesus will never send you away, He does not withdraw from people, He has compassion on them and ministers to them.

It is because of the crowds who followed Him that there are so many people who find themselves in the position of being without food. They are numbered at about 5,000. With so many people, the disciples anticipate a problem developing and ask Jesus to send the people away to eat. There is a conversation between Jesus and the disciples, the “packed lunch” is presented and the miracle done.

Most preaches I’ve heard about this account are about the provision of God, about how he can take a small boy’s basket of loaves and fishes and feed 5,000 people with it. I may touch on this aspect towards the end of what I believe God would have me say this morning, but initially, I want to think about the account from a different angle…

Why do people follow Jesus?

Why were the crowds following Jesus? There are at least three reasons observed by John here. Two are in this passage, one comes immediately after.

  1. John 6v2 “a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick”.
  2. John 6v14 “After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself”.

In the “bread of life” passage which follows, Jesus shows He understands their motives for following him then …

  1. John 6v26 “Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed, but because you ate the loaves and had your fill”.

All three motives have a common element, the reason the crowds followed Jesus was inherently selfish, they did not recognise Him as the Messiah, they followed him because (as Jesus pointed out) they saw miraculous signs.

People have many reasons for following Jesus. The disciples followed Jesus because He had called them to do so, yet the crowds did not, they were chasing him for other reasons. We need to understand that there are many reasons why people follow Jesus. This is also true today, there are many people who go to church, who call themselves Christian, and there are probably as many motivations for following Jesus as there are people who follow him!

For some, they have no faith at all, they come to church and join in with what is happening, but it is not because they believe or that they want to come to faith — they have other motivations:

  1. “Ate the bread and had your fill” we look to the church for some kind of financial or practical help.
  2. “Intended to make him king by force” sometimes our lot is not what we want it to be, and we look to Jesus to change it.

It is important to understand that not everyone follows Jesus for the same reasons. This is important to understand, particularly if you’re not a believer or someone who goes to church: So many judge Christians because of their lifestyles, yet not everyone in church is a believer.

Although many millions of genuine disciples of Jesus gather and work together for Him, there are others in churches who are there for other reasons. Some because they are lonely, and the church offers fellowship, others because they get what you might describe as a “rush” from the worship, others love the academic discipline of studying and understanding the Bible. Still others because they can get a form of status in the church they can only dream of elsewhere.

Then there are people who might not actually believe, but will go to church for other reasons. The most obvious examples are those who use the church only to mark what we would describe as a rite of passage, such as to get married, to have children christened or at the end of life when they die. Some feel guilty if they don’t go at Christmas, Harvest, Easter or Remembrance Day, so they will go perhaps twice or three times a year.

Others go merely for the practical help that churches offer. So, for example, in the UK, many schools are given funding and support by churches, and going to the local church will place your child at the front of the queue for such a school.

Many of the social and practical help which many charities give all over the world was inspired by the Christian faith. They were launched because of someone’s faith, they are mostly or wholly supported by funds given by Christian people, and only relatively recently has such a motivation to help been viewed with suspicion or skepticism.

Nowadays, often attempts by Christian organisations to care are viewed as disingenuous or something with an ulterior motive. A really recent example happened during the height of the pandemic a couple of years ago. Franklin Graham’s organisation Samaritan’s Purse set up a hospital in New York for people infected and dying. The Mayor of New York was happy for them to provide beds and doctors and nurses, but was exceptionally vocal about ‘they’d better not spread their bigoted, homophobic ideology here — or else!’ In other words, typical of our modern age, he said, “give us your stuff, but only on our terms!”

How do we respond to such people – how do we respond to people who come to church or have only selfish motives for coming close to Jesus or to the church? Do we do what the disciples suggest and “send them away”?

After all, frequently, like the disciples, our resources are limited. We just don’t have enough to make a difference. We and our churches quite literally refuse people access to Jesus because we don’t think we are enough, we must learn that it is Jesus in us who must be enough, not us! When people come to us, we must understand that they are actually coming to Jesus. Therefore, to a degree OUR resources are irrelevant, God does not expect YOU to meet the needs of people that only Jesus can meet!

These times are opportunities to introduce people to Jesus and minister to them. Am I/are we prepared to put aside theological opinion at such times, to allow people to hear the gospel? What use is my sound theology if it is so harsh at that point that it sends the people away instead of showing, and teaching them about the love of God through Jesus Christ.

NB. DO NOT MISUNDERSTAND—I am not suggesting we compromise on the truth. As an example, adultery is wrong, it is against God’s law and an unrepentant adulterer will one day face the judgment of God one day. But if I can’t see past the sin to the person, however will the adulterer be touched by the gospel and come to repentance and faith? To change a well-known saying, “you will never judge or criticise someone into the kingdom of God”!

The crowds tried to make Jesus king by force.

We live in a fame culture, one where people will do almost anything to get noticed. The lockdown was really interesting, I watched comedians, pop stars, TV presenters, fitness gurus and all other sorts of people doing all manner of things and posting them on social media, the very strong message I saw from so many of them is “I’m here, don’t forget about me”! When they got the attention, the thousands of likes and shares and “follows” they were seeking, they felt validated and important. TV ratings and viewing figures, download charts (and for the oldies the “hit parade”) all play to this tendency.

Note that Jesus responds very differently to the follows He gets! On a number of occasions we read that after He healed someone he gave an instruction to “tell nobody”, and when they chased after him, He withdrew.

On this occasion, they chased him because they had completely misunderstood who he was and what he was about.

Nowadays, I regularly hear people misunderstanding Jesus. It is usually because they have a wrong understanding of who he was—many think he was just a man, a good man, but a man nevertheless (humanist), some would say he was a guru and holy man (new age), some would say he is a prophet of God etc. Jesus was a good man, he was a holy man, he was a prophet—but that is not all he was—He was and is the son of God, the second person of the trinity, and the saviour of the world!

When people misunderstand who Jesus is, they will not follow him the way that they should. If you believe he was a man, you will focus almost exclusively on helping your fellow man practically and ignore the spiritual implications of the Gospel. If you believe He was a prophet, you will look to hear God through him and neglect practical help.

In this account, the crowd’s misunderstanding leads them towards the action of turning Jesus into a political ruler! And Jesus withdraws. This is exactly the mistake of the crusades, our forefathers went to the holy land and tried to turn Jesus into their king by force! We cannot impose Jesus (or more accurately our understanding of Him) onto others by force, What we should be doing is trying to help people to understand who he actually is and modelling how to follow him.

Paul says this 2 Corinthians 5:11ff, “since we know what it is to fear the Lord – we try to persuade men”. and a little later, he says, “we are Christ’s ambassadors”.

Do we look at our circumstances or our Lord?

Note that the disciples cannot see past the physical problem of their circumstances. Philip says, “eight months wages would not feed these people”. So often we see a problem, look at our resources, do our own assessments and conclude that the task is too great, we don’t have the resources to cope and therefore we cannot make a difference.

Wendy and I have spent enough time in Christian ministry to realise that our effectiveness should never be gauged by comparing the size of the task with the level of the resources we have. This is something that I believe the text is teaching us.

We have two levels of faith shown here –

  1. “8 months’ wages would not be enough”
  2. “We have five loaves and 2 fishes, but what difference will they make”?

The point then is this… What attitude will we take towards our own circumstances at this time?

How about your own personal circumstances?

  1. Are you in a situation that you just cannot see a way out of?
  2. Have you assessed the human level of the problem?
  3. Have you measured your resources (however inadequate they may seem)? Have you presented them to Jesus and said “I don’t know what difference they can make, but here they are Lord”

God can use whatever paltry offering we give him and use it miraculously to provide so much more…

Ephesians 3v20 “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine”.

Luke 6:38 “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap”.

What are your circumstances today? Wendy & I have before today been in the situation where the larder is bare and we have had nothing, yet we have brought it to the Lord and he has miraculously provided for us. Are your circumstances dire? God can make a difference.

What about Jesus’ attitude?

Does God EVER test us? When we were first married, we had a poster which had a picture of an adult dog being worried by a group of kittens climbing all over it, biting its ear and tail, the dog looks really fed up and is clearly just enduring the ordeal- I’m sure you can imagine the picture. The poster had this phrase on it: “this is a test, Lord—right?”

We seem to think that God would never test us, that he’s not that mean. However, this narrative suggests that belief is not true. John tells us straight that Jesus was testing the disciples …

John 6:5-6 “When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do”.

Psalm 26v2 “Test me, Lord, and try me, examine my heart and my mind” the psalmist asks for testing, there are a number of other verses which talk of our going through periods of testing.

There are times when God knows what he is going to do. You are in a situation which looks hopeless, and when viewed through human eyes, there is no way out. Just as Jesus tested the Disciples, God says what are you going to do about it, and he already knows what the outcome will be. Does Gods test our faith then? Sure he does!

If God tests us, then there must be a point to it—surely?

What is the point of a test?

We often view tests as being for the benefit of another in that our results to a test will often determine how others relate to us, either we will get a job, or passing the test will be used to permit our acceptance onto another level.

Suggest that the PRIMARY reason for a test is not to benefit the tester. In fact, it makes no difference to your driving test examiner whether you pass or fail, but it makes a world of difference to YOU! Until the recent introduction of league tables for schools, whether you passed or failed your exams at school made no difference to the school, but they did determine how your education progressed—they were entirely for your benefit. The point is this, if you pass a test, it doesn’t just tell others you have those skills or that level of learning—it tells YOU! Many people doubt their own abilities, exams and tests tell YOU, that you know the subject or have the relevant skill.

So what does the testing of God show us?

Psalms 66v10 “For you, God, tested us; you refined us like silver”. We are tested because we are precious (like silver). The very fact God tests us is proof of our value to God!

James 1v3 “you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance”. Testing strengthens our faith. I am not a doctor, but I understand that muscles grow when they are stretched and torn very slightly, the body then heals and in the healing of the tested muscle, the muscle grows and strengthens. If our faith is to grow and strengthen, a degree of stretching or testing is necessary.

2 Corinthians 13v5 “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realise that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test” God doesn’t just test us, he calls us to test ourselves, and when we pass the test, we can be sure that we are as Paul puts it “in the faith”. Testing for us is evidence that we are true followers of Jesus. Passing the test is proof for us that we are legitimate Christians. (I find this very comforting because it really bothers me that Jesus says not everyone who calls me “Lord, Lord” will be saved).

Remember also — during the test, the examiner is silent!