Why did Jesus feed the 5,000?
Each Gospel writer gives a different answer. In this post, I’ll unpack John’s account. I’ll start wide before zooming in on the passage.
John leaves no doubt about why he wrote his Gospel:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31, ESV)
John’s Gospel records numerous signs and their explanations. Many more signs could have been included, but John chose to report those that best fit his intentions: to show Jesus to be the Messiah (Hebrew for “Christ”), the Son of God, and to help people believe in Jesus and have life.
John often refers to the signs generally. “These signs” catalogue a series of events that should lead people to consider Jesus’ identity:
- “Many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing” (John 2:23).
- “No one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:2).
- “When the Christ appears, will he do more signs than this man has done?” (John 7:31)
- “John did no sign, but everything that John said about this man was true” (John 10:41). [Remember, John spoke of Jesus’ identity as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29).]
A few particular events are explicitly called “signs”:
- Turning water into wine: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory” (John 2:11).
- Healing an official’s son: “This was now the second sign that Jesus did when he had come from Judea to Galilee” (John 4:54).
- Feeding the 5,000: “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!'” (John 6:14)
- Healing a man born blind: “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” (John 9:16)
- Raising Lazarus from the dead: “The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign” (John 12:18).
Since these five miracles are labeled as “signs,” we can infer what other “signs” are included in John’s summary statement (John 20:31):
- Making a lame man walk (John 5:1-9)
- Walking on water (John 6:16-21)
- Dying on the cross (John 3:14-15, 10:11, 12:23-36, 19:30-37)
- Rising from the dead (John 2:18-22, 10:17-18, 20:26-29)
The Gospel of John focuses on these nine signposts and the discussions they generate about Jesus’ identity as God’s Messiah, his only beloved Son. Those who trust in Jesus find the life they’ve been looking for.
So when we read John 6, we should expect the text to explain Jesus’ role as Messiah. Like the other signs, the feeding of the 5,000 shows the way to eternal life. Let’s observe the text and make some connections.
A large crowd was following him because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick (John 6:2). Passover—the great feast celebrating God’s mighty redemption of his people by substituting a spotless lamb (Ex 12:43-13:10)—was at hand (John 6:4). Salvation was in the air, and Jesus took advantage of the fact.
Jesus tested his disciples but knew exactly what he would do (John 6:5-7), just like God did with the Israelites in the wilderness (Deut 8:1-10).
Of the Gospels, only John mentions the little boy who provided the first five loaves and two fish (John 6:8-9). Many preachers today focus on the boy’s willingness to share his lunch, but the text focuses on Andrew’s disbelief that such scarcity of barley loaves could provide for a multitude. “What are they for so many?” Through Andrew’s words, the narrator sets the scene for an impossible promise to come true (Deut 8:8-9). Jesus is Jehovah-Jireh, the God who will provide.
Jesus directs the people to sit down in green pastures. He makes it so they will not want for food (John 6:10-11). The table has been prepared; goodness and mercy have followed them (Psalm 23:1-6).
Jesus tells his disciples to gather the remaining fragments so nothing may be lost, and the meal’s remnant fills twelve baskets (John 6:12-13). Could this be an echo of the OT prophetic books, where God promises to save a remnant of the twelve tribes of Israel through the hand of his ruler from Bethlehem (for example, Micah 5:1-9)?
Finally, when the people see the sign, they draw conclusions about Jesus’ identity as the Prophet foretold by Moses (John 6:14, Deut 18:15-22).
The Main Point
John goes on to draw further connections between Jesus and Moses, the giver of bread from heaven (John 6:32-33). And he explains the miracle in great detail. Just as Jesus distributes loaves for the life of the hungry crowd, so he will give his flesh for the life of the world (John 6:51).
The point is simple: Jesus is the very Messiah Israel has waited for.
He gives life. He saves. He blesses. He nourishes and comforts. He provides.
But most of all, he dies. For God’s precious people, life comes only when the Passover lamb dies. And of that butchered lamb, the innumerable crowds of the world can eat their fill, as much as they want.
Will you join the feast?