Why did Jesus feed the 5,000?
Each Gospel writer gives a different answer. In this post, I’ll unpack Matthew’s account. I’ll start wide before zooming in on the passage.
Matthew is not as overt in his purpose as John is (John 20:30-31), but he leaves colossal footprints while trekking through Jesus’ biography.
The Gospel opens with a genealogy connecting Jesus to Israel’s history, particularly through David and Abraham. Jesus’ birth fulfills God’s promise to be with his people (Matt 1:22-23), and his infancy recapitulates the experience of God’s people in Egypt (Matt 2:15). His baptism and temptation echo the Red Sea crossing and wilderness wanderings. Matthew wants us to think of the kingdom of Israel while he explains the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew’s connections to the kingdom of Israel are not always implicit, either; some could hardly be more direct. Matthew explicitly quotes the Old Testament 45 times, almost as many times as the other three Gospels combined (54).
But the frames and bars of Matthew’s work are the five main speeches of Jesus. In order for “God with us” (Matt 1:23) to become “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20), Jesus must build his house (Matt 16:18). So each long speech covers an aspect of the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus’ followers can build the house according to the pattern shown them (Heb 8:5). Observe how Matthew concludes each speech with a bit of fanfare: “And when Jesus finished these sayings” (Matt 7:28), “When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples” (Matt 11:1), and so on (Matt 13:53, 19:1, 26:1).
- Kingdom Citizenship (Matt 5-7)
- Kingdom Proclamation (Matt 10)
- Kingdom Ministry (Matt 13)
- Kingdom Community (Matt 18)
- Kingdom Judgment (Matt 23-25)
The narrative sections between the speeches embody the kingdom principles from the prior speech and set the main characters up for the next speech.
So chapters 8 and 9 have Jesus bringing new citizens into the kingdom (speech #1) and so inspiring the disciples to proclaim this kingdom (speech #2).
Chapters 11 and 12 show Jesus proclaiming good news (speech #2) and evaluating various responses to the message (speech #3).
Chapters 14 to 17 picture Jesus’ on-the-job training sessions with his disciples. He must train them to minister the word (speech #3) and lead the new community that will result (speech #4). So in this section, the disciples truly get engaged in ministry. They no longer simply accompany Jesus; now they take part in the work. In other words, this section describes Jesus’ kingdom boot camp.
Chapters 19-22 crank up the relational tension as Jesus gets specific about who is in the kingdom (speech #4) and who is out (speech #5).
Chapters 26-28 narrate the greatest act of judgment (speech #5) on Jesus. But this section doesn’t drive ahead to another speech. Instead, it climaxes with an empty tomb, a conspiracy, and a divine person on a mountain top with a Grand Plan. The Word has become flesh, but he’s relocating his tabernacle and leaving behind a permanent house that will grow to fill the whole earth.
Now that we’ve seen the plan of the book, we’re ready to place the feeding of the 5,000 within the structure. The story comes in Matthew 14:13-21, at the beginning of ministry boot camp (Matt 14-17).
Jesus has already sent the disciples out with both authority to heal the sick and a mission to proclaim the kingdom of heaven (speech #2). He has taught them to focus their ministry on preaching the word of the kingdom and evaluating how people are responding to it (speech #3).
Then Jesus moves away from his hometown because they don’t receive the word with joy (Matt 13:53-58). Herod fears Jesus, for he had not received the word from the first messenger, John (Matt 14:1-12).
So Jesus withdraws from Herod to find others who will receive the word (Matt 14:13). In compassion, he heals the sick who come to him (Matt 14:14), and the fertile soil is ready for seed to be sown on it.
The disciples don’t see it, though. They believe that what the crowds really need is to be found in the surrounding villages (Matt 14:15). This place is desolate; the day is now over.
Jesus gives them a hint: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat” (Matt 14:16). In other words, “You have what they need!” So the disciples bring what they have, and Jesus gets everything in order (Matt 14:17-19a).
Observe carefully what happens next (Matt 14:19b):
- Jesus looks up to heaven. (Hint, hint! Remember that kingdom up there that he’s been telling them about?)
- Jesus says a blessing. (Remember that whole citizenship-in-the-kingdom thing from speech #1 in Matt 5:3-12? Perhaps they have some potential citizens right in front of them.)
- Jesus breaks the loaves and gives them to the disciples (in contrast to John 6:11, where the disciples are not mentioned as middlemen).
- The disciples, participating in Jesus’ kingdom work, give the loaves to the crowds.
All 5,000 men, plus women and children besides, eat and are satisfied. They take up 12 baskets full of the broken pieces left over (Matt 14:20-21). What Jesus gave the disciples was more than adequate; they simply needed to get engaged and distribute it broadly.
The Main Point
With the feeding of the 5,000, Matthew isn’t as focused on Jesus’ identity as John is (though Jesus’ identity is clearly in the background). Matthew is far more concerned with the disciples and their training in the ministry of the kingdom. Jesus is setting up a new Israel, a new kingdom, with these twelve disciples.
The point of the story is this: Jesus’ followers must learn to identify good soil when they see it, and upon seeing it, they must be ready to proclaim the word of the kingdom to hungry souls.
The lingering question at the end of the story is: Will they get it? Will they see the ministry of the kingdom not as something Jesus does alone, but as something he wants them to do with him?
If these questions will keep you awake tonight, check out the next story (Matt 14:22-33). Perhaps there’s a reason only Matthew mentions Peter’s request to join Jesus out on the water. It sure is a dumb idea, but Jesus encourages such initiative.
Question: How can you join Jesus in the ministry of his kingdom this week?