What is the Miracle?
July 23, 2020 | by: Dale Thiele | 0 Comments
Posted in: Pastoral Encouragement
This Sunday at Oak Hills we are coming to a familiar Bible story, the feeding of the 5,000. It is one of two miracles from Jesus’ earthly ministry that is recorded in all four gospels (walking on water is the other one). It is a favorite story for children’s Bibles and Sunday School lessons.
Most of the details and circumstances surrounding this miracle are well-known and undisputed. Jesus, with his disciples, retreat to a desolate place for a restful break from the crowds. Because of his fame, the people still sought Jesus. The gospels are clear that 5,000 men are present. With women and children, most agree that upwards of 20,000 people have gathered to Jesus. Since the place is desolate, a crisis of food arises. Jesus prods his disciples, who are weary and looking for a break from people, to meet the needs of the large crowd. They are skeptical and find only a boy with five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus proceeds to feed the crowd with this small provision. The disciples collect the leftovers in twelve baskets.
While so much of the story is agreed upon, there is one detail that is debated among Bible scholars… what is the miracle?
The traditional reading of the story says the miracle is Jesus multiplying five loaves of bread and two fish into a large supply of food. This is akin to the jar of flour and jug of oil that was not spent during a famine in Elijah’s day (1 Kings 17:16).
An alternate reading of the story says the miracle is Jesus transforming the hearts of the crowd from being fearful and self-protecting to being generous and sacrificial for others. This reading contends that people in the crowd had enough food with them to feed everyone; they just needed some encouragement to share. The boy’s example is commended by Jesus and inspires others to share as well.
So, which is it? What is the miracle? Food multiplication or heart transformation? How we answer this question shapes how we apply this story to our lives today.
While both options would truly be a powerful work of Christ, I believe the miracle is food multiplication. Let me highlight, from the text, why I come to this conclusion.
- The text says that Jesus distributed the five loaves and two fish to the people. John 6:11 says, “he distributed them (the five loaves) to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted.” There is no mention of other food being produced. The Greek text is even more explicit. It is from the five loaves and from the two fish that Jesus distributed, as much as they wanted. If the five loaves and two fish were not the only source of food, this verse would be worded differently. The text wants the reader to understand that the source for feeding the large crowd was five loaves and two fish.
- The text says that the leftover fragments are from the five loaves. Verse 13 says, “they filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten.” Once again, the source of the leftovers is emphasized: it is from the five loaves.
- The text says that the people “saw the sign” (v. 14). The word “sign” is used throughout the Gospel of John to designate the powerful, physical works of Jesus which testify to the fact that he is the Christ, the Son of God (cf. John 20:30-31). Heart transformation is not so visible and would not be attributed so quickly to a work of Christ.
- Out of 20,000 people, would there really be only one boy willing and ready to share? Did the disciples really not know there was other food among the crowd (how do you hide that?)? Those who believe that the miracle is heart transformation contend that the disciples survey the crowd and find only the boy with five loaves and two fish, while many people were unwilling to share their supply of food. Andrew reports to Jesus, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” (v. 9). If there was other food, wouldn’t the disciples know of it and report it to Jesus, even if the people were unwilling to share?
- Matthew and Mark record an event that confirms the miracle is food multiplication. After the feeding of the 5,000 and the 4,000, the disciples end up on a boat with Jesus having forgotten to pack food (Matt. 16:5-12; Mk. 8:14-21). Jesus speaks a warning about the false teaching of the Pharisees, using a metaphor of leaven, while the disciples are concerned about their lack of food. Jesus rebukes them by saying, “’When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ And he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’” (Mk. 8:19-21). What is the point of the rebuke? What are the disciples to understand from these two miraculous feedings? The straightforward understanding of the text would be that Jesus is powerful and sufficient to meet his disciples’ needs; they have no need to fret and worry.
This lays the groundwork for us to hear this miracle story and understand how it applies to our lives today. To this we will give attention on Sunday in the sermon.