7 Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. 11 Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted.John 6:7-11
A. [John 6:9b-10a] Jesus in Command
When confronted with “signs and wonders” in the Bible we who believe are liable to emphasise the wonder at the expense of the significance. This is a mistake, as we should be able to see by looking at a brief story from the life of Elisha:-
42 A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing the man of God bread of the firstfruits, twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. And Elisha said, “Give to the men, that they may eat.” 43 But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred men?” So he repeated, “Give them to the men, that they may eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” 44 So he set it before them. And they ate and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.2 Kings 4:42-44
In it’s context the feeding of one hundred men with twenty barley loaves does not seem so very wonderful and were it not for similarities with the feeding of the five thousand, we might be tempted to skip over it every time to get to the story of Naaman the Leper. As a sign, on the other hand, once we learn to look for significance in it’s context, we can — as it were — eat as much as we want and still have some left over. (For instance, we could inquire why firstfruits are brought to the man of God rather than to the shrine at Bethel but that very much by the way.)
If we do pass over the story quickly — as this time we must — we cannot but take notice of the lesson given to Elisha’s servant: it is God who provides and he does so adequately. When we read through 2 Kings 5 we find that the lesson was not learned for the servant’s greed led him into temptation and out of Elisha’s service. Gehazi failed the test.
Conveniently enough for us to strengthen the connection, the main theme of John 6:1-40 — which begins with the Feeding of the Five Thousand — is Tests and Trials. Andrew’s question:-
“…what are they for so many?”John 6:9b
is reminiscent of Gehazi’s “How can I set this before a hundred men?” but even if he remembered the Elisha story the question is understandable: Gehazi thought a fifth of a barley loaf was inadequate whereas Andrew was envisaging five thousand men getting a tiny crumb each.
There is another contrast that is even more significant: Elisha was confident because he had a word from God — “… thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’”— but Jesus was confident because he is “the Word of God.”
10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.”John 6:10a
The simplicity of the instruction can cause us to not notice that controlling so large a crowd without an agreed chain of command is a very big ask. There was no special ability among the Disciples before the Day of Pentecost to even command attention but as subsequent events showed, there was a militant readiness to be led among the five thousand that Jesus made use of.
B. [John 6:10b-11] When Jesus had given thanks
On the other hand we are susceptible to reading more significance into every point than is necessarily there. What we should be looking for when we reread the passage to put it into its immediate context — John 6:1-40/Tests and Trials — is to see how come the five thousand didn’t see the significance of the event. We read:-
Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. 11 Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted.John 6:10b-11
and our minds are drawn to the Exodus narrative. The five thousand, or at least those of their number who caught up with Jesus later, saw things differently:-
… they said to him, “Then what sign do you do, that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform? 31 Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’”John 6:30f.
But before we feel too superior — like the Sunday School kids who can trot out the “right” answer year after year without ever learning the significance of what they know — let’s ask ourselves what is the significance of the number five thousand? To do so is to enter right into the spirit of these verses and undergo a test.
The right answer — in my humble opinion, I’ve been wrong before — is that the only significance in John 6:10 and the parallel passages in the other gospels is that it’s a big number, large enough to count as an army. However, when Luke records:-
But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.Acts 4:4
the number does have significance. It’s significance — the give-away is that it specifies five thousand men — is that we are compelled to make comparison between the crowd that would have taken Jesus by force to make him their king and the ever growing number of believers, to whom Christ gives the victory and brings into his kingdom.
The test isn’t whether or not we know something; but whether knowing it, we are enabled to pray as they did and mean it as they did: “Your kingdom come.”
C. [John 6: 7-9a] Philip fails the test (Question mark (?))
It is tragic when churches are full of consumer Christians who think that they pass muster because they sit down when they’re told to and feast until they want no more. However, it is still more tragic when these woeful creatures, stuffed full, at ease in Zion, unjustly accuse God’s servants of not feeding them. We in our turn need to be careful before we accuse Philip — or Andrew, for that matter — of failure because they didn’t know what Jesus was going to do:-
7 Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish,John 6:7-9a
Similarly, if we do conclude that either Philip, Andrew or both did fail in some way then we must note that such “failures” are but stepping stones on the way to the success of final victory in Jesus.
Anyway, as we seek to put this testing into wider and wider context, it seems clear from the times Philip is singled out in John’s Gospel that he is tested here because he was with Jesus from the beginning. We are meant to equip ourselves for our own tests by comparing the Disciples with those who stopped following Jesus and, as we have seen, both the post-Pentecost Apostles and the Acts 4 five thousand had the aid of the Holy Spirit in all aspects of that particular trial. So do we.
The unbelieving world has convinced itself that Faith is all about believing things that are contrary to what the evidence demands. So it puzzles some of them that the gospel writers give two accounts of miraculous feedings with — by their reckoning — the Disciples getting it wrong in both instances. If Philip had seen water turned into wine, surely he would have requested that Jesus turn grass into bread? Moreover, once Philip’s ‘mistake’ has been exposed by the feeding of the five thousand how come the Disciples don’t anticipate the same miracle at the feeding of the four?:-
Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And I am unwilling to send them away hungry, lest they faint on the way.” 33 And the disciples said to him, “Where are we to get enough bread in such a desolate place to feed so great a crowd?” 34 And Jesus said to them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven, and a few small fish.” 35 And directing the crowd to sit down on the ground, 36 he took the seven loaves and the fish, and having given thanks he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 37 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up seven baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 38 Those who ate were four thousand men, besides women and children. 39 And after sending away the crowds, he got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan.Matthew 15:32-39
The lessons the Disciples learned that day were not to send people away hungry and to be ready to share what they themselves had, however meagre. They had already learned that assurance of God’s ability and willingness to act ought not be mingled with presumption about how he will provide. Sometimes the significance is in the number and type of baskets filled with leftover fragments and that’s what Faith takes notice of.