Satisfying the Multitude
It’s probably fair to say that Jesus was the most misunderstood man who walked upon the earth. The gospel accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus seem to continually highlight this fact. Of course it started at his very birth, when Herod attempted to kill him. Those to whom he spoke often understood that he spoke with authority, but they failed to understand what that authority was and thus why Jesus came to this earth. The Gospel of John highlights this misunderstanding in some unique ways, being itself structured around seven signs and seven “I am” statements of Jesus. The signs and the teachings serve in some way as a feed-forward loop, with the crowds being continually amazed by the works of Jesus, hearing the teachings of Jesus, but then ultimately being swayed by the religious leaders into crying for the crucifixion of Jesus. Yet all the while, Christ continued on in his earthly ministry despite being harangued, harassed, and misunderstood. He was driven by obedience to the Father and by his love for those whom he ministered to. The account in John 6:1-15 when he feeds the 5000 encapsulates this dynamic rather well
In verse 2, John details for us that a great crowd was following Jesus because of the signs that he had been doing. This sets up for us that feed-forward loop I mentioned. He would do a miracle and people would follow. He would then do another miracle and even more people would follow. Now here then in chapter 6, this massive crowd, further enhanced in size by the impending Passover, was trailing Jesus wherever he went, and was doing so at their own peril; they were hungry. The gospel writer also makes clear for us that even those closest to Jesus, his apostles, didn’t really understand who he was and why he came. Jesus throws out a question to Phillip to see how he would answer, knowing all the while what his actual plan would be. Of course the apostles are dumbfounded on how they would have any means whatsoever of feeding the hungry multitude, not understanding that God Himself was in their very midst. Andrew brings a boy with a small amount of food, but then asks what this small meal could possibly do to feed these people. And so the scene is set for Jesus to perform another sign, showcasing his divinity, to a watching crowd. And we know the story well. Jesus takes the boy’s meal and uses it to feed 5000 (or more) people, and so much so that they have 12 baskets of leftovers. The crowds ate, their bellies were filled, and there were leftovers. Although John doesn’t detail why there were 12 baskets left, I picture each apostle carrying one basket back to Jesus, hanging their heads in shame as they have been vividly reminded that all things are possible with Jesus. Yet once again, a sign performed by Jesus to showcase his divine authority serves to drive this crowd further into madness. They rightly say that he is the Prophet of whom the Scriptures foretell, but their response is to try to take him by force and have him lead their rebellion. They get the history of redemption wrong. So Jesus withdraws again, ironically this time to a mountain and then to the sea where Jesus will perform another sign.
But what does this account in John 6 mean for us? There are several points that we can glean from this.
1. The folly of crowds. History bears this out in many ways, but the life of Jesus highlights this truth in the most vivid way. The heart of man is indeed fickle, in one moment able to recognize a true authority but in another moment being led by whatever feeds their bellies the most. The crowd following Jesus saw him do some amazing things, and they recognized this as true authority, but their full bellies drove them to simply want more full bellies rather than walking in the way of Christ. And when Jesus didn’t deliver on what their bellies ultimately wanted (freedom from Rome), they were fine with having him crucified. This truth has many implications in society, but also in church ministry. Paul tells Timothy in 2 Timothy 4 that churches too often set up for themselves someone who will scratch their itching ears rather than installing a pastor who teaches the truth unabashedly. Too many churches are driven by what will fill their bellies rather than by what honors God and obeys His Word.
2. The necessity of the Spirit. The gospel accounts of the apostles highlight this important truth for us as well. The apostles spent every day of 3 years with Jesus, heard both his public and private teaching, and still didn’t understand the ultimate purpose of the incarnation until the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost. The very Word of God incarnate dwelt with them, but true and right interpretation of that Word must be brought about by the work of the Spirit. The Word and the Spirit always go together.
3. The compassion of Jesus. Jesus knows what is in the heart of every person. He knew that this hungry crowd would praise him now for filling their bellies but would one day turn on him. He knew better than anyone of their folly, yet He still sat, taught, and fed them. He still healed the sick, the lame, and the blind. In a world that is ever increasingly turned against Christianity, it would be easy for us to simply turn our backs on the world, to leave them to their own devices, and to face the judgment of God. Yet the love of Christ should compel us to love of our neighbors. We must continue to proclaim the Gospel of Christ to a dying world and to minister to the needs of others as we are able.
Keith Kauffman attended University of Maryland (B.S.) and Capital Bible Seminary(M.Div.). Keith currently works at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, working in the Laboratory of Parasitic Diseases studying the immune response to Tuberculosis. Keith serves as an elder at Greenbelt Baptist Church.