"And He directed the people to sit down on the grass. Taking the five leaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, He gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over." Matthew 14:19, 20; Mark 6:39-43; Luke 9:14-17; John 6:10-13

The miracle, which is to form the subject of this chapter, seems to have had an important influence on the Jewish mind, in substantiating the claims of Jesus to be the Son of God and the Messiah promised to the Fathers. We cannot wonder, therefore, that it occupies a prominent place in Gospel story. It is worthy of note that the miracle itself—the feeding of the five thousand—is described by all the four Evangelists. Even John, who seldom travels in his inspired narrative beyond the events transacted in Judea, on the present occasion inserts this remarkable Galilean incident, in connection with the sublime discourse to which it gave rise on the Bread of life.

Before referring to the locality of the miracle, it may be well to advert to the two causes which seem to have induced our blessed Lord and His disciples to suspend, for a time, their labors on the busy western shore of Gennesaret, and seek the seclusion and repose of the opposite side.

The first appears, from Mark, to have been the untimely death of John the Baptist, whose imprisonment in the castle of Macherus on the Dead Sea, had just been terminated by an act of capricious and cold-blooded cruelty and murder on the part of Herod. A sorrowing group of his bereaved disciples seem to have hastened, when the deed was consummated, (or rather after the interment of their master's mangled remains,) to inform a mightier than John of the mournful tragedy. He who afterwards wept tears of anguish over the grave of Lazarus, was not likely to be unmoved when the tidings reached Him of His greatest prophet—a true "Master in Israel"—having fallen.

We have here a glimpse of the tenderness of the soul of Jesus. Sorrow at the death of a valued friend and follower, whose holy life had shone with undimmed luster to its close, stirred the depths of His loving heart. Grief likes to be alone. The great world, with its din and bustle, is strange, grating, and uncongenial at such an hour. Jesus, feeling as a man, would seek to leave the crowd for a little while—to commune with His own heart and be still. Related alike by kindred and affection to the Messenger of the Covenant, He summons His disciples to take ship from Capernaum and make for the farther shore, that there they might mingle their tears and lamentations over the hero-heart that had so suddenly ceased to beat.

John was the Forerunner of his Lord. "He was not that light, but was sent to bear witness of that light"—the morning star heralding the dawn of Gospel day! When that Star was quenched in the firmament, the Great Sun of all Being mourned the sudden extinction of His brightest satellite, and for the moment waded through clouds of sorrow. As the "Friend of the Bridegroom," the Baptist had "rejoiced greatly at the sound of the Bridegroom's voice;" now the Bridegroom in His turn mourns when the voice of His faithful, earnest, self-denying friend is forever hushed and silenced.

But a second cause may be added for this retirement to the solitudes of Naphtali. We find, in the preceding context, that the twelve Apostles had just returned from their first missionary tour in the towns and villages of Galilee—the first-fruits and pledge of vaster enterprises throughout Judea and the world. Weak and exhausted with their incessant ministrations, their Lord provides for them this season of needful rest. "Come you also," says He, "apart into a desert place, and rest a little." It was a befitting opportunity, too, for communicating in private to their Divine Master the results of their preaching. "The apostles," we read, "gathered themselves together unto Jesus, and told him all things, both what they had DONE and what they had TAUGHT!"

Solemn and touching picture! Ah! it is what every minister of the Gospel has yet to do—when his work is done—when his mission is over—and he crosses to meet his Lord in the deep solitudes of eternity. What an incentive this for every Steward of the mysteries of grace to be earnest, faithful, self-denying, instant in season and out of season—"warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom, that he may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus." How terrible to confront his Judge at last, and to be branded by his own deeds and his own teachings as a traitor to his trust; listening, in the silence of self-condemnation, to the twofold question which will be put at the threshold of immortality—"What have you DONE? What have you TAUGHT?"

The place to which the Redeemer and His disciples now retired was in the neighborhood of Bethsaida, on the northeastern shore of Gennesaret, under the green mountains of Golan, where the Jordan hurries its waters into the Lake.

We are not to understand by "a desert place" a region of dry barren sand; on the contrary, it was a spot fertile in itself, but it had not, like the opposite land of Gennesaret, been brought under the cultivation of the husbandman. It remained in a state of nature. Cattle browsed on its slopes, or on the rich pastures at the mouth of the Jordan. It was now the most delightful season of the Palestine year. The first flush of spring was carpeting both plain and mountain with living green. John specially notes the season: "The Passover, a feast of the Jews, was near;" and, again, as confirmatory of the time, Mark (who is ever the most graphic and pictorial of the Evangelists, always seizing, if I might so say, with a painter's eye, some striking natural feature in the scene he delineates), afterwards represents the multitudes, in his description of the miracle, as seated on the "green grass."

The Lord and His disciples had crossed alone in their fishing vessel, but the many eager hearers they had left behind—still thirsting for the word of the kingdom—set out on foot, walking round by the northern shore of the lake, in hopes of meeting Jesus as He landed, and of again enjoying His instructions. The fame of the Prophet of Galilee had now rapidly spread. As these anxious groups passed through the towns and hamlets that lined the shore, they added to their numbers—villagers, farmers, and fishermen swelled their company. Moreover, the time of the Passover approaching, it is more than probable they would meet some of the northern caravans of pilgrims coming to the holy feast. The report of the miracles performed in the towns bordering on Tiberias, had reached the adjacent region—Tyre and Sidon—the secluded hamlets of Lebanon and the cities of Syria; and many, hearing that the wonder-working Teacher was so near, would doubtless willingly suspend their journey, and join the groups who were hastening to meet Him.

The crowd which had left, a few hours before, the streets of Capernaum, has now increased with these varied recruits to the number of five thousand. Might it not be taken as the first pledge of a vaster fulfillment of old Jacob's prophecy regarding the coming of the Shiloh—"Unto Him shall the gathering of the people be?"

From one of these green slopes, already indicated, Jesus sees the multitudes. The flocks browsing on the pastoral scenes around Him are carefully tended; but the Great and Good Shepherd is "moved with compassion" towards the human crowd below, because "they were as sheep without a shepherd!" He prepares, therefore, to lead them to green pastures and still waters, and to give them food to eat which the world knows not of.

Let us here note, the ever unselfish, untiring, unwearying ardor of the Savior in His great mission of mercy. Could we have wondered, if, in the present instance, He had declined to leave repose so needed?—all the more needed, as He knew that, with the Passover drawing near, there would be fresh claims on His own teaching, and on that of his disciples. How hard, it seems, to break that rest, (that well-earned recompense), after weeks of unremitting toil, and days in which they had scarce leisure or opportunity to taste food! Could we have thought it strange if Jesus had rebuked this crude disturbance—this unkind intrusion on sorrow and repose—and left the motley throng to return, as best they might, to their places of sojourn? But never in any one instance do we find Him sacrificing the comforts of others to minister to His own. "Christ pleased not Himself." It was the motto of His whole earthly existence. The deeps of His being are stirred by the sight of these unshepherded, unfolded sheep; and He hurries down the mountain slope to minister alike to their spiritual and temporal necessities. In a few moments that same majestic voice is heard in the deep stillness of this mountain solitude, with the roll of Jordan at their side, and the blue heavens for their canopy, proclaiming words which cause many in that "wilderness and solitary place" to be "made glad."

Before performing His work of omnipotence, Jesus seemed desirous of testing the faith of His own disciples, and especially of one, from whom, after many weeks of close fellowship and communion, we might well have expected a more prompt recognition of the power of his Master. "When Jesus then lifted up His eyes, and saw a great company come unto Him, He said to PHILIP, Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat? And this He said to prove him: for He himself knew what He would do. Philip answered Him, Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little."

Philip, of all the Apostles, seems to have been "slow of heart." He gave promise, at an earlier period, of better things—when, with a soul apparently full of zeal and confidence, he sped to Nathaniel with the good news that Messiah had at last been found; and when he would not leave the honest Israelite until, from under the shade of his fig tree, he had "brought him to Jesus." The mingled gentleness and severity of the Savior's rebuke, addressed to Philip, on an after occasion, might have been administered now—"Have I been with you so long and yet have you not known me, Philip?"

Jesus had put the present question, "Where shall we buy bread?" to see whether or not he would leap at once to the conclusion, warranted by all which, during the preceding weeks, his eyes had seen and his ears had heard of the Word of life. He had witnessed the tempest stilled—devils cast out—the possessed sitting calm at their Deliverer's feet; he had seen Sickness, at the same mandate, taking wings and fleeing away—and, above all, Death itself compelled to yield its prey; and yet, in dull, stupid unbelief, he begins to make the poor calculation about the eight months wages of bread it would cost to feed them!

Others, less privileged, might have conveyed to him a silent reprimand. Had the Leper of Capernaum—or the friends of the Paralytic—or Jairus—or the Gentile centurion—had one or other of these listened to the Savior's question, the likelihood is, that from each and all there would have been the reply—"You who changed the storm into a calm—You who have the elements of nature and the events of providence in Your hand—You who have the key of heaven's garner at Your belt—You have only to speak the word, and manna will distill, as before, from the clouds, or the fowls of the air will fetch, as they did to Elijah of old, a mysterious supply. What is this fainting crowd in this remote corner to You, who opens Your hand and satisfies the desire of EVERY living thing?"

Let us beware of dishonoring God by our unbelief, descending to earthly shifts and earthly calculations instead of honoring Him by a full and implicit reliance in His mingled power and mercy, His ability and willingness to help, feed, sustain, and comfort. "Can God spread a table in the wilderness?" was the challenge which unbelief once uttered. The reply was, a forty years experience of unvarying and unfailing faithfulness and love. "Man's extremity" is often "God's opportunity"—He allows our circumstances to be at the lowest, that He may render more signal His interposing mercy and grace. Remember, "those things that are impossible with men are possible with God." Not only that, "all things are possible to him who believes." "Cast then your burden upon the Lord and He shall sustain you!" "Trust in the Lord and do good; so shall you dwell in the land, and truly, you shall be fed."

One of the disciples is apparently either more unselfish than the rest, or possibly he may be spokesman for the others—Then Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, spoke up. "There's a young boy here with five barley loaves and two fish. But what good is that with this huge crowd?" This, from the narrative of the other Evangelists, seems to have formed their own supply of provisions—the little stock which they had provided before crossing the lake—for their own evening meal. After the previous days of exhaustion and labor, to which we have already referred, this simple food could hardly have been spared; and had Andrew or his brother Apostles been men of selfish natures, they would have taken care not to make known the existence of their tiny store. But, as we found in the case of Matthew, it is the Gospel's great triumph to displace SELF, and on its ruins upraise the two great master principles of love to God and love to man.

Let us learn the lesson here, of a kindly interest in others—a willingness to deny ourselves, if we can confer a benefit on our fellows. He is unworthy of the name of Christian, whose every thought begins, centers, and terminates in self—a cold, frigid icicle, chilling all who come within his reach; when he gives, giving grudgingly; and what he gives, costing him no sacrifice. Sacrifice of some sort, either of substance, or time, or personal effort, is necessarily involved in every deed of true beneficence. It was not the gifts of costly munificence, thrown with supercilious air into the Treasury, which the Savior valued; but the widow's two mites, the little earnings which a grateful, giving heart doled out of her poverty, and which made her evening's meal simpler and scantier than otherwise it would have been.

Let us go back in thought to that rural scene on the Jordan, and as we behold the disciples hastening to their Lord with their handful of barley loaves and fishes, at His feet, for distribution to the fainting multitude—let us learn anew, the lesson of self-sacrifice. That scene is a miniature picture of the world, with its thousands (no, its millions!) of starving outcasts; famishing, body and soul, in temporal and spiritual destitution. Have we, like the disciples, abridged our own comforts to minister to theirs; or rather, is it not the duty of each to ask, before God, What can I spare? Is there no needless expenditure—no lavish waste—no foolish luxuriance; nothing that could be spared in my house or my table, in my social feasts, that, instead of going to feed and pamper that love of extravagance which is running wild in all modern society, would tend to dry the widow's tears, clothe the nakedness and feed the mouths of the orphan and destitute?

Not that the elegancies and refinements of life are to be condemned and denounced. Far from it! As "creatures of God" they are good, and if kept in due subordination, not to be refused, but rather "received with thanksgiving." But they are to be condemned, if they are either abused, or if their very lavish profusion only hardens into a deeper and more intense selfishness, and a more guilty ignoring of the needs and claims of others. We shall find immediately a command given, with regard to the fragments of the feast, that they were to be carefully gathered, so as to allow of no wastefulness.

Ah! might not the crumbs, often despised among us, go to gladden the lot of some lowly Lazarus at our gate? might not the delicacies at many a table be spared, or lessened, to swell the widow's barrel of meal? might not some lights of luxury go far to feed her cruse of oil? Remember the Apostle's words, "Whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother have need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God dwell in him?" Remember the words of a Greater than the Apostle, that adorable Savior, who on the Great Day will reckon what is done to the least and poorest of His brethren, as if done to Himself—"I was hungry, and you gave Me food ; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink." In doing it to that shivering outcast, that ragged beggar, that old man groping in his blindness, that widow with her homeless orphans, that idolater abroad, that heathen at home—"Truly I say to you, you did it to ME."

But, to return to the miracle. It is supposed when Jesus first put the question we have already considered to Philip, it had been towards the afternoon. But as the day wears fast away, and twilight approaches, His disciples come to Him in great concern, urging the necessity of dismissing the crowd to the adjoining villages, that they might procure needed food and lodging for the night. The Lord proceeds without delay, to manifest His power by the prodigy which follows: "He directed them," says Mark, "to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass; so they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties."

We may imagine the scene—Groups of people gathered in regular order; their long-drawn shadows at that sunset hour projected on "the green grass," or creeping up the gentle slopes. In front, facing these haggard countenances, with the traces of grief and exhaustion on His own, stands the Son of God! He is about to fulfill the truth of a saying uttered from a mountain platform then in full view, "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you." These fainting thousands (many of them at least), had sought the Kingdom of God, and now they were to have the promised addition of temporal blessings.

The feast proceeds—the food increases and multiplies in the hand of Christ—still more, in that of the Apostles, as they deal it out to the crowds—and more still, as the separate groups receive their allotted portion. At last, when all are satisfied, the disciples receive the closing command, "Gather up the fragments that are left over. Let nothing be wasted. So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten them." The leftovers of the feast was greater than the amount of the original provisions.

Oh! beautiful type of true benevolence, and its invariable results. The Apostles had given their little all with an ungrudging spirit—but they were no losers. The loaves expanded in the hands of Giver and receiver; and when the donors came to count their loss, look! it was a mysterious gain! "One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed."

But there were weightier spiritual truths intended to be conveyed in this miraculous feast. The Miracle for a moment lapses into the Parable. Great and glorious truths in an acted Parable-form are impressed by their Master on the apostolic band. These, as we have seen, had just returned from their first mission. He tells them still, in His name, and on His authority, to proceed on their Godlike work. That crowd was symbolic of a world, fainting, wearying, hungering, for the Bread of life—and the command to the disciples is, "You give them something to eat."

Nor were the left-over overflowing baskets without their significancy—did they not point to the inexhaustible affluence and fullness of the Divine riches?—that thousands on thousands have been ministered to, and yet still the table in the wilderness is as full as ever? Millions of hungry souls have been fed, and still the promise is as ample as ever, "He satisfies the longing soul with good things;" "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled." Still the command is to His servants, "Give them to eat"—Proclaim, "You who have no money, come, buy and eat; come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost." Yes, there is more than this implied—in these overflowing baskets of fragments, God seems to say to his servants, "I will multiply my blessing, the more the bread is given, the more the word is proclaimed. There will not only be "bread enough," but "to spare." I will give "more exceeding abundantly above all that you can ask or think."

While all this is encouraging to ministers, who are the distributors of the bread; those who receive it at their hands may read in this Parabolic miracle the willingness of Christ to supply the needs of all His people in this desert world. They never can come out of place, or out of season, to Him. As we see the Savior coming forth from His needed solitude and rest, to minister to these wearied multitudes, does He not proclaim to all time, to fainting myriads, who, in future ages would have far deeper cause of weariness and unrest, "whoever comes to Me, I will never drive away."

And now, let us "gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted"—or rather let us, from the Savior's own discourse the day following, carry away the ONE great Fragment—His own sublime spiritual lesson supplied by the miracle—it is the keynote of that wondrous Sermon—"Do not labor for the bread that perishes, but for that which endures to everlasting life."

LABOR NOT FOR THE PERISHABLE!—What lesson more needed, when with multitudes the perishable seems all they live for—all they care for? Yes, indeed. Sad it is, when we come in sober seriousness to pause and think of it, that so many thousands should be frittering away this great period of preparation for eternity in this unprofitable labor of earth—Unprofitable! for what in a few brief years will all this worldly toil come to? All that the world can give, apart from Christ, never can, never will, satisfy. You may as well, by a few grains of sand, or a few spadefuls of dust, expect to fill up a yawning chasm, as fill the gaping crevices of man's soul—reach the deeps of his being with the poor nothings of earth. He was born for nobler things, and with less noble things you cannot satisfy him.

Besides all this, how transient, uncertain, precarious, all that wealth can hoard, and labor realize! Like Sisyphus of old, the stone, after a lifetime's labor, has been heaved to the mountain-summit; but in one unwary moment, it slips from the hand, down it hurries, with hopeless bound, to the depths of the valley; the golden heap which took a lifetime to amass, one solitary wave of calamity comes and washes away!

BUT, "he that believes on ME shall NEVER hunger." His inordinate appetite for earthly things shall be so subdued and vanquished by the nobler portion he has in Myself, that he will neither too ardently covet earthly blessings, nor fret and mourn too heavily when they are taken away.

Let us listen to the voice of Him who is even now saying to us, "I Am the Bread of Life!" Let the voice of that same yearning Shepherd, who was moved with compassion towards the wandering multitude—let the voice of Jesus be heard telling every weary "laborer" of that rest He has procured. Let the word of admonition follow us out into this busy world; let its accents fall in the place of business, in the crowded mart, in the workshop, by the counter, in the classroom, in the study—let it follow us up the ladder of ambition, and track our steps in the race for riches—"labor not for the food which perishes, but for that which endures to everlasting life!"