Disciples Feed Crowds of Thousands:
A Christ Teaching on Compassion
Jesus used two occasions of feeding a large crowd in a remote place to illustrate the responsibilities and expectations of a person called to provide goods or services to others as God’s provider assistant. God creates every person to be a potential provider (i.e., channel for his compassion) to others. He is the ultimate provider but often channels his providing through people by placing one or more persons in position to perform the needed service as his provider assistant. The chosen person is expected to recognize the need, assess how they could help, seek God’s direction, and proceed with providing for the need as they can.
PROVIDER ASSISTANT RESPONSIBILITIES Jesus used two occasions of feeding a large crowd as practical illustrations of what is expected of a person placed in position to provide for other people. In both cases, he was ministering to a crowd of several thousand that needed to be fed. His disciples took on the responsibility, realized feeding the crowd was beyond their means, sought direction from God (this time with them in person as Jesus), and he provided food for the crowd through his disciples. The disciples were the provider assistant and the people were the recipient. We examine interactions between Jesus and his disciples, him and the crowd, and the disciples and the crowd: to understand God’s expectations of a person that he calls to provide a service for other persons.
Feeding Crowd of Five Thousand Men
Jesus wanted to rest his disciples that had just returned from a gospel mission and wanted to discuss their experience. Because too many people were coming and going, he could not find a quiet time with his disciples. Therefore, he decided to take them to a remote quiet place: “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” [Mark 6:31]. However, several people understood where they were going and a large crowd got there before him. He had compassion on the crowd because they appeared to him like “sheep without a shepherd” [Mark 6:34]. Therefore, he turned to the crowd and started teaching and interacting with them.
RECOGNIZE A NEED AND RESPONSIBILITY His disciples recognized a need and their responsibility to act on the need. They realized the large crowd will depend on them for food because it was getting late in the day and they were in a remote place with no homes, market, or any other source of food.
ASSESS THE NEED They assessed the need and determined feeding the crowd would over-strain their resources. They remarked that buying food for so many people would cost too much [Mark 6:37]: “That would take more than half a year’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?” They felt it would be better to dismiss the people so they would go to the “surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat” [Mark 6:36].
SEEK GOD’S DIRECTION They did not give up. Instead, they took their concern to God, this time with them in human form as Jesus. They suggested what they thought should be done but listened to his direction. Since he was human, they heard and understood his directions naturally. However, as we discussed in a previous bible study at This_Link, God can communicate with individuals in several different ways and chooses which way is appropriate for each person. Just like the disciples did on this occasion, getting direction from God is essential in executing an assignment as his provider assistant. Because he can communicate in several different ways, it is important for each person to establish a personal communication strategy with him, as we discussed in a previous bible study at This_Link.
MIRACULOUS INTERVENTION God intervened with a miracle to bless and multiply five loaves of bread and two fish to feed a crowd of 5,000 men plus women and children. This type of miracle can occur today. However, God can intervene in so many different ways and determines an appropriate intervention for each situation. As we discussed in a previous bible study at This_Link, there often will be a set of things a provider assistant has to do at the human level in order to be prepared to accept and utilize God’s intervention. In this example, the disciples went to Jesus as part of their over-all effort to provide for the need. The same approach applies to every situation today. Going to God has to be part of a person’s over-all effort to provide the needed service. If you are committed to the assignment and have accounted for your available human effort, then God will respond to your prayer with his chosen intervention because you are trying to accomplish an assignment that he placed on your path.
GOD PROVIDED THROUGH DISCIPLES The accounts in Mark and Matthew emphasize that Jesus blessed the bread and fish, gave the food to his disciples, and the disciples gave to the people [Matthew 14:19]: “Taking the five loaves 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.” Christ provided to his disciples and his disciples provided to the people. This account illustrates the usual interactions in responding to God’s call to compassion: a human provider (the provider assistant) supported by God’s intervention provides goods or services to human recipients. Therefore, God provides to the recipients through the provider assistant. The recipients interact with the human provider and need to be aware of our relationships with God in order to understand that he intervened to provide for them through the human provider assistant. In this example, the disciples were God’s provider assistant.
Feeding Crowd of Four Thousand Men
The event of feeding a crowd of four thousand men plus women and children is similar in several ways to the event of feeding the five thousand discussed earlier. In the case of the crowd of four thousand plus [Mark 8:1–10; Matthew 15:29–39], Jesus had been with them for three days and they had not eaten during the period. He had compassion on them and was concerned some of them could collapse on the way if he sent them away without feeding them. He presented his concern to the disciples.
CALL TO COMPASSION One difference between the feeding of four thousand and the feeding of five thousand is that Christ initiated the discussion in the case of the four thousand [Matthew 15:32]: “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”
This difference helps us understand that God may issue a call to compassion (i.e., alert a person to a need) in several ways. He may communicate the need to a person directly or place the need such that the person has an opportunity to recognize it. In either case, God has called the person to provide for a need, i.e., he has placed a call to compassion directed at the person. In the case of the five thousand, the disciples accepted the call to compassion by recognizing the need. They presented the need to Christ as part of their effort to respond to the call. In contrast, for the case of the four thousand, the call to compassion was issued to the disciples when Christ presented the need (his concern about the people’s feeding) to them.
ANOTHER MIRACULOUS FEEDING Like in the case of the five thousand, the available food in this case (seven loaves and a few small fish) would have been grossly inadequate by any human standard. Jesus blessed the food and “gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people” [Matthew 15:36]. Also like in the case of the five thousand, the disciples were the provider assistant. God provided food to the people through the disciples. There was so much food that the leftover filled several baskets.
Summary of What We Learned
God provides goods and services to people, often in a humanly natural way by channeling the providing through another person, his provider assistant. He may call any person to function as his provider assistant by communicating with the person directly or by placing the need such that the person has an opportunity to recognize it. To accept the call, the person needs to recognize the need and commit to providing for it and persevering in the effort even in the face of great difficulties. Also, they need to seek God’s direction and intervention as part of their effort to provide for the need. Christ used two occasions of feeding a large crowd in a remote place to put his disciples through the role of God’s provider assistant, thereby illustrating what is expected of us when God calls any person to an assignment as his provider assistant.