About Jesus Christ: Chapter 1
FEEDING THE MULTITUDES
Moses had just completed a miraculous escape from Egypt. He was successful in freeing the entire Hebrew race from slavery. The Exodus would forever be a defining experience to the nation of Israel. Thousands of years later, people of Jewish faith would still celebrate the Exodus with an annual Passover meal. This freedom story is retold to each new generation so that their heritage of deliverance from slavery will never be forgotten.
However, now the great leader and lawgiver was faced with a monumental undertaking: How to feed a multitude of people in the desert. As we read the history of the “great escape” from Egypt and the years that followed, Moses needed super-human ability. He did not have the resources or wisdom to even begin. Just the number of people involved was mind-boggling.
As they are leaving their homes to make their way out of Egypt, we get a picture of the magnitude of what faced Moses. “The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth. There were about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. Many other people went with them, as well as large droves of livestock, both flocks and herds.” (Exodus 12:37, 38). Later we read the exact number of men was 603,550 (chapter 38). So if we calculate the numbers with adult men representing about one-quarter of the total, we have approximately two and a half million people under Moses’ leadership.
It’s one thing to drive the family to some nearby park for an afternoon getaway. A short visit to the local market and you’re on your way. Here, we are talking about a journey into an unknown desert that ended up lasting 40 years! It didn’t take the people of Israel long to do the math. They were barely into the desert when they realized their diet both in content and amount, had changed drastically. And they could see they would soon run out of food. Moses was facing a people fully alert to their dire circumstances.
Here is how the story develops: 1 The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out ofEgypt. 2 In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. 3 The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
4 Then the LORD said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions.” 9 Then Moses told Aaron, “Say to the entire Israelite community, ‘Come before the LORD, for he has heard your grumbling.’”
10 While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of the LORD appearing in the cloud. 11 The LORD said to Moses, 12 “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Tell them, ‘At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the LORD your God.’ ”
There was no ambiguity in the plan God gave Moses and Aaron: Then you will know that I am the LORD your God! The miraculous feeding was to be a sign that God had appeared in their midst. And they knew, for that evening there were thousands of quail that came into their camp. The following morning, the ground was covered with cereal-like flakes. The Israelites had abundant food that accompanied them for the next 40 years. This amazing story and this Scripture have been repeated to each generation of Israelites over the centuries through the Passover celebrations– Then you will know!
As significant as this miraculous provision is to Jewish people, it is not the only measure of God’s care for His people in the Old Testament. Since there are other examples, we will mention a few of them before moving to see how Jesus fits into this picture.
Elisha was another great prophet in Israel’s history. You may recall his dramatic call and consecration to ministry under Elijah (I Kings 19; II Kings 2). There were also a number of miracles that Elisha carried out under the hand of God. Naaman, a prominent general from Syria, was cured from his leprosy and the Shunammite’s son who died was restored to life.
On another occasion, we see Elisha feeding a large group of men with a small number of loaves of bread. In current times, we think of a “loaf of bread” as a fairly large loaf. In those days, a loaf of bread was more like the size of a hamburger bun—nothing fancy. It also appears from the context that those were times with enemies and famine all around. We pick up the story from the book of II Kings:
42 A man came from Baal Shalishah, bringing the man of God twenty loaves of barley bread baked from the first ripe grain, along with some heads of new grain. “Give it to the people to eat,” Elisha said. 43 “How can I set this before a hundred men?” his servant asked. But Elisha answered, “Give it to the people to eat. For this is what the LORD says: ‘They will eat and have some left over.’” 44 Then he set it before them, and they ate and had some left over, according to the word of the LORD. (II Kings 4:42-44).
Two issues were clouding the mind of Elisha’s servant. First was the embarrassment he would feel at putting such a meager portion of food in front of each man. Imagine yourself having guests over for dinner and giving each one 1/5th of a hamburger bun? The second problem was ceremonial. According to the law (Torah), the first “fruit” of a person’s farm belonged to the priest. That was probably why the man was bringing the loaves and grain to Elisha since he was considered part of the priestly class. (Leviticus 23:9 – 14).
In any event, what happened was that the scarcity of food became abundance. These hungry men were satisfied with their meal and, as Elisha reported, there was food left over. There was a true need and the Lord responded through Elisha his prophet to supply the resources required to fill that need. As we look into the New Testament, we will see the same sequence where scarcity is met with abundance.
If Jesus were roaming the hills of Judea today as He was 2,000 years ago, more than likely He would be labeled “an itinerant preacher or evangelist.” Just as word of His miraculous deeds were broadcast “word-of-mouth” back then, so today there would be press reports about the “wonder worker” stirring up large crowds of religious followers, some serious and others, just curious.
The following event is probably more widely known than the stories we just reviewed about Elisha. It is possible that “feeding 5,000” has even gotten into folk usage in some circles that many will recognize. So here they were, the 12 apostles, having just returned from a preaching mission, giving their report to Jesus. They had experienced God’s presence and power in a number of communities. They were on a spiritual high.
As we read it, even though Jesus and the 12 disciples now tried to get away for some personal teaching, they could not. We pick up the story in Mark 6: (Jesus) said to them,
“Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”
32 So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. 33 But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. 35 By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. 36 Send the people away so that they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” 37 But he answered, “You give them something to eat.”
This becomes a new challenge to the disciples. Yes, they had just returned from healing people and casting out demons. But now Jesus asks them to feed a multitude. They checked the numbers and calculated the amount of money needed to feed this many people. They didn’t have the money! And they told Jesus his plan was not going to work. Like all of us, they had short memories as to who Jesus was. So Jesus gets down to their level to show them what is possible by asking a simple question:
38 “How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.” When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.” 39 Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. 41 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 his disciples to distribute to the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. 42 They all ate and were satisfied, 43 and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. 44 The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand. (Mark 6).
What we see here is a duplication of Old Testament events. The ancient people of Israel had just witnessed God’s hand in their miraculous deliverance from Egypt, but could not imagine His providing food. They saw God’s power in a one-dimensional world, not understanding that He is the Creator of the universe that stretches up and down, and far and wide.
Perhaps they understood God’s ability to make a small seed and have it grow into a large tree, loaded with fruit. They could picture God creating sea creatures that reproduced and soon filled oceans and rivers with fish. The difficulty was in translating that to God taking some bread and fish and multiplying them in His own hand to feed multitudes.
Jesus’ listeners were quite familiar with the Old Testament stories of the manna, quail and loaves of bread. They might have viewed the miracles as interesting history but not something that God would do in their time. And how did they experience God? Was He still the one who could turn their scarcity into abundance? Did their faith-walk inspire that kind of confidence?
Beyond the “here and now” are the promises of the God of the future. The signs God provided for the people of Israel and to His emerging church in the New Testament are but metaphors for what God is planning for us through eternal ages. We won’t consider those portions of Scripture, but it would be a worthy study.
- The first century Jew knew the stories of God’s provisions in the Old Testament. What do you think they saw in Jesus’ miracles that duplicated what they had read?
- In another Gospel, Jesus points out that his message and intention in some cases was being distorted from their purpose. In John’s gospel, chapter 6, we read:
14 After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. … 25 When they found him on the other side of the lake, they asked him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” 26 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. 27 Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.”
How would you define the error Jesus’ hearers made? What was Jesus’ response?
- When the Apostle Paul went through times of scarcity, how did he deal with this kind of “desert experience”?
10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4).
- What can we do in times of scarcity or abundance? Does Hebrews 11:32 – 40 help us?
- During the exodus, God said, “Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.”
What understanding do you have that would lead you to the same conclusion?