“But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”” (Matthew 14:16, ESV)
I think that the strangest and most puzzling parts of the Bible sometimes yield the best gems when we take the time to ponder their meaning. Take for instance the above passage, where Jesus insists that the disciples feed the crowd of 5,000 men even though he knew that they couldn’t do it, and knowing that he would feed them himself a few moments later.
Why would Jesus say this? Why would he put such a gigantic responsibility upon the disciples to do what they couldn’t do? I think could be three possible reasons, and with each reason a lesson for us:
1. He wanted his disciples to learn compassion for the people, as he had.
Two verses easier Jesus is described as feeling compassion for the large crowds gathered. His healing ministry was an outgrowth of this compassion. Although it may be that the disciples had compassion, large crowds and the consuming needs of this crowds can begin to gnaw at the best of people. The needs were overwhelming and yet, Jesus continuously had compassion for the sea of humanity and their needs.
Whether it is Los Angeles, Chicago, Mumbai, Caracas, Tokyo, or Melbourne, the megacities of our world are teeming with hurting people. Sometimes Christians avoid the cities because the needs are so great, but Jesus felt compassion because the needs are great. And the needs are greater than the need for only bread and fish. They are lost and need the gospel.
2. He wanted the disciples to learn to come to him for the needs of others.
Of course the disciples didn’t have enough food to deed an estimated 20,000 people! That’s about the capacity of Madison Square Garden in New York City! But the disciples needed to learn that the five little barley loaves and two small fishes were not their only resources. Their greatest resource was looking them in the eyes and telling them to do the impossible. But they could not see beyond their small abilities.
So many pastors and churches are like those disciples. The city is so big. The sin is so great. The hearts are too hard. The church is too small and weak. We do not have enough resources and our power is weak. YES!! In ourselves we do not have enough. But we are not by ourselves. We must learn to go to our heavenly Father with our needs and ask of him on behalf of the communities we serve. He wants us to ask! He does not expect us to serve the needs of the world in our own strength.
3. He wanted them to see the power he would demonstrate once they came the end of their own meager resources.
There is no biblical record of the reaction the disciples had when they saw the crowd eat their fill. Nothing is said about what the twelve thought as they picked up twelve baskets of leftovers. We can only guess, and it isn’t a wild stretch to say that they must have been awestruck. What sort of power, compassion, and love had they just observed? They would need this memory to carry them after the ascension to remind them that no matter how meager their own strength and resources would be, Jesus Christ was enough.
The Western Church can have a hard time realizing that without Jesus we can do nothing. We think that our programs, buildings, crusades, media, and education almost guarantee our success. And when these don’t seem to do the trick, we quickly switch to something that will work. That’s the American entrepreneurial spirit at work–which has taken our country far, but has no place in the Church.
It is only when we sense our weakness and need for Christ in everything we do that we will see and benefit from his empowering and grace. And when that happens, we will be certain to stand in awe as the disciples knowing that there was nothing we contributed to the things we are witnessing. All glory will go to God alone, and that’s the way it should be.