Feeding the Multitude – Matthew 14:13-21

Pastor Scott L. Harris
December 12, 1993

Feeding the Multitudes
Matthew 14:13-21

One of the many things in the Bible that should not amaze me, yet constantly does so, is how much the characters written about are so much like me. That should not amaze me because the Bible speaks about ordinary people doing ordinary things, yet, for some strange reason, I still have it in the back of my mind that the people mentioned in the Scriptures were somehow special. Maybe it is a hidden desire to excuse myself when I do not live up to the examples they have set, or a means by which my pride can be puffed up when I do better than they did. This morning we are going to see another example of the disciples of Jesus acting just like we would, and we will see God’s graciousness in dealing with them.

Turn to Matthew 14:13 as we begin our examination of this morning’s text.


Verse 13: “Now when Jesus heard it, He withdrew from there in a boat, to a lonely place by Himself; and when the multitudes heard of this, they followed Him on foot from the cities.”

Our passage begins with Jesus hearing the news about John the Baptist being executed by Herod Antipas the Tetrarch. We examined that story in last week’s sermon (See: The Death of John the Baptist). Some have assumed that Jesus’ immediate withdraw to a lonely place was predicated on a fear that Herod would now try to imprison Him, but I do not believe that is the case for several reasons.

First, Jesus is God and He never did anything based on fear. No one, including Herod, could do anything to Jesus that Jesus did not allow. Even when Jesus was eventually crucified, the Scriptures make it clear that Jesus laid down His life on His own initiative for no one could take it away without His consent (John 10:18). Jesus did not fear Herod.

We do find, however, Jesus backing away from situations several times in order not to further antagonize His enemies. That happened when Jesus had returned to Nazareth the first time and those people became so angry they sought to kill Him. Jesus simply “passed through their midst” (Luke 4:30). Jesus certainly was not afraid of them or He would not have returned there a second time as is recorded in Matthew 13. Other examples of such occasions are John 8:59; 10:39, or 11:54 where Jesus departs from irritated people to reduce their antagonism.

There are some lessons for us here as we strive to be like Jesus. First, we need not fear anything because God is sovereign and nothing can come against us that He does not allow, and His promise is that He will not allow anything to come against us that is too much for us, but He will provide a means through it or an escape from it that we might be strengthened in our faith (1 Corinthians 10:13, James 1:2-5). Tough things will enter into our lives, but we are secure in the Father’s hands, there is no need for fear.

Second, as we witness to others and proclaim the truth of God’s word – both His just punishment for sin and His means of salvation through Jesus Christ – we must be careful that we do not let our boldness to become brazen. We are not fearful of irritating people with the truth, but we do not continue to provoke after the point is made. There is an appropriate time to withdraw from the conflict and minister to other people. We are to follow the example of Jesus in this.

Another reason for Jesus’ departure was that He was tired. Many times we find Jesus going off to a secluded spot after having a time of busy ministry. Examples of that would be Luke 6:12 or Mark 1:35 where Jesus went off to a mountain by Himself to pray after having spent a lot of time ministering to people. That has also occurred in our passage this morning. Jesus has been very busy over the last several chapters teaching, preaching, and healing people. Mark 6 specifically says that there had been “many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.” Jesus is tired and wants to go to a secluded place where He can be refreshed.

A third reason for Jesus’ departure to a lonely place was to spend time with the twelve who had just returned from their mission of preaching and healing. Jesus would want to hear their reports, give them further instruction, and give them a chance to rest. So, for these reasons we find that Jesus and the twelve disciples have gotten into a boat and left the area of Capernaum for the area of Bethsaida (Luke 9:10) near Julias on the northeast shore of the Sea of Galilee.

As the people see what Jesus is doing they start following Him on the shore. The trip is about five miles by boat and about six or seven by foot. As they go, they would have attracted the attention of those in the cities they passed through prompting some of them to join in. They would also have attracted the attention of many of the pilgrims going to Jerusalem for the coming Passover (John 6:4).

Now the area where Jesus landed was remote from any city and even the closet village was some distance away. Jesus’ destination was a mountain which was even more isolated and where He sought to gain privacy. But we find that some of those who were following along the shore even beat the boat to its landing point and were waiting there when Jesus came ashore.

Verse 14 tells us, “And when He went ashore, He saw a great multitude, and felt compassion for them, and healed their sick.” From John 6:3 we find that Jesus went up on the mountain with His disciples. The people followed Him up on the mountain, and as time went on those who were sick or lame also gathered to Him. Soon there was a very large crowd and then we see demonstrated one of the qualities of Jesus that each of us needs so much in our own lives. Jesus had mercy on the many people gathered about Him.

Remember why Jesus had traveled to this lonely place? It was to get away from the crowds and yet now we find many people assembled around Him again. How would you have felt? You were tired, you had been dealing with people and their problems for a long time already, your followers had just returned from the assignment you sent them on and they needed some attention, and you were looking forward to some relative peace and quiet. You get in a boat and sail away trying to get away from the crowds, yet when you reach your destination some are already there and more are coming. Add to that what John writes in John 6:2 that many of these people had not come to learn from Jesus and follow His teachings, but instead because they were seeing the miracles Jesus was performing on those who were sick. They were there to see the show. Would you be frustrated? Maybe even a little bit angry? Do you think you would have felt justified in telling the people to go away and come back another time? Probably, but that is not what we see in Jesus.

Instead we find in the text that Jesus “felt compassion for them.” The word here literally means to be moved in ones guts, or if you want a more antiseptic word, viscera. The ancients described their emotions as arising out of their bowels. We still do that to some degree today when we describe anxiety as “butterflies in our stomachs” or fear resulting in our “stomach being tied up in knots.” Strong emotions do affect us physically, ulcers being just one example.

Take note that God is not some impersonal force out there that is indifferent to the things we go through. Jesus is God. He told His followers that if they have seen Him, then they “have seen the Father,” and Jesus is not cold and calculating or remote from the suffering of mankind. Here we find another occasion when Jesus would have had every right to tell the people to give Him a break and leave Him alone. But Jesus is deeply moved over the physical suffering, the confusion, the spiritually wayward state of the people. Jesus felt physical pain, the emotional pain of rejection, and the full measure of human temptation for He was “tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). That is why He is a sympathetic High Priest. Jesus knows what we are feeling and here we find that He is emotionally moved and extends His compassion even to those were shallow, self-centered thrill seekers, to those He knew would reject Him only a short time later.

Jesus extended mercy to the many then and He continues to do so now. Regardless of what state or situation you may find yourself in today, Jesus is able and willing to extend mercy to you if you will receive it. You can bring your troubles to Him and you will find sympathy, compassion, and a love so strong that it will not let you stay in the sin which is bringing turmoil to your life.


Jesus had mercy for the many people gathered there, and that mercy resulted in His ministry to the multitudes. Again, verse 14 says that He “felt compassion for them, and healed their sick.” But Mark 6 and Luke 9 tell us that Jesus also spent time in teaching them many things about the Kingdom of God.

We would all agree that it is not enough to just have a feeling of compassion for someone. That compassion must result in some kind of action if it is to do any good. This is stated very clearly in James 2:15, 16, “If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” It is worthless.

Jesus had compassion and He did the work that was in keeping with His compassion. He healed the sick. The word sick here refers specifically to those who are “weak, without strength.” These people had to have made a special effort to travel around the northern end of the Sea of Galilee to follow Jesus. Many of them no doubt would have had to have been helped by their friends or relatives. Jesus had compassion on them and healed them.

It is both interesting and significant to note that all of Jesus’ miracles were related in some way with a demonstration of His compassion toward men. If Jesus had wanted to demonstrate His power He could have started moving mountains around, but that would not have demonstrated His love for man. Instead, most of His miracles were directly to individual people such as physical healings, casting out demons, forgiving their sins, and even those that were not, such as calming the storm, were done in response to the cry for help by those threatened by the calamity upon them.

Feelings of compassion need to result in acts of mercy if they are to be of any benefit to anyone. But let’s take that one step further. Acts of mercy without the presentation of God’s Word and will are only of marginal value. Why do I say that? Aside from the fact that the pattern Jesus and His Apostles set always included teaching about the kingdom alongside any act of mercy they performed, the truth is that an act of mercy that does not move a person closer to the kingdom of God has only temporal value.

Social work is good and fine, but such work without a presentation of the Christ has no eternal value. A soup kitchen may fill a man’s belly for a few hours, but the man’s greatest need is the bread of life. A doctor may relieve physical suffering or help a person get over an illness or even keep a particular disease or condition from ending a life, but men and women need a healed soul more than a healed body. Remember, unless the Lord comes first, the physical body of everyone here will die, but the soul goes on for eternity. Which then is more important?

Even fundamental evangelicals can get caught in the trap of the social gospel. We talk about giving a cup of water in Jesus’ name (Mark 9:41), but more often than not it is just a cup of water and we say the act itself is witness enough. Is it? If you do not tell them why you have done some act of mercy, whether it is giving them something to eat or drink, or giving them a ride, or fixing something for them, or whatever, how will they know anything about Christ from it? They do not know you are a Christian, and even if they did they may think that doing good deeds is just the way Christians earn favor with God and get to go to heaven. That is what many people think will get them to heaven.

We do need to be moved by the suffering of others and reach out to them even when it is inconvenient for us, but we also need to teach them about God when we do so. Next time you are in a position to help someone, do so and tell them why you are helping, even if it is just saying, “God has been merciful to me and I want to demonstrate His love to you by doing this . . . “

Jesus had mercy on the many and then had a profound ministry to the multitudes. The next thing we find in our text this morning is the


“And when it was evening, the disciples came to Him, saying, ‘The place is desolate, and the time is already past; so send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘They do not need to go away; you give them something to eat!’ And they said to Him, ‘We have here only five loaves and two fish.’ And He said, ‘Bring them here to Me.’ And ordering the multitudes to recline on the grass, He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up toward heaven, He blessed the food, and breaking the loaves He gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave to the multitudes, and they all ate, and were satisfied. And they picked up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve full baskets. And there were about five thousand men who ate, aside from women and children.”

There are several things to note. The first is the size of the crowd. It was 5,000 men, not counting women and children. The number of people could have easily been two to three times that amount: 10-15,000.

Next, note what Jesus had to work with. Our text says five loaves and two fish. John 6 gives more detail saying that the food came from a lad that Andrew had found with “five barley loaves and two fish.” The barley loaves were not large, and the two fish were most likely the small Tilapia, now called “St. Peter’s fish,” which is the size of a lake perch. All that was available was this boy’s lunch, and Jesus was going to feed a lot of hungry people with it.

Why does Jesus do this miracle? John 6 gives us some additional insight into the reason. In verse 15, we find that the disciples have come to Jesus asking Him to send the people away to find food for themselves. This place was desolate with no large villages or cities nearby to get food easily, and the “time was already passed” (verse 15) for when most people would have eaten, so they want Jesus to send them away to get something to eat before it gets any later.”

John 6:5 tells us that earlier in the day Jesus had pointed out to Philip the size of the crowd and the problem of feeding them. Now Philip and Andrew as well had probably been working on that problem for awhile, because when Jesus told the disciples to feed the crowds Philip had already calculated out how much it would cost to feed them, and “two hundred denarii worth of bread” would not be “sufficient for them for everyone to receive a little.” If all the wages a man had earned over the course of 200 days of labor – fully 2/3 of the working year – were used to buy bread, it would not be enough to even give each person a little bit. Andrew had already assessed what resources were available on hand and found only the boy with the five barley rolls and two small fish. It was no wonder they were surprised at Jesus’ command to them feed the multitudes saying, “you give them to eat.” They saw that task as impossible.

But that is a major lesson that Jesus was teaching the disciples. Remember that Jesus and the disciples had set out originally to spend some time alone. Jesus was going to give them further instruction. Jesus does just that with the lesson being prompted by the circumstances at hand. A reminder to us parents that it is often in the unforeseen circumstances that we can teach our children some of their greatest lessons about God and how to live for Him, but are we ready to teach them in any and every circumstance?

The task that Jesus charged his disciples with was impossible for them, but that was just the point being made. They would be sent out to do what was impossible by every reasonable means of human endeavor. But Jesus can do what is humanly impossible and the disciples were to look to Him just as we are today.

Often we find that we are charged by God with responsibilities that seem impossible. Being a parent is one of them. How can a mother or a father, both of whom are imperfect, carry out the responsibility of raising godly children? Children do imitate what they see in their parents, and that alone is enough to strike fear in a parent’s heart. There is also the task of dealing with the child’s own sin nature. The task is impossible for us alone, but we must be faithful to the task and rely on God to provide what we cannot.

The same is true in living for Christ. I cannot live and witness for Him in my own power. I cannot fight sin in my own power. That is impossible for me to do and at times I feel that so strongly my emotions seem to be crying out that I must sin in order to find relief from the sheer tension of it all. How then can a person live in holiness when he or she finds themselves in a body of sin that seeks for itself pleasure, power, and prestige? I rely on the promises of God that are beyond my own power and simply seek to be faithful relying on Him to do the rest.

When a temptation that seems beyond my limits of resistance is upon me, I must remember that God said He would not allow that, but would provide a way through it or around it. My part is to be faithful to His commands and then see how He delivers. Say no to cheating on a test. Your future is in God’s hands and God will put you where He wants you regardless of any test score. Say no to tax fraud. God will provide for those who seek His kingdom and His righteousness first. We are to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s (and to Bill what is Bill’s and to Mario what is Mario’s) and to God what is God’s. Flee sexual involvement with anyone other than your spouse. The few moments of stolen pleasure and emotional intimacy are negligible compared to the tragedy it brings. God can sustain you as single or even in an unfulfilling marriage.

Say “yes” to a righteous response even when others make fun of you for doing so. You are living with eternity in mind. Say “yes” to proclaim the Word of God even when others may hate you for it. We are more concerned about pleasing God than pleasing men. Say “yes” to serve others even when it requires sacrifice on your part. Our purpose for living is to serve God and others for Him, not ourselves. God will provide for us when our priority is to serve Him and strive to be holy.

The apostles were just like us. All they could see in front of them was an impossible task even though the one who could do the impossible was right there with them. It is not recorded that they asked Jesus for help. All they said was that they could not do it. They did not have enough, so why try? They were defeated before they started.

Have you ever felt that way? The task was beyond you so why even try? Remember that God does not require success from us, only faithfulness in following His commands. It is God Himself that works out the end result. Jesus told them to give to the multitudes to eat and they should have started serving what they had or at least come to Jesus and asked if He knew of where any other food might be or for more specifics on how they were to serve what they had.

The apostles, and we, are not to be mindless servants of God who act without thinking, but we are to have the faith of a child that fully expects his father to provide. My children are young and many times do not understand the reason I tell them to do certain things, but they do trust me that if I tell them to do something that it is best for them and that they will be able to accomplish it or I will be there to help them. The same is true in our relationship with God. It is not a matter of our understanding why He wants us to do something, but a matter of trusting Him that it is best for us and that we will be able to do it and/or He will be there to help us.

Jesus was there and He did help even if they did not specifically ask for it. He tells the people to sit down in organized groups of 50 and 100. That must have been quite a site as they sat there in multicolored splashes of color against the backdrop of the lush green grass that grows there in the early spring and the azure sky above. Then Jesus took the bread and the fish and blessed the food, giving praise to God for what was provided. Then Jesus broke the bread and divided it among the disciples to distribute to the multitudes. Nothing in the text specifically indicates when the bread and fish multiplied or how it did so. There was no fanfare, there was no majestic public display, but quietly, and perhaps imperceptibly the food multiplied with the magnitude of the miracle being attested to only by the many people who ate and were satisfied and the twelve baskets of leftovers.

My thought is that the miracle occurred much as those in the Old Testament did. The widow woman of Zarephath whose jar of flour and jar of oil never ran out, though there was little in them and she used them for a whole year (1 Kings 17:10). Or the case of the multiplied oil of the prophets’ widow when Elisha had her continue to pour oil from one container and fill up a room full of vessels. The oil multiplied even as she poured it out. I believe the same occurred here with the food multiplying in the baskets even as it was being distributed.

Jesus performed a miracle of multiplication of food. Five small loaves of barley bread and two small fish multiplied to feed and satisfy well over 5,000 people and the fragments that were leftover amounted to more food than when they had started.


But what does all this mean to us? The miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 is obviously a very important miracle since it is the only one repeated in all four gospel accounts.

We find in Jesus’ departure from Capernaum that there is a time and place to remove yourself from danger, not from fear of it but from wisdom to continue your service to God. We also found that it is good to seek to spend time alone in a quiet place to be refreshed.

Jesus’ demonstration of compassion is a model for us. Life is not about our convenience, but about serving the Lord. Ministering to others is not always convenient, yet, as we see people through God’s love we reach out self-sacrificially to meet their needs.

We also find that truly ministering to someone necessarily involves telling them about God. We should help meet the physical needs of others, but our real purpose is to reach out and meet their spiritual need. Another lesson here is that we need not question the wisdom of God asking us to obey Him. It is enough for us to know of His love for us and that He will enable us to do whatever He asks. And we must remember that God is not limited as a human. What is impossible for us is the possible for Him.

Finally, we find that we are no better or worse than the apostles. They were ordinary humans as we are. What we read about them should encourage us about our frailties and failures and challenge us to follow them, even as they followed the Lord Jesus Christ.

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