In the Gospels, Jesus takes twelve men and puts them through a spiritual bootcamp, preparing them to continue his ministry in an effective and balanced way. With the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus invites his disciples to partake in the work of ministry. Sometimes in our efforts today, it can feel like the task before us is not physically possible; when we let Jesus be the provider, we become firsthand witnesses to the power of God.

The following article is adapted from the NIV Application Commentary on Luke.

Luke 9:10-17

10When the Apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida, 11but the crowds learned about it and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing.
12Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here.”

13He replied, “You give them something to eat.”
They answered, “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish — unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.” 14(About five thousand men were there.)
But he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15The disciples did so, and everybody sat down. 16Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to set before the people. 17They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.

Original Meaning

Luke now records the only miracle that is in all four Gospels: the feeding of the five thousand (Matt. 14:13-21; Mark 6:32-44; John 6:1-15). This miracle of provision obviously indicates how Jesus meets needs. But there is a second key to the miracle, in that this provision comes through the disciples. Jesus has just commissioned them to share the kingdom message (9:1-6). They need to be aware of what they can do through Christ. Jesus shows them that they have access to his authority through his enablement.

Two other images impact this event. The provision of food is conceptually similar to two key Old Testament events, God’s provision of quail and Elisha’s provision of barley bread (Num. 11; 2 Kings 4:42-44). The picture of table fellowship also evokes images of the messianic banquet, where God’s people enjoy fellowship provided by the gracious provision of the Messiah.

The miracle has a rich tapestry of fundamental themes that weave through Jesus’ ministry: compassion, control over creation, and the ability to make provisions for life. In a sense, this is a cameo portrait of God’s grace and the offer of his presence at a table where he provides for his children.

Putting the concept of ministry into practice

The disciples have returned from their mission and report to Jesus on all they have done. No details are given, though their report about a later mission is surely similar (10:17). That this report is the setting for the miracle is no accident. Luke is indicating the importance Jesus gives to the concept that he will minister through his servants. They will do great things through his enabling power.

The disciples withdraw with Jesus to Bethsaida, a city located on the west coast of the Sea of Galilee. As always, a crowd follows them. Again Jesus preaches the kingdom and heals the multitudes. But the day is winding down and the sun is setting. The disciples, who always keep the practical questions in front of them, begin to wonder where and how they will feed the crowd of five thousand men. Surely it is time to call it a day. The crowd should be dismissed to find food and lodging.

Jesus surprises his disciples by telling them to provide the food. The food accountants in the group take inventory: five loaves and two fish. It is impossible to feed five thousand with this small amount. Procuring sufficient provision for this crowd will be a logistical nightmare, even for twelve men.

Surely Jesus should reconsider!

He does. He tells them to group the crowd into units of fifty. Then taking the five loaves and two fish, he invokes the blessing of God. He breaks the bread and hands the food to the disciples to distribute. Through their connection to Jesus, the disciples provide enough food for all present, with twelve baskets left over. No details of how the multiplication of loaves and fish takes place are given. Rather, Luke stresses the provision itself. Like Israel in the desert or the time of Elisha the prophet, Jesus has a ministry that can meet our most fundamental needs. Moreover, the disciples can do all things necessary for ministry through the Christ who enables them. In a sense Jesus is preparing to pass the torch of ministry to them. So lessons are present, both for those who receive the provision and those through whom Jesus provides it.

Bridging Contexts

The dynamics of successful ministry are timeless. Disciples can make provision through the enablement Jesus provides. His call to serve and provide for others out of compassion requires we think not of ourselves, but how we can reach others. Such a ministry goes counter to the way people normally operate, where self-provision is often the order of the day. The ministry of the church involves a call to minister through him and for him. Though we may discuss things today other than the procurement of a meal, the dynamic in place is the same. To minister outside of the provision Jesus provides is not real ministry. On the other hand, relying on him means that one is in touch with the One who can provide all that is necessary for effective ministry.

The disciples need to see that they can accomplish things they never dreamed of doing through their association with Jesus. Only the limits of their vision will prevent them from moving forward in ministry. On this day, they are part of something they have never contemplated doing before. They will never be the same again, because the course of instruction Jesus begins with them here teaches them the important lessons they need for effective ministry. It may take them a while to get the point, as it often does us. But they eventually come to see and draw upon the full effect of Jesus’ power.

Contemporary Significance

We have never done that before” or “We could never do that” are the two great killer phrases of effective ministry. They usually appear because of practical concerns or because of the traditional way things have been done. In the process, great ideas can get squashed. The disciples, though not entirely surprisingly, lack vision for the new way Jesus wishes to provide for the crowd. Yet his presence changes the equation of what is possible. This miracle shows that ministers in touch with Jesus can make provision in surprising ways. Creatively relying on him brings the Twelve to new frontiers of ministry. He is able to direct them and lead them into seeing that through him comes spiritual sustenance.

The commentary of Jesus on this event in John 6 indicates how he is “the bread of life,” the source of spiritual provision and direction. In Acts 3-4, the church has learned the lesson that to be effective in ministry, they must draw on what Jesus provides; throughout Acts, the church continues to learn creatively about the possibility of ministry through reliance on Jesus.

There is no one way to reach people.

The ministry of provision takes many forms. But one dynamic is a constant: To be effective, the one who leads in setting out the provision must be Jesus. Whether one ministers through visiting someone in the hospital, providing meals for a family who are not able to provide for themselves, or simply being available to listen to someone’s emotional trauma, those who seek to provide what Jesus offers bring a picture of God’s compassion to those they serve.

There is another note in this event. The simple scene of reclining together in fellowship paints a picture of the community that Jesus seeks to provide. As the food was distributed and the meal provided, there was a sense that Jesus had ministered to all of them, since there was more than enough food provided for all those present. This setting is a statement against privatized religion, where my only concern is what God is doing with me. Jesus teaches us to minister to the multitudes and gather them together as a community. Later on, Jesus urges unity on his disciples in his call to show the world how they love one another (John 13:34-35). Our personal agendas should be left at the door when we are in the presence of the Lord.

Jesus later instituted the Lord’s table to make the same point. The meal of fellowship we enjoy at Jesus’ feet means we are all seated at the same table. We should minister with the awareness that the table is his and the food he has provided is his. That is why 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 and 11:23-27 emphasize the importance of unity at the table, for we all partake of one loaf and cup and we make a joint proclamation of our allegiance to Jesus.

The Key to Effective Ministry

As cliche as it might sound, Luke 9:10-17 teaches us that, whether we’re feeding the masses, healing the sick, or giving encouragement, the only effective way to do ministry is to keep Jesus at the center. He is our provider and if we lose focus, we will lose that fruit as well.

Keep Learning

Did you enjoy this selection from the NIV Application Commentary? Believe it or not, this article is on the shorter side! This highly-regarded commentary takes you chunk-by-chunk through the Bible, touching on original meaning, principles that transcend contexts, and significance for today. Go here to read more from the NIV Application Commentary or get it for yourself!

When was a time Jesus provided for your ministry beyond what you thought was possible?

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