Jesus Verse by Verse

an expanded commentary on the Gospel of Matthew

Jesus Verse by Verse...

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Digression 11: The Openness of Jesus in Feeding the 5000

There are evident parallels between Paul’s account of the breaking of bread, and the Lord’s words about the giving of His body. There is no record of the great preaching commission in John, but he does in fact record it in more spiritual and indirect ways. And likewise there is no account of the breaking of bread, but in fact he has already recorded the essence of it in the discourse about the bread and wine of life in Jn. 6:

Jn. 6:51

1 Cor. 11:24

The bread which I will give


Is my flesh

Is my body

For the life of the world

Which is for you

The Lord in Jn. 6 taught parallels between belief in Him leading to eternal life, and His words, blood and body having the same effect. The word of Christ is in that sense His body and blood; it speaks to us in “the preaching (word) of the cross". There are parallels between the manna and the word of Christ; yet also between the manna and His death. His words give life as the manna did (:63), and yet the manna is specifically defined as His flesh, which He gave to bring life (:51). In this context He speaks of gaining life by eating His bread and drinking His blood, in evident anticipation of the memorial meal He was to institute (compare ‘the bread which I give is my flesh’ with ‘this is my body, given for you’). Eating / absorbing His manna, the sacrifice of the cross, is vital to the experience of eternal life now and the future physical receipt of it. Assimilating the spirit and life of His cross into our lives is the vital essence of eternal life; and He foresaw that one of the ways of doing this would be through remembering that cross in the breaking of bread service. And yet notice how the Lord took that bread of life and gave it to the disciples as His guests at the last supper. To take the bread is to show our acceptance of the gift of life which is in Jesus. The Lord stated that when He had been lifted up on the cross, then the Jews would realize the truth and integrity of the words that He had spoken (Jn. 8:28). Again, the cross is presented as a confirmation of all the words / verbal teaching of the Lord.
The feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels; it is highly significant, not least because of the utterly open fellowship which Jesus demonstrated, especially bearing in mind that the meal was consciously intended as a foretaste of the future Messianic banquet. The food was shared with no respect to boundaries and without any tests of purity or ethnicity. The Pharisees would’ve been disgusted. Mark especially brings out the connection with the breaking of bread, because he describes both events with the same words and as following the same order of events- Jesus taking the bread, blessing it, and giving to the disciples. Jn. 6:51-59 appears to be John’s version of the “breaking of bread” Last Supper discourses in the other Gospels. They record the Lord taking the bread and saying “This is my body”, but John puts that in terms of Him saying “I am the bread of life”. The point is that we are to understand in a very deep sense that that bread really “is” Jesus. Not literally, of course, but to such an extent that we accept His actual presence with us at the “breaking of bread”. The records of the feeding miracles are presented in terms of this Messianic banquet. They describe the guests as not merely squatting on the ground, but the Greek word for “reclining” is chosen. They likely didn’t actually recline, but this word is chosen in order to heighten the similarity with the Messianic banquet. Jesus set no conditions for participation, nor did He check out the ritual purity or morality of those thousands who reclined there. We are reminded of how at the Last Supper, Jesus shared bread and wine with those who seriously misunderstood Him, of whom He had to ask “Do you now believe…?”, and knowing full and painfully well that one of the twelve was to betray Him. The Lord’s eating with 5000 people, some of whom were likely Gentiles and many were children, was an allusion to the future Messianic banquet to which the “breaking of bread” also looks forward; His meal times were therefore a foretaste of the final banquet, and the point is, He invited all and sundry to be present at them. There was a super generosity of Jesus in the feeding miracles, to the point that baskets full of leftovers were gathered up because of the super abundance of the provision [this point is emphasized in all the records]. This theme of generosity is continued in the way at the early breaking of bread meetings, the early believers “ate their food with glad and generous hearts”, sharing what they had in common. We see here one of many strands of evidence that the Lord’s feeding miracle, with its openness and largesse, was seen as the template for the breaking of bread meetings practiced by the early church.
Significantly, Mk. 6:39 describes the huge crowd sitting down to eat with Jesus in symposia. He redefined the idea of a symposia. The abundance of food would have reminded the crowds of the descriptions of the Messianic banquet in the Kingdom as having super abundant food. All who wanted to partake were welcome; there was no attempt by Jesus to interview all those men, women and children and decide who was clean or not. Vine comments on the significant fact that the Lord blessed the meal: "According to the Jewish ordinance, the head of the house was to speak the blessing only if he himself shared in the meal; yet if they who sat down to it were not merely guests, but his children or his household, then he might speak it, even if he himself did not partake". His leading of the blessing was therefore a sign that He ate with these people and / or considered them as His own household. Luke's parallel record speaks of the crowds reclining to eat that meal (Lk. 9:14,15 kataklino)- to invite us to see it as a real banquet. The later feeding miracle occurred on the other side of Galilee to Magdala (Mt. 15:39), suggesting the miracle occurred in Gentile territory, with people present from "far off" (Mk. 8:3; hence the guests "glorified the God of Israel", Mt. 15:31). Surely there were Gentiles present at that meal, and the LXX uses this phrase to speak of how Gentiles from "far off" would come and sit down at the Messianic banquet of the last days (Is. 60:4; Jer. 26:27; 38:10; 46:27).
John’s account of the feeding miracle is surely intended to reference the “breaking of bread” meeting; he uses the verb eucharistein  to describe how Jesus blessed the food, and this word has a ritual, religious sense; it wasn’t simply a giving of thanks for food, but rather a blessing over it. John’s Gospel is different from the synoptics in that he prefers to not state some things which they record but rather expresses them in more spiritual terms. Thus John has no command at the end to be baptized; but Jn. 3:3-5 makes up for this by telling us that we must be born of water and Spirit to enter the Kingdom. Likewise the extended record of the Last Supper discourses in Jn. 13-17 contain no specific command about the breaking of bread. But I suggest this is because John’s record of the breaking of bread command is presented by him in the account of the feeding miracle in Jn. 6; indeed those words about the bread of life are often read in order to introduce the breaking of bread service. Strangely, closed table communities often use John 6 to do this; but the context of John 6 is a radically open table to thousands of people! A case can be made that the material in John’s Gospel is comprised of a number of sections which in their first usage would’ve been the exhortation / homily / sermon given at early “breaking of bread” meetings amongst John’s converts. In this case the seven “I am…” sayings in John would be his form of recording the Lord’s statement that “This is My body… This is My blood”. “I am the bread of life” is therefore John’s way of recording “This is My body”. Likewise John’s record of the Last Supper discourses focuses upon the abiding presence of Jesus (Jn. 13:8,13; 14:1-6,16-28; 15:1-11,26; 16:7,12-16; 17:20-26). This again is his equivalent of “This is My body… My blood… Me”.
Clearly Jesus intended His meal with that huge crowd to be a foretaste of the future Kingdom. To exclude people from the Lord's table is therefore tantamount to saying they have no place in God's Kingdom. Hence Paul warns that we can eat condemnation to ourselves by not discerning the body of Christ; by excluding some from His table, from the one loaf, we are saying they are not in His body, not possible candidates for His Kingdom; and thereby we exclude ourselves from that body. It's not surprising that the early church, at least in Corinth, allowed the meeting to turn into the kind of 'symposia' they were accustomed to. The church of later ages, including our own, has struggled terribly in the same way. The communion service has tended to become a club, a meeting of equals, and too often it has effectively been said "If he's coming, if she's accepted there in fellowship, then I'm out of here". In essence we are faced with the same temptation that was faced and succumbed to in the earlier church- to turn that table into a sign of our bonding with others of our type, rather than allowing the radical challenge of Christ's table fellowship to really be accepted by us as a radical advertisement to the world of Christian unity. The Jewish sensitivity regarding your table companions has too often been transferred to the church of our day.
The disciples perceived the link between their eating with Jesus at meal tables, and the future Messianic banquet- for James and John asked that their favoured places at Jesus’ table during His ministry be retained in the future Messianic banquet (Mk. 10:35). There was a super generosity of Jesus in the feeding miracles, to the point that baskets full of leftovers were gathered up because of the super abundance of the provision [this point is emphasized in all the records]. This theme of generosity is continued in the way at the early breaking of bread meetings, the early believers “ate their food with glad and generous hearts”, sharing what they had in common. We see here one of many strands of evidence that the Lord’s feeding miracle, with its openness and largesse, was seen as the template for the breaking of bread meetings practiced by the early church.
The same Greek words for "break bread" are used in the healing miracles, where Jesus broke bread and gave it to the crowds (Mt. 14:19; 15:36), and for how Jesus took bread and broke it at a meal with the Emmaus disciples (Lk. 24:30); those two words are also used to describe how Paul 'broke bread' with the passengers and crew onboard ship (Acts 27:35). So the evidence would seem to be that the meals of Jesus [which were open to all, sinners included] were of the same category and nature as the memorial meal known as "the breaking of bread"- for the same phrase 'breaking bread' is used (Mt. 26:26; Acts 2:46; 20:7; 1 Cor. 10:16; 11:24). The same rubric of taking bread, blessing and giving to the disciples is found in the feeding miracles as in the Last Supper, and in the Lord’s post-resurrectional eating with the couple in Emmaus- as well as in Paul’s exposition of the Christian “breaking of bread” which we have in 1 Cor. 11. Mark’s Gospel seeks to draw a parallel between the Lord’s feeding miracles and the last supper “breaking of bread”. In each account, there is the same action recorded: Taking, blessing, dividing and giving out (Mk. 6:41-44 cp. Mk. 14:22-25). That same four fold theme is to be found in the “breaking of bread” which Paul shared on the stricken ship in Acts 27:33-37, where we note that how he “gave thanks” is described using the verb eucharisteo. Truly “One cannot escape the Eucharistic shape of [that] story”.

John’s Gospel uses the word eucharistein twice when recording the feeding miracle in Jn. 6:11,23. Clearly he intended us to see in that open table feeding of all who were hungry, with no test of their cleanliness or morality, a prototype of the breaking of bread meeting. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in Me… whoever eats Me will live because of Me” (Jn. 6:56) is clearly the equivalent of “This is my body…”. Indeed, all the “I am…” sayings in John are similar to the idea of “This is My body”; not least “I am the bread of life”. Although John doesn’t record any words of Jesus spoken over the bread and wine at the last supper, this is John’s style- to allude to the physical realities recorded in the other Gospels but in more spiritual language. Thus he records no command to be baptized at the end of his Gospel, but his account of the “being born again” discourse in Jn. 3:3-5 is effectively saying the same. And so it is with his approach to the breaking of bread. Although John doesn’t record the specific breaking of bread meeting, his account of the upper room discourses given at that time continually speak of the abiding presence of the Lord Jesus (Jn. 13:8,13; 14:1-6,16-28; 15:1-11,26; 16:7,12-16; 17:20-26). Surely we are to understand that this abiding presence is through the very real presence of Jesus at the breaking of bread meeting- which is again why the meeting was and is intended in a witness context. Where is this Jesus you speak of? Come to the breaking of bread meeting, meet His body, and sense His presence…