What’s the difference between the feeding of the 4,000 and the 5,000?
February 11, 2020 | Ted Harvey
So what is the difference when Jesus fed 5000 to 20,000 Jews (if you include the women and children) and the 4000 to 18,000 Gentiles. The difference is obviously 1,000! However, there’s another important difference I’d like you to see.
This past Sunday we studied the account of the feeding of the 5000 plus described in Mark 6 and John 6. The feeding of the multitudes was clearly important to the Gospel writers since, aside from the Resurrection, it is the only miracle recorded by all four.
However, it is important to note that both Matthew and Mark record two different feedings of the multitude. The first feeding is of 5,000 people and the subsequent one is of 4,000:
35 When it grew late, his disciples approached him and said, “This place is deserted, and it is already late. 36 Send them away so that they can go into the surrounding countryside and villages to buy themselves something to eat.” … 38 He asked them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” When they found out they said, “Five, and two fish.” … 41 He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he blessed and broke the loaves. … 44 Now those who had eaten the loaves were five thousand men. -- Mark 6:35-44
1 In those days there was again a large crowd, and they had nothing to eat. He called the disciples and said to them, 2 "I have compassion on the crowd, because they've already stayed with me three days and have nothing to eat. 3 If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, and some of them have come a long distance." … 5 "How many loaves do you have?" he asked them. "Seven," they said. 6 He commanded the crowd to sit down on the ground. Taking the seven loaves, he gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people. So they served them to the crowd. 7 They also had a few small fish, and after he had blessed them, he said these were to be served as well. 8 They ate and were satisfied. Then they collected seven large baskets of leftover pieces. 9 About four thousand were there. -- Mark 8:1-9
Why did Matthew and Mark include two miracles of the same kind? After all, if Jesus has already fed 5,000 people, what is really added to the Gospel story by including a second feeding of a smaller number? It seems odd. Wouldn’t it have been better to use that precious ink and parchment to record some other miracle?
The answer is location, location, location…
The feeding of the 4,000 is important because of where it took place. The feeding of the 5,000 took place near Bethsaida, close to the Sea of Galilee. In contrast, the feeding of the 4,000 took place in the region of the Gerasenes, in the region around the Decapolis.
Okay, so the two miracles took place in different regions, so what? It’s important because the first region was Jewish (5,000+) and the second region was Gentile (4,000+). There are some numerical clues in the text which also point to this distinction (numbers in the Bible are rarely accidental).
- Feeding of the 5,000
In this miracle, Jesus takes five loves and feeds five thousand, which is reminiscent of the five books of the Jewish Law (Genesis, Exodus, and so on …). Not only that, but when everyone had finished eating, twelve baskets of left-overs were collected, which was probably alluding to the twelve tribes of Israel and certainly the twelve disciples.
- Feeding of the 4,000
In this second miracle, seven loaves are used and seven baskets are collected. The number seven is symbolic of completeness (i.e. not just Jews but Gentiles too) and the number seven is reminiscent of the seven days of creation when God created all humanity.
So, what is the significance of two feedings of the multitudes? Both miracles show the provision of the Lord, His love for all His people, both Jew and Gentile. Jesus will later claim in John 6, “I am the Bread of Life.” In these miracles, Jesus feeds them with miraculous bread in preparation for the day when He would have His own body broken like bread upon the cross, offering spiritual and eternal nourishment to all who would call upon His name and place their faith and trust in Him.
Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. --1 Corinthians 10:17