The feeding of the five thousand, recorded in Matthew 14:13–21, is probably the most well known of all of Jesus’ miracles. It is the only one recorded by all four of the gospel writers (see Mark 6:30–44; Luke 9:10–19; John 6:1–14). It is also one that skeptics have most often tried to explain away. A common explanation is that the little boy’s example of generosity in giving his bread and fish to Jesus prompted others to share the food they had brought along, so that there was enough for all.
That this was an amazing miracle is beyond doubt. To use a contemporary expression, it was “over the top.” It is impossible to visualize in our minds what it must have looked like, and the extreme brevity of the account tempts us to fill in the details. But we should refrain from doing so, knowing that the Holy Spirit guided the gospel writers to give us only as much detail as He wanted us to know.
Rather than puzzling over omitted details, we need to ask of any portion of Scripture what it teaches us. Without claiming to have plumbed the depths of this passage, let me draw out one obvious lesson: Jesus controls the physical universe, and He exercises that control for His people.
Scripture teaches us that the Son of God was not only the agent of creation, but that He also upholds the universe and holds it together by the word of His power (Heb. 1:1–3; Col. 1:16–17). That is, He who created the universe in the beginning also sustains and directs it moment by moment on a continual basis. We know, for example, that ordinarily the physical laws of the universe operate in a consistent and predictable manner. The reason they do is because of the consistent will of Christ causing them to do so. They do not operate on their own.
This helps us understand why Jesus could perform miracles; in this case causing five small barley cakes and two small fish to multiply so dramatically that they fed more than five thousand people. Jesus, who created the physical laws and stands outside of them and over them, could, as He purposed, change or countermand any of them. In fact He could, if He so willed, create an entirely new law of multiplication for that specific occasion so that the bread and fish multiplied.
We really don’t know what Jesus did, or what the multiplication process looked like. We only know the results, and we know that the Lord of the universe could, in whatever way He chose, produce those miraculous results. Miracles were no problem for Jesus.
Today, at least in the Western world, we seem to see few miracles, and certainly none the scope of the feeding of the five thousand. What we do see, however, are the results of God’s invisible hand of providence. Setting aside the theological definition of providence to keep it simple, we may say that providence is God’s orchestrating all events and circumstances in the universe for His glory and the good of His people (Rom. 8:28).
Scripture teaches us that just as the Son of God was the agent of creation and is its present sustainer, so too is He also the agent of God’s providence. Jesus is in sovereign control, not only of the physical laws of the universe, but of all the events and circumstances in the universe, including those that happen to each of us. If you have food today in your cupboard and refrigerator, that is as much the result of Jesus’ care for you as was the feeding of the five thousand.
Just as the physical laws of the universe ordinarily operate in a consistent and predictable manner, so providence ordinarily operates in a predictable cause and effect relationship. “A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich” (Prov. 10:4). That’s cause and effect, and it is generally predictable. But just as Jesus intervened in the physical laws during His time on earth, so He intervenes in normal cause-and-effect relationships. Sometimes from our perspective His intervention is “good” and sometimes it’s “bad.” In either case He is in control “Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?” (Lam. 3:38).
The good news, however, is that Jesus is not only in control of all the events and circumstances of our lives, He is also compassionate. In the record of the feeding of the five thousand, the text says “He had compassion on them and healed their sick” (Matt. 14:14). At the subsequent feeding of the four thousand, Jesus said, “I have compassion on the crowd because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat” (Matt. 15:32). Whether it was healing the sick or feeding the multitude, Jesus was moved to act by His compassion. On other occasions throughout the Gospels we see Jesus acting as a result of His compassion. And what He was while on earth, He is today in heaven: a sovereign and compassionate Savior who works all things for His glory and our good.