I love the seemingly insignificant phrases in the Bible—phrases like the ones we find at the end of Genesis 1:16—“He also made the stars” (NIV)—or at the end of John’s gospel, where we are told the exact number of fish that Peter caught after Jesus had been raised from the dead—153 “large fish” (John 21:11). We frequently pass over these kinds of comments without giving them further thought. But we need to remember that there is no such thing as an insignificant phrase in the Bible. The Lord was not trying to fill up a minimum word or page count like many students try to do today with their writing assignments. Everything the Bible says is important and is intended by God to teach us something. Rather than passing over these phrases, we should instead give thought as to what God might be trying to teach us through them.
The account of the feeding of the five thousand, recorded in all four Gospels, contains several seemingly insignificant phrases—but one in particular has recently grabbed my attention. In John 6:10, after Jesus tells the disciples to have the people sit down, we read that “there was much grass in the place” and that, because of that fact (literally, “therefore”), “the men sat down, about five thousand in number.” I find that interesting. Why would John tell us that “there was much grass in the place”? Besides the fact that there obviously was “much grass” there, is anything else going on here? What are we to make of these seemingly insignificant comments?
In verse 4, John informs us that this event took place during the Passover feast, which means that the Jews would have had Moses and the exodus on their minds. So, when they saw the sign that Jesus had done, it is no surprise that they immediately looked upon Him as “the Prophet who is to come into the world” (v. 14; cf. Deut. 18:15–18). Whereas Moses had provided for the needs of the people of Israel by way of manna alone (i.e., bread from the Lord) and the people had grumbled looking for fish to eat in addition to the bread (Num. 11:4–5), here we read that Jesus provided the people with both bread and fish. And whereas the provision of the manna through Moses had been just enough for each day with nothing left over, here we read that Jesus provided the people with so much that there were twelve baskets full of bread and fish left over (John 6:13). It is no wonder that the people wanted “to come and take [Jesus] by force to make him king” (v. 15). They seemed to have sensed that One greater than Moses was here.
But is this all we are meant to see? What does the seemingly insignificant comment about the grass mean? I think that John wants us to see that Jesus is not only the “Prophet who is to come” but the Shepherd of Psalm 23 who cares for His people and provides abundantly for our needs. Mark’s account of this event explicitly tells us that Jesus looked upon the crowds that had followed Him and “had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). So, in order to fill this role as shepherd, Jesus taught them “many things” and fed them with more than enough food.
It is in that light that John’s comments about there being “much grass in the place” could have more significance than we might normally give them. Not only did the feeding of the five thousand occur in “green pastures,” but it also occurred by the “still waters” of the Sea of Galilee (v. 1). We know this because, according to verse 18, it was not until evening that the sea “became rough” by “a strong wind.”
John, therefore, could very well be implying that Jesus is the Shepherd of Psalm 23. He makes His people lie down in green pastures; He leads them beside the still waters; He restores their souls. And He does all this in such a way that His people shall never be in want. Isn’t that the real point of the feeding of the five thousand? Jesus is the great Shepherd of the sheep. He provides for the needs of His people, and He does so in great abundance. In the words of the Apostle Paul, Jesus does “far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20). Our inadequacies and deficiencies are not limitations for Him. Five loaves of bread and two fish are more than enough for Him to feed five thousand men plus women and children. Jesus fed them all and even produced twelve baskets full left over.
But there may well be something more here. Matthew, Mark, and John all follow the account of the feeding of the five thousand with the account of Jesus’ walking on the water. In each of these Gospels, we are told that the disciples set out to cross the Sea of Galilee by themselves at night and were struggling mightily against the wind and the waves. Matthew says that the disciples’ boat was being “beaten by the waves” (Matt. 14:24). The word that is translated “beaten” here is actually translated “tormented” every other time it is used in the New Testament. In Matthew 8:29, it is used to describe the kind of tormenting that demons will endure at the last day. In Revelation 9:5, the word describes such incredible pain and agony that people will long for death just to put them out of their misery. The point is that the word seems to suggest that the disciples were facing more than just a few small waves. Likely they were fighting for their lives in a fierce storm on the Sea of Galilee.
This is especially interesting when we remember that the Sea of Galilee is approximately seven hundred feet below sea level and is surrounded by mountains on every side—a sea inside a valley. The disciples were, therefore, in the midst of the valley with mountains all around them; they were in the dark; they were exhausted after hours of being tormented by what was apparently a fierce storm. And Jesus came walking to them on the water. The Shepherd of Psalm 23 came to them walking through the valley of the shadow of death, as it were, and He reminded them that they needed not fear any evil (John 6:20) because He was with them.
The picture is an encouraging one, to be sure. Jesus is the Shepherd of Psalm 23. He provides for His people in ways that are abundantly more than all we can ask or even think. He does so even despite our inadequacies and deficiencies. And He comes to us in the valley of the shadow of death in the midst of our exhaustion and pain, and He reminds us that even in those times, we need fear no evil because He is with us and will protect and comfort us. It is no wonder that we are told that the disciples “were glad to take [Jesus] into the boat” with them (v. 21). The question we should be asking ourselves is, Are we?