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by Richard Chenevix Trench
Chapter 16 from Notes on the Miracles of our Lord
(First Published 1846.)
(see original for extensive footnotes)
MATT. xiv. 15-21;  MARK vi. 34-44;  LUKE ix. 12-17;  JOHN vi. 5-15
THIS miracle, with the walking on the sea, which may be regarded as its appendix, is the only one which St. John has in common with the other Evangelists, and this he has in common with them all. It will follow that it is the only one of which a fourfold record exists. It will be my endeavour to keep all the narratives in view, as they mutually complete one another. St. Matthew connects the Lord’s retirement to the desert place on the other side of the lake,’ with the murder of John the Baptist ; St. Mark and St. Luke place the two events in juxtaposition, but without making one to be motive of the other. From St. Mark, indeed, it might appear as if the immediate motive was another, namely, that the Apostles, who were just returned from their mission, might have time at once for bodily and spiritual refreshment, might not be always in a crowd, always ministering to others, never to themselves. But thither, into ‘a desert place belonging to the city called Bethsaida,” the multitude followed Him; not necessarily proceeding ‘afoot,’ for pezh (Mark vi. 33) need not imply this, and here does not;’ but ‘by land,’ as distinguished from Him and his company, who made the passage by sea. They lost so little time on their journey, that although their way was much longer about than his, who had only to cross the lake, they ‘outwent' Him, anticipated his coming, so that when He ‘went forth,’ not, that is, from the ship, but from his solitude, and for the purpose of graciously receiving those who had followed Him with such devotion, He ‘saw much people’ waiting for Him. This their presence entirely defeated the very intention for which He had sought that solitude; yet He none the less “received them, and stoke unto them of the kingdom of God, and healed them that had need of healing.' St. John’s apparently casual notice of the fact that the passover was at hand, is not so much to fix a point in the chronology of the Lord’s ministry, as to explain from whence these great multitudes, that streamed to Jesus, came; they were on their road to Jerusalem, there to keep the feast.

The way is prepared for the miracle in a somewhat different manner by the three earlier Evangelists, and by St. John. According to them, ‘ When it was evening his disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitudes away, that they may go into the villages and buy themselves meat.' The first suggestion comes here from the disciples; while in St. John it is the Lord Himself who, in his question to Philip, ‘ Whence shall we buy bread that these may eat?’ (vi. 5) first contemplates the difficulty. This difference, however, is capable of an easy explanation. Our Lord may have put this question to Philip at a somewhat earlier period of the afternoon; then left the difficulty which he had suggested to work in the minds of the Apostles; bringing them, as was so often his manner, to see that there was no help in the common course of things; and when they had acknowledged this, then, and not before, stepping in with his higher aid.’

St. John, ever careful to ‘avert a misconstruction of his Lord’s words (ii. 21; xxi. 22), above all, any which might seem to derogate from his perfect system of love, does not fail to inform us, that He asked this, not as needing any council, not as being Himself in any real embarrassment, ‘for He Himself knew what He would do,’ but ‘tempting him,’ as Wiclif’s translation has it. If we admit this word, we must yet understand it in its milder sense, as indeed our Version has done, which has given it, ‘to prove him' (cf. Gen. xxii. 1). It was ‘to prove him,’ and what measure of faith he had in that Master whom he had himself already acknowledged the Messiah, ‘Him of whom Moses in the Law and the prophets did write’ (John i. 45). It should now be seen whether Philip, calling to mind the great things which Moses had done, who gave the people bread from heaven in the wilderness, and the notable miracle which Elisha, though on a smaller scale than that which now was needed, had performed (2 Kin. iv. 43, 44), could so lift up his thoughts as to believe that He whom he had recognized as the Christ, greater therefore than Moses or the prophets, would be equal to the present need. Cyril sees a reason why to Philip, rather than to any other Apostle, the question should be put, namely that his need of the teaching contained in it was the greatest; and refers to his later words, ‘Lord, show us the Father’ (John xiv. 8), in proof of the tardiness of his spiritual apprehension. But whatever the motive which led to the singling of him out for proof, he does not abide that proof. Long as he has been with Jesus, he has not yet seen the Father in the Son (John xiv. 9); as yet he knows not that the Lord whom he serves upon earth is even the same who ‘openeth his hand and filleth all things living with plenteousness,’ who feeds and nourishes all creatures, who has fed and nourished them from the creation of the world, and who therefore can feed these few thousands that are this day more particularly dependent on his bounty. He can conceive of no other supplies save such as natural means could procure, and at once comes to the point: Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little.' The sum he names, he would of course imply, was much larger than the common purse could yield.

Having drawn this confession of inability to meet the present need from the lips of Philip, He left it to work ;--till, somewhat later in the day, the disciples came with their proposal that He should dismiss the assemblage. But the Lord will now bring them yet nearer to the end at which he aims, and replies, ‘They need not depart; give ye them to eat:’ and when they repeat with one mouth what Philip had before affirmed, asking if they shall spend two hundred pence (for them an impossible outlay) in making the necessary provision, ‘He saith unto them, How many loaves have yet so and see.’  With their question we may compare that of Moses: ‘Shall the flocks and the herds be slain for them, to suffice them?’ (Num. xi. 22; cf. Ps. lxxviii. 19, 20), for there is the same mitigated infidelity in both; the same doubt whether the power of the Lord is equal to that which his word, expressly or implicitly, has undertaken. In the interval between their going and their return to Him, they purchase, or rather secure for purchase, the little stock which a single lad among the multitude has to sell; so we may explain that in the earlier Evangelists they speak of the five loaves and two fishes as theirs, in St John as still belonging to the lad himself.

With this slender stock of homeliest fare, for St. John informs us that the loaves were ‘barley loaves’ (cf. 2 Kin. vii. 1;  Judg. vii. 13;  Ezek. iv. 12), the Lord undertakes to satisfy all that multitude; (Chrysostom quotes aptly here Ps. lxxviii. 19: ‘Shall God prepare a table in the wilderness?’) ‘for He commanded them to make all sit down by companies on the green grass,’ at that early spring season a delightful resting-place. ‘So the men  sat down, in number about five thousand.’  The mention of this ‘green grass,’ or ‘much grass,’ is another point of contact between St. Mark and St. John. The former adds another graphic touch, how they sat in companies, ‘by hundreds and by fifties,’ and how these separate groups showed in their symmetrical arrangement like so many garden-plots. It was a wise precaution. The vast assemblage was thus subdivided and broken up into manageable portions; there was less danger of tumult and confusion, or that the weaker, the women and the children, should be past over, while the stronger and ruder unduly put themselves forward; the Apostles were able to pass easily up and down among the groups, and to minister in orderly succession to the necessities of all.

The taking of the bread in hand seems to have been a formal act which went before the blessing or giving of thanks for it’ (Luke xxiv. 30;. I Cor. xi. 23). This eucharistic act Jesus accomplished as the head of the household, and according to that beautiful saying of the Talmud, ‘He that enjoys aught without thanksgiving, is as though he robbed God. Having blessed, He ‘brake and gave the loaves to The disciples, and the disciples to the multitude ;‘—the marvellous multiplication taking place, as many affirm, first in the Saviour’s own hands, next in those of the Apostles, and lastly in the hands of the eaters. This may have been so; at all events it was in such a manner that ‘they did all eat, and were filled’ (Psal. cxlv. 16). There was now fulfilled for that multitude the pledge and the promise of the Saviour, ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you’ (Matt. vi. 33). They had come taking no thought, for three days at least, of what they should eat and what they should drink, only desirous to hear the word of life, only seeking the kingdom of heaven; and now the lower things, according to the word of the promise, were added unto them.

Here, too, even more remarkably than with the water changed into wine, when we endeavour to realize to ourselves the manner of the miracle, it evermore eludes our grasp. We seek in vain to follow it with our imaginations. For, indeed, how is it possible to realize to ourselves, to bring within forms of our conception, any act of creation, any becoming? how is it possible in our thoughts to bridge over the gulf between not-being and being, which yet is bridged over in every creative act? And this being impossible, there is no force in the objection which one has made against the historical truth of this narrative, namely, that ‘there is no attempt by closer description to make clear in its details the manner in which this wonderful bread was formed.’ It is true wisdom to leave the description of the indescribable undescribed, and with not so much as an attempt at the description.  They who bear record of these things appeal to the same faith, on the part of their readers or hearers, which believes ‘that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear’ (Heb. xi. 3).

An analogy has been found to this miracle, and, so to speak, a help to its understanding, in that which year by year is accomplished in the field, where a single grain of corn multiplies itself, and in the end unfolds in numerous ears ;—and, with this analogy in view, many beautiful remarks have been made; as this, that while God’s everyday miracles had grown cheap in men’s sight by continual repetition, He had therefore reserved something, not more wonderful, but less frequent, to arouse men’s minds to a new admiration. Others have urged that here, as in the case of the water made wine, He did but compress into a single moment all those processes which in ordinary circumstances He, the same Lord of nature, causes more slowly to succeed one another.  But, true as in its measure is this last observation, it must not be forgotten that the analogy does not reach through and through. For that which finds place in the field is the unfolding of the seed according to the law of its own being. Thus, if the Lord had taken a few grains of corn and cast them into the ground, and if, a moment after, a large harvest had sprung up, to this the name of such a ‘divinely-hastened process’ might have been fitly applied.  But with bread it is otherwise; since, before that is made, there must be new interpositions of man’s art, and those of such a nature as that by them the very life, which up to this point has unfolded itself, must be crushed and destroyed. A grain of wheat could never by itself, and according to the laws of natural development, issue in a loaf of bread. And, moreover, the Lord does not start from the simple germ, from the lifeful rudiments, in which all the seeds of a future life might be supposed to be wrapt up, and by Him rapidly developed, but with the latest artificial product: one can conceive how the oak is enfolded in the acorn, but not how it could be said to be wrapt up in the piece of timber hewn and shaped from itself. This analogy, then, even as such, is not satisfying; and, renouncing all helps of this kind, we must simply behold in this multiplying of the bread an act of divine omnipotence on his part who was the Word of God,—not indeed now, as at the first, of absolute creation out of nothing, since there was a sub-stratum to work on in the original loaves and fishes, but an act of creative accretion; a quantitative, as the water turned into wine was a qualitative, miracle, the bread growing under his hands, so that from that little stock all the multitude were abundantly supplied. Thus He, all whose works were ‘signs’ and had a tongue by which they spoke to the world, did in this miracle proclaim Himself the true bread of the world, which should satisfy the hunger of men; the unexhausted and inexhaustible source of all life, in whom there should be enough and to spare for all the spiritual needs of all hungering souls in all ages. For, in Augustine’s language, once already quoted, ‘He was the Word of God; and all the acts of the Word are themselves words for us; they are not as pictures, merely to look at and admire, but as letters, which we must seek to read and understand.’

When all had eaten and were satisfied, the disciples gathered up the fragments which remained over of the loaves, that nothing might be lost; only St. John mentions that it is at Christ’s bidding they do this; the existence of these itself witnessing that there was enough for all and to spare (2 Kin. iv. 43, 44; Ruth ii. 14). For thus, as Olshausen remarks, with the Lord of nature, as with nature herself, the most prodigal, bounty goes hand in hand with the nicest and exactest economy; and He who had but now shown Himself God, again submits Himself to the laws and proprieties of his earthly condition, so that, as in the miracle itself his power, in this command his humility, shines eminently forth.” ‘And they took up of the fragments that remained, twelve baskets full ‘—for each Apostle his basket. St. Mark alone mentions that it was so done with the fishes as well. This which remained over must have immensely exceeded in bulk and quantity the original stock; so that we have here a visible symbol of that love which exhausts not itself by loving, but after all its outgoings upon others, abides itself far richer than it would have done but for these, of the multiplying which there ever is in a true dispensing; of the increasing which may go along with a scattering (Prov. xi. 24; cf. 2 Kin. iv. 1-7).

St. John,--always careful to note whatever actively stirred up the malignity of Christ’s enemies,—to which nothing more contributed than the expression of the people’s favour, all which thus drew on the final catastrophe,--alone tells us of the effect which this miracle had upon the multitude; how ‘they that had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of truth the prophet that should come into the world,’ the prophet of whom Moses spake, like to himself, whom God would raise up (Deut. XV111. 15; cf. John i. 21; Mal. iii. 1); and how, ever eager for new things, they would fain, with or without his consent, have made Him their king; for they recognized the kingly, as well as the prophetic, character of their future Messiah (John i. 50); and, as St. John’s word may perhaps imply (arpazein), being on their way to Jerusalem, would have borne Him with them thither, to install Him there in the royal seat of David. It was not merely the power which He here displayed that moved them so mightily, but the fact that a miracle exactly of this character was looked for from the Messiah. He was to repeat, so to say, the miracles of Moses. As Moses, the first redeemer, had given bread of wonder to the people in the wilderness, even so should the later Redeemer do the same.  Thus, too, when the first enthusiasm which this work had stirred was spent, the Jews compare it with that which Moses had done, not any longer to find here a proof that as great or a greater prophet was among them, but invidiously to depress the present by comparison with the past miracle; and by the inferiority which they found in this, to prove that Jesus was not that Messias who had a right to rebuke and command them. ‘What sign showest Thou, that we may see and believe Thee? What dost Thou work? Our fathers did eat manna in the desert, as it is written, He gave them bread from heaven to eat’ (John vi. 30, 31); ‘while the bread which Thou hast given,’ for this much they would imply, ‘is but this common bread of earth, with which Thou hast once nourished a few thousands.’

But although there is a resemblance between that miracle and this, the resemblance is more striking between this and another in the Old Testament, already referred to,—that which Elisha wrought, when with twenty loaves of barley he satisfied a hundred men (2 Kin. iv. 42-44). All the rudiments of this miracle there appear; the two substances, one artificial, one natural, from which the many persons are fed; as here bread and fish, so there bread and fresh ears of corn. As the disciples are incredulous here, so there the servitor asks, ‘Should I set this before a hundred men?’ As here twelve baskets of fragments remain, so there ‘they did eat, and left thereof.’ Yet were they only the weaker rudiments of this miracle; a circumstance which the difference between the servants and the Lord sufficiently explains. The prophets having grace only in measure, so in measure they wrought their miracles; but the Son, working with infinite power, and with power not lent Him, but His own, did all with much superabundance. Analogies to this miracle, but of a remoter kind, may be found in the multiplying of the widow’s cruse of oil and barrel of meal by Elijah (I Kin. xvii. 16), and in the other miracle of the oil, which, according to the prophet’s word, continued to flow so long as there were vessels to receive it (2 Kin. iv. 1-7).