The figure of speech here is “loaves and fishes” – by some miracle stretching out a small resource to accomplish a lot.
And it dates back to a couple of events in the midst of Jesus’ ministry: the main one is called “the feeding of the 5000”.
This is such a famous miracle that it appears in all four gospels, reported in different ways. See what you think: here’s Mark’s gospel, usually the most brief in its coverage, but here setting some context. The disciples are tired after a busy mission trip, and Jesus takes them away for a break, when a crowd visits.
Mark 6:30-44 – Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand
30 jThe apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.
35 And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. 36 Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. 41 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And they all ate and were satisfied. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Mk 6:30–44.
Matthew – a former tax collector – writes this up differently. There’s less detail in the background story.
Matt 14:13-21 – Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand
13 Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. 15 Now when it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the day is now over; send the crowds away to go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 But Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17 They said to him, “We have only five loaves here and two fish.” 18 And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass, and taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over. 21 And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Mt 14:13–21.
In Luke’s gospel, which is more concerned with both historical detail, and the plight of the poor and powerless, there’s still a lot of similarity: we have a named location, and the characteristic summarising of teaching.
Luke 9:10-17 – Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand
10 On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida. 11 When the crowds learned it, they followed him, and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God and cured those who had need of healing. 12 Now the day began to wear away, and the twelve came and said to him, “Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place.” 13 But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” 14 For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15 And they did so, and had them all sit down. 16 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing over them. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. 17 And they all ate and were satisfied. And what was left over was picked up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.
(Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Lk 9:10–17.
And then John’s gospel, written years later, is a bit more reflective. We have a location, a time of year (near Passover), more detail about the crowd, and we answer the question: why does a group of 12 disciples have only 5 loaves and two fish? There is a boy who brought some food. The disciples hadn’t, it seems, even planned as far as dinner for themselves!
John 6:1-14 – Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand
1After this Jesus went away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias. 2 And a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick. 3 Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples. 4 Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. 5 Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” 6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. 7 Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. 11 Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” 13 So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. 14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Jn 6:1–14.
It’s this clue of the Passover in John 6:4 that reminds us of why this miracle is a big deal – it links to the time that Israel spent in wandering in the desert, and saw God provide them with food (manna, if you recall, but that’s a bit out of scope for looking at the gospels). When Jesus shows his power in feeding a group of people by a miracle, he’s showing that the power comes from God, and is associated with the history of God feeding his people. This is such a clear insight into who Jesus is that it makes it into all four gospels.
What do you make of this story about this miracle?