That‘s not a typo in the title. In addition to the well-known feeding of The Five thousand (King James version: Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:12-17; John 6: 1-14), Jesus also fed another four thousand (Matthew 15:29-39; Mark 8:1-9). But this miracle doesn’t get nearly as much press as The Five, and many people probably don’t even know about it. The Four follows naturally, though, in terms of Jesus’ messages and mission, and it may have even more significance than the well-known and often-quoted Five.
As with so many other stories in the Old Testament (OT) that prefigure the New Testament (NT). this one has a predecessor—actually, four. The first is Jehovah providing food through Moses’ instruction for the Israelites in the wilderness, the manna and quail (Exodus:16). But that provision comes directly from God.
The more human parallel to the NT feedings is through the prophet Elisha. In 1 Kings 17: 12-17, Elisha multiplies flour and oil so a woman can feed him and her own family. In 2 Kings 4:1-7, Elisha helps another woman with miraculous multiplication of her olive oil so she can sell it and pay her debts. And another, the closest to those of the New Testament: in 2 Kings 4: 42-44, Elisha multiplies twenty loaves to feed 100 men, with some left over.
In the first account, Elisha also brings the woman’s son back to life, another prefiguring of all Jesus would do. As with so much else in the OT, the prophecies are fulfilled in Jesus, and He is established as in the lineage and the rightful heir as God’s supreme representative.
Why This Comparison
I’m not a Bible scholar, only a reader and reverer. But in studying the two accounts of Jesus feeding multitudes with a handful of supplies, I’ve found that their resemblances and variances hold great meaning. A comparison can help us better understand (and appreciate) the Master and His mission. In the following, I compare several elements of both stories.
In The Five, Matthew 14:21 records about 5,000 men, adding “beside women and children.”
In The Four, 4,000 men are also specified, and with the same detail: “beside women and children” (Matthew 15:38). Again, we don’t know how many additional people showed up. In both accounts, there could have easily been 6,000 or more. Some scholars estimate up to 20,000.
In The Five, Jesus fed the people in Bethsaida (“House of Fish”; Luke 9:10). This town was a fishing village on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was simple and desertlike, with Jewish inhabitants.
In The Four, Jesus fed the people on the border of the Decapolis (“Ten Cities”), at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee. This was a group of ten independent but similar cities that flourished in Jesus’ time. They exemplified the Greek and Roman cultures and were populated with non-Jews.
In The Five, Jesus and the disciples “went aside privately into a desert place” (Luke 9:10); this was Bethsaida. However, the people, having heard of Him, followed. Putting His own needs aside, He “received them” (Luke 9:11) with compassion. He greeted them with kindness, consideration, and love and healed many. So, His first demonstration of compassion was to minister to their spiritual needs before providing them with material sustenance.
In The Four at Decapolis, He had been performing many miracles of healing, and the people kept coming. As the crowds mounted and the people stayed for three days, again He had compassion on them. “I will not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way” (Matthew 15:32). And so he multiplied the seven loaves and few fish.
The hunger of the crowds is also symbolic in both accounts. Word had spread about His teachings and healings, and people kept arriving. They were hungry not only for food but also for his Word. In both accounts, He heals and preaches.
The Five: Jews, meaning Jesus’ countrymen.
The Four: Gentiles, meaning anyone not a Jew = Everyone else.
No question that the baskets ranneth over.
In The Five, twelve baskets were left over. This number is often taken to symbolize the 12 tribes of Israel.
In The Four, seven baskets of extra food were gathered. This number is associated with the Gentiles, symbolizing their seven nations (Deuteronomy 7:1-2). Seven is also a sacred number of completion and perfection (God created the world in seven days, and “Sabbath,” the seventh day, comes from the Hebrew word for completeness).
Another reference to seven: When the apostles were out ministering, some Greek-speaking Jews (Hellenists) complained that their widows were being neglected. The disciples then told them to choose from among them “seven men of honest report” (Acts 6:3) to see to the widows. These seven merged the Jewish and Gentile cultures.
The Bread and Fish
The bread and fish in both accounts are the most mundane objects possible, and especially in that time. The people of Bethsaida were fishermen, and bread and fish were daily staples. But they both symbolize God’s Word.
The Bread. The bread likely was a type of pita. The barley bread specified in The Five (John 6:9) was the plentiful grain the poor ate. Wheat flour was for the more affluent. The bread, though, reminds us of the miracle of manna (Exodus:16) and Jesus’ declaration: “I am the Bread of Life” (John 6:48). It is significant too that in The Five, a “lad” (John 6:9) has the food that Jesus takes and multiplies. This may be a reference to the innocence of children and His words on how we must all become like them to truly understand God (Matthew 19:14; Luke 18:16-17).
The Fish. Jesus told the disciples, many of whom were fishermen, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt 4:19). The early Christians also made an acrostic of the Greek word for fish, indicating Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior. And in that era of persecution, they used the symbol to identify fellow believers. The sign of the fish has come to us to this day. In many Christian denominations, it has become symbolic of Jesus and His teachings.
In both accounts, Jesus gives the loaves and fish to the disciples and they distribute the food. This act and their dispensing it prefigure His admonition to them in Matthew 28:19 (often referred to as the Great Commission): “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” And in Mark 15:15: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”
In Luke 9:1-2, He gave them more: “The He called His twelve disciples together, and gave them power and authority over all devils, and to cure diseases. And He sent them to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick.” They obeyed: “And they departed, and went through the towns, preaching the gospel, and healing every where” (Luke 9:6). So, one could say the disciples’ first practice of sharing His compassion and the Word was spreading the food He provided. Their dispersal symbolizes their later carrying out of the Great Commission, spreading God’s Word throughout all nations and performing miracles as Jesus gave them power to do.
What Can We Learn?
Perhaps we are used to reading about Jesus’ miracles and maybe inclined to shrug a bit. But both accounts, seen freshly, engender wonder and humility and have much to teach us. Here are some lessons I extracted.
- Be open to following whoever you are drawn to, as the crowds did to Jesus.
- For Jews and non-Jews alike, that is, all of us, God supplies. And in both accounts the surplus shows how God provides more than we need.
- Accept all seekers, whatever their ethnicity, and share our spiritual thoughts.
- Stay the course—in The Five, the people listened to him for one day; in The Four, three days. Keep at your spiritual practice.
- Believe! As with the multiplication of loaves and fish, our supply is ever present as we trust. The people in both accounts came, apparently, unprepared. How often are we prepared to hear God’s Word through us?
- Recognize the Father’s Love and Care. In both accounts, Jesus had “compassion” on the crowd, and in The Four He said he didn’t want them to faint from hunger (Matthew 15:32). He probably also knew that we can hardly take in important messages if our bodily needs are pressing for attention.
When we take the two stories together, we arrive at a broader view of Jesus’ teachings and mission. He excluded no one and instructed his disciples to do the same, in both feedings and in their later ministering. The two stories also foreshadow Paul’s pronouncement in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek [Gentile], there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
I don’t know why The Four is less mentioned (and perhaps less appreciated) than The Five. It is just as spectacular. And it gives us another lesson: How often do we minimize or ignore the miracles in our own lives? They may not seem spectacular, but they are . . . the gorgeous weather, amazingly fragrant gardenia, partner’s comforting hand on our shoulder, our very breath?
Let us be ever thankful for The Five. And The Four.
*With thanks to Dave Stotts in the superb video Drive Through History—The Gospels, Episode 10, “Jesus Travels the Sea of Galilee.”
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Smothers, C. (2014, December 17). Seven: The number of the Gentiles. https://colinsmothers.wordpress.com/2014/12/17/seven-the-number-of-the-gentiles/#:~:text=Any%20Bible-literate%20layman%20could%20tell%20you%20that%20twelve, baskets%20left%20over%20should%20stand%20for%20the%20Gentiles
© 2023 Noelle Sterne