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Edward F. Markquart

Series A
Gospel Analysis:
Five Loaves and Two Fish to Feed 5,000

PENTECOST  11A      Matthew 14:13-21
PENTECOST 7B         John 6:1-21

Pastor Edward F. Markquart
Grace Lutheran Church
Des Moines, Washington 98198

The following Bible study is from a larger course entitled, THE LIFE OF CHRIST: A Study in the Four Gospels. This 54 week course for the laity will be available for congregations in 2006.

Basic text for the course: SYNOPSIS OF THE FOUR GOSPELS, Kurt Aland, English Edition, P. 135-137. 

#146. FIVE THOUSAND ARE FED     Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:32-34; Luke 9:10b-17; John 6:1-15

On the following map:

Locate the Mediterranean Sea.

Locate the Sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee is seven miles wide and thirteen miles long. The ancient historian, Josephus, who lived in 37-100 CE immediately after Jesus, first described the lake. Josephus estimated that the Lake of Gennesar was 40 statia wide and 140 stadia long. The lake is really 61 stadia wide (seven miles) and 109 stadia (thirteen miles) long.

Locate the Jordan River.

Locate the region or county of Galilee.

Locate the village of Capernaum which was Jesus’ home in adulthood and the place of eight miracles.

Locate the village of Bethsaida which was the city of Philip, Andrew and Peter. Bethsaida was two miles east of Capernaum and on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Peter, Andrew, and Philip were from Bethsaida. John 1:43-45. "The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. And he found Philip and said to him, "Follow me." Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter.”

Locate the village of Chorazin which we will study.

Locate the triangle of three adjacent villages, Capernaum, Chorazin, and Bethsaida. Sometimes these villages are called “the evangelical triangle.” From the map study below, notice that these three villages are geographically close together.

Locate the city of Tiberias, the city that the Roman emperor built in 18 CE and the Sea of Galilee which became known as the Sea of Tiberias.

Locate the village of Magdala, the home village of Mary Magdalene or Mary from Madgala.

The geography of Jesus: The picture below is a fantastic photograph and needs to be memorized in order to remember many of the most important geographic locations in Jesus’ life. This photograph will be repeated often in this course. Find and focus on the location of Tabgha, the traditional location of the feeding of the 5000.

Identify Capernaum. Christ did eight miracles at Capernaum: the dead daughter of Jairus raised; the evil spirit driven from a man in the synagogue; the paralyzed man let down through the roof and healed; the four disciples catch fish in a miraculous way, Jesus supplied tribute tax money via a fish; the centurion’s servant afflicted with palsy is healed; the son of a nobleman in the king’s court is healed; many others are healed. So the village of Capernaum was very important in Jesus’ healing and teaching ministry.

Despite the unique number of miracles done at Capernaum, most of the residents of Capernaum remained unbelievers. It is amazing to us that the people of Capernaum witnessed more miracles and more teachings of Jesus than anyone in Galilee but their hearts were not touched by Jesus. They did not repent and become part of God’s kingdom.  "For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required." (Luke 12:48).

The people in Capernaum had been given much but they still did not believe. We, too, can see and experience wonderful miracles of God/Christ all around us, but we too can dismiss those miracles as insignificant and unimportant to us.

There were two miracles of Christ that occurred at Bethsaida: Jesus healed a man born blind and he fed the five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish.

Tabgha is known as the traditional sight at which Jesus did the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000. The Biblical text is definite that the feeding of 5,000 was in a remote and lonely place, away from villages and away from places to obtain food. Therefore, it is assumed that Jesus was not in the village of Bethsaida but in the region of Bethsaida.

Tabgha - location  and profile


“Tabgha was a prosperous fishing village located on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee.

The name Tabgha is a corruption of the Greek word Heptapagon which means "seven springs." The water from individual springs there varies in temperature and salinity. (The most saline water from the springs is now being diverted in a channel around the lake.)

The warm water from the springs attracted schools of fish, mostly musht, especially in the winter.

Tabgha was a fishing suburb of Capernaum, the home and workplace of many who fished in the lake.

The movement of the water from the springs at Tabgha was used to turn millstones to grind grain. Craftsmen at Capernaum fashioned these stones from the local basaltic rock, several of which remain near the synagogue there today.

Many of the events in Jesus’ ministry, along the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, occurred in the area of Tabgha and Capernaum. Living within a half-hour’s walk of Tabgha, Jesus would have known it well.” 

(End of website quotation from the above website)

The miracle of the feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle told in all four gospel accounts.

There are different settings for the feeding of the 5000 in the first three gospels and feeding of the 5000 in the fourth gospel. In the first three gospels, having heard of the gruesome death and beheading of John the Baptist, Jesus withdrew to a lonely place in order to grieve the loss of the Baptist. In the Gospel of John, “after this” is a reference to the previous healing of the handicapped man of thirty-eight years. This event occurred in Jerusalem which was located some eighty miles south of the Sea of Galilee. There is no description in the Gospel of John about Jesus traveling eighty miles from Jerusalem north to the Sea of Galilee in order to feed the 5000.

There are many parallels of sequence in all four gospels. Highlight or circle that progression of words/ideas in the gospels e.g.

  • in a boat, remote or lonely place,
  • crowds, great throng,
  • late in the evening,
  • lonely/remote place,
  • into the villages to get something to eat,
  • two hundred denarii,
  • five loaves and two fish,
  • crowds to sit down,
  • took five loaves and fish in hands to pray,
  • to disciples,
  • all ate and were satisfied,
  • left overs of twelve baskets,
  • five thousand.

From the similarity of numerous details and the similarity of the progression of the story, we know that we are reading the same story in all four accounts in our four gospels.

The Gospel of John has several unique and distinctive emphases:

  • Sea of Tiberias. To the other side of the sea of Galilee which is the Sea ofTiberias. The city of Tiberias was newly constructed in the year 18 CE by Herod, and this new city was famous in this region of the world. The Sea of Galilee took on a new name, the Sea of Tiberias, named after the new capitol city of that region.
  • Signs. They saw the signs which he did on those who were diseased. As stated previously, the Gospel of John has been called The Book of the Signs and this theme of signs has occurred before e.g. in the miracle of the water into wine and the healing of a man’s son who was near death.
  • “The mountain.” Jesus went up on the mountain. “The mountain” is referred to often in the four gospels and refers to the mountain where Jesus initially taught his disciples in the Sermon of the Mount. It is also referred to as the Mount of Beatitudes. The mountain or high rolling hill(s) can be seen in the previous picture of the north end of the Sea of Galilee. In the Old Testament, Mount Sinai was “the mountain” in the desert where Moses taught the Ten Commandments. In the New Testament, “the mountain” was the mountain immediately north of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus taught his teachings about the Kingdom of God.
  • Sat down with his disciples. Sitting was the posture of the rabbi as he was teaching.
  • The Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand. This reference causes confusion for Biblical scholars and students because the scene does not occur in Jerusalem. On the other hand, the Passover was an occasion when large crowds gathered. Perhaps John was giving the reason for such a large crowd gathering together. Passover time means that it was springtime in the land of Palestine.
  • Philip, Andrew and Peter were all from the village of Bethsaida. Bethsaida was on the shores of the north end of the Sea of Galilee where the feeding of the 5000 occurred.
  • Test Philip for he himself knew what he would do. The emphasis was not on the word, “testing,” but on the phrase, “Jesus himself knew what he would do.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Son of God and knows everything.
  • There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish. The first three gospels do not mention “a lad.” The first three gospels tell this familiar story but without a boy to share his five loaves and two fish. In the first three gospels, Jesus tells the disciples to go and discover how much food was available and the disciples could find only five loaves and two fish. Can you imagine: five thousand men out there in the wilderness and no one had brought food with them? Most of us don’t recall the first three gospels account of the disciples looking for food among the 5000. Rather, most of us recall from the Gospel of John the story about the boy bringing forward five loaves and two fish and his willingness to share his resources with Jesus.  The boy becomes an inspiration for our lives as Christians, that we would learn to surrender our gifts to Christ and share like this young boy did.
  • Barley loaves. Why John mentioned barley is not clear. Barley may be a sign of poverty.
  • When the people saw the sign. John is the Book of the Signs. We remember John 20:30, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book, but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that believing you may have life in his name.”
  • They said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” Matthew identifies this prophet as Elijah. Others thought this prophet may be Moses.
  • Perceiving that they were about to force him to be king, Jesus withdrew. Here is the real issue: that is, the multitudes misunderstood Jesus and believed that he was a new “bread king” who would provide them free and abundant food or a “healing king” who would given them perpetual miracles of healing. The crowds wanted to force Jesus to be their “bread king.”

The following is a view of Lake Galilee from “The Mountain” where Jesus taught his disciples during the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus went to pray during the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 (John), and where Jesus went alone to pray before the miracle of the walking on water (Matthew and Mark.)


#146. FIVE THOUSAND ARE FED (The following is a combination of the event from the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John.)  Mark 6, John 6

We recall that both the Gospels of Mark and John were written by reliable witnesses. The stories in Gospel of Mark are the reminiscences of Simon Peter and the stories in the Gospel of John are the reminiscences of John. In the following event, we are conflating two reliable eyewitness accounts.

From the Gospel of Mark

-He said to them (his disciples,) "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.  And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.  Jesus wanted to have his disciples go to a deserted place and rest a while. Like us on many occasions, we are so busy that we don’t time to eat. Highlight/underline the phrase “no leisure to eat.” That happens to us many times in our lives and Jesus then wants to take us to a quiet place where we can find some rest, time and sanity.

Circle the word, “boat.” The disciples and Jesus left the fishing village and were going to travel by boat to a deserted place. We recall from earlier lessons the archeological find of a boat from the time of Jesus.  The boat was 26 feet long and had room for 15 passengers.

Note that Matthew tells us that the disciples and Jesus were grieving the death/beheading of John the Baptist. John the Baptist was a first cousin of Jesus and several of Jesus’ disciples were originally disciples of John the Baptist. John the Baptist had baptized Jesus.  So all the disciples and Jesus had significant connections to this man who had been viciously beheaded by Herod the Tetrarch.

-Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.  The crowd was large and numbered 5000 men, not including women and children. There must have been a dust storm on the shores of Lake Galilee as this massive crowd was following Jesus into a deserted region away from the villages.

-As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. Circle the word, “great,” and write in the words, “5000 plus women and children.”

Circle the word, “compassion,” and remember that Jesus had the compassionate mind and heart of God within him. That is the way that God feels towards you and me: compassionate.

Underline, “sheep without a shepherd.” This also becomes a primary metaphor of Jesus. Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we are the sheep whom Jesus cares for, feeds, waters, protects, and leads on the wise paths of life.

Underline, “he began to each them many things.” We have been studying the parables and miracles of Jesus who continues to teach us today many things.

-When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late;send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat." The disciples looked at the size of the crowd and told Jesus to send them to villages and the countryside where they could buy something to eat. Like most of us in life, they were not expecting that a miracle would unfold right before their eyes in the coming events.

 (The next sequence is from the Gospel of John)

-When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?"  

-He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.  Jesus tests our hearts to see what is in them. Throughout the whole Gospel of John, Jesus repeatedly knew what he was going to do. Throughout the whole Gospel of John, we will encounter the “omniscience” (all knowingness) of Jesus.

-Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”  The other gospels tell us two hundred denarii or two hundred days wages would not be enough to buy food for all these people.

-One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter's brother, said to him,  "There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?"  The first three gospels do not tell us the story of the lad with the five loaves and two fish. Centuries later, readers of the gospels prefer the story with the five loaves and two fish. The boy humanizes the story, and we like this shape of the story better.

-Jesus said, "Make the people sit down." John gives us a juicy piece of information. That is, Jesus made the people sit down.

-Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.  Circle the words, “a great deal of grass in this place.” Again, it is a nice, historical, juicy detail.

-Then Jesus 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.  Since the next story in the Gospel of John is the story of Jesus giving the Bread and Wine in the Eucharist (Holy Communion), many scholars conclude that the references to “taking the loaf, giving thanks, distributing it” are parallel actions found in Holy Communion.

The crowd was given as much bread and fish as they wanted. There was a superabundance of resources that Jesus had created or found. They were satisfied with the meal that had been given to them.

-When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, "Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost."  So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.  Twelve is a symbolic number standing for the twelve tribes of the Old Testament or the twelve disciples/apostles of the New Testament.

-When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, "This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world." This miracle was a sign from Jesus that he was the Son of God who satisfies the hearts of all people. The crowds think that he is THE prophet having returned earth, that Jesus was perhaps Moses or Elijah or some other prophet from the Old Testament.


  • This story is an invitation to surrender our meager offerings that are equivalent to five loaves of bread and fish and to see how God can transform these offerings into mighty miracles. The key is that the boy surrendered his meager gifts to Christ. At the heart of the story today is the implied invitation for us to surrender our little gifts, the gift of our little lives to Christ, and then see what mighty miracles God can do in and through us. That’s what God wants from you and me, to surrender, to give the gifts of our lives to him.
  • Sometimes people ask about this story:  “How did Jesus do it?  How did Christ feed all those people with so little food, with merely five loaves and two fish?” 

I like what one commentator suggested:  Some people want Jesus to change the loaves of the loaves of bread themselves, so that the loaves continually multiply endlessly, so that the loaves themselves experience transformation and become an endless supply of bread.  But others suggest that what was really transformed were the selfish hearts of five thousand men; that when these five thousand men saw the example of the boy giving Jesus his five loaves of bread and two fish, these men were inspired to look inside their coats and share the food they had brought with them, hidden inside their clothing. 

The real transformation then, was not of the loaves, but of five thousand selfish hearts.  The Bible says:  “A little child shall lead them.”

I ask you:  Which would be the greater miracle?  The transformation of the loaves or the transformation of selfish hearts?   I would like to suggest to you that some would prefer to focus on the transformation of the loaves in order to avoid focusing on their own selfish hearts that need to be transformed.

Some people focus on the magic of the story in order to avoid the transforming miracle needed in every human heart. 

There are clear references to Holy Communion in this text.  The liturgical references seem clear.  “Jesus took the bread...looked up to heaven...gave thanks (gave Eucharist)...broke the bread...gave it to his disciples...who gave it to everyone...and they all ate and were satisfied.”  These actions are parallel to Holy Communion. We then read the Gospel of John’s version of this story, and we discover that the feeding of the five thousand is a prelude to Jesus’ teaching that “I am the Bread of life” and Holy Communion.  In John, chapter six, we also find the most complete description of Holy Communion in the whole Bible.  In John, chapter six, Christ says:  “I am the Bread of life. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood, I live in that person and that person lives in me.” “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood will never die but live forever.”  Incredible words.  Incredible promises.  And so in the Gospel of John, chapter six, the feeding of the 5000 is a prelude to Jesus’ teachings about Holy Communion. The two events are directly connected.



Notice that this picture envisions a magical transformation of the fish, so that we see bushels of fish and bushels of bread. We don’t see a miraculous transformation of human hearts in which peoples’ selfishness hearts were transformed and then the people brought the loaves of bread and fish out from underneath their garments where they had been hiding loaves of bread and dried fish.  In this course, it is interpreted that “the miracle” was Jesus’ transformation of selfish human hearts into generous human hearts.


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