At first, Jesus' miracle of feeding the 4,000 (Matthew 15:32-39; Mark 8:1-10) may seem to be the same as the one He performed for 5,000 (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15). They do have a few similarities: Jesus multiplies loaves and fish; a multitude is fed; the disciples are skeptical; and they collect leftovers.
However, some distinct differences nullify any notion that they are the same: The crowds are of different sizes; the disciples speak first in the first miracle, but Jesus does in the second; they occur in discrete locations; they follow different events; the numbers of loaves and fish differ; the numbers of baskets differ; the baskets themselves are different; and finally, Jesus spends one day with the 5,000, but three with the 4,000.
Jesus Himself removes any doubt by referring to them as two different miracles. He mentions the different numbers of people present at the two events, the different numbers of baskets of fragments gathered afterward, and the different sizes of the baskets (Matthew 16:9-10; Mark 8:19-21).
1. What area of the disciples' spiritual development is God testing?
Comment: Jesus calls the disciples to Himself, not because He needs answers about the food problem, but to test their faith. As a teacher tests his students, Christ periodically tested His disciples (John 6:6). They often fail these tests, and this one is no exception. None of us, however, can boast about the marks we receive in the area of faith.
The disciples express skepticism about feeding the crowd. Their store of food is low (Matthew 15:33). Even before Christ can ask, they say that "we" cannot provide the bread. They do not want to be asked to do it because they lack the means. Granted, we of ourselves have the means to do little for God, although we are to strive to do what we can. But when assessing our ability to serve, we must include God's power as the primary means to accomplish anything. The disciples do not do that.
In their view, finding that much food would be "impossible" in such a desolate place (Mark 8:4). We sometimes convince ourselves that God cannot work in a place because it is too hard a location. Truly, where faithlessness exists, not much of God's work will be done. Even so, harsh or limiting conditions cannot obstruct God's work if He orders us to work in a place. His power overcomes all difficulties.
To the disciples, the crowd of people is enormous (Matthew 15:33), much too large for them to feed. Even if they could provide some food, there would not be enough. Sometimes we let the size of the crowd devalue God and become an obstacle to our faith. At times, too, Christians go along with the majority, and in doing so, go against their consciences, damaging their faith and conviction. None of the disciples is willing to stand against the others in faith.
2. What is wrong with the disciples' doubts about feeding 4,000 people?
Comment: The skepticism of the disciples is quite shameful. A short time earlier, they had witnessed Christ miraculously feed the 5,000. They had seen His power multiply a few loaves and fish to fill the hungry crowd. Yet, confronted with an identical problem, they throw up their hands and say that it cannot be done.
Is that not what all of us do when faced with a new but similar trial? Each new difficulty appears as one from which there is no rescue. Why do we become so perplexed and discouraged? We know God heals and intervenes on behalf of believers. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we seem to forget previous deliverances. What short memories we have! The person with true faith develops confidence from God's former interventions of faithfulness and love.
There is no excuse for such skepticism. All of us have expressed similar skepticism in our failures in trusting God. The biblical words for doubt suggest being "suspended," "driven by gusts," or "fluctuating in mid-air." Doubt does not necessarily indicate a lack of faith, but rather a state of qualified faith—weakness but not its total absence. Hebrews 11:6 asserts, "Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him." Like us, Christ's disciples obviously pleased God often, yet they sometimes displayed weak faith.
3. What characteristic does Jesus manifest in dealing with the multitude? Matthew 15:32; Mark 8:2.
Comment: On the third day, Jesus decides to send the people away. Any food that they had brought with them had been eaten by this time, and they had nothing to sustain them on their return journey. Thus, Jesus has "compassion on the multitude" and decides to intervene. It is encouraging to notice that Christ's miraculous power often originates, not necessarily in answer to a challenge, but simply from compassion.
Jesus commands the multitude to be seated in orderly fashion and then gives thanks. This miracle emphasizes His gratitude to God for physical blessings. All the multitude witnesses that their provision comes directly from God.
Jesus truly is the Bread of Life. His kindness and compassion teach us that He is our loving, considerate, omniscient Provider, able to intervene for us under any circumstance.