May 12, 2013

The Feeding of the Five Thousand

Luke 9:10–17

Were the miracles of Jesus mere magic tricks and sleights of hand? In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke, helping us see through skeptics’ arguments and emphasizing the eternal significance of Christ’s feeding the five thousand.


This morning, we continue our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. We are still in the ninth chapter, and we will be camping out in this chapter for quite a while. Today, we are in Luke 9:10–17, which is Luke’s account of the feeding of the five thousand:

On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida. 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. 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.” 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 go and buy food for all these people.” For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” And they did so, and had them all sit down. 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. And they all ate and were satisfied. And what was left over was picked up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.

This is one of the few miracles that is recorded in all four Gospels, and we have just heard it from Luke’s perspective. I want you to ask yourselves two questions: Do you believe it? If you do believe it, so what? I believe that we have heard this account as the very Word of God, with the unvarnished truth accompanying His Word. Please receive it as such. Let’s pray.

Our Father and our God, we come into Your house to give the sacrifice of praise, honor, and worship to You. We thank You that we have this opportunity in our assembly to hear a word from You in the sacred Scriptures. We pray that You would guide my words and guide all our hearts, that we may delight in the sweetness of Your Word that we hear this day. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

An Impossible Crowd to Feed

If you have been in church during your life, you have probably heard this story a hundred times. You know it from beginning to end. You know that Jesus withdrew from the city and went out into a desolate place. There, He was busy preaching the kingdom of God and healing multitudes who were brought to Him with various diseases and maladies.

As evening was approaching, the disciples had a sense of concern and compassion for the vast multitude that numbered five thousand men, not counting the women and children. There could have been easily twenty thousand people assembled in this spot listening to Jesus. So, the disciples said: “The people have been here for a while. It’s getting late. We must dismiss them so they can go into the villages, where they might find lodging and get food.”

It is interesting to me that, once again, the disciples were coming to Jesus and giving Him advice as though He needed it. How like the disciples we are in our prayers when we try to give counsel to God Almighty and be His instructors. In any case, Jesus did not debate with them. He said: “You feed them.”

You can read between the lines of what comes next. The disciples were saying: “We have five loaves and a few fish. That’s not enough to feed this multitude. What do You mean, ‘Go feed them’?” Jesus responded: “If you can’t feed them, at least you can organize them. Organize them in groups of fifty and tell them to sit down, and I’ll make sure they’re fed.”

The disciples responded back to Jesus: “We don’t have time. We don’t have the money to go to any store or any town that has a bazaar where we can buy enough to feed this multitude.” Jesus said, “Get them in groups of fifty, and let Me take care of the rest.”

Blessed Abundantly

Jesus took the five cakes and the fish and, by the power of God, multiplied them so that every person who was gathered there that day was not only fed, but fed to the point of satisfaction. One writer says they were “filled.”

What the crowd experienced was not like passing around a little piece of bread during communion. The people were filled to a sufficient level by the bread and fish that Jesus provided for them. Not only were they filled, but they were filled abundantly. When Jesus was finished, they gathered twelve baskets full of leftovers, so that Jesus provided more than what they needed.

Jesus did not just give them what they needed. He gave them way beyond their needs, which is one of the points Dr. Futato made recently at our missions conference: when God blesses His people, He blesses them abundantly.

Unscientific and Irrational?

On the one hand, for reasons not explained to us, the New Testament writers saw a singular significance to this miracle, because it is one of the few contained in all four Gospels. On the other side of that coin, this miracle has been singled out by critics and skeptics as “Exhibit A” for the mythological teachings of the New Testament.

The feeding of the five thousand has been targeted by those who, since the Enlightenment, have embraced the philosophy called “naturalism.” Naturalism, as an “-ism,” simply teaches this: we have nature around us, and nature is all there is. There is no “supra-“ or “super-“ nature, so anything that we find in the written record of the New Testament that suggests a supernatural event must be rejected out of hand. If we are naturalists, we cannot believe in the supernatural, ergo, anything that pretends to be supernatural must be rejected as unscientific and irrational.

When the naturalists invaded the church in the nineteenth century, we saw a movement spawned in Europe called “nineteenth-century liberalism.” It was not just liberalism in general. Rather, it had a specific agenda, a specific philosophy, and a specific theology. Nineteenth-century liberalism assumed that biblical criticism had demonstrated Scripture to be false in many places.

Systematically, nineteenth-century liberals took out of the New Testament record anything that smacked of supernaturalism. The virgin birth was severely attacked, as were the atonement of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, the transfiguration of Christ, and the ascension of Christ. All the miracles of Jesus were thrown out wholesale.

The criticism of the supernatural in Scripture provoked something of a crisis in liberal churches in Germany, the rest of the continent, and the British Isles, because the pastors who embraced this liberal theology were left with this question: What do we do with our vocations? What do we do with these expensive churches that we have built?

One of the so-called “Peck’s Bad Boys” of the liberal movement, a man by the name of Pearson, said to his colleagues in the church, “We need to be honest, leave the ministry, and shut down our churches because we don’t believe historic Christianity.”

Early in the twentieth century, one of neo-orthodox theologians from Switzerland, Emil Brunner, wrote a book called Der Mittler, or The Mediator, in which he explored the mediatorial work of Jesus. When he looked at the theories of nineteenth-century liberalism, he said, “What this is, is unbelief.”

The unbelief that characterized nineteenth century liberalism became a pervasive influence in what have been called the “mainline” churches here in the United States, which, for the most part, have become monuments of unbelief.

How to Treat Miraculous Accounts

How did the nineteenth-century liberals deal with the narrative of the feeding of the five thousand? The irony is, though they rejected supernaturalism and were committed naturalists, they still wanted to find some viable place for religion and ethics. Though they rejected the supernatural claims of Jesus, they lauded Him for His ethical insights and honored Him as a great moral teacher. They also said there was still room for religion that gets us in touch with our inner feelings and spirituality. Does that sound familiar to you in your culture today? People who are rank pagans, who will not stand any biblical theology, still talk about being “spiritual,” whatever that means.

How did they go about treating this New Testament narrative? When I was in high school, we had a class taught by the pastor of our church, and he treated this miraculous account and gave us some of the theories proffered by the nineteenth-century theologians.

A Fraudulent Myth

One theory was that the feeding of the five thousand was simply a wholesale, fraudulent myth. It was the kind of myth that is made up in the imaginations of people who have some high esteem for a local hero, a myth that grows up around a Paul Bunyan, for example, or some other great person.

The liberal theologians said: “What happened in the New Testament record was that this Jesus, whoever He really was in history, was a man about whom many myths were created to extol His significance. We can’t take this record seriously as history.”

This spawned a whole movement in nineteenth-century thought called, “The Quest for the Historical Jesus.” The assumption behind the Quest for the Historical Jesus was that you cannot find the historical Jesus in the New Testament. Rather, you must reach beyond it, underneath it, and inside of it to unpack it. You must demythologize the text and come up with something that is rational and natural. So, the first explanation was that Jesus’ miracle was just a myth.

A Magic Trick

Another theory came forth that was even more critical. This theory said that the feeding of the five thousand was not only a myth, but an intentional fraud perpetrated by Jesus Himself. Jesus knew He was going to depart from the city to a place where there was no food nor any places to lodge, and He decided to pull off a supernatural whopper.

Before the crowd assembled, Jesus had His disciples buy a gigantic supply of foodstuffs, bread and fish, and then conceal all of it in a secret cave on the plain where He would later give His message. Then, as He instructed His disciples, He would stand in front of the hidden entrance to the cave when it was time to eat, say His “hocus pocus,” and the disciples would form a bucket brigade with the food. They would pass it through the cave to His back, where He had a cut in the back of His robe, and then, like a magician who pulls silk scarves out of his sleeve, Jesus kept pulling out bread and fishes in order to perform this miracle.

The staging of such a thing would be almost more miraculous than the miracle itself. But this was a favorite way of explaining, or explaining away, if you will, this feeding of the multitude.

An Ethical Miracle

The third theory, which was the one favored by my minister in high school, was that Jesus did not perform a physical miracle of multiplying loaves and fishes, but an ethical miracle. What happened is that some people, like the little boy, for example, thought ahead and were prepared. They brought their lunches for the occasion. Many people, however, in their excitement to go out to see and hear Jesus, were derelict. They forgot to pack a lunch and did not make adequate preparations. Like the foolish virgins of the parable, they came unprepared.

The people who did not have any food were looking at those who were eating. They were ogling the food and were annoyed at their neighbors’ abundance. Jesus calmed them down and persuaded the “haves” to share voluntarily with the “have-nots.”

In other words, this was purported to be one of the first biblical accounts of the redistribution of wealth under the impetus of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus was so persuasive that the people did it. So, what we have here is an ethical miracle. This understanding, of course, does radical violence to the New Testament text. It completely depletes the narrative of the significance found in the biblical text.

Meaninglessness to Meaninglessness

I asked you, when I read this passage this morning, to think about two questions: Do you believe this record? If so, so what? What difference does it make? Let me tell you this: if you are a naturalist, nothing makes any difference. There is no one home up there. If there is no one home, and all you have is nature, you do not live your life in an environment that is hostile to you. Mother nature is not hostile. Mother nature is even worse. She is indifferent.

If you are a naturalist, then stones, rocks, cells, stars, and animals are indifferent to you and your circumstances. From the perspective of nature, you are nothing more than a grown-up germ. You are a cosmic accident. Your origin comes from nothingness and meaninglessness, and you are sitting on one cog of a huge wheel of a vast cosmic machine that is running down inexorably to the abyss of meaninglessness. There are two poles of your life: one that begins in meaninglessness and one that ends in meaninglessness.

This is where the naive humanist jumps in and tries to borrow some capital from Christianity. He says: “We must protect human dignity. We must tolerate everybody.” How naive can you get? If you start with meaninglessness and you end with meaninglessness, what you have at every point in between is meaninglessness.

The only philosophy I respect at all apart from Christianity is total nihilism, in which nothing matters. If nature is all there is, and she is indifferent, she is not a kind and compassionate mother. To call the impersonal forces of nature “mother” at all is an insult to human motherhood.

Dignity at Stake

If naturalism is all there is, who cares whether black people or white people sit on the back of the bus? Neither the black nor the white has any dignity whatsoever. Who cares if we kill fifteen million unborn children? They are just domestic garbage to begin with if you are a naturalist.

If you are a naturalist, there is no such thing as “right” and no such thing as “wrong.” All you have is personal preference. If the stronger person has his personal preference over the weaker man’s, then he will use his club on the weaker person’s preferences. That is the way it is in naturalism. When are we going to wake up and see what is at stake here?

Let’s assume, just for a minute, that on that day in Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth fed thousands of people to their satisfaction with five loaves and a few fish. What that means, friends, is the radical breakthrough of the supernatural into the natural. What that means is that Jesus of Nazareth is not a clever, ethical teacher. What that means is that He is who He said He was—the incarnate Son of God. What that means is that God not only is, but that God cares. God cares that He might dwell among us and that He might deal with our sin, our disappointment, and our pain. What that means is that every human being is made in the image of God, and who sits in the back of the bus matters, and it matters forever. What it means is that your life matters, not just for now, but forever.

The Truth of Christ Gives Us Hope

Nineteenth-century liberalism spilled over into the twentieth century, and we got the existential theology of the hic et nunc, the “here and the now.” The here and now is all there is. You only go around once, so, eat, drink, and be merry. Live life with gusto, because tomorrow you die, and nobody cares—or at least, nobody ought to care, because the word ought is a meaningless word.

We do not seem to see what is at stake here. I can remember dealing with professors who believed this kind of higher critical nonsense in seminary. They could not wait to attack the integrity of the Scriptures. On one occasion, I said to one of these professors: “I get that you do not believe that the Bible is the Word of God, but here’s what I don’t understand: it seems to me that you have a kind of delight in teaching that. I would think that if you came to the conclusion that the Bible was not the inspired the Word of God, it’s a conclusion that you would reach with tears. Without the Bible, we’re without Christ. Without Christ, we’re without hope.”

If the Bible is not the Word of God, then we are, as the Apostle Paul declared, “the most to be pitied,” because here we are, wasting another Sunday morning while other people are out having a good time. They are at the beach, or wherever else they are enjoying themselves, while we are sitting around here listening to philosophical poppycock.

What difference does all of this make? It makes all the difference in the world. It was the Bread of Life who was there to feed those thousands of people who were hungry, and He is the same Bread of Life who feeds us when we come to Him today.

I have no interest in adoring, worshiping, praising, or working for a myth. If the nineteenth-century liberals were right, then I, for one, am going to sleep in tomorrow morning. But they are not right. They are wrong. Desperately wrong. Fatally wrong. Eternally wrong. Thank God.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.