The four Gospel writers were not merely historical story tellers, but used the stories of Jesus for teaching purposes. Each author has his own particular emphasis as they recount how Jesus fed the 5,000. Jesus’ teaching is so rich, and each evangelist highlights one aspect. John’s vision becomes clear through the teaching in 6.25-59, the verbal form of Jesus’ miraculous sign. Closely linked to the preceding chapters, John 6 again underlines the glorious good news that Jesus brings life. Jesus is indeed himself “the bread of life“(John 6.35, 41, 48, 51). Here Jesus is depicted as parallel to, but distinct from the manna which God gave to Israel through Moses in the wilderness. Both with the manna and with Jesus, life is given to all who will partake. But those who ate the manna eventually would die, whereas those who through faith “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood” (6.53) have eternal life and will be raised up with Jesus at the last day (6.54).
As I have shown in my expository book “Matthew and Mission: the Gospel through Jewish eyes”, Matthew clearly shows that the 5,000 was a Jewish crowd while the 4,000 were Gentile. As an introduction to the feeding of the Gentile crowd Matthew attacks traditional views of what is kosher and what is unclean (Matthew 15.17-20). In those days Gentiles were considered to be unclean because they were outside the covenant of God. But Jesus eagerly desires to feed not only a crowd of his own Jewish people, but also a Gentile crowd. The new covenant reaches out to all peoples.
As in Matthew’s Gospel, so also in Mark we find both the feeding of the 5,000 and of the 4,000. In Matthew, Mark and John the feeding of the 5,000 is immediately followed by the story of Jesus walking on the water, further evidence that Jesus is not just an ordinary man. He is the true Messiah, the very Son of God sent by the Father. Mark recounts the story of the 5,000 to show that Jesus is the Messiah, but unlike Matthew, Luke and John he doesn’t appear to have any further purpose.
Later, although the disciples had witnessed the miraculous feeding of both crowds, the disciples still worried about having no bread to eat. Jesus castigates their lack of understanding and faith. So he reminds them of the number of basketfuls of left-overs they had gathered. After feeding the Jewish crowd of 5,000 men they had picked up 12 basketfuls. And after the feeding of the Gentile crowd of 4,000 they had gathered 7 basketfuls. Twelve is the traditional number for Israel with its twelve tribes, while seven is the number which represents fullness and therefore relates to all peoples. 12 + 7 = Jew and Gentile. Jesus really is the Messiah who feeds all nations and peoples.
Although Luke had accompanied Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, in some of his missionary trips, nevertheless he only recounts the feeding of the Jewish crowd of 5,000 men. But the international Jew-and-Gentile context of this story is highly significant.
In 9.1 Jesus sends the twelve out in mission and then in 10.1 he sends out the 70 or 72. As we have just noted, the number 12 traditionally represents the people of Israel. Around the first century debate raged concerning what number should represent the Gentiles. Of course 7 stood for all peoples, Jew and Gentile. But was the number just for the Gentiles to be 70 or 72? The number 70 reminded people of the children of Noah, the forefathers of the Gentiles. 72 was 2 x 6 x 6. Six is one less than seven, the number of fullness and perfection. The Gentiles were considered less than perfect (!) and the multiplication of 2 x 6 x 6 underlined that inferiority. Interestingly there was some debate in the 1st century concerning how many scholars were involved in the Septuagint, the Gentile Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament – 70 or 72? Likewise in Luke 10.1 some manuscripts have 70 and some 72. Jewish mission, the sending of the 12, is followed by Gentile mission with the 70 or 72.
As we might expect from our knowledge of the structure of the Book of Acts and Jesus’ significant relations with the Samaritans, in Luke 9.51-56 we find the Samaritans between Jewish mission and Gentile mission. The Samaritans are the bridge between Jews and Gentiles, opening the door for traditional Jewish followers of Jesus to reach out also to Gentiles unto the uttermost parts of the world. Jesus is very gracious. He does not parachute us into impossibly hostile mission territory, but helps us to widen our horizons more gradually, one step at a time.
It is in this context that Luke gives us the story of the feeding of the 5,000. And he underlines the messianic claims of Jesus by adding Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah and his account of the transfiguration to demonstrate the glory of Jesus. Having shown the messianic nature of Jesus in this way, he sees no need of telling the story of Jesus walking on the water immediately after the feeding of the 5,000. In this he differs from the other three Gospels.
Luke also makes it clear that Gentile mission will involve the disciples in considerable sacrifice. Between the Samaritan incident and the sending of the 70 or 72 Luke adds a few verses which warn of the cost of “service in the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9.62). Whatever the cost we are to follow the Lord and “go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (9.60). Having put our hand to the plough, we are not to look back.
Conclusion So we see the clear parallels between John’s account of the feeding of the 5,000 and the similar accounts of Jesus feeding the crowds in the other three Gospels. While all four Gospels underline the proof of Jesus as Messiah through this miraculous sign, John’s particular emphasis is that Jesus has come as the Bread of Life, the author of abundant and eternal life.