I believe it is helpful in understanding scripture to ask why the characters are doing what they are doing and saying what they are saying. So, I approach this passage with these questions; What was Jesus motivation in feeding this multitude of people who had followed Him into the country? and, What did the multitude want from Jesus?
My first thought was that Jesus performed this miracle, and all miracles for that matter, so that the multitude would believe in Him and that many souls would be saved. I have come away with a different understanding at this reading. First let’s look at Jesus audience, the Jews. He had just come from Jerusalem where he told a group of them, who likely considered themselves to be sons of Abraham in good standing, that they were were incapable of believing because they sought approval from one another. He even told them they didn’t even believe Moses, the giver of their precious Law, so they weren’t going to be able to believe in Him either. So, it is certain they were not following Him because they believed in Him as God’s son. Even after the “big feed” the best they could do was consider that He was Elijah who had returned to earth. Verse 2 clearly states why this multitude was tagging along. It was “because they were seeing the signs He was performing on those who were sick”.
Verse 15 let’s us know that “taking Him by force, to make Him king” was also a part of their ambition. In verse 34 we learn that along with miracles, this crowd liked eating for free, preferabley for evermore. These Jews were not inclined to believe. They were inclined to try and qualify Jesus further and to grumble (verses 30,31,41). Jesus knew these people’s hearts. He had no illusion that this extraordinary miracle was going to convert them. So then, what was Jesus hoping to achieve?
Beyond the fact that Jesus only did what He saw the Father doing, and that the miracle served nicely to set up His explanation of Himself being the Bread of Life, He was testing His disciples. Knowing fully what He was going to do He asks them what their ideas were. After listening, he then instructs them to have the crowd sit down. He then takes a meal that might feed 5 and serves 5,000 with all kinds of food leftover. He instructed His disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments that nothing may be lost“.
Upon hearing this comment, someone might dare to grumble that Jesus seemed to care more about saving the food than the souls that were being lost. Regarding these unbelieving Jews, Jesus seemed unconcerned, as if their souls were not really of primary concern. He said, “All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me; and the one who comes to me I will surely not cast out“. Also; “No one comes to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day“.
God had come to earth to reestablish His communication with His creation and tragically, all they wanted was a new leader and a free lunch. They did not believe in Him as God’s Son. Not even all the disciples truly believed in Him, “But there are some of you who do not believe.” Jesus may have been pained by this but He again explains how it is that men come to believe in Him, “no one can come to Me, unless it has been granted Him by the Father“.
The idea that God the Father had not drawn these Jews to Himself or other multitudes of souls who would be lost over the millenniums is hard to process. This “apparent” exclusivity makes Christianity offensive to the multitudes. I say “apparent” because I don’t believe He is exclusionary in any way. Peter tells us that God is “not wishing any to perish but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9).
The great news for man is that God has given us His Life. He has invited all of us to partake. And for those that do, we have Jesus’ pledge that He will gather us. Again, we hear Jesus say, “and nothing will be lost.” Just as there were an abundance of fragments of food leftover after a meal that should not have been, I believe we will be surprised on that “last day” at the abundance of souls whom He has gathered up in His great patience and mercy.
The question I think Jesus is always asking those who are following Him is, “What do You want?”. Why are you following Me?
Father, thank You that You are always inviting people to Yourself. Thank You that You are the Bread of heaven that has become our Life. Help us to grasp all that means to have Your Life within us. Like Jesus, show us how to live out of Your Life within us; to love and work with those few (or many) that You have placed close to us so that this Life within might be expressed in ways that draw men to you and that ultimately nothing will be lost. Amen.