John 6:5–14 (RSV)
Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a multitude was coming to him, Jesus said to Philip, “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” This he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?” Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place; so the men sat down, in number about five thousand. Jesus then 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. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten. When the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!”
See also: Matt 14:15-21; Mark 6:35-44; Luke 9:12-17
This miracle takes place just after the beheading of John the Baptist (Matt 14:1-12; Mark 6:14-29; Luke 9:7-9) and just before the miracle of the Lord walking on water (Matt 14:23-27; Mark 6:47-50; John 6:16-21).
Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a multitude was coming to him, Jesus said to Philip, “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?”
Why does Jesus lift up his eyes? To show that the Lord had not been looking about idly?1
Bede observes, “That Jesus lifted up His eyes and beheld the multitude coming toward Him is an indication of the divine benevolence, for He is wont to come by the grace of heavenly mercy to meet all those seeking to come to Him” (Homilies on the Gospels).
Then, lifting up His eyes, He asked how they would feed the multitude, directing His question to Philip, who especially needed instruction, as revealed by this later conversation: “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me, Philip?” (John 14:8-9) Therefore, the Lord begins early on to instruct him.
By first questioning him, “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” the Lord prompts Philip to acknowledge the shortage of provisions, so that later they would not forget how astounding the miracle that was about to take place would be.
This he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do.
By the above question, the Lord also tests Philip (Greek πειράζω – peirazō), that is, to make him recognize the weakness of his faith. The Lord does not ask the question because He was ignorant of Philip’s character; He asks in order to show it to others. For He already knew what He would do.
Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?”
After testing Philip’s faith and finding it limited by earthly reasoning, He shows the same to be true of Andrew. But Andrew had a slightly better notion of the Lord’s power than did Philip. While Philip declared, “Two hundred denarii2 would not buy enough bread,” Andrew points out an even smaller quantity: five barley loaves and two fish. Perhaps Andrew recalled the miracles of the prophets of old – how Elisha multiplied loaves when Samaria was devastated by famine:
Then a man came from Baal-Shalisha and brought to the man of God the firstfruits, twenty loaves of barley bread and fruit cake. And he said, “Give it to the people and let them eat.” But his servant said, “Why shall I set this before one hundred men?” Elisha said, “Give it to the people and let them eat, for Thus says the Lord: ‘They shall eat and will leave some behind.’ ” So they ate and had some left over, according to the word of the Lord.3
Nonetheless, Andrew, like Philip, fails to grasp the enormity of the Lord’s power: “but what are they among so many?” Andrew thought that the Lord could perhaps multiply the loaves, as did Elisha, but Elisha had twenty loaves plus fig cakes on hand for one hundred men, whereas in this situation there were only five loaves plus two paltry fish for five thousand.
Bede suggests that the boy represents the Jewish people; that the five loaves represent the five books of Moses; and that the two fish represent the Psalms and the Prophets (Ibid.):
The boy represents the Jewish people, who were childlike in their understanding of the literal sense, keeping the words of the Scriptures shut up within themselves. Nevertheless, our Lord, having appeared in the flesh, took the loaves and fish and showed what usefulness and sweetness they had.
The five loaves are the five books of Moses. If they are opened up by spiritual understanding, and then multiplied by penetration of their deeper meaning, they daily refresh the hearts of the believers who hear them. They are reported to have been made of barley, because of the stricter ordinances of the law, and the thicker outer husks of its literal interpretation which, as it were, cover the inner pith of its spiritual sense.
The two fish signify the writings of the psalmists and prophets. One of these by chanting, and the other by talking to those who listen, tell of the future sacramental mysteries of Christ and the Church. It is also appropriate that it was aquatic creatures that prefigured the heralds of the age in which faithful people could in no way live without the water of Baptism.
This miracle of the loaves is the same described by Matthew in 14:15-21. In Matthew’s account, the disciples tell the Lord to dismiss the people, but here in John’s account Jesus asks the disciples how the crowd will be fed. There is no discrepancy here: taken together, the accounts tell us that the disciples first urged the Lord to dismiss the crowd, then the Lord asked Philip how they would be fed.
Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place; so the men sat down, in number about five thousand.
Christ commanded the men to sit down at once, as if the meal were already prepared. The disciples had lacked faith, but now they quickly seated the people. There was much grass because it was springtime (Now the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand – John 6:4).
Bede interprets the grass to also represent “bodily concupiscence, which everyone who desires to be satisfied with spiritual nourishment ought to tread underfoot and repress” (Ibid.).
Only the men were counted according to the custom of the law. When Moses took a census of the people, he counted the men who were twenty years and older, not counting the women (Numbers 26:1-2). (Theophylact comments, “From this we learn that God approves and honors only a vigorous and manly disposition.”)
“These five thousand,” writes Bede, “suggest the perfection of those who are refreshed with the word of life”:
The number one thousand ordinarily indicates the fulness of things which are being treated. By the number five, the well-known senses of our body are represented. These five thousand attempt to act manfully and take courage by living soberly, righteously, and piously, so that they may be deserved to be renewed by the sweetness of heavenly wisdom .. by this mystical banquet (Ibid.)
Jesus then 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.
In the majority of Greek manuscripts, verse 11 reads:
Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to the disciples (διέδωκε τοῖς μαθηταῖς), and the disciples to those that were seated (οἱ δὲ μαθηταὶ τοῖς ἀνακειμένοις)
“Although they mystery of salvation received its start by being declared by our Lord,” writes Bede, “it was confirmed by those who heard it from Him”:
Thus it is appropriate that the Lord administered the loaves and fish to His disciples, and the disciples administered them to the crowd. He broke up the five loaves and two fish, and distributed them to His disciples, when He opened their minds to understand everything that had been written about Him in the law of Moses and in the prophets and the psalms (Ibid.)
Jesus took the loaves and gave thanks publicly for two reasons: to demonstrate that we must give thanks to God before we eat; and to convince all the people present that He had come by the will of God and offers all things to the Father. This shows that He could not have been God’s adversary, as the Pharisees claimed.
Note that the Lord never prayed to the Father before working miracles when no crowds were present: for example, when He walked water or when he raised the dead. Only when He performed a miracle in the presence of a multitude did He first raise His eyes to God. The fact that He performs miracles solely by His own divine power and authority proves that He did not pray out of weakness, but rather by economia4.
Some say that the Lord gave thanks in order to evade the notice of the prince of this world until the time of His passion. Christ did not permit Satan to suspect that He was God until He had caught the devil by the hook of His death on the cross.
And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost.”
The Lord creates so much food that there is a large quantity left over. He does not do this to flaunt his power, but rather as indisputable proof that the people had indeed eaten their fill and were not merely tricked into feeling sated. He commands that the remnants be gathered up for the same reason: so that all would understand and remember more clearly the miracle that had just taken place before their eyes.
So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten.
We should wonder not only at the abundance of fragments left over, but also at the number of baskets filled – exactly equal to the number of disciples. Each of the twelve carried a basket – even Judas, who held in his hands proof that His Teacher was God. But this blessing turned into his own condemnation when he yielded to malice and betrayed his Master.
Christ had a specific purpose in commanding each of the apostles to carry a basketful of leftovers: to fix the miracle in their memory, so that later when they became teachers of the whole world they would always remember it – unlike the foolish multitude who quickly forgot.
We too may learn from this miracle never to hesitate to provide hospitality, nor to become fainthearted if we are poor. If we are left with a single loaf, let us remember that He Who multiplied the loaves so bountifully that there were twelve basketfuls of leftovers can also increase our one loaf.
When the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!”
When Jesus performed other miracles, the people did not marvel. Now, however, because he gave them food, they cry “This is indeed the prophet!” No longer do they accuse Him of breaking the Sabbath, or violating the law. For the sake of bread (in their gluttony) they honor Him so highly as to proclaim Him a prophet … and even want to make him king (verse 15).
1 Unless otherwise noted, explanations are taken from The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to John of Theophylact of Ohrid, translated from the Greek by Christopher Stade (Chrysostom Press, 2007).
2 The denarius was the usual wage for a day’s work
3 4 Kings 4:42-44 LXX/2 Kings 4:42-44 in the Masoretic Text. Orthodox Study Bible Septuagint translation.
4 οἰκονομία – a Greek word meaning “dispensation”: the deliberate veiling of Christ’s divinity in order to draw men to Himself. It is closely related to the other great aspect of Christ’s activity in the world, συγκατάβασις (sygkatabasis) – “condescension”: God’s humbling Himself to the level of man’s limited understanding in order to draw man up to God.