“They Need Not Depart”
“When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart: and when the people had heard thereof, they followed him on foot out of the cities. And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick. And when it was evening, his disciples came to him, saying, This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the villages, and buy themselves victuals. But Jesus said unto them, They need not depart; give ye them to eat. And they say unto him, We have here but five loaves, and two fishes. He said, Bring them hither to me. And he commanded the multitude to sit down on the grass, and took the five loaves, and the two fishes, and looking up to heaven, he blessed, and brake, and gave the loaves to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude. And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full. And they that had eaten were about five thousand men, beside women and children.”
The miracle of the loaves and fish being so bountifully multiplied that five thousand men, besides women and children, were fed by them, so well fed that they were fully satisfied, is one of our Lords most remarkable miracles. No other miracle is mentioned so often as this one. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were all inspired to record it. Evidently, the Holy Spirit intends for us to give it special attention.
The Holy Spirit inspired all the gospel writers to record these stories of our Lord’s dealings with men upon the earth so that we might read them often, study them carefully, and learn from them continually. His miracles have not yet been fathomed. His words and his ways have not yet been comprehended. Like the cloud that Elijah’s servant saw (1 Kings 18:44), these gospel stories seem to get bigger and bigger every time we look at them. Like the widow’s barrel of meal, there is an inexhaustible fullness of spiritual instruction in this Holy Book. I read a lot of books. Most of them can be comprehended with one or two careful readings. But the more I read the Word of God, the more I am lost in the richness, fullness, and freshness of it.
I have said all that because I want you to realize that when I have finished this study, there will be much more that needs to be said. I will have only scratched the surface of this deep, deep mine. Having scratched around the surface of this rich mine, I have found four, choice nuggets of gold that I want to show you.
First, this passage gives us a display of our Savior’s deep, deep compassion for man. — “Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them, and he healed their sick” (v. 14). This great feature in our Lord’s character can never be remembered too often, esteemed too highly, or declared too frequently. The movement of his heart toward the sick and needy before him shows us how tender and affectionate our Savior was and is. How often we read of our Savior’s compassion toward men! His heart was moved with compassion toward those whom he beheld as “sheep having no shepherd” (Matt. 9:36), the two blind men he saw as he left Jericho (Matt. 20:34), the leper who worshipped him (Mark 1:40-41), and the widow of Nain who was going to bury her son (Luke 7:13). Truly, he is the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:33).
These words are not given to fill up space. They are written in the Book of God because the Lord God intends for us to understand that he who is our God is a God full of compassion! God the Holy Spirit intends for us to know and be assured of the tenderness of Christ’s love to his own. His are the mercies and compassions of a man who is himself God. The tender mercies of the eternal flow to chosen sinners through the God-man Christ Jesus! The mercies and compassions of our God and Savior are the mercies and compassions of God, for he is “over all, God blessed for ever.” But they are no less the mercies and compassions of the Man Christ Jesus, for, “verily, He took not on him the nature of Angels, but he took on him the seed of Abraham, that he might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.” In Christ, the God-man, our Savior, there is both an infinite fulness of mercy and a tenderness of feeling (the tenderness of perfect manhood) toward his redeemed. Being full of compassion, he forgives our iniquity and destroys us not, turns away his anger, and stirs not up all his wrath (Ps. 78:38).
When our Lord saw the sick, “he was moved with compassion toward them, and healed them.” When he saw these thousands of people out in a desert place, ready to faint for hunger, he was moved with compassion for them and fed them.
The word, “compassion,” is very expressive. It means, as Spurgeon put it, “His whole being was stirred to its lowest depth, and therefore he proceeded at once to work miracles of mercy among them.” He knew that many in the crowd had no faith in him and no love for him. They followed him because of curiosity, because the crowds went after him, or because they wanted to see a miracle. Yet, our Master pitied them. All were fed. All were relieved. All were filled.
Let no one ever question the gracious character of our God and Savior (Exodus 34:6). He “delighteth in mercy” (Micah 7:18). Let all who profess to be followers of Christ follow him in his example of mercy and compassion (John 13:25; Gal. 6:1-2; Eph. 4:32-5:1; James 1:27).
Second, we have before us an undeniable proof of our Savior’s omnipotence as the mighty God. It was promised by Isaiah that the Messiah would be both a man born of a woman (Isa. 7:14) and “the Mighty God” (Isa. 9:6). Here is a display of his omnipotence as the mighty God. — With five loaves and two small fish, the Lord Jesus fed 5,000 men, beside women and children. That means he fed at least 20,000, maybe 25,000 people with five pieces of bread and two pieces of fish! The task was manifestly impossible for anyone other than God himself, who alone has creative power, who alone “giveth food to all flesh” (Ps. 136:5).
Let every believer treasure up in his heart these blessed facts. Our Savior, who is full of compassion toward us, is himself “the Mighty God,” the Creator and Sustainer of all things, and nothing is too hard for him!
Third, this miracle is intended to give us a lesson about faith (vv. 15-18). The disciples wanted to “send the multitude away.” They were ready to limit the Holy One. By their actions they were saying, like Israel of old, “Can God prepare a table in the wilderness?” They measured the Lord Jesus’ ability by their own ability, or inability. They looked upon the Son of God as Naaman did the Jordan River, with Syrian eyes! Let us learn from their mistake and be warned. When we think of God, we must put down Hagar and raise up Sarah, silence human reason and act according to God-given faith. Faith believes without evidence, and even contrary to evidence, that “things which are impossible with men are possible with God.” Two sentences in these verses are bursting with spiritual instruction. Hear these two words from the lips of the Son of God, and ask for grace to trust him.
“Jesus said unto them, They need not depart.” — What a blessed word of grace and assurance! If there was no necessity for these hungry souls to depart from Christ for food, there can never be a reason for you and me to depart from him. There is no need for the bride of Christ to wander from beneath his banner of love. Mary may sit at Jesus’ feet always! “They need not depart.” That means that there is never an excuse for compromising the gospel. There is never a reason for disobedience to Christ. There is never a cause for neglecting Christ, his worship, and his service. Whatever we need, our Savior is ready to give to us or do for us (Heb. 4:16; Pro. 3:5-6).
Then, in verse 18, “He said, Bring them hither to me.” Bring all that you are and all that you have to Christ. He will remove the curse, add his blessing, and make our paltry loaves and fishes instruments of great usefulness and spiritual benefit to chosen sinners in his kingdom. Little is much in the Master’s hands! It has always been God’s delight and glory to use that which men consider useless. — He used a baby’s cry to move the heart of Pharaoh’s daughter. — He used a shepherd’s crook to work miracles in Egypt. — He used a boy and a slingshot to bring down Goliath. — He used a poverty-stricken widow to feed his prophet. — He used a little girl to lead Naaman to Elisha. — He used Balaam’s ass to teach him obedience. — He used the jawbone of an ass to slay a thousand Philistines. — He used a little child to teach his disciples humility. — He used a boy’s lunch to feed twenty some thousand people. — And he uses men, who are in themselves useless sinners, to call out his own elect (1 Cor. 1:26-29; 2 Cor. 4:7).
Fourth, this miracle serves as a beautiful and clear allegory of the gospel of God’s grace. We must never attempt to make allegories where the Holy Spirit does not make them. We must never try to make the Scriptures say what they obviously do not say. But just as Paul used Sarah and Hagar as an allegory to teach the distinction between law and grace (Gal. 4), so the Holy Spirit has given us these recorded miracles of Christ to teach us spiritual, gospel truths.
This hungry multitude in a desert place is a good representation of lost mankind in this world. All the sons of Adam are an assembly of perishing souls, lost, helpless, starving, and upon the verge of eternal ruin, without the gospel of Christ. There is but a breath between them and everlasting ruin. Their only hope of salvation is the gospel of Christ (Rom. 1:15-16).
The loaves and fishes, so readily despised as being inadequate to meet the needs of so many, might well be looked upon as representing the preaching of the gospel, Jesus Christ and him crucified, which God has ordained for the saving of his elect (1 Cor. 1:21-23; John 6:33). Like the loaves and fish in this passage, the preaching of the cross of Christ meets all the spiritual needs of sinners in this world.
The disciples’ passing out the loaves and fishes to the crowd shows us the sphere of human instrumentality. I cannot make loaves and fish; but I can bring my lunch to the Master. I cannot multiply the loaves and fish; but I can pass them out. I cannot save anyone or do anything to help anyone get saved; but I can preach the gospel to eternity bound sinners. And what I can do, and have the opportunity and means to do, I am responsible to do. And the same is true of you. Bring your lunch to Christ and watch him work! C. H. Spurgeon’s comments on verses 17 and 18 ought to be of great encouragement in this regard.
“And they say unto him, We have here but five loaves, and two fishes” (v. 17). — “See how they overhaul their provisions, and they report, ‘We have here but five loaves.’ With what a gloomy ‘but’ they show how lean is the larder! Those two sardines make the stock seem positively ridiculous. It is a good thing for us to know how very poor we are, and how far from being able to meet the wants of the people around us. It is for our good to be made to confess this in so many words to our Lord.
Truly, he who writes this comment has often felt as if he had neither loaf nor fish, and yet for some forty years and more he has been a full-handed waiter at the King’s great banquets.”
“He said, Bring them hither to me” (v. 18). — “He will have us yield up what we have: we are to make no reserve. We must hand all over to Jesus: ‘Bring them hither to me.’ He will accept what we bring: this is implied in the command to bring it. He will make a little go a long way: that which gets to Jesus will reach the needy by the surest route. The shortest way to procure provender for perishing souls is to go to Jesus about them.”
The satisfaction of all the crowd and the baskets full leftover, appear to me to be a beautiful representation of the fulness of grace to be found in the Lord Jesus Christ. He freely gives all to all who trust him. All who come to him have all they want and need. Finding all in him, we find satisfaction for our souls. Drinking the water that he gives, we never thirst again. Yet, the storehouse of grace is never diminished. In our Father’s house there is “bread enough and to spare!”