These exhortations were given by me between 1999 and 2005. That was a long time ago, and I have grown a lot since then. They may not reflect my current beliefs.
One of the advantages of being a Roman citizen living in ancient Rome itself was the corn dole. The government would distribute a ration of corn, usually made into bread, to provide the basic diet for the Romans. Not everybody was equally entitled to this – slaves for example – and the number of people eligible for the corn dole did vary quite substantially over the course of Roman history, but it is true that the Government of Rome gave bread to its people. This certainly attracted people to the city. One of the reasons why Julius Caesar reduced the number of people eligible for the corn dole was to stop the influx of people from the surrounding countryside.
I think that puts a quite interesting spin on Christ’s feeding of the five thousand, and his feeding of the four thousand. We’ve read both stories in Matthew recently, so I’m going to read the story of the feeding of the Five Thousand from Mark Chapter 6, verses 31 to 44:
Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he Jesus said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it’s already very late. Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But he answered, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “That would take eight months of a man’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?” “How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.” When they found out, they said, “Five–and two fish.” Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
I am reading from the New International Version.
Christ hands out a corn dole to his followers here. In the same way that the emperors of Rome fed their citizens, Christ fed his followers – except of course it is not really in the same way. The Roman emperors used taxes to gather the funds for the corn dole. Christ performed a miracle. The Roman emperors fed only the Roman citizens; the other groups of people were left out. Christ fed everybody in the crowd, not just the elite. Christ is an emperor like figure here in the eyes of the people, but he is more than just an emperor. He is Jewish, not a hated Roman oppressor, and he appears to be giving away the bread for free – no taxes or anything like that are required in return.
Unfortunately, the people completely miss the point. We know there was really something much more going on here, but the people couldn’t see past their stomachs. They would have followed Christ for the same reasons that they would have followed a Roman emperor – because he fed them. They should have been following Christ because of his message and teaching.
Turn to John 6, verses 26 to 31:
Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. On him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” Then they asked him, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.” So they asked him, “What miraculous sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: `He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’
I think it is difficult to understand the point of view of the questioners here. They obviously had seen Christ feed the five thousand, and I think they are saying “Lord I believe, help my unbelief”, or they are nearly saying that. It’s almost like Gideon and his fleece. These people had actively sought out Christ. They obviously believe he is something special, but they aren’t quite convinced. In many ways though I’m being too generous. They looked for Christ because they ate the loaves and had their fill. They didn’t see it as a great miracle for some reason.
Continuing at verse 32:
“Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread.” Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
Those are wonderful words of comfort “I shall lose none of all that he has given me” and “everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” Eternal life is promised to everyone that believes in Christ. It’s not promised to some who believe in him – the best 10% for example, or the first million people to believe – but to everyone who believes in him. “Fear not little flock, for it is your father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” There can be no doubt that the Bible teaches of a loving God, a God who loves us to an almost unimaginable degree. That’s what the feeding of the five thousand, and the feeding of the four thousand, was really about – the love of God. It wasn’t just a cheap trick to get people to follow Christ.
The people searched for Christ because they had their fill of bread. They should have been searching for him because of what he taught. Earlier in his life, during the temptations in the wilderness, Christ said “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” I think that links in an interesting way with the Lord’s prayer. I’ll read the version given in Matthew 6 verses 9 to 12 in the NIV:
“This, then, is how you should pray: “`Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
There are several points in that prayer, and they are all spiritual in some way, although the face value of “Give us our daily bread” appears to be purely about having enough physical food I think this is also a request for spiritual food, for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man gives.
It’s easy sometimes to get complacent about spiritual food. After all, we can sometimes feel that the fact we feel the need to pray is evidence that we have enough spiritual food, but we should pray for our spiritual blessings just as much as we pray for our physical.
The next thought is one I had late last night, and God willing I will be developing this for another exhortation.
When Naaman was told to bathe in the Jordan to cure his leprosy he was initially furious that he had been asked to do such a thing. However, his servants said to him “if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, `Wash and be cleansed’!””
Naaman was cured in such a way that there was no doubt how and why he was cured. He just had to do the very simple thing he was told to do. Maybe if he had been told to build a great temple or monument he would have felt that he was being cured by the building of the monument, not by the grace of God.
In stark contrast to the Roman upper class banquets, bread is a very very humble food, just as bathing in the Jordan was a humble thing to do. Our memorial of Christ is centred around this humble food. Paul told the Corinthians that the memorial meal had to be simple. This simplicity is one of its great strengths. Nobody is here to eat their fill of bread, nobody is here because of the fine wine. We are here to meet together to remember our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and the promise of eternal life in the Kingdom of God. The fact that the emblems are so trivial in a physical sense emphasises the importance of the things they represent. There is no possible way that the bread and the wine could overshadow what they stand for.
I’m going to finish today with a reading from John Chapter 6, where Christ speaks about the bread and the wine, his body and his blood. John 6 verses 47 to 58:
I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.”