A World Waiting for Food: How the Feeding of the Four Thousand Foreshadows the Healing of the Nations

Now Jesus summoned His disciples and said, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they’ve already stayed with Me three days and have nothing to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry; otherwise they might collapse on the way.”

The disciples said to Him, “Where could we get enough bread in this desolate place to fill such a crowd?”

“How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked them.

“Seven,” they said, “and a few small fish.”

After commanding the crowd to sit down on the ground, He took the seven loaves and the fish, and He gave thanks, broke them, and kept on giving them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were filled. Then they collected the leftover pieces — seven large baskets full. Now those who ate were 4,000 men, besides women and children. After dismissing the crowds, He got into the boat and went to the region of Magadan. (Matthew 15:32–39)

We saw in the previous post that Jesus followed his taboo-breaking interaction with the Canaanite woman by ministering to “great multitudes” of apparently Gentile people* who came out from the Decapolis to see him.

This whole interlude, broken open by the Canaanite woman’s faith, constituted a major exception to Jesus’s usual rule, laid out for his apostles in Matthew 10:6, of going only “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But although he observed this rule strictly for the most part, he did occasionally make exceptions — he healed a Roman centurion’s servant, and very shortly afterward delivered two demon-possessed men outside of Gadara, which, interestingly in light of our present story, was in the Decapolis. They were likely Gentiles, or at least lived among Gentiles.

No exception, however, was as breathtaking in its scope as this one. One woman’s faith gained deliverance for her daughter, and then healing for multitudes. And now, after three days spent with Jesus, the people were hungry.

You remember, of course, that Jesus had fed five thousand Jewish people in Galilee only days before this. His disciples had labored for hours to give the endlessly broken five loaves and two fish to the crowds, their mouths hanging open in wonder and their hearts exulting at this greatest of all Jesus’s miracles. They had come to him to tell him that the people were hungry and urge him to send them away to the nearby villages to get food. Instead he answered, “You feed them,” and then provided them with the miraculous means to do so.

The Feeding of Israel

Although we didn’t highlight it in our original discussion, the feeding of the five thousand was full of symbolism pointing to Jesus’s role with respect to Israel specifically.

The miraculous feeding of God’s people in the wilderness was a touchstone of Jewish history and identity: it was God who had fed them when they left Egypt, who personally cared for them with manna while they wandered for forty years under the leadership of Moses; and it was God also who fed them spiritually through his covenantal teaching, his torah, just as Jesus had been doing in Galilee since the beginning of his ministry.

The numbers in Matthew’s story underscore this meaning. The five loaves call to mind the five books of the Torah, or Pentateuch. The two fish remind us of the two tablets of stone on which God wrote the ten commandments. Five thousand men remind us that these are God’s covenant people, with a thousand representing a vast multitude and five hearkening again to the Torah. These are the people of the covenant, the house of Israel. The twelve baskets left over, corresponding to the twelve apostles, call to mind the twelve tribes of Israel and identify the people who follow Jesus as God’s special remnant.

Another People in the Wilderness

Now, though, as a new crowd sought out Jesus, the symbolism changes. There are hints of the exodus story here too. These people, too, followed Jesus into a wilderness, even more remote than the one where the feeding of the five thousand took place. Jesus climbed a mountain to minister to them, a stronger echo of Moses than we saw in the earlier story. But Jesus did not teach this crowd, at least not that Matthew records. All his energy went into healing them.

And while the first crowd of five thousand stayed all day until a late hour, this crowd stayed with Jesus three days. (Early church fathers saw the echo of Jesus’s passion here.)

This time, it was not the disciples who noticed the hunger of the crowds and interceded for them. It was Jesus who called it to their attention. He told them, too, how he felt about these hungry people, so recently come out of Egypt, so recently delivered — for the first time — from the slavery of devils and disease.

(Perhaps Jesus didn’t teach these people because they weren’t yet ready to hear; unlike Israel when they left Egypt, they had no inherited memory of relationship with God that could make them able to receive his commands with an open heart.)

“I have compassion on the crowd, because they’ve already stayed with Me three days and have nothing to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry; otherwise they might collapse on the way.”

It was a challenge: Disciples, you call it. What shall we do?

The disciples balked. Yes, they had just seen Jesus feed an even larger crowd. But surely that was a ministry-defining miracle. What kind of spiritual glutton expects to see that kind of thing twice, especially in so short a time? Who would presume to ask for it?

And maybe, just maybe, they weren’t comfortable with this crowd. Maybe they felt it would be better if these Gentiles did in fact clear out, go home, collapse on the way. Jesus had already done so much more for them than they had any right to expect, and all of this — these healings, these deliverances, this compassion — was outside of the messianic program as they understood it.

Jesus himself had told them not to go to the Gentiles. So why were they still here?

I may of course be misrepresenting the apostles. We aren’t told what they thought, just what they said. They told Jesus they didn’t know where they could possibly get enough bread to feed these crowds out here in this wilderness.

Once more, Jesus asked what they had. Once more, they answered. The numbers were slightly different this time: seven loaves, and an unspecified small number of fish.

Jesus told the crowds to sit down. And once more, he did the impossible. When he finally did send the crowds away, they were no longer hungry. They had eaten, “and were filled.” And the disciples picked up seven baskets of fragments that remained.

The fourth-century French bishop Hilary of Poitiers thought that “four thousand” represented all the nations of the earth — with a thousand, again, representing an uncountable number, and four representing the four quarters of the earth. Seven is usually considered the number of perfection or completion, and hearkens back to the original creation — finished in seven days.

The numbers do not have specific reference to Israel, so they do seem to be signifying something else. The fulness of the nations is a good guess. (Even the fish, numberless as they are, may simply be pointing to the uncountable, even unknown, numbers of the Gentiles all around the earth.)

The symbology of numbers can be easily overused and misapplied. But in this case they do seem important. A little while later, in a new context, Jesus specifically called these numbers back to his disciples’ minds:

“Do you not yet understand, or remember the five loaves of the five thousand and how many baskets you took up? Nor the seven loaves of the four thousand and how many large baskets you took up?” (Matthew 16:9-10, NKJV)

Earlier, I mentioned Jesus’s occasional breaking of the Israel-only rule. The first of these was his dealing with the Roman centurion in Matthew 8. Praising the centurion’s great faith, Jesus made a statement that ties in to Hilary of Poitiers’ “four quarters” understanding of the number four thousand:

“Assuredly, I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel! 11 And I say to you that many will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 8:11-12)

In Luke 13, the evangelist conveys a similar statement of Jesus, this time a sharp warning to those of his own people who denied and rejected him.

“There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out. They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God. And indeed there are last who will be first, and there are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:28-30)

And there is one more scriptural allusion that strikes me as especially poignant here. It is God’s promise to Abraham, who Paul calls the father of all who believe, reiterated to his grandson Jacob:

Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and you will spread out to the west and to the east, to the north and to the south. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you and your offspring. (Genesis 28:14)

As Jesus commanded four thousand Gentiles to “sit down on the ground,” all of these passages are drawn into one and played out before our eyes: for one prophetic moment, on one prophetic third day, the peoples of the north, south, east, and west sit down in the kingdom of God just like the faithful children of Abraham — sitting on the very dust of the earth, uncountable in their scope, waiting for the only one who can forever feed their hunger and meet their deepest need.

It was a moment that did not really need to happen. It was off script, off the program. It came about because of one woman’s faith and the compassion of Jesus, meeting in the wilderness for a world waiting for food.

*There is some controversy over whether this was a crowd of Gentiles or whether Jesus had returned to his ministry to the Jews at this point. I believe the Gentile interpretation is correct, but if you’re interested in reading thorough arguments for both sides (which may cast a different light on this whole story than I’m doing here), you can do so here and here. These articles are related: the second directly engages with the first.

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This is Part 237 in a series on the Gospel of Matthew, which you can access here. Unless otherwise marked, quotes are from the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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