Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Harmonizing the Five Thousand

Yesterday we looked at the only miracle found in all four gospels: the feeding of the 5,000. We noted that the synoptic gospel accounts have many common elements, though each writer has tailored his version of the story to fit his overall purposes in writing about the life of the Lord Jesus.

For example, Matthew emphasizes the relationship between the Lord and John the Baptist, only just executed by Herod: “When Jesus heard this [that John had been executed], he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place.” Mark and Luke emphasize the Lord’s care for his disciples, who had just had their first taste of successful solo ministry: “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while,” he invites them.

We often make choices with multiple purposes in view. The Lord Jesus was no exception.

Similarities and Differences

Yet even as we recognize the differences between the three synoptic accounts, we cannot help but notice a plethora of similarities, which argue persuasively (I believe) for one or more common source documents to which each writer had access. John’s narrative stands out from the other three, not because he changes any of the well-attested facts — all the details of the miracle are spot on with the other three accounts — but because he supplements his version with repeated glimpses of the Lord’s personal dealings with members of his chosen Twelve. None of these are mentioned by name in the synoptic accounts. John refers to three of them.

In Matthew and Mark, the Lord Jesus is doing a remarkable sign that points to his God-given authority, but it is only the first of three (the same three miracles in both gospels). Luke’s arrangement of the chapter with the 5,000 account seems haphazard at first, but in According to Luke, David Gooding notes that it is part of a complex chiastic structure that begins in verse 1 and resolves in verse 50.

This Time It’s Personal

However, in John, the situation is much more personal. At the end of the previous chapter, Jesus has testified to the Jews that he is not acting on his own, but with the full authority of Heaven. How can he prove this? “The very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me.” The miracles are the Father’s testimony in confirmation that he has sent the Son. Do the Lord’s own disciples believe this, or are they still on the fence? Let’s find out. So the Lord asks Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” It’s a test of Philip’s faith, and John says so. Philip’s response, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little”, is less a failure of faith then a commentary on the magnitude of the problem.

Likewise, in John, Andrew gets involved. The five loaves and two fish in the synoptic accounts appear without explanation. In John, it turns out they are a little boy’s lunch, and Andrew brings him to the Lord to offer them upon request. This is very much in character. Andrew first appears in John bringing someone to Jesus, and he does it again in chapter 12. We learn as much about Andrew in the book of John as we learn in his own brother’s gospel (if Mark is indeed Peter’s story). It is often pointed out that the disciples’ resources were inadequate to the task of feeding so many, but in John we discover they really didn’t have any resources at all. They had to be borrowed. Sometimes in the service of Christ, that’s the way it goes.

To sum up, in Matthew, Mark and Luke we have a miracle. In John we have a teaching moment in which the Lord takes advantage of it.

Image courtesy Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing, CC BY-SA 3.0

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