For the most part, the Synoptic Gospels do not cover the same material as John’s Gospel. However, the feeding of the 5,000 is an exception. The feeding of the 5,000 is found in all four Gospels. In fact, the feeding of the 5,000 is the only miracle of Jesus recorded in all four Gospels, other than His resurrection, of course. (Jesus walking on water is found in Matthew, Mark, and John.)
In John’s Gospel these events serve to lead the crowd to faith in Christ (see John 6:35-47). In Mark, they have a different purpose since the intended readers are believers.
Jesus had sent out the disciples to do ministry (Mark 6:7-13). They now return to Him, probably in Capernaum, to give a report.
Here, Jesus is doing more than simply feeding 5,000 men plus the women and children present. He is also teaching the disciples a lesson.
This story tells us that rest is important (v 31).
It tells us that Jesus has compassion on lost sheep (v 34).
It tells us the importance of learning from God’s Word (v 34).
It tells us that God has all the resources we need (vv 37-38).
The fives loaves of bread were much smaller and flatter than our modern bread. The two fish were probably salted and dried fish. This was enough food for one meal for a man or two. The disciples make the obvious point that this small amount of food would not help at all in feeding 5,000 men.
Wiersbe makes this excellent observation: “The disciples’ solution to the problem was ‘go and buy’ (v. 37), but Jesus’ solution was, ‘Go and see (v. 38)” (Warren Wiersbe, Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines on the New Testament, p. 118).
This miracle shows us powerfully that God can and does do the miraculous (vv 39-44), even having 12 baskets (for 12 disciples) of food left over.
Cole comments, “In multiplying the loaves and fish God did in one moment of time what he does every day with the corn in the fields and the fish in the sea. To us, it is a miracle; to him, it is natural” (R. A. Cole, “Mark,” in New Bible Commentary, 4th ed., p. 961).
Cole adds, “Mark rescues the miracle from appearing magical by giving it a matter-of-fact ending: the tired disciples bending double as they collected all the left-over bread and scraps of fish into baskets (possibly for the next day’s meal). We should not expect to live a life entirely made up of spiritual thrills; that would be spiritually unhealthy and not help us to mature in Christ. It is strange that the disciples did not seem to have learned anything from this miracle; Jesus had to repeat the lesson later. This was not because they were particularly stupid and unresponsive; it was because they were just like us” (Cole, “Mark,” pp. 961-62).
The disciples should have grasped by this time that Jesus is more than a good man. He is more than a prophet. He is more than their concept of Messiah. He is God in the flesh, able to create food, just like He created everything on the six days of creation.
Barry Mershon comments, “They had more left over than when they began. The twelve baskets are intended for each disciple to hold and reflect on the significance of this event” (“Mark,” in The Grace New Testament Commentary, vol. 1, p. 167).
Unlike John’s Gospel, where this account leads to an evangelistic message regarding Jesus being the Bread of Life, here Mark uses the story for a discipleship purpose. Jesus will meet the basic needs of believers and even unbelievers who obey Him. They will be “satisfied” if they do what He says.
The feeding of the 5,000 occurred shortly after Herod’s birthday feast, which ended with John the Baptist being killed (Mark 6:21-29). Gruenler comments, “There is irony in the contrast of Jesus’ banquet with Herod’s, for Jesus’ meal is simple yet gives life and satisfaction, while Herod’s is sumptuous but brings death and emptiness” (R. G. Gruenler, “Mark” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Vol. 3, p. 777).
Many commentators note that this miracle is a vivid picture of the truth of Psalm 23. Christopher Church draws several excellent lessons from this miracle:
The details of the crowd seated on “green grass” and fully satisfied recall the shepherd of Psalm 23 who made his sheep lie down in green pasture (Ps. 23:2, 5). The miraculous feeding of the five thousand establishes Jesus as the true Shepherd of God, but it also points to the future ministry of the disciples. Jesus’ use of the Twelve to feed the crowd of five thousand suggests a pattern for future ministry in which Jesus provides the disciples with resources for ministry (“Mark,” in Holman Concise Bible Commentary, p. 434).
There is no indication here that the 5,000 knew that a miracle had just taken place. Perceptive people might have figured it out. But it is likely that many in the crowd did not realize what was going on, other than they had plenty to eat.
Probably we should also understand that often the way in which He will meet the needs of people is through the actions of faithful believers. Though the disciples did not produce the food, they did distribute it.
“Give us this day our daily bread” is a good prayer to pray each day. We would not have food each day unless the Lord was in control and was providing the resources we need.