How easily we forget things, especially spiritual things! The early church father Origen once said in frustration, “How come it is that I can remember the figure of a woman seen only once, but cannot remember a Bible passage I have seen hundreds of times?” Ah, this is what we might call spiritual amnesia. We so easily forget what God has done in Jesus Christ. We so easily forget what God has done in our lives. And there is no easy cure for this malady. This is perhaps why the Bible has so many places where it tells us to remember the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, and tell them over and over again to ourselves and to our children. Well, in our passage, the disciples are suffering from the spiritual amnesia. Jesus deals with it very graciously, for He knows how weak we are, and how forgetful.
As we should know, in chapter 14, Jesus feeds five thousand people, and here He feeds four thousand people. Liberal scholars have tried to say that it is only the same event told twice in order to make a slightly different point. However, it is quite obvious from the text itself, and from other places, that this is not the case. For one thing, the numbers are different. Instead of five thousand people, we have four thousand people. Instead of five loaves, we have seven. Instead of twelve small baskets full of leftovers, we have seven large baskets of leftovers. And most importantly, instead of Jews, we have Gentiles, as we can gather from verse 31, when it says that they glorified the God of Israel, which would be an odd way to put things, if it were actually Israelite. It feels like someone who is not an Israelite saying what they believe. Another reason these two events should be seen as distinct is that, in chapter 16, Matthew speaks of these events as two separate events.
As we saw recently in the account of the faith of the Canaanite woman, Jesus’ primary mission was to the Jews. However, there were a few crumbs that fell off the table, as it were, and the Gentile doggies could make use of those crumbs. Now here, in the feeding of the four thousand, we can see just how many crumbs are left: enough to fill seven large baskets.
As Jesus had done with the Jews, so also He has done with the Gentiles. The feeding of the four thousand, just like the feeding of the five thousand, comes at the end of a long session of healing. Jesus has compassion not only on people’s souls, but also on their bodies. Physical health is certainly not something that Jesus ignored.
Jesus had been with these people for three days. It is quite certain that He had not been doing only healing in those three days, for that would not have taken three days. Instead, it is obvious that He had also been teaching them. They had probably brought some food with them, but they had obviously exhausted all the food they had brought. Jesus is cautious about sending them home, because if He does send them home, then they might faint on the way. This would be very dangerous, actually, since there were many bandits and robbers on the way. And so it is important here to notice just how caring Jesus is of the people. Most would probably have made it home. But Jesus does not even consider that. Instead, He is thinking of abundant health, not just a “let’s get by with little” kind of health.
The disciples suffer from spiritual amnesia at this point. They had completely forgotten about the feeding of the five thousand, which had occurred about six months earlier. Add to that the fact that they were in a desolate place, a wilderness of sorts, and you can imagine that they might feel astonished that Jesus would want to feed such a large crowd, when they had practically no resources at their command. They still think that they have to come up with the resources. But they should have known all along that it would be Jesus who would provide this manna in the wilderness.
This is really another miracle along the lines of manna in the Old Testament. For the people of Israel were in the wilderness as well. They were fed miraculously by the provision of their God. That is what Jesus is now doing. Several important implications follow from this.
Firstly, Gentiles can now become part of true Israel. These Gentiles are part of the same group as Israel. They have the same needs, and Jesus will fulfill their needs just as He will fulfill Israel’s needs. The only way for that to happen, of course, is for Gentiles to believe in Jesus Christ. When that happens, the promise made to Abraham will be fulfilled, and all the people of God will become one family. Remember the first parts of this chapter. It was a discussion of cleanness and uncleanness, followed by the faith of a Gentile woman, followed by the healing of Gentile people, and climaxed by the feeding of Gentile people. What we have here, then, is a progression. First of all, Gentiles start out as unclean, then they are dogs who are inside the house, but not yet part of the family. Then at the end of the chapter they become part of the family, being healed first. This is a gospel progression. As Peter says, once we were not he people of God, but now we have been called the sons of God. Once we had not been shown mercy, but now we have been shown mercy. And now it is the same for Jews and Gentiles. They both come to the table the same way: they have to be cleansed of their diseases, and then brought to the table. Notice that Jesus healed the Jews before the feeding of the five thousand, just as He healed the Gentiles before the healing of the four thousand. Healing comes before eating at the table. Have you been healed by the blood of Christ? Has your soul been brought into the family of God by adoption into the name of God’s family, His Son?
Eating at the table has a development all its own as well. The Old Testament Israelites ate manna n the wilderness. The four thousand here are also in the wilderness, according to verse 33. Jesus provides manna for them from Himself. And, as John would say, Jesus is the true bread from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die eternally. And we feed on Christ spiritually now, as the church is in the wilderness of this world. We feed on Christ in the Word and in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Isn’t that an amazing thing to be invited to the table of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords? I think sometimes we undervalue the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, but we have to remember what it meant to eat at someone’s table in those days. It meant that you were part of the family, even if it was only temporary. We know that it is not temporary, and that our feeding on Christ now is bringing us ever closer to that Marriage Supper of the Lamb, which will take place in the new heavens and the new earth, and will never end. We are given, however, a foretaste of what that Supper will look like when we commune with the living Lord now.
There are four main points of application. The first point of application is compassion. We often object to liberal denominations in their formulation of the social gospel. They do indeed have it over-balanced in favor of people’s physical needs. However, we need to be aware that it is more than possible to over-react in the opposite direction, and pay no attention to the physical needs of people. But here we see Jesus having compassion on these people’s very physical needs. I think we need to show a similar compassion, even if we cannot do similar miracles. For people’s physical needs are part of (not the whole of it, but a part of) the sin problem of this world. We need to care for the whole person, and not just a part only. So I would challenge us all to think of some way in the next week that we could take care of someone’s physical needs while keeping in view their spiritual needs as well.
Secondly, we need to know that we are in the wilderness. Just as Israel was between Egypt and the promised land, so also is the church caught between redemption and consummation. We too are in the wilderness of this world. This means that we need to be aware of the temptations that assault people in the wilderness. For Old Testament Israel, the temptation was grumbling and complaining. And we face these temptations as well. But our God is kind and compassionate. Why should we have to complain and grumble? Usually, grumbling and complaining is a sign that we have too much, rather than not enough. Let us not be grumblers and complainers.
Thirdly, we need to know where satisfaction can be found. It says here that they all ate and were satisfied. The only way we can be satisfied in life is to find that satisfaction in Jesus Christ alone. We can try to find satisfaction in jobs, relationships, possessions, pleasure, even bitterness, and other forms of sin. However, they are all empty. They promise great things, but never deliver. Jesus is almost the reverse. He doesn’t look very promising at first. It looks like we have to deprive ourselves of everything fun in life. Of course that is not true, but it is what our sin nature likes to tell us, that God is a great cosmic killjoy. However, it is not true. God created joy, and He also created the only way to get there, which is through the holiness of the Gospel: first the holiness that God gives us as a free gift in Jesus Christ, and then through the holiness that God creates in us through the Holy Spirit. Holiness is the only true way to happiness.
Fourthly, and lastly, we need to remember where the resources are that keep us going in the Christian life. You know, a great deal of what the pastor does in a congregation has to do with reminding people. And the pastor has to remind himself every bit as much as he has to remind the congregation. Where does our strength come from? Where does the power come from? What has God done for us in the past? What does that mean for what God will do for us in the present and in the future? We all need to remind ourselves of God’s mercy and love constantly. Otherwise, we will suffer from spiritual amnesia.