Jesus Provides Food for Thousands (Matthew 14:14-21; Mark 6:34-46; Luke 9:11-17; John 6:3-15)

When Jesus and his apostles went ashore on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, a large crowd was already waiting for them. Although their presence interfered with his plan for the apostles to get some rest in an isolated area, Jesus was moved with compassion for the people. He considered them to be like helpless sheep without the concern and guidance of a caring shepherd. He then began to teach them about the kingdom of God and healed the sick among them. (Matthew 14:14; Mark 6:34; Luke 9:11)

The biblical accounts do not contain specifics about what Jesus taught on this occasion and whether he spoke to the multitude or taught groups of people as they came to him and raised questions. According to John 6:3, Jesus and his disciples ascended a mountainside and there seated themselves in a grassy area. (John 6:10) Just as he and his disciples found a suitable location, the thousands who had come to the area would have done likewise. Men would have started talking with other men, and women with other women. Children would have engaged in play. Likely, at various times, groups of people would have approached Jesus and then left as others came. His teaching must have prompted many conversations.

Although considerable time passed, the crowd continued to remain in the isolated location. This prompted the disciples to suggest that Jesus dismiss the people so that they could buy food for themselves in the nearby villages. (Matthew 14:15; Mark 6:35, 36; Luke 9:12)

Perhaps at this point, Jesus saw a large crowd coming to where he and his disciples had seated themselves. Knowing what he purposed to do, he tested Philip with the question, “Where are we going to buy bread for them to eat?” Being from Bethsaida (probably the closest town), Philip would have known where bread could be purchased. (John 1:44) His response reveals that he knew about how much money the disciples had in their common fund and thought that the amount would be insufficient. He replied that 200 denarii (a denarius being a day’s wage) would not buy enough bread to provide even a small amount for everyone. (See the Notes section for additional information.) Commenting on how little food he knew to be available, Peter’s brother Andrew remarked, “Here is a boy with five barley loaves and two fishes. But what do these [amount to] among so many?” (John 6:5-9; see the Notes section for additional comments.) In response to Jesus’ telling them to provide food for the multitude, the apostles questioned whether they should leave to purchase what they could for 200 denarii. (Matthew 14:16; Mark 6:37; Luke 9:13)

The abundant grass in the location made it convenient for the people to recline in order to eat. Jesus told the apostles to have the people do so in groups of a hundred and of fifty. He then took the five loaves and the two fishes, which had been brought to him, looked up to heaven, and said a blessing. After breaking the loaves, Jesus gave the bread to the disciples for distribution to the people. He did the same with the two fishes. The miraculous provision of bread and fish was sufficient for about 5,000 men, besides women and children. To prevent any waste, Jesus instructed the apostles to gather the leftovers in baskets. They filled twelve baskets, which seems to indicate that each of the apostles had taken a travel basket along. The Greek term for one of these baskets is kóphinos and appears to have been the designation for a basket smaller than the sphyrís. (Matthew 14:17-21; Mark 6:38-44; Luke 9:14-17; John 6:10-13)

When the people saw the signs Jesus performed, especially the providing of food for the multitude, they concluded that he must surely be the prophet who was destined to come into the world. This prompted them to want to forcibly make Jesus their king. Becoming aware of their intent, he took steps to be alone, recognizing that their objective was contrary to his Father’s purpose and did not reflect genuine faith in him as the promised Messiah. (John 6:14, 15) Jesus directed his disciples to board the boat, then dismissed the crowd, and headed up the mountainside. Alone on the height, he had the needed privacy to pray to his Father. (Matthew 14:22, 23; Mark 6:45, 46; see the Notes section for comments on Mark 6:45.)


The question directed to Philip seems to have served to test his faith in Jesus’ ability to provide for the people. Although perceiving that the available resources were insufficient, Philip did not appear to make the connection that Jesus would be able to provide enough for everyone, just as centuries earlier the prophet Elisha had fed 100 men to satisfaction with a limited amount of bread. (2 Kings 4:42-44)

In John 6:9, the Greek term for “boy” is paidárion. Being a diminutive form of pais, paidárion (“boy”) is often translated “little boy.” This, however, is not necessarily the significance of the designation. In the Septuagint, the term is applied to 17-year-old Joseph (Genesis 37:30) and to his younger brother Benjamin when he was already a young man. (Genesis 43:8)

Andrew’s knowledge about the youth may be an indication that he was the son of one of the disciples. With their focus being on Jesus, the biblical accounts reveal very little about the apostles and their families. That family members accompanied them on various occasions is likely. Their not being mentioned does not preclude this possibility, especially since only Matthew’s account mentions women and children in connection with this incident.

If the youth was the son of one of the apostles, he may have been entrusted with their food supply. The fish probably were dried and salted.

According to Matthew 14:17 and Luke 9:13, the apostles referred to the five loaves and the two fishes as being all they had to give to the people, with no mention being made of the youth. This would seem to lend support to the conclusion that the youngster was a son of one of the apostles. Moreover, John’s account portrays him as already being with Jesus and the apostles when the crowd approached. (John 6:5, 9)

In Matthew 14:22 and Mark 6:45, Jesus’ directing his disciples to board the boat is expressed with a form of the Greek word anankázo, meaning “force,” “compel,” or “strongly urge.” This suggests that there may have been reluctance on their part to leave. Jesus may have insisted on their leaving because of knowing how easily they could have been drawn into supporting the aim to make him king.

Mark 6:45 includes Jesus instructions for “his disciples to go on ahead to the other side, toward Bethsaida.” This may be understood to mean that the disciples were to go north toward Bethsaida and then navigate along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee to the western shore.

According to John 6:17, Jesus had not yet come to the disciples even though it had already become dark. This could mean that he had prearranged to meet them before they would start crossing the Sea of Galilee for Capernaum. Perhaps the reference in Mark 6:45 to Bethsaida provides a possible clue about the place where Jesus planned to rejoin them. If this was the case, the disciples would have waited for a long time. When, however, it appeared that he was not coming, they decided to head for Capernaum according to the instructions he had given them.