THE FEEDING OF THE FIVE THOUSAND, AND WALKING ON
THE Feeding of the Five Thousand is one of the few miracles during the ministry of Christ which are narrated to us by all four of the Evangelists; and as it is placed by St. John after the nameless festival and just before a Passover, and by the Synoptists in immediate connection with the return of the Twelve and the execution of the Baptist, we can hardly err in introducing it at this point of our narrative.
The novel journeyings of the Apostles, the agitation of His own recent conflicts, the burden of that dread intelligence which had just reached him, the constant pressure of a fluctuating multitude which absorbed all their time, once more rendered it necessary that the little company should recover the tone and bloom of their spirits by a brief period of rest and solitude. "Come ye yourselves," He said, "apart into a desert place, and rest a while."
At the north-eastern corner of the Lake, a little beyond the point where the Jordan enters it, was a second Bethsaida, or "Fish-house," once, like its western namesake, a small village, but recently enlarged and beautified by Philip, tetrarch of Ituræa, and called, for the sake of distinction, Bethsaida Julias. The second name had been given it in honour of Julia, the beautiful but infamous daughter of the Emperor Augustus. These half-heathen Herodian cities, with their imitative Greek architecture and adulatory Roman names, seem to have repelled rather than attracted the feet of Christ; and though much of His work was accomplished in the neighbourhood of considerable cities, we know of no city except Jerusalem in which He ever taught. But to the south of Bethsaida Julias was the green and narrow plain of El Batîhab, which, like the hills that close it round, was uninhabited then as now. Hitherward the little vessel steered its course, with its freight of weary and saddened hearts which sought repose. But private as the departure had been, it had not passed unobserved, and did not remain unknown. It is but six miles by sea from Capernaum to the retired and desolate shore which was their destination. The little vessel, evidently retarded by unfavourable winds, made its way slowly at no great distance from the shore, and by the time it reached its destination, the object which their Master's kindness had desired for His Apostles was completely frustrated. Some of the multitude had already outrun the vessel, and were thronging about the landing-place when the prow touched the pebbly shore; while in the distance were seen the thronging groups of Passover pilgrims, who were attracted out of their course by the increasing celebrity of this Unknown Prophet. Jesus was touched with compassion for them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd. We may conjecture from St. John that on reaching the land He and His disciples climbed the hill-side, and there waited a short time till the whole multitude had assembled. Then descending among them He taught them many things, preaching to them of the kingdom of heaven, and healing their sick.
The day wore on; already the sun was sinking towards the western hills, yet still the multitude lingered, charmed by that healing voice and by those holy words. The evening would soon come, and after the brief Oriental twilight, the wandering crowd, who in their excitement had neglected even the necessities of life, would find themselves in the darkness, hungry and afar from every human habitation. The disciples began to be anxious lest the day should end in some unhappy catastrophe, which would give a fresh handle to the already embittered enemies of their Lord. But his compassion had already forestalled their considerate anxiety, and had suggested the difficulty to the mind of Philip. A little consultation took place. To buy even a mouthful apiece for such a multitude would require at least two hundred denarii (more than £7); and even supposing that they possessed such a sum in their common purse, there was now neither time nor opportunity to make the necessary purchases. Andrew hereupon mentioned that there was a little boy there who had five barley-loaves and two small fishes, but he only said it in a despairing way, and, as it were, to show the utter helplessness of the only suggestion which occurred to him.
"Make the men sit down," was the brief reply.
Wondering and expectant, the Apostles bade the multitude recline, as for a meal, on the rich green grass which in that pleasant springtime clothed the hill-sides. They arranged them in companies of fifty and a hundred, and as they sat in these orderly groups upon the grass, the gay red and blue and yellow colours of the clothing which the poorest Orientals wear, called up in the imagination of St. Peter a multitude of flower-beds in some well-cultivated garden. And then, standing in the midst of His guestsglad-hearted at the work of mercy which He intended to performJesus raised His eyes to heaven, gave thanks blessed the loaves, broke them into pieces, and began to distribute them to his disciples, and they to the multitude; and the two fishes He divided among them all, it was a humble but a sufficient, and to hungry wayfarers a delicious meal. And when all were abundantly satisfied, Jesus, not only to show His disciples the extent and reality of what had been done, but also to teach them the memorable lesson that wastefulness, even of miraculous power, is wholly alien to the Divine economy, bade them gather up the fragments that remained, that nothing might be lost. The symmetrical arrangement of the multitude showed that about five thousand men, besides women and children, had been fed, and yet twelve baskets were filled with what was over and above to them that had eaten.
The miracle produced a profound impression. It was exactly in accordance with the current expectation, and the multitude began to whisper to each other that this must undoubtedly be "that Prophet which should come into the world," the Shiloh of Jacob's blessing; the Star and the Sceptre of Balaam's vision; the Prophet like unto Moses to whom they were to hearken; perhaps the Elijah promised by the dying breath of ancient prophecy; perhaps the Jeremiah of their tradition, come back to reveal the hiding-place of the Ark, and the Urim, and the sacred fire. Jesus marked their undisguised admiration, and the danger that their enthusiasm might break out by force, and precipitate His death by open rebellion against the Roman government in the attempt to make Him a king. He saw too that His disciples seemed to share this worldly and perilous excitement. The time was come, therefore, for instant action. By the exercise of direct authority, He compelled His disciples to embark in their boat, and cross the Lake before Him in the direction of Capernaum or the western Bethsaida. A little gentle constraint was necessary, for they were naturally unwilling to leave him among the excited multitude on that lonely shore, and if anything great was going to happen to Him they felt a right to be present. On the other hand, it was more easy for Him to dismiss the multitude when they had seen that His own immediate friends and disciples had been sent away.
So in the gathering dusk He gradually and gently succeeded in persuading the multitude to leave Him, and when all but the most enthusiastic had streamed away to their homes or caravans, He suddenly left the rest, and fled from them to the hill-top alone to pray. He was conscious that a solemn and awful crisis of His day on earth was come, and by communing with his heavenly Father, He would nerve his soul for the stern work of the morrow, and the bitter conflict of many coming weeks. Once before He had spent in the mountain solitudes a night of lonely prayer, but then it was before the choice of His beloved Apostles, and the glad tidings of his earliest and happiest ministry. Far different were the feelings with which the Great High Priest now climbed the rocky stairs of that great mountain altar which in His temple of the night seemed to lift him nearer to the stars of God. The murder of His beloved forerunner brought home to His soul more nearly the thought of death; nor was He deceived by this brief blaze of a falsely-founded popularity, which on the next day He meant to quench. The storm which now began to sweep over the barren hills; the winds that rushed howling down the ravines; the Lake before him buffeted into tempestuous foam; the little boat whichas the moonlight struggled through the rifted cloudsHe saw tossing beneath Him on the labouring waves, were all too sure an emblem of the altered aspects of His earthly life. But there on the desolate hill-top, in that night of storm, He could gain strength and peace and happiness unspeakable; for there He was alone with God. And so over that figure, bowed in lonely prayer upon the hills, and over those toilers upon the troubled lake, the darkness fell and the great winds blew.
Hour after hour passed by. It was now the fourth watch of the night; the ship had traversed but half of its destined course; it was dark, and the wind was contrary, and the waves boisterous, and they were distressed with toiling at the oar, and above all there was no one with them now to calm and save, for Jesus was alone upon the land. Alone upon the land, and they were tossing on the perilous sea; but all the while He saw and pitied them, and at last, in their worst extremity, they saw a gleam in the darkness, and an awful figure, and a fluttering robe, and One drew near them, treading upon the ridges of the sea, but seemed as if He meant to pass them by; and they cried out in terror at the sight, thinking that it was a phantom that walked upon the waves. And through the storm and darkness to themas so often to us, when, amid the darknesses of life, the ocean seems so great, and our little boats so smallthere thrilled that Voice of peace, which said, "It is I: be not afraid."
That Voice stilled their terrors, and at once they were eager to receive Him into the ship; but Peter's impetuous lovethe strong yearning of him who, in his despairing self-consciousness, had cried out "Depart from me!"now cannot even await His approach, and he passionately exclaims
"Lord, if it be Thou, bid me come unto Thee on the water."
And over the vessel's side into the troubled waves he sprang, and while his eye was fixed on his Lord, the wind might toss his hair, and the spray might drench his robes, but all was well; but when, with wavering faith, he glanced from Him to the furious waves, and to the gulfy blackness underneath, then he began to sink, and in an accent of despairhow unlike his former confidence!he faintly cried, "Lord, save me!" Nor did Jesus fail. Instantly, with a smile of pity, He stretched out His hand, and grasped the hand of His drowning disciple with the gentle rebuke, "0 thou of little faith, why didst thou doubt?" And so, his love satisfied, but his over-confidence rebuked, they climbedthe Lord and His abashed Apostleinto the boat; and the wind lulled, and amid the ripple of waves upon a moonlit shore, they were at the haven where they would be; and allthe crew as well as His discipleswere filled with deeper and deeper amazement, and some of them, addressing Him by a title which Nathanael alone had applied to Him before, exclaimed, "Truly Thou art the Son of God."
Let us pause a moment longer over this wonderful narrative, perhaps of all others the most difficult for our feeble faith to believe or understand. Some have tried in various methods to explain away its miraculous character; they have laboured to show that epì tèn thálassan may mean no more than that Jesus walked along the shore parallel to the vessel; or even that, in the darkness, the Apostles may have thought at first that He was, or had been, walking upon the sea. Such subterfuges are idle and superfluous. If any man find himself unable to believe in miraclesif he even think it wrong to try and acquire the faith which accepts themthen let him be thoroughly convinced in his own mind, and cling honestly to the truth as he conceives it.
It is not for us, or for any man, to judge another: to his own Master he standeth or falleth. But let him not attempt to foist such disbelief into the plain narrative of the Evangelists. That they intended to describe an amazing miracle is indisputable to any one who carefully reads their words; and, as I have said before, if, believing in God, we believe in a Divine Providence over the lives of menand, believing in that Divine Providence, believe in the miraculousand, believing in the miraculous, accept as truth the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christand, believing that resurrection, believe that He was indeed the Son of Godthen, however deeply we may realise the beauty and the wonder and the power of natural laws, we realise yet more deeply the power of Him who holds those laws, and all which they have evolved, in the hollow of His hand; and to us the miraculous, when thus attested, will be in no way more stupendous than the natural, nor shall we find it an impossible conception that He who sent His Son to earth to die for us should have put all authority into His hand.
So then if, like Peter, we fix our eyes on Jesus, we too may walk triumphantly over the swelling waves of disbelief, and unterrified amid the rising winds of doubt; but if we turn away our eyes from Him in whom we have believedif, as it is so easy to do, and as we are so much tempted to do, we look rather at the power and fury of those terrible and destructive elements than at Him who can help and savethen we too shall inevitably sink. Oh, if we feel, often and often, that the water-floods threaten to drown us, and the deep to swallow up the tossed vessel of our Church and Faith, may it again and again be granted us to hear amid the storm and the darkness, and the voices prophesying war, those two sweetest of the Saviour's utterances
"Fear not. Only believe."
"It is I. Be not afraid."