“When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
Mark 8:19-21 ESV
Through the Bible: Matthew 15, Mark 7
Unlike the feeding of the five thousand, which appears in all four gospels, the feeding of the four thousand appears only in Matthew (today’s reading) and Mark (Mark 8:1-9). And just to make sure no one would come along in the future and say that both stories described the same event, Mark records the conversation Jesus has with His disciples in which He reminds them of both events (Mark 8:17-21).
Since Jesus had only a limited time on earth, and since the gospel writers did not record every miracle Jesus did (see John 21:25), there has to be a reason Matthew and Mark included both stories. So what’s the difference between 5,000 and 4,000? (I’m sure some class clown somewhere just blurted out “1,000!” Har-dee-har-har. There’s one in every crowd). I think there’s two reasons. One is location, and one is symbolism.
Location, Location, Location
Don’t forget that in Matthew 14, Jesus crossed over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Matthew 15:21 says that Jesus is now in the region of Tyre and Sidon, and just cast a demon out of a Canaanite woman’s daughter. In general, whenever the gospels talk about Jesus going back and forth across the Sea of Galilee, He is going from the Jewish side of the lake to the Gentile side of the lake, or vice versa. Since Jews and Gentiles wouldn’t even eat together, it’s only logical that the miracle would be replicated so each group would experience His provision.
Numbers are significant in the two accounts. If you have any doubt that these numbers are supposed to mean something, pay attention to the pop quiz Jesus gave the disciples in Mark 8:17-21. On the Jewish side, there were five thousand people fed with five loaves of bread and two fish. This is not gematria, where every Hebrew character has a numerical value and you turn the entire Bible into a book of secret codes. Instead, this is about the significance the Jews placed on various numbers. So why would the gospel writer emphasize five, five, and two? Here are some thoughts:
- There are five books of the Law–Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy (five loaves).
- There were Ten Commandments on two stone tablets. Add five (thousand) people plus five loaves and you get ten.
- Finally, after everyone ate and had their fill, twelve baskets were left over. How many tribes of Israel? Yep. Twelve.
On the Gentile side of the lake, four thousand were fed. This time, there were seven loaves and an unknown number of small fish, and afterwards seven baskets were left over. While I haven’t found anything convincing about the significance of four thousand, lots of commentators have pointed out that seven represents completion. It also represents how many days it took for God to create everything. So seven loaves and seven baskets are both reminders that Jesus came for all people. All creation. Jews and Gentiles.
So what is our takeaway? First, just be reminded that every word of God’s Word matters. Praise God for the perfection of His written word. But second, be reminded that every person God created matters. Jew and Gentile. And all of us, both Jew and Gentile, from every tribe and tongue and nation, are welcome at the Lord’s table.
Speaking of the Lord’s table, take another look at the picture of the mosaic I posted at the top of this article. When I was in Israel, our guide pointed out a fascinating detail that has puzzled people for centuries. Do you see it?
In the basket, there are only four loaves of bread, not five. Why does the mosaic not match up with the text?
- One possibility is that the artist (probably an Egyptian) simply didn’t know the details of the story.
- Another possibility is that the mosaic sits underneath the altar, and it was intended that the fifth loaf would sit on the altar.
But our guide pointed out a third option, and it is the one that captivates me: Jesus Himself, the Bread of Life (see John 6:35), is the fifth loaf. And without Him, the numbers don’t add up. None of the symbolic numbers we talked about work without that fifth loaf. It takes Jesus, whose body was broken for us, to make the mosaic complete.