If you grew up attending Sunday school, you probably heard about Jesus feeding 5000 people with two fish and five loaves of bread. In all likelihood, you sang songs about this miracle, cut out loaves and fishes for craft projects, and perhaps even recreated the scene on a flannel graph board.
Then at some point much later, you may have encountered a lesser-known passage about Jesus feeding 4000 people. Perhaps you thought somebody misspoke, or somehow recorded the number incorrectly. You wondered if this was perhaps just one story told two different ways. So you looked to scripture and got your answer.
Jesus miraculously fed 4000 people, in a separate event from the better-known feeding of 5000. This event is recorded in two of the four gospels (Matthew 15:32-39 and Mark 8:1-9) and takes place a short time after the feeding of the 5000.
Below we will review several distinctions that establish the feeding of the 4000 as a unique event, separate from the feeding of the 5000, along with Jesus’ later commentary about both occurrences. We will find that, though not as well-known as the feeding of the 5000, this miracle is worth examining more closely.
The most obvious distinction between these two miracles is found right in the heading. Since in ancient Palestine, crowds were numbered by counting the men present, and not including the women and children, one might argue that the presence of women and children in the story accounts for the difference between the numbers. This analysis does not hold up to scrutiny, since both narratives state only the men were tallied (Matthew 15:38, Mark 8:9).
The 5000 were famously fed with two fishes and five loaves (in John’s telling of this story, he adds that the food was supplied by a boy that was among the crowd). By contrast, the 4000 were fed from seven loaves and a few small fish.
The feeding of the 5000 took place near Bethsaida, a Jewish settlement on the northern shore of Galilee. But the 4000 were fed in the region of the Decapolis, a gentile region on the southeastern shore of Galilee.
After the feeding of the 5000, Jesus’ disciples gathers twelve baskets of leftovers, compared to seven baskets after the feeding of the 4000. This distinction becomes even more notable when we understand that the two different Greek words are translated as ‘basket’ in these narratives.
The twelve baskets used to clean up after the feeding of the 5000 are called kophinous in Greek, and they refer to a small handheld basket. The leftovers from the feeding of the 4000 filled seven large baskets called spuridas, which are large enough to hold a person. This is also the same type of basket that was used to conceal Paul as he escaped Damascus in Acts 9:25.
Why Record Two Similar Stories?
We might be inclined to pass over the feeding of the 4000 too quickly. On the surface, it appears to simply be a smaller-scaled version of an earlier miracle. What more can we possibly learn from this event that wasn’t covered in the first feeding of multitudes?
Quite a few things, actually, beginning with the reaction of the crowds.
Two Different Responses
After the first feeding near Bethsaida, Jesus sent his disciples away quickly by boat, while he himself retreated up the mountainside to pray. John notes that Jesus did this because he knew that the people intended to enthrone him (John 6:14-15).
By contrast, the reaction to the feeding in the Decapolis was mixed. The crowd, who had already been praising God for the miracles that they had experienced over their past three days with Jesus (Matthew 15:31) dispersed without further mention from Matthew or Mark. But both writers recount an immediate challenge to Jesus by the Pharisees.
It is unclear if the Pharisees had been present to witness the miracle, or if they had only heard the murmurs, and were thus prompted to seek out Jesus, though the context suggests that they had not been present. So when they approached Jesus, they demanded a sign from him.
Jesus chastised the Pharisees for their corruption and impure motives and promised them no sign except the sign of Jonah (Matthew 16:4). Much has been written about the meaning of Jesus’ response, but a full dissection of these words is beyond the scope of this article.
A Lesson for the Disciples
Nevertheless, Jesus’ brief encounter with the Pharisees is not wasted on us, as Jesus uses this encounter to illuminate an important message for his disciples, who themselves were still struggling to understand all that they had experienced.
While crossing the lake, Jesus warned the disciples to guard against the ‘yeast of the Pharisees,’ referring to the hardened hearts and corrupted teaching of the Pharisees.
The disciples, almost comically, misunderstood Jesus and in their discussion about Jesus’ perplexing warning, concluded that he must be chastising them for failing to bring any bread. At this, Jesus reprimanded them for their fixation on bread, reminding them how he fed so many with so little. But there was a larger, missional point that Jesus was making as well.
About those Leftovers…
If Jesus had simply reminded his disciples that he fed thousands of people from just a few loves- twice- we could simply assume that Jesus was assuring them that they would not go hungry for lack of bread. But Jesus said more, specifically pointing out the volume of leftovers that the disciples had gathered.
Some Notable Numbers
Jesus emphasized that at the first feeding near Bethsaida, the disciples had gathered 12 baskets of leftovers, and in the Decapolis, seven baskets. When these two numbers appear in scripture, it is seldom by accident.
Both the Old and New Testaments use the number twelve to represent God’s people. Israel was divided into 12 tribes, and Jesus called 12 disciples. And gathering 12 baskets of leftovers in the Jewish settlement of Bethsaida represents the harvest among God’s people.
Similarly, the number seven is commonly used to represent completion or perfection, and was understood in this manner even outside of the Jewish community. As such, the seven baskets harvested from the gentile region of the Decapolis indicate completion of the harvest of God’s people when the gospel is shared with all the world.
But these numbers only matter because of the symbolism of the bread itself. Jesus used these miraculous feedings to lead people to a greater eternal truth.
Jesus, the Bread of Life
Calling to mind the manna that fed the ancient Israelites during their 40 years in the wilderness, Jesus declared that the bread that comes from heaven gives life to the world.
And as his audience struggled to understand his meaning, Jesus responded by making his meaning clear, declaring, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty,” (John 6:35). And this is the truth that Jesus wants not only the 5000 in Bethsaida or the 4000 in the Decapolis to understand, but that he wants all of us to know.
Before his crucifixion, Jesus broke bread with his disciples, declaring that His body would be broken for us. And since the earliest days of the church through the present day, we partake of the bread through communion, in remembrance and celebration of Jesus, the bread of life.