Few of the miracles performed by the Lord Jesus are found in all four gospels, but the feeding of the five thousand is among that number (Mt 14:13-21; Mk 6:31-44; Lk 9:10-17; Jn 6:1-13). It is of interest to observe the different details that are noted in these four accounts. One such detail is that Mark alone reveals that the Lord Jesus looked on the multitude following Him as “sheep not having a shepherd” (Mk 6:34). It is generally accepted that most of the material used by Mark in the writing of his gospel was provided by Peter.
Peter was a fisherman and it may seem strange that he added such a comment. But later, after the resurrection, it was to this fisherman by profession, who had been plying his trade in the preceding night hours, that the Lord Jesus gave the instruction, “Feed my sheep” (Jn 21:16,17). Peter had been commissioned previously by the Lord when He called him with the words, “Come ye after Me and I will make you to become fishers of men” (Mk 1:17). As one of the “fishers of men,” he engaged in evangelism, and in feeding the sheep he acted as a shepherd and elder (1 Pet 5:1) amongst the saints. Others, doubtless, engaged in such service but he is the only disciple who is recorded as being charged with this double commission. As he writes his first epistle he was carrying out the command to feed the sheep and had done so since he preached in Acts 2.
The Chief Shepherd
The word translated “Chief Shepherd” is unique to Peter’s writings. It emphasizes that shepherds in autonomous local assemblies are not free to act as they wish; they are responsible to the Chief Shepherd under Whose guidance they labor. As he exhorted the elders to “feed the flock of God” (5:2), he would recall his memorable conversation with the Lord on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias (Jn 21), which was the sea of Galilee (Jn 6:1), and also the circumstances when five thousand were fed beside the same sea. The sheep “not having a shepherd” found a true shepherd in the Lord and He fed them as a shepherd feeds his flock. The elders, likewise, were responsible to feed the sheep that had been given into their care. The feeding comes from the Word of God and from the example of lives lived in submission to its teaching.
The Lessons Learned
Three lessons can be seen as the twelve disciples feed the flock that had come together to a desert place (Mk 6:32) and was motivated only by the desire to be with the Lord. The first was in the resources at the disposal of the twelve “shepherds.” As the sole and sure provider of all that was necessary for the “flock,” He was truly the Chief Shepherd. The Twelve were taught this lesson when they suggested that the multitude be sent away to buy food. When they approached Him to express their concern at the need amongst the people, He exclaimed, “Give ye them to eat.” A short time before they had returned from their preaching tour and told Him all that “they had done” (Mk 6:30), not acknowledging that it was He Who had worked through them. And so He challenged them, and as they had told Him what they had done He directed them to continue their work in satisfying the hunger of the crowd. The lesson they had to learn was that the power was His and not their own. Likewise the food necessary for the spiritual health of the flock must come from His hands. Nothing obtained elsewhere can possibly produce a flock that is well-nourished.
The second lesson was the responsibility that lay on the shoulders of the twelve. It was necessary for them to obtain the needed food from Him and to pass it on to others. Those who do not take from His hands will have nothing adequate to give into the hands of others. They must also ensure that no one in the company present was omitted from the distribution. This involved a considerable task. Mark comments that there were about 5000 men, but Matthew adds that there were also women and children present although these are not numbered. It cannot be claimed that each disciple distributed to the same number, but if they did each would serve in excess of 400 men.
But consideration must also be given to the amount of bread and fish that the Lord Jesus would have to provide. It would be likely that the Lord gave them what they had the capacity to carry and when they returned they were given more to distribute. If the task was great for the Twelve, how much greater it would have been for the Lord. The lesson is that He always has enough to give no matter how many there are to be fed. When the shepherd comes to Him to obtain the food necessary for the present need, He is ever able to supply it.
The third lesson is that they received a reward. Each disciple gathered up a basket full of bread. Those who are intent on feeding others will, in return, be rewarded for their faithful shepherding. After their task is complete they have much more than at the beginning. From having no bread to carrying a basket each is evidence that the Lord had been at work.
But central to all this is the Lord. He truly is the Chief Shepherd and the reward that He will give is a crown of righteousness. There is great need for spiritual overseers amongst the saints, those who are prepared to spend time with the Lord in obtaining what is necessary in respect of teaching, in building up the believers, or in handling with spiritual wisdom the problems that have to be faced. Let all shepherds ensure that none are starved of good nourishment. “Feed the flock” is the cry and “when the Chief Shepherd appears” all the labor and travail that went into that work will be recognized.