In spiritual matters we can do nothing apart from Jesus Christ (Jn.15.5) – “apart from me you can do nothing.”
In one way or another each of the Gospel accounts of the Feeding of the 5000 indicates that Jesus pressed this point on the disciples. In John, Jesus initiates the lesson by asking Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” The next words explain, “He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.” The story continues by showing how Philip assessed the situation from a human perspective, replying, “Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite.” It is after this that Andrew brings forward the boy with the “five small barley loaves and two small fish,” which Jesus then uses for the miracle of the feeding.
Mark repeats the assessment that it would take “eight months of a man’s wages” to buy food for so many people, and in Luke the disciples say, “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish—unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.” The first three Gospels also record the disciples’ opinion that it would be best to send the people away so they could go into the surrounding towns and villages and buy food for themselves
What seems to have stuck out most clearly in the minds of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is that Jesus told the disciples to do something to improve the situation. He said, “You give them something to eat.” The emphasis does not come across as forcefully in the English translation as it does in Greek. In Greek there is the added and usually unnecessary pronoun you. The emphasis seems to have been, “You, you do it; why do you come to me?” Since Jesus knew the nature of the problem and was already aware of what he was going to do, the only reason he said what he did was to impress on the disciples that they could do nothing by themselves.
What a lesson for us to learn! We tend to think that we can do at least something and that at worse all we really need is some specialized help from Jesus. We need to remember what Martin Luther said when he was reflecting on our “nothing.” He said that our nothing really is nothing and not “a little something.”
Yet we do have what God has first given to us, and although we can do nothing of spiritual value with it by ourselves, we will find that it is useful and sufficient if we place it in Jesus’ hands. That is what happened here, of course. The disciples could do nothing, but they had five small loaves and two fish, and when they gave them to Jesus, they found that they were all that was necessary.
What did Moses have when God sent him to Pharaoh with the demand, “Let my people go”? All he had was a staff in his hand. But although Moses could do nothing with the staff, when he gave it to God, God used it to perform the miracles that led to the emancipation of the people.
What did David have when he went up against Goliath? A sling and a few small stones. But they were enough when God guided David’s missile.
What can you do for Jesus? You know the answer to that as well as I do: nothing at all. But God has given you something that can be used effectively if you place it in Jesus’ hands.
Charles H. Spurgeon wrote, “Often [I] felt as if [I] had neither loaf nor fish; and yet for some forty years and more [I] has been a full-handed waiter at the King’s great banquet.” It is like that for anyone who recognizes his or her own spiritual impotence and places all he or she has been given in Christ’s hands.
All we have said about our impotence leads directly to the next lesson, for the story – the sufficiency of Jesus Christ. “If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.” Only after that does it say, “apart from me you can do nothing.”
We can bear fruit, indeed, “much fruit” and even “fruit that will last.” But this will be the case only if Jesus is working through us since He alone is able to meet anyone’s spiritual need.
In this story Jesus meets the needs of the crowds abundantly. He took the five loaves of bread and two fish, directed the people to sit down, and then, looking to heaven and thanking God for the food, broke the food and distributed it to the people. The story concludes by saying, “They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children.”
That is worth some serious reflection. In the first place, having enough food was a serious matter in the ancient world, because the rains would often fail, crops would wither, and people would starve. In our day, when we want something to eat, all we have to do is go to the store and buy it. In biblical times, however, if a person had enough food to eat, it was a gift from God and something for which to be particularly thankful. People knew that God alone provided food. Isaiah told the people, “If you are willing and obedient, you will eat the best from the land.” Likewise, David wrote of God’s blessings, saying, “The poor will eat and be satisfied; they who seek the Lord will praise him.”
Little is much when God is in it!