“A Glorious Feast in a Desolate Place”
I recently read an excellent definition of maturity. Maturity is coming to terms with the limits and weaknesses of others, and with myself. Another way of saying this is that idealism this side of heaven is for children, not for adults.
Many of America’s famous television preachers are nothing more than dream peddlers, peddling a god who grants an idealist life this side of heaven. In contrast to the false god who grants all our earthly desires is Jesus Christ, who feeds his people in a desolate place.
Take note of that phrase, “desolate place,” mentioned twice in our text. Matthew recounts Christ’s feast in a desolate place immediately after recounting Herod’s feast in a palace. Herod’s feast is an idealist feast of earthly dreams. Herod has all you could ever want; possessions, power, wealth, and pleasure. Our Savior’s feast is in a desolate place, consisting of only the basics of life, bread and fish. Which feast would you rather partake of? With eyes of faith you are to behold the glory of Jesus’ feast in the wilderness.
Now, Matthew wants you to read this story in light of Old Testament Israel. Jesus goes into the wilderness and provides bread to his followers. You cannot help but be reminded of God providing manna to Israel in the wilderness. Christ is reliving Israel’s history. God led his people into the wilderness to prove to them that he could provide for them there. The Lord used that wilderness experience to test Israel to see if they would trust him to provide. Now Jesus leads his followers into the wilderness, proving to them that he can provide for them there. And as God tested Israel, Jesus tests his disciples to see if they would trust him.
The crowds were hungry. They had not eaten all day. They were in a desolate place. The disciples “command” Jesus to send them back to the villages to buy food. Jesus tests them in v. 16. “You give them something to eat.” Will the disciples trust in Christ to provide for all these people? The disciples fail the test. The idea that Jesus could supernaturally provide doesn’t seem to cross their minds. So Christ proves to his disciples, which includes you, that he can supernaturally sustain you in the wilderness.
The Lord commands the crowds to sit down, and then gives thanks over the food. These are the acts of a father. In Israel the father called the family to dinner, and the father gave thanks for the meal. This meal pictures Jesus, the head of his church, feeding his family. Matthew adds the fact that they sat on the grass, reminding us of Psalm 23, where the good shepherd makes his people lie down in green pastures. Even though they walk in the valley of the shadow of death, they have no lack, for the Lord provides for them.
Matthew does not record for us how the miracle occurred. Jesus simply willed the bread to be plentiful, and it was so. As God supernaturally provided manna to the Israelites in the wilderness, Jesus does the same in his wilderness. You are to see that Jesus is the God of the Old Testament; the eternal Word of God become flesh. Is it difficult to believe Jesus could do such a miracle? Was it any more difficult for him to call the world into existence, or part the Red Sea?
Now the question you are to ask is; why is Jesus recreating Israel’s manna episode? Well, the Lord promised in the Old Testament that the Messiah would come and lead his people on an Exodus greater than the one from Egypt. Jesus relives the wilderness experience to demonstrate that he would satisfy Israel’s hope for a great deliverance, a deliverance that would make the first exodus pale in comparison. What the Lord provides through Christ is greater than what the Lord provided for Israel.
You see this as you compare the feeding of the five thousand to the story of the manna in Ex. 16. In Exodus 16 God gave Israel just enough manna for one day; there were no leftovers. But that is not the case with the bread Jesus provides. In v. 20 you see that after eating the people were full, and even then there were still twelve baskets full of bread left over. If the Old Testament manna was an abundant provision, what Jesus provides is even more abundant!
The manna given to Israel perished the next day. If not eaten that day the manna become infested with worms. The bread Jesus provided did not perish. What was left over was gathered up to be used later. What Jesus came to provide is greater than anything Israel ever experienced. Israel’s provisions were only pictures of the greater provision to come.
God provided wonderfully for Israel. God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt; he parted the Red Sea to save them. He gave them bread and meat in the wilderness. He protected Israel from her enemies on the way to Canaan. He gave Israel his holy Law. He granted Israel a land flowing with milk and honey. What wonderful blessings. Yet all these wonderful gifts pale in comparison to what Jesus came to provide.
Though Israel was freed from Egypt, that deliverance could not free them from their slavery to sin and impending judgment. Though Israel was given the Law, the Law could not provide them with everlasting life. Though the land of Canaan was a wonderful provision, the land would not be theirs forever; Israel would be cast out of the land.
The bread Jesus gives is better than all the provisions given to Israel in the Old Testament. What is the nature of this bread Jesus gives? The Lord himself says, “I am the bread of life that has come down from heaven.” The physical provision of bread pictures the spiritual provision of salvation from sin and judgment through Jesus Christ.
As we need food for physical provision, so we need Christ as our spiritual provision. Jesus himself becomes the greatest provision from God. In Christ you have your perfect righteousness required for heaven. In Christ you have a substitutionary atonement, that his death would be counted as yours as he endured the wrath of God for your sins. In Christ you have forgiveness of your sins. In Christ you are adopted as sons of God. In Christ you have the assurance of the resurrection of your bodies. In Christ you have been given the Holy Spirit, who strengthens you for God’s service and keeps you in the Father’s care until you reach heaven.
What glorious bread Jesus provides! In Christ God’s full compassion for sinners is revealed. Note that Jesus sees the crowds coming to him and is moved with compassion. God’s compassion is the source from which he feeds you so well. This is why he provides so well for you; he loves his people from the depths of his heart.
This miracle of the feeding of the five thousand does not give you the right to become an idealist in regard to this life. If Jesus wanted to convey the reality that all your dreams for this life would be answered, he would have fed his people in a palace, not in a desolate place. The Lord is not promising a life without conflict, or loss, or loneliness, or sickness. But through his Word, his Spirit, and his church, Jesus your risen Shepherd provides you with all you need spiritually to walk before him in the desolate places.
Note also from this passage that Jesus feeds his people in the context of a family meal. You see the communal nature of feeding upon Christ as the crowds sit together and eat. We feed upon Christ first and foremost as a church family, as we recline together and receive his teaching, as we walk together serving him.
This feast in Matt. 14 gives you insight as to how you describe the church to others. The church is not about the pastor’s personality, or the building the church meets in. The church will not answer every social, economic, or emotional need you will ever have in this life. What is the church? The church is the gathering of hungry people who feed upon the provision Christ supplies as they walk through the wilderness to the Promised Land.
Beloved, idealism this side of heaven is for children. The wilderness in our passage describes life in this fallen world. The Bible calls you the final wilderness generation. As long as your priority is seeking better bread for this life, you will not be satisfied with the provision Christ offers. Everything that really matters for life now and forever is yours in Christ. The bread of this world lasts for a brief time, and the dreams and hopes of this life end up as vanity in the greater scheme of things.
But Christ is the true Bread who gives eternal life to those who partake of it. The bread of Christ is the life of heaven, which cannot be taken away. The bread of Christ is forgiveness of sins, life in the Holy Spirit, the fellowship of the church, the mission of the church, and the character of Christ growing in you.
Beloved, you can never be reminded enough of your provision of the gospel of Christ. I know how easy it is to lose sight of the truth of the gospel as you become caught up in the problems of the wilderness. I know that it sometimes seems there is never enough spiritual provision when you really need it; your patience seems to run out when you need more patience, your love seems to run out when you get tired of conflict, your forgiveness seems to run out when you feel angry, your compassion seems to run out when you are called to love the unlovable. Your hope seems to run out in the face of discouragement, relational struggles, financial difficulties, etc., and your humility seems to run out in the face of correction.
Let the feeding of the five thousand encourage you that Christ’s provision has not run dry. You will always have just enough to continue on. If he gave you too much you would become proud, and you would forget your daily need of Christ. But if you had truly run dry of spiritual provision you would not be here with the church, worshiping the Lord and listening to his Word.
In this wilderness you will not sense the full affects of Christ’s provision, but nevertheless God never lies; he gives you what you need to be a faithful Christian. Do not be idealistic about the Christian life. We are imperfect people gathered with other imperfect people in a fragile and dying world. By faith enjoy the bread of Christ even as you walk in the wilderness. In Christ and in his church you enjoy a heavenly meal as you regularly feed upon his word and fellowship with one another.
Beloved, Jesus is the true bread that has come down from heaven. Receive all that he is for you; be content in his provision. For all who come to Jesus for true bread, one day the feast in the wilderness will become the feast in the palace of heaven in the life to come. Amen