The excitement among the people concerning Jesus was very high when the apostles returned to Capernaum, and it was so much increased by their return, that it was impossible to obtain in the city the rest and repose which was greatly needed. Mark says, “there was so many coming and going,” that “they had no leisure so much as to eat.” It was perhaps expected that, being now joined by his chief disciples, Jesus would no longer hesitate to declare himself the Messiah—such a Messiah as they wanted. The Passover was at hand, when they were all going to Jerusalem, and they seem to have calculated that, availing himself of the occasion, He would place himself at their head as king, and lead on the pilgrim host, increasing as it went, to the holy city to expel the Romans and take possession of David’s throne.
Seeing that no repose was to be had in the city, Jesus proposed to seek it at some quiet spot in the wilderness. It is doubted whether this was on the other side of the lake, or on the same side across a bay. Jesus went by water; and the fact that the crowd was able in a short time, and without apparent obstruction to reach the same place by land, is in favor of the latter conclusion, as the upper Jordan (which in the other case must have been crossed by them), is, as well as the lower, in flood, and unfordable at and about the time of the Passover.
Finding their retreat thus intruded upon by the multitude, Jesus no longer avoided them, but proceeded to preach to them, and to heal such among them as were diseased. Thus the hours passed, and it grew towards evening, when the want of needful food for this multitude became apparent. They had not taken any since they left home; and they had not in their haste and excitement brought any with them. None could be had in that desert place; or, if a town had been sufficiently near (as perhaps Bethsaida may have been), it could hardly have met the sudden demands of five thousand people, without counting women and children.
Under these circumstances Jesus said to Philip, “Whence shall we buy bread that these may eat?” Some think that He addressed Philip in particular, because the charge of providing food was entrusted to him. But the evangelist says it was “to try him;” our Lord having already predetermined what to do. He had doubtless perceived in this disciple a disposition to rest on lower views, a certain heaviness in elevating himself to higher and more spiritual things. This is seen not only in his reply here, but in the only other words ascribed to him in the Gospels, and in which his spiritual inapprehensiveness is as painfully evinced. Note: Joh_14:8 “Show us the Father, and it sufficeth us.” Observe also our Lord’s reply: “Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip?” The trial seems to have been in this—that Jesus meant by his question to suggest to his mind the idea of miraculous relief. It is likely that some of the apostles, if they had been asked this question, would have answered, that He, who had raised the dead, could doubtless supply this want. However, Philip took the lowest possible view of the exigency. He did not even think of the difficulty of obtaining bread on any terms in that place. He thought only of the large sum it would cost—a sum far beyond their means—to purchase even so much bread as would furnish a morsel to each. He exclaimed with astonishment, that “Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little,”—clearly implying, that among all of them, or rather in the common purse, so much money was not to be found.
Andrew, filling into the same low view, observed, there was a lad there from whom five barley loaves and two small fishes might be obtained: “But,” he added, “what are they among so many?”
Jesus, however, directed the apostles to make the people sit down in an orderly manner upon the green grass. He then took the loaves and fishes, and looking up to heaven, He blessed them. This custom was not peculiar to Jesus, but common among the Jews at their meals. It was indeed held by them, that “he who partakes of anything without giving thanks, acts as if he were stealing it from God!” The prayer of thanks was always pronounced by the father of the family; and Jesus never neglects it.
Having thus blessed the loaves and fishes, He broke them up, and gave the portions to the disciples, who distributed them to the multitude—and there was enough for all the five thousand out of these five loaves and two small fishes. There was indeed more than enough. When the remains of this humble but ample feast were gathered up, they filled twelve baskets—so that, in fact, there was more at the end than at the beginning.
The people were charmed by this miracle; and it worked up to the highest pitch their enthusiasm in behalf of the recognition of Jesus as the Messiah. Might not this, indeed, be taken as the commencement of his reign? Hitherto his acts had been those of individual beneficence. But here was a public act, performed in the sight of thousands, and of which thousands had shared the benefit. Who so fit to be their king as He who could banish want and labor from their borders, and revive the good old times when their fathers were fed by bread from heaven? Perceiving the dangerous tendency of this strong excitement, and that they were likely to compel Him to go with them, and to proclaim Him king of Israel without his consent, our Lord directed the disciples to get off to their boat, and return across the lake. Seeing that Jesus remained behind, the people did not oppose this movement; and it being too late for them to return by land, they dispersed themselves among the villages, or remained in the open air, expecting to find Jesus among them in the morning.
But He remained behind, and retired to a mountain, where He enjoyed one of those opportunities of solitary prayer which He valued greatly, and of which He had of late been so much deprived.
The disciples seem to have waited for some time off the shore, in the expectation that Jesus would join them; but finding that He did not come, and supposing that He had gone round by land, they commenced their voyage. A storm then arose, which still further retarded their progress, by compelling them to lower their sails and take to their oars. From these causes they were, by the early morning (at five or six o’clock), still far from their destination.
From the place of his solitude, Jesus could observe the storm on the lake; and reflecting upon the embarrassment of his disciples, He hastened to their assistance. He walked upon the sea, by the same power with which He rules over nature, and approached their vessel. The disciples were greatly alarmed. This was entirely unusual, and beyond all experience; and although they could see the figure was that of Jesus, they though: it was rather his ghost than himself. But in haste to reassure them, he, called out, “It is I—be not afraid.” And they knew that, if it were He, they had nothing to fear. Peter, always impulsive, and prompted by that love which made him always desire to be where his Lord was, cried out, “Since it is Thou, bid me come unto Thee on the water.” What need? Only the need of a strong and deep spirit, which felt at that moment, and was apt to feel, a craving to signalize the strength of its devoted attachment, by some act of hardy affiance to the sovereign object of its trust. Yet there was presumption in it, as appeared by the result; and in the quick collapse of his high spirit on the present occasion, we witness a foreshadowing of Peter’s greater fall. Jesus told him that he might come; and he went. But when he got upon the water, and not only saw but felt the boisterous waves, his heart failed him, and he began to fear that he should perish. No sooner did he begin to think that he should sink, than he did begin to sink; but his Lord had pity upon him; and in answer to his cry, “Lord, save me,” held out his hand to save and to sustain him—with the gentle rebuke, “O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” He had not erred in thinking that he might in safety walk the waters, when his Lord bade him come, and when he had faith to go. But a doubt is too heavy for any one to carry who would walk the waters; and Peter’s doubt had sunk him into the deep, but that the Lord had mercy upon him.
Meanwhile the people on the other side of the lake vainly sought Jesus there in the morning. Not being able to find Him, and knowing that there had been no other boat than that in which the disciples embarked, they concluded that He must have gone round by land, and conceived that if they could cross by water, they should reach the opposite shore before Him, so as to meet Him on his arrival. So, as by this time boats had come over from the opposite towns, many of the more ardent persons took passage in them.
When they arrived they heard with amazement that Jesus was already come, and had gone to the synagogue. Thither they followed Him, and questioned Him concerning his arrival; but not satisfying their curiosity, nor acquainting them with the miracle by which his glory had been further manifested, He at once referred to the real grounds of that disposition which had led them to seek Him. “Ye seek Me not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves and were filled.” The people stood there ready—with the exception of the Pharisees—to receive his declarations, to acknowledge his claim, to hail Him king; and He on his part was resolved to speak out too plainly to be misunderstood as to the real nature of his kingdom, and by dashing their terrestrial hopes, once and for ever, relieve himself from the grief and embarrassment which such misunderstanding of his purposes occasioned. Taking, as it were, his text from what had just transpired, He proceeded to show that the nourishment He had to offer was not of this world, it was nourishment for the soul. It was of Him, and in Him, and through Him; and none but those who, by the appropriating appetite of faith, made this nourishment their own, could hope for enduring life, however high their pretensions and privileges. In declaring that “He was the bread that came down from heaven;” that “the bread which He gave was his flesh,” which He “gave for the life of the world,” He touched upon the higher mysteries of the atonement, which they could then but imperfectly understand; but the discourse, as a whole, was a perfectly intelligible death-blow to the temporal hopes and views of the people. Its calm and purely spiritual tone grated harshly upon their present excited feeling, because it was spiritual; and as spiritual, it contained much at which Jewish pride, and the pride of human intellect, might take offence. Never was any discourse delivered by Jesus, the effect of which was more marked and signal. Even many of his disciples could not relish it, and were offended by it, and left Him. The desertion was so general, that He who that day might have mounted a throne amid the acclamations of assembled thousands, was, before its close, left almost, if not quite, alone, with his chosen few of the apostles. To them He said: “Will ye also go away?” And the question drew from the true-hearted Peter the glorious declaration: “Lord, to whom should we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe, and are sure, that Thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.”