Topical Scripture: John 6:1-14
There are only thirty-seven shopping days left until Christmas. If you’re wanting to get started, you might consider a giant infrared healing clam at a cost of $14,000. Or twenty-four-carat gold shoelaces for $19,000 (the silver version is “only” $3,000). Or a glass pool table for $73,000. Batman fans might spring for the Bat Golf Cart at $28,500; I’m sure that would look good tooling around the lake.
If someone you love is looking for a new car, you might consider the McLaren Elva. Only 399 are planned, so you’ll need to order one now. It has no roof, windscreen or side windows and goes for a mere $1.8 million.
In a world of such prosperity, where we have so much that we have earned and purchased and produced, why give thanks to God?
A familiar story
Our story begins: “After this Jesus crossed to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias.” (v. 1). There was a “mountainside” in the area (v. 3), but also “much grass in the place” (v. 10), indicating one of the hillside areas bordering the Sea of Galilee.
Luke tells us that they “withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida” (Luke 9:10). This town was situated on the northernmost tip of the Sea of Galilee, just east of center, where the river from Lake Semochonitis empties into the Sea of Galilee.
Meanwhile, “a large crowd was following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick” (v. 2). “Large” translates mega, demonstrating the size of this gathering. In response, “Jesus went up on the mountain, and there he sat down with his disciples” (v. 3).
It was springtime, for “the Passover, the feast of the Jews, was at hand” (v. 4). Then, Jesus looked up and saw “that a large crowd was coming toward him” (v. 5a). Our Lord had already spent the day with them, teaching them many things (Mark 6:34). In the course of the day, he “welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God and cured those who had need of healing” (Luke 9:11).
Then “Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?'” (v. 5b). Philip was from Bethsaida (John 1:44), the nearby town. The disciples had already urged Jesus to send the crowd away so the people could find food (Mark 6:35-36; Luke 9:12). But Jesus wanted to meet their need and to teach Philip a lesson as well; John tells us that “he said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do” (v. 6).
Mark quotes the disciples’ concern: “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late” (Mark 6:35). Even if bread were available, it would be extremely expensive to purchase for such a large crowd. Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite (John 6:7). This would be two hundred denarii (the literal Greek); the denarius was a Roman coin worth about eighteen cents, the usual pay for a day’s labor. As a result, we can calculate that between 5,000 and 10,000 were in the crowd.
At this point, Andrew stepped in: “One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish'” (vv. 8–9a). He had “barley loaves,” a kind of inferior bread used mainly by the very poor (cf. Ezekiel 13:19). “Loaves” were not like ours, but were flat, round sheets of bread which could be carried easily. A fried tortilla might be the closest example in our culture.
His “two fish” were small dried fish, applied to the bread as a kind of dressing. They were similar to sardines. Andrew’s question is understandable: “what are they for so many?” (v. 9b). It was all the boy had, but he gave it all to Jesus.
Our Lord responded: “Have the people sit down” (v. 10a). They sat “in groups, by hundreds and by fifties” (Mark 6:40). This was an act of faith on the part of the giant crowd as daylight faded and they had no food in sight. It was also an act of faith by the disciples, as they sat the people down for a feast which the disciples did not have to give. They reclined in the posture taken at a feast, not a fast meal on the go.
The people could do so because “there was much grass in the place” (v. 10b). As a result, “the men sat down, about five thousand in number” (v. 10c). Mark tells us that “and those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children” (Matthew 14:21). This was an astounding crowd, as the neighboring towns of Capernaum and Bethsaida probably had a population of only two to three thousand each.
An unfamiliar prayer
Then “Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted (v. 11). He would have used the typical Jewish invocation, “Blessed are You, O Lord, our God, who causes to come forth bread from the earth.”
The other gospels say that Jesus “blessed” the food (Mark 6:41; Luke 9:16; Matthew 14:19). Here we find the origin of the Christian custom of “returning thanks” or “saying the blessing.” Actually, we “ask the blessing”—we do not “bless the food,” something only God can do.
Such an attitude of gratitude is appropriate whenever we eat: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:4–5). Paul taught us: “giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20).
After Jesus returned thanks, he “distributed them to those who were seated.” Apparently, the miracle occurred as the food was distributed, so that the disciples kept giving but did not run out until the people had “as much as they wanted.” This was a rare privilege for impoverished people who often had only enough food to survive, not enough for a feast. But Jesus met their need and more.
And all of this happened after Jesus gave thanks to God for the food he then provided.
Three life lessons
From this familiar story and unfamiliar prayer, we find these life principles:
All we have comes from the One who made all that is. The lunch was provided by the boy to the disciples, but by God to the boy. All that we have comes from the one who made everything from nothing. You and I did not earn the right to live in America rather than North Korea, or to have avoided physical handicaps others must face. Our ability to work and produce comes from the God who enables all work and production. Every breath we take is his gift.
A skeptic told God he could make a better world than the Lord could. The Lord accepted his challenge. The skeptic stooped down and scooped up some dirt to get started. God said, “Get your own dirt.”
Giving thanks for what we do not have positions us to receive what God will provide. Jesus gave thanks for this feast before it became a feast. He thanked God in advance for what God would provide. When we face challenges, we should do the same. As we thank God for what he will do, we position ourselves to receive his best.
C. S. Lewis solved a mystery for me regarding prayer. It seemed illogical that we should pray about what has already happened or has not yet happened. But Lewis points out that God is not bound by time. Thus, a prayer you offer today was known to him three years ago and may have been part of what he did then. The same with prayers today and events in the future.
When we thank God for what he will do, our prayers become part of what he does. Public gratitude leads others to faith in the God we thank. Jesus’ prayer of gratitude was heard by the disciples and all who were present. When they saw the miracle that followed, “they began to say, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world'” (v. 14).
Five thousand families saw him give thanks to God for what God had not yet done, then receive all that God would do. His attitude of gratitude would mark their lives for the rest of their lives.
If people see you giving thanks for what God has done or for what he has not yet done, they will be marked by your attitude of gratitude. Some you may never know will know your faith, and they may make it their own.
Why should you develop a greater attitude of gratitude? Why give thanks to God for what you have, when you worked hard for it? Why thank him ahead of time for what he has not yet done?
Because all we have comes from the God who made it; giving thanks positions us to receive God’s best; and others will see our faith and may come to our Lord.
For what are you thankful today? For what should you be thankful today?
Will you make time each day across this thanksgiving season to experience the power of gratitude?
I am reminded of A. O. Collins, my major professor in college and one of the most gracious and grateful souls I have ever known. No matter what he was going through, from his wife’s Parkinson’s disease to his various physical challenges, he lived every day with smiling grace. I never saw him have a “bad” day.
One time, he was traveling back to Houston late at night and stopped at a rest area. He was attacked by a knife-wielding robber who cut his face and hands. He came to school the next day wearing bandages placed by the emergency room where he spent much of the night.
We were all shocked and grieved, but Dr. Collins had his usual smile. “Well,” he explained, “I’m glad he only took my wallet and not my life.” He was grateful for what he had rather than angry for what he lost.
Let’s join him.