In my post 12 Habits to Cultivate a Meaningful Quiet Time, one of the tips for effective Bible study is to take note of repetition.
As we read our Bibles it is important to ask why something is recurring, whether it is a name, a place, or an event.
Repetition is used to highlight or contrast.
I’ve been studying Matthew the last couple of months, and as I read through Matthew 14 and 15 it occurred to me for the first time in my life that the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 and the miraculous feeding of the 4,000 is an example of repetition. The two stories are nearly identical, so why did Matthew include both accounts?
I don’t think anyone would argue with the assumption that if Jesus multiplied food for 5,000, He could easily do it for 4,000. So why both stories?
Let’s gather the clues.
Shortly before the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000, Matthew notes that Jesus “went to His hometown and began to teach” (13:54).
Jesus then withdraws by by boat to a remote place, where He teaches and feeds the large crowd. No change of city is mentioned, and the crowds followed Him on foot which indicates that it couldn’t have been far from His hometown of Galilee (14:13). These location details are not fluff, they serve a purpose. Galilee was within the boundary of Israel. Jesus’s ministry here was to the covenant people of God, the Jews.
A Clue in the Original Greek
Matthew notes that after Jesus fed the 5,000, “they picked up 12 baskets full of leftover pieces!” (Mtw 14:20). A vital clue that can only be uncovered if we study ancient Greek or practice due diligence and pull out a commentary, is that the word Matthew uses here for baskets specifies a particular wicker basket used for food. This becomes important when we get to the next story of 4,000 fed, because there Matthew uses a different word for basket.
When Jesus finishes providing the meal, Matthew tells us there are 12 basket fulls leftover. Here is another clue highlighting how tailored this event was to Israel. 12 tribes and 12 baskets leftover.
Intentional Story Placement
Matthew also includes particular interactions Jesus had before and/or after each miracle, and the focus of these stories emphasizes what is different about two seemingly redundant miracles.
While still in the region of his hometown, Jesus teaches:
“It’s not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.”Mtw 15:11
This teaching was particular to Jews. It was the Jews who followed the Old Testament laws, and the Jews who observed rigid standards for cleanliness.
The Jews were the ones who needed to be reminded that holiness wasn’t about outward rule-following, but a heart transformation.
Matthew records this to demonstrate (yet again) that Jesus was ministering to the covenant people of God (Jews).
Then the narrative pivots. Jesus “withdrew to the area of Tyre and Sidon” (Mtw 15:21). I’m not well versed in Biblical geography, so I would not instinctively know that Tyre and Sidon are outside of the boundaries of Israel. Matthew highlights this with the words
“Just then a Canaanite woman [Gentile] from that region came.”Mtw 15:22
More Intentional Story Placement
Jesus acknowledges the Canaanite woman’s heritage. She is not part of the covenant people of God. Yet her bold request is subtly commended by Jesus, evidenced by His facetious statement:
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel…It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to their dogs.”Mtw 15:24, 26
This woman knows she is an undeserving Gentile who stands outside the covenant family of God, and her response is humble.
“Yes, Lord…yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table!”Mtw 15:27
Jesus’s final words reveal His generous heart toward the Gentiles; He has every intention of providing not just crumbs, but a feast!
“Woman, your faith is great. Let it be done for you as you want.”Mtw 15:28
This distinctly Gentile conversation is anther clue that something different is happening.
Another Clue In Greek
Matthew then introduces the second occasion where Jesus teaches the people for an unusually long period, and then miraculously provides them with an abundance of food.
This time Matthew uses a different word for basket! The Greek word describes a tightly braided, large, reed basket. This kind of basket was very sturdy (it was the same basket used to lower Saul over the wall in Acts!) and it was used for long journeys. Jesus provides not only for Israel, but also for the Gentile. Through the apostles, His ministry is extended to the ends of earth, to every nation (Mtw 28:19)!
This time there are not 12 but 7 baskets full of food leftover. This number is also significant. In Deuteronomy 7:1 the Lord specifically lists the foreign nations that were still in the promised land, which He promises to drive out. Guess how many nations there were—seven! Now Jesus has come and rather than driving them out, He is healing, teaching and feeding them!
We also see in Genesis that on the seventh day God rested. From that point forward, the number seven continues to represent completion in the Bible. Provision for the Gentile nations previously excluded from the covenant brings God’s plan full circle and gives a whole new meaning and fullness to God’s promise to Abram to make him the father of many nations (Gen 17:5).
Contrast Revealed By Repetition
Matthew’s inclusion of both miracles highlights the truth that Jesus provides abundantly (with baskets and baskets of leftovers!) for both Jew and Gentile! God shows no favoritism (Rom 2:11).
Jesus came to neutralize the exclusionary nature of the old covenant and make a new covenant. The new covenant participants are still Yahweh and His people, but this time His people isn’t just Israel!
“[S]ome of the branches were broken off, and you, though a wild olive branch, were grafted in among them and have come to share in the rich root of the cultivated olive tree”Romans 11:17
This is the best news ever!
We are those wild olive branch Gentiles. We have been grafted in to share in the bounty and fellowship of Christ!
The proclamation of this good news is so powerful and clear in Ephesians 2, it gives me goosebumps as I read it. This is what Jesus feeding the 5,000 and 4,000 really points us to!
“So then, remember that at one time you were Gentiles in the flesh… without the Messiah, excluded from the citizenship of Israel, and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus, you who were far away have been brought near by the blood of the Messiah. “Ephesians 2:11-13 (if time permits, read the full text)
The Continuing Thread of Truth
I just love when the Holy Spirit reveals a theme in Scripture, and then I see it again, and again, and again. God has an amazing way of artfully weaving truths together to create mind-blowing, impactful hope!
Different people groups united in Christ, together experiencing His abundant provision, continues all the way through Revelation. In his testimony, John gives us a glimpse of what we have to look forward to in eternity. First he hears each of the twelve tribes of Israel being marked with a seal, but when he looks, he doesn’t see just twelve tribes!
“I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb”Revelation 7:9
Because of Jesus, God’s chosen race has become many races, and a crowd of four or five thousand has become a multitude that cannot be numbered!
To this newly united multitude (the church), Christ invites us to a new feast:
“If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and have dinner with him, and he with Me.”Revelation 3:20
By His blood shed on the cross we are reconciled to God and share in the intimate fellowship of His abundant table!
Better than baskets and baskets of loaves and fishes, “from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16)!