And when He had taken the five loaves and the two fishes, he looked up to heaven and blessed, and brake the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before them; and the two fishes divided he among them all. Mark 6:41

Herod first heard of Jesus immediately after the Baptist’s death. While some said that this Jesus so much spoken of was Elias, or one of the prophets, there were others about the Tetrarch who suggested that He was John risen from the dead, Herod had little faith, but that did not prevent his lying open enough to superstitious fancies. He was ill at ease about what he had done on his birthday feast—haunted by fears that he could not shake off. The suggestion about Jesus fell in with these fears, and helped in a way to soothe them. And so, after some perplexity and doubt, at last he adopted it, and proclaimed it to be his own conviction, saying to his servants, as if with a somewhat lightened conscience, “This is John whom I beheaded: He is risen from the dead: and, therefore, mighty works do show themselves forth in him.”—John had done no mighty works as long as Herod knew him, but now, in this new estate, he had risen to a higher level, to which he, Herod, had helped to elevate him—he would like to see him in the new garb.

The disciples of John, who came and told Jesus of their masters’ death, had to tell Him also of the strange credulity and curiosity of Herod. We are left to imagine the impression their report created. It came at the very time when the twelve had returned from their short and separate excursions, and when, as the fruit of the divided and multiplied agency that had been exerted, so many were coming and going out and in among the re-assembled band, “that they had no leisure,” we are told, “so much as to eat.” For Himself and for them, Jesus desires now a little quiet and seclusion; for Himself—that He might ponder over a death prophetic of His own, the occurrence of which made, as we shall see, an epoch in His ministry; for them that they might have some respite from accumulated fatigue and toil. His own purpose fixed, He invited them to join Him in its execution, saying to them, “Come ye yourselves into a desert place and rest for a while.” Such a desert place as would afford the seclusion that they sought, they had not to go far to find. Over against Capernaum, across the lake, in the district running up northward to Bethsaida, are plenty lonely enough places to choose among. They take a boat to row across. The wind blows fresh from the northwest. For shelter they hug the shore. Their departure had been watched by the crowd, and now, When they see how close to the land they keep, and how slow the progress is they make, a great multitude out of all the cities—embracing, in all likelihood, many of those companies which had gathered to go up to the Passover—run on foot along the shore. A less than two hours’ walk carries them to Bethsaida, at the northern extremity of the lake. There they cross the Jordan, and enter upon that large and uninhabited plain that slopes down to the lake, on its northeastern shores. Another hour or so carries them to the spot at which Christ and His disciples land, where many, having outstripped the boat, are ready to receive them, and where more and more still come, bearing their sick along with them. It was somewhat of a trial to have the purpose of the voyage apparently thus baffled the seclusion thus sought after, violated; but if felt at ad, it sat light upon a heart which, turning away from the thought of self, was filled with compassion for those who were “as sheep not having a shepherd.” Retiring to a neighboring mountain, Jesus sits down and teaches, and heals; and so the hours of the afternoon pass by.

But now another kind of solicitude seizes on the disciples. They may not have been as patient of the defeat of their Master’s purpose as He was Himself. They may have grudged to see the hours which He had destined to repose broken in upon and so fully occupied. True, they had little to do themselves but to listen, and wait and wait. The crowd grew, however; stream followed stream and poured itself out upon the mountain side. The day declined; the evening shadows lengthened; yet as if never satisfied, that vast company still clung to Jesus, and made no movement to depart. The disciples grow anxious. They came at last to Jesus and said, “This is a desert place, and the time is now past; send the multitude away, that they may go into the country round about, and into the villages and lodge, and buy bread for themselves, for they have nothing to eat.” “They need not depart,” said Jesus; “give you to them to eat.” Turning to Philip, a native of Bethsaida, one well acquainted with the adjoining district, Jesus said in an inquiring tone, “Whence shall we buy bread that these may eat?” Philip runs his eye over the great assemblage, and making a rough estimate of what would be required, he answered, “Two hundred pennyworth of bread would not be sufficient for them, that every one might get a little; shall we go and buy as much?” Jesus asked how much food they had among themselves, without needing to go and make any further purchase. Andrew another native of Bethsaida, who had been scrutinizing the crowd, discovering some old acquaintances, said, “There is a lad here, who has five barley loaves and two small fishes; but what are they among so many?” “Bring them to me,” said Jesus. They brought them. “Make the men,” He said, “sit down by fifties in a company”—an order indicative of our Lord’s design that there might be no confusion, and that the attention of all might be directed to what He was about to do. The season was favorable—it was the full springtide of the year; the place was convenient—much green grass covering the broad and gentle sloop that stretched away from the base of the mountain. The marshalling of five thousand men, besides women and children into such an orderly array, must have taken some time. The people, however, quietly consented to be so arranged, and company after company sat down, till the whole were seated in the presence of the Lord, who all the while had stood in silence, watching the operation, with that scanty stock of provisions in His hand. All eyes are now upon Him. He begins to speak; He prays; He blesses the five loaves and two fishes, breaks them, divides them among the twelve, and directs them to go and distribute them among the others.

And now, among those thousands—sitting there and arranged so that all can see what is going on—the mystery of their feeding begins to show itself. There were one hundred companies of fifty, besides the women and children. In each apostle’s hand, as he takes his portion from the hand of Jesus, there is not more than would meet one man’s need. Yet as the distribution by the twelve begins, there is enough to give what looks like a sufficient portion to each of the hundred men who sits at the head of his company. He gets it, and little enough as it seems for himself, he is told to divide it, and give the half of it to his neighbor, to be dealt with in like fashion. All eat, all are satisfied. “Gather up,” said Jesus, as He saw some unused food lying scattered upon the ground, “the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.” They do; and while one basket could hold the five loaves and the two fishes, it now takes twelve to hold these fragments.

Let us notice the effect of this miracle. One of its singularities, as compared with other miracles of our Lord, was this: that such a vast multitude were all at once not only spectators of it, but participators of its benefits. Seven or eight thousand hungry men, women, and children sit down upon a hillside, and there before their eyes for an hour or two—full leisure given them to contemplate and reflect—the spectacle goes on, of five loaves and fishes, under Christ’s blessing, and by some mysterious acting of His great power, expanding in their hands till they are all more than satisfied. Each sees the wonder, and shares in the result. It is not like a miracle however great, wrought instantly upon a single man. Such a miracle the same number of men, women and children might see, indeed, but could not all see as each saw this. The expression here of a very marvelous exhibition of the divine power, so near akin to that of creative energy, was one so broadly, so evenly, so slowly, and so deeply made, that it looks to us just what we might have expected when the thousands rise from their seats, when all is over, and say one to another, what they had never got the length of saying previously, “This is of truth that prophet that should come into the world.” No longer any doubt or vagueness in their faith—no longer a question with them which prophet or what kind of prophet He was. He is none other than their Messiah, their Prince. He who can do that which they had just seen Him do, what could be beyond His power? He may not Himself be willing to come forward, assert His right, assert His power—but they will do for Him—they will do it now: they will take Him at once, and force Him to be their king. Jesus sees the incipient action of that leaven which, if allowed to work would lead on to some act of violence. He sees that the leaven of earthliness and mere Jewish pride and ambition has entered even among the twelve, who, as they see and hear what is going on, appear not unwilling to take part with the multitude. It is time for Him to interfere and prevent any such catastrophe. He calls the twelve to him, and directs them to embark immediately, to go alone and leave Him there, to row back to Capernaum, where, in the course of the night or the next morning He might join them. A strange and unwelcome proposal—for why should they be parted, and where was their Master to go, or what was He to do, in the long hours of that lowering night that was coming down in darkness and storm upon the hills and lake? They remonstrate; but with a peremptoriness and decision, the very rarity of which give it all the greater power, He overrules their remonstrances, and constrains them to get into the boat and leave Him behind. Turning to the multitude, whose plot about talking and making Him king, taken up by His twelve chief followers, this transaction had interrupted, He dismisses them in such a way, with such words of power that they at once disperse.

And now He is alone. Alone He goes up into a mountain—alone He prays there. The darkness deepens; the tempest rises; the midnight comes with its gusts and gloom. There—somewhere on that mountain, sheltered or exposed—there, five or six hours, till the fourth watch of the night, till after dawn—Jesus holds His secret and close fellowship with God. Into the privacies of these secluded hours of His devotion we presume not to intrude. But if, as we shall presently see was actually the case, this threatened outbreak of blinded popular impulse in His favor—the attempt thus made, and for the moment thwarted, to take Him by force, and to make Him king—created a marked crisis in the history of our Lord’s dealings with the multitudes, as well as of their disposition and conduct toward Him,—this night of lonely prayer is to put alongside of the other instances in which, upon important emergencies, our Savior had recourse to privacy and prayer, teaching us, by His great example, where our refuge and our strength in all like circumstances are to be found.

Meanwhile it has fared ill with the disciples on the lake. Two or three hours’ hearty labor at the oar might have carried them over to Capernaum. But the adverse tempest is too strong for them. The whole night long they toil among the waves, against the wind. The day had dawned, a dim light from the east was spreading over the water; they had rowed about twenty-five or thirty furlongs—were rather more than half way across the lake—when, treading on the troubled waves, as on a level, solid pavement, a figure is seen approaching, drawing nearer and nearer to the boat. Their toil is changed to terror—the vigorous hand relaxes its grasp—the oars stand still in the air or are rather feebly plied—the boat rocks heavily—a cry of terror comes from the frightened crew—they think it is a spirit. He made as though He would have passed them by—they cry put the more. For though so like their Master as they now see the form to be, yet if He go past them in silence, it cannot be other than His ghost. But now He turns, and, dispelling at once all doubt and fear, He says, “Be of good cheer; it is I—be not afraid.” He is but a few yards from the boat, when, leaping at once—as was no strange thing with him—from one extreme to the other, Peter says, “Lord, if it be thou”—or rather, for we cannot think that he had any doubt as to Christ’s identity—“Since it is thou, let me come unto thee on the water”. Why not wait till Jesus comes into the boat? Because he is so pleased, so proud to see his Master tread with such victorious footsteps the restless, devouring deep; because he wants to share the triumph, of the deed—to walk side by side, before his brothers, with Jesus, though it be but a step or two.

He gets the permission—he makes the attempt—is at first successful. So long as he keeps his eye on Jesus—so long as that faith that prompted the proposal, that sense of dependence in which the first step out of the boat and down upon the deep was taken, remain unshaken,—all goes well. But he has scarcely moved off from the boat when he looks away from Christ, and out over the tempestuous sea. The wind is not more boisterous—the waves are not higher or rougher than they were the moment before—but he was not thinking of them then. He was looking at—he was thinking of—he was hanging upon—his Master then. Now he looks at—thinks only of—wind and wave. His faith begins to fail—fearing he begins to sink—sinking he fixes his eye afresh and most earnestly on Jesus. The eye, affecting the heart, rekindling faith in the very bosom of despair, he cries out, “Lord, save me.” It was the cry of weakness—of wild alarm, yet it had in it one grain of gold. It was a cry to Jesus as the only One that now could help—some true faith mingling now with all the fear.

The help so sought for came at once. “Immediately Jesus stretched forth His hand and caught him, and said unto him, 0 thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?” At the grasp of that helping hand—at the rebuke of that chiding voice, let us believe that faith came back into Peter’s breast, and that not borne or dragged through the waters, but, walking by his Master’s side, he made his way back to the little vessel where his comrades were, to take his place among them, a wiser and a humbler man.