Some have argued that Jesus fed the multitude once, though the account appears multiple times in the Gospels. However, internal evidence suggests otherwise. For starters, the crowd size differs in the two accounts. Furthermore, Jesus himself reminds the disciples in Mark 8:19–21 that he performed miracles at both feedings. Finally, perhaps the biggest difference between the two stories comes from the impetus behind Christ’s choosing to feed the crowds. In the first miracle—the feeding of the five thousand—Jesus sees them as sheep with no shepherd, so he teaches them until nightfall when they must find food. In this story—the feeding of the four thousand—the crowd has already stayed many days with Jesus, and he sees them as sheep with no food. Naturally, he feeds them.
Since this feeding came second, the disciples approached Jesus a little more personally. In the first miracle, they suggested sending the people into the local towns to find their own food. In this miracle, they asked Jesus what he intended to do about their hunger. In much the same way, Jesus found a small amount of food, and as God tends to do, he demonstrated the abundance of God’s kingdom by multiplying the food until thousands of people reclined, satisfied from their meal.
Throughout the Gospels, the crowds often play a fickle role in the ministry of Jesus. Sometimes they gather to listen intently, and other times they desert him because his teaching makes them uncomfortable. In this miracle, Jesus found himself in the Decapolis, a mostly Gentile area, and a crowd gathered hoping to learn from his wisdom. Not only did the crowds listen, they remained for three days—fasting and learning. In the first feeding story, Jesus knew what the people really needed—teaching first and bread second. Spiritual nourishment supersedes physical nourishment. However, during this latter event, the people recognized this order for themselves. They had forsaken their hunger pangs and stayed to receive spiritual nourishment from the living God. Jesus, in turn, responded by providing for their physical needs. The Bread of Life offers us every kind of nourishment we need.
We would do well to follow in the footsteps of the multitude that gathered in the Decapolis all those years ago. While our hunger and appetites for the things of this world tempt us to walk away from the teaching of Jesus, we should remember that as we cling to him and his Word, he supplies our every need. In both feeding miracles, we learn that Jesus knows our every need, and only through his provision can our hunger and thirst truly be satisfied.