In this passage Mark skillfully weaves symbolism from the Old Testament into the ordinary events of Jesus’ life with his disciples. The twelve represent the twelve tribes of Israel, and the fact that they are led by Jesus into a desert place reveals Jesus as the second Moses who led the Israelites out of slavery into the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. So the apostolic ministry of the twelve apostles reveals the church to be the New Israel–God’s chosen people not by natural birth, but by being born again by the Spirit. Mark is also showing us how to see with the eyes of faith. Beneath the surface of all things there are other meanings. God is at work in a secret way in the world. This also helps us to further understand the mystery of Jesus Christ. On the surface he is the ordinary carpenter from Nazareth who has become a wandering preacher. Beneath the surface he is the Son of Man, the Lord of the Sabbath–the one who even the wind and the storms obey.
The crowds had figured out where Jesus and the disciples were headed so they hurried around the coast by land to greet them. This familiar story of the feeding of the five thousand is full of extra meaning, but first we need to ask whether it really happened. Those who doubt miracles like to give anodyne explanations like, “The real miracle was that everyone shared their lunch.” What nonsense! If that is all it was why would Mark have bothered to record it? Furthermore, we see a progression in the way Mark recounts the miracles stories and hearings. They start small and become more detailed and more astounding as his story unfolds. No, we must accept the story as a true miracle story. Jesus miraculously multiplied the bread and fish lunch to feed five thousand people.
Apart from the astounding miracle itself, what does the story mean? First of all, it reveals Jesus as the second Moses who provided bread and quail for the Israelites in the wilderness. This adds to the existing symbolism in the previous short passage hinting at Jesus being the second Moses and the twelve representing the twelve tribes of Israel. But there is more to it than this. There is one greater than Moses here. Moses simply showed the people how God provided the manna and meat in the wilderness. Jesus provides it himself, thus showing that he has the authority and power of the creator. He has shown this already in his authority over the wind and waves. Now he multiplies food–something which only the power of God the creator can do.
The detail of the “green grass” is important on several levels. FIrst it indicates where the event probably took place. The hills around Galilee are usually parched and brown. However, in a place called Tabgha near Capernaum there are several natural warm springs that feed into the Sea of Galilee and there is not only an abundance of green grass there, but the hillside also curves around to provide a natural kind of amphitheater: a perfect setting for Jesus to be heard. The warm springs and the green grass also point to a place of refreshment in the midst of the wilderness. This hearkens back to the provision of water for the Israelites in the desert. There is also an ancient tradition that this place of greenery and pleasant springs is the site of the Garden of Eden. If this is so then the images pile up: Jesus as the second Moses leads the Israelites out of the wilderness to a kind of promised land–a return to Eden. There he provides for them with a miraculous meal.
Jesus looked on the crowds as “sheep without a shepherd”. Mark uses this to point to another Old Testament theme and symbol–that of the shepherd. In the Old Testament God himself says he will become the shepherd of his people Israel. David says “the Lord is my shepherd” and one of the things the Shepherd Lord does in the twenty third psalm is lead his sheep to lie down in green pastures beside the still waters and there he sets a table before them. He anoints their head with oil and their cup overflows. In this chapter the Lord instructed the twelve to anoint with oil for healing and at the end of the story the baskets overflow with what is left over. So Mark, using the events and details of the story shows Jesus to be not only the second Moses and the Creator/Provider God, but also the God who said he himself would come to be the shepherd of his people.
The detail of them sitting down in groups of hundreds and fifties echoes the instructions to the people of Israel in the wilderness. In Exodus 18 the people are also instructed to sit in numbered groups. Once again Mark is showing the deeper levels of meaning.
To add even more to the story, the warm waters which flowed into the Sea of Galilee attracted the famous Tilapia fish or St Peter’s fish. Therefore this area at the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee next to Capernaum was an especially good place for fishing. This is where the huge draft of fish took place and it is also where Jesus returns after the resurrection to provide a breakfast of bread and grilled fish for his disciples, and where Peter re-affirms his love for the Lord. Finally, there is Eucharistic imagery here. For the early church the fish was a symbol of Christ himself. The first letters of the Greek for “Jesus Christ God’s Son Savior” form an acrostic which also spells the Greek word for “fish”. The flesh of the fish combined with the bread points to the bread of the Eucharist which becomes the flesh of Christ himself. This idea is supported by the language of verse 41 where Jesus takes the bread, blesses the bread, breaks the bread, and gives it to the people. This is the four-fold action of the Eucharist: the priest takes the bread, blesses the bread, breaks the bread and gives to the people.
The early church would therefore have seen the miraculous feeding of the five thousand as having true Eucharistic meaning. This also gives the lie to the idea that the “real miracle” was that everyone shared their lunch. The whole point of the story is that it is a miraculous meal which points to the miraculous meal of the Eucharist in which Jesus IXTHUS the Fish gives of himself under the appearance of bread and wine.