Although the story of Jesus feeding a large crowd in the wilderness is well-known, what was the point of the miracle? How does Matthew use the story of the feeding of the 5000 in the overall story of his gospel?
For some scholars, this meal foreshadows the Last Supper. There are several phrases which appear here and in Matthew 26:26 (when it got late, he took bread and broke it, he gave thanks, the disciples reclined at the table). But there are serious differences. As Robert Gundry pointed out, the disciples do not eat with Jesus (Mark, 330) although there is nothing in Matthew which says they did not eat the plentiful food. Is this a proto-eucharist? Sometimes blessing and breaking bread is just that. There is nothing equivalent to wine distributed, and this is not a ceremonial meal, people are genuinely hungry and need to eat. Nolland summarizes, “the link between the feeding and the Last Supper is at the same time important and obscure” (Matthew, 592).
In the context of Matthew 13, is the feeding of the 5000 a fulfillment of the parables of the kingdom? Something small becomes enough to satisfy a huge crowd (like the mustard seed and hidden leaven?) In the miraculous feeding, Jesus begins to reveal who he really is, answering the question asked in the Nazareth synagogue: “Where did this man get wisdom and miraculous powers?” (13:54).
Many scholars point out the importance of eating together in the ancient world. Eating with others was more than just fellowship at the time of Jesus, it was an indication of where you fit into society, and there were social rules for who ate with who. Pharisees would not eat with many of the common people because they were not ceremonially clean. Even the common people had a sort of “pecking order” that was followed at communal meals.
By inviting all the crowds to sit and eat, Jesus is saying that they are all worth to sit and eat with him. This is a huge thing in that culture, since the average teacher of the law would not eat with the people that followed Jesus. This may be why Matthew leaves out the reference to the smaller groups. If he is writing to a Jew, they might assume that the smaller groups are groups of similar classes, which they were not.
The feeding of the 5000 evokes the Exodus and Wilderness period in Israel’s history. With this miracle, Jesus is gathering a new Israel about himself. In the original Exodus, God provided food for the people of Israel in the wilderness after the first Passover.
If Jesus is intentionally patterning this miracle after the events of the original Passover, then he is a new Moses at the very least (fulfilling the messianic expectation of a prophet coming after Moses), or he is claiming to be God, the one who provided the food in the wilderness and satisfied the people with bread from heaven. The Gospel of John makes the allusion explicit and there is a long dialogue between Jesus and the people about manna as bread from heaven. The people even “murmur” in John 6:41, recalling the frequent murmurings of Israel in the wilderness.
Moses led the people through the waters of the Red Sea. God demonstrated his power and authority over the chaos of the seas (described as walking on the waters in the Psalms). The next story in Mark and Matthew is walking on the water, a miracle revealing Jesus as the Son of God. His disciples worship him as the Son of God (14:33). In Matthew16:16 Peter declares Jesus is the Messiah, the “Son of the living God.” Jesus then predicts his death (16:21), explaining the true mission of the Messiah is to defeat sin and death at the cross. A week later, Jesus is confirmed as the Son of God at the transfiguration (Matt 17:1-13).
Just as God provided food for Israel in the wilderness, now Jesus provides food for his followers in the wilderness. As John Nolland observes, this is the same perspective as Emmanuel in Matthew 1:23, “in the ministry of Jesus God is with us” (Matthew, 587).