What the accounts have in common
The compassion of Jesus is very clear in each writer's telling of the story. The disciples have just returned from their first mission and they are full of stories for Jesus, and tired as well. So Jesus is trying to find a quiet spot to spend time with them. But the crowds, who have seen him heal and heard him teach follow Jesus. His compassion for them is great; he sees them as sheep without a shepherd (Mark) and welcomes them.
Each of the gospel writers give the same details for how Jesus goes about feeding the people. He has the crowds sit down, he takes the bread and fish, gives thanks, breaks the bread, then has the disciples distribute it. Everyone eats and is satisfied, and 12 baskets of leftovers are collected.
The differences in the accounts
In Matthew, Mark and Luke, the disciples come to Jesus late in the day and demand that he send the crowds away. Each author gives us a bit of insight into their feelings.
Matthew -- They aren't our problem. Let them fend for themselves! This is a remote place, and it's already getting late. Send them crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.
Mark -- They are a financial liability! When Jesus challenges the disciples to feed the crowds themselves they say that would take more than half a year's wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat? Do you detect a bit of incredulity in their voices here?
Luke -- This is a logistical nightmare! Not only did the crowds need to be fed, but they also needed lodging. Send the crowds away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here. When Jesus told them to give the people something to eat themselves, they responded with sarcasm, yeah, like we can feed 5000 people with these five loaves of bread and two fish!
John -- Of the four gospels, John's is the only account in which the disciples do not tell Jesus to send the people away. He sees the crowds coming and asks Philip, Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat? Philip has no idea, but Andrew has already taken inventory and offers the five loaves and two fish. But how far will they go among so many? he asks.
What we can learn from this miracle
Of course the story of the feeding of the 5000 has many, many things to teach us, but here are a few insights that speak to us today.
1. We often come to Jesus with a problem, demanding he do something. And we know what it is he should do! We tell him there's a big hungry crowd in front of us (or a financial crisis or a broken relationship) and he should send them away because we don't have the resources to meet the need.
2. When we approach Jesus this way we usually feel overwhelmed, defensive, sarcastic, or any number of other strong feelings. We aren't listening for the voice of Jesus because we are busy telling him how to handle our problem.
3. We cannot meet the challenges of life on our own. Indeed, we do not have the necessary resources to respond on our own to whatever we are facing.
4. Jesus longs to initiate these conversations, to have us respond with offering him what we do have (as Andrew did) even though we realize what we have is inadequate.
5. When we have Jesus, we have enough. He fully satisfies.
6. Jesus has a plan. He asked Philip, "Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?" He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do (John 6:5-6). Our problems don't catch Jesus flat-footed. He already knows what he is going to do!
7. Even beyond that, Jesus knows the whole story. John tells us that after the crowd had been fed they started talking about him being the Prophet who was to come. Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself (v 15).
8.We can trust ourselves to the One who knows the end from the beginning, who not only knows how to handle our problems but also knows our hearts. All he wants from us is to trust him and let him work out his will in our lives.