How do you feed 5000+ hungry souls?
Following in the pattern established when the risen Jesus restored Simon Peter beside the Sea of Galilee, Christian ministers are called to be shepherds who feed the Lord Jesus’ sheep.[i] But how can we do this? I suspect most ministers have occasionally found themselves sitting at a desk on a weekday staring at a passage of Scripture, a commentary or a blank screen wondering how they can possibly bring anything of value to their church on the following Sunday morning. If that has been your experience, then spare a thought for the apostles in the early weeks of the life of the Church. Within their first few weeks of ministry, they had to handle the growth of their church from around 120 [ii] to 5000 men (plus an unspecified number of women and children).[iii] That would be like a typical, respectably-sized UK congregation mushrooming into a US megachurch in the space of a month or two, except without any buildings, bank accounts, or training institutions!
One of the unfortunate side effects of careful attention to a passage of Scripture during sermon preparation (and for our people as we deliver the sermon) is the risk of losing sight of the bigger picture of the book it is contained within (and of the sweeping story of Scripture as a whole). So, it is a good habit for preachers to read the whole book before starting to prepare a sermon based on a section of it. Or, if it is a very long book, we should at least read the surrounding chapters. That will help us know where to place our emphasis and how to help people weave together the message of the whole book.
When it comes to the early chapters of Acts, it is helpful to remember that these events come hot on the heels of those described in the closing chapters of Luke’s Gospel. It is easy to forget that the apostles described in Acts 4 are the same men who fled when Jesus was arrested outside Jerusalem just a few weeks earlier. Remembering that helps me appreciate two things.
Firstly, I remember the dramatic on these men of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and the baptism of the Holy Spirit described in Acts 2. Their transformation was truly miraculous. It is inexplicable without the twin miracles of the resurrection and Pentecost. Only the combination of the clear conviction that the Jesus who was crucified was now alive and the working within them of the same power that raised him could explain their boldness in Acts 4.
Secondly, I realise how excellently the Lord Jesus had prepared these men for ministry over three years on the road. That is just as significant as the Holy Spirit’s work in explaining how a rag-tag bunch of under-educated men became apostles who wisely guided the Church through its infancy. In Acts, the Spirit is reminding them of what Jesus had taught them as well as teaching them new things they could not receive before his death and resurrection =.[iv] And they were fulfilling Jesus’ commission by making disciples who would understand and obey what they had learned from him.[v]
Here, then, is a basic principle of Christian formation: the work of the Spirit in people’s lives is intertwined with the work of the teachers the Spirit equips. Faith and Christlikeness do not grow in us without the Spirit giving the increase, but they do not normally grow without people sowing the seed of the Word and watering it.[vi] Those who minister the word depend utterly on the Spirit’s work in them and in others, but they also work hard in the Spirit’s strength for the sake of those they serve.
Challenges arose for the apostles in those early months, as they always do in ministry, threatening to derail them. Their first challenge was opposition from those who had plotted Jesus’ death. For some – Stephen in Acts 6-7 and James in Acts 12 – that led to death. For others – Peter and John – God brought deliverance through unlikely means – Gamaliel’s reasoning in Acts 5 and an angelic escapologist in Acts 12. Their second challenge was dishonesty in the community (Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5), which threatened to undermine its sincere fellowship before it had spread beyond Jerusalem to other places. God brought that to a decisive end by acting in direct judgement.
Since these first two challenges were overcome miraculously, we might expect that God would overcome every challenge in the Church directly, but that is not the case. Think ahead to the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), which responded to the biggest theological challenge to face the Jerusalem church – what was required of believers in Jesus from Gentile backgrounds? Yes, God gave the assurance of his inclusion of the Gentiles through a vision to Peter and the gift of the Spirit to the household of Cornelius as well as to the converts Paul and Barnabas reported on from other regions, but the apostles and elders had to engage in discussion to discern the Lord’s will in relation to Gentile believers. But that was not the first instance of the apostles having to find a solution to a problem without a miraculous intervention from God.
That challenge came earlier, in Acts 6, when one group of Jewish believers (the Hellenists, who spoke Greek and followed many Greek customs) were neglected in the distribution of food to widows. No manna appeared from heaven to meet their needs as it had for the Israelites in the wilderness (Exodus 16). No ravens carried bread and meat to them as they did to Elijah (1 Kings 17). The apostles had to lead the Church to a solution. They oversaw the appointing of seven godly men to administer the distribution of food fairly so that they could focus on “prayer and the ministry of the word”. Note again, their work (ministering the Word) in dependence on the work only God can do (hence they prayed!)
How had Jesus prepared the apostles for this wise step? I think there is a clue in the reference to 5000 men in Acts 4. How could we read that without remembering the only other time 5000 men are mentioned in the New Testament? Of course, that was when Jesus miraculously fed a crowd from five loaves and two fish. It is the only miracle other than the resurrection recorded in all four Gospels. I think that is for two reasons. Firstly, this miracle was particularly significant in affirming Jesus’ identity. That is drawn out in John 6 where, following the miracle, Jesus describes himself as the “Bread of Life”. I will never forget my German friend Dietmar nearly 30 years ago explaining to me on a mountainside in Ireland how Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5000 (Mark 6) parallels Psalm 23: Jesus sees the crowd as sheep without a shepherd; he gets them to sit down on green grass; then he provides still waters for the disciples by calming a storm on the Sea of Galilee. Here is Israel’s true Shepherd and only source of spiritual sustenance.
Secondly, though, the miracle was also a vital element of the disciples’ education. Having fed four thousand plus people on a later date, Mark 8 recounts how Jesus jogs their memory about the number of baskets of food left over on each occasion. He does not spell out this signifies, but he clearly wants them to reflect and learn a lesson. Jesus’ intention to teach them something is also clear within the accounts of the miracle itself. They wanted to send the hungry people away, but Jesus told them to feed them. It was clearly a provocative statement. They knew they could not possibly feed such a crowd – not with only a boy’s packed lunch. But they knew wrong! Their logic was sound from a merely human perspective, but they had not reckoned with Jesus. Yet, interestingly, he did not feed the people himself. He blessed the food and multiplied it, but the disciples were tasked with organising the people into groups, distributing the food to them, and collecting the leftovers. They did exactly what they had told Jesus they could not do. He made it possible.
What was this meant to teach them? Well, this is the pattern of ministry. Ministers do not create food for people’s souls any more than we can create food for our bodies. Physical food, whether it comes from the local supermarket or from your back garden, it is a gift from God, the Creator and Sustainer of life. When it comes to spiritual food, this fact is even more evident. You could preach your own ideas, but that would bring life to no one (indeed it is likely to poison them!) But, if you speak the words of God and present to them the Bread of Life (Jesus), you will feed them richly and they will be satisfied. We receive from Jesus and distribute what we receive.
But, “Hang on,” you might say, “the problem is the blank screen and fuzzy head in the study you mentioned earlier. How can I turn my paltry thoughts into food for a flock?” Well, I suggest you remember that it is not your job to multiply the food. That is what Jesus does by the Spirit. What you must do is receive from him what he supplies and distribute it to others. So, do not focus so much on the cleverness of your words or the ingenuity of your sermon structure. Rather, focus on Jesus. Worship him in the Word when you study it and then worship him over the Word when you preach it. If you give them Jesus, they won’t have reason to be dissatisfied.
“But”, you might say, “how can I feed others when I am empty myself?” In this is the great paradox of ministry. You cannot feed others without being fed yourself, but often it is after you have fed others that you receive yourself. That is what the disciples discovered. How many baskets were left over? Twelve! One for each of them. Exactly enough to sustain them as they supplied others’ needs. That too is promised to you as you minister the Word. You are fed as you receive from Jesus and distribute it to others. He will supply your needs as you serve him. Of course, he will often do that through others, so make sure you have people who are ministering to you as you minister to others. If you are wondering where you might find such people, reach out to Living Leadership, either by joining a Refresh Group or asking for support from an Associate.
Jesus will supply your soul needs as you serve others with what he supplies. At least, he will do that if you keep your focus on what he calls you to do. The disciples learned that too from the feeding of the 5000+. They could only supply the needs of others by listening to Christ, receiving from him, and obeying him. When they became feeders of the flock after the resurrection and Pentecost, they had to continue to do that, and they knew they could not keep their focus if they allowed themselves to be taken up with waiting on tables for the 5000+ strong Church they now had. So, wisely, they appointed the Seven. How often do we go hungry because our minds are distracted by a million things other than Jesus? Some of those things are idols of the world – the things you long for or indulge in that are soul poison rather than soul food. Others are idols in ministry – the longing for significance or success that breeds dissatisfaction with your present lot. Some idols look more pretty than others, but all must be torn down. But there is another, more subtle reason why we can end up soul-hungry in ministry. That is when we give our energy and time to practical arrangements that keep us from the Word and prayer.
So, let me ask you, what things take up your working week that are keeping you from the ministry of the Word and prayer? Let me clarify two things that are not unnecessary distractions. Firstly, your family. They need your prayers and guidance and your presence and support as much as, probably more than, the flock of which God has made you a shepherd. They are never a distraction from ministry! Secondly, pastoral visitation and consultations are not a distraction from ministry. They are no less the ministry of the Word and prayer than preaching is. If you do not know the sheep, how can you feed them? If you do not come close to them, how can you bind their wounds and save them from the threats they face?
As a minister of the Word and prayer, you must pray and preach to the whole church and, equally, intercede for and instruct each believer as the opportunity and need arises. But I suspect many other things fill your working diary. Why not engage this week in one of the most fruitful ministry exercises – the ministry of the red pen? See what things you are tied up in that are unnecessary distractions. But what meetings can work without you? What tasks can be delegated to reliable people? Who can you trust to get on with the practical arrangements that are vital for the church to keep operating but are not what God has given to you as a minister of the Word and prayer?
You may not have 5000+ souls to feed. Neither did each of the apostles. They worked together as a group of Twelve+ and there were elders in that church soon as well. But God has given you some souls to feed. Make your relentless focus the health of those souls. Care about the health of their bodies too, but do not lose your focus on the core of their relationship to God and to others. Receive from Jesus what he provides, pass it on to them with the same love and passion with which he gave it to you, and trust him to supply what you need for the health of your own soul as you do so.