Matthew 14:14-21

At the point of Herod’s murder of John the Baptist, as we heard last Lord’s Day, there is a distinctive turn in the focus of Jesus’ activities.  Approximately one year before the crucifixion was to take place, the last Old Testament prophet sent from God was ignored, imprisoned and killed.

And the text says that Jesus immediately got into a boat, traversed the Sea, and went to the other side!  And it is important for us to know that the other side was not Israel – but Gentile Syria!  And we already know the significance that Scripture places on the term “wilderness.”

And, now, we have a large number of those following Him actually leaving Israel on foot and assembling with Him in that wilderness – all very significant events! – for Matthew is very particular in his choice of words in order to relate to those who would hear that those who followed Him out of Israel did so without taking anything with them; it was a flight from Israel into the Gentile nations without food or clothes or any other kind of preparation!  When Jesus crossed over to the other side, there was a mass exodus flight, on foot, into the wilderness!

But, so I don’t get too far ahead of myself in explaining the meaning of all of these things, let’s go back to the text and read what happened.  Verse fourteen:  “And when He had come out, He saw a large crowd, and He was moved to pity on them and healed their sick.”

Now, first I want to correct something that I mentioned last Lords’ day.  It doesn’t have a lot of Theological significance, but we need to be precise with God’s Word, don’t we?

I had said, at the end of the sermon last week, that when Jesus cast off from the shores of Israel to cross over to the other side, many went on foot around the shoreline; and as they passed from village to village, the crowds swelled to large proportions.  And that they actually arrived before Jesus and met Him when He came out of the boat.  Well, that’s not what happened.  That’s what it says in Mark chapter six, but I just didn’t read far enough.

The Mark chapter six passage has been tampered with, and it’s suspect.  Mark says that they “outwent” Him; but some of the manuscripts don’t allow that.  In the Gospel of John we have a much fuller account of these events, and there’s no textual variety in it at all.

And John says that Jesus and His apostles did indeed arrive first – near a Syrian town called Bethsaida.  And it was a mountainous, wilderness area.  And Jesus, along with the twelve, went up into a mountain.  Now, sometime late, since this was a number of miles from Capernaum, the crowds began to assemble where the boats had landed.

And that’s certainly more in line with the first words of verse fourteen where Matthew says, “…and when He had come out He saw a large crowd….”  So apparently Jesus was up in the mountains with His apostles and only saw the assembly when He came out of that private place.

And when He did come out and see them, Matthew says that He was “moved to pity on them….”  This is a very strange sounding Greek word – splagnizo – which sounds almost like what it means!  It means that Jesus was moved in His vital organs – the seat of emotion!  Now, as we consider the usage of this word in the New Testament, it arises as a word that is used – not to describe human emotion, but to describe Messianic love – pity – and mercy!  Most commentators wish to build a case for Jesus’ humanity here, saying that this is an instance where Jesus has human compassion for those who are sick and needy.

But that’s not how the New Testament uses it!  Even though Jesus was a human being, having taken on flesh as the second Adam; and even though it is a good thing that we are taught constantly that He was, indeed, fully human and fully Divine – this word “splagnizo” is not a word that teaches that!  In fact it is only used, in the Gospels, with reference to the love and mercy of the Messiah – either of Him personally or of those (such as in the parables) who possess His emotions as a result of being in Him!

And that’s the way the apostle Paul uses it in his letters.  Those who are moved to this Divine emotion are those who are moved so – IN CHRIST!  Such as in the letter to the Philippians, chapter one and verse eight:  “For God is my witness, how greatly I long after you all in the bowels of Jesus Christ.”  The word translated “bowels,” in the King James, is this same word “splagnizo.”  It is the Divine emotion, not originating in fallen humanity, which is inherently in the Messiah.

And there is always a peculiar sense in which it’s used – and that is to say that it is extraordinary and exceptional to men – but not to Christ!  And in order to draw out the fullness of its meaning we have to see how Matthew uses it here in this verse fourteen.  He says that Jesus was moved to pity on them, (not “by” them) and healed their sick.

And upon first reading that, anyone would be tempted to interpret it at its face value – that is, that Jesus sees many who are diseased and ill and, therefore, He is moved to compassion.  And certainly we would all be right in our estimation of Jesus – that He is, indeed, compassionate toward those who are suffering.

But that’s not all that’s here by any means!  Because this word that Matthew uses here for “sick” means so much more than suffering due to illness!  The word is “rare” to say the least.  And it isn’t related at all to any of the other three words that are commonly used in referring to those who are sick.  This word has a meaning that’s closer to the meaning of “strength-less” or “power-less.”  Maybe even “famishing” or “languishing” ones.  And the sense of it is that they had been cruelly and brutally affected by the malignant Godlessness in Israel and its leaders!

One of the few times that the word, or one of its cognates, is used in Scripture is in First Corinthians chapter eleven where Paul describes the state of those who were celebrating the Lord’s Table in such a destructive manner!  The people there were “sickly” and even “dying” as a result of the corrupt and poisonous manner of the celebration!  They were languishing!

Another interesting use of this rare word is in the Septuagint version of the prophecy of Malachi where the corrupt sacrifices of the priests of Israel are described as “sickly.”

And both of these instances help us to understand the state of the people who are here set to flight out of Israel to follow Jesus into the wilderness!  The nation of Israel was in such a state of Godless depravity at this point in its history, that even the lost sheep of the house of Israel – those who had not bowed the knee to Baal – were languishing under atrocious spiritual oppression!  Israel had now reached the height of its degradation, and it was irremediable and abandoned by God.  Instead of being the light of the world, it had become the exact opposite – it had become obnoxious in its scandalous unrighteousness!  And even the people of God were languishing and famished – “sickly” – under this Godless national entity!

And when Jesus came out from His private place in the mountain, as verse fourteen says, He looked at this immense crowd who had run and walked for miles to get to Him, and the Divine emotion of the Messiah was poured out toward them.  And He ministered unto them from the bowels of compassion.

And now we can understand the nature of the Messianic emotion.  We can understand this strange word “splangnizo” as it’s used only with reference to Jesus and those in Him.  And that this emotion does not originate in fallen humanity!

And we can begin to recognize that this rare word describes a rare thing – “true Christian love and compassion and mercy.”  The Lord Jesus looked upon the crowd and saw a sickened and languishing people of God who had been oppressed by these ravenous wolves who were supposed to be the shepherds of Israel!  The people had lived in the midst of death!  For their leaders – civil and religious leaders – had led them into blindness and deafness.  Their priests had offered unfit sacrifices; the civil leaders had led the nation into co-mingling with the world order; and the Pharisees and Scribes had preached false doctrine and led impious lives!

And the people were dying – famished – in this whole Godless atmosphere.  In every way the pernicious rotting was invading the whole society.  The Garden of God was gone – it was no longer flowing with milk and honey.  The food of God was not being fed to the people, so their economy and their health and their happiness and their prosperity and their spirits were oppressed and famished.

And Jesus looked upon them with a compassion born in the bowels of the Savior of the World.  And, as the Gospel writer Luke says, Jesus taught them and healed them.  They came out of that ungodly, doomed society and went into the wilderness to be healed by Christ.  And that incident causes our minds to run forward irrevocably to the final dispersion – the “spewing out” of the remnant of God’s people, into the Gentile wilderness before the final “cutting off” of Israel in 70 AD.  For they did leave, by Jesus’ prompting, to go out into the nations to form the Church – the assembly of the righteous.

And now let me just say once again that this loving, merciful compassion is found only in the Messiah.  It is His virtue, and it’s not found in fallen humanity.  And as much as men try, they cannot have it except in Him.  The compassion found in fallen humanity may relieve suffering, but the downward spiral of suffering continues.  That compassion may provide money and counseling for those on welfare, but the depth of the welfare problem will continue to increase.  Human compassion may give care to the sick, shelter to the homeless, protection for the environment and food for the hungry; but those problems will in no way be alleviated.  For a nation under the siege of its own Godless depravity cannot solve those problems.

For, you see, Messianic compassion comes from men and women who gain that virtue from being in Christ.  And then they can look upon the people and recognize that their problem is spiritual oppression; that they’re famished and languishing in blind darkness.  And then the ministers of the people can stop offering unholy and unfit sacrifices!  And the teachers can stop teaching false doctrine and begin leading lives of piety.  And the civil leaders can stop advocating a pluralistic co-mingling with every pagan idea and practice!

Divine compassion is attained in Christ; and the issue from it seeks the release from the spiritual oppression brought on by ravenous wolves who are in the places where there should be Biblical shepherds!

And you and I must attain to that Messianic compassion – that, wherever we encounter suffering, the bowels of love and mercy open up and pour forth the Food of Life in Christ Jesus.  Jesus taught them and healed them.  Luke says that He spoke to them many things concerning the Kingdom of God.  And He ministered to their sicknesses.

Verse fifteen: 


“Now, as the evening approached the disciples came to Him saying, ‘Wilderness is the place, and the hour has now passed by; dismiss the crowds that, as they go into the villages they might buy themselves food.’”


According to the Gospel of John, the apostle Phillip had already come to Jesus back at the beginning about the problem of food for so many people.  He only had what amounted to about two hundred pennies in the treasury.  So the apostles couldn’t go into the villages to buy enough food for everyone to have even a pinch to eat!  And Matthew now says that the time had progressed even past the dinner hour, so it was getting very late for the people to buy something even if they were dismissed!

But Jesus, already knowing what He was going to do according to John, says, in verse sixteen, “they have no need to go away; you give to them to eat.”

Now, again according to John, Jesus was trying their faith.  They could have said to Him, “Master, there is no need to buy bread; You are greater than Moses, and under Moses the people were fed with manna in the wilderness; all You have to do is speak the Word and bread shall come down from heaven enough to fill the crowd.”

Or, if they had had faith they could have said, “Lord You are greater than Elisha, and Elisha took a few plants and cooked them and fed one hundred of the prophets of God during the famine.”

Or, if they had had faith they could have said, “Lord, we don’t know how we can buy bread, but it is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’  You can fill and refresh these people without bread!  You can satisfy their hunger and fill them to the full, and yet they need not eat a single bite!  For it is written, “man shall live by every Word that proceeds out of the Mouth of God.’”

They could have said any of those things or any number of other things.  But they didn’t.  Sometime before this a young man had arrived and given to them what he had – five little round cakes of bread and two dried fish.  And all the apostles could think to do was relate to Jesus how little they had.  Verse seventeen:


“And they say to Him, ‘We have here but five loaves and two fishes!’  And Jesus said, ‘Bring them here to Me.’”


And He did try their faith, didn’t He?  He tried their arithmetic; He tried their eyesight; He tried their senses; He tried their sensibilities; He tried their minds….  He served a monster banquet to five thousand men and probably a goodly number of women and children – maybe totaling … seven thousand?  He took the breads and the two fish in His hands, and He looked up and adored His Father; and then He broke and passed the bread and the fish to the apostles, who, in turn, passed it to the crowd who were now sitting in the grass in groups of fifty.

And the whole crowd ate until every last person was filled; and every apostle’s basket was full from the pieces which were not eaten!  It isn’t explained how the food was multiplied; it just continued – just like the widow’s oil continued as a result of Elijah’s saying it!

But, naturally, the apostle’s faith was tried in a much deeper way than just the multiplication of loaves and fish, wasn’t it?  The Exodus from Israel into the wilderness is a significant event, isn’t it?  This is more than a miracle of feeding a hungry crowd – for the prophet had prophesied, “He shall feed His flock like a Shepherd.”  And, in another place,

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.  He makes me to lie down (to recline) in green pastures.  He leads me beside the still waters.  He restores my soul.…  He prepares a table before me in the wilderness.”


And again, “For the Lord shall comfort Zion:  He will comfort all her waste places; and He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert places like the Garden of the Lord; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving and the voice of melody.”


In the wilderness there will be bountiful produce – twelve times that with which we began.  And no matter the numbers, great is the sufficiency.  As the Psalmist says, “In the days of famine they shall be satisfied.”  (Psalm thirty-seven) The Lord creates.  And the wilderness becomes Eden.  And in its place Israel becomes wilderness, starving for provision.

The group of seven thousand comes out of spiritual oppression and the Shepherd restores their souls ministering to their needs, healing their sick, feeding their hunger.  He broke the Bread of Life to them.  The faith of the apostles was sorely tried, for here are the things that Jesus was teaching, as recorded by the apostle John, and which were said the very next day after the events of our text:


“I Am the Bread of Life; he that cometh to Me shall never hunger….  But I said unto you, that ye also have seen me, and believe not.  All that the Father gives Me shall come to Me; and him that cometh to Me I will in no wise cast out….  Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on Me hath everlasting life.  I Am that Bread of Life.  Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness and are dead.  This is the Bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof and not die.  I Am the Living Bread which came down from heaven; if any man eat of this Bread, he shall live for ever; and the Bread that I will give is My Flesh, which I will give for the Life of the world.”


Jesus says to the apostles, “You give them to eat.”  Give them the Bread of Life.  Give them My Flesh to eat which I will give for the Life of the world.  I will make an Eden out of the wilderness of fallen humanity, and I will satisfy all their hunger.

The new apostles’ faith was sorely tried by these things, but ours must not be – the Word of God was made Flesh and He is the Bread of life!  In Him is fullness and satisfaction and healing and restoration.  In Him the wilderness areas bloom into Life, and thus emerges the Eden of God!  Jesus says, “You feed them.”  They’ve oppressed and downtrodden and famished in this whole desert of depravity and evil and degradation.  You feed them.