This is the final part in a tripartite series of posts reflecting on the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 in the Gospel of Matthew (you can find parts one and two here and here). Lots of readers remember the pericope, but few consider what comes before it in the narrative or what is its ultimate meaning. This story, when considered within its context, demonstrates the overwhelming compassionate of our Savior, Jesus.
Jesus is Uniquely Compassionate
So far, we have seen that Jesus is compassionate. We have even seen that he is more compassionate than we might have imagined at first. However, you always save the kicker for last. If we zoom out just a little bit more, we can see that Jesus is uniquely compassionate—that his compassion is on a whole nother level unlike anything else.
After healing the sick all day, Jesus feeds 15,000+ people with a few pieces of fish and bread. But what comes before all this activity? Here is what Matthew writes:
“When Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, heard about Jesus, he said to his advisers, ‘This must be John the Baptist raised from the dead! That is why he can do such miracles.’ For Herod had arrested and imprisoned John as a favor to his wife Herodias…At a birthday party for Herod, Herodias’s daughter performed a dance that greatly pleased him, so he promised with a vow to give her anything she wanted. At her mother’s urging, the girl said, ‘I want the head of John the Baptist on a tray!’…So John was beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a tray and given to the girl, who took it to her mother. Later, John’s disciples came for his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus what had happened. As soon as Jesus heard the news, he left in a boat to a remote area to be alone. But the crowds heard where he was headed and followed on foot from many towns. Jesus saw the huge crowd as he stepped from the boat…” (Matthew 14:1-3a, 6-8, 10-14a)
John the Baptist was Jesus’ cousin. They were only six months apart in age and had been buddies since they were both in the womb. John loved Jesus and his ultimate ambition in life was to direct people to him. Jesus loved John and said that he was the greatest human who ever lived! John baptized Jesus at the commencement of his ministry. Needless to say, they were very close and dear to each other. Even though they didn’t travel together all the time, they were still the best of friends on earth.
…until John was abruptly taken from earth. After a heinous and barbaric act of homicide, John was gone. He was unjustly murdered and Jesus was the first person his disciples went to tell when it happened.
Can you imagine how Jesus felt when he found out? His best friend, the one who baptized him, the greatest among men…this man was gone.
There is one other scene in the Gospels that can give us insight into what was going on in Jesus’ mind: the death of Jesus’ friend Lazarus. From that story, we know that Jesus wasn’t surprised by John’s death. He knew it was a part of God’s plan. And he knew it was going to bring God glory. But how does Jesus respond when he shows up to see Lazarus? Is he stoic or unmoved?
No. “Jesus wept.”
If Jesus wept when Lazarus died, what do you think he was doing when he found out about John the Baptist? Even if he knew it was a part of God’s plan, how do you think he felt?
Matthew tells us that, “As soon as Jesus heard the news, he left in a boat to a remote area to be alone.”
He wanted to be alone. And I’m sure that when he was alone on that boat he wept bitterly. He probably wept and wept and wept.
And when he comes to shore there are thousands and thousands of people there waiting for him. Are they there to comfort him? No. They are there needy and demanding, wanting Jesus to perform miracles and fix their problems.
Imagine how you would feel at this point. Your best friend has just died, you are trying to find solitude in order to grieve, and suddenly a mob the size of entire town is swarming on you to fix their problems.
I don’t imagine most of us would be considering the needs of the mob at that point. We would probably lash out in anger and pain.
But Jesus is not like most of us. In fact, he’s not like any of us. Because he is the God-man, he is entirely unique and responds like none of us would.
He heals the sick among the crowd. He feeds their stomachs. He loves them uncontrollably. He has compassion for them unlike anything imaginable.
But this isn’t the place where we see the unique compassion of Jesus most thoroughly displayed. The pinnacle of his one-of-a-kind love is that he pursues us to the point of death. As Paul writes:
“Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.” (Romans 5:7-11)
And this is our only hope in life and death: that we belong to God because of this Savior, so compassionate and merciful. This is the greatest treasure in all the universe.
Jesus is uniquely compassionate. Come to him today.