“After breaking the loaves, [Jesus] distributed them to the disciples, the disciples in turn to the crowds.”—MATT. 14:19.
1-3. Describe how Jesus fed a large crowd in the vicinity of Bethsaida. (See opening image.)
IMAGINE the scene. (Read Matthew 14:14-21.) It is just before the Passover of 32 C.E. A crowd of some 5,000 men, besides women and young children, are with Jesus and his disciples at a deserted place in the vicinity of Bethsaida, a village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee.
2 Upon seeing the crowd, Jesus is moved with pity for the people, so he heals the sick among them and teaches them many things about God’s Kingdom. When it gets late, the disciples urge Jesus to dismiss the people so that they might go to nearby villages and buy some food for themselves. But Jesus tells his disciples: “You give them something to eat.” His words must seem puzzling to them, for the provisions at hand are meager at best—five loaves and two small fish.
3 Moved by compassion, Jesus performs a miracle—the only miracle that is recorded by all four Gospel writers. (Mark 6:35-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-13) Jesus has his disciples tell the crowd to recline on the green grass in groups of 50 and of 100. After saying a blessing, he begins breaking the bread and dividing up the fish. Then, rather than giving the food to the people directly, Jesus distributes it “to the disciples, the disciples in turn to the crowds.” Miraculously, there is more than enough for everyone to eat! Just think: Jesus has fed thousands through the hands of a few—his disciples.*
4. (a) Jesus was even more concerned about providing what kind of food, and why? (b) What will we discuss in this study article and in the next one?
4 Jesus was even more concerned about providing spiritual food to his followers. He knew that taking in spiritual food, the truths found in God’s Word, leads to everlasting life. (John 6:26, 27; 17:3) Moved by the same compassion that impelled him to feed bread and fish to the crowds, Jesus spent many hours personally teaching his followers. (Mark 6:34) But he was aware that his time on earth would be short and that he would return to heaven. (Matt. 16:21; John 14:12) How would the heavenly Jesus keep his followers on earth well-fed spiritually? He would follow a similar pattern—he would feed many through the hands of a few. Who, though, would be the few? Let us see how Jesus used a few to feed his many first-century anointed followers. Then, in the next article, we will discuss this question of vital importance to each one of us: How can we identify the few through whom Christ feeds us today?
JESUS CHOOSES THE FEW
5, 6. (a) What weighty decision did Jesus make in order to ensure that his followers would be well-fed spiritually after his death? (b) How did Jesus prepare his apostles for taking on a key role after his death?
5 A responsible family head makes arrangements so that his family will be cared for in the event of his death. Similarly, Jesus—who would become Head of the Christian congregation—made arrangements to ensure that his followers would be cared for spiritually after his death. (Eph. 1:22) For example, about two years before he died, Jesus made a weighty decision. He selected the first of the few through whom he would later feed the many. Consider what happened.
6 After praying all night, Jesus gathered his disciples and from among them chose 12 apostles. (Luke 6:12-16) For the next two years, he was especially close to the 12, teaching them both by word and by example. He knew that they had much to learn; in fact, they continued to be called “disciples.” (Matt. 11:1; 20:17) He gave them valuable personal counsel and extensive training in the ministry. (Matt. 10:1-42; 20:20-23; Luke 8:1; 9:52-55) He was evidently preparing them for a key role after his death and return to heaven.
7. How did Jesus provide a clue about what would be the primary concern of the apostles?
7 What would be the role of the apostles? As Pentecost 33 C.E. drew near, it was clear that the apostles would serve in an “office of oversight.” (Acts 1:20) What, though, would be their primary concern? Following his resurrection, Jesus provided a clue in a conversation he had with the apostle Peter. (Read John 21:1, 2, 15-17.) In the presence of some of the other apostles, Jesus told Peter: “Feed my little sheep.” Jesus thereby indicated that his apostles would be among the few through whom he would provide spiritual food to the many. What a touching and telling indication of how Jesus feels about his “little sheep”!*
FEEDING THE MANY FROM PENTECOST ONWARD
8. How did new believers at Pentecost show that they clearly recognized the channel that Christ was using?
8 Starting at Pentecost 33 C.E., the resurrected Christ used his apostles as the channel through which he fed the rest of his anointed disciples. (Read Acts 2:41, 42.) That channel was clearly recognized by the Jews and proselytes who became spirit-anointed Christians that day. Unhesitatingly, they “continued devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles.” According to one scholar, the Greek verb rendered “continued devoting themselves” can mean having “a steadfast and singleminded fidelity to a certain course of action.” The new believers had a deep hunger for spiritual food, and they knew exactly where to get it. With unwavering loyalty, they looked to the apostles to explain the words and deeds of Jesus and to shed fresh light on the meaning of the scriptures pertaining to him.*—Acts 2:22-36.
9. How did the apostles show that they kept their responsibility to feed Jesus’ sheep clearly in focus?
9 The apostles kept their responsibility to feed Jesus’ sheep clearly in focus. For example, notice how they handled a sensitive and potentially divisive issue that arose in the newly formed congregation. Ironically, the matter involved food—material food. Greek-speaking widows were being overlooked in the daily food distribution, but Hebrew-speaking widows were not being overlooked. How did the apostles resolve this delicate issue? “The twelve” appointed seven qualified brothers to oversee the “necessary business,” the food distribution. The apostles—most of whom had no doubt shared in distributing food to the crowds whom Jesus had miraculously fed—saw that it was more important for them to focus on spiritual feeding. Thus, they devoted themselves to “the ministry of the word.”—Acts 6:1-6.
10. How did Christ use the apostles and older men in Jerusalem?
10 By 49 C.E., the surviving apostles had been joined by certain other qualified elders. (Read Acts 15:1, 2.) “The apostles and older men in Jerusalem” served as a governing body. As the Head of the congregation, Christ used this small group of qualified men to settle doctrinal issues and to oversee and direct the preaching and teaching of the Kingdom good news.—Acts 15:6-29; 21:17-19; Col. 1:18.
11, 12. (a) What shows that Jehovah blessed the arrangement by means of which his Son fed the first-century congregations? (b) How was the channel that Christ used for spiritual feeding clearly recognizable?
11 Did Jehovah bless the arrangement by means of which his Son fed the first-century congregations? Most definitely! How can we be sure? The book of Acts gives us this report: “Now as they [the apostle Paul and his traveling companions] traveled on through the cities they would deliver to those there for observance the decrees that had been decided upon by the apostles and older men who were in Jerusalem. Therefore, indeed, the congregations continued to be made firm in the faith and to increase in number from day to day.” (Acts 16:4, 5) Notice that those congregations prospered as a result of their loyal cooperation with the governing body in Jerusalem. Is that not proof of Jehovah’s blessing on the arrangement by means of which his Son fed the congregations? Let us remember that spiritual prosperity is possible only with Jehovah’s rich blessing.—Prov. 10:22; 1 Cor. 3:6, 7.
12 Thus far we have seen that Jesus followed a pattern when feeding his followers: He fed many through the hands of a few. The channel he used for spiritual feeding was clearly recognizable. After all, the apostles—the original members of the governing body—could provide visible proof of heavenly backing. “Through the hands of the apostles many signs and portents continued to occur among the people,” states Acts 5:12.* Hence, there was no reason for those who became Christians to wonder, ‘Who really are the ones through whom Christ is feeding his sheep?’ But by the end of the first century, the situation changed.
WHEN THE WEEDS WERE MANY AND THE BLADES OF WHEAT FEW
13, 14. (a) What warning did Jesus give about an attack, and when did his words begin to come true? (b) From what two quarters would the attack come? (See endnote.)
13 Jesus foretold that the Christian congregation would come under attack. Remember, in his prophetic illustration of the wheat and the weeds, Jesus warned that a newly planted field of wheat (anointed Christians) would be oversown with weeds (imitation Christians). The groups, he said, would be allowed to grow side by side—undisturbed until the harvest, which would come at “a conclusion of a system of things.” (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43) It was not long before Jesus’ words began to come true.*
14 The apostasy made some inroads in the first century, but Jesus’ faithful apostles acted “as a restraint,” holding back the contamination and influence of false teachings. (2 Thess. 2:3, 6, 7) However, once the last of the apostles died, the apostasy took root and flourished during a long growing season that lasted for many centuries. Additionally, during that time, the weeds became many and the blades of wheat were few. There was no consistent, organized channel for dispensing spiritual food. That would eventually change. But the question is, When?
HARVESTTIME—WHO WOULD DO THE FEEDING?
15, 16. The Bible Students’ diligent study of the Scriptures yielded what results, and what question arises?
15 As the end of the growing season neared, there were strong stirrings of interest in Bible truth. Recall that in the 1870’s, a small group of sincere truth-seekers got together and formed Bible classes apart from the weeds—imitation Christians within the churches and sects of Christendom. With humble hearts and open minds, those sincere Bible Students, as they called themselves, made a careful and prayerful search of the Scriptures.—Matt. 11:25.
16 The Bible Students’ diligent study of the Scriptures yielded rich results. Those loyal men and women exposed false doctrines and spread spiritual truths, publishing and distributing Bible literature far and wide. Their work won the hearts and convinced the minds of many who were hungering and thirsting for spiritual truth. An intriguing question therefore arises: Were the Bible Students in the years that led up to 1914 the appointed channel through which Christ would feed his sheep? No. They were still in the growing season, and the arrangement for a channel to provide spiritual food was still taking shape. The time had not yet come for the weedlike imitation Christians to be separated from the true Christian wheat.
17. What important developments began to unfold in 1914?
17 As we learned in the preceding article, the harvest season began in 1914. In that year, a number of important developments began to unfold. Jesus was enthroned as King, and the last days began. (Rev. 11:15) From 1914 to the early part of 1919, Jesus accompanied his Father to the spiritual temple to do a much-needed inspection and cleansing work.* (Mal. 3:1-4) Then, starting in 1919, it was time to begin gathering the wheat. Was it finally the time for Christ to appoint one organized channel to dispense spiritual food? Yes, indeed!
18. Jesus foretold that he would make what appointment, and what was the critical question as the last days got under way?
18 In his prophecy about the time of the end, Jesus foretold that he would appoint a channel to give out spiritual “food at the proper time.” (Matt. 24:45-47) Which channel would he use? True to the pattern he set in the first century, Jesus would once again feed many through the hands of a few. But as the last days were just getting under way, the critical question was, Who will be the few? That and other questions about Jesus’ prophecy will be discussed in the next article.
Paragraph 3: On a later occasion, when Jesus miraculously fed 4,000 men, besides women and children, he again gave the food “to the disciples, the disciples in turn to the crowds.”—Matt. 15:32-38.
Paragraph 7: During Peter’s lifetime, the “little sheep” who would be fed all cherished the heavenly hope.
Paragraph 8: The fact that new believers “continued devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles” implies that the apostles were teaching on a regular basis. Some of the apostles’ teaching was permanently recorded in the inspired books that are now part of the Christian Greek Scriptures.
Paragraph 12: While others besides the apostles received miraculous gifts of the spirit, it seems that in most cases, the miraculous gifts were passed on to others directly by or in the presence of an apostle.—Acts 8:14-18; 10:44, 45.
Paragraph 13: The apostle Paul’s words found at Acts 20:29, 30 show that the congregation would be attacked from two quarters. First, imitation Christians (“weeds”) would “enter in among” true Christians. Second, “from among” true Christians, some would become apostates, speaking “twisted things.”
Paragraph 17: See the article “Look! I Am With You All the Days,” in this issue, page 11, paragraph 6.