“Whence should we have so much bread in the wilderness, as to fill so great a multitude.” Matt. 15:33 (verses 29-38 as well)
"And Jesus departed from thence, and came nigh unto the Sea of Galilee; and went up into a mountain, and sat down there. And great multitudes came unto Him, having with them those that were lame, blind, dumb, maimed, and many others, and cast them down at Jesus' feet; and He healed them: insomuch that the multitude wondered, when they saw the dumb to speak, the maimed to be whole, the lame to walk, and the blind to see: and they glorified the God of Israel. Then Jesus called His disciples unto Him, and said, I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat and I will not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way. And His disciples say unto Him, Whence should we have so much bread in the wilderness, as to fill so great a multitude? And Jesus saith unto them, How many loaves have ye? And they said, Seven, and a few little fishes. And He commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground. And He took the seven loaves and the fishes, and gave thanks, and broke them, and gave to His disciples, and the disciples to the multitude. And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets full. And they that did eat were four thousand men, beside women and children." Matt. xv. 29-38.
I.- This narrative will, I think, touch all our hearts in one respect: it brings before us at the very outset and keeps before us all through the presence of our blessed Lord.
The 32nd verse, which speaks of the feeding of the multitude, brings before us Jesus. "Jesus called his disciples unto Him." Jesus opened their hearts to the sympathy and compassion of His own heart, "I have compassion on the multitude:" "I will not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way." This is just what we all need: we want our dear Master to draw us near to Himself; to open His own heart to us, and let us see the depths of His compassion, and the strength of His determination to feed the multitude. And, Oh, shall not we be as His disciples were, utterly at His disposal? Shall we not feel as they evidently felt?-Our Lord has compassion on the multitude and wishes them to be fed; then they must be fed, and one question only may arise, How is it to be done?
Our blessed Lord had fed a multitude previously, a larger multitude probably,-five thousand men, beside many women and children. The disciples knew, no doubt, the condition of this multitude, they knew how long they had been with our Lord, they knew their great need, but they had not learned the lesson which they should surely have learned from the previous miracle. It never appears to have entered into their minds to undertake the work of feeding this multitude before they were sent away; and when our blessed Lord reveals to them His own thought and feeling about the matter, the question is raised, as though they had never seen the previous miracle, "Whence should we have so much bread in the wilderness, as to fill so great a multitude?"
It seems very amazing that they should not have remembered the feeding of the five thousand and should not have seen the whole thing at once. But how like these disciples were to ourselves! How frequently God has helped us in some time of special trial or special difficulty, and we have rejoiced in His help; yet perhaps the very next time the Lord has brought us into the same circumstances, our faith has been so wavering and weak, and our expectations so low. We have had but a very poor sort of hope, perhaps, when we should have had strong confidence in Him. But is it not very blessed to see that our gracious Lord did not upbraid these disciples; did not say, “Really you are no use to Me; it is no use My using you; you do not learn the lessons you should learn; I will work this miracle independently of you." No; he deals so gently, so graciously, so lovingly with them. He leads them along, and uses them again and yet again in His blessed service. This same Jesus is with us now; and with the task before us of carrying the Gospel to the dark multitudes of this land, we have the same forbearing, loving, mighty Lord,-not in His weakness, as Jesus was when on earth, but now ascended to His Father's throne, having received all power in heaven and all power on earth.
II.-Then this narrative is very helpful to us, in that it brings before us the disciples of the Lord Jesus as the instruments through which He wrought His greatest work.
Weak and poor as they were, our blessed Lord fully realized His oneness with His disciples and their oneness with Him. He would do nothing independently of them, and I think there is a lesson for us to learn that we should not work independently of one another. If our blessed Lord worked through His disciples and would not work independently, how closely should we be knit together, and how should we realize our oneness, and with practical co-operative oneness do the work He has given us to do! Our gracious Master has told us that He is the Vine and we are the branches, and if we forget our corporate unity He does not forget.
He remembers His oneness with us, and never ignores His people. He does not work independently of them, but through them. He called His disciples to Him and opened His heart to them. He told them His desire and purpose, and He looked to them to carry out that desire. Those disciples were very weak in the faith; they had not yet received the outpouring of the Spirit in the plenitude with which they were blest at Pentecost; but they had one thing in their favor. They were near to Jesus, and they heard what He had to say, and however conscious they may have been of the difficulty of the situation, they were prepared to do what they were told. Oh, dear friends, are we living habitually in such nearness to the Lord Jesus that the gentlest intimation of His wish comes to us with the force of a command, and with the consciousness that some way or other it is possible to obey, and that we shall be carried through in any service to which He calls us?
III. -Then we have brought before us the multitude.
I am so glad it was a great multitude, and that the disciples evidently thought it was impossible to feed them. All their previous experience of the Lord's goodness had not wrought in them this faith, that it was possible to supply the requirements of all these people, or to do it at once. "Whence should we have so much bread in the wilderness" they say, "as to fill so great a multitude?" So much! We are too apt to be arithmetical in our thoughts; we want so much to do so much. They forgot with whom they had to do. In the presence of the Lord, it was no matter how much there was. The widow at Sarepta might have said, How much flour shall I need if I am to support Elijah for many days? It was no question of how much she had. It was better for her to have only a handful of meal and a little oil in the cruse than to have a dozen barrels of meal. I have often thought of that since the great famine in Shansi, when we saw how dangerous it was to have much money or much food. I have often thought it was much better to have small resources, in the hand of God, who is able to multiply them, than it is to have much. If that poor widow had had a large store in her house, do you think she could have kept the house over her head? It would have been torn in pieces by the hungry multitude, impelled by the famine to take possession of anything that would appease their hunger. But who would rob the poor widow of a handful of meal and a little drop of oil in the cruse? Yet it was amply sufficient, for the Lord's blessing rested upon it.
God in His Word gives us illustration after illustration of the great truth that what He has given us is all that we need in order to glorify His own great name: we require nothing more! When Moses on the mount was wondering how his message could be authenticated, the Lord said, "What have you got in your hand?" Why! he had nothing but a staff! That was quite sufficient. "Throw that on the ground," and it became a serpent. Afterwards, when he had nothing in his hand, the Lord said, "Put your hand in your bosom," and that healthy hand was at once made leprous. The Lord does not require anything outside of that which He has given to His people to accomplish His present purposes whatever they may be!
So it was not a question of large supplies; it was just a question of the presence of the Lord, and of that willing obedience which put all that they had at His disposal.
IV. -Let us look at our Lord's methods: How were the people fed?
He claimed their all, they gladly gave up their all, and unhesitatingly obeyed all His directions. Our Lord said to them, “How many loaves have ye?" Now if there had been some stingy arithmeticians there, they might have set to work to calculate. "The Lord has done a great miracle like this before; then there were five thousand men and a great number of women and children; he had five loaves, and after the multitude was fed, there was enough and to spare. Here are four thousand men; four loaves will suffice; we will keep three for ourselves and give Him as large a proportionate supply as He had before."
Do not we hear a good deal of that sort of thing, and is it not very mistaken and foolish?
The Lord asked them what they had; they told Him they had seven loaves and a few small fishes; and He asked them to bring, and took possession of all the seven loaves and all the fishes.
It was not a question whether four loaves might not suffice, or one loaf might not suffice; it was just the question of entire consecration. Now, for our Conference we need to be in this position of entire consecration, utterly and absolutely at the disposal of our Lord. We do not need a larger number than He has brought together; we do not need greater ability; we do not need wider experience, in order to have full blessing; but we do need to be near to our Lord, very near to Him; to have him reigning in our hearts. We want that He should know, and to know ourselves, that all we have, and all we are, in unreserved consecration given up to Him. And if this be so, as the multitude was fed, so our own needs and desires will be met, and the needs of this great people will be met, to an extent perhaps far beyond our highest thought and most sanguine expectations. Oh, let us every day seek to be all for Jesus; and being all for Jesus, we shall be all for one another, and all drawn together. Let us just give up our work, our thoughts, our plans, ourselves, our lives, our loved ones, our influence, our all, right into His hand, and then when we have given all over to Him there will be nothing left for us to be troubled about or to make trouble about; when all is in His hand all will be safe, all be wisely dealt with, all will be done and well done. When the eye is single, when the heart is true to Christ, then and then alone the whole body will be full of light. And if the whole body be full of light, having no part dark, then the whole of the questions that come before us, the whole of our circumstances and relationships and surroundings will be full of light too, as when the bright shining of a lamp illumines us. When the bright shining of the lamp illumines our path it sheds light all around; we step forward with confidence; we see where we are going, we know what we are doing, because we are full of light. This fullness of light is just what we want for this Conference; this is just the preparation we require. How shall we get it? Simply by unreserved surrender, taking our Lord as King, and putting ourselves and all we have and all we are into His hands.
If He take some plan very different from what is in my mind, what matters it? We want China blessed; we do not want our plans carried out. What does it matter which brother or sister the Lord honors in His service, if only Christ is glorified and China is saved? When our hearts are true to Him everything becomes simple, and there is no danger of difficulty from personal masters coming in and blinding our eyes. Oh, let us by His grace be brought so low before Him, and yet be so lifted up by Him above circumstances and surroundings, that the heart is just singing with joy all the time, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus! -Listening for the Master's voice, wanting to know His will, asking, what would Jesus do in this matter, what would be His pleasure in this enterprise, what would be His joy in that undertaking, and then all our hearts will gladly go after Him.
As our brother stated, "We do love Him, and we do serve Him, and we mean to love Him more and serve Him better every day of our lives."
I am sure that our Lord has brought us together for grand blessing. I expect a great outcome from this Conference, and you expect it too. We have asked it of the Lord in faith, and we know that the One who had compassion, when on earth, on the multitude who followed Him for three days, is not going to leave us hungering and thirsting in the dark, who at His own command and for His own sake have left things most dear to us, and have come to spend our lives in this land, and who give all our dearest ones into His charge-whether taken, as in the case of the dear babe just taken home, to sleep in Jesus, or spared to love and serve Him when our own service is past, if our Master shall tarry and delay His coming.
But let us further consider the methods of the Lord Jesus in. the feeding of this multitude.
It is delightful to realize that we have in Christ the wisdom of God as well as the power of God, and hence the way in which He accomplished every purpose was the wisest way. His methods were perfect methods. Being the Servant of His Father, He was guided in all things by His Holy Spirit. He fully followed the One who sent Him.
His first requirement was that the multitude should sit down on the ground. It is highly probable that some similar plan was adopted to that which we are told was used in the case of the feeding of the 5,000; that they were divided into companies easy of access, so that there might be no confusion and no difficulty about the distribution, that none might be overlooked or neglected, that all might be methodically served with the bread and with the fish.
Now here is a practical lesson of wisdom. I am so thankful that one subject to be discussed at this Conference is "The Division of the field." Our present forces, if wisely divided, would be able to accomplish very much more than we are now accomplishing. I think we all feel this more or less; and I do pray that the Spirit of God may throw light on this difficult question, which is so impossible for us to manage, but very easy, for Him. If one or two of the disciples had taken these loaves, and one had kept five in his hand and another two, it might have been very difficult to get them properly distributed; but they were all first handed over to Jesus, and then, having offered thanks to God, He broke and gave them to His disciples, and sent them to distribute to the multitude. We are not told that He said to Peter, You go to this company, and to James, You go to that. He assumed that the sound judgment and the spirit of obedience, with common sense, were quite sufficient to guide them in these matters.
And they acted no doubt in a rational way; four or five of them would not go to one company, hindering one another, and none to the next company; but undoubtedly they distributed themselves wisely over the work that was to be done. It was all done in a methodical way. It would take a good deal of time for twelve men to break off pieces of bread, and to give them with pieces of fish to 4,000 men and we know not how many women and children; but they did not raise any question as to the time it would take, or the difficulty of accomplishing it. The Lord gave them the bread to distribute, and they began and went on until all had their portion, so that all were filled and all were satisfied. I have little doubt that very soon those who were receivers in the first instance became distributors. Perhaps some man broke a piece off his bread and gave it to his wife, and found that he had no less after he had divided the bread than before; and when he found that out he would be ready to distribute further.
It seems to me highly probable that the distribution was not all done direct from the hand of the apostles to each one of the thousands who were present, but that the first receivers became in their turn distributors.
Are we not looking for something like this, to a much larger extent than we have yet seen it? Thank God, many of those who have been turned from the service of idols to the Living God, are now distributing the Word of Life which they have received, and are spreading the message, which has been a blessing to themselves; but we want it to be true to a very much larger extent; and how is this to be brought about?
It seems to me that we want to ask more seriously than I have done in bygone days, what is really the will and command of our blessed Lord, and to set about obeying Him, not merely attempting to obey. I do not know that we are told anywhere in the Bible to try to do anything. "We must try to do the best we can," is a very common expression; but I remember some years ago, after a remark of that kind, looking very carefully through the New Testament to see under what circumstances the disciples were told to try to do anything. I did not expect to find many instances, but I was surprised that I did not find any; then I went through the Old Testament very carefully, and I could not find that the Lord had told any of the Old Testament believers to try to do anything; there were many commands apparently impossible to obey, but they were all definite commands; and I think we have all to set ourselves, not to try to obey our Lord as far as we can, but to obey Him.
If, as an organized Conference we were to set ourselves to obey the command of our Lord to the full, we should have such an outpouring of the Spirit, such a Pentecost, as though world has not seen since the Spirit was poured out in Jerusalem. God gives His Spirit, not to those who long for Him, not to those who pray for Him, not to those who desire to be filled always; but He does give His Holy Spirit to them that obey Him. And if as an act of obedience we were to determine that every district, every town, every village, every hamlet in this land should hear the Gospel, and that speedily; and we were to set about doing it, I believe that the Spirit would come down with such mighty power that we should find loaves and fishes springing up on every hand-we do not know where or how. We should find the fire spreading from missionary to flock; and the native Christians all on fire, setting their neighbors on fire; and our native fellow-workers and the entire Church of God would be blest. God gives His Holy Spirit to them that obey Him. Let us look to it that we see really what the Lord's commands are to us now in this day of our opportunity, in this day of the remarkable openness of the country, in this day when there are so many facilities, when God has put steam and telegraph at the command of His people, for the quick carrying out of His purposes.
As to wealth there is no end to His resources. Poverty in His hands is the greatest possible wealth. A handful of meal blessed by the Lord is quite sufficient to accomplish any purpose the Lord chooses to accomplish by it. It is not a question of resources at all to those who are following the Master, doing just what He has for them to do.
To return, the miracle was wrought methodically. The disciples were not told to act in any erratic or fanatical way, but the common sense God had given them was to be used. Our Savior Himself methodized their arrangements, and gave them the work to do in a way in which it was possible speedily and satisfactorily to accomplish it. He took their all, and it was quite sufficient; and not only were the multitudes fed, but the disciples themselves were encouraged. When all had been satisfied, they gathered up seven baskets full of the fragments that remained. We cannot set ourselves to do the Lord's work at His command, and in His way, without reaping a rich blessing ourselves.
I am speaking to missionary brethren who are accustomed to preach the Word of Truth, and to sisters who are accustomed to read that Word and to speak to the women in their own homes and elsewhere; and do we not all know and feel that we get the richest blessing? If those to whom we minister the Word of Life get a tenth part of the sweetness and preciousness that we ourselves get in ministering it, they will be well fed, and we shall be well satisfied. It is in giving that we receive. It is in holding back that we lose. The disciples themselves were enriched; and if we claim from the Church at home seven loaves for the Lord Jesus Christ,-not three or four or five,-and if we give to the Lord Jesus Christ all our seven loaves, oh, how we shall be enriched, while He multiplies and magnifies and blesses far beyond our highest thought!
In Conclusion: -The great commission, which our Master has given to us, is expressed in several different ways. Our brother read to us the commission as given in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. The different wordings in which our Saviour gave His commission on the various occasions are all to be considered, and the plans of service that He leads us to adopt are to be diverse in their methods and kinds, and very inclusive.
I do not know of any kind of missionary work in China, and I have never heard of any, on which the Lord's blessing has not rested, or cannot rest, and in which we may not hope to see great enlargement. But beyond all this, within the last few months there has come home to my own heart with a power I have never realized before, the commission as expressed in the Gospel of Mark, to "preach the Gospel to every creature," to the whole creation. I do not think our present methods of work want to be materially modified, and certainly none of them should be weakened or abandoned,-they should all be strengthened,-but it does seem to me that we want to take this additional command of rapid evangelization to our hearts, (for I think it is additional) and say, What did the Lord mean, nay, what does the Lord mean to-day, by saying in his Holy Word, "Preach the Gospel to every creature."
I confine my thought to this one empire at the present time; but I am quite sure we cannot obey the command of God with regard to China, and any other country be left unblest. For the field is the whole world, and the heart of God is so large that no part of the world is outside His thought or outside His purpose. As the body of Christ is one, we cannot have any member or any limb of that body (if I may use the expression) in healthy active exercise without improving the health and increasing the vigour of the whole body. And if we can in an increased measure of intelligent obedience carry the evangelization of China forward rapidly, the church cannot reach the villages and hamlets of China, and leave those of India, or the masses of Africa, where they are. However, confining our attention to-day to China, the thought has been very much on my heart, Can nothing be done to present the Gospel speedily to this great nation? I do not myself think that there are so many people in China as many do. I have carefully read the diaries of many missionaries in every province of China for many years past, and I think the number that is frequently given, as the population of China is very exaggerated. But let the estimate be what it may, if it were twice as many the command remains the same; our privilege and duty is to obey the command, and to see that the Gospel reaches every family. If there be 250,000,000 in China, and I think no one will estimate at a lower figure than that, there will not be more than 50,000,000 families; and if we had 1,000 evangelists and colporteurs reaching fifty families a day, in a 1,000 days, or less than three years, an offer of the written Gospel or of the verbal message might be given to all: -that is within three years after that number of workers were in the field and fit to undertake the work.
If the population were double it would only take twice as long, if the same agency were at work. It is not at all a difficult thing to reach 150 adults or fifty families in the course of a day.
I would commend to your prayerful consideration the question whether there ought not to go forth from this Conference a united appeal to the Christian Church to undertake the work of rapidly preaching the Gospel over this land. I do not say that going to a village and preaching though Gospel there for three or four days is all that is needed, but it is something that is needed. It is a beginning. Suppose the Apostle Paul had said, My work is quite useless: I cannot stay very long in any place I go to: I am driven away before I have had time to form a Church: I will give it up. The glorious work that God did by him would not have been done. He went as his Lord led him, and the Lord prevented him from making the error of staying too long in one place by driving him away.
He scattered seeds of truth, and after he went away men talked about these things, and thought about them, and the thoughts slowly permeated through the minds of many. Beside those who were led at once to receive the truth, aid who perhaps as Jewish proselytes or Jews were acquainted with the Old Testament, the Gentiles had new thoughts brought into their midst. Many important truths were talked over and thought over; and the truth was working when the worker was gone. And He who sent him to preach the Gospel in this town or that city, and then allowed him to be driven away, sent other workers to follow it up.
Paul was not the only worker for God, or the only arrow in His quiver. When Paul had planted and passed on, the Lord found an Apollos to water, and He Himself gave the increase. I do trust that we shall not separate without a strong appeal to the Churches. I believe the appeal that went forth to the Churches from the Conference thirteen years ago did incalculable good, and has been greatly blessed; but the Churches now are in a very different state to what they were thirteen years ago. There was never such a preparation of evangelists as there is now in the Church. There was never known such a thing as some four thousand college students in America pledged, if the Lord opens their way, to give their lives to missionary work. There was never that preparation in the hearts of Christian young men and women in Europe to give themselves to mission work. I believe that if you were now to send forth a strong appeal, it would not take very long to get a thousand evangelists from Europe and America into the field; and if these evangelists were associated with the established missions,-so that there was wise direction and supervision,-I am sure they would be a strength in every part of the field, and a blessing in every part of China. We have about forty Societies represented here; it would only want twenty-five men to be associated with each Society to give us a thousand additional workers for the special work of scattering the Gospel broadcast by word of mouth and printed page.
America could surely give us five hundred very easily, and I am sure Europe would do the same. I have been in correspondence with a number of earnest workers, and among them a number of retired missionaries, both in America and on the continent of Europe. I am told that there are many hearts praying for something of this kind; and if there be a wise division of the field, and wise arrangements given us by God in our Conference, we may very speedily indeed see what we desire, a large number of new workers coming to this land. A missionary formerly connected with the Basle Missionary Society wrote me from Germany, after reading a paper written by me asking for prayer that a thousand evangelists might be speedily sent to China, and he said, "We must have one hundred of them from Germany."
I am quite sure from my visit to Scandinavia, that one hundred would be within the number of earnest men who might be expected from there within a very short time. Would it be a very hard thing to expect three hundred workers from Great Britain and Ireland, leaving out the rest of the Continent? Cannot the Church of England, which has 35,000 ordained clergy, find a hundred lay workers who would come out to labor here? Would not the Presbyterian friends of England, Scotland and Ireland very easily find another hundred? I asked this question, not two months ago, at a workers' meeting in Glasgow, and the reply was, "We could send one hundred from Glasgow alone." I believe they could, and that without very much difficulty. And what about the great Methodist bodies? Would a hundred workers be a very unreasonable contingent for them to give, with their thousands of lay preachers, besides all their ministers? As for five hundred from America it seems so ridiculously small, compared with the greatness of that country, its missionary zeal and capacity, that it seems almost absurd to propose so small a contingent.
I do most earnestly commend this thought to you for your prayerful consideration. Wiser men may have wiser suggestions to make, but in whatever way we do the thing, let us do it. The Lord Jesus Christ has been for sixty generations looking down on this land; and from the very earliest post-apostolic times there has never been in the Church that zeal and enterprise which have attempted the evangelization of its own generation. I think we shall all agree with Dr. Pierson that the command of Christ really implies that each generation shall evangelize its own generation;-just as the multitude that we have had our attention turned to in the narrative had an immediate supply of an immediate need. It would have been of no use to say to them, “After two or three days you shall be fed." They were hungry, and they would faint by the way. So to-day, the multitudes are perishing; and while we are waiting, they are dying without the Gospel. But oh, shall not our blessed Lord have the joy of finding in this sixtieth generation after He agonized for us in Gethsemane,-in this sixtieth generation after He so lovingly trusted His Church to be faithful to Him and carry out His command,-shall He not have the joy of seeing us obey the command in this generation? Then the Gospel shall very speedily reach every hamlet, and no family in this country shall be without the offer of the Gospel, whether they receive it or no.
Records of the General Conference of the Protestant Missionaries of China, held at Shanghai May 7-20, 1890, (Shanghai: American Presbyterian Mission Press, 1890), pp. 1-10. Also in China's Millions, 1890 in two parts.