In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus miraculously provided food for a crowd of 5,000 (Matt. 14:13-21) and 4,000 (15:32-39). Scholars recognize that these feedings allude to Old Testament stories involving Moses, Israel, Elijah, and Elisha. But in addition to pointing backward, do the stories point forward? And if these feedings are forward-pointing, what is being foreshadowed?
Perhaps the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples, or perhaps the Lord’s Supper which believers practice, or perhaps the eschatological Marriage Supper. Let’s take these options in reverse.
- Least controversial is that the miraculous feedings foreshadow the Marriage Supper. Matthew has already reported Jesus’ words about an end-time banquet: “I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 8:11). And near the end of the Gospel, Jesus refers to “that day” when he will drink “this fruit of the vine” with his disciples “in my Father’s kingdom” (26:29), another reference to the eschatological meal. In Grant Osborne’s commentary on Matthew, he represents the view of many scholars when he writes, “This was truly a messianic miracle pointing forward to the messianic banquet, an eschatological meal often emphasized by Jesus (Matt. 8:11; Luke 14:15; 22:30) and also a common theme in Judaism.”
- But what about the Lord’s Supper? Could the miraculous provision of loaves find meaning in the frequent practice of believers sharing bread and wine together? Leon Morris is hesitant to see in the language any application to communion. Ben Witherington says “it is doubtful that the First Evangelist had any major intent to portray this as a Eucharistic meal.” Craig Blomberg says a eucharistic reading would be anachronistic, though some foreshadowing might be possible. R. T. France is more open to the view, though, writing, “The feeding of the crowd is . . . a ‘foretaste’ of the central act of worship of the emergent Christian community, even though the menu was not quite the same.” Furthermore, consider that the order of taking, giving thanks, breaking, and eating (Matt. 15:36-37) is the pattern of the Lord’s Supper in Acts 27:35 (“And when he had said these things, he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat”).
- The miraculous meals may point to the Last Supper which Jesus shared with his disciples. Grant Osborne rightly notes that the sequence of verbs in Matt. 14:19 (taking, blessing, breaking, giving) is found elsewhere in the Gospel only at the Last Supper in 26:26 (“Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples”). David Turner says it is “at least plausible” that the miraculous feeding foreshadowed the Last Supper. The second miraculous meal tells us that Jesus gave thanks, and this notion was during the actions of taking and giving (15:36). At the Last Supper, Jesus took the cup and gave thanks and gave it to his disciples (26:27).
Before we evaluate these options, let’s avoid the mistake of assuming only one view can be held. Why couldn’t two views be true simultaneously? Or even all three? The eschatological feast is surely the end point of what the miraculous meals foreshadow. But the Lord’s Supper is itself an anticipation of that final feast. In the bread and wine, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26), a coming which leads to table fellowship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 8:11). And isn’t the Lord’s Supper the ordinance which Jesus established at the Last Supper? And wasn’t it at the Last Supper when Jesus also spoke of the eschatological feast in the Father’s kingdom? (26:29).
The original audience of the miraculous feedings may not have realized the significance of the meals. But the point isn’t whether the original eaters or listeners would have sensed a deeper resonance of truth. The point is for the original readers of Matthew’s Gospel, readers which had an inspired collection and organization of stories and narration and teachings. The readers of Matthew’s Gospel were decades after the events of Jesus’ earthly ministry and thus decades after the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper at the Last Supper (see 1 Cor. 11:24-25; Luke 22:19). When these readers and hearers of Matthew’s Gospel learned about Jesus taking, blessing, breaking, and giving bread, discerning elements (pun intended!) of the Last Supper, Lord’s Supper, and Marriage Supper is not only plausible but reasonable and, I think, even probable.
So, yes, I’m saying the miraculous feedings foreshadowed the meal Jesus shared in the upper room, the meal the church shared (and shares) together, and the meal on the last day when we recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
We need not be bound to only one view of what the feedings point to. If you look at a map and locate Nashville, Tennessee, you will notice that I-40 leaves Nashville to the west, and it will take you to Oklahoma City. And if you said, “I’m going to travel on I-40 from Nashville to Oklahoma City,” it would also be correct for someone to say, “You know, along the way, you’ll go through Memphis and even Little Rock.” This is true because I-40 takes you from Nashville to Oklahoma City but through other cities along the way. The trajectory of travel is advanced, not hindered, by these other places prior to your final destination.
The map illustration is a way of saying that the miraculous meals point to the Marriage Supper, but this trajectory does not exclude a foreshadowing of the Last Supper and Lord’s Supper–which themselves continue pointing to the final feast at the table with the patriarchs.