The Bible records the famous miracle that has become known as "feeding the 4,000" in two books of the Gospels: Matthew 15:32-39 and Mark 8:1-13. Jesus Christ had been busy healing many of the people in a large crowd that was following him around as he and his disciples traveled. But Jesus knew that many people in the crowd of thousands were fighting off hunger because they didn't want to leave him to find something to eat. So he decided to miraculously multiply the food that his disciples had with them -- seven loaves of bread and a few fish -- to feed 4,000 men, plus many women and children who were there.
Earlier, the Bible records a separate event at which Jesus performed a similar miracle for a different hungry crowd. That miracle has come to be known as "feeding the 5,000" because about 5,000 men were gathered then, plus many women and children. For that miracle, Jesus multiplied the food in a lunch that a boy had packed and offered to him to use to feed the hungry people.
The Gospel of Matthew describes how Jesus had just healed the daughter of a woman who had asked him to free her from the suffering of demon possession, when he traveled to the Sea of Galilee and followed up that spiritual healing with physical healing for many of the people who came to him for help. But Jesus knew that the people were dealing with a more basic physical need than healing for their injuries and diseases: their hunger.
Matthew 15:29-31 records: "Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel."
Anticipating a Need
It's interesting to note that Jesus knew what the people needed before they ever expressed their needs to him, and he was already planning to meet their needs in a compassionate way. The story continues in verses 32 through 38:
Jesus called his disciples to him and said, 'I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.'"
His disciples answered, 'Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?'
'How many loaves do you have?' Jesus asked.
'Seven,' they replied, 'and a few small fish.'
He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was four thousand men, besides women and children."
Just as in the earlier miraculous event where Jesus multiplied the food from a boy's lunch to feed thousands of people, here too, he created such an abundance of food that some was left over. Bible scholars believe that the amount of the leftover food is symbolic in both cases: Twelve baskets were left over when Jesus fed the 5,000, and 12 represents both the 12 tribes of Israel from the Old Testament and Jesus' 12 apostles from the New Testament. Seven baskets were left over when Jesus fed the 4,000, and the number seven symbolizes spiritual completion and perfection in the Bible.
Asking for a Miraculous Sign
Mark's Gospel tells the same story as Matthew's does, and adds some more information onto the ending that gives readers insight into how Jesus decided whether or not to perform miracles for people. Mark 8:9-13 says:
After he had sent them away, he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the region of Dalmanutha. The Pharisees [Jewish religious leaders] came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven.
He sighed deeply and said, 'Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to it.'
Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side.
Jesus had just performed a miracle for people who hadn't even asked for it, yet then refused to make a miracle happen for people who asked him for one. Why? The different groups of people had different motives in their minds. While the hungry crowd was seeking to learn from Jesus, the Pharisees were trying to test Jesus. The hungry people approached Jesus with faith, but the Pharisees approached Jesus with cynicism.
Jesus makes it clear elsewhere in the Bible that using miracles to test God corrupts the purity of their purpose, which is to help people develop genuine faith. In the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus fights off Satan's efforts to tempt him to sin, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:16, which says, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test." So it's important for people to check their motives before asking God for miracles.