One of the reasons Jesus came to live on earth was to demonstrate God’s love for his people. Many misconceptions about God’s character and lies about his plan of salvation had crept into the traditions that were taught to the remnant of Israelites that returned to the Promised Land after their time of captivity in Babylon was completed. In particular, the religious leaders known as the Pharisees taught the Jews that a person was considered defiled or separated from God by simply not washing his hands before eating a meal (Matthew 15:2). The rules and regulations that governed activities in God’s temple were so outrageous that it wasn’t surprising the people flocked to hear Jesus teach the simple truth about salvation and the kingdom of heaven.
On more than one occasion, a multitude of people went to hear Jesus preach in a remote location where food was unavailable. The second of these incidents is recorded in both Matthew 15:32-39 and Mark 8:1-9. Matthew and Mark’s accounts are very similar, suggesting either that both of these men were present when it happened or the facts of the incident were transferred from one man to the other. Both stories begin with a statement from Jesus about his concern for the people. Matthew recorded, “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” (Matthew 15:32).
The Greek word translated compassion, splagchnizomai (splangkh-nid’-zom-ahee) means “to have the bowels yearn that is (figuratively) feel sympathy to pity” (4697). Jesus’ inward affection for the multitude may have been prompted by their willingness to go three days without food in order to not miss anything he had to say to them. You could say that the people were so hungry spiritually to hear the truth of his gospel that they forgot all about their physical hunger. Jesus’ decision to not send the people away without feeding them first showed that his compassion for them was so intense, he was compelled to do something about it. The miracle he performed was merely a matter of exercising his supernatural ability, rather than faith, as was typically needed for Jesus’ power to be released.
The surprising thing about the repeating of Jesus’ supernatural feeding of the multitude was that his disciples didn’t seem to think it was possible, even though a similar miracle had already been performed. After Jesus stated his intention, Matthew recorded, “And his disciples say unto him, Whence should we have so much bread in the wilderness, as to fill so great a multitude?” (Matthew 15:33). It seems unlikely that his disciples could have so quickly forgotten the time when Jesus fed more than 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fishes (Matthew 14:20). Therefore, it is possible Jesus’ disciples didn’t think he could do the same thing twice. In other words, Jesus wasn’t allowed to repeat a miracle he had already performed, but his compassion for the people made him do it anyway.