Selfishness breeds paganism.
Basic paganism attempts to manipulate the gods so that those gods will favor the practitioner. This selfish way of thinking comes naturally to sinful humanity. While Christianity rescues us from this false idea, we often default to it in our relationship with God.
For instance, during a recent quiet time, I read Luke’s account of the feeding of the five thousand. This miracle appears in all four Gospels, with Matthew and Mark placing it in a similar context, while Luke and John include different material surrounding the passage. All four writers, under inspiration, point us in the same direction. That direction, however, is not always how we view the passage. Instead, we make it about ourselves.
When Luke tells the story of the five thousand, he follows it up with a conversation between Jesus and the disciples. Jesus asks them in 9:18, “Who do the people say that I am (NASB)?” The disciples then share the crowd’s idea, leading Jesus to ask the disciples’ opinion. Peter answers in verse twenty, “The Christ of God.”
Both Matthew and Mark record Jesus walking on the water after feeding the five thousand. In both tellings, Jesus calms the disciples by saying, “It is I, do not be afraid (Matthew 14:27, Mark 6:50).” Mark tell us in 6:52 that the disciples “had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, but their heart was hardened (NASB).” Matthew adds the details of Peter’s failure to walk on the water with Jesus. In 14:33, after Jesus and Peter board the boat, the disciples say, “You are certainly God’s Son (NASB).”
John’s Gospel gives a detailed description of both the day of and the day following the feeding of the five thousand. John writes in 6:14 that the crowd responded to the feeding by saying, “This is truly the Prophet who is come into the world (NASB).” The next day, the crowd returns and Jesus rebukes them for coming only for food (6:26). Jesus then begins a long discourse and says in John 6:35, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me will not hunger, and he who believes in me will never thirst (NASB).”
The focus of the feeding of the five thousand is Jesus’ identity. Each Gospel writer leads us down this path.
Unfortunately, our self-centered pagan instincts often kick in when we look for personal application in familiar Bible stories. We make them about ourselves. With the feeding of the five thousand, we often emphasize the little boy and his loaves and fishes. We talk about how God takes our little and makes it big. We talk about the importance of sharing. We point out the boy’s willingness to serve and encourage ourselves to do likewise.
It’s certainly true that God uses us beyond what we imagine. And yes, the Bible calls on believers to share with those in need. And of course, we must be willing to serve when called upon.
The feeding of the five thousand, however, is not about those things. It is about Jesus’ deity and Messiahship. If we miss that, then we’ve missed the point.
How do we get beyond a self-centered approach to the Bible? It’s actually not difficult. We simply have to ask the right questions, in the correct order.
Anytime we read the Bible, we must first ask what the passage teaches about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That question forms the foundation for all Bible study and devotional reading. It allows us to get to know Him better, which is the only way to grow in holiness.
After beginning with a God-centered approach, we can ask what a passage teaches about humanity. Be careful though, it’s still not time to make it about ourselves. Rather, we must ask what the Bible portion teaches about our sinfulness, our nature, and God’s plan of redemption. In other words, we ask what the text teaches about our separation from God and the reconciliation provided through Christ.
Finally, we can ask how the passage applies personally. We should consider how the first two questions apply to our marriages, jobs, families, physical and mental health, etc.
God’s Word matters to all aspects of our lives. We only need to approach it in the correct sequence. When we don’t, our natural selfishness takes over and we misuse the Bible.
God has chosen to reveal His nature to us through the Bible. If we’ll get out of the way, we’ll hear what He has to say.