Over the last year, I walked through the Gospel of Matthew with our women’s Bible class at The Village Church’s Plano campus. It wasn’t my first class of this kind, but I noticed something this semester I’d never noticed before. When it comes to the Bible, we seem to be hesitant about using our imaginations. It’s as if we’re afraid to engage with the narrative of Scripture in a way others might consider incorrect. But there aren’t always right and wrong answers in Bible study, and one of the ways we can learn from Scripture is by imagining ourselves inside it.
One of my favorite things about these classes is the way the weekly study questions progress from comprehension to interpretation to application, helping us dig deeper into each section of Scripture. The questions that asked us to use our imaginations—“How do you think you would respond?” and “Why do you think they reacted this way?”—fostered the most discussion in my small group. Some members of the group didn’t like these questions, and it’s true that you can miss the point of the story if you take your imagination too far. But when used with a humble desire to know God’s character better, your imagination can be a helpful tool. Today I want to invite you to imagine with me that you’re in the crowd of 5,000 men (plus women and children) who were fed from just five loaves of bread and two fish in Matthew 14:15-22.
Standing in this massive crowd (there must be thousands of people here!), it really feels like something new is beginning, something that will change everything. As I listen to this man, Jesus, I can’t help but want to hear more. He is unlike the teachers I’ve heard at the synagogue all my life. He seems like a normal person; He could be my neighbor or cousin. He doesn’t look or talk like He’s spent years and years studying and memorizing the Torah—yet He seems to know everything! When He talks, I believe Him, and I can’t explain why.
I also can’t help but be aware of how long we’ve been listening to Jesus today. My kids have had the last of the bread we brought, and they are losing their patience. The sun will start to go down soon. I’m getting hungry myself and distracted by my own thoughts.
Right now I’m thinking, "It will be pretty embarrassing if my kids start making a scene, begging to leave, to find them something to eat. Is hearing what Jesus still has to say worth my embarrassment? I’ll ask a neighbor to take my kids with them when I notice people beginning to leave. But everyone seems just as riveted as I am. Maybe we should just go; I won’t be able to concentrate on Jesus’ teaching with them whining anyway. Would it be rude to leave now? Gosh, I really don’t want to go! I don’t want to miss a word of what Jesus is saying. Although I’m sure I could get a friend to fill me in later…"
I lean down to tell the kids we’ll go in five more minutes (which I’ve been saying for the last half hour), and when I look back up the crowd is separating into groups and sitting down on the grass. One of Jesus’ disciples—I don’t know his name—walks over and asks us to sit with a group gathering to our left. I’m not sure why, but I can hear people talking about food, so I tell my kids to do what the man asked.
After the whole crowd sits down, Jesus begins to pray. He says a simple blessing for the food He is holding. It’s a little hard to see with so many people between us, but it looks like just a small basket of bread and fish. It’s not enough even for His disciples, much less the rest of us. When they run out of food, then we’ll go, I think. No one will frown at that, surely.
Now that I’m paying attention, Jesus’ blessing sounds just like one my father said when I was growing up, just like one my husband says every evening over our dinner. There’s nothing special about it. He finishes and then breaks the bread, handing it to His disciples to distribute, and it just keeps coming! Each of the men has his hands full delivering bread and fish to the groups of people listening, and when it gets to us, we all eat until our stomachs are full. I’ve never seen anything like it, or even imagined such a thing could happen, but this was definitely a miracle.
Jesus dismisses us all and we head home, but my kids can’t stop talking about the miraculous dinner we enjoyed. “Where did the fish come from, Mom?” “What do you think they’ll do with all those leftovers?” “Do you think that’s always how Jesus and His disciples make dinner?” I don’t have any answers for them, but I can’t wipe the smile off my face. We experienced something significant, something I’ll never forget, and I expect will be remembered in history for a long, long time.
In the dozens of times I’ve read this story before, I’ve usually seen it as a picture of God’s provision. Jesus proves to His disciples that He is all they need. He provides abundantly—just look at all those leftovers! I don’t think this is wrong, but imagining myself in the story emphasizes different characteristics of Jesus. Before He provides, He is attentive to the needs of His children. He hears the anxious mother’s thoughts who is torn between leaving to feed her kids and staying to hear His teaching. He understands the restlessness of the young ones in the crowd and is so kind to provide food at the opportune time.
Perhaps your imagination led you in a different direction and showed you yet another of Jesus’ attributes. Just as the 5,000 men (plus women and children!) would not have responded in exactly the same way to experiencing this miracle, we don’t always have to look for one “right” response to reading about it today. Our Creator God gave us imagination, and He uses it to draw us closer to Himself as we read His Word. I want to encourage you to utilize the gift of your mind, not only in the study of God, but also in imagining the story of God.