“seven.” Many theologians have tried to figure out what is the significance of mentioning in the record that there were “seven” large baskets of leftover bread—why mention the number seven? The number seven is included in the record for a reason, and while there actually may be several different things it relates to, one of them certainly seems to be a reference to the fact that Jesus would be a blessing to the Gentiles.
To understand the feeding of the 4000, we must read it in connection with the feeding of the 5000. The two records both show that the Messiah will provide for God’s people (for all intents and purposes, the audience was God’s people—people who believed in Jesus or were seeking his teaching and help. Surely there were some people who were there just due to curiosity, but even they were “seekers” at some level. Non-believers stayed home and did not take the trouble to follow Jesus from place to place). So the feeding of the 5000 and the 4000 have a similar and inter-related message about the Messiah being the source of blessing for both the Jews and Gentiles, and as such the two records need to be considered together as one interconnected teaching.
The feeding of the 5000 and the 12 baskets of leftovers point to God’s blessing on the 12 tribes of Israel. Although there were other lessons built into the “12 baskets” of leftovers, such as that if we will feed God’s people we will be blessed ourselves—the 12 apostles fed the multitude and each got a full basket back—it seems the primary meaning is that all Israel will be blessed by the Messiah. There are many pieces of evidence that point to that. For one thing, the feeding of the 5000 is one of the few events in Jesus’ ministry that is recorded in all four Gospels (Matt. 14:13-21; Mark 6:32-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-13). That makes sense because God wanted to magnify the fact that His Messiah would provide for Israel.
In the feeding of the 5000, the audience was certainly almost all Jews. They came from the surrounding towns and were familiar with where Jesus was going with his apostles to get some time alone. Then, after he fed them, they were about to come and make him king (John 6:15). Furthermore, there are things in the vocabulary of the feeding of the 5000 that point back to the Pentateuch, and the covenant promises and blessings there. For example, Jesus made the people sit in groups of hundreds and fifties (Mark 6:40; Luke 9:14). This number goes back to the way Israel was governed under the Law, when they had rulers over fifties and hundreds (Ex. 18:25). And under the Law, Israel was promised covenant blessings if they obeyed the Law, which included plenty of food (Deut. 28:4, 5, 8, 11, 12). So the evidence in the accounts, especially when contrasted with the feeding of the 4000, shows that one of the lessons of the 12 baskets of leftovers from the feeding of the 5000 is that the tribes of Israel would be blessed by the Messiah.
The feeding of the 4000 has many things that point to the Messianic blessing on the Gentiles. In contrast to the feeding of the 5000 which occurs in all four Gospels, the feeding of the 4000 only occurs in Matthew and Mark, as if saying that although the Messiah came for Israel, the Gentiles would be blessed in him too. Furthermore, the feeding of the 4000 occurs after Jesus goes to “the region of Tyre and Sidon” (Matt. 15:21). That was Gentile territory, although there would have been some Jews that lived there, which is why he was able to stay in a house there (Mark 7:24). But if Jesus went into the Gentile territory to minister to Jews, there is no record of it. Quite the opposite. The only healing miracle that Jesus did in that Gentile territory was to cast the demon out of a Canaanite woman’s daughter. The fact that the woman is specifically identified as a “Canaanite” (Matt. 15:22) who lived in Syrian Phoenicia (Mark 7:26) is important in tying the feeding of the 4000 to the Messianic blessing of the Gentiles. We have seen how the feeding of the 5000 has connections to the Law, now we will see that the feeding of the 4000 does too. In the Law the Israelites were told that God would “drive out” the seven nations that were in the Promised Land so God could give the land to Israel (Deut. 7:1) and if any Canaanites remained in the land, the Israelites were to destroy them totally (Deut. 7:2). That the only miracle Jesus is recorded as doing in the region of Tyre and Sidon is healing the daughter of a Canaanite is a clear sign that the Messianic blessing is now extended to them through the Messiah, and it is a fulfillment of the prophecy that the Messiah was to be a “light to the Gentiles” (Isa. 42:6; 49:6). When Jesus left the area of Tyre and Sidon, no doubt a group of Gentiles followed him for the same reason crowds of Jews followed him—to hear him and see the miracles he did. But when Jesus left the area, he did not go back to Jewish territory. Mark tells us that he went to the Sea of Galilee and then to its east coast, “the region of the Decapolis,” which was also territory populated by Gentiles (Mark 7:31). There he healed a deaf mute, and the people there spread the word about him (Mark 7:31-37).
By now there would have been a large number of Gentiles following Jesus from the region of Tyre and Sidon and from the Decapolis. He went up onto a mountain and did many healings (Matt. 15:29-31), and they “praised the God of Israel.” That the crowd would “praise the God of Israel” points to the fact that this crowd was not primarily Jews. When Jesus did miracles among the Jews, they “praised God” (cp. Matt. 9:8; Mark 2:12; Luke 13:13; 18:43; etc.). Then, after the healings, Jesus fed the 4000 and took up 7 large baskets full of leftovers. In thinking about the feeding of the 5000 and feeding of the 4000 we see that the record of the feeding of the 5000 has distinctive Jewish elements throughout it, and it makes sense that 12 baskets of leftover bread would point to covenant blessings on the 12 tribes of Israel. Then, the feeding of the 4000 has distinctive Gentile elements, and the 7 baskets of leftover bread harkens back to the seven Gentile nations in Canaan that God drove out before Israel that, along with the other Gentiles, will receive a blessing through God’s Messiah.
“large baskets.” In the feeding of the 5000 (Matt. 14:13-21), the Greek word for “baskets” is kophinos (#2894 κόφινος), a wicker or reed basket. However, in the feeding of the 4000 (Matthew 15:29-39), the Greek word for basket is spuris (#4711 σπυρίς), which refers to a much larger reed or wicker basket, or a woven hamper. It was one of these larger woven baskets that the disciples put Paul into when they let him down from the wall of Damascus (Acts 9:25). Given the size of the different types of baskets, it is possible that there could have been as much food left over from the feeding of the 4000 as there was from the feeding of the 5000.