ESV - 14 For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, "Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.
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I don't believe that we are given any definitive answer to this, but scripture is full of clues. The primary clue is found in Exodus 18 where Moses set up the judicial system for the nation of Israel. Biblical judges are somewhat different from what we call judges today. They are the supreme leaders of their groups, more like what we call mayors, governors, presidents and CEOs. Their primary purpose is to teach the law of God, its meaning and how it is to be applied. I choose the word applied rather than enforced for a very important reason. God's law is not, and never was simply a list of do's and don'ts. It defines a total lifestyle which brings the abundant and any failure to keep any part of it diminishes life for all of us. Keep in mind that the following numbers are heads of household, not individuals. The camp was divided with captains of 10, 50, 100, 1000 and 10,000. I do not understand the 50 since it breaks the pattern, but this was later seen to be the squad or platoon size in Israel's military. I have not studied the military, Israel's or modern military organizations closely enough to be sure of the proper terms here. Once the camp was divided these groups (as well as the militia, once called up) elected their own leaders. The high government officials are chosen by the king or God, but the people choose their own lower level leaders from among themselves. In the group of 100 the captains of the 10s gather and choose one of them as the captain of the 100, and the captains of the 100 gather to choose one from among their number as the captain of the 1000, etc. The intermediate number of 50 is less clear and I have never studied just how this grouping was handled, but this story of the feeding of the 5000 will give us some clues. There were 5000 men (heads of household) plus women and children. They were divided into groups of 50 men and their households. Jesus divided the bread and fish, gave it to his 12 disciples who then dispensed it to the groups. The heads of the groups dispensed it to the 50 heads of household and the heads of household dispensed it to their wives and children. Throughout scripture physical food is used to represent our spiritual food which is the word of God, so this story is setting a pattern for group (probably congregational) worship. Even in the congregation the pastor is not to be responsible for feeding all of the people; his responsibility is only directly to the top leadership, who then feeds those leaders below them in the hierarchy and finally the heads of household are responsible to teach God's word daily in their homes. Twelve is the number representing the government of God and 50 is the number of Jubilee. The Jubilee law (Leviticus 25) not only teaches about the year of setting the captives free, but also lays out the laws of redemption, which is a captivity for the purpose of teaching a person who has sinned or is to ignorant (unskilled) to provide a living for himself and his family. So these groups of 50 are in some way closely related to the process of redemption and setting the redeemed free to provide for themselves and their families. If we are leaving the work of the kingdom strictly to the pastors, or even the church leadership it will never get done. The head of every household shares in this responsibility, and if he fails to do so his family remains unfed and thus, unsaved. If any higher level link in this chain fails in its duty even larger groups remain unfed. Unfortunately, this describes the church today, which usually only meets one day a week for the pastor to feed his flock, and they starve the remainder of the week because they have not been organized according to the pattern of God's government, and do not make certain that all people at all levels have the resources necessary to feed those who are under their authority. As a result the sheep starve, or worse, are food only for the shepherds (see Ezekiel 34).
1 Kings 18:8 [Obadiah said to Elijah]…”while Jezebel was killing prophets… I hid 100 of the Lord’s prophets in two caves, 50 in each, and supplied them with food and water. 2 Kings 4:38 …there was a famine…While the company of prophets was meeting with [Elisha]…A man came… bringing [Elisha] 20 loaves of barley bread…”.”Give it to the people to eat,” Elisha said. “How can I set this before 100 men?” his servant asked. But Elisha answered “…the Lord says: They will eat and have some left over”. Jesus was dedicated to bringing the OT scripture back to life. Obadiah took responsibility in feeding 100 people separated into two groups of 50. This same group was also fed by Elisha, who gives precedent to the way Jesus miraculously fed crowds. Both Jesus and the NT authors picked up on these Obadiah/Elisha precedents - for example the NT authors point out how many loaves of bread were available, how many men were to be fed, the men were separated into groups of what size, and the fact that there were leftovers.
...Each group of fifty represents about one percent of the crowd. With the limitations of humanity, it was easier for the apostles to deal with an incremental task arithmetically divided--though Jesus would not have had that problem. It was a snap for the apostles to adequately serve the crowd that way. Such an arrangement, "...have them sit down in groups of about fifty each," would have worked similarly to seating arrangements in a large banquet hall that was set up to handle a huge conference. In fact, with this story, Jesus proved to be history's most efficient party planner.
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