This is one of only a few miracles to be recorded by all four Evagelists; St John, as one might expect, brings out the doctrinal significance. St Cyril of Alexandria points out that in leaving Jerusalem and thus giving the anger of his enemies a chance to abate, Jesus shows his love for them – love does not insist on its own way, as St Paul says. Chrysostom comments that the crowds followed Jesus motivated more by the miracles he performed than by his teaching. Only the disciples ascend the mountain with him, the people are not willing to go that far, so small is their faith. Jesus shows us the necessity of a quiet place where we can imitate him and commune with God away from the tumults of the world. He does not go up to Jerusalem because he is quietly annuling the old law of the Jews which required believers to do so for the Pasch; a new Pasch is being prepared. Chrysostom notes that the accounts in the Gospels are quite different. St Cyril writes that the feeding of the multitude is an example for us all, that we should be bold and rely upon Christ.
St Cyril notes that the five loaves represent the five books of Moses (the OT) and the two fishes the teaching of the Apostles and the Evangelists (the NT). The kernel of barley (Christ) was hidden in the husk (the OT) but when broken becomes multiplied, Augustine adds, remarking that the two fish symbolise the priests and kings whose roles and fulfilled in Jesus. Unlike in many other of his miralces, Jesus prays first as he prepares to feed the five thousand (foreshadowing the miracle mentioned in Acts 4, showing his solidarity with the Father and the Spirit; we, too, should pray before we eat, giving thanks to our Father.
St Hilary, like other Fathers, notes that it was unlikely that most of those in the crowd realised a miracles had taken place – taking the food for granted; only later, like ourselves so often, did they realised God’s goodness to them. The Didache notes the parallel between the scattering of the bread on the mountain and the spread of the Word across the whole world; God always provides more than we need. The gift of the living bread remains with us to this day in the Mass. After the miracle, the people realise that the prophet who would be greater than Moses has come into the world. Christ wanted no earthly honours, no worldly kingship, because he was, Augustine reminds us, already King of All. He reigns for ever with the Father and the Spirit. He reminds us, St Cyril comments, that it is unseemly for those who pursue Divine Grace to seek after worldly power.