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Home > Fathers of the Church > Tractates on the Gospel of John (Augustine) > Tractate 24

Tractate 24 (John 6:1-14)

1. The miracles performed by our Lord Jesus Christ are indeed divine works, and incite the human mind to rise to the apprehension of God from the things that are seen. But inasmuch as He is not such a substance as may be seen with the eyes, and His miracles in the government of the whole world and the administration of the universal creation are, by their familiar constancy, slightly regarded, so that almost no man deigns to consider the wonderful and stupendous works of God, exhibited in every grain of seed; He has, agreeably to His mercy, reserved to Himself certain works, beyond the usual course and order of nature, which He should perform on fit occasion, that they, by whom His daily works are lightly esteemed, might be struck with astonishment at beholding, not indeed greater, but uncommon works. For certainly the government of the whole world is a greater miracle than the satisfying of five thousand men with five loaves; and yet no man wonders at the former; but the latter men wonder at, not because it is greater, but because it is rare. For who even now feeds the whole world, but He who creates the cornfield from a few grains? He therefore created as God creates. For, whence He multiplies the produce of the fields from a few grains, from the same source He multiplied in His hands the five loaves. The power, indeed, was in the hands of Christ; but those five loaves were as seeds, not indeed committed to the earth, but multiplied by Him who made the earth. In this miracle, then, there is that brought near to the senses, whereby the mind should be roused to attention, there is exhibited to the eyes, whereon the understanding should be exercised, that we might admire the invisible God through His visible works; and being raised to faith and purged by faith, we might desire to behold Him even invisibly, whom invisible we came to know by the things that are visible.

2. Yet it is not enough to observe these things in the miracles of Christ. Let us interrogate the miracles themselves, what they tell us about Christ: for they have a tongue of their own, if they can be understood. For since Christ is Himself the Word of God, even the act of the Word is a word to us. Therefore as to this miracle, since we have heard how great it is, let us also search how profound it is; let us not only be delighted with its surface, but let us also seek to know its depth. This miracle, which we admire on the outside, has something within. We have seen, we have looked at something great, something glorious, and altogether divine, which could be performed only by God: we have praised the doer for the deed. But just as, if we were to inspect a beautiful writing somewhere, it would not suffice for us to praise the hand of the writer, because he formed the letters even, equal and elegant, if we did not also read the information he conveyed to us by those letters; so, he who merely inspects this deed may be delighted with its beauty to admire the doer: but he who understands does, as it were, read it. For a picture is looked at in a different way from that in which a writing is looked at. When you have seen a picture, to have seen and praised it is the whole thing; when you see a writing, this is not the whole, since you are reminded also to read it. Moreover, when you see a writing, if it chance that you can not read, you say, What do we think that to be which is here written? Thou ask what it is, when already you see it to be something. He of whom you seek to be informed what it is that you have seen, will show you another thing. He has other eyes than you have. Do you not alike see the form of the letters? But yet you do not alike understand the signs. Well, you see and praisest; but he sees, praises, reads and understands. Therefore, since we have seen and praised, let us also read and understand.

3. The Lord on the mount: much rather let us understand that the Lord on the mount is the Word on high. Accordingly, what was done on the mount does not, as it were, lie low, nor is to be cursorily passed by, but must be looked up to. He saw the multitude, knew them to be hungering, mercifully fed them: not only in virtue of His goodness, but also of His power. For what would mere goodness avail, where there was not bread with which to feed the hungry crowd? Did not power attend upon goodness, that crowd had remained fasting and hungry. In short, the disciples also, who were with the Lord, and hungry, themselves wished to feed the multitudes, that they might not remain empty, but had not wherewithal to feed them. The Lord asked, whence they might buy bread to feed the multitude. And the Scripture says: But this He said, proving him; namely, the disciple Philip of whom He had asked; for Himself knew what He would do. Of what advantage then was it to prove him, unless to show the disciple's ignorance? And, perhaps, in showing the disciple's ignorance He signified something more. This will appear, then, when the sacrament of the five loaves itself will begin to speak to us, and to intimate its meaning: for there we shall see why the Lord in this act wished to exhibit the disciple's ignorance, by asking what He Himself knew. For we sometimes ask what we do not know, that, being willing to hear, we may learn; sometimes we ask what we do know, wishing to learn whether he whom we ask also knows. The Lord knew both the one and the other; knew both what He asked, for He knew what Himself would do; and He also knew in like manner that Philip knew not this. Why then did He ask, but to show Philip's ignorance? And why He did this, we shall, as I have said, understand afterwards.

4. Andrew says: There is a lad here, who has five loaves and two fishes, but what are these for so many? When Philip, on being asked, had said that two hundred pennyworth of bread would not suffice to refresh that so great a multitude, there was there a certain lad, carrying five barley loaves and two fishes. And Jesus says, Make the men sit down. Now there was there much grass: and they sat down about five thousand men. And the Lord Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks; He commanded, the loaves were broken, and put before the men that were set down. It was no longer five loaves, but what He had added thereto, who had created that which was increased. And of the fishes as much as sufficed. It was not enough that the multitude had been satisfied, there remained also fragments; and these were ordered to be gathered up, that they should not be lost: And they filled twelve baskets with the fragments.

5. To run over it briefly: by the five loaves are understood the five books of Moses; and rightly are they not wheaten but barley loaves, because they belong to the Old Testament. And you know that barley is so formed that we get at its pith with difficulty; for the pith is covered in a coating of husk, and the husk itself tenacious and closely adhering, so as to be stripped off with labor. Such is the letter of the Old Testament, invested in a covering of carnal sacraments: but yet, if we get at its pith, it feeds and satisfies us. A certain lad, then, brought five loaves and two fishes. If we inquire who this lad was, perhaps it was the people Israel, which, in a childish sense, carried, not ate. For the things which they carried were a burden while shut up, but when opened afforded nourishment. And as for the two fishes, they appear to us to signify those two sublime persons, in the Old Testament, of priest and of ruler, who were anointed for the sanctifying and governing of the people. And at length Himself in the mystery came, who was signified by those persons: He at length came who was pointed out by the pith of the barley, but concealed by its husk. He came, sustaining in His one person the two characters of priest and ruler: of priest by offering Himself to God as a victim for us; of ruler, because by Him we are governed. And the things that were carried closed are now opened up. Thanks be to Him. He has fulfilled by Himself what was promised in the Old Testament. And He bade the loaves to be broken; in the breaking they are multiplied. Nothing is more true. For when those five books of Moses are expounded, how many books have they made by being broken up, as it were; that is, by being opened and laid out? But because in that barley the ignorance of the first people was veiled, of whom it is said, Whilst Moses is read, the veil is upon their hearts; 2 Corinthians 3:15 for the veil was not yet removed, because Christ had not yet come; not yet was the veil of the temple rent, while Christ is hanging on the cross: because, I say, the ignorance of the people was in the law, therefore that proving by the Lord made the ignorance of the disciple manifest.

6. Wherefore nothing is without meaning; everything is significant, but requires one that understands: for even this number of the people fed, signified the people that were under the law. For why were there five thousand, but because they were under the law, which is unfolded in the five books of Moses? Why were the sick laid at those five porches, but not healed? He, however, there cured the impotent man, who here fed multitudes with five loaves. Moreover, they sat down upon the grass; therefore understood carnally, and rested in the carnal. For all flesh is grass. Isaiah 40:6 And what were those fragments, but things which the people were not able to eat? We understand them to be certain matters of more hidden meaning, which the multitude are not able to take in. What remains then, but that those matters of more hidden meaning, which the multitude cannot take in, be entrusted to men who are fit to teach others also, just as were the apostles? Why were twelve baskets filled? This was done both marvellously, because a great thing was done; and it was done profitably, because a spiritual thing was done. They who at the time saw it, marvelled; but we, hearing of it, do not marvel. For it was done that they might see it, but it was written that we might hear it. What the eyes were able to do in their case, that faith does in our case. We perceive, namely, with the mind, what we could not with the eyes: and we are preferred before them, because of us it is said, Blessed are they who see not, and yet believe. John 20:29 And I add that, perhaps, we have understood what that crowd did not understand. And we have been fed in reality, in that we have been able to get at the pith of the barley.

7. Lastly, what did those men who saw this miracle think? The men, says he, when they had seen the sign which He had done, said, This is indeed a prophet. Perhaps they still thought Christ to be a prophet for this reason, namely, that they were sitting on the grass. But He was the Lord of the prophets, the fulfiller of the prophets, the sanctifier of the prophets, but yet a prophet also: for it was said to Moses, I will raise up for them a prophet like you. Like, according to the flesh, but not according to the majesty. And that this promise of the Lord is to be understood concerning Christ Himself, is clearly expounded and read in the Acts of the Apostles. Acts 7:37 And the Lord says of Himself, A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country. John 4:44 The Lord is a prophet, and the Lord is God's Word, and no prophet prophesies without the Word of God: the Word of God is with the prophets, and the Word of God is a prophet. The former times obtained prophets inspired and filled by the Word of God: we have obtained the very Word of God for our prophet. But Christ is in such manner a prophet, the Lord of prophets, as Christ is an angel, the Lord of angels. For He is also called the Angel of great counsel. Nevertheless, what says the prophet elsewhere that not an ambassador, nor an angel, but Himself coming will save them; Isaiah 35:4 that is, He will not send an ambassador to save them, nor an angel, but Himself will come. Who will come? The Angel himself? Certainly not by an angel will He save them, except that He is so an angel, as also Lord of angels. For angels signify messengers. If Christ brought no message, He would not be called an angel: if Christ prophesied nothing, He would not be called a prophet. He has exhorted us to faith and to laying hold of eternal life; He has proclaimed something present, foretold something future because He proclaimed the present, thence He was an angel or messenger; because He foretold the future, thence He was a prophet; and that, as the Word of God He was made flesh, thence He was Lord of angels and of prophets.

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Source. Translated by John Gibb. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701024.htm>.

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