Chapter 3: Blessings
In This Chapter
(Feeding the 5000)
Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, Jesus blessed them and broke them and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd.
(Feeding the 4000)
And Jesus directed the crowd to sit down on the ground, and taking the seven loaves and giving thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples in order that they might set them before the people. And they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish, and having blessed the fish, he told the disciples to also set these before the people.
(At the Last Supper)
And while they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples saying, “Take, eat, this is my body.” And he took the cup, and after giving thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.
(After the resurrection; on the road to Emmaus with Cleopas and his companion)
And it happened that, as Jesus sat at the table with them [Cleopas and his companion], he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight.
A Quick Dip1
Blessed: The Gospel writers use two different Greek words to refer to Jesus’ prayers before meals. The first is eulogeo, which literally means “good words.” To speak good words to or about someone is to bless them. When Jesus says the blessing before each meal in these passages, he gives God thanks and praise for God’s blessing upon us: his life-sustaining gift of food.
The opposite of a blessing is a curse. Just as God has the power to bless, God also possesses the power to curse. God is not required to bless us daily with good gifts, yet he does because God himself is good. Imagine what our lives would be like if our God was not good, if he chose to curse us instead of bless us each day! Our appreciation of God’s blessings and God’s goodness is vital if we are to enjoy a strong relationship with him. Indeed, to refuse to thank God — to take our daily gifts of food and our many other blessings without gratefully acknowledging the Giver — is as spiteful an action as verbally cursing God.
Give thanks: The second word used to describe Jesus’ prayer at mealtimes is eucharisteo. The root word found in eucharisteo is charis, or joy. Joyful thanksgiving; heartfelt, overflowing gratitude — this is eucharisteo. It is interesting to note that the term Eucharist, used by some Christians in reference to Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper, comes from this Greek word.
- What is your custom of blessing at mealtimes? Do you repeat a traditional blessing? If so, what does it mean to you? What runs through your mind whenever you hear someone say a blessing?
- From the passages above, what do you observe about Jesus’ custom of blessing at mealtimes? How important do you suppose this was to Jesus? To the disciples? What do you suppose Jesus said whenever he blessed the food?
- When you give thanks to God, especially at mealtimes, do you experience that surge of gratitude and joy expressed by the word eucharisteo? What can you do to strengthen your feelings of gratitude toward God?
- Look carefully at the Luke 24 passage. What exactly do you think caused Cleopas and his companion to finally recognize Jesus (remember, they had spent the afternoon traveling and talking with him)?
Out of the twenty-four public prayers of Jesus found in the four Gospels, twelve (one-half) of these are prayers of thanksgiving. Ten of these twelve prayers record Jesus giving thanks for food at meals. In fact, the only prayer of Jesus to be found in all four Gospels is his prayer of thanksgiving before the feeding of the 5000. It is obvious, just from the numbers, that giving thanks to God was a priority in Jesus’ prayer life.
We will examine Jesus’ prayers of thanksgiving in the three chapters in this section. In this chapter, we will look specifically at Jesus’ blessings before meals. The gospel writers make note of Jesus’ mealtime prayers on four different occasions:
- the feeding of the 5000 (Matt 14:19, Mark 6:41, Luke 9:16, and John 6:11);
- the feeding of the 4000 (Matt 15:35 and Mark 8:6);
- the Last Supper (Matt 26:26, Mark 14:22, and Luke 22:17);
- Jesus’ meal with Cleopas and his companion after their encounter on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:30).
The Jewish Custom
In Jesus’ day, strict customs were established regarding the blessing at meals. No one was allowed to eat anything before the blessing was said. If a person was eating alone, she was to say the blessing privately; otherwise, the head of the household would say the prayer of blessing with a piece of bread in his hand. Everyone would respond by saying “Amen.” The head of the house would then break the bread and pass it around the table, first serving the one in the seat of honor at his right. This ritual signaled the beginning of the meal. When the meal was finished, another prayer of thanksgiving was offered for the food. Usually the guest of honor would be asked to say this blessing. The guest would take the “cup of blessing,” hold it up, and with his eyes on the cup, he would pronounce the final blessing. During Passover, the meal would contain additional blessings, several said over the cup at different times during the course of the feast.2
To the Israelite who understood that everything a person possessed came directly from the hand of the Creator, it was only natural to accept God’s blessing of food and drink with thanksgiving and praise. This awareness of God’s gifts and the proper response through prayer and worship were carefully observed by the Jewish people in Jesus’ day. Jesus himself embraced this practice of grace during meals — while rejecting other Jewish customs (pious Sabbath rules, hypocritical conduct by religious leaders, rules about hand washing). In the Gospels, every time Jesus touched food, he gave thanks. There is even evidence that Jesus added some kind of personal touch to his own blessing. For example, we see in our Luke 9:16 passage that Jesus broke tradition and looked up toward heaven in this prayer (normally the head of the household would bow his head during the blessing3), and in my mind at least, I can hear Jesus adding the name Abba to his blessing. It could also be that Jesus had a special way of handling the bread when he broke it. But there was something unique about Jesus’ blessing, something his followers must have seen and heard him do hundreds of times, because it was during the blessing and breaking of the bread that Cleopas and his companion finally recognized their risen Lord.
A Model for Us
Why was the blessing so important to Jesus? I think part of the importance goes back to what was just said: Jesus valued that ancient awareness of God as provider. Jesus’ prayers at mealtimes encourage us to remember, every day, that our nourishment, our health, our life — everything — comes from the hand of God. We must give thanks. It is our natural response.
However, when we look at the prayers preceding the feeding of the multitudes, we find that Jesus’ blessings contain more than words of thanks. Let’s look carefully at the passages from Luke 9 and Mark 8. Let us take a step back in time to a rocky hillside in a distant land. We are gathered with thousands of others to hear Jesus. Now it is late and everyone is growing hungry. Jesus turns to his followers and tells them to feed the crowd, but all the disciples can scrounge up are a few fish and some bread. At this point, Jesus instructs everyone to sit down in an orderly fashion, and then he prays. If we look closely, we notice that the words of Jesus’ prayers are not recorded by the Gospel writers. They only say that Jesus blessed or gave thanks for the food. Since no other words are recorded, it is safe to conclude that when Jesus picks up the food, he only offers up the traditional Jewish blessing: “Blessed be you, O Lord [or perhaps Abba] our God, King of the world, who has caused bread to come forth out of the earth.”4 Jesus does not ask for manna to fall down from heaven; he does not ask God to multiply the food. A prayer like that would have been recorded by the Gospel writers. No, Jesus simply prays a customary Jewish blessing, and that is all he prays. Thousands of people, a few loaves of bread, some small fish, and Jesus just says, “Thank you.” He doesn’t ask for more. Why not?
Because Jesus trusts that what his Daddy has already given him will be enough. Yes, Jesus’ blessing is more than a prayer of thanks. It is a prayer of trust.
This model prayer which is repeated six times in the Gospels raises some important questions for each of us: What kind of prayers do we customarily pray? Honestly, do we trust that what our Daddy has given us will be enough, or do we most often find ourselves asking for more? What do you and I usually do when we pray: do we give thanks or do we place an order?
Counting Every Blessing
Let’s not leave the hillside just yet. Look back at the Mark 8 passage where Jesus feeds the 4000. In this account of this miraculous feeding, the disciples bring Jesus seven loaves of bread. Jesus says the blessing, breaks the bread, and distributes it. A little later, the disciples return with some fish. Instead of saying, “Okay, pass those out, too,” Jesus stops, takes the fish, and blesses them as well. He does the same thing at the Last Supper; he blesses the bread and then a moment later he also gives thanks for the cup. The point I want to make here is this: Jesus stops to give thanks for each thing at these meals. Jesus is aware of and thankful for each specific blessing his Daddy has given him: the bread, the fish, the wine. We never hear Jesus say one of those blanket “thank you for everything” prayers.
Rick was a preschooler when his mother shared with me his special blessing at mealtimes. The family would bow their heads as Rick repeated their table blessing ending with, “Thank you for our daily bread.” But then Rick would always open his eyes, look around the table, and add, “And thank you for the chicken…and the carrots…and the broccoli…and the salt…and the pepper…and the tea. Amen.” Rick always thanked God for everything that was on the table. We laughed because it was cute. However, after studying Jesus’ blessings, I realized that Rick’s prayer wasn’t just cute. It was profound. It was a prayer Jesus himself would have prayed.
I decided to try using Rick’s prayer. I discovered that it can be a powerful thing to spend a moment before each meal and thank God for every gift that sits before me. Have you ever thanked God for salt? Have you ever eaten a meal without salt? (Give them both a try!) The point here is well-taken: if we can learn to count every blessing during our mealtimes, maybe we will then begin to count the many other blessings God bestows upon us throughout the day. And counting blessings can change lives.
An Attitude of Thanksgiving
Clay5 is a very unhappy man. He is seeing a counselor because his unhappiness has led to violent verbal outbursts that have put his marriage on the brink of disaster. Clay and his beautiful wife both have good jobs. They have two healthy, active children. Clay owns cars, trucks, boats, and a four-bedroom home. However, Clay’s friends have better trucks, bigger boats, vacation houses at the beach, and five-bedroom homes. It is difficult to understand, but when Clay looks at what he has, he does not see a single blessing. Instead, he feels cursed. His possessions are not enough; he wants more. Clay’s life is dominated by insecurity and anxiety, and he is in danger of losing his marriage, his children, his job, and even his health.
I wonder: What would happen to Clay if he sat down at the table and gave thanks for each blessing in front of him? What would happen to Clay if he served dinner at the soup kitchen, spent an evening at the homeless shelter, or visited the cancer ward at the children’s hospital? How would Clay’s life change if he could see blessings instead of curses? How would Clay’s life change if he would only learn to trust that what he has been given is enough?
An attitude of thanksgiving could change everything for Clay and his family — and for you and me as well. Think about the last time you complained about something or someone. Think about the last time you felt cursed. Maybe you wanted something: a piece of jewelry, a power tool, a better car. Maybe you wanted someone to behave differently: your boss, your spouse, your parent, your child. What would happen if, instead of feeling cursed, you could see God’s blessings? What would happen if, instead of complaining, you said a prayer of thanksgiving? What would happen if, instead of wanting more, you realized that what you already had was enough?
Jesus invites us to look for the blessings in our lives and then to give thanks for each one of them. During the next few days try this: go out to your solitary place and do nothing but give thanks to God. Just count your blessings — the big ones and the small ones. Try to thank God for each thing he has ever done for you and each thing that he has ever given you. You might even want to make a list. If you are like me, this may take longer than just a few days, but it is definitely worth your time. Why? Because such a prayer of thanksgiving could completely change the way you see your life.
Before we close this chapter, let us return once more to that rocky hillside where we chew our bread and fish, pondering the example that Jesus has set before us. You know, Jesus spent so much time thanking God that his eyes could see only blessings. There were 5000 people on a hillside. The disciples, after counting the crowd, looked at five loaves of bread and two fish and saw a tremendous shortage. Jesus, on the other hand, looked at the same crowd, the same loaves, the same fish, and saw God’s abundant grace. Yes, Jesus always trusted that he had been given enough. More than enough, actually. Remember, after feeding the 5000, the disciples collected twelve baskets of food; after feeding the 4000, they collected seven baskets. Why ask for more when we have already been given enough? Why place an order when all we really need to say is, “Thank you”?
Chapter 3 Footnotes
1 The original Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic words referred to in this section are listed in the Appendix, found in the free PDF download.
2 H. Beyer, TDNT 2:760–61.
3 Beyer, TDNT 2:762.
4 Beyer, TDNT 2:760.
5 This name has been changed.