Week of January 7, 2018
The Point: Jesus cares and meets the needs in our lives.
Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand: Mark 6:34-44.
 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.  And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late.  Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”  But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?”  And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.”  Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass.  So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties.  And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all.  And they all ate and were satisfied.  And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish.  And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men. [ESV]
“The apostles had a problem. They seemed to forget almost as much as they learned from Jesus, especially in the early days of their discipleship. There is a notable example of this in this passage where Jesus feeds the five thousand. This is one of Jesus’ most famous miracles – one of only two miracles to appear in all four Gospels (the other is the resurrection). Everyone knows the story, but people do not always remember the context. The apostles had just completed their internship, so to speak. They had been preaching the kingdom and healing people all over Galilee – an amazing experience of God’s power and provision in ministry. Now it was time for the disciples to go on a retreat and report on their short-term mission trip. They must have been exhausted. What they needed most was time away with Jesus. Jesus and His disciples were hoping to enjoy a little privacy, away from the public eye, but they could not escape for long [see Mark 6:31-34]. This is a powerful witness to the compassion of Christ and His servant-hearted ministry. The hordes of people that followed Jesus were invading His privacy and disturbing His rest. Most people would have been tempted to ask them to come back later, or to send them away altogether. But Jesus welcomed all comers. He was willing to be inconvenienced and interrupted, as long as He had an opportunity to preach the kingdom and perform its miracles. The way Jesus welcomed these people reminds us that we can go to Him at any time; He will listen to our cry for help. It also sets the pattern for our own ministry. Even when we are tired and weary, wanting to take a break from other people and their problems, we need to be ready to give them the gospel and to help them in any practical way we can. Jesus was always ready to receive people in need, and when He received them, He was always able to help them. This is a powerful testimony to His grace. There is hope for everyone in Jesus, because He is able to save anyone who comes to Him for help. This is as true for us spiritually as it was for the crowds medically. By the power of His grace, Jesus is able to forgive our sins, renew our spirits, and comfort our sorrows. He is able to touch the wounded places in our hearts and make us whole. All of this provides the background to a very practical difficulty. It was getting late in the afternoon and the disciples became concerned about feeding all these people. They wondered where everyone would get something to eat, not to mention a place to stay. They were out in a remote area, far from anything resembling a roadside hotel, and it was hard to imagine where so many people could find room and board. Apparently the disciples were thinking about others, but the way they approached Jesus seems a little suspect. They were hungry too, and one wonders how much this had to do with their request, especially since it was more like a demand. Basically, the disciples told Jesus to get rid of the crowds. That way, everyone else could look after their own needs, while the disciples had Jesus all to themselves. But there were some things that they were forgetting and needed to remember.
Jesus Tests His Disciples. Jesus responded with a demand of His own. It was a test of their fitness for ministry – the final exam for their internship. Jesus said to His disciples, You give them something to eat . This was a command, not a question. But what are we to make of it? Was Jesus serious, or not? Maybe He was trying to get the disciples to recognize their own inadequacy. On this interpretation, He wanted them to see that they were unable to give people something to eat, in the hope that they would remember to depend on Him to supply whatever was needed. This may be the right interpretation, but there is another one that we should at least consider. The statement Jesus made was emphatic, and the emphasis fell on the word you. Jesus was putting the onus on the apostles. They were the ones who noticed what the people needed, and who wanted to send them away to get it. They were also the ones who had a responsibility to provide. Jesus was insistent: “You feed them!” Here it helps to remember the context. The apostles had just completed a short-term missions trip on which they had performed many miracles. Could it be that in the name of Christ, they also had the power to feed the hungry? We will never know, because the disciples never obeyed Christ’s command. Instead, they said that they were powerless to help: shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread? The very idea sounded absurd, especially when we learn that there were about five thousand men, not including women or children. How could the disciples provide food for so many people? All they had was five loaves and two little fish. Nor did they have the money to buy what was needed. The only reason the disciples even mentioned the idea of buying groceries was to show how impossible it was, and perhaps to show how ridiculous it was for Jesus even to suggest such a thing. The trouble with the disciples was that they were looking at things from a merely human perspective. They were acting like men without a God, thinking only in terms of what they had on hand and what they had the ability to provide from their own resources, not considering the power and the providence of their God. The disciples were forgetting that they had a God, not remembering His power to provide. At the very least, they should have asked Jesus to supply what they were unable to give. To be sure, the disciples had never seen this kind of miracle before. Jesus had been unveiling His powers gradually, healing one person at a time. He had not yet demonstrated His divine power to give people the bread of life. So we can understand why the disciples did not anticipate this miracle in advance. Yet by now they should have learned to expect the unexpected from Jesus, and to ask for His help whenever things were humanly impossible. The feeding of the five thousand reminds us not to forget that God is not limited by our inadequacies. Rather, our very limitations can display the glory and the grace of Jesus Christ whenever He does what we are unable to do: His power is made perfect in our weakness [2 Cor. 12:9]. In this particular case, what God did was to make a miraculous provision, through His Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ. Jesus commanded all the people to sit down. And, after blessing the five loaves and two fish, He had the disciples pass the food out to the crowd. Everyone was astounded. Most Christians have heard this story so often that we forget how utterly amazed the people must have been. The tense of the Greek verb indicates that Jesus kept breaking and breaking the bread. The more He broke it, the more there was for everyone to eat, until finally everyone was satisfied. Five loaves were multiplied to feed five thousand. The feeding of the five thousand was truly a miracle. This may seem obvious, but it needs to be said, because people sometimes deny the miracles of Christ, and this miracle has been treated with as much skepticism as any of the others. What some people doubt is that Jesus had the power to do anything that went beyond the ordinary laws of nature, as this miracle obviously did. By multiplying the loaves and fishes, Jesus was making new matter, which the skeptic says can neither be created nor destroyed. So what really happened? Skeptics often say that everybody shared. They were so inspired by the person who contributed the five loaves and the two fish that they all opened their bags and began to share whatever they had. The real miracle, some people say, was a miracle of generosity. Such an interpretation robs Jesus of His glory. Curiously, it also requires nearly as much faith as it takes to believe in the miracle itself. Where would people who ran after Jesus on the spur of the moment get so much food? If they had brought their own food, then why were the disciples worried about them? And what would be the point of passing it all in and then having Jesus pass it all out again? The real difficulty, however, is that a merely natural explanation contradicts what we read in the four Gospels. The Bible gives four different accounts of what happened that day – two that come directly from eyewitnesses (Matthew and John) – and they all agree on the basic events. Jesus did this miracle out in the open, where everyone could see it. To their complete astonishment, people saw Jesus give them more and more food from the same five loaves and the same two fish. It was so impossible that none of them could explain it, but none of them could deny it either: it was a real miracle.
The Meaning of the Miracle. The most obvious meaning of this miracle is that God will provide. As He provided for His people in the wilderness, so He will provide for us – not in the same miraculous way, perhaps, but by the same powerful grace. We need to remember this because sometimes we are tempted to forget. God has promised to provide for our needs, both as the church and as individual Christians. He will give us our daily bread, providing food, clothing, and shelter. He will meet our needs for friendship and fellowship. He will give us the guidance that we seek in faith. He will provide a way for us to serve Him. And when God gives us the opportunity to serve, He will give us all the resources we need to fulfill our calling. We are not limited by what we have on hand, or by what we are able to provide for ourselves, we are enabled by the power and providence of God. God’s provision is abundant. The disciples kept going back to Jesus for more food, and every time they went back, there was always more. Even after everyone was fully and finally satisfied, there was still more left over: twelve full baskets of broken pieces. In other words, there was one basket of leftovers for each and every disciple. This was a powerful object lesson in the abundance of God’s grace. The weight of those baskets would help the disciples remember that Jesus had provided far more than they ever expected. Every time God meets our needs, we should savor the abundance of His provision, so that the next time we find ourselves in need, we do not forget to trust in Him. Even if we have learned this lesson before, there are times when we need to learn it all over again. God has provided for us in the past, and He can be trusted to provide for us again in the future. How long will His provision continue? All through life, and then on through eternity. When we think of the feeding of the five thousand, we probably think first of material provision. That is not the only meaning of this miracle, however. Jesus really did meet the material needs of the people who listened to Him preach, and unless He did, there is nothing else for us to learn from this miracle. The only God who can help us is a God who is able to provide. Nevertheless, meeting people’s physical needs was not the miracle’s only purpose. Like all of His miracles, the feeding of the five thousand teaches us even deeper truths about the person and work of Jesus Christ. To begin with, the miracle testifies to the deity of Jesus Christ. Just as God had provided daily manna in the days of Moses, so now once again God was providing bread in the wilderness, in the person of His Son. What else does this miracle teach? The power of prayer. The feeding of the five thousand teaches us to trust God for what we need, not worrying about how we will get it, but asking God to provide. Here Jesus is our great example. The disciples were anxious about where people could get some food. But Jesus was not worried at all; He simply prayed. Thanking God, Jesus looked up to heaven and said a blessing. In contrast to His disciples, who were only looking at the difficulties of their situation, Jesus looked to His Father in heaven, depending upon His grace. We can turn in the same direction. Through faith in Jesus Christ, we are sons and daughters of our Father in heaven. Now, whenever we find ourselves in any need, we remember to turn to our Father in prayer, trusting Him to provide. Then we turn to Him again in thanksgiving, as Jesus did, blessing Him for our daily bread. This miracle also shows that we have a part to play in the work that Jesus is doing on earth. Jesus was the one who broke the bread, but He gave it to His disciples to distribute. Of course Jesus could have handled the distribution Himself. If He had the power to produce the bread, then obviously He had the power to pass it out as well. Instead He gave them to the disciples to set before the people. Earlier Jesus told the disciples to give the people something to eat, and now they were doing it. They could not provide the food themselves; only Jesus could do that. But there were some things that they could do. They could recognize people’s needs; they could give Jesus what they had – the loaves and the fish; and they could give away what Jesus provided. Thus the people would be fed through their ministry. This miracle is virtually a parable for Christian ministry. From time to time we see what people need, spiritually and otherwise. Whatever we have to give is woefully inadequate, but we offer our time and our talents, the best that we are able to give. Then Jesus takes it, and by the supernatural power of His grace, He uses it to help people. He also uses us in the process, so that we join in the work of His kingdom. This is what the apostles experienced in the early church. God gave them gifts of preaching, prayer, and evangelism. In their own strength they would have accomplished nothing, even for all their gifts. But they offered themselves in ministry to the service of Jesus Christ, and by the provision of His grace, they were able to spread the gospel all over the world. We need to remember that we have the same privilege today. God is using us to teach His Word, share the gospel, and demonstrate the love of Christ through deeds of mercy. Even if we do not feel that we have very much to offer, God can multiply our ministry. We must never forget to give what we have for the work of God’s kingdom, and then ask God to use it for the glory of Jesus Christ.” [Ryken, pp. 432-443].
Questions for Discussion:
- Focus on the context of this miracle. What is Jesus attempting to do as the crowds follow Him? What does this tell us about His compassion for the people? What example does Jesus give us when we are tired but presented with an opportunity to minister to the needs of others? What does this miracle tell us about who Jesus is? What do we learn from this miracle? Do you trust God to provide for your needs?
- What do we learn about the disciples in this passage? What had the apostles just completed [6:30]? Can you imagine the “spiritual high” they must have felt after completing their mission so successfully? Remember “spiritual highs” you have experienced in your service to God. But, now in this passage, what are the disciples doing? How can they doubt Jesus after just experiencing the power of God in their lives [6:13]? But don’t we do the same thing? After experiencing some “spiritual high”, do we meet the next problem or trial with doubt rather than trust? Pray that God will enable us to keep our eyes upon Jesus rather than our circumstances.
- Ryken writes: “The feeding of the five thousand reminds us not to forget that God is not limited my our inadequacies.” How do you deal with the inadequacies in your life? Do you see them as a reason to give up and move on to some other task? Or do you see them as an opportunity for God to display His power and glory in the midst of your weakness [2 Cor. 12:9]?
The Gospel According to Mark, James Edwards, Eerdmans.
Luke, vol. 1, Philip Ryken, REC, P & R Publishing.
Mark, Robert Stein, ECNT, Baker.
Mark, Mark Strauss, Zondervan.