Gospel Reading: Mark 6:30-44
A number of years ago, I got though Christmas and ran out of steam. Someone who cared provided us with some days of vacation at the Outerbanks. Susan and I spent some cold days walking the beach and recharging our batteries. Sometimes, when you go and go, you need a vacation.
The twelve disciples came back from a tour of proclaiming the kingdom in the towns and villages of Galilee. They reported to Jesus on their mission. One of the effects of the stir Jesus caused by His ministry, and of the interest stirred by the ministry of the disciples, was that people were constantly coming and going as they sought out Jesus and His disciples. The disciples became so busy that they could not even find time to eat. Jesus saw the effects of ministry on His disciples and said to them. “Come way by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.”
They went, but the vacation did not happen. People saw them get in the boat and set out on the Sea of Galilee to travel to a desolate place. Word spread that they were on the lake and where they were going. So people came spilling out of the towns. When Jesus and the disciples arrived at their destination, they were met by thousands of people.
I. The Compassion of Jesus
As the boat that carried Jesus and the apostles drew near the shore, Jesus could see the multitude scattered along the hill. When they got to shore, the crowd likely came running helter-skelter down the hill the landing place.
Jesus response was not one of frustration and irritation over a lost opportunity for Him and His disciples to get a much-needed rest. For Jesus people were more important than plans. What Jesus experienced as He saw the people was compassion. We have talked about this word compassion before. It describes an emotion that is not shallow, but very deep. When a person experiences the emotion of compassion, he very often feels it physically deep inside himself. Compassion is never a mere feeling, however strong. It always leads to some form of action to relieve the needs that cause the compassion. Compassion was so characteristic of Jesus and its true nature so perfectly revealed in Him that in the New Testament the only subject for the verb form is Jesus, except for some parables where the main character represents the Father or the Son.
Why did Jesus experience compassion for the people on this occasion? It was “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Sheep without a shepherd have no one to care for them, lead them, provide for them, and protect them. So they are exposed to the dangers of the terrain, the dangers of predators, and the dangers of their own foolishness.
Why were the sheep in this condition? We can discover two reasons in the Gospel of Mark. First, the political system failed them. Last week we talked about the tetrarch of Galilee, Herod. He was not able to give any leadership to the people, because he and those around him were so thoroughly morally corrupt. They did not have a trustworthy and righteous leader to follow. More importantly, the ecclesiastical system had failed them. The priests and the scribes were supposed to instruct the people in a true understanding of the Old Testament so that the people might know God and the ways that God called upon them to live. But these religious leaders were themselves blind to the truth and not worthy of being emulated. The men who should have shepherded God’s people did not.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the shepherd who is everything a shepherd of people should be. He cares for the sheep. He will feed them with spiritual food, lead them to refreshing spiritual waters, protect them from spiritual pitfalls and predators and their own foolish hearts. He will have compassion on them. He will “gather the young lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young” (Isaiah 40:11). But He will also lead them. Sheep need leadership as much as they need caring. Sometimes the very for “to shepherd” can be translated “to govern.” One commentator on this passage goes to far but does make a point when he says of the word shepherd: “…a pastoral connotation is not its primary connotation in the Jewish tradition. As a metaphor the shepherd of the sheep was a common figure of speech in Israel for a leader like Moses, or more often for Joshua-like military hero…” (Edwards, p. 191). The point we must remember is that Jesus sees the people as sheep “who lack order, discipline and leadership” (Ferguson, p. 92). The Bible’s view is that God’s people will always wander away and get off track unless they have faithful leaders willing to lead in the paths of righteousness. Jesus is the Shepherd who cares and who leads. If we ask how Jesus does this today, the New Testament leaves no doubt. Jesus shepherds His people through ministers and elders, through teaching elders and ruling elders.
What did Jesus’ compassion lead Him first to do? “And he began to teach them many things.” For Jesus this was always the first thing in priority. Most of the time in Mark’s Gospel He seems almost hesitant to do miracles and usually tries to keep word of the miracles from spreading. Yet He always was ready to preach and teach, and he never forbad anyone’s spreading the word of His message of the Kingdom. Jesus seems to have taught for many hours. Probably He and the disciples arrived on shore in the morning and late that afternoon He was still teaching. The church today hears many things about how it should conduct its life and ministry, locally, regionally, and internationally. But, if we would follow Jesus we must always remember that the first act of compassion and the first priority of ministry are always the preaching and the teaching of the Word.
II. The Concern of the Disciples
As the day wore on and the evening approached, the disciples became concerned and approached Jesus. They 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.” These were practical men. Several had been in the fishing business and one had been a tax collector. They understood the way people are, and the way things work in this world, and they were thinking ahead. They could see that night was approaching and with it the time when Jews ate their main meal of the day. If Jesus kept on teaching and the people kept on staying and listening, soon they would lose daylight, and the thousands in the crowd would have had nothing to eat. They were far from home, and they would have no choice but to try to make their way back to their own towns and villages in the dark and without food. The wise and practical thing to do was to send them away now. But Jesus did not do as His disciples asked. Have you ever noticed that, what often seems to us to be the obviously practical and only thing to do is not what Jesus chooses?
Jesus challenged His apostles, “You give them something to eat.” This flabbergasted them. What was Jesus doing? They replied, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” Two hundred denarii was a lot of money to the common folks. A day laborer usually earned about one denarius a day. Two hundred denarii represented two hundred days’ work. Subtracting the Sabbaths when they did not work it represented more than 10 months of work. Surely the disciples collectively did not have that much among them. If they did, where would they go to buy that much bread to bring back before dark? And would it make good sense to spend the money in that way.
Why did Jesus tell them to feed the people? I think He was doing two things. First, He was telling them that they needed to consider what He might have them do when confronted by a situation of need. Sometimes we discover lots of things that need to happen. In fact, I sometimes find that I am just great at finding problems and needs and pointing them out. I am, however, not nearly so good at trying to figure out how to respond. Perhaps we find ourselves saying things like, “The choir could use more sopranos,” and Jesus says, “You sing.” Or, we sure do need some good Sunday School teachers,” and the Lord says, “Why don’t you teach?” Or, this church needs a better children’s program, and the Lord says, “Why don’t you volunteer to coordinate it?” Or, “I sure wish our missions committee had more money to spend on missions,” and He says, “Why don’t you be the first to give it?”
But the other thing Jesus was doing was showing them the utter inadequacy of human resources. He sent them to find out what was available that might feed the crowd. When they reported to Him on the resources available, the news was not encouraging. There were only two fish, dried or salted, and five loaves of bread, with loaves in those days being about the size of a dinner roll. To any reasonable eye, the resources were not enough, and now it made even more sense to send the crowd away. Jesus wanted them to see just how hopeless the situation was when it was looked at from the point of view of human resources and ability. Our trouble is that we are very used to seeing the resources, and therefore we forget that without the Lord’s help, without His intervention, it’s always hopeless in the life of the kingdom. That’s the very reason it is necessary for the Lord to put us in desperate circumstances, so that He can teach us to depend on Him and to look to Him to do more than we are able. It is not that the Lord means for us to expect or demand miracles, but rather that He wants us to learn to walk not by sight but by faith, to rely on Him, and to believe that He is adequate.
III. The Competency of Jesus
When the disciples had taken stock of the available resources, He began to show His competency as a shepherd. Unlike the shepherds who had not cared for the sheep, or led them, or fed them Jesus is the true and good Shepherd. Jesus is a shepherd like Moses had been in the wilderness, like David the shepherd had been as King. But He is more. God had promised that, because of all the false and failed shepherds, He Himself would shepherd His people. Jesus is God come to shepherd the flock – to gather the scattered sheep, to care for the neglected sheep, to lead the disorderly sheep, to feel the starving sheep.
Jesus first commanded the whole crowd to sit down in groups in groups. It was springtime, and they sat down on the green grass of the hills in groups and in groups of fifties and hundreds. Now this is more than one of the details of the passage, and more even than a convenient way to distribute the food that Jesus is going to provide. Remember that earlier we said that one of the primary functions of the shepherd is to lead the sheep so that they are orderly and well-disciplined. One of the really important things that Moses did as Israel’s first shepherd was to divide the Israelites into groups under leaders. Jesus shows, by putting the multitude into orderly groups, that as the Good Shepherd He, too, was concerned for the order and discipline of His people.
Sheep do not necessarily like it that the shepherd keeps them in good order. Some of them would like to wander off in their own ways. But their welfare depends on the discipline of the Shepherd. The way that Jesus today keeps His flock in good order is by giving it elders who serve under Him. In our congregation our elders have divided the whole congregation into groups called K-Groups, so they can more effectively care for the flock. Don’t be suspicious of or reject the leadership of the elders, but rejoice in their leadership, As the writer of Hebrews says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls, as those who have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17).
Jesus then took the five loaves and two fish, and “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.” Jesus was fulfilling the role of the Jewish father at the meal. The father would give thanks, and then distributes the food among the family members. Again we see Jesus as the Good Shepherd, who with the love of a father for his children, sets before them the example of acknowledging God as the Giver of every provision and who then gives the food to his waiting family. But there is more. As the Shepherd who surpasses every other shepherd, Jesus is giving the people a sign, and promise, and taste of something to come. The Jews were expecting at the end of the age a great Messianic feast where all God’s people will gather and rejoice and feast in the glory of the Kingdom of God now finally and fully come. He is saying to them, “I am the One who has come to bring the kingdom, to redeem God’s people, and to usher in the age when the people of God will feast forevermore in His presence.” For those who had the eyes, or shall we say, the faith to see, this meal was a glorious sight of what is to come because Jesus came into this world to lay down His life for His sheep, and to gather them into one flock, and to lead them to the great eternal Feast that is guaranteed to all who trust in Him.
Practicing Christians may hear a hint of something else in this account as Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks the bread, and distributes it. They will hear echoes of the language of the Lord’s Supper, and rightly so. Our Good Shepherd has provided us with a Feast in the wilderness of this world and this life. It is the Communion service, when we look back to all Jesus did to accomplish our redemption and when we look forward to the day when He will come again. Now we eat in anticipation of the day when we, too, will sit down with Jesus in the Feast of the Kingdom, and eat in perfect fellowship and be forever satisfied.
When Jesus gave the bread and fish to the disciples, they distributed the food to the multitude sitting in groups on the grass. As they passed out the food, there was enough for everybody. Not only was there enough, but every person ate till He was full. There was so much food that when everyone had taken as much as he wanted, they collected the leftovers. To the Jews food was a precious gift of God, not to be taken for granted, so they collected the leftovers. There was so much left over that twelve baskets were filled. This food could then be given to the poor to help to meet their needs.
Some, who have trouble believing in miracles, call this a great miracle of sharing. They think many people had food, and they were moved to share with one another. But this miracle is presented to us as a miracle of multiplication – five loaves and two fish were multiplied to feed five thousand men. Jesus is showing the people that He is the One who, like Moses, provides food in the wilderness. Only He is greater than Moses, for Moses could only tell the people to collect the manna that fell in the wilderness, while Jesus actually made the food the people ate. He wants us to see Him as our Provider. Sometimes it is hard to trust Him to provide, but He can and does, and we should learn not to be anxious about food and drink, but to trust Him to give us what we need.
More importantly He wants us to know that He gives the bread of heaven, which ultimately is not material but spiritual. According to John many missed the point. When they saw Jesus could miraculously provide food, they wanted to take Him by force and make Him king. Some will always get hung up on the miracles and the bread, because they do not understand what they need and what Jesus came to give – Himself, the living bread that came down our of heaven.
Jesus is here with us today to give us this bread, if we want it and will receive it. Even now in this service and in this preaching the Lord Jesus is here to feed all who are hungry with Himself, the bread of heaven. Take it, eat it, and be satisfied.