Summary: In feeding the 5,000, Jesus sets a pattern for his disciples’ future ministry.
Feeding the 5,000
Jesus’ miracles are commonly understood to prove his divinity. And without a doubt many of the miracles that Jesus performed were signs intended to validate his identity and his mission. We can think, for example, of the first miracles recorded in Mark’s gospel. They were clearly designed to draw attention to the identity and mission of Jesus. One in particular – Jesus’ healing of the leper at the end of Mark chapter one – was intended by Jesus as a sign to the Temple authorities, for he told the cleansed leper to go to the Temple and to offer the sacrifice Moses commanded, as a testimony to the priests there.
But, other miracles Jesus performed had a much smaller audience. Sometimes, it would appear that the miracles were intended only for his inner circle of disciples. The Twelve. And this would appear to be the point of Mark’s record of the feeding of the 5,000.
Let’s first look at the challenge facing the disciples, a challenge that set the stage for the feeding of the 5,000.
Earlier in this fourth chapter of Mark’s gospel, he recorded that Jesus had sent out his disciples in pairs to preach the gospel. In verse 12 Mark wrote “12 So they went out and preached that people should repent. 13 And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them.”
Now, when Jesus had done these very things in the first chapter of Mark, he had created quite a stir. He began to attract large crowds. Most of them were sick or friends and family of those who were sick, or demon possessed. Many others were hoping Jesus was the Messiah who was going to throw off the Roman yoke. And, so when Jesus disciples go out into the villages and hamlets of Judea, it is no big surprise that they too generate a lot of interest.
The gospel lesson for today begins at the moment they return from their preaching and teaching ministry.
30 Then the apostles gathered to Jesus and told Him all things, both what they had done and what they had taught. 31 And He said to them, “Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” For there were many coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat. 32 So they departed to a deserted place in the boat by themselves.
I don’t know anyone who has ever waded into Christian ministry in any serious way that does not recognize this scene. It was abundantly displayed just a week ago here when at the Men at Worship conference. Many coming and going, particularly those who were making the conference proceed smoothly, and “they did not even have time to eat” points to the essence of the trial for those who serve as Jesus’ ministers. The Lord Himself is sympathetic to the stresses and strains, and he offers them a source of relief which he resorted to a number of times during his own ministry – to go off to a deserted place.
But, things don’t quite work out as Jesus and the disciples expected. “33 But the multitudes saw them departing, and many knew Him and ran there on foot from all the cities. They arrived before them and came together to Him.” Mark doesn’t tell us how the crowds knew where they were headed, but it Jesus and the disciples were landing where there was some kind of harbor, or landing for boats, then it wouldn’t have been rocket science to anticipate where they might be heading. And, if guess work were involved, it was a guess that proved accurate. For when the boat with Jesus and the disciples lands, and Jesus steps off the boat, he “saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd.”
That phrase "like sheep without a shepherd" comes from the Old Testament. When Moses was dying he commissioned his protégé Joshua to lead Israel, and Numbers 27:17 says that he did this so the people of Israel wouldn’t be like sheep without a shepherd. In 1 Kings 22:17, an obscure prophet named Micaiah says, "I saw all Israel scatted on the hills like sheep without a shepherd." The prophet Ezekiel speaks of Israel being scattered "because there was no shepherd" (Ezek 34:4). In Jesus’ day, that’s what the crowd was looking for: A leader who could mobilize them to rid themselves of Roman tyranny. But Jesus sees the crowd as needy and aimless, without direction or guidance.
So, what does Jesus do? He does two things: he teaches them. “So He began to teach them many things,” Mark writes. And, then it was getting late, and his disciples remind Jesus of an uncomfortable fact. “This is a deserted place,” they remind him. And, now a new problem arises – there is no provision for them to eat. And, so Jesus performs the miracle, taking five loaves and two fish and multiplying them until everyone has eaten. And there is an abundance of leftovers after everyone has had their fill.