Jun 4, 2006

Feeding of the Five Thousand

Mark 6:30–44

The Lord is never lacking in His provision for our needs. Continuing his exposition of Mark’s gospel, R.C. Sproul shows that Christ came to satisfy the deepest hunger of our souls.


This morning, we continue our study of the gospel according to Saint Mark, and we will read Mark’s version of the feeding of the five thousand, found in Mark 6:30–44. I ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

Then the apostles gathered to Jesus and told Him all things, both what they had done and what they had taught. 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. So they departed to a deserted place in the boat by themselves.

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. And Jesus, when He came out, saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd. So He began to teach them many things. When the day was now far spent, His disciples came to Him and said, “This is a deserted place, and already the hour is late. Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat.”

But He answered and said to 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 them something to eat?”

But He said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.”

And when they found out they said, “Five, and two fish.”

Then He commanded them to make them all sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in ranks, in hundreds and in fifties. And when He had taken the five loaves and the two fish, He looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and the two fish He divided among them all. So they all ate and were filled. And they took up twelve baskets full of fragments and of the fish. Now those who had eaten the loaves were about five thousand men.

Beloved, this is the unvarnished truth of God. If you have ears to hear it, then listen. You may be seated. Let us pray.

Our Father, we come this morning to be fed from your Word, to be fed from the table of our Lord. When you feed us, O God, we are always satisfied. Amen.

Theories of Unbelief

In the nineteenth century, we saw the development of a school of theology known as the religious historical school, sometimes described as “historical liberalism.” It was a definite anti-supernatural movement from beginning to end. Its impact spilled over to the twentieth century with neo-liberalism, and now into the twenty-first century with the advent of the Jesus Seminar.

This school attacked every narrative found in Scripture, particularly the New Testament, that involved a miracle or the supernatural because the tacit assumption of the critics was that there is no such thing as divine, supernatural intervention in history. So, they took it upon themselves to explain a more “natural” interpretation of texts like the one we are looking at this morning. They would not ask us to stretch our imagination to believe in miracles. Some of their explanations ranged from the bizarre to the ridiculous.

When I was in high school in Pittsburgh, our minister taught us that what happened at the feeding of the five thousand was one of two things, and he received both explanations from the religious historical school of scholars. The worst interpretation was that Jesus had carefully prepared for this event by the devious means of filling a cave near the Sea of Galilee with foodstuffs. Jesus had a flowing robe with loose sleeves, much as you might see with the attire of a magician. He had His disciples hidden in the cave behind Him, and they formed a bucket brigade of sorts, passing loaves and fishes up through the back of His robe, which He then distributed to the mass of humanity gathered there. So, there was no miraculous intervention by God, but rather a hoax perpetrated by a fraudulent preacher. That was one explanation.

My pastor’s favorite explanation was that when Jesus finished His teaching that day, the people were tired, they were hungry, and very few of them had thought forward enough to bring food for their nourishment. So, Jesus asked His disciples to go around and find out who had brought food, and some of the people were prepared. Some had brought fish. Some had brought loaves. Jesus then addressed the multitude and said, “Share what you have one with another.” So, everyone was able to eat because those who brought food shared with those who did not. The true miracle that took place here was an ethical miracle—the miracle of human beings sharing their provisions one with another.

One commentator in the twentieth century said that what these theories manifest is simply unbelief. This is not what the text sets before us, so we are going to look and see what the text itself declares.

Two Feasts

Let me remind you that the event in our text takes place after the execution of John the Baptist, which was sandwiched between the commissioning of the Twelve to the villages around the Sea of Galilee for their first trial missionary journey, where Jesus authorized them and empowered them to be involved in the ministry. That narrative is interrupted by the story of the execution of John the Baptist. Now, as we come to this text, the disciples have returned from their missionary outreach to the villages in the region.

Before we look at what happened, let me introduce this by pointing out that we have consecutive accounts of dramatic feasts. The first feast was hosted by Herod Agrippa; the second feast was hosted by Jesus. At the first feast, only the nobles and the elite of the territory were invited. At the second feast, it was the am ha’aretz, the people of the land, the commoners, who gathered on the plain to be fed through the provisions set forth by Jesus.  At the first feast, the food was prepared by gourmet chefs. At the second feast, it was prepared by the hand of the Messiah. At the first feast, there was exotic entertainment and dancing. At the second feast, the first item of order was the exposition of the truth of God by the Son of God. Finally, we note this difference: the highlight of Herod’s feast was the bloody execution of a man of God, but at Jesus’ feast there were no executions, only compassion made manifest in a miracle of feeding. With that contrast in view, let us look at the text.

Compassion for the Crowds

The disciples, who were now Apostles, temporarily at least, came back to Jesus and told Him all about their journeys. He said to them: “Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest awhile. I’m glad to hear what transpired on your mission, but let’s go away from the multitudes and crowds, back to a quiet place, a solitary place, where we can be alone together and talk about these things.” This calls to mind the traditional situation throughout the whole Bible where the meeting place between God and His prophets was in the wilderness.

So, Jesus said: “Let’s get away from the cities, away from the villages. Let’s go out and be alone, just among ourselves with God.” As they tried to find a solitary place, Mark tells us that many were coming and going, and the crowd was so great that the disciples did not even have time to eat. So, they departed to a wilderness place in the boat by themselves.

Most likely, Jesus and the disciples were on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. They did not get in the boat and go fifteen or twenty miles all the way across the sea. If that were the case, the crowds would never have been able to make that distance so quickly and be waiting for Jesus and His disciples on the opposite shore. Rather, it is much more likely that the boat was going along the shore, either to the north or south a short distance, trying to find a quiet place.

The huge crowd was stirred up by not only the reputation of Jesus but also by the disciples going to each village and each city round about. Huge crowds came out of those places to follow the disciples as well as Jesus. They saw Jesus and the disciples get in the boat, they saw which direction they were heading, and they could watch them from shore. So, they ran as fast as they could on the ground to keep up with Jesus and the disciples, so when Jesus and the disciples turned the boat toward the shore, the people knew, and they beat them to the shore.

The crowds arrived and came together before Jesus and the disciples. And Jesus, when He came out of the boat, saw the great multitude and was moved with compassion for them. Notice that Jesus was not frustrated. He was not annoyed because what He wanted to do had just been interrupted by what the mobs wanted Him to do. They were not concerned to allow Him privacy to go away and be alone with His disciples. They wanted Him for themselves. Jesus could have said: “You are going to have to make an appointment. I’m sorry, but I must spend this time with My disciples, and you are not invited.” But instead, Jesus was moved by compassion.

The word used here in the Greek text for “compassion” is only used to describe Jesus—not anyone else—in all the New Testament. This was a compassion that reached a level far deeper than human concern and empathy for people in pain.

The Shepherd Feeds the Sheep

What sparked this profound compassion in Jesus? He looked at the great multitude and said, “They’re like sheep without a shepherd.” That is what He saw. He saw people running. He saw people determined to get to a certain point, but they had no idea why they were doing what they were doing. They were rushing aimlessly. They were moving without any real understood purpose. They were like sheep without a shepherd.

Have you ever seen a flock of sheep without a shepherd? I will never forget the time when I was playing golf and a herd of sheep came from the fields next door. They started running all over the fairway, interrupting the golf game. Nobody knew where they were going to go. They would go this way and that way, and one would turn in the other direction, and the next group would follow them. They were everywhere, blind it seemed, aimless, sheep without a shepherd.

When Jesus saw people acting like that, He was not angry; He felt sorry for them: “These people need a shepherd.” I love the image that goes through the Old Testament with many of the prophecies of the coming Messiah who was to be the Shepherd-King, who was to be the Good Shepherd, who will be the One who lays down His life for His sheep. In His compassion, the Good Shepherd looked at the human beings in the crowd acting like sheep without a shepherd, and He wanted to address their need immediately. So, He began to teach them.

The primary office of the pastor in the New Testament church is to feed the sheep. We live in a time when churches have become weak because people demand the pastor do everything but preach and teach. But 95 percent of the pastor’s labor in the church is supposed to be preaching and teaching. The pastor is not called to be a counselor. The pastor is not called to be an administrator or to be a town leader. The pastor’s mission is to feed the sheep.

Jesus later gave this commission to Peter beside the same sea when He said, “Do you love me?” and Peter said, “You know I love You” three times. Three times Jesus said, “If you love Me, feed My sheep.” This is not my congregation sitting in this church. This is His congregation. You are not my sheep. You are His sheep. My job is to feed you with food that will not make you sick, food that will not poison you but food that will nurture you—the very Word of God.

When Jesus had compassion on the people, He taught them, which we might miss in the rest of the drama of this story. We might think, “The feeding doesn’t begin till later, when He multiplies the fish and the loaves.” No, the whole time, Jesus was feeding the sheep with truth and with His Word.

See What God Does

Jesus began to teach the crowd many things, and the day was far spent, so the disciples came to Jesus and said: “This is a deserted place. You know, we’re outside the city. We’re away from the villages. It’s a nice grassy plain, but it is deserted here, and it’s late. Send them away, so they may go into the surrounding country and villages to buy themselves bread, for they have nothing to eat.” In other words, they were saying: “Jesus, it’s time to call a halt to this. The seminar is over. You need to send them away, so that they can go into the villages before it’s too late, before all the stores are closed, so they can get something to eat.”

Jesus responded, “You feed them,”  perhaps thinking that He had been feeding them all day and now it was their turn. So He said, “You feed them.” Once again, they were flabbergasted when they heard this. They said: “How do you expect us to feed them? It would cost two hundred denarii. It would take a year’s salary to buy enough bread to feed this mob. Where are we going to get the money? We don’t have that kind of money.”

How many times have you heard that? “We can’t do this. We don’t have what’s necessary to accomplish this task.” I learned when I was a kid that “I can’t” never did anything except sit there and say “woe” and “alas” about all the obstacles that stand before our mission. That is the way the disciples were thinking: “We can’t do that. It would be a whole year’s salary.”

Jesus said: “Well, what do you have? Go see what you have.” So, the disciples questioned the people and told Jesus, “We have a couple loaves of bread and a couple of fish.” Jesus essentially responded: “Take what you have and let Me bless it, and we’ll see what God does when you give Him what you have. We’ll see what God does when you do what you can do. You do what you can do, you give what you can give, and then get out of the way and watch God work.”

God Feeds the Multitude

This text has great parallels with a similar miracle in the Old Testament in the wilderness, when the people of Israel were so hungry that they wanted to go back to Egypt. They were tired of the manna that God had provided supernaturally. God had given them bread every day in the form of manna, and they got sick of it. They said: “What is this, Moses? It’s manna for breakfast, manna for lunch, manna for dinner, and if we want to have a midnight snack, it’s manna. We’ve had smoked manna, baked manna, broiled manna, manna soufflé. We’ve tried everything we can, and it’s now become loathsome to us.”

So, the people said: “Take us back to Egypt. Do you remember the good days in Egypt? We had leeks, cucumbers, garlic, onions.” They forgot about the yoke that was around their neck. They forgot about the oppression of Pharaoh. They were ready to sell their citizenship in the kingdom of God for leeks, onions, and garlic.

So, Moses went to God and said: “God, I quit. Get yourself another mediator. I’m turning in my prophet’s card right now. Did I give birth to this multitude? All they do is complain, murmur, and grumble. They can’t wait to tell me the next thing they don’t like about the program. Now they’re demanding meat to eat or they’re going back.”

God essentially said: “If they want meat to eat, I’ll give them meat—not for one day, not for five days, not for ten days. I’m going to give them so much meat that it will come out their noses, and it will be loathsome to them.” Moses heard God say, “I’m going to feed them all.”

What did Moses say? “How are You going to do that? How can You feed all the people? Are You going to kill all our cows? Are You going to dry up the sea from the fish, so that this multitude can be fed until they’re satisfied?” God answered a question with a question. When Moses said, “How are You going to do this,” what did God say? “Has the arm of the Lord waxed short? Do you forget who you’re talking to, Moses? Step back and watch, and you will see if I will do what I said I would do.”

Jesus Feeds Our Souls

The disciples obeyed Jesus, and they gave Him the fish and the bread. He lifted His eyes to heaven, and He prayed a simple prayer. Mark does not tell us the words that He prayed, but He probably prayed the common Jewish prayer for meals at that time, which I will read to you. Listen to how the prayer goes: “Praise be to You, O Lord, our God, King of the world, who makes bread to come forth from the earth and who provides for all that You have created.” It was a prayer praising the providence of God: “We thank you, Lord, that You have provided for us our daily bread, what we need.”

Beloved, this is the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels that tells not only what Jesus did there but foreshadows the Last Supper. So far today, you have been fed from Scripture. In a moment, as we celebrate Communion, He will come, and He will feed you from His own table. He will feed you the bread that comes down from heaven. He will feed you by Himself, of Himself, out of His compassion for you.

When Jesus finishes feeding His people, there are baskets filled with extra provisions, because as He did that day on the plain, every person’s hunger was satisfied. That is why we come. He comes to satisfy us with the deepest hunger that we have in our souls.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.