The Feeding of the Four Thousand
Sermon Text: Mark 8:1-21
We’re moving rapidly through the gospel of Mark. Today we’re going to start the 8th chapter, so hold onto your seats at the speed we are moving through this gospel. This morning I will be reading from Mark 8:1–21, and I would now ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God.
In those days, the multitude being very great and having nothing to eat, Jesus called His disciples to Him and said to them, “I have compassion of the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their own houses, they will faint on the way; for some of them have come from afar.”
Then His disciples answered Him, “How can one satisfy these people with bread here in the wilderness?”
He asked them, “How many loaves do you have?”
And they said, “Seven.”
So He commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground. And He took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and they set them before the multitude. They also had a few small fish; and having blessed them, He said to set them also before them. So they ate and were filled, and they took up seven large baskets of leftover fragments. Now those who had eaten were about four thousand. And He sent them away, immediately got into the boat with His disciples, and came to the region of Dalmanutha.
Then the Pharisees came out and began to dispute with Him, seeking from Him a sign from heaven, testing Him. But He sighed deeply in His spirit, and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Assuredly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation.”
And He left them, and getting into the boat again, departed to other side. Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, and they did not have more than one loaf with them in the boat. Then He charged them saying, “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.
And they reasoned among themselves, saying, “It is because we have no bread.”
But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, “Why do you reason because you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Is your heart still hardened? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments did you take up?
They said to Him, “Twelve.”
“Also, when I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets full of fragments did you take up?”
And they said, “Seven.”
So He said to them, “How is it you do not understand?”
He who has ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts to understand the Word of God, let him understand it. Please be seated. Let’s pray.
Again, our Father, we look to You and to the Holy Ghost to help us as we struggle with the text that we’ve just heard this morning. We pray that You would ensure that we have ears to hear and eyes to see and hearts that are not calcified as we listen to Your Word. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Same Story Again?
At first glance, when we listen to the text that I just read to you, we must stop for a moment and think, “What’s happening here?” Did some copy scribe in the early centuries get mixed up on the pages of his manuscript and repeat the same story we just looked at a few weeks ago, the story of the feeding of the five thousand? Many critical scholars have assumed just that about the text for the simple reason that there are so many similarities between this narrative and what we found already in the story of the feeding of the five thousand.
On both occasions, there was a vast multitude that had been listening to the teaching of Jesus somewhere out in the wilderness. In both narratives, we see that Jesus is moved by compassion for the needs of the people who are gathered. In both narratives, He inquires of the disciples as to what provisions they have found among them. In both narratives, we have a few loaves and just a few fish. In both narratives, Jesus multiplies the loaves and the fish to such a degree that all of the people are satisfied and there’s a large abundance of fragments left over after the feeding, which are picked up in baskets. After both narratives, Jesus leaves the crowds by boat to go to another part of the Sea of Galilee, followed by an interrogation and confrontation with the Pharisees, who had come up from Jerusalem. We see all of these similarities between the two narratives, and you can understand why the critical scholars would say that, obviously, this is a doublet. It is simply an error in repetition of the same material.
Study the Differences
When I read those criticisms of the text, I think back to the first year I taught college in western Pennsylvania. I was teaching theology and philosophy, and I had a friend on the faculty who taught the humanities and English. In the humanities course that was required of all freshmen, they had to study Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which was filled with ancient mythology. My friend was passionately opposed to the truth claims of Christianity, so every day in class while they were studying Ovid, he kept pointing out the similarities between the mythological content of Ovid and the New Testament teaching about Jesus. People from his class would scurry to my class and say, “Professor so and so said today…” and they would repeat what he said. “What do you say?”
I was getting a little tired of this. One day, I saw my friend in the student union (a friend who later quit teaching and became a soap opera star) and I said to him, “Chris, what’s going on with this Ovid stuff and telling all these similarities?” And he said, “Well, they are there.” And I said, “Yes, they are, but here’s what I want to know: Are you giving an equal amount of time discussing the differences between Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the New Testament narrative of Jesus?” “I didn’t know there were any differences,” said my friend. So, we spent about an hour talking about this, and I pointed to difference after difference after difference after difference, not the least of which was a radically different view of history. At the end of that time, he said, “I didn’t realize that.” I said: “Fine. Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you teach English, and I’ll teach theology, and we’re going to get along fine, because I don’t teach literary criticism in my theology class.”
The point I want to make is this: in any science, to gain any knowledge or any precision of language, there is a process involved called the process of individuation. The first thing that you do is put ideas or concepts in groups of similarity, just like we do in biology. After we’ve noted the similarities, then we begin to differentiate by calling attention to those aspects that differ one with another.
This is what happens in medicine. If you have a stomachache and you go to the doctor, you know the stomachache may be a result of indigestion or a result of stomach cancer. There are similarities, but thanks be to God that the doctor doesn’t send us for chemotherapy when we have indigestion, because the doctor also studies the differences as well as the similarities. That’s what makes for knowledge. That’s what makes for science.
This is also true in applying our understanding to the Word of God. We’ve seen several of the similarities. I don’t have all day to point out the differences, but some of the most obvious differences that we see in this text are that, first of all, the people have been there for three days, not one. We see that they find seven loaves, not five. They pick up fewer fragments in the baskets, and this narrative uses a different word for “baskets.” We also see a different word for “fish” in this situation, which takes place in gentile territory in the Decapolis, where the audience is almost certainly gentiles rather than Jews. It takes place in an area that specialized in the fishing and selling of a certain kind of fish, sardines. That’s the word that is used here. In the feeding of the five thousand, it was generic fish, not sardines. Here, it’s sardines. We could go on and on with these technical points of differences between them.
At the end of the description of the narrative, we see a difference in the number of people. We think, “Well, it seems to be the same four or five thousand; what’s the big difference of one thousand people between the two stories?” Remember, in the feeding of the five thousand, it was five thousand men, not counting the women and children. Here, it’s four thousand people including the women and children, so there’s a vastly different number of people that are being described. Of course, the coup de grace in all of this is that, in the narrative, when He is discussing the matter with the disciples, Jesus calls attention to the fact that this has happened twice—once with the Jews, now with the gentiles—and that the disciples didn’t get it either time. So, I’m confident that what we have here is not a copyist’s error in conjoining the same narrative twice, but a separate act of Christ, in this case for the gentiles.
No More Signs for the Pharisees
Let’s look at what happens after the feeding is finished and Jesus comes to the region of Dalmanutha, which is on the western edge of the Sea of Galilee. Once again, the Pharisees come to Him. We read in verse 11, “The Pharisees came out and began to dispute with Him.” That English word is a little weak. Really, the forceful word that we have here in the Greek is that they came out to harangue Him or to harass Him. They are not merely having a polite little discussion or debate about matters, but they are here in full hostility against Him.
The Pharisees came “seeking from Him a sign from heaven, testing Him.” Before we notice Jesus’ response, let me just ask this: How many signs did these people need to have? Jesus had been going through this region with a blaze of miracles. Everywhere He went, He was raising the dead, He was giving sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, and so on. But remember that these Pharisees were convinced Jesus had performed those works by the power of Satan, so they did not constitute a real, divine authentication of Jesus as a trustworthy prophet. They wanted to hear the heavens open. They wanted to hear God’s voice say, “This is my beloved Son.” Obviously, they weren’t present at the baptism of Jesus when God did just that. Anyway, they are now demanding a conclusive sign that will settle the matter once and for all, and they are saying, “Jesus, prove to us that You really are from God.” He responds: “I’m not going to prove anything to you. You’re not going to get any sign. This generation is not entitled to any more signs.”
God’s Patience Wears Out
Then we read Mark’s description of Jesus: “He sighed deeply in His spirit.” Even that doesn’t catch the full nuance of what’s going on here. Rather, it’s telling us that Jesus comes to the absolute limit, humanly speaking, of His exasperation. He’s going, “Ahh, not again.” He’s sick and tired of this kind of response.
Now you may say, “Wait a minute—Jesus is supposed to be sinless, and if He’s sinless, He should certainly be patient.” Well, Jesus has been more than patient with these people, and one of the points that we fail to grasp occasionally, friends, is in what sense God Himself is patient. The Bible talks about His patience. It talks about His forbearance. It talks about His longsuffering. Do we see the patience of God and the forbearance of His mercy so many times in sacred Scripture that we sometimes begin to believe that God’s patience is infinite?
Have you thought that God’s patience is infinite? That’s an extremely dangerous conclusion to come to, because again and again God warns His people, “My Spirit will not always strive with men.” There is a limit to God’s patience, beloved. He may forbear with you week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, until you become at ease in Zion and think, “He’s always going to forbear with me.” But there are times in the Bible where God ends His patience and gives people over to their sin. That could happen to people who are sitting in this room right now, who have depended on God’s mercy, who are thinking, “Tomorrow I’m going to get right with God,” or, “Give me another week.” Next week may be too late to deal with God. This is what Jesus is saying to these people.
We read: “And He left them, and He got into the boat again and departed to the other side. Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread.” They weren’t much for packing foodstuffs in knapsacks whenever they traveled with Jesus, and now they’re the ones without bread, and they say that they didn’t have more than one loaf with them in the boat. Never mind that the Bread of Life is sitting in the middle of the boat—they are worried because they only have one loaf of bread to divide among themselves. So, Jesus takes this opportunity to give a charge to His own disciples. Listen to what He says: “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.”
The Poisonous Leaven of the Pharisees
I’m sure you’ve all seen farmhouses where, on the gate, there’s a sign that says, “Beware of vicious dog.” Or you remember Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, where the soothsayer cries in the street, saying to Caesar, “Caesar, beware the Ides of March.” It’s one thing when a ragged old soothsayer tells you to watch out for something, or a farmer puts a sign on his gate, but when God incarnate tells you to beware of something, you need to stop in your tracks, you need to take heed, and you need to listen. What is it that Jesus is warning His disciples about that requires this strong admonition, “Take heed, beware”? He says, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod.”
What is the leaven of the Pharisees? Elsewhere in the New Testament, the Pharisees’ leaven is described as “the leaven of their teaching” and “the leaven of their hypocrisy.” Jesus is saying: “Watch out for false doctrine. Watch out for hypocrisy and teaching that can poison you.” This metaphor of leaven is borrowed from the process by which bread was made, where yeast was added to the dough to make it rise, a fermenting agent of the ancient world and still in our own day. The whole metaphor means that just a little bit of this substance can radically alter and change anything it’s mixed with. Almost every time in the New Testament, when “leaven” is used in a metaphorical way, it’s used in a negative way. It’s an influence that corrupts and destroys.
The Disciples Echoing the Pharisees
Jesus is saying to the disciples: “You saw what I did here. It’s the second time you’ve seen it. You’ve heard the questions of the Pharisees. We leave the Pharisees on the shore, we get in the boat, and it’s like an echo in here. It’s like I’m hearing the same thing out of your mouths that I was hearing out of the mouths of the Pharisees.” Aren’t we like that? You spend time with cynics; you start to be a cynic. You spend time around antagonistic skeptics; you become an antagonistic skeptic, because the leaven of the Pharisees is a poison that can kill us. That’s what Jesus is saying to His own disciples here in the boat. The disciples are taken aback by it, and they are trying to figure out why Jesus is coming on so strong. They say, “It’s because we don’t have any bread.”
Jesus understands what the disciples are saying, and He says to them, “Why do you reason because you have no bread?” Let me read this next question from Jesus with one editorial alteration, where Jesus asks: “Do you not perceive nor understand? Is your heart hardened?” I left two words out of that citation. I want to go back and read it the way He actually said it: “Do you not yet perceive and understand? Is your heart still hardened?”
Understand, dear friends, that by nature we are deaf and blind to the things of God. Our hearts are recalcitrant. They’ve been calcified. They’ve been reified. That’s the way we are by nature. Our hearts are hearts of stone that have no pulse for the things of God, so the Word of God bounces off our hearts just as something might bounce off a rock. By nature, we don’t perceive the things of God. Until the Holy Spirit opens our eyes and opens our ears, we’re impervious to the truth of God. The disciples were fallen creatures just like you and me. Jesus said: “You don’t get it yet? You still don’t see it? Are your hearts still hard?”
Soften Your Heart
Let me stop right there and jump across the ages to make an application to you and to me today. How’s your hearing? How’s your sight of the things of God? How’s your heart? Do you have calluses on your heart? Have you found ways to defend yourself from the truth of God’s Word? Do you still run from it? Do you still blind yourself to it? Do you cover your ears so that you don’t have to listen to it? Remember, that’s our nature.
“Don’t you remember,” Jesus says, “when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand? How many baskets full of fragments did you take up?” And they respond, “Twelve.” “How about when I broke the seven for the four thousand? How many large baskets full of fragments did you take up?” “Seven.” There’s a difference there, but there’s also a painful similarity, and Jesus asks, “Then how is it that you do not understand?”
The Lord will not always strive with us. He has given us His Word. He has given us Himself as the Bread of Life. He’s given us the Table, which is an outward, visible, tangible sign and seal of His death for us. That’s why we come to the Table—to remember His death until He comes and to anticipate the banquet feast that we will have with Him in heaven at the marriage feast of the Lamb and His bride. The Spirit and the Bride still say, “Come ye who have no money and eat freely of the Bread of Life, of the Bread that has come down from heaven.”
I ask this morning that you leave your hardened hearts in the parking lot. The calluses on your soul, let them be gone. Come to the Lord’s Table and feed upon Jesus, for He is the Bread of Life. He offers Himself to all of those who despair of their own righteousness, who despair of their own efforts to get them into the kingdom of God, to those who know that their only hope in life and death is Christ and His work. He bids you, if indeed you are in Christ and put your trust in Him and in Him alone. He bids you come.
We remember the words of institution of the Supper given to us by the Apostle Paul, when he said: “In the night in which our Savior was betrayed, He took bread, and when He had blessed it, He broke it, and He said, ‘This is my body given for you.’ And after they had eaten, in like manner He took the cup, and He said, ‘Now this is the cup of a new covenant, a covenant that was made in my blood, which is shed for the remission of your sins. And as oft as you eat of the bread and drink of the cup, you will show forth, you will demonstrate, you will manifest, you will bear witness to My death until I come’” (1 Cor. 11:23–26). Let’s pray.
Father, now we ask for the ministry of the Holy Spirit to take these normal, natural elements of bread and wine, set them apart for a holy, a sacred use, indeed that they may be authentic signs and seals to us of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. For we ask it in His name. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.