One of my first experiences in ministry was teaching a fifth-grade Sunday school class when I was still in high school. On one occasion, I invited the entire class of thirty students to my house for a party. My parents kindly obliged by opening their home for the event. My mother made 80 enchiladas to serve the horde, and then my parents went out for the evening, leaving me in charge. I thought I had enough activities to keep thirty fifth-graders busy for a couple of hours, between games, movies, and food, but apparently, I was wrong. By the end of the evening, they were doing back-flips over the sofa in our living room. When the parents arrived in the middle of this chaos to pick up their children, my parents arrived home as well. Standing in our foyer, looking out over the masses, one of the fifth-grade parents turned to my parents and asked them, “So which one is yours?” My mother replied nonchalantly, “The tall one over there.”
Sometimes feeding and entertaining large groups of people can be a challenge. Jesus and his disciples experienced this on a much larger scale, as we can see in our text for today from Mark 6:30-44. Listen for God’s word to you….
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.
I believe there are at least four lessons for us in this passage. The first lesson is about the rhythm of the Christian life.
At the beginning of this passage, Jesus’ disciples have just returned from their first mission trip out on their own. They have experienced ministry opportunities in preaching, healing, and exorcism for the first time. They were excited about all they had said and done and no doubt reported to Jesus about their activities with enthusiasm.
However, Jesus knew something they did not know. Jesus knew already how much ministry can take out of a person. Remember the woman with the issue of blood who snuck up behind Jesus and touched the fringe of his garment? Jesus felt power go out of him when that happened. Every time we minister to others in the name of Jesus, power goes out from us. If we are going to continue to minister in the power of the Holy Spirit then we need to have our spiritual energy tanks re-filled after every ministry opportunity.
Jesus knew this. That is why he said to his disciples: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”
As we have seen already in Mark’s Gospel, wherever Jesus is present there is a hum, a buzz of activity. That is true in this text as well. “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” It is difficult, if not impossible, to get our spiritual batteries recharged when we are surrounded by a lot of people and a lot of activity. That is why Jesus took the disciples in the boat with him and they set off for a deserted place by themselves. The rhythm of the Christian life needs to be one of give and take, of work followed by rest.
We need to be like the Sea of Galilee instead of the Dead Sea. The Sea of Galilee receives water into it and it gives water out into the Jordan River. That is what the Christian life should be like. We need to constantly be receiving spiritual water, the water of eternal life, from the Lord through the Holy Spirit. At the same time, we should also be giving that water of eternal life away to others.
One alternative to this is to be like the Dead Sea. It receives water in from the Jordan but does not give water out. It is so filled with resources that it is essentially dead because of all the mineral deposits in it. My son James and I have both been in the Dead Sea. You cannot really swim in the Dead Sea because of all the minerals in the water. You can only float on top of it. When Christians are constantly taking in the resources of the Holy Spirit but not giving away anything that they learn, they become like the Dead Sea.
On the other hand, if we are constantly ministering and giving away spiritual resources without taking in fresh spiritual energy, the water of eternal life, then we become like the Sea of Galilee pouring out into the Jordan but with the source of life-giving water dammed up. If the Sea of Galilee had all its sources of water blocked off, then eventually it would run dry. That is what happens to the Christian who is constantly active in ministry but does not take time to rest and take spiritual resources from the Holy Spirit. Eventually that Christian will dry up and be completely empty.
Therefore, the Christian life is designed to have a rhythm to it. We need to have a rhythm of work followed by rest, time for ministry followed by time for meditation.
However, sometimes the best-laid plans go awry and you just can’t get away from people. That is what happened in this situation. Jesus and his disciples got into the boat to go across the Sea of Galilee to a deserted place, but the crowds who wanted to be near Jesus all the time, they followed on foot and got there ahead of the boat.
Now, if I had been in Jesus’ sandals, I would have been annoyed. It would have been like going away on vacation and arriving to find all of you there asking for a sermon. I will be honest and say, that would be tough. I am not sure I would have anything to give you in that situation.
Thankfully, Jesus has a better attitude than I do. He was not annoyed by the crowd following him. Instead, we read that “As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.”
This statement presents us with the second lesson of this passage. It is a lesson about sheep without a shepherd.
What did Jesus mean by this statement? I believe Jesus was probably thinking about the fact that these people who were clamoring after him did not have spiritual teachers who were properly feeding them and taking care of them. That is why they were coming to Jesus; they knew Jesus would provide them with a good spiritual meal.
What are sheep like without a shepherd? First, sheep without a shepherd cannot find the way. Left to ourselves, we get lost in life.
Have I told you the story about when Becky and I first got married? We moved together to Charlotte, North Carolina. Now, I had visited Charlotte before, so when we arrived late at night, driving our U-Haul truck filled with one car and all our belongings, and towing another car behind, I thought I knew where I was going. I kept driving down this one darkened road and I was not finding any place to stay for the night. Becky said, “Why don’t you stop and ask for directions?” Of course, that is something that most men simply do not do, and this was long before the days of GPS. Finally, I decided to turn around and we headed back to a motel we had seen a few miles back near the Interstate. We had a miserable first night together in Charlotte, partly because I was not willing to ask for directions.
The same is true in the spiritual life. We need directions. Better yet, we need a shepherd to lead us where we need to go. That is precisely what we have in Jesus—a good shepherd.
Secondly, sheep without a shepherd cannot find pasture and food. Sheep need a shepherd to show them where the good pastureland is and provide good food for them. Sheep are not like other animals who can survive well on their own in the wild.
Human beings are like sheep in this way. We do not survive well on our own in the wild. We need a good shepherd to show us where the good pastureland is, and to feed us healthy food.
To use another analogy that Scripture sometimes uses: we are like spiritual babies.
What do you think would have happened to our son Josh if, when we were bringing him home from the hospital, we decided to just leave him by the side of the road somewhere? Do you think he would have found his way to our house? Do you think he would have found good food to sustain his body? No. Josh needed parents who would not only show him the way home, but bring him safely there. He needed parents who would feed him appropriate food that would adequately nourish him. He could not have done these things on his own.
We too are like spiritual babies who need a parent to care for us, feed us, and bring us home. We are like sheep that need a good shepherd. Thankfully, in Jesus, we have such a good parent and a good shepherd.
Thirdly, sheep without a shepherd have no defense against danger. A sheep cannot defend itself from a thief or from a wild animal. A sheep needs a shepherd to do that for it.
William Barclay writes,
If life has taught us one thing it must be that we cannot live it alone. No man can defend himself from the temptations which assail him and from the evil of the world which attacks him. Only in the company of Jesus can we walk in the world and keep our garments unspotted from it. Without him we are defenceless; with him we are safe.
A third lesson I believe we can learn from this passage is about Jesus’ attitude and ours.
We have already seen that when Jesus got out of the boat and saw the crowd, he had compassion on them. He took time to teach them and meet their spiritual needs.
However, as the day was turning to night, the disciples got anxious about what they were going to do with all these people hanging around. Where were they going to find food for them all in such a deserted place? Thus, they went to Jesus and asked him to send the people away to find food for themselves elsewhere. As William Barclay notes, the disciples were, in effect, saying: “These people are tired and hungry. Get rid of them and let someone else worry about them.”
By contrast, Jesus said, “You give them something to eat.” In other words, “If these people are tired and hungry then we need to help meet their needs because they are human beings just like us.” I think Jesus was testing his disciples to see what they would do; he wanted them to learn a lesson from this experience.
Thus, we see here two reactions to human need. There are people who see human need and push the responsibility for meeting that need on to others. Then there are people who see human need and realize they must do something about it. The disciples tended to be like the former and Jesus like the latter.
We also see here two reactions to human resources. The disciples saw their resources as a cup half empty. They said to Jesus, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” A denarius was a standard day’s wage for a working man in Jesus’ time. The disciples had made a quick calculation of how many people were in the crowd and how much money it would take to buy enough food for all of them. They figured it would take two hundred days’ wages and they knew they did not have that much money. Thus, the disciples focused on what they did not have instead of what they did have.
Jesus got the disciples to re-focus on what they did have in their possession. “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” Jesus’ attitude toward human resources was to see the cup half full rather than half empty.
The disciples came back and told Jesus that they had five loaves and two fish.
This leads to the fourth and final lesson we see in this event: Little becomes much in Jesus’ hands.
Jesus ordered the crowd to sit down in groups on the green grass. The fact that Mark tells us the grass was green reveals two things. First, this was obviously an eyewitness account. Only an eyewitness account would have this kind of detail. Second, the green grass tells us it was spring, which is a season that did not last long in Israel. It was probably April around the time of Passover.
After the crowd sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties, Jesus blessed and broke the loaves, just as any Jewish father in that day would have done when his family sat down to share a meal together. Then Jesus gave the loaves and the fish to his disciples to distribute to the people.
When, precisely, did the miracle of multiplying the loaves and fish take place? Did it happen as Jesus was praying over the loaves and fish, or did it happen as the disciples were distributing the food? The text does not tell us. All we know is that the people who had gathered that day ate their fill. Not only that, but the disciples gathered up twelve baskets full of the leftovers. Some of those quick calculating disciples figured there were five thousand men there that day. That number does not include the women and the children. Therefore, Jesus may have fed 15,000 people that day with five loaves and two fish.
Some people, usually the ones who don’t believe in miracles in the first place, think this is a crazy story. However, it is the one crazy “Jesus event” that his disciples remembered best because it is the only miracle that is retold in all four gospels.
C. S. Lewis calls it a Miracle of Fertility. Here is what Lewis says about it….
Other miracles that fall in this class are the two instances of miraculous feeding. They involve the multiplication of a little bread and a little fish into much bread and much fish. Once in the desert Satan had tempted Him to make bread of stones: He refused the suggestion. “The Son does nothing except what He sees the Father do.”; perhaps one may without boldness surmise that the direct change from stone to bread appeared to the Son to be not quite in the hereditary style. Little bread into much bread is quite a different matter. Every year God makes a little corn into much corn: the seed is sown and there is an increase. And men say, according to their several fashions, “It is the laws of Nature,” or, “It is Ceres, it is Adonis, it is the Corn-King.” But the laws of Nature are only a pattern: nothing will come of them unless they can, so to speak, take over the universe as a going concern. And as for Adonis, no man can tell us where he died or when he rose again. Here, at the feeding of the five thousand, is He whom we have ignorantly worshipped: the real Corn-King who will die once and rise once at Jerusalem during the term of office of Pontius Pilate.
The same day He also multiplied fish. Look down into every bay and almost every river. This swarming, undulating fecundity shows He is still at work “thronging the seas with spawn innumerable.” The ancients had a god called Genius; the god of animal and human fertility, the patron of gynaecology, embryology, and the marriage bed—the “genial” bed as they called it after its god Genius. But Genius is only another mask for the God of Israel, for it was He who at the beginning commanded all species “to be fruitful and multiply and replenish the earth.” And now, that day, at the feeding of the thousands, incarnate God does the same: does close and small, under His human hands, a workman’s hands, what He has always been doing in the seas, the lakes and the little brooks. (Miracles, pp. 136-137)
The wonderful thing to my mind is not that Jesus did this miracle once, long ago, but that he continues to perform this miracle every day. Every time someone places their life in Jesus’ care, little becomes much in the Master’s hands.