The Test of Feeding the 5000
"The Test of Feeding the 5000" Mark 6:30-44
In our journey through the life of Jesus, this morning we come to a very familiar passage, where Jesus fed the 5000 with 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. This event was obviously very impressionable on the minds of the gospel writers, in fact this event is the only miracle of Jesus recorded by all 4 books of the gospel.
Jesus had just recently sent out 12 of His disciples as apostles- as ambassadors sent out to proclaim His kingdom message- and He had given them a special anointing and authority to cast out demons and to heal every sickness. And Mark 6:12-13 lets us know that is in fact what they did, it says “They went out and preached that men should repent. And they were casting out many demons and were anointing with oil many sick people and healing them.”
And then Mark gives us the background side story about Herod, Herodias, and John the Baptist which we looked at last week. And in verse 30 he tells us of the apostles returning after their experience as Jesus’s sent out ones. Let’s look at verses 30-32. (Mark 6:30-32)
I imagine that these apostles were super excited, they were amped up after the experience of Jesus’s power flowing through them in ministering to the people. It wasn’t just Jesus now who was popular, but now people were seeking out even them, so much so that they didn’t even have time to eat as verse 31 says. And Jesus saw that they needed a rest. So, they got in the boat and headed to a secluded place where it could be just them, and they could have a time to retreat, rest, debrief, and eat. Now remember what happened last time when it was Jesus who needed to rest after teaching- He and His followers attempted the same thing, they all got into the boat and headed to a secluded beach across the lake. And that didn’t pan out exactly as the disciples had imagined it- immediately they were confronted with the terrifying storm, and then greeted on the secluded beach by a wild, crazed man filled with a legion of demons, and then the people there requested that they leave. Not exactly elements that sum up to a relaxing retreat.
So here’s “take 2”, Jesus and His disciples attempting to get away for just a little respite, and how does that work out? Well, let’s look at verse 33… (Mark 6:33) Oh boy, no retreat this time either! Jesus and the apostles landed the boat and there was already a large crowd gathered there to meet them. If it was me, I would have been really stressed in this situation. But notice Jesus’s response, verse 34. (Mark 6:34) Jesus doesn’t turn away those who seek Him. If we are willing, He is always willing to teach us many things. He feels compassion for mankind, seeing that we need Him as our shepherd.
At this point in the story Mark starts to unfold the details of Jesus multiplying the bread and the fish. But Mark doesn’t give us all the specific details, there’s a few additional details that the book of John gives us in his account, so as we’re looking at this, I’m going to insert some of the details that John gives us, in an attempt to fill out the story a bit and harmonize the two accounts. John says in John 6:5-6 “Therefore Jesus, lifting up His eyes and seeing that a large crowd was coming to Him, said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these may eat?’ 6 This He was saying to test him, for He Himself knew what He was intending to do.” So, John lets us know that Jesus already had a plan, and as a test He started the conversation with the disciples over what they should do in order to feed the people. Now the question I have to ask is, what kind of test was this?
The disciples had just come back from their first experience with being on their own- Jesus wasn’t with them. For the first time, they were given the authority and power of Jesus to be His representatives. The responsibility pendulum had swung from Jesus doing the work on His own effort and faith all the way over to the disciples having to do the work on their own effort, with their faith remaining in the power of Jesus. Perhaps this was a test to see how they would respond to the needs of the people after their empowerment, now with Jesus again being present. After all, this was the first time they were presented with a need of the people with Jesus present, after they had been out ministering to the needs of the people on their own.
Or, perhaps this was a compassion test- did they really care for the needs of the people, when it wasn’t a need that they had been given the power to meet? They had been given the power to cast out demons and heal the sick, but creating or multiplying food was not included in the list of what Jesus had given them the authority to do. It’s easy to love people whose needs we personally are equipped to meet. But if we feel we can’t help, it’s easy to be a little less compassionate and just turn away with the attitude of: “oh, they can help themselves, or someone else can help them”. Or maybe meeting the hunger needs of the crowd was included with their empowerment- if they could cure sicknesses and diseases, then they perhaps could cure the lesser problem of hunger? Maybe this was a test to see if the disciples would use the power God had given them in order to meet the current needs of this crowd.
And in light of Mark telling us the detail that the disciples hadn’t even had time to eat, I’m curious if this was a test to gauge unselfishness. How would the disciples react to the crowds’ hunger, when they themselves were probably even more hungry? Would they become calloused to the needs of the people because of their own needs being unmet? Would their response to having crushed expectations of rest combined with their hungry bellies result in them becoming “Hangry”- a cross between angry and hungry? Would Jesus take care of their needs for rest and food despite the pressures of the crowd? It was Him after all that suggested that they come away and rest- so now how would they react being in the circumstance of unmet expectations?
In response to Jesus’s test question of where to buy bread for the people to eat, John 6:7 says Philip responded: “Two hundred denarii worth of bread is not sufficient for them, for everyone to receive a little.” Now one denarii was about a day’s wage, Philip was basically saying “Jesus, we could spend over half a year’s salary and even so just barely have enough food for everyone to have a couple bites.” I have a feeling that 200 denarii might just have been what the disciples of Jesus had pooled together in order to sustain them as they had left jobs in order to follow Jesus and travel around with Him announcing His kingdom. Judas the treasurer probably had 200 denarii right there with him tucked away in his purse or money belt. But that sure would seem unwise to spend their whole operating fund on just providing a meal for 5000 men, which in all reality was probably 15,000-20,000 people total, including women and children.
Well, Mark in verses 35-36 gives us the disciples suggestion, they say “…This place is desolate and it is already quite late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But in verse 37 Jesus responds: “You give them something to eat!” So at this point they’re thinking, well maybe Jesus is going to force us into spending our operating fund, so they reluctantly ask the question as we finish verse 37: “Shall we go and spend two hundred denarii on bread and give them something to eat?”
And in response, Jesus says, verse 38: “How many loaves do you have? Go look!” And they come back to Him and say “Five, and two fish”. Now in the book of John, John had called out Philip as being the one with whom Jesus started this conversation, so John again calls out the specific name of the one who relayed the food survey to Jesus, in John 6:8 he says it was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. His words as quoted by John are “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people? (John 6:9) What I’m thinking is: surely there were more people there that had packed some snacks!? In a crowd of 15,000-20,000 people, surely there would have been some others that had a lunch packed, or some food to sell? Now this is just speculation, but I wonder how hard they really tried to find out who had food available. I wonder if very quickly they just happened to spot this boy who was munching on a snack and he was an easy target for confiscating his food. Or maybe, the boy heard Jesus say to “Go look”, and he was the one that approached them and offered his food up, willingly, out of curiosity to see what Jesus would do with it. Either way, you can imagine Andrew bringing the food to Jesus and perhaps thinking: “see this is all we have, go ahead and send them away to buy their own food. Whew. Glad we could clear that up Jesus. We’ve shown that it won’t do any good to spend our 200 denarii, and 5 loaves/2 fish is all we could easily drum up, please just send them away now so that we can do the rest/eat thing that we had set out to do in the first place.”
But instead of sending them away, verse 39 tells us that “He commanded them all to sit down by groups on the green grass.”
Remember this started out as a test, and I mentioned a few possible areas of testing that Jesus might have been testing them in. While the scripture doesn’t specifically outline out for us exactly what Jesus was testing the disciples in, at this point, whatever the test was, I personally believe that the disciples didn’t ace it. At this point it seems that Jesus took over, and stopped in His prompting and nudging of the disciples. I think they had missed what He was wanting them to realize. You would have thought that finding the 2 fish would have triggered their memory that Jesus had once told them “put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch”. (Luke 5:4) And when they did so, they had such a quantity of fish that their nets began to break. So in this circumstance, they could have asked Jesus to show them where to let down the nets a few times and they could have gathered enough fish to feed everyone. They could have said “Jesus, if you are telling me to feed them, tell me what to do in order to do that”. When Jesus asked Philip, where do you think we should buy bread to feed the people, Philip could have responded: “Buy bread? Why would we need to buy bread when the one who has power over the spirit world, power over the natural world, power over sickness and disease, power over life and death is right here with us?” The “where to buy bread” question was as silly and rhetorical as would have been the question, “where do we buy all the medicine to cure all the sick?” “Where do we buy a bigger, better boat that won’t capsize in a Sea of Galilee storm?” “Where can we buy services that take care of the mental health issues of the ‘legion demoniac’?” “Where do we go to buy back the life of Jairus’s daughter who has passed away?”
I believe that perhaps in the disciple’s exhaustion and hunger, even after seeing God work through them in such mighty Kingdom ways, that they had now forgotten their source of power, strength, and life. The first verse we read in this passage, Mark 6:30, told us that they reported to him all that they had done and taught. Notice the order of the verbs Mark used- all they had done- first, and then all they had taught- second. Maybe I’m reading into this, but I’m sure it would have been so easy for them to have been pumped up about their special empowerment- “Jesus we healed this guy, and this person, and demons fled when we said flee, and we taught a little too, but you should have seen this guy whose leg was all bent up and we laid our hands on him (we did it!) and the leg straightened…” Coming off of that high, Jesus knew they needed rest- to calm down, and perhaps they needed the reminder that it wasn’t them, but that it was Jesus in them. Perhaps they needed the reminder that it wasn’t about their work, their newfound popularity, or their self-esteem being boosted.
I had mentioned last week that Herod had heard about the name of Jesus- not the apostles’ names- but the name of Jesus spreading through the region as a result of the apostles’ work, but perhaps after sometime into their mission trip they lost the focus of making Jesus’ name great and perhaps slid slightly into the idea that their names were becoming great. Perhaps this was the test- had the disciples forgotten who the source of power was? Had they forgotten the reason for which they had been empowered- so that they could make the name of Jesus great and His Kingdom plan known?
Verse 40 (Mark 6:40-44) The book of John gives us one more detail to this story that I’d like to mention. John wants us to know that it was Jesus who instructed the disciples to gather up the leftover food. He quotes Jesus in John 6:12 as saying “Gather up the leftover fragments so that nothing will be lost.” And at His command, the 12 disciples did so and each picked up pieces, each filling a basket with multiplied bread and fish. 12 baskets for 12 disciples. Surely this is significant.
The story began with the disciples not having time to eat. They might have been amped up mentally, but physically they were tired and hungry. And instead of rest and food, they encountered the heavy spiritual and physical needs of a massive crowd. I wonder if they were tempted to feel that Jesus had abandoned their needs of rest and food, and instead was just worried about the crowd’s needs. As they had previously called out to Jesus during the storm “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38), I wonder if in this situation were they thinking “Teacher, do You not care that we are tired and starving?”
I believe this detail of them picking up 12 extra baskets of food answered that question. I believe Jesus in that act, was saying to them: “See? Of course I care for you. The rest you needed was in resting in Me, realizing that I am your Source, admitting that I work with what you have, whether that be great or small. In tending to the hunger of others, your hunger will be satisfied, and in an exceeding way, to where you will have available to you even more than the amount you began with.”
The equation presented in this passage seems to be: what little man has to offer + Jesus = unlimited possibilities. As I mentioned before, the disciples could have mentioned to Jesus the idea of Him directing their nets to a massive catch of fish- and if they had said that- Jesus probably would have worked with that. Perhaps Philip could have responded to Jesus, 200 denarii is not enough to feed everyone, but if I give the money to you Jesus, I’m sure you could turn it into 500 denarii and that would probably be enough to buy us enough food in the next village. And Jesus might have worked with that. But instead, it seems that in their tiredness and hunger, they just wanted to make excuses to Jesus for why they couldn’t be a part of the solution to the need Jesus was asking them to address. They had so much more they could have offered as a solution other than the kid’s 5 loaves and 2 fish. But Jesus, in His compassion and gentleness, chose to use even that little offering in order to show the disciples and the others that the “who” of the solution is much more important than the “how, when, where, and what” of the solution.
Whether you feel amped up from how Jesus is using you, or you feel tired from being used, whether you feel completely able or completely inadequate to meet the needs of those around you, whether you are in a place of rest or a place where rest seems to be continually postponed- realize your source, your answer, is Jesus. Realize your dependence on Him. Even in the awesomeness of casting out demons and healing sicknesses, the disciples of Jesus needed to depend on Him. And likewise, in their exhaustion and hunger, coming up with 5 small loaves of bread and 2 little fishes, the disciples of Jesus needed to depend on Him. In our strength, and in our weakness, He is the source who is able to multiply whatever it is that we are willing to offer to Him. In his hands, He will grow it.