The Bible warns against eating the food of a stingy man. “He is the kind of man who is always thinking about the cost. ‘Eat and drink,’ he says to you, but his heart is not with you” (Prov. 23:6–7). Sadly, many people view God as such a stingy man. They doubt that God wants them to be happy. They fear that He allows them to receive blessings only to snatch them just as quickly from their hands. They insist that God is tight-fisted with His gifts.
The second half of Mark 6 destroys any such notion of God.
Despite being shamefully treated by those he came to bless (Mark 6:4) Jesus continued to represent His heavenly Father by laboring generously in the midst of those who dishonor Him.1 Despite their unbelief, Jesus tenderly ministered to His disciples. He was moved with compassion for vast crowds of people, even though they misunderstand His mission (John 6:15). Christ’s open hands and heart reveal God as the “overflowing fountain of all good.”2
Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand (6:30–44)
The Disciples Report Back (6:30–32)
The disciples’ excitement was palpable. They had just returned from their first tour of preaching and teaching. No doubt they had experienced both encouragement and disappointment. They had probably exhibited bravery and hesitation. But like generals reporting to their commander-in-chief they told Jesus everything that had happened (6:30). Like these first disciples, modern-day disciples need not keep anything from Jesus. Sometimes in our prayers we pick and choose the things we want to say to the Lord. Sometimes we are reluctant to become too transparent. How often do we forget that “God [will] search this out for He knows the secrets of the heart” (Ps. 44:21)?
The disciples also remind us of the importance of spiritual conversation. How often do we talk about what God is doing in our lives? What distinguishes our conversations from those of unbelievers should be more than the omission of vulgarity. God is at work in the lives of His children. Whether He is leading us through spiritual deserts or gardens we have something to talk about. Spiritual conversations are not opportunities for us to boast about our work. They are opportunities to point out God’s persistent grace in our weaknesses and struggles. Talking about what God is doing in our lives is one way that we can “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works” (Heb. 10:24).
With their adrenaline running high after returning from the battlefield, and the bustle of the crowds that had begun to gather around, the itinerant preachers might not have noticed their need to rest and eat. But Jesus did. “Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while,” He said (6:31). Spiritual activity, as important as it is, doesn’t cancel our need to care for our bodies. Jesus teaches us that it is a spiritual discipline to eat and rest. There was an old heresy called Gnosticism which taught the essential separation of matter and spirit. Because matter was essentially evil (and spirit essentially good) what happens in the body is of no importance. Christianity, it was said, is spiritual not physical. It has been convincingly argued that a neo-Gnostic neglect of the body is pervasive among Christians today. By contrast, “a renewed understanding of our full-orbed creatureliness, with due place given to the body, will produce safety, piety, productivity, and creativity.” 3 We glorify God in our bodies, which are the temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19–20), by scheduling times of rest and relaxation and learning to say no to unnecessarily wearying demands.
Thus instructed, weary and hungry disciples headed to one of the most deserted places they could imagine: a boat on the open water. They intended to cross over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee to a city called Bethsaida (cf. John 6:1; Luke 9:10). But like modern paparazzi the enthralled crowd “ran there on foot from all the cities. They arrived before them and came together to Him” (6:33).
Jesus Teaches the Crowds (6:33–34)
Jesus and His disciples sought rest but found a crowd. Can you imagine how you might have responded in their situation? Sometimes we just want to “turn off” for a while. We don’t want to be called. We don’t want to be busy. We want to recuperate. This is just what Jesus sought for Himself and His friends. And, as mentioned, sometimes this is necessary. Yet, when He saw the crowd He was “moved with compassion for them” (6:34) and “welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God and cured those who had need of healing” (Luke 9:11, NIV).
What was it that moved Jesus to set aside His own physical and mental well-being for the crowds? He saw them as sheep without a shepherd. The Jewish religious leaders were not leading the people to the green pastures of God’s grace. Instead they—not unlike some ministers today—emphasized a system of religious duties. As the good shepherd Christ’s heart went out to these lost sheep. Moved with compassion, He began to teach the gospel. The gospel is still a window into Jesus’ compassionate heart. It tells us that God knows our weaknesses and our sins, yet He takes pleasure in saving sinners (Ezek. 33:11).
The Miraculous Feeding (6:35–44)
As the crowd listened to Jesus the disciples grew increasingly uncomfortable. How were they going to feed the countless thousands who had gathered (Matt. 14:21)? Showing a truly miserly spirit the disciples wanted to send the people away for food. “After all,” they thought, “we didn’t ask them to come here. We certainly don’t have to feed them.” How often do we take that same approach to “outsiders”? Jesus did not consider it extravagant to care for the physical needs of the crowds even though many of them were there only to be entertained. Even though they would eventually demand that He be crucified, he fed them. Rather than seeing the crowds as a problem, Jesus saw them as an opportunity to showcase God’s superabundant provision. God’s people need to learn from Jesus to do the same.
Jesus also fed the crowd to test the faith of the disciples (cf. John 6:6): they acknowledge it would cost 200 denarii—more than half a year’s wages—to feed everyone present (Mark 6:37). What was Jesus calling them to do? The disciples were still learning that Christ’s call to discipleship stretches His followers beyond their natural abilities, demanding us to depend on Him. The disciples despaired when they calculated the cost. Christ was teaching them to count the cost, realize that it is more than they can pay, and turn to Him for help. The fact that Jesus would shortly repeat this miracle of a great feeding (Mark 8:1–10) shows us His commitment to open closed eyes and soften hard hearts (8:18).
After the magnanimous feeding, Jesus immediately dispersed the crowd, perceiving that they were about to forcibly make Him a king, and escaped to the mountain alone to pray (John 6:15). Jesus was, as the crowds suspected, “truly the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 6:14), but this was neither the time nor the manner in which He would reveal His glory. Jesus sent His disciples on ahead to meet Him in Bethsaida.4
Jesus Walks on Water (6:45–52)
Jesus Alone (6:45–47)
Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus was praying about on the mountain. But, considering that Jesus could see His disciples “straining at rowing” against difficult winds, we have every reason to believe that He was praying for His disciples’ apparently futile struggle. Jesus was preparing His students for another lesson. He had made them get into the boat and go to the other side (6:45). Then, being God, He caused the great wind to prevail against them (6:48). John says, “The sea arose because a great wind was blowing” (John 6:18). Matthew says that “the boat was now in the middle of the sea, tossed by the waves, for the wind was contrary” (Matt. 14:24). But the whole time, Jesus was watching them in intercessory prayer!
Couldn’t Christ’s intercession change the way we look at life’s challenges? Children of God can have confidence that Christ is watching them from the throne of heaven as they battle against a barrage of temptations.5 In His loving providence God leads His children into trying circumstances even as Jesus was “led by the spirit into the wilderness, being tempted for forty days by the devil” (Luke 4:1–2). At the same time, “the Lord knows how to deliver the godly out of temptations” (2 Peter 2:9). With that knowledge Christ always prays (Heb. 7:25) for His children to resist sin, and that their “faith should not fail” (Luke 22:31). Whether God’s children wrestle with sexual sins, difficult doctor’s appointments, or disobedient children, Christ is praying for them.
A Miraculous Walk (6:48)
Again, Jesus is moved by compassion for His hurting children. He waited long enough for the disciples to realize that they strained against the wind in vain. Then, “He came to them, walking on the sea, and would have passed them by” (6:48). That sounds strange, doesn’t it? Why would Jesus walk by His disciples in their moment of need? Scripture doesn’t answer. But, remember, Jesus had no need to walk to the boat; He was doing just fine walking on the water! He walked near the boat to encourage the disciples with His presence. He could well have walked past the boat guiding it to the shore through the storm.
The Disciples Are Amazed (6:49–52)
You might think that the sight of their Savior walking toward them would fill the disciples with hope. Instead, they “cried out . . . and were troubled” (6:49–50). In order to understand why the disciples respond with fear we need to know two things about them. First, they were superstitious; they had an irrational fear of the unknown. Granted, it’s very unusual to see the shape of a man walking on the water, but why should the disciples assume the worst? Why did they not rather assume that it was an angel of God, if not Christ Himself? Given the natural tendency to superstition that we share with the disciples, we should refuse to engage the dark spiritual realm for the sake of entertainment. Horror movies and other dark arts cater to the same sort of superstitious fear with which the disciples seemed to be filled. With Martin Luther, we must face the devil-filled-world with the perspective of a warrior, not a spectator.
And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God has willed His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.
Second, the disciples responded to Jesus’ presence with fear because their hearts were hardened (6:52). Even after Jesus urged them not to be afraid, and after He had calmed the wind, “they were greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure, and marveled” (6:51). Mark adds this comment: “For they had not understood about the loaves because their heart was hardened” (6:52). The disciples’ hard hearts prevented them from grasping the significance of the loaves. What does this mean? They failed to understand that in union with Christ we lack nothing. Earlier they were concerned about their lack of food. Now they were terrified about their lack of security. They had not yet learned that Jesus meets every need of His children. Nonetheless, as William Hendriksen points out, the hardness of the disciples’ hearts needs to be distinguished from the hard-heartedness of the unbelieving scribes and Pharisees.6 Believers can have hard hearts owing to lapses in faith. In this connection, Matthew includes Peter’s failed attempt to walk on water to illustrate that not only Peter, but all disciples, are at times people of little faith, prone to doubt (Matt. 14:31). Unbelievers’ hard hearts are not owing to a temporary lapse in faith but to the obstinacy and hatred with which they reject Christ.
With God’s help, the disciples reached the other shore, setting anchor in the land of Gennesaret—a region south of Capernaum. By such deliverance the Lord graciously continued to soften their hard hearts.
Jesus Heals the Masses (6:53–56)
What happened next should no longer surprise us. Immediately upon landing people recognized Jesus and began to spread the news. An ambulance industry had cropped up around Jesus. Men would run through the region announcing where Jesus had come. The people would immediately carry their sick to that place. It didn’t matter, says Mark, if the place was in the villages, cities, or country (6:56).
Apparently, news of the news of Jesus’ healing of the woman with the issue of blood had gotten around (Mark 5:25–34). Those who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment were made well. But as in the previous example, Mark’s point is not that Jesus’ clothes were magical. He says that the people “begged Him that they might just touch the hem of his garment.” Here we see the simplicity of sincere faith. To beg implies several things. First, it implies a great desire. We don’t beg for things about which we are indifferent. Sometimes Jesus asked those He met, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6). What may seem like an unnecessary question is meant to test whether or not people are really fed up with their condition and really desire God’s help. Second, begging implies a great humility. Without humility a great cure may be just beyond our reach (cf. 2 Kings 5:11–12). Those who are truly trusting in Christ for all things needful are not too proud to beg.
The second half of Mark 6 reveals a willing Christ. He is willing to teach—we must listen to Him. He is willing to care for our ordinary physical needs—we must trust Him. He is willing to comfort our fears—our hearts must be open to Him. He is willing to heal our deepest hurts—we must be willing to beg Him for help. One of the caricatures of serious religion is a commitment to a stern, prudish God who is reluctant to help and eager to punish. Maybe some of us have struggled with such a view of God. But when we understand that Jesus Christ is the “express image” of the person of God (Heb. 1:3) we get a completely different picture of God. In Christ, we see a God who meets our needs with spectacular sufficiency. He is a God who is willing and able to be for us what we cannot be for ourselves.
1. Bethsaida, where the feeding of the five thousand occurred, is only a few miles from Capernaum.
2. Belgic Confession of Faith, Article 1.
3. David Murray, “The Most Overlooked Doctrine,” accessed December 8, 2014, from http://www.christianity.com/blogs/david-murray/the-most-overlooked-doctrine.html.
4. That Jesus’ disciples are said to be heading to Bethsaida both prior to and following the feeding of the five thousand (Luke 9:10) presents some interpretive difficulty. Darrell Bock suggests that Luke is referring to the “city in the tetrarchy of Philip, located on the northeast corner of the Sea of Galilee” while Mark uses a generic name to refer to a distinct locale on the west side of the sea (Luke, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, vol. 1 [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994], 828).
5. Cf. Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 31.
6. William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 263.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. Why does it seem pious to be always busy? How do we cultivate a piety of rest and refreshment (cf. Mark 6:31)?
2. In what way is Christian teaching—whether formal or informal—a demonstration of compassion (cf. 6:34)?
3. How does Mark 6:35–36 speak to the practice of congregational hospitality?
4. What seems to be the main point of Mark 6:42–44?
5. How does it encourage you to know that Jesus “makes continual intercession for us with the Father” while at the same time He “governs us by His Word and Spirit, and defends and preserves us in the salvation obtained for us” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 31)?
6. What is the relationship between “fear” and “good cheer” (cf. 6:50)?
7. When is the last time you “begged” anything of God (cf. 6:56)?