If you have grown up in the pews then you know about this miracle of feeding the 5000. All four gospels records this miracle. But Mark highlights different things in this miracle when compared to the other accounts. We must remember to make sure that we do not press the message of another gospel account on to this account. This happens all the time and is unfortunately encouraged with a “harmonizing of the gospels.” So we are going to consider what Mark by the Holy Spirit wants us to see in these miracles.
The setting is notable as Jesus calls for his disciples to come with him into the wilderness, the same word used in Mark 1:3-4 and Mark 1:12-13. It is also the same word used by the LXX for wilderness in the Old Testament. So the setting is the wilderness. The reason they are going into the wilderness is for rest. They have been so busy with the crowds that they have been unable to even eat. As Jesus and the disciples go away by boat, many people recognize them and ran there along the shore to follow them. But I want you to love what you see in Jesus at this moment. Jesus is not disappointed when he sees the crowds. He is not frustrated or angry. Look at verse 34. When Jesus saw the great crowd, he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
Sheep Without A Shepherd (6:34)
This is the only gospel account where this is recorded that he saw these crowds and had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus has compassion on the people because he saw their spiritual condition. There are a number of pictures that are being presented to us in this declaration about Jesus.
First, compassion is the character of God. “And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.” (Exodus 34:6–7 NIV) Mercy and compassion is a critical characteristic of God. God has compassion for his people. Jesus is showing himself to be the true God with the heart he shows for the crowd.
Second, Jesus is not like the worthless shepherds that Israel has had in the past. Jesus cares that his people are perishing spiritually. The prophets gave scathing rebukes of Israel’s leaders and elders because they did not shepherd the people properly (cf. Isaiah 56:11; Jeremiah 10:21; Ezekiel 34:2-6; Zechariah 10:2-3; 11:17). God called those leaders worthless shepherds who were actually harming the flock rather than helping them and leading them. For Jesus to look at this crowd of people and see them as “sheep without a shepherd” is a rebuke on the present leadership of Israel is acting just like the leaders of its past.
Third, this is why the scriptures speak of Jesus as the good shepherd (cf. John 10). Jesus has come to be the shepherd of Israel and lead them in the right paths. We know this imagery from Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd, I will lack nothing. In the prophets God is pictured as turning from his anger, having compassion on his people, and sending a shepherd to lead his people (cf. Isaiah 54:9-10). Since Mark has told us at the beginning of his gospel that this is the good news as spoken by the prophet Isaiah, we must consider what Isaiah said about the new shepherd to come.
Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40:10–11 ESV)
Many other prophets also said God would send one shepherd to lead the people (Ezekiel 34:11-15, 22-23; Micah 5:2-4; Zechariah 13:7). Mark is presenting Jesus as Israel’s shepherd who not only has come to rescue his flock, but also lead his flock and feed his flock. Notice that this is what we see next in Mark 6:34. Jesus now teaches the crowd many things. This is the end of Israel’s leaderless oppression.
Feeding the 5000 (6:35-44)
Jesus has spent the day teaching the crowds and the time is getting late. The disciples encourage Jesus to send the people away to get food for dinner because they are in a wilderness and there is no place for the people to get food where they are at. Please consider the disciples are thinking about the people. They need to go so that they can have food tonight. But look at what Jesus says. “You give them something to eat” (6:37). The disciples respond that this is absolutely impossible. How can they give the people something to eat? It would take about 9-10 months of wages to buy enough food for all of these people! But this might sound familiar to us in a similar scene. The people of Israel were in the wilderness and they were hungry. God says that he is going to give the people enough meat until it comes out their noses. Look at how Moses responds in Numbers 11:21-22.
But Moses said, “The people among whom I am number six hundred thousand on foot, and you have said, ‘I will give them meat, that they may eat a whole month!’ Shall flocks and herds be slaughtered for them, and be enough for them? Or shall all the fish of the sea be gathered together for them, and be enough for them?” (Numbers 11:21–22 ESV)
Notice that the response was very similar to what the apostles are saying to Jesus now. But here is what Jesus is going to show. God is going to provide the necessary food. God will provide what is needed. In fact, Isaiah prophesied that this would be the case in Isaiah 55:1-3. God will provide the rich food that will satisfy. You will notice that this is the imagery that we see in the following verses in Mark. The people sit down on green grass in the wilderness. This echoes Psalm 23 where the Lord is our shepherd and he makes us lie down in green pastures. Isaiah described that when the Messiah came the wilderness would flourish and be fruitful (Isaiah 35:1-2; 32:14-16; 51:3). So Jesus makes these thousands sit in green pastures in the wilderness to be fed by the Lord. Notice the picture in verse 42: “And they all ate and were satisfied.” The bread that Jesus gives truly satisfies. In the exodus all the people had enough: no one had too much and no one had too little (cf. Exodus 16:18).
Walking on Water (6:45-52)
Now we are tempted to stop our study at this moment and soak in what Jesus has done. But Mark does not want us to do that yet. Notice the next word in verse 45 is “immediately.” Our teaching scene is not over yet. Jesus makes the disciples get into the boat and go to the other side while Jesus dismissed the crowd. Jesus takes this time to be alone and be on a mountain to pray. So the boat full of disciples is rowing across the sea but with great difficulty because the wind was against them. But look at verse 48. Jesus was walking on the sea and meant to pass by them. Before we can go on, please let what we just read sink into your mind. Jesus walked on the sea. Jesus was walking on the stormy sea.
Now this sounds strange. Jesus sees the disciples struggling in the boat and intends to pass by them on the sea. It sounds like Jesus does not care. But we have read enough in this gospel to know that Jesus deeply cares about his disciples. Why was Jesus going to pass by them? At this point you probably know that the answer must be in the scriptures. This phrase is an echo from Exodus 33:18-23, the same passage we looked at earlier where God declares himself to be compassionate and gracious. This is the phrase God used to Moses when Moses asked to see God’s glory. God said he would pass by Moses in the showing of his glory. This also happens to Elijah in 1 Kings 19:10-12 where the Lord passed by Elijah to reveal himself to him. This is what Jesus is doing. What Jesus is doing is showing his glory to the disciples by passing by them.
But notice that is not what the disciples understand. Rather, in verse 49 the disciples think they are seeing a ghost. They do not see what they were supposed to see. Instead, they were just afraid. This is the same thing that happened in Exodus 20 when God came down on Sinai and spoke the Ten Commandments. The people were terrified. Further, we have seen this theme of fear in Mark many times. Fear is either controlling people to believe in Jesus or reject Jesus. Now the disciples are afraid again. Jesus tells his disciples to have courage and to not be afraid. Once Jesus gets into the boat, the wind ceased. Now notice the big deal is at the end of verse 51.
And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. (Mark 6:51–52 ESV)
Why were they afraid and why were they astounded? Notice that the text tells us why: “They did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” We are seeing that these miracles were not intended to wow the people but were intended to teach the people who Jesus is. But the disciples did not understand the loaves because their hearts were hardened. Are you blown away by those words as much as I am? The disciples have hard hearts and are failing to see Jesus.
The message is that hardness of heart comes from not grasping who Jesus is and what he has come to do. Spiritual dullness causes us to miss the true importance of Jesus. Faith does not automatically come from being in God’s presence or from seeing his miracles. The problem is spiritual dullness. The problem is a hard heart. The problem is that they are not understanding what Jesus is showing about himself. Just think about this! They are seeing miracles on a daily basis. They are hearing Jesus teach. Yet those they see the miracles and hear the teachings, they are dull. They have hard hearts.
What had the disciples missed? Verse 52 says that they did not understand about the loaves. What did they not understand? What had these disciples not grasped? What was the message of the loaves? Jesus is the God who satisfies. Jesus is the good shepherd who feeds you. Jesus takes us from the wilderness to lying down in green pastures. Jesus has come to heal your life. You see this point made as the ending of this section in verses 53-56. The people are coming to Jesus to be made well.
We have to come to Jesus to be made well. We have to come to Jesus to be satisfied. We have to come to Jesus to be fed. We spend too much time looking to the world for satisfaction and healing and we are left empty every time. Why do we keep doing this? Why do we keep turning to the world? The answer is given to us in the section of Mark. We have not seen Jesus in a way to understand who he is. The reason we are not satisfied in life is because we are not turning to Jesus for satisfaction. This is the essence of spiritual dullness. God provides what we are needing but we are spiritually dull and do not see it. We are spiritually dull to not see what God is doing for us, just like the people of Israel when they were in the wilderness. Look and see what God is doing. Let the Lord be your shepherd and lead you to green pastures, feeding you so that you can be satisfied in him.
Come, everyone who is thirsty, come to the water; and you without silver, come, buy, and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without silver and without cost! Why do you spend silver on what is not food, and your wages on what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and you will enjoy the choicest of foods. Pay attention and come to me; listen, so that you will live. I will make a permanent covenant with you on the basis of the faithful kindnesses of David. (Isaiah 55:1–3 CSB)