The disciples thought Jesus’ instruction to feed a crowd of thousands of listeners was an impossibility—until Jesus miraculously produced more than enough food from just five loaves and two fish! This should have, and did, cause quite a stir, because no ordinary person could do such a thing. Who, Alistair Begg asks, is this compassionate man Jesus? The Bible describes Him as the only one who can satisfy our deepest needs—but only when we admit we are lost without Him.
I invite you to turn to the portion that was read in Mark chapter 6.
Father, now we turn to the Bible, to Jesus, and we ask that as we turn our gaze upon him, that you will teach us from your Holy Word, even as we’ve prayed in our song. We’re a variety of people on various points of the spiritual, geographical compass, as it were. You know who we are, and you know what brings us here. And we’re entirely confident that you, having brought us here, are able to match your Word to each of our lives. Help us to this end, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Now, in turning to Mark chapter 6, our study this morning follows on from last time. Some of you were here two weeks ago when we looked at just, essentially, one verse as the compelling verse in Mark chapter 5. We looked at the healing of a demon-possessed man and the instruction that Jesus gave to him at the end of the incident. And the man had requested of Jesus that he might be able to go with him—an understandable request. And yet, Jesus gives to him an unexpected response: “Jesus did not [allow] him”—verse 19—“but said, ‘Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.’” He, in other words, confronted the man with the privilege and responsibility of sharing the news of who Jesus is and what Jesus has done.
And the reason that we looked at that is because we believe that at this point in Parkside’s immediate history, we believe that God wants us to be thinking along similar lines: to be making sure that we’re not becoming a marina—everybody bringing their pleasure crafts in for a Sunday; we all boat around and show each other the stripes on our boats and the bits and pieces and knickknacks that we’ve managed to accumulate—but rather that God would remind us that we’re actually a lifeboat station, coming together in order that we might be fitted effectively for going out onto the oceans and streams and lakes and ponds and so on to reach others who are on the sea of life.
It’s for that reason that we turn, now, to Mark chapter 6 and to another unexpected response on the part of Jesus. We might even say that it was an unwelcome response, at least from the disciples’ perspective. I’m referring now to verse 37; I’ll point it out to you, and then we’ll come back to it: Jesus answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And the fact of the matter is, they couldn’t. But as we’re going to see, they did. And in that paradox, there is a lesson for us.
What I’d like to do is to simply follow along with you in the narrative as it is before us. But we know that when we come to a portion of Scripture like this, it sets within a context, and an immediate and a wider context. And without being unduly arduous in tackling this, let me just suggest to you that if you turn back a page to verse 7 through verse 13, then you will have the immediate context for what follows in verse 30. In verse 7: “Calling the Twelve to him, he sent them out.” “He sent them out.” Mark has been making this clear from the very beginning of his Gospel. In chapter 1—you needn’t turn to it—in verse 17, when he calls the fishermen, Simon and his brother Andrew, to him, he says, “Come [and] follow me … and I will make you fishers of men.”
Now, we perhaps are familiar with this story, and we have an inkling of what Jesus meant. How striking it must have been for the two of them! Fishermen used to fishing for fish, and Jesus says, “Why don’t you come and be my followers, and you can go out and fish for men?” In 3:14, in calling those he wanted to him, he sets aside the Twelve, designates them as apostles, and his purpose is twofold: number one, “that they might be with him,” and number two, “that he might send them out.” He wants them to be with him, and then he wants them to go for him. And having sent them out to preach, he gives them authority to drive out demons, and the details of that unfold, essentially, throughout the gospel record.
Now, when you look there at verse 13 and following, through to the end of verse 19, and then you fast-forward to 6:30, then you can see how this all fits together—at least I hope you can. Verse 12 and 13 of chapter 6: “They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.” That had an impact in the community, as verses 14 and 15 and 16 make clear. And then, verse 30: “The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported.”
So in verse 30, quite simply, we have a report. And their report is clear: they reported to Jesus “all [that] they had done and taught.” “Jesus, you sent us out. We’ve come back, and here’s our report. This is what we said. This is where we went. Lives have been touched and changed, and questions are now being asked in the community as a result of all that we’ve gone out to say.” That’s what’s supposed to happen when the followers of Jesus go out to gossip the gospel, to tell others the nature of the kingdom of God: that lives would be touched and changed and that there would be people who begin to ask questions about the identity of Jesus, and what he said, and what it was he came to do.
Now, in response to this report, Jesus says, “It would be good for us to have a retreat.” Verse 31: “Because so many people were coming and going that they did[n’t] even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’” This was the pattern of Jesus. His individual pattern was to slip away from time to time. Nobody can work, work, work, work, even if they think they can—no matter what the work is! And Jesus understood that. He would go away by himself, sometimes at the end of the day, sometimes in the early hours of the morning, before the dawn had ever come, so that he might regroup, so that he might be recalibrated, so that he might be in touch with his Father, so that he might be ready for all that then would befall him. And so, he includes his beloved core group in the pattern, and he says, “Let’s go to a quiet place, and let’s get some rest.”
Verse 32: “So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place.” All of this ministry taking place around the Sea of Galilee, it made perfect sense for them to jump into a boat, and they could cut across a corner of the lake and be in a more remote region within a very short period of time.
But verse 33 tells us that the planned retreat has to be aborted. And the reason is that the people—many of whom saw them leaving—realizing who they were, began to run on foot, and from all the towns, they managed to get to the place that was the retreat place ahead of the little group that was going for the rest. And so, when they reach there, there was no possibility of rest. They were confronted by, if not an unwanted crowd, certainly an unsought crowd. It was not that Jesus had sent his disciples out and said, “Try and put a big evangelistic opportunity together for me, and then I’ll come across, and I will speak to all these people.” No, Jesus had done the very reverse: he said, “Let’s get away by ourselves. We need to regroup. It’s time for us to have some rest,” and here they are confronted by that which challenges the very strategy. And here we see the wonderful nature of Jesus himself: “But many who saw them leaving … ran on … got there ahead of them.” Verse 34: “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them.”
If you remember when John Dickson was here some weeks ago for our pastors’ conference and he preached on a number of occasions, at least on one he mentioned the depth of this verb, splagchnizomai, which has to do with your bowels, if I may just be absolutely straightforward. It has to do with what we call, in our family, “airport tummy”: when you’re going on a trip, and you’re not sure if you want to go, and you’re not sure how you’re going to get there, and you’re not sure if the plane’s going to fly safely in the air, and we say to one another, “Does anybody have ‘airport stomach’?” That would be the same verb. Splagchnizomai. Something that so affects you that it affects you not only psychologically, but it affects you physically, constitutionally.
And when Jesus looks out on this crowd, he is stirred to the very core of his being. And he doesn’t look at these people as an immediate intrusion upon him and his followers, despite the fact that they’d planned a retreat. He looked at them, and he saw them. They looked “like sheep without a shepherd.” It may even be that they actually looked like sheep without a shepherd—that, as Mark records for us in verse 39, they sat down “on the green grass,” and if you’ve been in the Middle East, you know that most of their clothing is light-colored clothing; you’ve seen folks with those light-colored headdresses with those wonderful bands around them. And as Jesus looked out on this scene—thousands of individuals scattered against the green grass—they may actually have conjured up a picture in his mind of sheep out in a meadow. But whether it did or it didn’t, he viewed them as those who were in need of a shepherd.
Now, that picture, of course, is found again and again in the Bible, and Jesus has come to be the great Shepherd of the sheep. Jesus is the one who embodies the shepherd who goes out looking for the lost sheep; Jesus was teaching how important it was for him to reach out to individuals. And Jesus was the fulfillment of David, who was the great shepherd boy of Israel, pointing forward to a Shepherd who would ultimately come, who would gather the sheep into his fold. Jesus is the Shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep.” Therefore, it is no surprise for us to discover that when he looks out as a shepherd, with a shepherd’s heart, he sees people as sheep without a shepherd.
You see, if you’re a businessman or woman, with a businessman or a businesswoman’s heart, when you see a crowd, what do you see? You see market! You see opportunity! Because you think in business terms. And so you should, if you’re a businessperson. “I wonder how many of these I could sell to them?” you say. But Jesus sees this vast crowd, and he thinks what he can provide for them and what they need.
And seeing them in this way, look at the striking sentence that ends verse 34: he saw them; they looked to him “like sheep without a shepherd. [And] so he began teaching them.” Teaching them! Isn’t that very interesting? You might have expected a different verb. He saw them as sheep without a shepherd. In other words, he saw them as harassed and bewildered and wandering and lost. He looks out on them, and he realizes that there are mums and dads there that are at odds with one another, as there are in this congregation right now. And he looked out, and he saw that there were disenfranchised individuals who were on the fringes of things, who by dint of their life and their choices were somehow removed from the crowd; they were the wandering sheep. And he knew them, too, as he knows you. And he sees all of that, and he teaches them. We’d be inclined to say, “Well, why would you teach them? Don’t they need a psychiatrist? Or don’t they need a psychologist? Or don’t they need somebody to just come and give them a backrub? What are you doing, Jesus, teaching them?”
Some of you are here at Parkside this morning, and that’s what you’re looking for: some kind of solace, some kind of respite. And in you walk, and somebody’s attempting to teach the Bible. What possible relevance could there be in the teaching of the Bible, for goodness’ sake? Well, it actually says that “he began teaching them many things.” Teaching them that he is the one who opens the eyes of the blind. Teaching them that he is the one who sets the captives free.
Legion could’ve testified to that. Maybe he was somewhere in the community, doing that even as Jesus spoke: “I’m the man who had all the demons.”
“You are? What happened to you?”
“Jesus set me free.”
And Jesus begins to teach them concerning the kingdom of God, the inrushing of God into a moment in time, speaking to all that will be accomplished, ultimately, in his plans and purposes.
And while this is going on, the sun is setting. And verse 35 tells us that “by this time it was [now] late in the day, [and] so his disciples came to him.” And this is actually… This is at least ironic. It is almost funny, at least to me. Because here the disciples come to tell Jesus what to do. There’s nothing like stating the obvious, is there? “‘This is a remote place,’ they said.” Well, what was Jesus? I mean, he didn’t understand that it was a remote place? “‘And [it is] already very late.’” “You mean like I don’t know what time it is?”
The disciples are actually very good at telling their master stuff. Back in chapter 1—you needn’t turn to it—when they go to him and find him on his little retreat, they say to him, “Everybody’s looking for you, Jesus!” And the inference is, “Why would you be away here when everybody is out here and there’s a tremendous opportunity for you?” And at the end of that time, Jesus says, “Let’s get out of here and go to other villages where I can preach the gospel. That is why I have come.” When they were on the boat, you remember, they gave Jesus some instructions as well. The storm breaks in the lake. Jesus is asleep at the stern, head on a pillow. They wake him up to instruct Jesus that “we’re all about to drown.”
No, the disciples seem way too good at telling their master what’s happening and what needs to be happening. Because not only do they state the obvious—“This is a remote place, and it’s very late”—but they actually instruct Jesus as to what he ought to do. They tell Jesus, “Send the people away.” Now, it would appear that they are driven by pragmatic concerns. They’re practical men, after all. “Send the people away. It’s late. They can go out into the surrounding countryside. They’re going to have to go into the villages if they’re going to buy themselves anything to eat. If they’re going to get any supper at all, they’re going to have to leave here.”
And then it is that point, at that point in verse 37, that Jesus gives them this uncomfortable assignment. He looks at them and he says, “You give them something to eat.” “You give them something to eat.”
Now, this is when I wish this was on video. Because I’d like to see their eyes as they look at one another. “You…? Where are we supposed to produce stuff to give them something to eat?” Phillip—and we know it’s Phillip from the Johannine record—Phillip starts to talk in terms of finances. Phillip says, “Well, I’ll tell you right now, Jesus, it’ll take about eight months’ wages to foot the food bill for such an operation like this. You don’t honestly think that we’re gonna muster up that kind of cash, and go out, and go to the grocery stores—the equivalent of—and spend that much on bread, and give it to them to eat?” But Jesus doesn’t quit. He says, “How many loaves do you have?” They must have said, “Hey, search me. I don’t know.” So he says, “Well then, go and see.”
What a futile exercise! Five thousand men, not counting the women and the children, late in the day. “Jesus, our best suggestion is, get these people out of here and on their way.” Jesus says, “Why don’t you conduct an inventory?” And so, “When they found out, they [came back and] said, ‘Five—and two fish.’” And in the Johannine record again—that’s in John’s Gospel—Andrew is the one who says, “There is a young lad here, and he has five loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many?”
In other words, “What can we possibly do with this, Jesus? This is an impossible situation.” It’s an impossible situation—the way the situation in chapter 5 was impossible, isn’t it? This man, who’s roaming around in the graveyard, cutting himself with stones, screaming like a crazy person in the middle of the night. Nobody can do anything for him at all—until Jesus comes, and takes the impossible, and transforms it. Once again, now the kingdom of God is about to dawn. An indication of it is about to be seen. “Who is this Jesus?” That’s the question that’s running round the court of Herod. “Is he the prophet of God? Is he John the Baptist raised from the dead? Who is Jesus?” The question that some of you are perhaps asking this morning. And if you haven’t resolved it, it’s a question that you should be asking.
And then, verse 39: without giving them any indication of what he plans to do, “Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass.” It’s fascinating, isn’t it? He makes them do this. I can just imagine it, can’t you?
“Um, could you… would you please sit down?”
“I don’t know why. Jesus… Jesus told me to ask you if you would like to sit down.”
“Well, what are we sitting down for?”
“I’m sorry. I can’t tell you that either. He just wants everyone sitting down. And please, he wants fifties and a hundreds.”
This is like a wedding reception. I know, for I’ve done one, and some of you have done more than one.
“But how many people are going to be at the tables?”
“Well, how large is the room?”
“Well, can we have tables of eight? Or tables of ten?
“Tables of ten would be good.”
“Yeah, but there’s no elbow room.”
You know how that goes.
Well, that’s the kind of thing that’s happening here. “Groups of hundreds and fifties,” so that it will be possible to be moving among them. So that you’ve got, if you like… he sets them out in garden beds. He sets them out the way you would plant flowers in a garden, so that there is access to them for weeding and so on, irrigation. And that’s exactly what is unfolding. And Jesus directs the disciples to go and tell the people to sit down on the grass.
And so, verse 40, “they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. [And] taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. [And] then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people.” Fantastic, isn’t it? Either this is gonna be a dramatic display of the fact that Jesus is none other than the creator of the ends of the earth, or it’s gonna be a bust.
And the Twelve take the material—take the loaves—and they begin to serve. And they continue to serve. And the miracle unfolds. And did you notice? It’s not like some of the people got a wee bit of bread, and some of the folks got some fish, because a few less people got fish than got loaves ’cause there was only two fish. After all, you know, you could make the five loaves go a little further than the two fish. But no! “He … divided the two fish among them all,” and “they all ate and were satisfied.” He gave the loaves to the disciples “to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied.”
In other words, Jesus is doing here, in the Galilean context, what had been done many, many years before when God had provided manna in the wilderness. Here the Shepherd of Israel is showing himself as identified in this persona. And for those who have eyes to see, that’s suddenly dawning upon them: he is the Shepherd of Israel. He is the one of whom the psalmist wrote,
The Lord is my shepherd; I[’ll] not … want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside [still] waters.
And as people ate and were satisfied, it is obvious that this was not a symbolic gesture. You read some commentators, and they try and come up with the idea that everybody got, like, you know, the tiniest fragment of fish, and a tiny little piece, and he managed to grind it down and so on. That’s not what it says at all! It says that the miraculous impact of Jesus made it possible for everyone to eat and for everyone to be satisfied.
There’s no surprise in this. Remember Mary, as she provides what we refer to as the Magnificat? You remember where she says that the Lord has regarded the soul of his handmaiden? And as she sings of the one who is going to come from her womb, what does she sing of him? She says, “He has filled the hungry with good things, but the rich he has sent empty away.”
And having all eaten and been satisfied, Jesus gives further instruction to the disciples: “Hey, fellows, why don’t you just go and pick up the leftovers?” If they were in any doubt about what had taken place as they all go with their baskets… It’s a very humorous picture for me, again. All the big, smart guys: “Jesus, I think we’d better get these people out of here. After all, it’s late, it’s a remote place, and there’s really nothing at all for them. We have done an inventory: we have five loaves and two fish. But frankly, I mean, you know, we know, everybody knows: you’re not gonna be doing anything with that, at least not today. Not for a long time.” And now, here they are with their baskets, bumping into one another, picking this stuff up, and suddenly realizing, “We have more left over than what we started with.”
You see, for those of you who are wondering about Jesus, let me just remind you of C. S. Lewis’s great quote. Because the chances are, if you do not understand the Jesus of the New Testament, you have concluded that Jesus was probably a really quite nice man—you know, like, a good man. And remember C. S. Lewis’s wonderful quote, where he says,
A man who was merely a man and said the things that Jesus said, did the things that Jesus did, would either be a lunatic—on the level with someone who claimed to be a poached egg—or he would be a demon or something worse. So you can spit at him and call him a demon; or you can fall at his feet and worship him as Lord and God. But do not come to him with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great moral teacher. He has not left that option open to us. He did not intend to.
The Jesus to whom we’re introduced in the pages of the New Testament is, if you like, in one sense, a difficult character to deal with. Because we’re not introduced to somebody here who has come up with a list of rules and regulations and inviting people to come and apply them to their lives externally so that they might manage to navigate life a little easier. No, we have a King inviting people to bow down before him. We have a Shepherd inviting sheep into his fold.
Four points of application in two and a half minutes.
Number one: the question of Jesus’ identity, which is buzzing at this time, is rightfully buzzing. Because, after all, such events speak to the fact that he is no ordinary man. If you will read the New Testament as an agnostic, you will at least conclude that Jesus was no ordinary man. And if you are hungry today, he will feed you. If you are not, he will send you away. He feeds the hungry; he sends the rich away. And “rich” is used there as the antithesis of “the hungry.” In other words, he sends away those who have no need of him. But those who acknowledge their need of him, he feeds them.
That’s the first point of application. God looks, today, down upon us, and he sees us as these people were seen: hungry and thirsty for spiritual nourishment, straying and lost. And he is the one who lays down his life for the sheep. So if you’re wondering about the question of the identity of Jesus, I encourage you to continue your search.
Secondly, let’s just notice the distinction between practical concern and divine compassion. The disciples were very, very practical, weren’t they? But they were missing the compassion of Jesus.
Some of us are like that. Some of us are like that: “Send the crowds away. We don’t want to deal with these crowds. We don’t want to deal with these people. They’re not like us. They’re asking dumb questions. They’re just a drain on our resources.” And Jesus saw them with a heart of compassion. In the song we sing, “Teach Me to Dance”—which doesn’t get many people dancing around here; it gets most people sending me letters—but it has the wonderful line, “Teach me to love with [a] heart of compassion.” “Teach me to love with [a] heart of compassion.” Maybe that’s your prayer from this sermon this morning: “Teach me to love with a heart of compassion. Teach me to look out and say,
‘Souls of men, why will you scatter
Like a crowd of frightened sheep?
Foolish hearts, why will you wander
From a love so true and deep?
I’d love to introduce you to Jesus.’”
Thirdly, you might want to ponder throughout the day the simple distinction between verse 36 and 39: the disciples’ response, “Send them”; Jesus’ response, “Seat them.” “Send them. Send them away, Jesus.” Jesus says, “Sit them down.”
And finally, it’s impossible to read the record of this without recognizing that God takes impossible situations, unbelievably limited resources, and he multiplies them for the well-being of others and for the glory of his name.
I wonder if you’ve brought your life? You might feel yourself to be the only person—you may be the only person in your whole family—that’s a believer. And you’re gonna have a Father’s Day picnic, and you’re about to go out there and eat watermelon and stand around. And you’re actually dreading it again. And you feel yourself, in the response of Andrew, to be saying, “What am I among so many? What can I say? What can I do?” God is able to take your life and multiply it. Have you offered up your resources to God—your time, your talents, your energy, your gifts, your finances? It may not be much.
If I had time, I’d retell the story of Gladys Aylward, which I don’t have time to do. But I have her in my mind’s eye as I close: a servant girl in the East End of London with no education, no savings, a small brown suitcase, and a passionate longing to go to China with the good news of the gospel. The missionary society blew her out—now I am telling you the story—and she said she got down by her bed—she got down by her bed, in a garret, in the East End of London—and she said, “Lord Jesus Christ, even if those men don’t understand it, I understand it. You want me to go to China for you.” And this tiny little lady with the long, straight, black hair began a journey by train, and then by ocean liner, and eventually ended up in Shanghai. And as she stood on the deck and looked out on Shanghai, and she saw all the tiny little Chinese people with their jet-black, straight hair, she suddenly realized that God had a plan and purpose for her, and that he’d even established her DNA in such a way that she would be perfectly suited to become the “Little Woman” who would reach all those tiny children’s lives, because she offered up her life to God, and he multiplied it for his glory.
Don’t be too quick to assume that God is unable to do with you what he may intend to do with you. Offer your life to him.
Father, thank you for the record that Mark has given us here. Help us not to be like the disciples. Fill us with a heart of compassion, we pray. And grant that we might offer our lives to you on a daily basis, recognizing that our inability is your opportunity, that our weakness and our sense of dependence is the very basis upon which you show yourself to be strong.
So then, to this end we turn afresh to you now, and ask that as we look out on the days of this week that we might be useful. Some of us are still searching and wondering, and we pray that you will help us as we investigate and look into things. Some of us have grown cold and very practical. Break our hearts, Lord, we pray.
And may the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with each one, now and forevermore. Amen.
 See Luke 15:3–7.
 John 10:11 (NIV 1984).
 Mark 6:34 (NIV 1984). Emphasis added.
 See Mark 5:1–20.
 Mark 1:37 (paraphrased).
 Mark 1:38 (paraphrased).
 See Mark 4:35–41.
 See John 6:7.
 John 6:9 (paraphrased).
 See Luke 9:7–9.
 Psalm 23:1–2 (NIV 1984).
 See Luke 1:48.
 Luke 1:53 (paraphrased).
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, bk. 2, chap. 3. Paraphrased.
 Graham Kendrick, “Teach Me to Dance” (1993).
 Frederick William Faber, “Souls of Men, Why Will Ye Scatter” (1854). Language modernized.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.