Please read Mark 6:31-56
The scene looks distinctly unpromising. Spread out across the hillside, right down to the edge of the lake below, stands a great, milling crowd: thousands of people shuffling about, muttering, wondering what is going to happen next. They are tired: they’ve rushed to get here; they’ve now been standing for several hours; and in their rush to come out nearly all of them have forgotten to bring their sandwiches. It’s gradually dawning on them, as the sun begins to go down behind the ridge to the west, that they are extremely hungry. There are no corner shops here – hardly even a house in sight. It’s a remote spot. In fact, it seems the only resources available are a single packed lunch and a dozen frankly rather grouchy young men who’ve been hoping for a good break but instead find themselves having to cope with this unexpected crowd. But out here in these lonely surroundings, Jesus is about to reveal his identity in a new way; not just as one who can feed a crowd, not just as one who can fill their stomachs, though he can certainly do that; but so much more. Jesus is about to show that he is all they need.
With this story we begin a new section of the book, which runs through to 8:21. It thus begins and ends with the two great feeding miracles. The reasons for putting the division after 6:30 are explained in the Introduction. The disciples have just returned from their mission, found Jesus and cheerfully reported back (v.30). The dark tale of John’s martyrdom forms the backdrop – discipleship is a serious business. Jesus says to them (v.31), Right, let’s go and have a break. I think you need it. There’s certainly no peace here: people are coming and going all the time, so that there isn’t even time to eat – and that’s ironic, considering they are about to be part of the world’s biggest picnic! They set off in by boat, across to the eastern shore of the lake, to a ‘solitary place’ – literally, Mark says in both v.31 and v.32, a desert place. Unfortunately, by the time they get there, it is no longer solitary. Their departure has been spotted (v.33). The boat may be the easiest means of transport, but it’s not necessarily very quick. Under most circumstances, you could walk round along the shore and keep the boat under careful observation all the way. It’s not hard to imagine how the disciples feel when they see the crowd – we know how we feel when we’ve been longing for a break and suddenly find we’re not going to get it. No doubt on board there is an audible groan as the boat moves in to shore only to meet a host of expectant faces.
Jesus’ attitude is very different (v.34). Where the disciples see a nuisance, the Lord Jesus sees people with a need and his heart goes out to them. They are ‘like sheep without a shepherd’: that’s a powerful image, because sheep without a shepherd are lost, they are aimless. These people may think they’ve been very purposeful coming out here to meet Jesus, but he can see that in fact they are more like a helpless flock of sheep wandering near a cliff edge and what they most need is direction. That’s why he at once begins, not to heal or to perform other miracles, but to teach them. Time passes and it is soon getting late. The disciples have had enough. This morning they thought they were off on a quiet camping trip; now Jesus has insisted on dealing with the crowd; and he doesn’t even seem to have spotted that there is this huge catering problem. They are in the middle of nowhere, it’s about to get dark and there is nothing to eat. Finally, they tackle him (vv.35-36). It’s not at all clear that the operation they suggest would even be possible, but Jesus’ response shocks them (v.37). They clearly have in mind the most basic provisions at that price, but anyway the sum of two hundred denarii is far beyond their means. Worse still, Jesus is simply bouncing the problem back to them, as if it’s their fault they are in this mess. It’s almost as if Jesus has created this difficulty on purpose. The disciples don’t realise that this discussion is all part of their training. Should they really be so worried when Jesus is there with them? Haven’t they seen him get them out of tight spots before?
Jesus tells them to start with what they have (v.38). Someone at least has brought something, but since these loaves will be about the size of our bread rolls, it will not go far. Come on, says Jesus, sit them all down. So the disciples spread out among the crowd, get the people into groups and persuade them to sit down (vv.39-40). Probably it is only their respect for Jesus that makes the crowd so co-operative, and now a sense of expectancy runs through the throng. As they watch, Jesus takes the bread and the fish, and then he looks up to heaven, he gives thanks to God – and then something amazing happens. He breaks the bread, and then again, and again, and somehow every time he passes it out, his hands are full again. The same happens with the fish. Basket after basket is filled with food, basketful after basketful he gives it to his disciples to distribute to the crowd (vv.41-42). Probably they don’t all see what has happened; certainly they don’t understand it; but they do understand there is good food in their hands and soon their hunger pangs are gone. As they sit there in their orderly groups, this feels like a proper meal – the word used for the disciples setting the food before them underlines that. This is no hurried snack: Jesus has provided a feast. So the story closes with the disciples each picking up a basket, moving out among the groups of feasters, and filling it with leftovers. They finish with more than they started with. Everyone has had plenty to eat: these people are poor – mainly peasant farmers or fishermen who will rarely have plenty to eat – and when they get the chance they will take full advantage. It is easy to imagine how they feel. Five thousand men have eaten, plus women and children – a ratio of one bread roll to over a thousand people. What excitement, what delight as over five thousand poor, hungry people are fed to bursting point!
What springs out of this story is not the disciples and their grumpy attitude, nor the buzz of the happy crowd as they relax on the grass. It is the person of Jesus himself whose presence fills the stage. There is more to this story than five or ten thousand stomachs being filled, amazing at that is. Let’s dig a little deeper. A great crowd has followed their leader out to a remote spot – a desert place. There they have been fed and satisfied with miraculously provided food. If you know your Bible, that should remind you of someone. Fifteen hundred years before, Moses was the great leader, the man of God, the great heroic figure who took his people out of slavery in Egypt, into the desert and eventually to the edge of the Promised Land. On the way, God provided for them in a miraculous way. Every day he sent them manna, which was so unexpected that the name ‘manna’ itself means ‘What’s this?’ The crowds ate it and were satisfied. At the end of his life, the desert safely negotiated, Moses tells the people the Lord has promised to send them ‘a prophet like you from among their brothers’ (Deuteronomy 18:18). Now, here, Jesus appears. Out in the wilds, he stands before the crowd and feeds them. In this story Jesus reveals himself as the new Moses – but better than Moses, because all Moses did was tell the people the manna was coming, by the power of God, and give them instructions what to do with it. But Jesus in the power of God provides the food himself. The message is clear. Jesus is the new and greater Moses who has come to rescue his people.
When Moses was about to die, there was one thing that worried him. After he was gone, who would lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land? Who would take care of them then and lead them home? So he prayed that the Lord would provide a faithful leader to replace him – ‘so that the Lord’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd’ (Numbers 27:15-17). The Lord did give his people other leaders. Some turned out to be good; some of them were dreadful. But when Jesus sees the crowds of his own time, he sees that they are just like sheep without a shepherd (v.34). They don’t have the leadership or the care that they desperately need. All those other leaders, all those other shepherds, at best came and went. In the end, the best of them would fail. Every human leader lets us down in the end, but the Lord Jesus never will. He is the true and final shepherd, the good shepherd.
Mark gives us some other significant pointers in his telling of this story. Look back at v.39. Why should Mark tell us the colour of the grass? The Bible doesn’t waste words. It is a factual detail; it suggests the story takes place in spring, when the rains have fallen and the grass is fresh. But I think there is another reason for saying that the grass is green. Moreover, Jesus’ actual words to the disciples in this verse were: Make them lie down. Does that remind you of anything? Look at Psalm 23:1-2! This shepherd takes the sheep to a place of peace and rest and there provides them with all they need. Jesus has seen the people as sheep without a shepherd; and then reveals himself as the shepherd they need. The shepherd who is in fact the Lord, God himself in human form.
We have looked at Moses and at David’s psalm. Move on a few centuries more for one last Old Testament reference. God used the prophet Ezekiel to condemn the failed leaders of his people, men who had proved to be corrupt and brutal instead of caring for the flock as he wanted them to. In the same passage, God says: ‘I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep.’ (Ezekiel 34:11ff). When Jesus appears, he fulfils that prophecy in full. All those hopes and promises from Old Testament days – the shepherd who would succeed Moses and lead his people home, the shepherd of Psalm 23 who brings his people into green pastures and beside quiet waters, the shepherd Ezekiel spoke of, who will stay with the sheep and look after them – spread over a thousand years, come together in Jesus Christ the good shepherd who ultimately will lay down his life for the sheep.
Mark has deliberately pointed this story to highlight the way in which Jesus fulfils these Old Testament pictures. The emphasis falls on Jesus’ fulfilling the needs and aspirations of Israel. Jesus is literally catering for Israel. That is appropriate because the people who have streamed out to meet him in the ‘desert’ are from the towns and villages of Galilee: they are Jews. In ch 8 there is a second feeding miracle; and we will see that in sharp contrast to the feeding of the five thousand, none of the special features relating to Israel and its history is present.
The story reminds us all, however, that without Jesus, we are simply sheep without a shepherd, wandering and lost. He is the shepherd who will care for us, who will stay with us, rather than let us down as every human friend eventually will; the shepherd who will give us rest. Just as in this story the milling crowd becomes a scene of rest and peace when Jesus takes control, so when Jesus is in charge of our lives, there will be a place of peace that nothing can destroy, no matter what turmoil is going on outside.
We could never quite remember who spotted it first. There we were, out in the middle of the lake, in the middle of the night, struggling on in the moonlight. We’d been rowing for hours, into the teeth of the wind, and we were still only half-way across. Too tired to talk, too flat even to think about what had happened earlier that day. Even James and John had stopped arguing, and all we could hear was the wind keening and the choppy little waves splashing against our bows. Then someone saw it. Rowing, of course, we were facing back the way we’d come. There it was: a misty figure, moving towards us over the water, still several hundred yards away. I wanted to rub my eyes, but I didn’t think I should let go of my oar! Tired as we were, this was no hallucination – we knew we could all see it. It came nearer, and now we could see it striding across the waves. It wasn’t heading straight for us, it seemed to be going past, but I can tell you the hairs on the back of my head were standing on end. That was when we gave up rowing. We couldn’t do anything but stare. You know what they say about spirits of the night. Someone cried out and then we were all yelling, Help! – pointless, really, in the middle of a lake. But we were terrified, we didn’t know what we were saying. And that’s when he turned and came straight towards us. That’s when we finally realised who it was. He spoke to us – and it was all right.
Thus Peter might have described the story in vv.45-51 to Mark, thirty years later as they sat down together in Rome. It is hard to be sure how much the crowd has grasped about the miracle Jesus has performed, but as we move on to vv.45-46 Mark gives us some clues. Clearly, Jesus does not want either the crowd or the disciples hanging around. The Galilean mob is notoriously excitable and there is a real danger that they will get carried away with what has just happened. If they have recognised Jesus as some kind of new Moses figure – and they would be right to do so – they will want to adopt him as their leader and quite possibly to start an uprising. Remember this is an occupied territory. In fact one of the other gospel accounts confirms that that is exactly what the crowd want to do (John 6:14-15). But Jesus will have none of it. It’s a temptation he has to resist, because he is not going to be that kind of leader. In fact, it is even possible that Jesus sends the disciples away so quickly to stop them stirring up the crowds by explaining how they saw him multiplying the bread and fish. They are quite excited enough already. So he sends the twelve away in the boat they arrived in a few hours before and tells them to go back to the northern end of the Sea of Galilee, to Bethsaida. He will follow later, on foot. As indeed he does!
Meanwhile, once the crowd has finally dispersed peacefully, Jesus climbs up into the hills to pray (v.46). As elsewhere, we see him praying at night, an interval of peace to share time with his Father, no doubt to gather his strength after the demands of the last few hours and to recommit himself to follow the hard road that is laid out ahead of him: not to political uprising, but to the cross.
Out on the lake, the going is also very tough (vv.47-48). Jesus looks up and can see them. They’re in the middle of the lake, which would mean three or four miles away. From a high hillside, and assuming there is a full moon, it doesn’t take supernatural sight to see the boat fighting its way against a strong headwind and the white caps on the waves. This isn’t like the sudden, violent squall we read about in ch 4; this is the steady, hard grind of rowing into the wind. And so ‘about the fourth watch of the night’, that is around three in the morning, Jesus comes to them, the account tells us quite simply, ‘walking on the lake’. What a shock for the disciples! They think they are seeing a ghost, not because they are superstitious, but just because there seems no other explanation. But Jesus speaks (v.50). He gets in, the wind drops, and the disciples are amazed (v.51). Soon they are on their way again. They arrive, not at Bethsaida in the very northern corner of the lake, but at Gennesaret in the north-west (v.53) – probably the wind has blown them off course. And having arrived, still without having their much-needed break, what do they see but another crowd, looming up in the grey dawn light, people already going about their business in these shore-line fishing villages. They recognised him when he left v.33), and now they recognise him when he returns (v.54).
The response to his return is immediate (vv.55-56). Very soon, people are flocking from far and near, collecting everyone who can move, or whom they are able to carry, to bring them near to Jesus and have him heal them. They have all heard the stories about how he healed the paralysed man, just a mile or two along the coast in Capernaum (2:1-12) and that woman who just touched him and was instantly cured (5:25-29). So they come from miles around to do the same thing. Wherever Jesus goes, the eager crowds are there; and they know exactly what they want. They want to be well again; and he gives them the healing they are looking for.
This is another vivid, eye-witness story; and we can learn a lot by studying the characters we find here. The first character is Jesus; and once again in this story he has revealed himself in a new and powerful way. Just as the feeding of the five thousand is about much more than filling people’s stomachs, so this miracle of walking on the water is far more than Jesus proving he has an alternative to the boat! Once again, this story has deep roots in the Old Testament. This time we look back to the book of Job, and to this speech where Job is praising God for his wisdom and power in creating the world: Job 9:8-11. ‘He alone’ – that is, God alone – ‘treads on the waves of the sea’. Now here is Jesus, treading on the waves of the sea. What does that make Jesus? Here is the first clue to something that was quite puzzling in the story. In v.48 we read ‘he was about to pass by them’. If Jesus wants to come and help them, why would he be heading straight past? The Job passage is a hint. In the Old Testament, when people get a glimpse of the glory of God, it’s often said that he ‘passes by’. When God appears to Moses at Sinai, we read that ‘he passed in front of Moses’ (Exodus 34:6). 1 Kings 19:11 says something similar. Out on the lake, Jesus is doing what God does: passing by in his power and glory. In this story we see the Lord Jesus as the majestic Creator, the Lord Jesus who is God himself, who can tread on the waters of the sea because he has made them, they belong to him and they obey his command. If walking on the water breaks the laws of physics, which of course it does, that is not a problem for the one who devised those laws before the universe was made. We can call them ‘laws’ only because they reflect the faithful character of the God who sustains them. If he wills to ‘break’ them, he can do so!
Yet even that is not the most amazing thing we see about Jesus here. Although he is God, all-powerful, far above and beyond us, who can bestride the waves, he is also the man who gets into the boat. When the frightened disciples cry out, he comes to them, and he says ‘don’t worry, it’s me’. Their friend is back; and he gets in the boat. We don’t know if he takes an oar, but he certainly could have done. In ch 4 where Jesus stills the storm, he stands up in the boat and tells the wind and waves to shut up. Here it’s a little different (v.51a), as if Jesus brings peace with him, so that once he arrives and joins his followers, it is simply impossible for the wind to keep blowing. When Jesus arrives, calm descends; and all is peace. Jesus is the God-man, God who was there before and right through Creation, but also the man who brings peace to his people.
Now look at the disciples. They have been struggling to row across the lake; Jesus arrives, walking on the water, and they are terrified. Look again at vv.51-52. Now of course the disciples know that a miracle happened when Jesus fed the crowds. But for all that, they don’t understand. They don’t get the point about who Jesus really is. Mark tells us ‘their hearts were hardened’ – they don’t have that spiritual openness to grasp the real Jesus and trust him. In fact they don’t understand Jesus much better than his enemies, at this point. They have spent so much time with him, seen him do so much, but they still don’t see. They should see that if Jesus can make one bread roll feed a thousand people, there is no limit to what he can do; that if he cares enough to feed a whole crowd of strangers, he is hardly likely to abandon his best friends. But this kind of hardness is not about your intelligence, it’s about faith, about believing in Jesus.
The disciples should also understand what living with Jesus is like. If you want a good picture of the Christian life, look at this story. You get into trouble; you struggle; you cry for help; and Jesus comes to your rescue. Then pretty soon it happens again. It’s a constant pattern of trial and deliverance, trial and deliverance. Trials and difficulties are perfectly normal in the Christian life. These disciples are in difficulty not because they’ve done anything wrong: they have done exactly what Jesus has told them to do. They’re not in trouble because they’ve gone wrong; they’re in trouble because that’s what happens. The path of obeying Christ lies through trials and difficulties. As Jesus says to his disciples later: ‘In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’ (John 16:33) – one of the simplest but most important lessons a Christian has to learn. We should never expect the Christian life to be plain sailing. All too often it’s more like rowing into a strong headwind. It’s through these struggles that our faith is built up. This is how we learn to trust in the Lord for everything – you don’t learn that when everything is going swimmingly, you learn it when it’s tough.
Finally, what about the crowd – this frantic, desperate crowd (vv.55-56)? They want healing. We should try to understand how desperate people must have felt in days when there were no hospitals and only the most rudimentary medicine. There were no benefits if you were disabled: if you couldn’t work you had to beg or simply hope that your family would do the right thing and take care of you. Of course, if you heard that there was someone around who could heal you, you’d do everything in your power to get near. Hear their desperation in v.56. We don’t hear anything about Jesus resuming his teaching ministry: these people are not ready for that. They see him as a kind of wandering healer possessed by some divine power that’s communicated by touch. They understand even less than the disciples do. Yet wonderfully, Jesus accepts them with their limited understanding: he doesn’t turn them away; and ‘all who touched him were healed’. Of course they need to know more; of course they too need to recognise Jesus’ true identity: the time will come for that. We don’t need to know everything before we come to him. But he wants us to come.
This story paints a picture of what the Lord Jesus has done for us. It tells the story of his love. At the beginning of the story, there he is, on high, enjoying the unity and fellowship he has with God the Father. He looks down and sees humanity in trouble, unable to help ourselves. So he does not remain ‘up there’; instead he comes ‘down here’; he crosses over into our space and time and becomes a man, sharing our humanity, our flesh and blood; and he gets into the boat with us. The Creator of the universe enters in to our very lives; and where Jesus comes, there is peace.