The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.
And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
Mark 6:30-44, 51-52
I can imagine the disciples’ reaction when Jesus told them, “ You give them something to eat” (v. 37). In surveying the size of the crowd, they would have figured out pretty quickly that this was an impossible assignment. The best strategy they could come up with was to suggest buying two hundred denarii worth of bread to feed the massive crowd (some commentators say that this would be equal to a whole year’s wages for a laborer). This response reveals that they had not yet learned to depend on Jesus for their needs. Instead of seeking Him in humility and trusting in Him to provide, they figured out the cost of the food and inferred that they could not supply it.
What was Jesus after with them? He is the best teacher who has ever lived, and one of His teaching strategies was to put His disciples in real-life situations that could teach them long-lasting lessons that would not stick in the same way in a classroom. I see this unforgettable incident as teaching the disciples both lessons in ministry and lessons in Christology (the person and work of Christ). Here are two that stand out:
1. Ministry lesson: They learned a ministry lesson that they would never forget (which was later proven by their ministry in the Book of Acts): What you need for them, you get from Him. In other words, in and of themselves, they did not have the ability to meet the crowds’ needs. However, in Christ, they had more than enough to meet the people’s needs, as emphasized by Mark’s observation that every person ate and was satisfied and that there was food leftover (vv. 42-43). In a time when many churches and ministries in our society have a lot of worldly resources, it is easy to drift into depending on our own resources, strategies, programs, and abilities. When we do that, we will turn into pragmatists who reduce Jesus’ definition of success to things we actually can achieve in our strength (gathering and entertaining crowds) instead of depending on Him for something that we cannot achieve with our own abilities (being and making disciples). The Church is not in the business of self-improvement; the Church is in the business of seeing the dead raised to life. Only God can raise the dead to life, and He does so through people who are foolish enough in the world’s eyes to preach nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).
2. Christology lesson: They also learned an unforgettable lesson about the person and purpose of Jesus. By putting the disciples in a desperate situation that revealed their inability, Jesus prepared them to see His ability. In not only cognitively knowing but tangibly experiencing their own lack, they were prepared to never forget Jesus’ abundance. While our surface-level problem might not be feeding like the disciples, we do experience the same root issue that they did: not trusting God’s provision. For example, control is a major idol of the human heart. It is more deeply cultivated in our context as we live in a culture that teaches us to believe that seeking control over our lives in a variety of ways (like our bank accounts, career achievement, approval of others, our children’s success, etc.) is the best way to live. If the past year has revealed anything, it’s that we’re not in control, and attempting to secure control is not the best way to live. I think that the collective experience of our lack of control is one of the reasons why we see such anger and anxiety in our culture today. Jesus offers a better way based on who He is. In Psalm 23:1, David says that because the Lord is his Shepherd, he does not lack anything. He has everything he needs. This is confirmed in both biblical examples and in historical testimonies of men and women who might have had extremely difficult life circumstances, but who experienced God Himself was enough. In this story, the disciples learned that Jesus is fully God and therefore has absolutely no lack whatsoever. The ESV Study Bible notes, “As God provided manna in the desert (Deuteronomy 8:3, 16), so Jesus provides food in a deserted place.” Therefore, this same Jesus who is fully God in power and abundance also has compassion for people who can do nothing for themselves and delights in taking care of them and Himself being their portion (v. 34), which He most fully demonstrated on the cross (Romans 5:8; Romans 8:32). Today, Jesus is teaching us the same lesson He taught His disciples, one that is more relevant than ever.