Do You Understand the Loaves?
Sermon Passage: Mark 6:30–56 | Preached to Sovereign Grace | 07/25/2021
By Peder Kling
Creating a New People in Desolate Places
Today’s stories are two very common, popular stories. First, Jesus feeds the five thousand. Second, Jesus walks on water.
Usually we look at these two stories in isolation from one another. Perhaps you can picture children coming to their parents after Sunday school, and they have a little art project that depicts Jesus feeding the crowd. Or another week they might have a project that depicts Jesus walking on the water. The lesson they often learn are two different lessons—different morals, or different lessons about Jesus.
Yet, as I illustrated last week—I have hoped and prayed that we might see how these stories in Mark relate to one another and, and how they teach us something much bigger when we read them together. Mark doesn’t tell these stories in isolation from one another. They aren’t isolated fables to teach their own, separate lesson about Jesus and his morality. These stories were lived. They’re real, and they often happen on the same day as Jesus is intentionally teaching an over-arching lesson to his disciples, and those following him.
Consider how Mark’s gospel brings today’s well-known stories together, that we might consider them together this morning.
First, notice that the two stories of Jesus multiplying the bread and walking on water happen over the course of a mere 12 hours. Jesus miraculously feeds the massive crowd dinner, and then verse 46 tells us “Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side.” Jesus “made” them get into the boat. He had a design, a purpose, an itinerary in mind. So, even before the crowds were dismissed from their dinner, he dismissed his disciples into the boat. You’d think Jesus would have wanted their help dismissing this massive crowd in an organized way. Not today, he had something in mind for the disciples. It was on that journey to the other side of the Sea of Galilee that a great storm rose up, and the former fishermen were taken out to sea “until the fourth watch of the night”. That means their brief trip, which should have lasted a few hours, ended up keeping them out at sea until the early hours of the morning (between 3 and 6 a.m.). Something tells me Jesus was well aware something like this might happen.
So, these two stories are first tied together because they happen within 12 hours of each other—and, Jesus had a plan at work with these 12 hours.
There’s another way these stories are tied together. Did you catch that strange comment made in verse 52? Look at verse 51, as it leads into verse 52. There we read, “[Jesus] got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded.” The word there means what we mean when we say something like “I’m speechless”, or “I don’t have categories for this”. “I’m utterly beside myself”. Now, why would they respond like this? You’d think anyone would be astounded. Jesus literally just walked on water in the middle of a hurricane! But Mark gives a different reason, verse 52—“because they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”
Isn’t that a strange statement, at first glance? For one thing, it’s a very clear and obvious connection between the two stories. If they understood the loaves, they wouldn’t have been so dumbfounded by Jesus walking on water. Jesus is teaching something very similar in both stories. But more than this, I think it gives us a clue to exactly what is happening in the greater story of Mark’s gospel. In both of these stories—in the miracle with the loaves, and Jesus walking on water—Jesus reveals his glory in a way that had not yet been done before.
You see, this chapter we are looking at (chapter 6) is a turning point in Mark’s gospel. Last week’s message opened this all up with a rejuvenated focus on Jesus’s mission. He sends his disciples out with his power and authority to teach and perform miracles in the surrounding towns. This would have been a big, public move on Jesus’s part. No longer is it just Jesus, but his disciples are spreading the kingdom with a message of repentance, and powerful miracles. Jesus is on mission, and his strategy has changed. His impact multiplied by 12—and, it caught people’s attention. Immediately after Jesus sends the twelve out, Mark tells us that that’s when King Herod heard of it, and began to wonder of John the Baptist had been raised. The crowds were beginning to really question who Jesus is—“John the Baptist”, maybe “Elijah”, or perhaps “a prophet like one of the prophets of old”. Yet Herod, hearing that Jesus’s power and ministry is multiplying, fears that the prophet John whom he killed had been raised.
That’s where our passage comes in. In keeping with this section of heightened missionary activity—heightened demonstrations of his power—Jesus performs perhaps one of the most outstanding public miracles yet. He multiplied food out of thin air, in a desolate place where there was no food, and fed a massive crowd. Our passage tells us in verse 44 that he fed 5,000 men. Matthew’s gospel clarifies and says “5,000 men, not including the women and children”. So, even conservative estimates believe the number was closer to 15,000 or 20,000 people. The 2019 census puts Williams at a population of 3,176. This is a massive, massive crowd. Jesus is on a mission. He’s revealing his glory and power in a profoundly public way, and he’s preparing his disciples as they watch him in action at the peak of his public ministry. He’s preparing them, equipping them, and training them as he has invested them with his power and authority. I love what Jesus said when the disciples proposed the problem of a hungry crowd—“you give them something to eat.” (verse 37). It’s like he’s saying, “I’ve given you my authority and power to do miracles, you do it”.
But are the disciples getting it? Are all the teachings, coupled with these grandiose miracles sinking into the disciples’ hearts, so that they’d be prepared to take up his ministry? It doesn’t look like it. In fact, there’s a part of me that thinks that the storm was a second chance to trust Jesus at sea. The last time they were caught in a sea-storm, Jesus rebuked them. They failed the test. Would they get it this time, even after seeing Jesus feed 20,000 people? “They did not understand about the loaves, for their hearts were hardened”. This is becoming an irritating refrain in Mark’s gospel, isn’t it? They weren’t prepared to feed the masses, and they weren’t prepared to weather the storm, trusting in Jesus’s care.
So at least from that perspective, we should read these stories together. They catalogue another instance where Jesus tests his disciples at sea, after a day of ministry. But more specifically, these two stories give us a beautiful picture of what it looks like for Jesus to be on mission. He really is preparing and training his disciples—just as he does you and me. He really is showing compassion and manifesting his power toward lost and hungry sinners, just has he does today through his Word and Spirit. That’s where I want to focus the rest of today, honing into what Jesus looked like when he was on mission. There, we see a compassionate and patient Jesus, with a fierce commitment to his mission.
Jesus’s Opposition, Mission, and Compassion
So first, I want us to recall the opposition to Jesus’s mission, which we learned about last week. Second, we’ll see the unique way Jesus’s mission is on display in today’s passage. Then third, we are going to consider Jesus’s compassion, and how he channels it to advance his kingdom to save lost sinners like you and me.
So, (1) Jesus’s opposition, (2) Jesus’s mission, and finally (3) Jesus’s compassion.
1. Jesus’s Opposition
So, what exactly is Jesus up against? What opposition is he facing as he seeks to carry out the mission of his kingdom? A lot of times we think of Jesus’s opposition in terms of the devil, or in terms of worldly kings and authorities instituting laws that are hostile to Christians. Or perhaps more commonly, we ourselves might consider opposition to Jesus’s mission to be the local nay-sayers of the Christian faith. In the town that I grew up in, there was a statue of Jesus with his hands up, looking like he was blessing the cars that drove by him every day. We called him “touch-down Jesus”. Certain people in town didn’t like Jesus blessing them, so they all signed a petition to get rid of the statue. I vividly remember certain Christians in town saying that the devil was at work, opposing his Christ through these petition signers.
Certainly—hostile people in the world, and the devil, are forms of opposition. More fundamentally than this, however, is the problem of unbelief. That’s what I spent most of last week’s sermon unpacking. The greatest problem Jesus must overcome in his mission to save the world is not just sin, but it is unbelief. Unbelief is the greatest sin of all, is it not?
Perhaps you remember some of the points made in last week’s message. Last week, I noted that the story of Jesus sending his twelve out on mission is nestled between two stories of radical, hostile unbelief. Chapter 6 opens with Jesus being opposed by the unbelieving Nazarenes, then Jesus sends the twelve out on mission, and then we learn about the opposition, or unbelief, of Herod. We spent a lot of time diagnosing the unbelief in the Nazarenes of Jesus’s hometown, and the unbelief of Herod.
In both instances, we saw that both the Nazarenes and Herod were fascinated—even convicted—by the message of Christ’s kingdom. Jesus came to Nazareth, preached in the synagogue, and the people were astounded with his wisdom and authority. They didn’t have anything to counter it with. Luke’s gospel tells us that the folks in Nazareth “spoke well” of his eloquent words, and “marveled at the gracious words coming out of his mouth”. It’s a wonderful thing to hear about hope, isn’t it? Except, the people of Nazareth, when it came down to it, couldn’t stomach the words coming from Jesus. They couldn’t stomach the authority he was claiming—his message of repentance sounded eloquent, but it was an upright confrontation to their desire to control their own lives and be their own gods.
Herod did the same thing when he heard the gospel—he heard it from John the Baptist. John confronted Herod for being in a sinful, incestuous marriage—and Mark tells us that “when he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly”. Only he didn’t repent. He locked John up in prison so he could control John’s word without it getting too public. He feared John, enjoyed his words, but not enough to obey them. That’s unbelief. James tells us that the fruit of faith is obedience—it’s repentance from death to life; sin to righteousness and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is on a mission to confront all forms of unbelief. In Nazareth and in Herod, we see an unbelief that hears the message of the kingdom gladly, but is offended by it and confines it to a special place so it won’t get out of control. Many people, even today, enjoy sermons that either pat you on your back, or even sound fiery and bold. But in the end, they’re no different after the sermon. They go home after the sermon without any desire to repent, or change, or cultivate a greater love for Christ in all areas of their lives. They’re offended that Christ might require them to submit their thoughts, their music preferences, their time and work to his authority.
You could also think of the unbelief of the crowds, as we have seen throughout Mark’s gospel. The crowds followed Jesus for his power, not his kingdom of faith and repentance. They wanted to get healed; they didn’t want Jesus. They were much like the folks throughout the world who follow health, wealth, and prosperity preachers—or, “word of faith” preachers. These people will not stand the test of time either, if Christ doesn’t supernaturally intervene to soften their hearts.
Our story today is a tipping point for many of the folks in the crowds, actually. The story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 is one of the only miracles that is recorded in all four gospels—even John. If you turn to John 6, you’ll see John’s account of the story. Only, John’s account gets much more detailed and specific, especially with details that happen after this massive supper. Just like Mark, John describes how Jesus walked on water that evening—and not just Jesus, but Peter as well. For whatever reason, Mark does not describe that famous detail about Peter stepping out of the boat to meet Jesus. John describes that part of the story. But if you keep reading even after that, you’ll see that John describes a sermon that Jesus preached on the next day. Just as Mark 6:53 describes (that’s the last paragraph of our passage), John tells us that the crowds whom Jesus fed frantically ran about looking for Jesus the next morning. I believe it was John MacArthur who said that they were probably looking for breakfast—last night’s dinner was just too good.
But, what does Jesus give them? He gives them a sermon. He gives them the bread of life. He says to them,
26“Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you….”
Then he said in verse 32,
“32 Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world….”
And verse 35,
I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”
When he says this, and do they flock to him with a faith that is hungry to be satisfied? Do they look to him to fulfill their souls with the love, joy, and peace of the Holy Spirit? Not at all. They, like the Nazarenes, and like Herod, get offended. Verse 41—
41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?
Verse 66 finally gets to the point, and tells us that “after this, many of his disciples [those in the crowd who followed Jesus closest] turned back and no longer walked with him”. Unbelief is a terrifying thing, isn’t it? It can be fascinated with Jesus—it can be tickled by his call to faith and repentance, and his miracles, but it will never fully embrace Jesus for who he is. It desires its own authority, rather than Jesus’s authority. It’s something Jesus’s mission is seeking to overcome.
Of course, there’s also the unbelief of the disciples. Literally, we are told that “they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened”. That’s a reference to unbelief. It’s a reference to blindness. Yet, it was these men whom we see Jesus most intimately and purposefully calling to himself. Jesus’s mission is most focused on these men. How does he build them up, soften their hearts, and instill unshakable faith and understanding within them?
2. Jesus’s Mission
This is where our passage uniquely unpacks Jesus’s mission. We’ve seen his opposition—the unbelief that his mission must overcome. And, it’s everywhere manifesting itself in various ways. It’s even in the disciples. But our passage gives us a beautiful picture of his mission against unbelief, especially in the disciples.
Have you ever wondered why Jesus sent out the 12 before they even knew who Jesus was? Literally, he sends them out on a mission, with his authority, and in the same chapter we learn that their hearts were hardened like the crowds. Wasn’t it a bit premature to send them out at this point?
There are a few reasons why Jesus sent them out at this point. First, he is training them. We’ll look at that in a moment. The other reasons, however, is that he is making a statement. I mentioned last week that it isn’t a coincidence that Jesus sent the twelve out with a sense of expediency and dependency upon him (they were not to bring food or anything else), only to follow their journey by calling them out into “a desolate place” (v 25 of our passage) where he would miraculously feed them bread. This is a clear reference to the exodus story. In fact I didn’t see it until a few days ago, but it’s even more ironic that we have the disciples sent out in haste, just as Israel was sent out in haste from Egypt—and, it is their very departure that peaks the paranoia and fear of Herod. Throughout the gospels, the Herods were regularly linked to Pharoah. The clearest connection is how Herod, like Pharoah, sought to kill every male child in Israel when Jesus was born. Yet the pattern of the story is so similar to the Exodus, it’s earie. The disciples are sent out, Herod is driven to paranoia and a demise just as Pharaoh was, and then God in Jesus brings his people to a desolate place to be fed bread from God’s own hand.
Why did Jesus send the twelve out, when he did? In part—he was using them to identify himself as a greater Moses. He was identifying himself as the leader of a new exodus—a departure from God’s enemies, into God’s lavish promised land where he would care for them in a land flowing with milk and honey. He was identifying himself as the leader and creator of a new people—and, he intended for his people to be built upon the foundation of these twelve men.
So, Jesus’s mission is a new exodus—to create a new people who might enjoy God’s blessings, protection, and fellowship forever. He’ll even get more explicit about connecting the loaves to this message later on, as we will see in Mark 8:19. But right now, I want you to notice that the “desolate place” where Jesus brings his disciples to isn’t a desert, like the Sinai desert in Moses’s exodus. The Greek behind the word “desolate place” in verses 31 and 25 simply means “rural”—no markets to find food. You’re on your own, and you can find rest and solitude if you need it. That’s why Jesus took them there—they had just been on a hard journey as they went from town to town, healing the sick and preaching the about Jesus’s kingdom. You might say that was their exodus journey, and now Jesus was going to give them a taste of the promised land—a place of solitude and rest in God. When Jesus looked out at the crowds, he commanded them to sit on green grass, to be fed from the very hand of God. Is this not Christ’s mission, to bring us to this rest in God’s love and care, as he overcomes our unbelief? “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, he makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters” (Psalm 23).
Yet, Jesus’s mission must first overcome our stubborn ignorance, and blind unbelief. The disciples are a shining example of how stubborn we are, without God’s grace. It would seem that nothing might convince them of Christ’s glory. How does he overcome our unbelief, and bring us to understanding by faith? The answer is in this story—this story about Jesus on mission.
He reveals his glory to us. That’s how he overcomes our unbelief. No doubt, the feeding of the 20,000 is one powerful revelation of his power and glory. Yet, I really believe that the story of Jesus walking on water was a tipping point for the disciples in this regard. Jesus wasn’t simply testing their faith in a stormy sea for a second time. There was something different about the way Jesus intended to use this storm.
Did you catch the strange detail mentioned in verse 48? Mark tells us that “at the fourth watch of the night, he came to them, walking on the sea.” Then Mark says this strange detail. “He meant to pass by them”. What does that mean? First, “he came to them”, and then, “he meant to pass by them”. You don’t go to someone just to pass them by without notice. What is this saying?
Throughout the Bible, whenever God is described with this verb as “passing by” someone, he is intentionally and climactically revealing his glory to someone. This happened to Elijah in 1 Kings 19:11, and to Job—both at significant moments when God was teaching them to trust him. But the other place this happens is, you guessed it, the exodus. When Moses desired to see God’s glory after the exodus, God promised that he would “pass by [him]” and proclaim his name, “The LORD”, before Moses.
This is what Jesus was doing on the sea—what he intended to do, and what he actually did before the disciples. Why were the disciples terrified they were seeing a ghost? Why could they see Jesus in the first place—the sun had not yet risen, and the waves and rain and wind made it hard to see. It’s hard to know for sure, but I suspect that Jesus was shining—manifesting his glory before them. And do you know what he said to them when he spoke from the waves? Our English translations miss the nuance, but it’s an important one that most commentators and pastors pick up on. He says his name—not his human name, Jesus, his divine name. Verse 50, “Take heart; I AM”. Ego eimi, is the greek there. He’s not simply saying, “it’s me”, or “it is I”. He’s saying “Take heart; I AM”. Every Jewish person would have understood that phrase to be an explicit reference to God’s name “Yahweh”—literally translated, “he is”, or in the first person, “I am”. So, Jesus, walking on the water and most likely shining for the disciples to see, says to his shaken disciples— “take heart, God is here, do not be afraid.”. Now, Jesus doesn’t literally pass by them as God did in the old testament. He doesn’t come for a quick experience of his glory, and then go. He gets into the boat with them, and calms the sea.
Jesus, on his mission, overcomes our hard hearts and unbelief by revealing his glory to us. That night, they were astounded, beside themselves without proper categories. Yet, I think this was a tipping point for them. The next day, when Jesus spoke his sermon about the bread of life in John 6—and, many people turned away from him, the disciples didn’t. In verse 67, Jesus says to them at that precise moment—
“Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
After this manifestation of his glory with the loaves, and at sea, and the next day’s sermon in John 6—Jesus had softened their hearts. They had come to know the truth, and the truth set them free from all the folly and misunderstanding of their unbelief.
Jesus’s mission is still the same. He still is overcoming hard unbelief by revealing his glory in undeniable ways to his people whom he has died for, and purchased. When his Spirit comes upon a person, his glory is tasted and seen as the all-satisfying breadwinner of life and blessing. First Corinthians 2:10 tells us that “these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit”. Paul prays that the church in Ephesians would be given “a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of [Christ]”. That’s faith. It’s Christ’s mission accomplished at the cross, and applied in the hearts of his people through his Spirit. So, there’s hope for even the most lost sinners among us.
3. Jesus’s Compassion
We’ve seen the opposition of Jesus’s mission to be a startling, hard-hearted unbelief that’s in every person. We’ve seen Jesus’s mission as it is echoed and patterned after the Exodus. Jesus is on a mission that Moses couldn’t accomplish—to overcome unbelief, and create a new people who will experience his blessings.
But, I want you to see the manner in which Jesus gets all this done. Both of these stories give us startling images of his compassion. He doesn’t just get his mission accomplished like a bunch of heartless soldiers. He’s compassionate—and, that’s really good news for us today.
First, consider his compassion to the crowds whom he fed. Let me tee this up for you. Have you ever finished up a really hard week of work, and you get home Friday night and you just want to kick your feet up? Then, parents, you realize your child is sick, or hungry, or needs a little extra attention? Or perhaps you realize your spouse needs some affection, or perhaps your neighbor. Is it hard to be kind and loving in that moment? It’s incredibly hard. You’re exhausted, and the flesh wants to be selfish.
That’s where Jesus was with his disciples. His disciples had just finished up a really hard journey of missionary work. Jesus is probably tired, too. So, that’s why they go out into the desolate place—to find rest from a long, hard journey. In fact, Matthew tells us that this was also the moment that Jesus heard about John’s death. Matthew seems to tell us that when the disciples finished their missionary work, they buried John’s body, and went to tell Jesus about John’s death and their successful missionary journeys. So, they were physically and emotionally exhausted in every respect. Verse 31 of our passage even says that the disciples didn’t have time to eat when they were ministering. It was time for a rest, time for food. There’s a taste of Jesus’s compassion right there, isn’t it? God encourages his people to get the physical rest they need. “He knows our frame, he remembers we are dust”.
But the story goes, when Jesus and his disciples hopped on the boat to go to their “desolate place” to rest, the crowd saw them and followed them. They didn’t go to the other side of the sea—perhaps a few miles north from where they were. The crowds ran alongside them from shore. Could you imagine the irritation you might have when you docked the boat, only to find 20,000 people waiting to press up against you for your healing and power?
Yet, Jesus is compassionate. He’s always available. This is literally where we are told, “34 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.” You can’t exhaust Jesus’s compassion and mercy. He taught them many things, and Matthew tells us that he also healed their sick. He did this all day, right up to dinner until they were exhausted and in need of food. It’s amazing—his compassion over-exerted 20,000 people. So, he fed them. He fed them, even though they would turn away from him 24 hours later when he preached to them about the loaves.
Now, Jesus’s compassion goes beyond this compassion that he has for all people, indiscriminately. He reserves a unique sort of compassion for the his people whom he is calling to himself. You see that in the way he handled his disciples. I’ve already explained that he was on a mission to overcome their hard hearts. There’s nothing more compassionate than that. Yet, his compassion is uniquely manifest and applicable to us in verse 46. There, we are told that after he first dismissed the disciples to their journey at sea, and then leaving the crowds, he at last “went up on the mountain to pray”.
What did he pray about? The gospels do not say. However, given the circumstances, I think we can take a pretty good guess at it. Jesus just sent his disciples out into a terrible, life-threatening storm where he would reveal his glory to them. I think he was praying for their safety, and that their hearts would be softened to receive the revelation of his glory.
You see, Jesus does not send us into hard situations without promising to provide and care for us. The disciples were caught at sea from dinner time to the early hours of the morning, before sunrise. Jesus sent them there. So, he prayed for them—that his glory would shine through the storm. I believe it did. Notice also that Jesus was awake with them. I imagine he was praying all night, watching the stormy winds from the mountain that he was praying on. When it was the right time, he passed by them with his glory—no sooner, and no later.
Jesus’s compassion moves him to intercede for us. That’s the book of Hebrews, is it not? He intercedes for us with his blood. He died for our sins. He interceded between our helpless souls and God’s wrath against us. He paid the penalty of God’s wrath that we deserved, and he gives us his righteousness and life for eternal fellowship and blessings with God. He intercedes for us, for our salvation. And yet, he continues to intercede for us, that we might not turn away from him or be destroyed by fear and unbelief. Hebrews says, “he is able to completely save those who draw near to God through him, because he always lives to make intercession for them”.
So, we have been reminded that the chief opposition to Jesus’s mission is unbelief. We have been reminded that Jesus’s mission is to create a new people, and bring them into his promised land. He is the bread of life, he is the manna that came down from heaven. By faith, he satisfies all who come to him and receive his word and Spirit. And as he is carrying out his mission, through his sacrifice and his Spirit, he is compassionately interceding for us so that we might be saved to the uttermost, completely, and one day rest eternally with him.