The feeding of 5,000 men was a spectacular witness to Israel, yet most Jews continued to reject Jesus as Israel’s Messiah – Mark 6:31-56.
The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle story recorded in all four gospel accounts, which demonstrates its importance to the early church. In John’s gospel, it occurred near the Passover season. In Luke, only the twelve disciples participated in the distribution of bread and fish. Mark places the story after the account of the execution of John the Baptist – (Mark 6:31-44).
In the preceding story, Herod held a banquet to which only members of the upper class were invited. It ended with the beheading of John. In contrast, Jesus provided a “banquet” in the open fields to which any and all were invited. It met the basic needs of common people. Herod’s banquet brought death, but Christ’s, life.
Jesus summoned the disciples to withdraw with him to “rest for a while,” but growing numbers of men and women began to follow them. He saw the crowd as “sheep without a shepherd” and had “compassion” on them because of their physical needs, including hunger.
In the Hebrew Bible, the image of a shepherd symbolizes royal figures appointed to lead nations. Here, Jesus is the “shepherd” sent to lead the nation of Israel – (Numbers 27:17, 1 Kings 22:17, Isaiah 63:11, Jeremiah 10:21, Ezekiel 34:5, 37:22, Nahum 3:18, Zechariah 13:7).
In the New Testament, the Greek verb rendered “compassion” is only applied to Jesus, and only in the three synoptic gospels – (Splangchnizomai – Matthew 9:36, 14:14, 15:32, 18:27).
The disciples saw the crowd and the lateness of the hour, then asked Jesus to send them away to the “country and villages round about so they could buy something to eat.” They had just returned from a successful mission in which God had supernaturally provided for their needs, but in this instance, they desired to send people away with their most basic needs unmet.
“Two hundred denarii.” This was approximately two hundred days’ worth of income for the average laborer in Galilee. The bread that Jesus distributed came from the provisions of the twelve disciples. While he was dividing the bread, he gave it to his disciples to distribute to the crowd. In the preceding story, at Herod’s banquet, the king and his guests were waited on and served by slaves. In contrast, here, the disciples served the crowd including many women and children.
Mark states that about five thousand “men” were present. Presumably, some women and children were also there. That would mean more than five thousand individuals were fed. This assumption is confirmed in Matthew’s account – (Matthew 14:21).
In Galilee, Jesus had become a recognized figure, and his works were well known. That explains why he condemned the cities of Galilee for refusing to repent. Unlike the surrounding Gentile cities, Capernaum and several other Jewish towns had received an adequate witness of the kingdom of God, yet they still refused to repent.
There are several parallels between this event and the story of Moses when he led Israel in the wilderness. He, also, was a “shepherd” sent to lead Israel. The multiplication of the loaves parallels the provision of manna in the wilderness. And both Jesus and Moses divided the people into orderly groups before serving them – (Exodus 16:14, 18:21-25, Numbers 27:17, John 6:22-59).
JESUS WALKS ON WATER. The town of Bethsaida was located near where the Jordan River enters the Sea of Galilee and only a few miles from Capernaum. Bethsaida meant “house of fish,” and fishing was its chief industry. It was one of the Galilean cities condemned by Jesus for not repenting despite his miraculous deeds – (Mark 6:45-52).
The story opens with a strongly worded sentence: “And immediately he compelled his disciples to get into the boat and go forth to the other side.” Why did he compel them to depart so hastily after feeding the 5,000?
The parallel account in John provides relevant details. After feeding the crowd, certain men were “about to come and take him by force to make him king.” Jesus reacted by “withdrawing to the mountain by himself,” following which his disciples departed by boat – (John 6:15).
In Mark, Jesus also departed alone “to the mountain to pray.” It is likely he was reacting to the attempt to proclaim him “king.” Possibly, he wished to remove his disciples before they also became caught up in any nationalistic fervor.
He was destined to be the king of Israel, but not in the manner envisioned by the crowd, and Galilee was a hotbed of zealot activity. Quite possibly, zealot activists were present among this crowd, perhaps even encouraging others to seize Jesus and turn him into a revolutionary figure.
He began to walk on the water after “seeing the disciples straining at the oars, for the wind was against them.” Why does Mark state that Jesus intended “to pass them by”? Note the Old Testament parallels:
- (Exodus 33:19, 22) – “And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name `Yahweh’, and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy…. and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.”
- (Exodus 34:6) – “Then Yahweh passed before him and proclaimed, ‘Yahweh, Yahweh, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
- (1 Kings 19:11) – “And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before Yahweh. And behold, Yahweh passed by.”
In the Hebrew Bible, God revealed information about His grace and compassion when “he passed by.” Likewise, in the middle of the storm, Jesus declared, “take courage; it is I.” The all-powerful but unseen God had made himself known and “visible” in the person, teachings, and ministry of Jesus, and here, in an act of mercy and deliverance. But despite this miraculous deliverance, the disciples still could not grasp who he was.
MANY HEALED IN GENNERARET. The town of Gennesaret was in a different direction and some distance from Bethsaida, the town to which the disciples first set out by boat. The storm had blown them off course.
- (Mark 6:53-56) – “And when they had crossed over, they came to the land to Gennesaret, and moored to the shore. And when they were come out of the boat, straightway, the people knew him, and ran round about that whole region, and began to carry about on their beds those that were sick, where they heard he was. And wheresoever he entered, into villages, or into cities, or into the country, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and sought him that they might touch if it were but the border of his garment: and as many as touched him were made whole.”
The “fringe” of his mantle referred to the tassels Israelite men were commanded to sew on the four corners of their outer garment. Considering the mixed population of Galilee, some men in the crowd were almost certainly ritually “unclean.” However, rather than rendering Jesus “unclean,” touching his garment delivered all who were ill and oppressed by demons.
Despite this series of spectacular miracles, neither the crowds nor the disciples yet understood who Jesus was.