Feeding the 5000 | Mark 6:30-44

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.

Mark 6:30-44 ESV

After witnessing the supernatural hand of God against the Egyptians via the ten plagues, the LORD’s guidance as they fled Egypt via the pillars of cloud and fire, and God’s marvelous deliverance through the parting of the Red Sea, the Israelites were finally free from the yoke of Pharaoh’s enslaving hand. They were now free to worship the Most High and to enter into the land of Canaan that God had promised their ancestor Abraham so long ago.

Yet a new problem presented itself. On the other side of the sea was a great wilderness that the great crowd would need to traverse before they could enter the Promise Land. As the people of Israel began their journey through the wilderness, they began to grumble, crying out that God had only delivered them from Egypt in order to have them starve to death out in the desert. The LORD answered their groanings by giving them bread from heaven. As His sheep bleated out, the Shepherd gave them food.

THE RETURN OF THE APOSTLES // VERSE 30

As is very common to Mark’s Gospel, our present passage links itself to previous ones. Particularly, the words the apostles returned to Jesus remind us of their short-term journey that Christ sent them upon in verses 7-13. Having gone out in pairs to preach the gospel of the kingdom of God and having seen that even Herod has begun pondering the identity of Jesus upon hearing of the miracles that the apostles were working in Jesus’ name, the twelve now return to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. Since they were ministering as ambassadors of Christ, it was only fitting for them to give a report to their Teacher of all that they did.

As we too are our Lord’s ambassadors to the world, His bodily present on earth, we should remember that at the end of our journeys we too will return to Jesus to give Him a report of all that we have done and taught. Of course, let us also remind ourselves that the work of ministry is not exclusively we who bear the title of being a minister. As Paul wrote, God gave leaders to His church “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:11-12). Therefore, it is not only preachers and teachers who will be summoned to give a report; we shall each be called before Him to recount all that we have done and taught. Indeed, the parable of the talents from Matthew 25:14-30 gives us this very warning. We are each given talents by God to steward over. Some receive more, while some receive less. Yet at the end of the parable, they are each called to report on how they stewarded over their talents while their master was away. The servants over five and two talents were both faithful stewards, and their reports were met with praise. The servant over one talent was a slothful and faithless steward who did nothing with the talent given to him, and his report was met with rebuke and punishment. The point of parable is, of course, for us to consider today what kind of stewards we are with the gifts that God has given to us for the advancement of His kingdom. When we give our report to our Lord, we will be found faithful or faithless?

Of course, that does not imply that we will be judged on the last day according to the merit of our own works. If that were the case, then Jesus would not have also taught us these words:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

Matthew 7:21-23

The people that Jesus describes seem to be faithful stewards who have done much labor in Christ’s name, who have been valuable servants of the kingdom. Does this passage not seem to contradict the parable of the talents? A closer glance at both reveals no contradiction at all. In the parable, the servant over one talent confidently declared to his master, “I knew you to be a hard man…” (Matthew 25:24), yet we were just told of the master gladly rewarding his other two servants with much after being faithful with only a little. You see, just like those who cry, ‘Lord, Lord,” in Matthew 7, the servant did not truly know his master. Like Jephthah and Saul, his fundamental lack of understanding the character of his master led him into sin even while attempting obedience. If that sounds harsh, we should remember that the biblical concept of sin is to miss the mark, like an archer who fails to hit his target. This is why the Bible so thoroughly laments ignorance of God. Attempted obedience without a proper knowledge of who God is often results in further sin. Indeed, trying to obey a false notion of God is like an archer who is shooting west even though his target is east. The archer’s skills are worthless if he is not actually shooting in the direction of his target. Therefore, we should take God’s message through Jeremiah to heart:

Thus says the LORD: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the LORD.”

Jeremiah 9:23–24

Truly knowing God is the only the real peace that we will have on the day that we stand before our Lord to give our report, and it is the only way for us to be faithful in this life, for we cannot properly serve God without first knowing God.

THE GIVER OF REST // VERSES 31-32

After hearing the report of their journey, Jesus said to them, Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while. Mark then further explains that were many coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. The apostles have returned from their mission only to face further demands of ministry. As in 3:20, the crowd is so demanding that Jesus and His followers again are not even able to eat. Therefore, Jesus called His disciples to remove themselves from the crowd, to join Him in a desolate place, and to rest.

As we have noted before, the wilderness and desolate places are repeatedly used in Scripture as the setting for when God tests His people and makes Himself more known to them. I think that the significance lies in the seclusion, the set apartness from the rest of the world. After all, God’s holiness means that He is set apart, that He is unlike anyone or anything else in all of creation (for He is the Creator!), and as saints, we are God’s holy ones, those whom He has set apart for Himself, to be His own possession. It is fitting, therefore, that God often meets His people in a special way whenever they have set themselves apart by withdrawing into the wilderness, into a desolate place.

Furthermore, Mark has also already revealed Jesus’ own habit of “rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark” to go to desolate place and pray (1:35). Although Mark shows us Christ expending Himself without rest during His earthly ministry, we should keep in mind that Jesus was sustained by His communion with the Father and the Spirit. As the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus was at perpetual rest even as He poured Himself out in service to others.

Now He is teaching His disciples to do likewise. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. Yet He does not call them apart to prayer. Or does He? Just as Jesus went apart to be with the Father, now He took them apart to be with Him. If prayer is speaking to God, then each time they spoke to Jesus, they were praying, even though they did not yet understand this to be true. Likewise, every time that Jesus spoke to them, they were hearing the Word of God. He called them apart to have rest in their communion with Him, to sabbath with the Lord of the Sabbath. Likewise, do you go to Jesus for rest?

In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus gives us this invitation:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

This is a marvelous invitation to lay aside the burdens that our sin brings, the weight of guilt and the heavy yoke of legalism. Christ’s offer of salvation is remarkably light. Our salvation is not dependent upon our own merit but upon the merit of Christ. We only need the faith to trust in His work rather than our own. Have you come to Jesus for this perpetual rest of the soul?

HE HAD COMPASSION ON THEM // VERSES 33-34

Our text continues:

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.

So desperate was the crowd to be with Jesus that they ran ahead of His boat. But rather than rebuking the crowd as any of us probably would have done, Jesus is stirred up with compassion toward them. He sees that they are lost, like sheep without a shepherd. About this verse, Ryle reminds us that “It is poor theology which teaches that Christ cares for none except believers. There is warrant in Scripture for telling the chief of sinners that Jesus pities them, and cares for their souls; that Jesus is willing to save them, and invites them to believe and be saved.”[1] Although John 6 tells us that Jesus offended most of the crowd the following day, here we have reminder that the Lord does not wish “that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

Notice, however, how His compassion is manifested toward the crowd: And he began to teach them many things. His compassion was stirred by their ignorance of God, for they were lost because they clearly did not know God as their shepherd (Psalm 23). Therefore, Jesus knew that what they needed most was knowledge of God.

Here again is another example of Christ Himself being the greatest scandal of Christianity. There is no shortage of those who do not want any doctrine but only want Jesus. Indeed, many see Jesus as supreme example of caring for the poor and needy as well as being a man of love instead of doctrine. In reality, Jesus’ love for the lowly stirred Him to teach, and doctrine is teaching. Jesus showed His love for the crowd by teaching them. They were as lost as sheep, and as the good shepherd, Jesus was more than glad to feed them with the Word of God, which would satisfy them far more than any earthly bread ever could.

In fact, since Jesus will soon feed them with literal bread, let us consider the words of Moses that Jesus Himself quoted in the wilderness: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Do you believe that verse? Are the words of Scripture more precious to you, more necessary to you, than food? Furthermore, do you believe that, even more than the meeting of physical needs, the world needs to know the Word of God?  

THE BREAD OF LIFE // VERSES 35-44

Continuing, Mark then tells us that as the day grew late the disciples, and since they were in a place secluded from the towns and villages, they told Jesus to send the crowd back home to get something to eat. But Jesus gave them a very strange answer, “You give them something to eat.” Their response reflects their incredulity, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” A denarius was a common laborers daily wage, so two hundred denarii was getting close to a year’s wages being necessary to buy so much bread. But Jesus was unmoved. “How many loaves do you have?” They looked around and found five loaves a bread and two fish. To finish setting up this grand miracle, Jesus ordered the crowd to sit in groups of hundreds and groups of fifties on green grass. Like the good shepherd that He is, Jesus was making the flock “lie down in green pastures” (Psalm 23:2).

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.

While there is so much that we could say about this miracle, allow me to attempt to answer three questions. First, did Jesus actually give His disciples rest? It appears that they did not have rest, but Morgan calls us to examine the scene more closely. “They watched Him give Himself once again to with unstinted sacrifice to the crowds. But they were resting. Oh yes! they had their rest. I think I know enough of how they felt that day. It was a wonderfully restful time, such as that man, whose work is preaching, has, when he sits quietly down in some little village chapel, and listens to another man breaking the bread of life. No responsibility; just the quiet rest of it all.”[2]

After reading that, I became convinced that Morgan is correct. As a pastor, I have spoken with many people who thought that my idea of a restful Sunday would be away from church altogether, but that is not so! One of my most restful experiences was a visit to a church in Shreveport while on vacation. That time spent with brothers and sisters from another congregation was reinvigorating. Even our visit to a very dry church in Sweden was a blessing as my wife and I observed a man as full of joy as we have ever seen before clutching His Bible and singing the psalmody. After being teachers themselves, the disciples were now resting under the teaching of their Lord. After feeding others, they were now being fed.

Second, why is this miracle significant enough to be described in all four Gospels? Even the birth of Christ is not recounted in each of the four Gospels, so why is this miracle so special? I believe we only need to consider how this miraculous feeding particularly displays the identity of Christ. In a desolate place, Jesus gave to this massive multitude of more than five thousand people (verse 44 only says there were five thousand men) bread to eat. For a people who were supposed to meditate on God’s law day and night, they should have made the connection to what God did for their fathers in the wilderness of Sinai. There, God gave them heavenly bread, called manna. Here, Jesus too gives them divinely created bread. With only five loaves, the feeding of the crowd could only happen through creation ex nihilo. Jesus brought physical matter into existence that previously did not exist. And the proof of the physicality of this miracle was in the satisfied bellies of the people. Here was an instance of Jesus showing Himself to be one with the Father.

Third, why were there twelve baskets full of bread and fish after the meal? There was a basket for each of the apostles to carry back to Jesus. I believe that Jesus was particularly making a point about His identity to the twelve. As we have seen, He sent them on their journey with no bread. He forced them to rely upon the provision of the Father for their daily bread. Since they each returned, we can safely conclude that the Father did indeed provide for them. Not one of the twelve starved along the journey. Now just as the Father had given them bread along the way, they returned to have Jesus feed them and a vast crowd with bread, and they even each had a basket full of leftovers! Jesus was teaching them that just as they placed their faith in God, they should also place their faith in Him. Of course, we will discover, even as soon as next week, that the disciples did not understand this point of the miracle. In fact, in chapter 8, Jesus will repeat the message by working a similar miracle.

Yet if we look even further ahead in the Gospel, we find Jesus at His final meal with His disciples before His crucifixion, and Mark records the scene: “And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ (14:22)” Upon the cross, Jesus’ body was broken, just as He broke the loaves, to give us life. Bread feeds us for a day, but Christ gave us eternal satisfaction. As Jesus said in John 6:48-51,

I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. this is the bread that comes from down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.

Long before, God spoke through Isaiah, saying, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (55:2). Jesus Himself is the bread of life, the richest of food. In Him is our eternal sufficiency. Have you eaten this bread?


[1] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Mark, 99.

[2] G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel of Mark, 152.

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