A Feast in the Desert
Introduction, Outline, & Prayer
Just like the last sermon in Mark, I want to begin with a flashback. It’s July 20, 1969 and the Apollo 11 spacecraft just successfully landed on the moon. Astronaut Neil Armstrong exits the spacecraft and as his foot touches the dusty grey surface, he speaks one of the most famous lines of the 20th century: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
I was negative 16 years old when this happened; so, I don’t remember it but I’m still persuaded that it is inarguably the greatest feat in the history of human exploration. What else could possibly compete for the top spot? Mt. Everest is roughly 29,000 feet above sea level; summit that and you’ve accomplished an awesome feat. But even at the top of Mt. Everest you’d still have to travel another 1,261,363,000 feet before getting to the moon. And someone did it. Don’t let familiarity with this event dull the truth of how utterly astonishing it is that a person stood on the moon. A person. On the moon.
It’s amazing but for some reason, not long after new records are set, humans start thinking of ways to break those records. When it comes to breaking Neil Armstrong’s record, I think there’s really only one option: standing on Mars. So, let’s imagine that on July 20, 2069, on the 100th anniversary of the lunar landing, a spacecraft successfully touches down on the surface of Mars. An astronaut exits the spacecraft and as his (or her) foot touches the dusty red surface he (or she) says: “That’s one big step for man, one enormous leap for mankind.”
I think most people watching the Martian landing would understand the significance of that statement. It would be a very direct and deliberate way of honoring the lunar landing 100 years prior while simultaneously declaring it is no longer the greatest feat in the history of human exploration. But do you think someone 1,000 years later would see the significance? Or would they say something like, “There were 100 years between those two events. You only see the connection because you’ve got the history books in front of you—no one back then would have made a connection like that.” Or maybe they would say, “Those quotes are too similar to be genuine. Somewhere along the line someone must have tampered with the history books and fabricated a connection by changing what the astronauts said to make it match like that.”
Here’s why I’m mentioning all of this: Jesus often “broke OT records” (so to speak). The events of His life often both resembled and surpassed prior events found in the OT. And when that happened, He honored the glory of the prior event while revealing something even more glorious about Himself by replicating it x100. We are going to encounter one of those events in today’s passage; so, the question is, what are we going to do when we read about it? Will we think it’s an example of well-intentioned people making shallow or artificial connections between Jesus and the OT that aren’t actually there? Or, convinced that both testaments in our Bible share the same divine author, will we see the foreshadowing of Christ in the OT come to full and glorious light in the NT? May the Holy Spirit help us see that the latter answer is the right answer as we look to Christ through the word this morning.
Let’s open our Bibles to Mark 6:30–44. We are going to make our way through this passage in three points: The Weary Apostles (vv. 30–32), The Shepherdless Sheep (vv. 33–34), and The Satisfying Feast (vv. 35–44). We will end by considering some of the ways God intends to impact our lives through this passage. Let’s read then pray:
“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).
Point 1: The Weary Apostles (vv. 30–32)
Verse 30 picks up where v. 13 left off. In v. 13, Jesus paired the 12 disciples, gave them authority, and sent them to the villages of Galilee to proclaim His message of repentance and faith. In v. 30 they returned so excited about their mission and the success they had that they immediately began telling Jesus all about it. There may have been more to Jesus’s response but Mark simply quotes Him responding, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while” (6:31).
If you happen to be an adventurous person who thinks desolate places make sweet vacation spots let me rain on your parade a bit. This wasn’t camping with Jesus on a nice campground with a couple of furnished cabins. It was trekking to an isolated, uninhabited, undesirable wilderness with absolutely no amenities. That’s what Jesus meant by the word “desolate.” And that was how far they had to go to get rest at this point because Jesus had become so well-known that “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (Mark 6:31). This is similar to what we read back in Mark 3:20, “Then [Jesus] went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat.” The difference is that this time, it’s not just a gathered crowd but many people coming and going—as people leave, others take their place. On the heels of such a successful yet tiring mission, Jesus is concerned that His apostles take time to rest.
We don’t know where they departed from—my guess would be Capernaum since that seems to have been their home base so far. We also don’t know where they departed to—all we know is that it was far enough away to be considered “a desolate place” and yet close enough that a large crowd could get there on foot and faster than a boat. One Bible atlas I looked at suggested a place about 2 miles west of Capernaum.
Point 2: The Shepherdless Sheep (vv. 33–34)
As we move to point 2, I want you to put yourself in the story. Imagine that you are one of the twelve apostles that Jesus sent. You’ve been working hard and travelling for many consecutive days and finally return to meet up with Jesus and the rest of the apostles, hoping for some rest. Instead you and the others are so unceasingly swarmed by crowds of excited and needy people that you can’t even find a few minutes to eat something.
Thankfully, Jesus realizes that this is a problem and decides that it’s time to retreat. Everyone heads to the boat and escapes the crowd by sailing to a desolate place. It’s not exactly the destination you would have chosen but as long you get the food and rest Jesus promised, you’ll go anywhere. As the boat sails away and the roar of the crowd fades, you drift off to sleep. But after a short while, a strange and distant noise wakes you up. It’s quiet; so, you keep your eyes closed, waiting for it to go silent. A few moments later, it’s gotten louder. It sort of sounds like the crowd that was clamoring after you when you set sail but, obviously, it can’t be since Jesus said He was taking you to a desolate place. You didn’t feel the boat turn around, so you manage to persuade yourself that you’re mistaken.
A few minutes later, the sound is unmistakable—it’s definitely a crowd of people. As you open your eyes and look to the shoreline, you see that it’s not just any crowd but the same crowd only bigger—these people not only ran to a desolate place; they ran there faster than a boat. How would you have responded in that moment? Jump overboard? Highjack the boat? I might have said, “Guys, I just had a great idea. Instead of camping in that desolate wasteland, why don’t we just take a cruise? A week at sea, just the 13 of us. No crowds, lots of fish, lots of quiet. What do you say?”
Mark doesn’t tell us what the disciples thought or did but He does tell us what Jesus thought and did in v. 34, “…he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.” How can anyone read that and not love Jesus? He’s tired and hungry and His plan to rest in a desolate place with just His 12 disciples is ruined by all these people. But instead of turning the boat around or yelling at the crowd to leave, He is deeply moved with compassion for them.
I’ve always been amazed that this crowd had such zeal to be with Jesus that they were willing to run on foot to meet Him in a desolate place. But Jesus wasn’t amazed by that, was He? Jesus didn’t see their eagerness as a good sign of their faith and devotion to Him but as a sad symptom of their abandonment by those who were supposed to shepherd them. They didn’t run to Jesus in this instance because they were zealous but because they were confused and directionless. Jesus responds by compassionately caring for them through a satisfying feast.
Point 3: The Satisfying Feast (vv. 35–44)
Even though Mark doesn’t tell us what the disciples thought as they came ashore, he does reveal what they thought as the night dragged on, “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’” (Mark 6:35–36). It’s pretty audacious of them to command Jesus to do something but He responds with a command of His own, “You give them something to eat” (Mark 6:37).
We can take their response to Jesus’ command two ways. It could have been a somewhat sarcastic statement expressing their shock, “Are we supposed to just find the nearest 24/7 grocery store in this desolate place and spend $30,000 to feed this huge crowd?” Or it could have been a somewhat humorous statement expressing their hunger and desire to finally getting away from the crowd, “Oh! Ok! That sounds great, Jesus. You stay with these people and we’ll go and get food… for everyone. We’ll take the $30,000 out of the money bag, you just keep on teaching.”
Whichever the case, Jesus had a much more miraculous and affordable plan. All they had for dinner was 5 loaves of bread and 2 fish. That would have been a stretch to feed 13 men let alone 5,000. Not seeing any roadblock to God’s sovereign power, Jesus had them bring their meager food supply to Him. Then He looked to heaven, said a blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them back to the disciples to disperse to the hungry crowd. As much as I’d like to know how this miracle happened, Mark only provides three details about it: “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 6:42–44). This shows that the main point of the miracle is not to explain how it happened but why it happened and what it reveals about Jesus.
To reinforce how important those “why” and “what” questions are here, let’s take a sneak peek at the next paragraph in Mark. Right after this miracle of feeding the 5,000, Jesus performs another miracle for His disciples to behold: He walks on water. Mark tells us their reaction and the reason for it in 6:51–52, “And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” Jesus wasn’t feeding the 5,000 merely as a humanitarian act. He did it so that people would understand something that would prevent their hearts from hardening toward Him. Whatever it was, the disciples missed it and I want to make sure we don’t miss it too and grow to have hardened hearts like they did.
So, let’s consider the question, “What do the loaves teach us about Jesus?” Or, going back to what I mentioned at the beginning, what OT records did Jesus break by feeding 5,000 men with 5 loaves and 2 fish? What OT events did He both replicate and surpass in order to reveal truth about His identity? I want to mention two.
The Shepherd Who Surpasses Moses and Joshua
Moses delivered the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and took them to the edge of the promised land. But because of his own sin against God, he was not allowed to lead the people all of the way. In Numbers 27:15–17, Moses implores God to appoint a new leader over these people caught between slavery and freedom so that they don’t end up like shepherdless sheep stranded in the wilderness and left to die. “Moses spoke to the Lord, saying, ‘Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep that have no shepherd’” (Numbers 27:15–17). God chose Joshua for that task but Joshua eventually died only to be replaced by various flawed and often evil leaders that ultimately led the whole nation to be like sheep without shepherds as Jesus finds them here.
Mark makes the connection for us in no uncertain terms. Jesus had compassion on a group of people in the wilderness who were like shepherdless sheep. That compassion drove Him to assume the role of shepherd by teaching and feeding them. Mark is setting up Jesus as the one who succeeds and surpasses Moses and Joshua; the one who will successfully shepherd all of His lost sheep out of slavery, through the wilderness, and into the promised land of eternal life with him in heaven.
The Prophet of Israel Who Surpasses Elijah and Elisha
Elijah was a prophet well known for his miraculous works. His successor was named Elisha and the Bible tells us that Elisha received a “double portion of Elijah’s spirit,” basically meaning twice the prophetic power. Once, while Elisha was in a land of famine leading a group known as the “sons of the prophets,” we read this, “A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing the man of God [Elisha] bread of the firstfruits, twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. And Elisha said, ‘Give to the men [sons of the prophets], that they may eat.’ But his servant said, ‘How can I set this before a hundred men?’ So he repeated, ‘Give them to the men, that they may eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’’ So he set it before them. And they ate and had some left, according to the word of the Lord” (2 Kings 4:42–44).
In 2 Kings, a prophet in the wilderness receives 20 loaves of bread. He commands his servant to set them before 100 men because God told him that they would all eat and have some left. In Mark 6, Jesus is in the wilderness and receives 5 loaves of bread. He commands his 12 servants (the apostles) to set them before 5,000 men. For Elisha, it was 5 men per loaf. For Jesus, it was 1,000 men per loaf. If Elisha’s feeding was miraculous, then we need to invent a new word for Jesus’s feeding. The only thing that doesn’t appear to have a parallel is the “word of the Lord” guaranteeing the success of the miracle. But when Jesus “looked up to heaven and said a blessing” (Mark 6:41), that was the word of the Lord. Jesus surpassed Elisha’s miracle without referring to the word of the Lord because He was the Lord who directly spoke the word by which the miracle happened. This will be crystal clear in the next passage in Mark; so, read ahead.
We need to rest, even from doing ministry
Some of you need to hear this: You are one of God’s creatures and you need to stop acting like you aren’t. I see this principle at work in v. 31, “And [Jesus] 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.” Look at the logic of Jesus’s statement to the 12, “I want you to be able to eat leisurely with me. These crowds of people are preventing that from happening. Therefore, we need to retreat from this crowd and all of the potential ministry opportunities associated with it so that we can eat leisurely together.” This was not sinful. It was not prideful, or cold, or disappointing to God. You can be sure of that because Jesus is God and it was His idea to leave. And even though they were met with more work when they arrived, we still discover Jesus’s view of rest in this passage.
To be sure, life is not about constant, leisurely eating. On this side of heaven, we are engaged in a spiritual battle not a buffet. Perseverance is absolutely a virtue and a necessity. However, rest is also a virtue and a necessity and we need to keep them both in balance and I believe reminding you this morning that God is the Creator and you are one of His creations will help make that happen.
You are not an accident. You are not the result of a random, unguided, impersonal course of events. You are not a mistake. You are a God-crafted, extremely intricate, expertly designed masterpiece of God’s creative power and imagination and that includes your limitations. Did you hear that? Your limitations exist by order and design of your Maker. I can persuade you with one word: sleep. We spend roughly 1/3 of our lives unconscious and letting our brains run our bodies like a plane on autopilot. God could have made us to not need sleep but He didn’t, in part, I think, to remind us that He is God and we are not.
So, instead of trying to ignore or overcome all of your limitations as though you weren’t a creature, surrender to them and live within your limits as an act of humble worship that exalts God as the only one who is truly unlimited. And that includes limitations on good things like doing ministry.
Jesus’s compassion leads to our satisfaction
In this passage, Jesus feeds the people as an act of compassion and “they all ate and were satisfied” (Mark 6:42). The principle on display is universally true: Jesus’s compassion always leads to our satisfaction.
Jesus isn’t neutral toward His people. He looks upon you with compassion, love, and grace. He does not find you annoying because you are needy. He does not find you bothersome when you are helpless. He is never wearied by your constant prayers. He doesn’t reject you and turn the other direction when your life is directionless and broken. Your needs and helplessness move Him to compassion. He beckons your constant prayers and when you are lost, leaderless, and fatigued by life He says, “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” (Matthew 11:28–29).
The rest for God’s people wasn’t in the desert, it was with and in Jesus Himself. And He was prepared to do far more than provide a miraculous feast to satisfy them. His compassion for His lost people motivated Him to lay down His life for their sins on the cross and to take up His life to secure new and eternal life for us in Him.
The way we glorify Him as the compassionate, gracious, and loving Shepherd is by receiving and finding our satisfaction in His compassion, grace, and love.
The compassion of the cross leads to the satisfaction of eternal life.