Mark 6:30-44 30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 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. 32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 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. 35 And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. 36 Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” 37 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?” 38 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.” 39 Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. 41 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. 42 And they all ate and were satisfied. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.
What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘rest’? If you’re like me, you might picture a comfortable chair and a good book. Some of you might think of a beach vacation, or a long weekend away somewhere. Or maybe you just think of your bed and a good night’s rest.
Many years ago, my family was able to stay with some friends at the cabin home belonging to some church friends of theirs. We were told that they often allowed others to stay at the cabin like we were. The cabin was really much more than a cabin. It was a nicer house than our own home, set on a small lake. Along the sidewalk approaching the house there was a prominent sign that read, “Rest, that you may run.” I’ve often thought of that sign, over the years since we last stayed there, because it is a biblical idea. In Hebrews 12:1, we’re encouraged to “run with endurance the race that is set before us…” Paul says something similar in 1 Corinthians 9 as well. This morning I hope that you’ll see that this race is not an endless one without rest. God gives us rest each week, and our passage this morning is a picture of how the church is to live that out.
As we prepare to turn to our text this morning, I want us all to see there, that Jesus is our faithful Shepherd who gives rest to his flock. In the words of Psalm 103, “he knows our frame, he remembers that we are dust.” In other words, he knows that we must rest, that we may continue in our mission to the world. For us, this rest is found in the Word of the Lord and the Lord’s Table. Jesus models this in this morning’s passage, by preparing his disciples to be his under-shepherds, who will then establish the church to carry on this rest for the people of God.
We’re going to look at several texts throughout the Bible as they relate to our primary text this morning, but don’t feel like you need to flip to every text. Before we go directly to our text this morning, we must briefly set the context of the first five chapters in Mark. By chapter six, Jesus has already begun his ministry, gathered his twelve disciples, performed miraculous healings, cast out demons, and begun teaching in parables. Toward the end of chapter five, Jesus has even raised a girl from the dead. Let’s pick up the story in Mark 6:7. It reads:
7 “And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts—9 but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. 10 And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. 11 And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. 13 And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.”
Let’s make a few observations here that we’ll need to have in mind as we move to our passage. First, in verse 7, Jesus gave the twelve “authority over the unclean spirits.” If we were to read the first five chapters of Mark, we would see that Jesus already demonstrated his authority over the unclean spirits by doing these works himself. Now he is giving the twelve this same authority and instructing them to practice it themselves.
Next, the manner in which Jesus is sending his disciples is much like the way the Lord instructed Moses to have Israel to eat the Passover as they prepared to leave Egypt and go into the wilderness in Exodus 12:11. God commanded them to eat the Passover “with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand.” God even tells them “you shall eat it in haste” which also reminds us of our passage this morning in which Mark tells us, “they had no leisure even to eat.” Also note they were not to take any bread with them on their journey—this will be an important detail to remember later.
And last, the twelve, who had been given “authority over unclean spirits” did exercise that authority. Mark tells us in verse 13 that “they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” The twelve were called, given authority, and sent. While on their mission they exercised the authority they had been given—doing the works Jesus had already been doing himself.
The story continues in our text this morning, beginning with Mark 6:33. But if you have your Bible open, you may notice there is another story before the feeding of the five thousand. Looking at the heading of this section you may initially think it is unrelated to what comes before, and the feeding of the five-thousand. This section in Mark 6:14-29 is about the death of John the Baptist. I’ll summarize it, to help us see how it relates to what we’ve already read, and then the sermon text.
John was introduced at the very beginning of the book as the one “preparing the way of the LORD” and as the one that baptized Jesus. He disappears from the story after the baptism, but Mark has intentionally brought John the Baptist back into his story. Why?
John had been arrested by Herod—the Roman appointed ruler of Galilee. John had rebuked Herod for marrying his brother’s wife—an act the law forbids. Because of this, Herod’s unlawful wife, Herodias hated John and wanted him killed. Herod, though, feared John, and was content to keep him in prison.
Herod had a birthday party, in which he invited the “nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee.” During the party, Herodias’s daughter performed a dance, gaining Herod’s admiration and the reward of up to half his kingdom. The daughter consulted with her mother, who asked for the head of John the Baptist to be served on a platter, which Herod then fulfilled. Mark is showing that Israel’s shepherds are eating their sheep, not feeding and protecting. These are not shepherds at all, but predators. Mark wants us to see the contrast between the supposed shepherds of Israel, and their true shepherd. Mark shows us the evil in the heart of man, and is about to show us the goodness of God, in the face of Jesus Christ.
So, having told us of the gruesome death of John the Baptist, Mark returns to the twelve apostles who have now returned to Jesus.
Rest in the Wilderness
Having set the context, I want us to focus some time specifically on the rest Jesus gives in the wilderness. Why did the disciples need rest? Mark tells us in verse 30, “The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught.” Remember from verses 12 and 13, “…they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them.” Now they have returned to Jesus to tell him all about it.
Jesus responds, in verse 31, by telling them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest for a while.” The place where they had returned to meet Jesus was busy, and provided no rest, “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” After the disciples traveled the countryside exercising the authority he’d given them, he knew they now needed rest. Jesus knows his own.
Jesus wants to take his disciples elsewhere. Our text calls it a “desolate place.” This phrase is used three times in our passage—verses 31, 32, and 35. In many other places, even in Mark, it is translated “wilderness.” This is an occasion where the word choice from the translators has hidden a significant word—wilderness. John the Baptist had been baptizing in the wilderness, according to Mark 1:4 and Jesus had been tempted in the wilderness for forty days, according to Mark 1:13-14.
We’ve read a story set in the wilderness before. The book of Exodus is largely about the people of Israel leaving Egypt to enter the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land and their wandering there for forty years after their rebellion. Jesus wanted to take his twelve disciples into the wilderness to find rest, just as Moses sought rest for Israel from their slavery in Egypt. While Israel was in the wilderness God taught them his law, fed them manna from heaven so they were ready to conquer the land of Canaan.
Words like “wilderness” that are used so frequently in the Bible help us understand how the Bible is one story with repeating themes. But they also help us remember what kind of story we’re reading. So, when Mark draws our attention to where Jesus is taking his disciples and then uses that same word two more times, Mark is telling us that Jesus is acting out a new Exodus story—giving his followers rest and food from heaven. Indeed, Jesus is living out a bigger and better story than Moses ever did. What kind of rest was Jesus, the better Moses, about to give His disciples?
The Shepherd’s Rest
Jesus plans a rest that only a loving shepherd can give. Make no mistake, Jesus had a plan for bringing his disciples into the wilderness to give them rest, and to feed them. But Mark tells us in verse 33 that the people of the land wanted in too. Do you suppose Jesus was surprised to find that the people of Galilee had run on ahead and discovered the “desolate place” that Jesus had in mind for his disciples? I think the rest of the story will help us to see that Jesus’s plans were not interrupted at all. This crowd of people did not surprise Jesus in the least. Jesus would give the disciples the rest he’d planned, but the disciples were surely picturing something altogether different than what was about to happen.
Jesus’s response to finding the people does not hint at surprise or disappointment, but instead compassion and love. The phrase, in verse 34, “like sheep without a shepherd” is one you’ve perhaps encountered elsewhere in the Bible. It appears in Numbers 27:17, when God tells Moses he is about to die. Moses asks that God provide a new shepherd, “that the congregation of the LORD may not be as sheep that have no shepherd.” God responds, telling Moses to lay hands on Joshua, and commission him in the sight of all the congregation, investing him with some of Moses’s own authority.
We’ve already made comparisons between Jesus and Moses, but this reminder helps us see how much greater Jesus is. Moses had sinned against God and was about to die. So he asked for a new shepherd for Israel. Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of that prayer. We should also begin to see that Jesus is preparing his twelve disciples to become shepherds themselves, with Jesus having already given them authority in Mark 6:7. We should also recognize that this means that Jesus, like Moses, is not far from death himself. Jesus intends his disciples carry on his mission after his death.
We also see a picture of sheep without a shepherd in Ezekiel 34. If you have a Bible, please flip back to Ezekiel 34. Ezekiel is about two-thirds through the Bible, coming after Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Lamentations, and right before Daniel. In the first part of Ezekiel 34, God speaks words of judgement against the shepherds of Israel, who, like Herod, are eating their sheep. God condemns Israel’s shepherds in Ezekiel 34:3, saying, “You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep.” It is no accident that Mark is so specific about how John the Baptist’s head was served on a platter at a banquet, back in Mark 6:27-28. Mark wants us to see that Herod, along with “the nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee” are eating the sheep that God intends for them to protect. I need to be careful here, though, as some might think that Herod and the leaders of Galilee are actually eating the Israelites. Herod, did not eat John the Baptist any more than the people of Jesus’s flock ate grass. This is symbolic language that fits the shepherd theme, not a story of actual cannibalism.
If you’ve found Ezekiel 34, please follow along as I read verses 11-16. These verses are a beautiful picture of what Christ came to do.
11 “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.”
Jesus is the Shepherd spoken of in Ezekiel 34. Jesus is God himself. Jesus is the Lord incarnate. Jesus is the one who fulfills all that God declared in Ezekiel 34. This all points to the fact that Jesus was doing exactly what he came to do. His plans were not interrupted by the Galileans who had joined them in the wilderness, it was all part of what Jesus had come to do. Jesus was expecting to shepherd his followers, and sure enough, they followed. Notice the emphasis from this passage in Ezekiel of the Shepherd gathering and feeding his sheep.
So what did this faithful shepherd, Jesus Christ, do when he found his sheep at the “desolate place” where he’d brought his disciples? Flipping back to Mark 6:34, we see that Jesus began by teaching “them many things.” Mark doesn’t say anything more about Jesus’s teaching, but he wants us to see that Jesus begins to give his rest by teaching his flock many things. God’s rest is not to be separated from instruction in his Word.
The Shepherd’s Food
Jesus was not in the wilderness to simply provide rest to his disciples. Jesus was about to feed his flock as only a good shepherd can. As it grows late, we see in verses 35 and 36 that, the twelve apostles, much like the twelve tribes of Israel in the book of Exodus, feared for lack of food. Both the twelve disciples and the twelve tribes do not believe that their Shepherd could possibly provide enough food for such a crowd. But Jesus is again preparing his disciples to understand who he is, and he’s about to give them a new task to fulfill. This time he tells them, “You give them something to eat.”
The twelve disciples, who have already expressed their lack of faith regarding the bread, now respond in total disbelief. How could Jesus ask them to do such an unreasonable thing? How could he possibly expect them to feed such a crowd? Jesus’s command is an interesting one and raises difficult questions. Did he actually intend for the disciples to feed the people? Why does he tell them to feed them this time, but not when he feeds the four thousand in Mark 8?
We’re not going to come to exhaustive conclusions on these questions this morning, but I do think we can at least begin to answer them. First, we must remember what we’ve already learned. Remember in Mark 6:8 that Jesus had sent the twelve out on a mission earlier, instructing them to bring no bread along. The apostles had just returned from doing the works of Jesus after he’d shared his authority with them.
Let’s pause for a moment to let this sink in: Jesus had brought the twelve to a place without food, to feed them. Jesus brought his twelve disciples into the wilderness to give them rest. The only food at hand was five loaves and two fish—it isn’t even clear where the food came from. If we were to look at the parallel passage in John 6, we would see that the food “came from a boy.” But Mark’s emphasis lies in the fact that the apostles already have all they need to feed the people. Looking at this question about why Jesus tells them to “give them something to eat” in light of the context of the passage, we begin to see that this question isn’t quite as difficult as we might have thought.
Jesus had been training his disciples to do his work, and then sent them out to do it. He’s now given them a more difficult task. While he may not have actually expected them to feed the people this time, he is teaching them at least two things.
First, he is helping them to understand who he is. Jesus wants his followers to see him rightly. We’ve seen echoes of the Exodus story, where God miraculously fed all of Israel manna from heaven. Now it is Jesus who is doing the miraculous feeding. We’ve also seen that the shepherd spoken of in Ezekiel 34 is Jesus. He is the one who gathers and feeds his sheep. He is God incarnate. The disciples, along with Mark’s readers, are learning that Jesus is God in the flesh. Jesus is the Second Person of the Triune God.
Second, Jesus is preparing them to continue in his work as they’ve already been trained to do. Jesus had given them authority and sent them on a mission to exercise that authority. Jesus not only expects his followers to do his works, but he gives them the power to do them. This is a good word for us today. Do you often feel like God is stretching you to do harder and harder things? How do you respond? Do you grumble and doubt, or do you know that God will grant the strength for the occasion?
Continuing in our text with verse 38, we see the disciples bring the five loaves and two fish to Jesus, who then commands all the people to sit down. Mark gives us some interesting details. First, he tells us the grass is green. None of the other gospels mention the color of the grass. Why does Mark give us this detail? Mark has already given us the image of Jesus as shepherd, and the green grass helps us see Jesus as the shepherd in Psalm 23, who “makes me lie down in green pastures.”
Again, we’re reminded that Jesus is our shepherd—providing for and protecting his sheep. This is an important theme in the Bible, as we’ve already discussed while looking briefly at Ezekiel 34, where in verse 14 we saw “good pasture”, “good grazing land”, and “rich pasture” emphasized. And Ezekiel 34:15 says of the shepherd “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down.” Here we see this all being fulfilled.
Sheep Follow Their Shepherd
Next, Mark tells us in verse 40, that the crowd “sat down in groups, by hundreds and fifties.” This ordering into groups of hundreds and fifties is another echo of Exodus. This arranging of the people reminds us of Exodus 18:25, when “Moses chose able men out of all Israel and made them heads over the people, chiefs of thousands, hundreds, of fifties, and of tens.” Mark is showing Jesus re-organize Israel under himself and his twelve new leaders.
This may seem insignificant, but the emphasis of Mark’s account is that the crowd self organizes into these groups. In Luke 9, we learn that Jesus ordered them to sit in groups of about fifty each. But Mark makes it seem as though the crowd already knew what to do. They have heard the voice of their shepherd, and they recognize it. Jesus’s sheep hear and heed the voice of their shepherd. I wonder, do we hear and obey the Shepherd’s voice?
The Shepherd’s Table
Let’s focus now on the actual table of our good shepherd. It is here, at last, that we arrive at the miracle itself, in verse 41. The actions that Mark tells us are the very same actions Jesus acts out at the Last Supper in Mark 14:22: “he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples…” We now see what kind of meal Jesus was preparing the apostles to serve. They were being prepared to serve the Lord’s table—a meal that we partake in ourselves, when we share the Lord’s Supper together. The disciples would get more instruction about the Lord’s table. But this scene is a foretaste of what the Lord would institute for each of us who gather around his table.
In verse 42, we see all the people “ate and were satisfied.” Jesus provides not a sparse meal, but an abundant one. The food was enough to feed five thousand men. There were even leftovers—”twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish.” Jesus later emphasizes the importance of the number twelve in Mark 8:19. Jesus has provided a basket for each apostle, who we already learned to recognize as the new chiefs of a new Israel. Each of the apostles is now ready, with their own supply of bread, to replicate Jesus’s miraculous feeding.
In conclusion, we’ve seen this morning that Jesus sought to provide rest to his disciples after giving them some of his authority, and their exercise of it. I doubt that any of the disciples expected Jesus’s idea of rest to include teaching many things to a crowd of five thousand men, and then miraculously feeding all of them with just five loaves of bread and two fish. But this is precisely what Jesus did.
So what does this have to do with us today? Grace Church, I want us to see that Jesus’s rest is received in the church. Hearing the Word of God proclaimed each week and celebrating the Lord’s Table is how we participate in Jesus’s rest today.
When we gather together in the presence of our shepherd to hear his words, and to eat his food, we are resting with Jesus. The church is God’s plan for receiving his rest today. Does this sound restful to you? Is it restful? Does God’s Word and his heavenly food restore your soul?
Just like the disciples who were given some of Jesus’s authority, they were prepared to follow Jesus in feeding Israel God’s heavenly food, we too will be leaving this place prepared for our own mission, in which we exercise “all authority in heaven and on earth.”
We are not merely conquering the land of Canaan, like the Israelites. We are living out the Great Commission—making disciples of all nations. We rest here, together, by receiving God’s Word together and feeding at the Lord’s table. We “rest that we may run” because as soon as we leave this place, we’re on mission—running, so to speak. It is why we will return again next Sunday, for the mission is a wearying one, and God is ready to give us his rest once again. Do you desire this?
Gathering in the presence of our faithful Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and receiving his rest is critical to helping us live out the gospel of Jesus Christ ourselves. Without his rest and refreshment, how could we live out the Great Commission? It is not something we can do on our own—we need a Good Shepherd that makes us lay down in green pastures. We need a Shepherd that will lay down his life for his sheep. We need the strength of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit to enable us to perform his works, just as the disciples needed some of Jesus’s authority to do his works.
I expect there are some here this morning that have not yet experienced the rest of God, or the spiritual rebirth that comes in knowing Jesus Christ, and him crucified. Know your good shepherd. All of us are not what we were created to be. We fell into sin, when Adam sinned. We all know the brokenness not only of the world, but of our own souls. Jesus came to call you to himself. We have no rest here on earth apart from Christ. As Augustine writes in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Perhaps the words of Psalm 23 will help you see the power of the Faithful Shepherd, Jesus Christ. In Psalm 23 we see that it is the faithful Shepherd that “restores my soul,” “his rod and his staff, they comfort me.” It is Jesus, who promises us “surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.”
These are all wonderful, restorative gifts that God wants to give us each week as the saints gather in the presence of Jesus Christ. Receive this today and return again and again that you might receive strength for living out the gospel, and growing in likeness to our shepherd by knowing and feeding from him more and more.
So, enjoy these final moments together this morning, gathered around our Shepherd. Rest, that you may run tomorrow. Come back next week, and we’ll do it all again. Together, in the presence of our Good Shepherd.