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. – Mark 6:30-44 ESV
After a brief diversion to inform his readers about the fate of John the Baptist, Mark brings the focus of his narrative back to the 12 disciples. Jesus had sent them in pairs to preach the gospel of the Kingdom and call the people to repentance. And to validate their message, He had given them the power to perform miracles. Mark provides no hints as to the length of this missionary journey, but simply states, “The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught” (Mark 6:30 ESV).
This rather anticlimactic description of their return leaves a lot to the imagination. There is no sense of excitement. We are told nothing about their exploits. But we can assume that these men must have had stories to tell and were anxious to regale one another with their exploits. Luke provides an idea of the kinds of reports these men would have given to Jesus upon their return. He recalls another occasion when Jesus sent out 72 additional disciples, providing them with the same instructions He had given the 12.
“Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” – Luke 10:9 ESV
When these disciples returned from their mission, their eagerly shared with Jesus what had happened. And the focus of their report reveals much about their takeaway from their experience:
The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” – Luke 10:17 ESV
Notice that they mentioned nothing about the message of the Kingdom or the peoples’ to it. They were blown away by their ability to cast out demons – just like Jesus had done. Their focus was on the more sensational aspect of their mission. But, as if to bring their egos back to earth and to refocus their attention on what was truly important, Jesus responded, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20 ESV).
So, when the 12 disciples returned from their missionary journey, it is likely that they shared similar stories about casting out demons and healing the sick and the lame. Recognizing that these men were excited yet worn out from their journey, Jesus led them to a remote place where they might get some much-needed rest. But isolation and alone time were difficult commodities to come by for Jesus and His disciples. Everywhere they went, they found themselves encountering and accosted by large crowds. And this time would be no different.
Mark indicates that they crossed the Sea of Galilee by boat and headed to a desolate area near the town of Bethsaida (Luke 9:10). But their every move was under constant observation by the crowds. So, as Jesus and His disciples made their way by boat, the people ran along the shoreline, trying to guess where they were headed. And when the boat made its way to shore, Jesus and the disciples found themselves surrounded yet again. The weary disciples were probably frustrated by this turn of events. They had just returned from a long and arduous trip and were looking forward to some much-need R&R. But it was not to be. And Mark indicates that Jesus saw the crowd and “had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34 ESV).
This statement sets up a subtle contrast between Jesus and His disciples that will become more obvious as the story unfolds. Jesus was moved by the helpless and hopeless state of the people. The very fact that they kept following Him revealed their desperate desire for leadership and direction. There were people in the crowd who were hurting emotionally and physically. Others were poor and needy, lacking the resources to meet the basic necessities of life. Luke indicates that Jesus “taught them about the Kingdom of God, and he healed those who were sick” (Luke 9:11 NLT).
It’s interesting to note that Jesus did for these people exactly what He had commanded the disciples to do on their recent missionary excursion. And yet, there is no mention that the disciples participated in the teaching of the people or in doing any acts of healing. It is almost as if they were taking the day off. They had done their part and now it was time to relax. And one can almost sense their eagerness to bring this long day to a close by what they said to Jesus.
“This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go to the nearby farms and villages and buy something to eat.” – Mark 6:35-36 NLT
There is not much compassion in those words. The disciples were ready for the crowds to disperse so they could finally get the rest they so richly deserved. Their feigned concern for the well-being of the people was nothing more than a way of getting rid of them. Yet Jesus, always aware of what was going on in the hearts and minds of those around Him, simply stated, “You give them something to eat” (Mark 6:37 ESV).
The ludicrous nature of this command is easy to miss because we have no idea how many people Jesus is actually referring to. It is not until later in the story that Mark reveals the actually size of the crowd. But the disciples could see the problem with their own eyes. As they heard Jesus speak those words, the disciples were staring at literally thousands of men, women, and children. And don’t forget that when Jesus had sent these men on their missionary journey, He had told them “to take nothing for their journey except a walking stick—no food, no traveler’s bag, no money” (Mark 6:8 NLT).
They had just returned and would have had no resources with which to fulfill the command of Jesus. And you can sense their confusion and frustration in their somewhat sarcastic response.
“With what?” they asked. “We’d have to work for months to earn enough money to buy food for all these people!” – Mark 6:37 NLT
They estimate that it would take at least two hundred denarii to buy enough bread to feed a crowd that size. A denarius was the equivalent of a day’s wage for a common laborer. Their quick calculation was meant to emphasize the sheer impossibility of what Jesus was asking them to do. They didn’t have those kinds of resources. In fact, they were broke. And just to expose the true nature of their insufficiency, Jesus has them take an inventory of what food was on hand.
“How much bread do you have?” he asked. “Go and find out.” – Mark 6:38 NLT
Don’t miss what happened next. Jesus sent the men among the crowd, just as He had sent them into the towns and villages of Galilee. But this time, they came back with a less-than-thrilling report. After they had canvassed the crowd, the disciples could only return with a miserly five loaves of bread and two fish. It was not good news.
But Jesus was nonplused. As the disciples watched, Jesus simply instructed the people to sit down in groups of 100 or less. This would have taken a bit of organizational planning on the part of the disciples. And when their work was complete, Jesus “took the five loaves and two fish, looked up toward heaven, and blessed them. Then, breaking the loaves into pieces, he kept giving the bread to the disciples so they could distribute it to the people. He also divided the fish for everyone to share” (Mark 6:41 NLT).
It seems that the disciples played the roles of waiters, distributing the food to the various groups of people. And as Jesus broke the bread and the fish, the disciples kept returning to find yet more food to hand out. They would bring back an empty basket, only to be handed another one full of bread and fish. And, as if to stress the truly miraculous nature of this scene, Mark holds off the most important detail until the end.
A total of 5,000 men and their families were fed. – Mark 6:44 NLT
And even that large number is a bit misleading. It is safe to assume that many of those men were married and their families were made up of at least one or two children. So, it would be safe to assume that the actual number of people fed that day was likely twice what Mark reported. It could have easily been as many as 10,000. And yet, as Mark makes clear, “They all ate as much as they wanted” (Mark 6:42 NLT). No one went hungry. Not a single person went without or failed to receive as much as they wanted. And that includes the disciples.
But the truly amazing fact is that when the crowd had dispersed, the disciples picked up 12 baskets of leftovers. They had shown up that day with no food, but each man walked away with a basket filled to the brim with bread and fish.
These men, who had lacked compassion for the people, had been given a once-in-a-lifetime lesson on God’s power to provide for the needs of the helpless and hopeless. When Jesus had looked on the crowd, He had seen sheep without a shepherd. But the disciples had simply seen a problem for which they had no solution. And sadly, they lacked any desire to come up with one. In spite of their success at casting out demons, healing the sick, and preaching the gospel of the Kingdom, these men had failed to learn the most important lesson of all: That with God, all things are possible. And the man with whom they had linked their lives was God in human flesh and fully capable of meeting the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of mankind. Yes, He could provide bread, but He had come to be the bread of life. He could fill stomachs, but He had come to satisfy mankind’s hunger and thirst for righteousness. And as these men walked away with the baskets brimming with bread and fish, their hearts and minds were still lacking a full assurance of who Jesus was and what He had come to do.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.