1 In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, 2 “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. 3 And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” 4 And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” 5 And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” 6 And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. 7 And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. 8 And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 9 And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. 10 And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha – Mark 8:1-10 ESV
There is the School of Hard Knocks and then there is the lesser-known but equally popular School of Repetitive Lessons. The first provides unsolicited educational opportunities through the means of difficult and often unexpected life experiences. These painful and oftentimes self-inflicted life lessons are a vital part of the human growth process. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
But many of us have spent more time in the second educational venue without even realizing it. Like the main character in the movie, Groundhog Day, we wake up each morning with the eery sensation that we’ve been here before. But we can’t quite put our finger on it. Everything feels a bit repetitive, almost as if someone has rewound the video of our life and hit replay. Like a child who has to repeat second grade, we find ourselves reliving and relearning certain life experiences because we failed to grasp their significance the first time around. It’s what I affectionately call it God’s School for Remedial Slow Learners.
Today’s passage has an air of familiarity to it. In reading it, it’s difficult to ignore the impression that we’ve been here before – because we have. In a sense, Mark is allowing us to look on as the 12 disciples re-enter the School of Repetitive Learning where they will get a second opportunity to learn what they missed the first time around.
Chapter six contains Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5,000. On that occasion, Jesus had feed a large crowd, probably in excess of 10,000 people, with nothing more than fives loaves of bread and two fishes. He had miraculously multiplied those meager resources so that everyone in the crowd was able to eat as much as they wanted. And when the people had walked away full and satisfied, the disciples were able to fill up 12 baskets with the uneaten bread and fish. Those 12 baskets were to be a visual answer to the question that Andrew had asked: “what are they for so many?” (John 6:9 ESV). Andrew had deemed the fives loaves and two fish as insufficient to meet the need they faced. But in doing so, he failed to understand the sufficiency of Jesus. And even after Jesus had proven His power to provide, the disciples had failed to learn the lesson. Mark went on to comment, “they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:52 ESV).
So, here we are again, watching the disciples as they reenter Jesus’ School of Repetitive Learning. And Mark makes sure we don’t miss the recurrent nature of this scene.
…again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat… – Mark 8:1 ESV
It was déjà vu all over again, but the disciples fail to recognize the repetitive nature of what is happening. So, Jesus sets up the scene for them.
“I feel sorry for these people. They have been here with me for three days, and they have nothing left to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will faint along the way. For some of them have come a long distance.” – Mark 8:2-3 NLT
Jesus lobs them a softball. He graciously offers them an opportunity to prove that they had learned the lesson from the previous experience. But they swing and miss.
“How are we supposed to find enough food to feed them out here in the wilderness?” – Mark 8:4 NLT
The quiz had one simple question and, sadly, they reveal that they had no idea what the answer was. And they show no signs that they recognize anything familiar about this scene. So, once again, Jesus asks them to assess their available resources.
“How many loaves do you have?” – Mark 8:5 ESV
And all they can muster up is a scant seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. By this time, you would have expected at least one of the disciples to have recalled the earlier episode and made the connection. Surely, Peter and Andrew were capable of remembering what Jesus had done with the five loaves and two fish. Wasn’t John smart enough to recognize what was happening and to express his confidence in Jesus’ ability to meet the need of the moment? Evidently not.
So Jesus told all the people to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves, thanked God for them, and broke them into pieces. He gave them to his disciples, who distributed the bread to the crowd. – Mark 8:6 NLT
Jesus performed yet another miracle and allowed His hard-hearted disciples to participate in the process. They became the means of distribution. The bread, broken and blessed by Jesus, passed from His hands through theirs. They took what Jesus provided and made it available to those in need. These slow-to-learn and quick-to-doubt men were being given a glimpse of the future role they would play as Jesus’ ambassadors. The day was coming when He would allow His body to be broken on behalf of sinful men and women, the Bread of Life offering Himself so that the spiritually hungry might be satisfied. And the disciples would be given the task of distributing the Bread to all those who would receive it.
“…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” – Acts 1:8 ESV
Little did they know that these lessons were intended to prepare them for something far more significant and life-changing. They remained oblivious to the lesson that Jesus was trying to teach them. And it would not be the last time that Jesus used the metaphor of broken bread to convey the reality of His life’s mission. One night, in the room where Jesus celebrated His last Passover meal with His disciples, He would revisit those two earlier experiences, connecting the dots for them.
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” – Luke 22:19 ESV
It had never been about loaves and fishes. It had never been about satisfying temporal needs or filling empty stomachs. Jesus had come to offer His life as a sacrifice for the sins of fallen mankind. And one day, these very same men would find themselves distributing the good news of Jesus’ sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection to the spiritually hungry. Jesus would offer His life to be broken and they would have the joy and privilege of distributing the news of His gift to all those who would accept it.
Jesus had declared Himself to be the bread that had been sent from heaven by God the Father.
“For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” – John 6:33 ESV
And He offered Himself as the means by which the hungry and thirsty might find satisfaction.
“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger…” – John 6:35 ESV
So, as the disciples once again distributed the broken bread and fish, they probably had the nagging sense that they had been here before. It all had an eery familiarity to it. The people ate and were satisfied. And the disciples picked up seven baskets of leftovers. But they remained just as oblivious as before. They failed to learn the lesson Jesus was trying to teach them. But He would lovingly and patiently repeat the message because He knew the day was coming when the light would go on and all the lessons would finally make sense. These men who had been so slow to learn would become His primary means of distributing the Bread of Life to a spiritually famished world.
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.