7 Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, 8 by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen. 9 Herod said, “John I beheaded, but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see him.
10 On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida. 11 When the crowds learned it, they followed him, and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God and cured those who had need of healing. 12 Now the day began to wear away, and the twelve came and said to him, “Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place.” 13 But he said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” 14 For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15 And they did so, and had them all sit down. 16 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing over them. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. 17 And they all ate and were satisfied. And what was left over was picked up, twelve baskets of broken pieces. – Luke 9:7-17 ESV
While the disciples were traveling about Galilee “preaching the gospel and healing everywhere,” news had reached Herod Antipas, the tetrarch over Galilee and Perea, of all that Jesus had been doing within his jurisdiction. Herod was the Roman-appointed ruler over the northern regions of Israel. In his gospel account, Mark refers to Herod as a king, but Herod was not a descendant of David and was not recognized by most Jews as the official king of Israel. He was little more than a puppet king who served at the discretion of the Roman emperor.
Herod was a particularly wicked man who coveted power and would do anything to solidify and maintain his lofty position. He was one of the sons of Herod the Great, who ruled over Israel when Jesus was born. At the death of Herod the Great, Herod Antipas and his brother, Philip, were appointed by the Romans to rule over a portion of their father’s former lands. In a sense, these two brothers became competitors, with each vying for the favor of Caesar and hoping to expand and solidify their power and influence. The Jewish historian, Josephus records how Herod Antipas fell in love with Herodias, his brother’s wife. Herod ended up divorcing his own wife and convinced Herodias to leave Philip and marry him instead. This kind of behavior by a “king” of Israel was unacceptable and John the Baptist had publicly called out Herod for this and other indiscretions.
John also publicly criticized Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for marrying Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for many other wrongs he had done. So Herod put John in prison, adding this sin to his many others. – Luke 3:19-20 NLT
John the Baptist had publicly accused Herod of violating God’s laws concerning divorce and remarriage.
“It is against God’s law for you to marry her.” – Matthew 14:4 NLT
But his outspoken criticism of this powerful man resulted in his imprisonment. Herod had heard enough from John and decided to have him silenced by locking him away. As a result of John’s public condemnation of her immoral relationship with Herod, Herodias convinced her husband to have John executed. But while Herod gave in to his wife’s wishes and had John the Baptist beheaded, the decision must have haunted him for some time. When he heard all the rumors concerning Jesus, he began to question whether John had returned from the dead.
“John, whom I beheaded, has been raised!” – Mark 6:26 NLT
This statement is filled with fear and foreboding. Herod must have had nightmares about what he had done to John. He had ordered the execution of a man who had simply spoken the truth. Herod had been a convert to Judaism and knew that his marriage to Herodias was unlawful. All that John had said had been true. And yet, due to his own pride and arrogance, Herod had made a rash vow and unintentionally sealed the fate of this innocent man. Now, he was having to live with the consequences.
But Herod’s curiosity concerning Jesus reached an all-time peak. He was intrigued by all the rumors and even stated, “John I beheaded, but who is this about whom I hear such things?” (Luke 9:9 ESV). Who was this man performing miracles and preaching about a kingdom? Could He really be the Messiah of Israel? Had He come to set up His kingdom in Jerusalem? Perhaps Herod had recalled the story of how his father, Herod the Great, had ordered the execution of all the male children under two years of age in the region around Bethlehem. This heinous act by his father had been an ill-fated attempt to kill the one child that had been born “king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:1-18). And now, some three decades later, Herod Antipas was hearing rumors that this baby had grown to be a man and was gaining a reputation and a following in his domain. It could be that Herod feared that if Jesus was the king of the Jews his father tried to have killed, he might seek revenge. But whatever the case, Herod was conflicted, confused, and curious. And little did this pseudo-sovereign know that he would end up playing a significant role in the life of Jesus as the story unfolds.
But while Herod was wrestling over the identity of Jesus, the disciples returned from their short-term mission trip. Jesus had sent them in pairs to preach the gospel of the kingdom, and to validate their message, He had given them the power to perform miracles. Luke provides no hints as to the length of their mission, but simply states, “When the apostles returned, they told Jesus everything they had done.” (Luke 9:10 NLT).
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 experiences. So, when the 12 disciples returned from their missionary journey, it is likely that they shared stories about casting out demons and healing the sick. 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.
Luke indicates that Jesus led the disciples to the town of Bethsaida, but the crowds followed them there. 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 records that Jesus “welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God and cured those who had need of healing” (Luke 9:11 ESV). 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.
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.
“Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place.” – Luke 9:12 ESV
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” (Luke 9:13 ESV).
The ludicrous nature of this command is easy to miss because we have no idea how large the crowd was. It is not until later in the story that Luke 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 “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money” (Luke 9:3 ESV).
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 response.
“We have no more than five loaves and two fish—unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” – Luke 9:13 ESV
They were tapped out emotionally, physically, and financially. They lacked the resources and the energy to deal with this problem. These same men who had personally experienced the power of God by healing the sick and casting out demons were at a loss as to how to solve this pressing problem
Don’t miss what happened next. As the disciples watched, Jesus instructed the disciples to organize the crowd into groups of 50 or less. 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 and fish to the disciples so they could distribute it to the people” (Luke 9:16 NLT).
The disciples played the role of waiters, distributing the food to the various groups of people. And as Jesus broke the bread and the fish, the disciples would return and find yet more food to hand out. And, as if to stress the truly miraculous nature of this scene, Luke reports “there were about five thousand men” (Luke 9:14 ESV).
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 Luke reported. It could have easily been as many as 10,000. And yet, as Luke makes clear, “They all ate as much as they wanted” (Luke 9:17 NLT). No one went hungry. Not a single person went without or failed to receive as much as they desired. And that included 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 (Mark 6:34). 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. 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.
The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson