Rejection at Nazareth, 1-6

6:1 Now Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.

His hometown – Probably Nazareth is meant, even though Jesus had moved to Capernaum.

Of Nazareth, Edwards notes: ‘Nazareth is not mentioned in the OT, in Josephus, or in the rabbinic literature of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Outside the dozen references to it in the NT, it is first mentioned by an obscure writer, Julius Africanus, some two centuries after Jesus’ birth. No church was built in Nazareth until the time of Constantine (a.d. 325). Archaeological excavations beneath the imposing Churches of the Annunciation and St. Joseph in Nazareth have uncovered a series of grottoes that date to the time of Jesus. The resultant picture is of an obscure hamlet of earthen dwellings chopped into sixty acres of rocky hillside, with a total population of five hundred — at the most.’

Mk 6:1–6 = Mt 13:54–58
6:2 When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue. Many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did he get these ideas? And what is this wisdom that has been given to him? What are these miracles that are done through his hands?

“These things” – probably his notions about the kingdom of God and his right to proclaim it (HOC).

6:3 Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And aren’t his sisters here with us?” And so they took offense at him.

Isn’t this the carpenter? – Some manuscripts have ‘the carpenter’s son’ (as in Mt 13:55f).  But most scholars think that the correct reading is ‘the carpenter’ (so also NIV, RSV, NRSV, NASB, NEB, and GNB).  Of course, this is a record of what the people ‘said’, and some of them may have said one thing, and others another.  That would be unsurprising, because in that culture a son would usually follow his father’s trade.  The main point is that they all knew that Jesus had not had a rabbi’s upbringing and education.

The underlying word is tekton, ‘carpenter’ or ‘builder’.  In biblical times it was also used to refer to craftsmen after various kinds, including stonemasons, smiths, engravers (and even, according to Books, shipbuilders and physicians).  Edwards remarks: ‘Given the scarcity of wood and prevalence of stone in Palestine, it would not be surprising if Jesus’ trade included stonework as well as woodwork.’

During Jesus’ youth, Herod Antipas had hired local artisans to work on his residence at Sepphoris, just 4 miles north of Nazareth.  It is possible that he and his father had been employed on that project.

Brooks (NAC) comments that ‘Jews, in contrast to Greeks and Romans, had a high regard for manual labor—the derogatory allusion here notwithstanding. In fact, rabbis were expected to support themselves by a trade and teach without pay. Such was the practice of Paul.’

Mary’s son – Lacking a birth narrative, this is the only indication in this Gospel of the name of Jesus’ mother.

Undesigned coincidence.  ‘Did Joseph die? Joseph’s death is never mentioned at all, but is confirmed incidentally by a variety of passages: Jesus’ whole family is named except Joseph (Mk 6:3); his mother and brothers are mentioned a number of times without his father (Lk 8:19; Jn 2:12; Acts 1:13-14); Joseph is not present at the Wedding in Cana, nor at the crucifixion (indeed, [Jesus] commands John to take care of her).’ (Source)

A scandalous birth?
A son would usually be identified in connection with his father, not his mother (although see Judg 11:1–2; 1 Kgs 17:17; Lk 7:12; Acts 16:1; 23:16; Gal 4:21–31).  This would be the case even if the father were dead, as may be the case with Jesus, given the silence of the Gospels after the birth narratives in that regard.  On this point, however, ‘The absence of Joseph’s name in v. 3 may indicate that Joseph had died, although this is not as certain as many commentators suppose, for John 6:42 assumes that he is still alive.’ (Edwards)

According to Instone-Brewer, ‘there are no other instances in ancient Jewish literature of a Jew who was named, like Jesus, after his mother.’  Cf. Mt 13:55, which has ‘the carpenter’s son’, and Lk 4:22, ‘Joseph’s son’.  Edwards cites Bauckham, who thinks that this phrase suggests ‘may have been intended to distinguish Jesus from the children of Joseph by a former marriage.’  But, writes Edwards, this is not supported by the context, which shows that the crowd’s comments were intended to discredit Jesus; whereas ‘the meaning Bauckham suggests would scarcely have been a reason to “take offense at him.”’

So there may be here a broad hint that there was something scandalous about Jesus’ birth.  Here he is, preaching in his home town of Nazareth.  Everyone would have known that his birth had occurred less than nine months after his parents’ marriage, and his mother would probably have had a visible bump on their wedding day.  Joseph had denied being Jesus’ father, and Joseph’s name is left out of the tirade recorded in the present verse.  If Joseph had died, it would have been even more important to mention him, because as eldest son should have carried forward his name for posterity.  Conclusion: here is this man spouting all this ‘fine ‘wisdom’, and no-one even know who his father is!

Of course, Matthew and Luke tackle the question of Jesus’ birth head-on, and explain it in terms of the virginal conception.  Like Mark, John records some of the heckling that took place on account of Jesus’ supposed illegitimacy (Jn 8:18-41).  (See Instone-Brewer, The Jesus Scandals, pp1-5)

Brother(s)…sisters – Again, there may be a hint here of rumours of a virgin birth: ‘obviously, he can’t be born of a virgin if he has brothers and sisters.’

Perpetual virginity?

‘The idea that Mary remained a virgin was widely taught by the fourth century and was later affirmed by church councils. It is taught today by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodoxy, but not by Protestants (although Martin Luther held to it). Matthew 1:25 declares that Joseph “did not know [Mary] intimately until she gave birth to a son.” The “until” most naturally implies that Mary and Joseph were sexually intimate at some point after Jesus’ birth, leading to the birth of children who would have been Jesus’ half-siblings.’ (HAC)

‘“Brothers” and “sisters” are the usual terms for siblings; a different term for more general “kinfolk” (e.g., Rom 16:11) is not used with regard to Jesus’ siblings. This text undoubtedly refers to children born to Mary after Jesus.’ (Keener, IVPBBCNOT)

They took offense at him – Familiarity breeds contempt.  The word skandalizein occurs eight times in Mark (Mk 4:17; 6:3; 9:42, 43, 45, 47; 14:27, 29), and ‘in each instance it designates obstructions that prevent one from coming to faith and following Jesus’ (Edwards).

6:4 Then Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown, and among his relatives, and in his own house.”
6:5 He was not able to do a miracle there, except to lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.

He could not do any miracles there – because of their lack of faith (v6).  (Matthew smooths this out = remark by Hurtado, below – by simply saying that Jesus ‘did not’ perform many miracles there).  Mark often stresses that Jesus performs miracles in response to faith; here we see the other side of the same coin.  Our Lord was not willing to cast pearls before swine.  In our own day, there are plenty of sceptics who claim that if only God would perform a miracle before their eyes they would believe.  But their very scepticism makes it unlikely to happen.

Edwards notes that ‘Mark is more willing to ascribe unapologetic humanness to Jesus than any other Gospel writer…Jesus walks the same road that peasants and tax-collectors walk, facing weariness (Mk 4:38), disappointment (vv. 5–6), ignorance (Mk 3:32), fear (Mk 14:34)—and even the inability to influence his own family.’

Except lay his hands on a few people and heal them – Mt 13:58 makes the same point, but more smoothly.  As Hurtado points out, ‘this is the sort of evidence that prompts most scholars to believe that the writer of Matthew wrote after Mark and used Mark’s Gospel as a source, making numerous editorial changes such as this one.’

6:6 And he was amazed because of their unbelief. Then he went around among the villages and taught.

Often, people are said to be amazed by Jesus.  But here, in his own home town, it is the other way round.

‘In the preceding stories Jesus has displayed lordship over nature, demons, and death. But among his own people in Nazareth he encounters misunderstanding and rejection. Heretofore the crowds are amazed at Jesus’ authority (Mk 1:22; 5:20; 6:2), but in Nazareth it is Jesus who is amazed at their disbelief.’ (Edwards)

‘What amazes God about humanity is not its sinfulness and propensity for evil but its hardness of heart and unwillingness to believe in him. That is the greatest problem in the world, and herein lies the divine judgment on humanity. Humanity wants a spectacular sign of God, or, like the devil, a great display of divine power (Matt 4:1–11; Luke 4:1–13). But it does not want God to become a human being like one of us (John 1:11). The people of Nazareth see only a carpenter, only a son of Mary, only another one of the village children who has grown up and returned for a visit. If only God were less ordinary and more unique, then they would believe. The servant image of the Son is too prosaic to garner credulity. God has identified too closely with the world for the world to behold him, too closely with the town of Nazareth for it to recognize in Jesus the Son of God. Humanity wants something other than what God gives. The greatest obstacle to faith is not the failure of God to act but the unwillingness of the human heart to accept the God who condescends to us in only a carpenter, the son of Mary.’ (Edwards)

‘God allows our unbelief to limit his activity. Mark says that Jesus “could not” do a miracle in Nazareth because of the people’s unbelief, (Mk 6:5) probably meaning that Jesus refused to act as a mere magician but demanded faith (Goppelt 1981:148). Matthew clarifies the wording: Jesus did not (would not) act because of their unbelief (13:58). Those who are hostile to God’s purposes cannot complain because they do not receive the attestations of his power that appear regularly among those who believe him. We should keep in mind, however, that the issue here is the hostility of antibelief, not a young Christian’s struggles with doubt (compare Moule 1965:47); sometimes God does sovereignly act on behalf of his own to develop faith, not just to reward it (compare Mt 17:2-7; 28:5-10, 17; Ex 3:2; Judg 6:12-14).’ (IVP NT Commentary)

‘. . .there are no limits to man’s dullness, prejudice, and unbelief in spiritual matters.  It is a striking fact that the only thing which our Lord is said to have “marveled” at during His earthly ministry was man’s “unbelief” (Mark 6.6). . .Few things are so little realized as the extent of human unbelief.’ (J.C. Ryle)

‘We never find Christ wondering but at the faith of the Gentiles that were strangers, as the centurion (Mt. 8:10), and the woman of Samaria, and at the unbelief of Jews that were his own countrymen. Note, The unbelief of those that enjoy the means of grace, is a most amazing thing.’ (MHC)

The abyss of unbelief
John Shelby Spong (Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism) thinks that tales about Jesus’ miraculous powers began to develop and circulate a considerable distance from Jesus himself.  He finds it ‘noteworthy’ to observe that ‘even Mark’s Gospel suggested that those who knew Jesus best and who observed him most closely said that they had never seen the miraculous things that others described so vividly.’  The Gospel writer then has to explain this in terms of their lack of faith (v6).  It is wonderful how a modern mind, so much more distant from the events than Mark, and lacking the eyewitness sources that were available to the Gospel writer, can plunge into the same abyss of unbelief.  Family and neighbours on the one hand, a modern bishop on the other hand: those who should have been friendliest to the Truth show themselves to be its enemies!

Sending Out the Twelve Apostles, 7-13

6:7 Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out two by two. He gave them authority over the unclean spirits.
Mk 6:7–11 = Mt 10:1,9–14; Lk 9:1,3–5

The commissioning of the Twelve is to be understood in the light of the principle, widely recognised at that time within Judaism, which recognised the authority of duly appointed representatives.

‘There is in the context no thought of the creation at this time of a permanent office, but rather the fulfilment of a specific commission’ (Lane). This being the case, it would be a mistake to attempt to universalise the specific instructions that Jesus gives on this occasion.

He sent them out two by two – ‘duo duo‘, an unusual expression that, according to Joan Taylor, recalls the entry of the animals into the ark ‘two by two’ (Gen 6:19 etc.).  Taylor argues that because each pair of animals would have consisted of one male and one female, it is likely that each male disciple was sent out with a female companion.  This would have facilitated the mission generally to both men and women, and also enabled entry to houses (v10) where only females might be present, and ministry that required close personal contact, such as anointing with oil (v13).

Taylor’s argument cannot be accorded a high degree of credibility.  The sending out ‘two by two’ is more likely to be associated with the Mosaic law which stated that the truthfulness of a testimony is to be validated by two witnesses, Deut 17:6; Num 35:30.  The Gospel writers are not reticent about mentioning female disciples, so why then would Mark not have made their sending clear here?  See this by Ian Paul.

Larry Hurtado, in his discussion of Taylor’s hypothesis, adds that although we do have a record of apostles travelling around with their wives (1 Cor 9:4), it would have been regarded as scandalous for unmarried pairs of men and women to travel around together.  And, among the various accusations made against Jesus and his disciples, there is not hint in the Gospels of any scandal along these lines.

Strauss (ZECNT) comments: ‘Sending them out “two by two” (δύο δύο) is no doubt for support, protection, and fellowship, but it also may reflect the OT injunction for the need of two witnesses to confirm a testimony in court (Deut 17:6; 19:15; cf. Num 35:30). Jesus follows this same procedure in Luke’s mission of the seventy (Luke 10:1), and in Acts the apostles regularly travel in pairs (Acts 3:1–11; 8:14; 11:30; 13:1–2; 15:22, 39–40; cf. 2 Cor 12:18).’

Further evidence these being male pairs is found in Matthew 10:2-4, where the twelve disciples are listed in groups of two: ‘Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John…’.  This grouping strongly hints that iot was in these very pairs that the disciples were sent out.

6:8 He instructed them to take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts—6:9 and to put on sandals but not to wear two tunics.

In the Greek, v8 contains an indirect quotation, whereas the following verse has the (less usual) direct quotation. NASB gives the more literal translation:- ‘he instructed them that they should take nothing for their journey, except a mere staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belt; but to wear sandals; and he added, “Do not put on two tunics.”‘

Nothing…except a staff – In Mt 10:10 and Lk 9:3 Jesus instructs them not to take a staff.  According to some, it’s ‘goodbye inerrancy…’  Brooks (NAC) thinks that Matthew and Luke probably reflect what Jesus actually said.  Even so conservative a commentator as Hendriksen admits that there is no easy way to resolve this apparent discrepancy, and he rejects Calvin’s suggestion that Mark, on the one hand, and Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, are referring to two different items (even though they use precisely the same word!).  Hendriksen thinks that Matthew may be referring to not taking extra items for the journey.  Strauss, in a footnote, reviews various possible interpretations, but concludes that ‘we simply do not know’.

‘The central message is clear: they must travel light, unencumbered by the things of the world, trusting in God and depending on the hospitality of others. They should carry only the clothes on their back, sandals on their feet, and a walking stick. They must not carry provisions (“bread”) or extra clothing, nor even the money to purchase such things.’ (Strauss)

6:10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the area. 6:11 If a place will not welcome you or listen to you, as you go out from there, shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

‘Some manuscripts add “I assure you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah on judgment day than for that town.” This addition to some generally late manuscripts is from Matthew 10:15 and is widely understood to be the result of harmonization with the passage there.’ (HAC)

6:12 So they went out and preached that all should repent. 6:13 They cast out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.

The Death of John the Baptist, 14-29

6:14 Now King Herod heard this, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead, and because of this, miraculous powers are at work in him.” 6:15 Others said, “He is Elijah.” Others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets from the past.”
Mk 6:14–29 = Mt 14:1–12

Mk 6:14–16 = Lk 9:7–9

King Herod – One of four Herods who feature in the pages of the NT.  This was Herod Antipas, and his official title was tetrarch of Galilee and Perea.  Mark may be using the title ‘king’ loosely or even ironically.

“John the Baptist has been raised from the dead” – See also Herod’s exclamation in v16.

“He is Elijah” – ‘John the Baptist had spoken of Jesus as “the Coming One”; to anyone who knew the OT it could be no one else but Elijah (cf. Mal 3:1; 4:5).’ (EBC)

‘The glowing estimate of Jesus in v. 15 reminds us that holding a high opinion of Jesus is not the same thing as faith. Considering Jesus to be Elijah or one of the prophets, or, as we hear today, to be the greatest person ever to have lived or the finest moral example of humanity, does not necessarily bring one a step closer to faith.’ (Edwards)

6:16 But when Herod heard this, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised!”

This opinion arises out of fear that the one whom Herod had murdered had come back to haunt him.

Those who claim that the idea of the resurrection of any individual prior to the last day was completely unheard-of must reckon with this text.  On the other hand, there is no indication here that Herod thought that Jesus was John resurrected in the flesh.  On the contrary, given the widespread belief that ghosts (spirits of the departed) possessed magical powers, it is likely that Herod thought that Jesus was using John’s ghost to work miracles.  It was thought that those who suffered villent deaths, such as John had, would have very powerful ghosts.  (See the discussion by Bolt: ‘Jesus, the Daimons and the Dead’ in Lane [ed.) The Unseen World, Baker, 1996, p101)

6:17 For Herod himself had sent men, arrested John, and bound him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. 6:18 For John had repeatedly told Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” 6:19 So Herodias nursed a grudge against him and wanted to kill him. But she could not 6:20 because Herod stood in awe of John and protected him, since he knew that John was a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard him, he was thoroughly baffled, and yet he liked to listen to John.

Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife

‘According to Mark, Antipas imprisoned John for criticizing his marriage, which was forbidden by Jewish law (Lev 18:16; 20:21). Josephus also provides an account of John’s death at the hand of Antipas, though a somewhat more political version, reporting that Antipas, fearing John’s influence on the people, “decided to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising” (Ant. 18.116–19). The two accounts of Mark and Josephus look like two sides of the same coin, both attesting to John’s righteousness and piety and Herod’s paranoia and ruthlessness. Mark chooses to emphasize the moral charges that John brought against Antipas, whereas Josephus stresses the political fears that John aroused in him.’ (Edwards)

6:21 But a suitable day came, when Herod gave a banquet on his birthday for his court officials, military commanders, and leaders of Galilee. 6:22 When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, “Ask me for whatever you want and I will give it to you.” 6:23 He swore to her, “Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.”

‘In NT times the Greek custom of employing professional women dancers was followed in the case of Salome at Herod’s birthday feast.’ (Mk 6:21-22) (NBD)

‘We can only imagine what kind of dance prompted Antipas to promise “up to half my kingdom” to Salome. If Antipas meant the promise to be understood literally, it was a sham, for Rome would not allow him to part with an acre of land.  The promise…recalls a similar promise of King Xerxes to Esther that resulted in the unmasking of Haman’s evil plot (Esth 5:3, 6; 7:2). Here the promise unmasks an equally evil plot, hatched not by Haman but by Herodias. “Up to half my kingdom” appears to be a figure of speech (see 1 Kgs 13:8), however, and cannot have been meant literally.’ (Edwards)

6:24 So she went out and said to her mother, “What should I ask for?” Her mother said, “The head of John the baptizer.” 6:25 Immediately she hurried back to the king and made her request: “I want the head of John the Baptist on a platter immediately.”

‘In this (as in other events in his life), Antipas’s weakness of character and vacillating actions are exploded and exploited by Herodias. She is the prime mover in the story. In contrast to Antipas, who is shortsighted and impetuous, Herodias nurses her antipathy against John with shrewd and calculating patience, entirely willing to sacrifice even the honor of her daughter to achieve her design. T. W. Manson put it well, “Herodias felt that the only place where her marriage-certificate could safely be written was on the back of the death-warrant of John the Baptist.” Salome is merely an extension of her will, a compliant pawn in a game of intrigue and power. Salome, young and talented, is willing to sell her services to the highest bidder, without regard for their consequences.’ (Edwards)

6:26 Although it grieved the king deeply, he did not want to reject her request because of his oath and his guests. 6:27 So the king sent an executioner at once to bring John’s head, and he went and beheaded John in prison. 6:28 He brought his head on a platter and gave it to the girl, and the girl gave it to her mother.
6:29 When John’s disciples heard this, they came and took his body and placed it in a tomb.

The Feeding of the Five Thousand, 30-44

6:30 Then the apostles gathered around Jesus and told him everything they had done and taught.

What a difference between this simple feast, and the elaborate one that has just been described!  The first shows the apparent weakness of God’s kingdom; this one its real power.

No miracle intervened to save John the Baptist: this thought serves to remind us that a miracle such as the feeding of the five thousand cannot be regarded as normative.  It must point to something beyond itself.

Hurtado identifies several distinctive features of Mark’s version of this miracle: the threefold mention of wilderness (vv31,32,35), which recalls the supply of manna in the wilderness under Moses (Ex 16); Jesus’ reference to the people as ‘sheep without a shepherd’ (v34), which brings to mind Num 27:17, where Moses prays that the people may be given a leader after he has gone, and Eze 34:1-31, where God promises to feed his ‘sheep’ by sending a David-like shepherd-king; and the mention of organising the people into groups of hundreds and fifties (v40), which may allude to Moses’ similar organisation of the Israelites during the Wilderness travels.  In these ways (says Lurtado), in Marks hands the account takes on prophetic significance: ‘the way the event is described depicts Jesus as Messiah, the divinely sent provision for Israel and the fulfillment of OT prophecies of a future salvation. Jesus’ action is here “dressed” in OT imagery to make the point. Immediately following the episode about “King” Herod, this account suggests that Jesus is the rightful king and the true leader of Israel instead of the wicked Herod.’

Donald English (BST) comments on ‘how little Mark makes of this first excursion into ministry by the apostles. It is almost as though more important than what they had done is their coming back to him to report it. Can Mark be saying that even preaching, teaching, healing and casting out demons do not, of themselves, make those who do them disciples of Jesus? The clue is in their being sent by him, doing what they were instructed to do by him, returning to him and then staying with him until sent out again. All these other things they have been doing may be fruits of true discipleship but they are not its root. The root is attachment to Jesus himself, from whom the disciples’ life comes.’

6:31 He said to them, “Come with me privately to an isolated place and rest a while” (for many were coming and going, and there was no time to eat). 6:32 So they went away by themselves in a boat to some remote place. 6:33 But many saw them leaving and recognized them, and they hurried on foot from all the towns and arrived there ahead of them.

The retreat that never was!

Mark devotes more space to this account than Matthew and Luke, but not more than John.  As indicators of the importance of this narrative within Mark’s structure, Lane points to the elaborate introduction (30-34), the extended dialogue with the disciples (35-38), subsequence references to this incident (Mk 6:52; 8:17-21), as well as the account of a second miraculous feeding (of 4,000) in Mk 8:1-10 (see also Mt 15:32-39).

Furthermore, ‘in contrast to the drunken debauchery of the Herodian feast, Mark exhibits the glory of God unvelied through the abundant provision of bread in the wilderness where Jesus is Israel’s faithful shepherd.’

So many people were coming and going

Undesigned co-incidence?  Mark does not explain why, but Jn 6:4 tells us that it was Passover time.

Some rest – ‘The most active servants of Christ cannot be always upon the stretch of business, but have bodies that require some relaxation, some breathing-time; we shall not be able to serve God without ceasing, day and night, till we come to heaven, where they never rest from praising him, Rev. 4:8.’ (MHC)

Mk 6:32–44 = Mt 14:13–21; Lk 9:10–17; Jn 6:5–13

They travelled by boat to the opposite (NE) side of the Sea of Galilee.

It was not difficult for the crowds to outpace the small fishing boat.  There is some doubt, however about when Mark intends us to understand that they actually arrived ahead of boat.  The distance directly across the lake is about 4 miles, and around the shore would have been 10 miles.

6:34 As Jesus came ashore he saw the large crowd and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he taught them many things.

The disciples, needing rest, must have been dismayed at the sight of this ‘welcoming party’.  But Jesus had compassion on them – Mt 14:14 adds, ‘and healed their sick’.  See also Lk 9:11, which combines Mark’s emphasis on teaching with Matthew’s emphasis on healing.  Fame has a habit of ruining people; not so with Jesus.

They were like sheep without a shepherd – possibly an allusion to Num 27:17.

Shepherd = king.  ‘Although this image elicits pictures of Jesus helping weak and helpless sheep (Matt 9:36), a pastoral connotation is not its primary connotation in Jewish tradition. As a metaphor, the shepherd of sheep was a common figure of speech in Israel for a leader of Israel like Moses (Isa 63:11), or more often of a Joshua-like military hero who would muster Israel’s forces for war (Num 27:17; 1 Kgs 22:17//2 Chr 18:16; Jer 10:21; Ezek 34:5; 37:24; Nah 3:18; Zech 13:7; Jdt 11:19). It is, in other words, a metaphor of hegemony, including military leadership and victory. In his compassion, Jesus sees a whole people without direction, without purpose, without a leader. Jesus utilizes the opportunity to teach the people, but as is usual in Mark, it is not the content of the teaching but the one who teaches who is the focus of interest.’ (Edwards)

‘They were all slaves to the Romans, and many of them lame and diseased, but nothing troubled Christ so much as this, that they lacked pastors and teachers.’ (Trapp)

There is implicit criticism here of Israel’s existing leadership (including Herod).  Lane: In spite of the tetrarch’s pretensions to royalty, the people are as leaderless as sheep who possess no shepherd.  In contrast to the drunken debauchery of the Herodian feast, Mark exhibits the glory of God unvelied through the abundant provision of bread in the wilderness where Jesus is Israel’s faithful shepherd.’

As Garland remarks, they did not lack leaders – they had priests and scribes a-plenty: ‘The problem was that the religious leaders were not doing what they were meant to do. Jesus did not seem to care how big the temple stones were, how big its budget was, or how many showed up for prayers and sacrifices.’

Garland encourages us to think about a shepherd’s job description: he leads his sheep to food and water; he picks up the lambs who cannot keep up and carries them in his arms; he seeks out the lost sheep; he protects them against predators and thieves.  A good shepherd did not simply build a fence and leave the sheep to get on with it: he gets himself tired and dirty by being amongst them.

‘Think back through the story Mark has just told us. Herod is off in his palace, probably far to the south of the Sea of Galilee, carousing with his cronies, winking at pretty girls, beheading prophets. His henchmen on the ground are grasping bullies. Here are his people, desperate for leadership. And here is a young prophet to whom they flock. Is he the king-in-waiting? That’s the echo we must hear behind this story.’ (Tom Wright)

‘The feeding of the 5,000 in the wilderness was a messianic act signalled here by an allusion to Nm 27:16–17. Moses prayed for someone to replace him after his death so the people would not be left as sheep without a shepherd. The motif is picked up in Ezekiel, where God promised that His servant David (i.e., the Messiah) will shepherd His people. John 6:14–15, 26–34 makes it clear that the Galileans recognized the significance of the act (see Dt 18:15–19).’ (Apologetics Study Bible)

‘Given Jesus’ implied critique of Herod in His acknowledgment of the people’s “leaderless” condition, the feeding that follows may contain parabolic significance. While Herod’s courtiers feast their eyes on the spectacle of John’s severed head, Jesus’ guests feast on the spectacular sustenance of God’s rule.’ (Faithlife Study Bible)

Bonhoeffer: ‘There were questions but no answers, distress but no relief, anguish of conscience but no deliverance, tears but no consolation, sin but no forgiveness.’

William Barclay: ‘Jesus was moved by the spiritual lostness of the crowd…he was not annoyed with their foolishness; he was not angry at their shiftlessness; he was sorry for them.  He saw them as a harvest waiting to be gathered for God (Mt 9:37f).  The Pharisees said: “The man who does not know the law is accursed.”  They were able to say: “There is joy in heaven over one sinner who is destroyed.”  But in face of man’s lostness, even when that lostness was his own fault, Jesus felt nothing but pity.  He did not see a man as a criminal to be condemned; he saw man as a lost wanderer to be found and brought home.  He did not see men as chaff to be burned; he saw them as a harvest to be reaped for God.’ (New Testament Words, on ‘splagchnizesthai‘)

He began teaching them many things – or rather, ‘at length’.  It is not so much that he taught many different things, but that he taught them the one message of the kingdom in depth.  In the light of their leaderlessness, their one great need, in Jesus’ estimation, is to be thoroughly taught.  Matthew and Luke also mention healing at this point.  Cranfield summarises: ‘Jesus’ compassion for the multitude leads him to teach, to heal the sick, to feed the hungry.’

6:35 When it was already late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is an isolated place and it is already very late. 6:36 Send them away so that they can go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” 6:37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said, “Should we go and buy bread for two hundred silver coins and give it to them to eat?”

Late in the day – If, as we suppose, this event took place in Springtime, then sunset would have been about 6pm.  So the time indicated in the present verse might have been around 4pm.

There is no indication in text that anyone in the crowd was concerned about the lateness of the hour.  We may suppose, then, that the disciple’s anxiety had more than a little to do with their own hunger and fatigue (v31).

“You give them something to eat” – As Edwards notes, ‘Rather than relieving the crisis, Jesus intensifies it.’  It seems a completely unreasonable command, and yet the disciples will eventually do exactly what he asks, albeit in an entirely unexpected way (v41).

Taylor (The miracles of our Saviour) underlines the difference between the solution proposed by the disciples and that proposed by Jesus.  They said, ‘You send them away’.  He said, ‘You give them something to eat.’  The first seeks to avoid the problem; the second to approach and confront it.  Taylor suggests that there is here a general principle that can applied to a multitude of social problems.

‘The Lord is for the body; it is the work of his hands, it is part of his purchase; he was himself clothed with a body, that he might encourage us to depend upon him for the supply of our bodily wants. But he takes a particular care of the body, when it is employed to serve the soul in his more immediate service. If we seek first the kingdom of God, and make that our chief care, we may depend upon God to add other things to us, as far as he sees fit, and may cast all care of them upon him. These followed Christ but for a trial, in a present fit of zeal, and yet Christ took this care of them; much more will he provide for those who follow him fully.’ (MHC, on Matthew)

‘Jesus still has compassion on the hungry multitudes, and he still says to his church: “Give them something to eat.” How easy it is for us to send people away, to make excuses, to plead a lack of resources. Jesus asks that we give him all that we have and let him use it as he sees fit. A hungry world is feeding on empty substitutes while we deprive them of the Bread of Life. When we give Christ what we have, we never lose. We always end up with more blessing than when we started.’ (Wiersbe, on Matthew)

This soon after the disciples had been given authority to drive out demons and cure diseases, v1. The disciples were all too ready for Jesus to send the crowd away. Cf. Mt 15:23; Lk 18:15. But he will not let them take their responsibility so lightly. It is not God’s way to send needy people away empty-handed, Mt 5:43-48; 11:25-30; Lk 6:27-38; Jn 3:16. Christians are taught to offer generous hospitality, 1 Pet 4:9. So, Jesus sets his disciples a challenge; for his command invites the response, “Yes, but how?” They need to realise that he who could supply wine when their was a shortage could also supply food, Jn 2:1-11. How often do we accept that God is ‘able to do’ one thing, but doubt his ability (or willingness) to do another?

‘Jesus challenges the disciples to return the favor of hospitality which has recently been extended to them while on their mission, but they do not know how to.’ (WBC, on Luke)

In view of the spiritual meaning of this miracle we are warranted in applying this predicament to the ministers of the gospel: they see a crowd which is spiritually starving, and knowing they are totally lacking in resources, are tempted to send them away. But Jesus’ response is ever, “You give them something to eat,” – and they will be thrown back on the limitless resources of God.

‘Jesus Christ has not only physic, but food, for all those that by faith apply themselves to him; he not only heals them that need healing, cures the diseases of the soul, but feeds them too that need feeding, supports the spiritual life, relieves the necessities of it, and satisfies the desires of it. Christ has provided not only to save the soul from perishing by its diseases, but to nourish the soul unto life eternal, and strengthen it for all spiritual exercises.’ (M. Henry)

“That would take eight months of a man’s wages!” – lit. ‘two hundred denarii’.  The disciples’ protest recalls that of Moses in Num 11:22 and Elijah’s servant in 2 Kings 4:43.

The cost of discipleship.  Garland reminds us that when we are tired and hungry ourselves, and seek rest and solitude, we may find more people who need our help.  And we may find ourselves responding as the disciples did: ‘It will cost us too much to help them.’

In comparing the various versions of this miracle, we find that at first Jesus asked Philip where they could find enough food to feed such a crowd. Jn 6:6 explains that Jesus asked this in order to test Philip, but he himself already knew what he would do. When faced with life’s crises, it is good to remember that God already has the problem solved.

More than the other evangelists, Mark stresses the disciple’s protest.  It does not occur to them that he is able to deal with this situation in anything other than a mundane way.  This is consistent with his general portrayal of their failure to understand Jesus’ mission and ministry, a point that is mentioned again in v52.  Hurtado says: ‘if the disciples’ failure is presented as a warning to the reader, as seems likely, then Mark wants the reader to pay special attention to these feeding accounts and to take seriously the hints he has given (such as we have discussed) about what the feedings signify.’

Cranfield suggests that the lively dialogue between Jesus and the disciples, together with the vivid description in v39f are indicative of an eyewitness account.  He concludes that the narrative ‘may well be based on Petrine reminiscence’.

6:38 He said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.” 6:39 Then he directed them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. 6:40 So they reclined in groups of hundreds and fifties.

“How many loaves do you have?” – And this question after Jesus had instructed them not to take any food with them on their mission, but to rely on the hospitality of others!  And even now, as John informs us, the scanty provisions are donated by a young lad.

Edwards: ‘The disciples complain about what they lack; Jesus focuses on what they possess. The problem will not be resolved by something beyond them but by something from among them. Jesus sees possibilities where his disciples see only impossibilities, for God can multiply even the smallest gifts if they are made available to him.’

“Five – and two fish” – Small prospect for a banquet, considering the size of the crowd and the amount of food on offer.  Cf. Moses’ predicament in Num 11;13,22.

‘While their response reflects an accurate assessment of their limitations, they had failed to perceive that Jesus’ commands are always accompanied by sufficient resources and empowerment to accomplish that which he commands. The disciples must learn that he who calls them for service will also equip them for the task at hand.’ (College Press, on Matthew)

See 2 Kings 4:42-43 for a similar example of incredulity when Elisha tells his servant to distribute twenty barley loaves amongst 100 men. ‘both Elisha’s disciple and Jesus’ disciples should have been with their master long enough to expect that what the master said he had power from God to perform. The God of the exodus, who divided waters (Ex 14:21) and provided manna from heaven, (Ex 16:14-18) was at work in history again.’ (2 Kings 2:8-14; 4:38-44; Mt 14:13-33) (IVP Commentary, on Matthew)

According to Jn 6:8f, these were donated by a boy whom Andrew had found. Jesus could, without a doubt, have created a feast out of nothing. But he chose to make use of what was already available. The trouble with the disciples is that they were focussing on the need of the crowd and the apparent paucity of their resources, and not on Jesus and his power and compassion (even though he had that very day been demonstrating both, v11b).

There is both disrespect in incredulity on the disciples’ part.  Whereas Jesus’ instruction is intended to promote understanding, the Twelve in fact display increasing misunderstanding.  This attitude forms the basis of the accusation of ‘hardness of heart’ in v52. (Lane)

All the above details (the fact that it was late in the day, that there was no opportunity for the crowd to go and find food for themselves, that the size of the crowd would have required a large sum of money to feed them, that the only resources available were the five loaves and two fishes) all serve to underline the impossibility of the situation from the human point of view, and therefore the extraordinary nature of the miracle.

‘Let no one be discouraged because he cannot do much, or allow himself to be laughed out of his efforts with the little that he has, but let each of us do his utmost, and, whether that be great or small, let us put it into the hands of Christ, for he will multiply it for the meeting of the emergency.’ (Taylor, The miracles of our Saviour)

Sit down – Gk. kataklinein – reclining as at a festive meal, although such words came to be used of all kinds of sitting at all kinds of meal. (WBC)

In groups – Gk. klisia. The word refers to groups gathered specifically for a meal. There is something methodical and deliberate about the way Jesus gives these instructions. The gifts of God are to distributed and enjoyed in an orderly manner.  It must have tested the disciple’s faith to prepare the people for a meal without knowing where it would come from.

Green grass – An eyewitness touch.  Jn 6:10 – ‘much grass’.  There is not normally copious green grass in the region, and so its presence would have made a vivid impression on those who were there.  It would have been Springtime, and therefore (significantly) around the time of Passover.  (‘Wilderness’, in biblical language, is an unpopulated area, not necessarily arid desert).  Here is an undesigned coincidence with Jn 6:4, which says that ‘the Passover was at hand’.

Passover took place in early April, towards the end of the wettest part of the year. Hence the ‘green grass’ of v39.

Both the disciples and the crowd must have been wondering, “What is he going to do?”

‘The arrangement certainly recalls God’s miraculous provision for Israel in the wilderness, and it may hint at the eschatological gathering of God’s people on the last day’ (Edwards).  See Ex 18:21,25; Num 31:14.

‘This detail is particularly striking because the document of Qumran use these subdivisions to describe true Israel assembled in the desert in the period of the last days.  If this concept is presupposed in v40, the multitude who have been instructed concerning the Kingdom is characterised as the people of the new exodus who have been summoned to the wilderness to experience messianic grace.  Through these elements of the wilderness complext mark portrays Jesus as the eschatological Saviour, the second Moses who transforms a leaderless flock into the people of God.’ (Lane)

‘Christ commanded that the people should sit down in companies; and he did so, first, that by this arrangement of the ranks the miracle might be more manifest; secondly, that the number of the men might be more easily ascertained, and that, while they looked at each other, they might in their turn bear testimony to this heavenly favor. Thirdly, perceiving that his disciples were anxious, he intended to make trial of their obedience by giving them an injunction which at first sight appeared to be absurd; for, as no provisions were at hand, there was reason to wonder why Christ was making arrangements that resembled a feast. To the same purpose is what follows, that he gave them the loaves, in order that in their hands the astonishing increase might take place, and that they might thus be the ministers of Christ’s divine power; for as if it had been of small importance that they should be eye-witnesses, Christ determined that his power should be handled by them.’ (Calvin)

6:41 He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. He gave them to his disciples to serve the people, and he divided the two fish among them all. 6:42 They all ate and were satisfied, 6:43 and they picked up the broken pieces and fish that were left over, twelve baskets full. 6:44 Now there were five thousand men who ate the bread.

Looking up to heaven – This, as Lane says, is the one deviation from normal practice, which would be to look down.  This is no ordinary meal, and Jesus’ posture expresses a reliance upon his heavenly Father for the extraordinary miracle that is about to happen.

He gave thanks – perhaps repeating the traditional Jewish blessing: “Praise unto thee, O Lord, our God King of the world who makes bread to come forth from the earth.”

Again, we wonder what the disciples and the crowd were thinking, as they heard Jesus say grace.

‘Jesus simply takes the provisions available and, in an astonishing move, prepares the crowd for a great banquet (lit., “to recline,” the normal posture at a banquet). Although the giving of thanks followed by the breaking of the loaves and the distribution of the food is quite typical of a Jewish meal, it is hard not to see some allusion or foreshadowing of the Last Supper (Mt 26:26-28). However, the distribution of the bread by means of the disciples is intended to remind them of their vital intermediary role in bringing heaven’s blessings to bear on the human predicament. They must learn from this event to be true shepherds, who minister to the flock by relying on divine resources to supply whatever is needed to “feed” the people of God.’ (College Press, on Matthew)

Many commentators note that the verbs (‘take’, ‘give thanks’, ‘break’, ‘give’) are suggestive of the language of the Last Supper.  Some therefore think that we should see this miracle as ‘a symbolic act of communion in the newly established kingdom of heaven’ (NBC, on Matthew).  Others (such as Lane and Hurtado), however, comment that the verbs are precisely that that would apply to the mealtime customs in any pious Jewish household of the time.  (We might add that what is on the menu here is bread and fish, not bread and wine).  In the light of Hurtado’s suggestion, we may remark that our own celebrations of the Lord’s Supper ought to to happen around meals that are ‘ordinary’ than they usually are.

He gave them to his disciples to set before the people – And so the disciples do what they thought they could not do (cf. v37).  And Jesus, in performing this miracle, relies on physical resources (though inadequate in themselves) and human resources (though uncomprehending).  In fact, he makes little ado about the miracle, allowing the crowd to believe that, somehow, the disciples had been able to rustle up sufficient food to feed them all (this would account for the lack of any mention of surprise on the part of the crowd).  As Cranfield says, ‘It is possible that the miracle was apparent only to the disciples and that the crowd accepted unthinkingly what was offered them’.

Mark gives us no information about the mechanics of the miracle; whether, for example, the food multiplied in his own hands or as the disciples distributed it.

Garland, noting that Mark does not refer to any astonishment on the part of the crowd, thinks that may not have realised that a miracle had taken place: ‘Could it be that they have eaten a miracle in a deceptively simple meal and did not realize it (see John 2:9–10; cf. 2 Kings 4:42–44)? Do they just accept this bounty without reflecting on the gracious gift offered to them? Are they like dumb sheep who eat the grass without a thought for the one who made the grass?’  These conjectures ignore, however, the testimony of John 6:14.  But Garland is correct in nothing that ‘the disciples, who distribute the bread from their meagre supply, must know that a miracle is occurring, but the next episode in the boat makes it clear that they do not comprehend its significance and what it says about the one who did it.’

Attempts to explain it (away)

Various attempts have been made to exclude the miraculous element from this account:-

(a) Some think that the five loaves and two fishes were not miraculously multiplied, but rather broken up into the tiniest morsels and then distributed.  The fact that Albert Schweitzer thought as much only goes to show how foolish great men can sometimes be.  It is not only contradicted by the text itself, but by common sense, which assures us that no-one in the hungry crowd – least of all the children present – would have been ‘satisfied’ by such a ‘banquet’.

(b) Some think that the compassion of Jesus (or the contribution of the young lad mentioned in Jn 6:1-14) aroused others in the crowd to share the picnics they happened to carrying with them.  Barclay, for instance, claims that ‘this is a miracle of the birth of love in men’s souls; it is a miracle of the awakening of fellowship in men’s souls; it is the eternal miracle of Christianity, whereby a miscellaneous crowd of men and women becomes a family in Christ.’  Again, this flies in the face of the account itself.

(c) Some think that Mark and the other evangelists have grossly exaggerated the size of the crowd (so Vincent Taylor).  Once again, this is without warrant, and involves a denial of the very thing that the text insists on: that a very remarkable miracle took place.

(d) Others think that Jesus had a stash of food hidden away in a cave.  He stood at the entrance to the case, and the crowd mistakenly believed that he had produced the food miraculously.  Garland rightly dismisses this ‘explanation’ as ‘ludicrous’, noting that the text itself does not even mention the crowd’s perception of what was gong on.

(e) Yet others think that the account has little or no basis in historical reality.  The contributor to Harper’s Bible Commentary, for example, focuses on many OT allusions in the narrative, and seems to assume that it was concocted as a symbolic tale.

Modern scholars, then, tend to view the historicity of this miracle with great suspicion. They note the apparent symbolism of the event, and adduce such practical difficulties as, Where could the five thousand have come from? How would the Twelve have managed to get the crowd so arranged? How much time would it have taken to distribute so much food? Could all this have been done in an evening? How many tons of bread would have been needed? How did they get the scraps from among the people? But these questions are by no means unanswerable, and we must conclude that such opinions tell us more about the anti-supernaturalism of their proponents than about the text they are supposed to be explaining.

The evangelist is at pains to emphasise the scale of the miracle: ‘they all’ (not just some); ‘and were satisfied’ (not just a token morsel); there were ‘twelve basketfuls of broken pieces’ left over. There was more than enough.  ‘The abundant provisions are reminiscent of God’s care of his people in the wilderness when he provided manna in response to their physical needs.’ (cf. Ex 16; Ps 78:18-30; 81:1-7; 105:40) (College Press, on Matthew)

‘In multiplying the loaves and fish God did in one moment of time what he does every day with the corn in the fields and the fish in the sea.’ (NBC)

Twelve basketfuls – In recognition that bread was a gift from God, it was expected that scraps of food would be thus gathered up after a meal. It was usual for a Jew to carry a small wicker basket. (Lane)

Although some have found symbolic reference to the twelve tribes of Israel here, perhaps the basic idea is simply that each disciple collects up one basketful. In any case, the message is clear both to them and to us: more was cleared up at the end than had been brought at the beginning!  And if each disciple collected up one basketful, then he had provision for the following day.  Cf. Lk 6:38.

The multiplication of food is reminiscent of the miracle of God supplying manna for Israel in the wilderness, and especially of Elisha multiplying food. (2 Kings 4:42-44, where some was also left over).

‘One source reports that travelling Jews carried baskets with them; thus the twelve baskets may be the disciples’ own.’ (NT Background Cmty on Matthew)

‘We have no right, indeed, to expect that Christ will always follow this method of supplying the hungry and thirsty with food; but it is certain that he will never permit his own people to want the necessaries of life, but will stretch out his hand from heaven, whenever he shall see it to be necessary to relieve their necessities. Those who wish to have Christ for their provider, must first learn not to long for refined luxuries, but to be satisfied with barley-bread.’ (Calvin)

‘God is not intimidated by the magnitude of our problem. The disciples saw the size of the need and the littleness of the human resources available; Jesus saw the size of the need and the greatness of God’s resources available. Often God calls us to do tasks for him that are technically impossible-barring a miracle.

The day before I was going to call my prospective Ph.D. program to say I was not coming because I had no money, God unexpectedly met my need. And in the summer after I finished my Ph.D., I found myself still unable to locate a teaching position for the fall. After much prayer, one night I finally determined the bare minimum I needed to live on and to store my research that year, and I cried out in despair. Barring a miracle, I thought, I will be on the street this year. Less than twenty-four hours later Rodney Clapp called from InterVarsity Press and offered me a contract to write the IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament I had proposed-plus an unexpected advance that was, to the dollar, what I’d decided I needed for the year. Undaunted by the magnitude of my need, God was teaching me that he alone has the power to meet my needs.’ (Keener, in IVP Commentary on Matthew)

‘Jesus can take our inadequacy and make it more than adequate. Jesus multiplied five loaves and two fish to feed over five-thousand people. What he was originally given seemed insufficient, but in his hands it became more than enough. We often feel that our contribution to Jesus is meagre, but he can use and multiply whatever we give him, whether it is talent, time, or treasure. It is when we give them to Jesus that our resources are multiplied.’ (HBA)

If the men numbered five thousand (and the word is gender-specific), then the total number may have been more than double that.  Since the nearby towns of Bethsaida and Capernaum around 2,000 – 3,000 inhabitants each, there is some difficulty in accounting for the size of the crowds.

Many see the feedings of the 5,000 and the 4,000 (Mk 6:32-44; 8:1-10) as doublets of the same events. Others, however, think that it is best to view them as separate incidents.

This miracle teaches us the Jesus is able to meet every need, no matter how great. See Eph 3:20.

‘All the elements of this miracle focus on Jesus’ authority. He is the one who breaks the food and gives it to the disciples after prayer and blessing. Here is a picture of Jesus leading people at supper, suggesting a foretaste of the messianic banquet (Ps 81:16; Isa 25:6; 65:13-14). Luke gives no detail as to how the food multiplies, because he is more interested in the result and what it pictures than in detailing the miracle. The messianic association is set up by the context. Herod’s question in verses 7-9 and Peter’s response in verses 18-20 indicate that this event, sandwiched as it is, provides a point of identification. The picture is of a Messiah who provides and makes full (Lk 6:21, 38; of God-1:53; in the Old Testament, Ps 23:1-2; 37:19; 78:24; 105:40; 107:9; 132:15; 145:15-16, with God’s provision of manna in the wilderness as the prototype example).’ (IVP NT Commentary)

It is inadequate to view this account as simply a moralistic tale about sharing what you have with others (the young lad notes in John’s account has a lot to answer for in this respect!).  Sharing is good (see, e.g., Acts 2:44–45; 4:34–35).  But this is alien to the purpose of this story totally inadequate to explain its scale.

‘Those whom Christ feeds he fills; to whom he gives, he gives enough; as there is in him enough for all, so there is enough for each. He replenishes every hungry soul, abundantly satisfies it with the goodness of his house. Here were fragments taken up, to assure us that in our Fathers house there is bread enough, and to spare. We are not straitened, or stinted, in him.’ (M. Henry)

We see in this miracle a remarkable demonstration of the power of Jesus. He is the one through whom the heavens and the earth were brought into being; he is the one who turned a few morsels of food into a feast for thousands. And this is the same Jesus who breathes life into a dead, unbelieving heart.

This miracle demonstrates the sovereign power of Jesus. It also shows his compassion for the physical needs of those to whom he ministered. But the story also illustrates the important point that Jesus is the bread of life. Indeed, it was the very next day that he gave his teaching on this subject, Jn 6, but the majority of his hears showed that they were more interested in their stomachs that their souls.. Christ himself is the living bread, and those who eat of it will live for ever.

Notice that the crowd’s reaction is not recorded at all. This suggests that the main lesson was for the disciples.

Ryle asks: ‘Have we discovered that this world is a wilderness, and that our souls must be fed with bread from heaven, or die eternally? Happy are they who have learned this lesson, and have tasted by experience, that Christ crucified is the true bread of life!’

Geldenhuys writes: ‘It is vain for us to attempt by ourselves to give real food to needy mankind with our five little loaves and two fishes – the insignificant gifts and powers possessed by us. But when we place at his disposal, in faith and obedience, everything we have received from him, he will, in spite of our own insignificance and poverty, use us nevertheless to feed souls with the bread of eternal life. He sanctifies, blesses and increases our talents and powers, everything consecrated by us to his service.’

Lane: ‘In the centre of the event stands Jesus, who creates the situation and arranges everything that pertains to the meal.  He orders the camp in their groups, takes and breaks the bread and divides the fish, and through his hands the miracle unfolds for those who have eyes to see.  If the crowd has been described as sheep without a shepherd, Jesus is presented as the Shepherd who provides for all of their needs to that they lack nothing.’

This story of the feeding of the 5,000 teaches, amongst other things, (a) the wonder-working power of Jesus; (b) his loving compassion: concerned about their spiritual needs, he taught them; concerned for their physical needs, he fed them.

‘Everett Cook, a retired Pentecostal minister running a street mission, confronted an associate who had a growth on his nose but refused to see a doctor. “God will heal me,” the man insisted.

“If you needed a miracle, God would give you one,” Everett retorted, “but right now he’s given you a doctor and medical insurance. You need to use what he’s given you.”

The next time they met the man’s growth was much bigger, but the man still insisted, “I am healed.” The third time they met the growth had spread further, and finally the man was thinking that perhaps he needed to see a doctor.

God performed a miracle when he created the world and set its laws in motion, and we are often wise to start with natural means when those are available. God performs miracles to meet our genuine needs, but he will not perform them merely to entertain us.’ (Keener, in IVP Commentary on Matthew)

The significance of this miracle

Following Cranfield, Garland and others, we may summarise the significance of this miracle as:

(a) expressing our Lord’s compassion, v34.  This is first expressed as he teaches them, and them as he feeds them.  With regard to the latter, note how fully he involves his disciples (begins with the extraordinary commands, “You give them something to eat”!).  Jesus fed both minds and bodies, and so must we.  See James 2:14-17; 1 Jn 3:17-19.

(b) pointing to the identity of his person.  He is the ‘good shepherd’ of Psa 23.  Hurtado, having noted the distinctive features of this account (summarised above), suggests that ‘Mark intends his readers to see the event as disclosing not only Jesus’ miraculous power but also the secret of his person and significance.’

Lane says: ‘In the eyes of the people Jesus remained an enigmatic prophetic teacher (cf Mk 6:14f), but he should have been recognised by the disciples as the Son of God at whose disposal are all of the riches of his Father.  The people fail to perceive who Jesus is and they do not understand him.  The disciples do not understand him although they were given an abundant opportunity to see his glory.  That is why they alone are reproved for their hardness of heart and their failure to grasp the meaning of the miracle of the loaves in the subsequent narrative. (Mk 6:52; 8:17-21).

(c) resonating with allusions to OT people and events.  The account, with is repeated references to the wilderness, recalls the Exodus, and especially Moses’ prayer concerning a successor (Num 27:15-17).  There are hints in the present account of one who is like Moses, but greater than him: the Israelites teetered on the brink of starvation, and the manna only lasted one day at a time; but Jesus’ crowd had more than enough, and even the leftovers could have been carried over until the following day.  Elijah and Elisha are recalled: they both ministered in the North, and gathered disciples.  They both provided food miraculously (1 King 17:8-16; 2 King 4:42-44).  Now, in Jesus, has come one who is like Elijah and Elisha, but greater than them.  We may conclude from this that Jesus fulfils the hopes and expectations of the OT, and that the Redeemer, promised long ago, has now come.

(d) anticipating the Last Supper and the Lord’s Supper.  Although Jesus’ words were not unusual at a mealtime, readers who were acquainted with the teaching of 1 Cor 11:23f would not fail to see the connection.

(e) pointing to the banquet at the final consummation (cf. Isa 55:1f, and contrast with Herod’s drunken and murderous banquet);

(f) suggesting that Jesus is the Bread of Life (as the account in John makes explicit).  First he feeds their minds, and then, by way of illustration, their bodies.  ‘To the longings of men’s souls, he is what this bread furnished by him was to the multitude.  He meets our spiritual need as these loaves and fishes met their hunger.’ (Taylor, The miracles of our Saviour)

Walking on Water, 45-52

6:45 Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dispersed the crowd. 6:46 After saying good-bye to them, he went to the mountain to pray.
Mk 6:45–51 = Mt 14:22–32; Jn 6:15–21
Mk 6:53–56 = Mt 14:34–36

Of the three accounts, it is Matthew who describes the storm most vividly, mentions Peter’s attempt to walk on the water himself, and records the disciples as confessing that Jesus is ‘God’s Son’.

John mentions why Jesus withdrew at this time – because the people (possibly including the disciples = Acts 1:6) wanted to take him by force and make him king (Jn 6:15).

Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat – His instruction was quite forceful.  Any reluctance on their part could be explained by their knowing that a storm was brewing (Mk 6:48; Jn 6:18).  On the other hand, their trust in Jesus in such circumstances would had been enhanced by his previous calming of a storm on the Sea of Galilee (Mk 4:35-41, Mt 8:23-27l; Lk 8:22-25).

To Bethsaida

To Bethsaida?

Mark 6:45f ‘Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dispersed the crowd. After saying good-bye to them, he went to the mountain to pray.’

There is a puzzle here, because Lk 9:10 seems to say that the feeding that Mark has just related took place at or near Bethsaida.  Mark, on the other hand, appears to say that the disciples made their way to Bethsaida after the feeding miracle.  Moreover, John says that they set off for Capernaum (Jn 6:17).  Norman Giesler berates Mike Licona for being willing to accept the ‘confusion’ of Mark, and for his willingness to ‘remain content to live with an unanswered question.’  Giesler says that ‘even Licona admits there are “possible” solutions’ and therefore seems to find it difficult to understand why Licona doesn’t plump for one of these, rather than accept the unresolved tension.  Giesler’s comments strike me as lacking integrity, a lack driven by his strong doctrine of biblical inerrancy.  For him, that doctrine is protected so long as we can think of at least one way in which the text can be interpreted in a way that resolves an apparent discrepancy.  But this is to allow the theological tail to wag the exegetical dog.

Having cleared that out of the way, I’m happy, as usual, to consider ways in which these two texts might be harmonised.  So here goes…

Mark says that Jesus made his disciples go on ahead of him ‘pros Bethsaidan‘.  Although this might well be translated ‘to Bethsaida’ it could equally mean ‘over against’, or ‘opposite’, or ‘facing’ Bethsaida’.

Besides Luke’s account, other incidental details seem confirm the location as Bethsaida:

  • Mt 11:20ff and Lk 10:13ff both record Jesus as referring to his ‘mighty works’ performed in Bethsaida; but the main miracles recorded in that place are the feeding of the five thousand and associated healings (Lk 9:11);
  • in his account of the feeding miracle, John does not actually say that it took place in Bethsaida, but Jn 6:5 does say that Jesus asked Philip where they could buy bread: and John records elsewhere that Philip was from Bethsaida (Jn 1:44; 12:21);
  • after the feeding miracle, according to Jn 6:16-17, the disciples got into a boat at headed across the sea ‘eis‘ to (or towards) Capernaum.  Now, Capernaum is on the NW side of the Sea of Galilee, that is, across the sea from Bethsaida, which is on the NE;
  • according to Mk 6:53 the disciples landed in Genessaret.  This, like Capernaum, is on the NW side of Galilee, away from, and not adjacent to, Bethsaida.

See this discussion by Lydia McGrew.

Craig Blomberg thinks it perfectly possible that the disciples were sent by Jesus to Bethsaida en route to Capernaum: ‘after the feeding of the 5,000, when Mark says Jesus told the disciples to go to Bethsaida (Mark 6:45) while John says they set off for Capernaum (John 6:17), Licona believes that “it will not work to harmonize the accounts by asserting the disciples intended to go to Bethsaida but were blown off course and landed in Capernaum.” I agree. But why not look first for a way that both statements could be true? Licona thinks the feeding miracle had to occur very close to Bethsaida because Jesus and the disciples went there first in Luke 9:10. But two verses later, Luke agrees with both Mark and John that they have moved on to “a remote place” (v. 12). The most likely region for such a place is east of the Sea of Galilee, from which one could easily refer to two different cities (both to the northwest) as the destination of the little troupe, especially if they stopped at Bethsaida en route to Capernaum. In fact, if Jesus knew the weather was going to be bad, He could have told them to head for Bethsaida first so they would stay closer to shore and not be in the open and most exposed parts of the sea.’


Lane: ‘When the third person plural of the narration is transposed to the first person plural of direct discourse the section reads like the excited report of one of the Twelve who had experienced terror upon seeing the Lord of the Sea.’

Edwards says that ‘there is an unmistakable urgency to this verse.’ He adds that the wording implies that the disciples were reluctant to leave.  ‘The apparent sense is that Jesus must expeditiously remove them from the scene in order to persuade the crowd to disperse peaceably and thus avert a revolutionary groundswell (Jn 6:14f).’

Wiersbe: ‘Why did Jesus compel His disciples to leave? Because the crowd was getting restless, and there was danger they might start a popular uprising to make Jesus King (John 6:14–15). The Twelve were not ready to face this kind of test, because their ideas of the kingdom were still too national and political.’

Lane thinks that the Lord dismissed his disciples quickly so that they would not reveal the miraculous nature of the evening meal and thus stir up messianic fervour.  But Jn 6:14f implies that the crowd did understand that Jesus had worked a notable miracle, and were already minded to ‘come and make him king by force’.  We may conclude, then, that Jesus sent his disciples away in order that they might not collude with the crowd in this.

Why God sends trials

Taylor (The miracles of our Saviour) draws from this the lesson that ‘God may send trials upon us simply to take us out of the way of temptation…When we are bent on something which will endanger our spirituality, God may send upon us a serious affliction simply to take us out of harm’s way.’

Even more than in the feeding of the five thousand, we may say that Jesus himself, in some sense, caused this crisis that will now unfold.  It is not only the Israelites in the wilderness who cry out, “Lord, if you had not sent us to this place, we would not be in this predicament.”

He dismissed the crowd – Jn 6:15 gives some background: ‘knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force,’ he parted company with the crowd.

He went up on a mountainside to pray – Hendriksen quotes Speer: ‘prayer was Christ’s very breath, namely, “unselfish prayer (Luke 22:32), forgiving prayer (Luke 23:34), earnest prayer (Luke 22:44), submissive prayer (Matt. 11:26; 26:39, 54).’

Edwards, quite plausibly, finds further messianic groundswell in this verse, ‘for Mark notes Jesus praying at only three points in his ministry (Mk 1:35; 6:45; 14:35–39). Each prayer is at night and in a lonely place, each finds the disciples removed from him and failing to understand his mission, and in each Jesus faces a formative decision or crisis. Following the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus reaffirms by prayer his calling to express his divine Sonship as a servant rather than as a freedom fighter against Rome.’  Lane has a similar comment.

6:47 When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the sea and he was alone on the land. 6:48 He saw them straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. As the night was ending, he came to them walking on the sea, for he wanted to pass by them.

When evening came – This timescale is not a problem if we understand v35 to mean ‘late in the afternoon’ – too late to send the crowd away to find food in the local villages.

The boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land – Taylor suggests that the present incident is a kind of ‘rehearsal’ for the disciples, for when their Master would no longer be with them in the flesh.  Indeed, their fortitude in the face of opposition and persecution, as recorded in the early chapters of the Acts, may be traced to their remembrance of this very night.

Hendriksen invites us to picture the two simultaneous scenes, and to remember that when we feel that we are in crisis, Christ is offering unseen but ever-present intercession.

He saw the disciples – Remember, they were already very weary.  Jesus evidently was able to see them from the hillside, and the night may well have been moonlit.

About the fourth watch of the night – between 3am and 6am.  ‘If Christ’s visits to his people be deferred long, yet at length he will come; and their extremity is his opportunity to appear for them so much the more seasonably.’ (MHC)

He went out to them, walking on the lake – And this while the wind was buffeting and the water agitating.  ‘In the OT God is described as treading upon the waves of the sea, signifying divine control over nature, and especially over the sea as a symbol of chaos and unruliness (e.g., Job 9:8 and Ps. 77:19, NIV; cf. RSV, NEB [margin]).’ (Hurtado)

Edwards says: ‘In walking on the water toward the disciples, Jesus walks where only God can walk. As in the forgiveness of sins (Mk 2:10) and in his power over nature (Mk 4:39), walking on the lake identifies Jesus unmistakably with God.’

‘No difficulties can obstruct Christ’s gracious appearances for his people, when the set time is come. He will either find, or force, a way through the most tempestuous sea, for their deliverance, Ps. 42:7, 8.’ (MHC)

Taylor remarks that our Lord came to the disciples at a later, not early, stage in their crisis; that he came ‘over the very waves which constituted their trials; and that the disciples did not at first recognise him when he came.  But come he did, and he did not alter their intended destination, but helped them reach it.

He was about to pass by them – Better: ‘He wanted to pass by them’.  It is not clear why this was so.  Note the similarity with Lk 24:28.  English comments that this ‘has about it the marks of an only too familiar picture of the natural power of Jesus and the awful struggle of the disciples to comprehend. This double emphasis certainly seems to be Mark’s purpose in telling the story at all.’

Lane, Garland and Edwards suggest that there is an OT allusion here, hinting at God’s self-disclosure as One who ‘passed by’ Moses, Exod 33:22; 33:19; 34:6, and Elijah, 1 Kgs 19:11.  Garland: ‘One can conclude from these passages that when Jesus wants to pass by his disciples, he wills for them to see his transcendent majesty as a divine being and to give them reassurance.’

According to Edwards, Job 9:8,11 is particularly important: ‘But when Jesus “passes by” the disciples on the lake he does something differently from the revelation of God in the OT: he intends to make the mysterious and enigmatic God of Job visible and palpable as it had not been and could not have been to former generations. The God of Israel, majestic and awesome but unknowable face to face, is now “passing by” believers in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ walking on the water to his disciples is a revelation of the glory that he shares with the Father and the compassion that he extends to his followers. It is a divine epiphany in answer to their earlier bafflement when he calmed the storm, “ ‘Who is this?’ ” (Mk 4:41). In this respect Mark’s Christology is no less sublime than is John’s, although John has Jesus declaring that he is the Son of God (John 10:36), whereas Mark has him showing that he is the Son of God.’

6:49 When they saw him walking on the water they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, 6:50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them: “Have courage! It is I. Do not be afraid.” 6:51 Then he went up with them into the boat, and the wind ceased. They were completely astonished, 6:52 because they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

They thought he was a ghost – ‘The term ghost in Greek can mean any kind of scary apparition, and since ancients often regarded the unruly sea as inhabited by sea demons, this is probably what is intended here.’ (Hurtado)

‘Some have argued that the disciples saw Jesus walking on the shore and mistakenly thought he was walking on the water. This suggestion is not feasible because Jesus was close enough to the boat to speak to them, even though the loud winds were blowing and the disciples were “in the middle of the sea” (v. 47).’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)

They…were terrified – Not for the first time (cf. Mk 4:41), the appearance of Jesus seems more frightening than the situation he has come to save them from.

‘Unfortunately, instead of bolstering their faith, Jesus’ act instilled fear. They thought Jesus was a phantasm, a ghost, perhaps even a sea demon, since it was believed that demons dwelt in such places. Their response then was not to shout hooray but to scream in panic.’ (Witherington)

“It is I.  Don’t be afraid”egō eimi. This could equally be translated, “Do not fear.  I am.”  Cf. Ex. 3:14; Isa 41:4; 43:10; 52:6; Mk 13:6.

Lane points out that in Psa 115:9ff.; 118:5f.; Isa 41:4ff., 13ff.; 43:1ff.; 44:2ff.; 51:9ff. such words, coupled with an admonition not to fear amount to an expression of divine self-revelation.

Few people today would claim to have seen a theophany.  As Garland says, the explanation (at least in part) is that God in Christ has been clearly revealed in the cross and resurrection.

Characteristically, Wright dismisses ‘generations’ of people who have jumped to the ‘easy’ conclusion that walking on water is evidence of Jesus’ divinity.  ‘It is not,’ he claims, ‘as straightforward as that.’  Although Mark will point to such ‘deeper truths’, what he wishes to stress is that ‘Jesus is the truly human one, Israel’s Lord who is to be the world’s Lord, anticipating in his rule over wind and wave, over bread and fish, the sovereignty that Israel believed the Messiah would have over the whole world…What we see now is his genuine humanness: this is the authority that humans were supposed to have over the natural world, and lost—for ever, it had seemed—with sin and death.’  This miracle is not, for Wright, an invasion of this world by some alien, supernatural power, but rather, ‘we are invited to see something more mysterious by far: a dimension of our world which is normally hidden, which had indeed died, but which Jesus brings to new life. Mark is offering Jesus to our startled imagination as the world’s rightful king, long exiled, now returning. He is, in Paul’s language, the last Adam.’

Wright’s interpretation is, as is often the case, part convincing and part frustrating in roughly equal measure.  We ourselves are inclined to see more divinity in Mark’s account than Wright allows.  We do so, not because we wish slavishly to follow those who have gone before, still less because it offers an ‘easy’ conclusion.  Rather, we feel compelled by the text itself.

He climbed into the boat with them – ‘One thing no one can miss in this miracle: Jesus clearly cares for his disciples. He sees their distress and comes to them during the darkest part of the night, when they are having trouble in the deepest part of the lake. He shows patience when they fail to see what it all means but recoil in fear. There is no rebuke, only calm assurance. He then delivers them safely to the shore. The disciples see more than God’s back, as Moses did; they saw the face of God in the face of his Son. He is the Savior, who brings calm and deliverance.’ (Garland)

As with the previous sea miracle (Mk 4:35-41), we are to understand that Jesus exercises divine power over the elements.

Garland remarks that divine epiphanies usually take place on mountain-tops.  This one, however, takes place on the storm-tossed water, traditionally viewed by Israelites as a sinister and frightening environment.  But the sea was also the scene of Israel’s greatest deliverance – the exodus – when God revealed his power over hostile elements.  ‘The Old Testament motifs in Mark’s account of Jesus’ walking on the water recall God’s mastery over the waters of chaos as Creator and Savior. Jesus walks on the waves like God and speaks like the one true God, “It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Jesus wants to show his disciples a glimpse of his divinity in order to help them unravel the clues to his identity. They do not follow a great prophet or superhero but the very Son of God. He does what no human can do and will do what no human can do—redeem humankind from the bondage of Satan and sin.’

They had not understood about the loaves – We might have expected a reference to the stilling of the storm.  As English remarks, the fact that a connection is made with the feeding of the five thousand suggests a connection between the two.  In the OT, the same God who feeds his people (Ex 16; 1 Ki 17:8–16; 2 Ki 4:1–7, 42–44; Ps. 78:24–25; Ne. 9:15) also walks upon the waves (Job 9:8; 38:16; Ps. 77:19; Isa 43:16).  Thus there is a picture of the divine Son of God that is being built up, but they do not (yet) see it clearly enough.

English adds: ‘How awesomely splendid to have distributed bread to a crowd, knowing how little Jesus began with and yet seeing that there was more than enough for everyone…But how different it was in the middle of the night, when the wind was high, and rowing hard, and safety threatened, to see a ghostly figure dimly passing you by on the waters!’

Whereas Mark stresses the disciples’ lack of understanding, Matthew records them as worshipping Jesus and confessing him as the Son of God.  The solution to this is not simply that some of the disciples may have had one reaction, and others another, but that in their confused state of mind both elements were possible at the same time.  Compare, for example, Mt 16:16 with Mt 16:22.

Garland: ‘What is it that they do not understand about the loaves? What does it have to do with walking on the water? Minear is on target when he comments that the disciples are “blind to the presence of God and his care for men … to the full glory of the revelation of God ‘in the face of Christ.’ ”’

And again: ‘Many may fail to appreciate the Christological implications of this miracle and, in that sense, are like the disciples who do not understand about the loaves. Jesus is not pulling off a staggering visual stunt to amaze his friends. Rather, the miracle attests that God himself has visited us in the flesh.’

Their hearts were hardened – This sounds like a more severe judgement on his friends than Jesus pronounced on the crowd, whom he regarded with compassion, as sheep without a shepherd.  The disciples are, for the time being, described in terms more applicable to Jesus’ opponents, Mk 3:5 (where the word translated ‘hardened’ is translated ‘stubborn’; cf Mk 4:12); Mk 10:5.  In fact, the possibility that the disciples’ hearts are becoming hardened remains right up until Mk 8:17-21, just before Peter’s momentous confession of Jesus as the Christ.

Healing the Sick, 53-56

6:53 After they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and anchored there. 6:54 As they got out of the boat, people immediately recognized Jesus. 6:55 They ran through that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever he was rumored to be. 6:56 And wherever he would go—into villages, towns, or countryside—they would place the sick in the marketplaces, and would ask him if they could just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.
Not relief from struggle but assurance of victory

‘Jesus does not rescue his disciples out of the sea but enables them to continue the voyage. His coming is like the letters to the churches in the Apocalypse. The churches receive the word that the Lord knows what they have endured and are encouraged to continue to endure. The Lord knows the works, toil, and endurance of Ephesus (Rev. 2:2), the affliction and poverty of Smyrna (2:9), the faithful witness of Pergamum in the midst of Satan’s throne (2:13), the patient endurance of Thyatira (2:18), and the little power of Philadelphia (3:8). He does not relieve them of their struggle but promises victory if they are faithful.’ (Garland)