The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, "Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while." For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, "This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat." But he answered them, "You give them something to eat." And they said to him, "Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?" And he said to them, "How many loaves do you have? Go and see." And when they had found out, they said, "Five, and two fish." Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.
(see also Matthew 14-13-21 & Luke 9:10-17)
The disciples had just returned from their mission. Jesus had sent them out two-by-two into some pretty intense spiritual warfare with nothing but His authority, their faith, and each other. They saw amazing things happen but now it was time to rest and recharge. Jesus saw the need for them to pull away from the crowds, from the demands of life, from the distractions of the culture and just be with Him. Also, it was around this time that John the Baptist, their beloved former mentor, was executed by Herod. That had to come as a grievous blow to an already exhausted bunch of disciples.
But the crowds got wind of it and literally outran their boat. They were waiting for them on the other side when Jesus and His disciples arrived for their retreat. Scripture says that Jesus “had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew records a similar reaction of Jesus to the crowds: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matt. 9:36) He then followed it up by telling His disciples that the harvest of harassed and helpless souls in need of Him was far greater than the number of laborers available and willing to bring them the hope of the gospel. “There’s more shepherdless sheep than there are shepherds, boys! Too much wheat to harvest for the few laborers we have.” And it moved Him to “compassion.”
The original Greek word translated “compassion” is a very visceral word. It literally means His bowels churned at the intense emotion He experienced at their plight. It effected Jesus deeply with gut-wrenching pity and an overwhelming desire to rescue and redeem these wandering, helpless, shepherdless sheep.
Scripture says Jesus began to teach them, and to heal the sick among them. Luke specifically says He “spoke to them of the Kingdom of God,” where there is no more sickness, pain, or death, and all things are made new in Him. Apparently, this lasted late into the afternoon. And as it began to be late, the disciples saw the problem and came to Jesus with their suggestion for a solution: “Send them away so they can get something to eat.” Jesus responded with a suggestion of His own: “You give them something to eat.”
Jesus was training His disciples in what would one day be their calling: You are my answer to their great need. The church was to be the primary vehicle for bringing the hope of the coming Kingdom to the harassed and helpless sheep of the world, wandering in the wilderness without a shepherd to guide, feed, or protect them. I can’t remember where I first heard it, but someone once told me, “Never pray a prayer that you are not willing to be the answer to.”
Note the almost sarcastic response of the disciples: “You expect us to buy enough food to feed all these people? That would cost thousands of dollars, which we do not have. And even if we could afford it, where would we be able to buy that much food?” In other words, the disciples were saying, “Jesus, you are crazy! What you are asking of us is impossible!” I can imagine Him smiling at them, as if to say, “That’s the idea, fellas.”
According to the synoptic gospel accounts, Jesus then gave them a set of instructions:
- “Go and see.” (Mark 6:38) Stop fretting about what you don’t have and take inventory of what you do have. What resources are available to you right now?
- “Bring them to me.” (Matthew 14:18) Take what you do have and offer it to Jesus. Let Him take it from your hands -- out of your control, beyond your limited power – and make of it what He will. Don’t limit God’s activity to what you think is possible, rather trust Him to do what only He can do.
- “Have them sit down in groups…” (Luke 9:14) Jesus gave the commands (authority) and enabled them to be carried out (power), but He entrusted the actual ministry to the disciples. (Both Matthew and Mark say that Jesus commanded the people to sit down, but Luke says He told the disciples to have the people sit down in groups. Most likely, He issued the command and the disciples carries it out. “Jesus says to sit down in groups…”) Jesus gave the Word, but the disciples delivered it to the people. They didn’t brainstorm or form a committee or call a meeting of a focus group to decide what was the best way to handle the situation. They walked with Jesus daily, trusted Him implicitly, listened to Him intently, and obeyed His instructions fully.
What did Jesus do in response to their obedience? (Mark 6:41)
- He blessed it. “…he looked up to heaven and said a blessing…” Jesus took what the disciples brought to Him and consecrated it to heaven for the glory of the Father. In blessing the bread, He set it apart as holy. It was no longer “just bread.”
- He broke it. “…and broke the loaves…” Jesus began to tear the loaves apart. While they remained whole, they could not be used to feed the crowds. Bread must be broken to fulfill the purpose for which it was made. I can’t help but wonder if Jesus thought of His own body to be broken on the cross to rescue and redeem the harassed and helpless sheep of the world.
- He gave it to the disciples to distribute. “… and gave them to the disciples to set before the people.” Even though it was His power that made it possible, He entrusted the administration of the bread to His followers. In this way, He enabled the to fulfill the seemingly impossible command He had given them earlier.
Go back to Mark 6:13. What was Jesus’ original command to His disciples? "You give them something to eat."
What was their initial response? “We can’t. It’s impossible!” And they were absolutely correct! But Jesus never told them to meet the need from their own resources or abilities. They had to first acknowledge their utter powerlessness to do what Christ had commanded them.
What was the end result? “And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.” (Mark 6:42-44) The disciples did exactly what Christ has commanded of them: They gave the people something to eat! Not only did all eat and not only were all satisfied, but each disciple had a basket full for himself. Jesus not only provided for the crowd though the, but provided more than enough for them as they carried out His commands!
Don’t miss this! Remember, they had originally come to this desolate place because they needed rest from a season of intense ministry and spiritual warfare. They were quite possibly grieving the loss of their former mentor, John the Baptist, who had been killed around that same time. Christ gave them the rest they needed in the faithful obedient ministry of compassion. Their rest was not found in self-contemplative meditation (though there is a place for that); they found their rest in joining Jesus in the ministry of His compassion in His power and provision!
What’s the take away for us?
- Christ calls us to follow Him into impossible situations and commands us to do things we could never do in our own strength.
- Everything we need to obey Him is already there. It may seem like nothing. It may seem insufficient to the need. But in Christ’s hands it is more than enough!
- Instead of taking inventory of what we don’t have, take what we do have and bring it to Jesus. Surrender what we have to God in faith. Trust Him with it. Let go of it. For our little to become more than enough, it has to pass from our hands, out of our control, and into His hands. As long as we insist on holding on to it, it will remain insufficient.
- Let us yield our own best thinking, your human wisdom. Let us not set limits on what God can do based on our ability to figure things out. Instead, let’s acknowledge our desperate dependence on Him and trust that He will enable us to do what He called us to do.
- We need both Christ’s blessing and His breaking. Brokenness is what makes ministry possible. If we insist on remaining unbroken, we are useless to the Kingdom. The blessing is Christ’s favor: He chooses us for His purposes, sets us apart for His ministry, He makes us His own. He consecrates us to heaven as vessels of the Father’s glory. Then He breaks us – breaks us of selfish pride, selfish motives, selfish ambitions and agendas. We must die; nothing of the self can remain. We must allow the breaking process to make us fit laborers for the harvest.
- Christ supplies the power but He entrusts the actual ministry to us. We are the hands and feet of Jesus in ministering the Bread of Life to the harassed and helpless sheep without a shepherd. We are the response of Christ’s gut-wrenching compassion for the world!
- If we yield in obedience, we will see the impossible command that Christ gives us become a fulfilled reality through us to the glory of God. We get the privilege of participating in God’s redemptive mission in the world.
- The fruit of our faithful obedience is total transformation (not enough becoming more than enough), total satisfaction in Christ, and Jesus glorified.
- Jesus supplies more than enough to sustain us as we supply His bread in ministry. He will meet our every need as His obedient followers in the process of service to Him.