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What the Feeding of the 5,000 Is Really About -- a lesson of Mark 6:30-44

Updated: Sep 22, 2023

"Not much" is "always enough" when Jesus gets involved.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Mark 6:30-44

Fresh on the heels of performing miracles, the disciples were flummoxed by a "totally unrelated" problem: not enough food. The miraculous "feeding of the 5,000" (which followed a full day of teaching) was performed by Jesus both to take care of the people and also teach His disciples in memorable fashion what was truly important. (Hint: not food.)

“You give them something to eat,” he responded.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Habits to Maintain Your Mental Health

Breaking news: the world is in bad shape, and so are the people who live on it. (Note: the purpose of this discussion topic would not be to litigate "why"! -- Those answers all boil down to (1) sin, and (2) blaspheming the Holy Spirit, which is the unforgivable sin, also which we talked about last week.) In a related story, "mental health" has become a belatedly important topic.

What does the world say we need to do to improve our mental health?

You had better have some answers come to mind, or else I'll accuse you of living under a rock! I feel like I read another headline for "medical study on mental health" every week. Well, last week, I actually read the story that came with it:

Frankly, it's nothing new --

  1. Healthy diet

  2. Exercise

  3. Not smoking

  4. Limited alcohol

  5. Having friends

  6. Getting sleep

  7. Keeping moving

I've heard many of your soapboxes about the importance of one or another of those. But it's always nice to see a medical professional validate those things we know to be true, right?

Here's where I would want to go with this topic: what's missing from that list? And why?

At some point, I'm happy to see any recognition of the importance of spiritual health to mental health, even if it's not a Christian spirituality. (Aside: it's depressing to try to take a "study" seriously that can't acknowledge that basic human fact.) And why can't medical professionals acknowledge that? It goes back to that unforgivable sin -- they can't acknowledge that God is the Great Physician and that He created people in His image.

So, as a Christian, what do you want to add to that list of "healthy habits"? (And the stepping-on-toes follow-up: how are you doing with those habits?)

Workplaces and Mental Health

In another related story, "mental health in the workplace" has become fodder for an industry of I-don't-know-how-many "wellness consultants". just released their 2023 Work Wellbeing Awards (based on surveys on their website). Does your place of work offer anything specifically for "employee well-being"?

I'm going to pick on a consultant firm that I don't know anything about and that hasn't done anything to me except write a handy summary of what they believe and what they offer. Their pitch is that "mental unwellness" costs employers $16T (!) every year. They recommend that employers offer things like:

  • therapy

  • fitness classes

  • yoga classes

  • nutrition classes

  • financial coaching

(Are these things designed to appeal specifically to millennials and gen z-ers? Why yes, yes they are. Why do you ask?)

Are these things potentially helpful? Sure! Probably! A very promising trend is this growing awareness that people cannot truly separate their "home life" from their "work life". We are one person, and our employer should care about us as a whole.

The firm I cited above summarized "8 dimensions of wellness" -- vocational, physical, emotional, social, intellectual, spiritual, financial, and environmental. It's a pretty good list. On your own (because this probably isn't worth hashing out as a group), I challenge you to read their list and consider what's good about it and what's missing from it. (Start with their reduction of spirituality to "meditation and journaling".)

[Aside: yoga. I cannot help but notice how many of these "mental wellness" groups promote yoga. Is that a bad thing? This came up when we studied 1 Timothy back in 2021. If yoga were just about health and stretching, that would be one thing. But it's not.

Yoga is about body control on the path to enlightenment and self-actualization, rooted in ancient Hindu teachings.

Yoga is a spirituality that is not Christian. These consultants who say they don't promote spirituality but recommend yoga really don't know very much about spirituality.

Btw, if you're in a yoga class and you say "hey we just do stretching, none of that meditation stuff!" okay. Please just keep your eyes and ears open.]

As a Christian, what would you say an employer should do to promote the well-being of the employees?

And then, consider the situation where the workplace isn't Christian, but the manager is. What can that manager do?

Mental Health and Pastors

Here's one last version of this topic. I only bring it up because I just got an email about it, and I know that people in different churches read this post.

"Pastor Wellness" is one of the emphases for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board. Here are two things they have coming up:

  1. During the annual meeting (Nov 13-14), they are offering free screenings and telehealth for pastors (it primarily designed for pastors of churches that can't afford medical insurance).

  2. On October 13-15, they are offering a low-cost "couples retreat" for music pastors and youth pastors. Shelly and I attended a pastor retreat a couple of years ago, and it was tremendous.

What does your church do to promote the mental health of your pastor(s)? I think I mentioned this Barna study already in which they found that pastors' sense of loneliness is at an all-time high, and their sense of support is at an all-time low. This is an important topic that churches need to stay in front of.


Where We Are in Mark

We skip over all of chapters 4 and 5 and most of chapter 6. A lot happens in those chapters! But they mainly reinforce the direction we already know Mark the author has taken.

Chapter 4

  • Jesus teaches in parables -- the value and power of the kingdom of God.

  • Jesus calms a storm.

Chapter 5

  • Jesus casts out a legion of demons

  • A woman is healed by touching Jesus

  • Jesus raises a girl from the dead

Chapter 6

  • Jesus is rejected by His hometown

  • Jesus sends out the twelve disciples

  • Mark explains what happened to John the Baptist

The key event for this week's passage is that the 12 disciples have just returned to Jesus to report what they had done on their ministry expeditions.

Watch the Related Episode of "The Chosen"

For the most past, we're talking about events that were dramatized in Season 3, Episode 8 of "The Chosen". I can't find this video released on YouTube (which means I can't embed it on our church's site), but anyone can watch it for free at Angel Studios:

If you haven't watched any of these episodes before, this is probably an awkward place to start (it's the season finale of season 3). Realize that they have taken plenty of dramatic liberties, and they have tried to do a full "harmony of the Gospels". Matthew chapter 10 describes a lot more of what Jesus instructed the disciples, and Matthew 11-13 explains a large number of events that possibly happened right before this week's passage (the feeding of the 5,000). Mark did not believe those events needed to be included in His Gospel (at least in that order).


This Week's Big Idea: Why Are the Miraculous Feedings So Controversial?

This is a weird one for me. It seems (and I could just be reading into this) that skeptics particularly focus on discrediting the "feeding of the 5,000" and the "feeding of the 4,000". But why? What's the big deal?

I think it boils down to two things:

  1. They believe that one of the feedings was an accidental copyist's mistake, so this is an easy way to prove that the authors made everything up.

  2. They believe that the differences between the Gospels are significant, meaning they can prove that the authors are not trustworthy.

There are six accounts of miraculous feedings in the Gospels, so let's turn this topic into a focus on "harmony of the Gospels".

Matthew 14:14-21

14 When he went ashore, he saw a large crowd, had compassion on them, and healed their sick. 15 When evening came, the disciples approached him and said, “This place is deserted, and it is already late. Send the crowds away so that they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16 “They don’t need to go away,” Jesus told them. “You give them something to eat.” 17 “But we only have five loaves and two fish here,” they said to him. 18 “Bring them here to me,” he said. 19 Then he commanded the crowds to sit down on the grass. He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he blessed them. He broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 Everyone ate and was satisfied. They picked up twelve baskets full of leftover pieces. 21 Now those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

Matthew 15:32-33

32 Jesus called his disciples and said, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they’ve already stayed with me three days and have nothing to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry, otherwise they might collapse on the way.” 33 The disciples said to him, “Where could we get enough bread in this desolate place to feed such a crowd?” 34 “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked them. “Seven,” they said, “and a few small fish.” 35 After commanding the crowd to sit down on the ground, 36 he took the seven loaves and the fish, gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 37 They all ate and were satisfied. They collected the leftover pieces—seven large baskets full. 38 Now there were four thousand men who had eaten, besides women and children.

Mark 6:35-43

35 When it grew late, his disciples approached him and said, “This place is deserted, and it is already late. 36 Send them away so that they can go into the surrounding countryside and villages to buy themselves something to eat.” 37 “You give them something to eat,” he responded. They said to him, “Should we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?” 38 He asked them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” When they found out they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he instructed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. 41 He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he blessed and broke the loaves. He kept giving them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. 42 Everyone ate and was satisfied. 43 They picked up twelve baskets full of pieces of bread and fish. 44 Now those who had eaten the loaves were five thousand men.

Mark 8:1-9

1 In those days there was again a large crowd, and they had nothing to eat. He called the disciples and said to them, 2 “I have compassion on the crowd, because they’ve already stayed with me three days and have nothing to eat. 3 If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, and some of them have come a long distance.” 4 His disciples answered him, “Where can anyone get enough bread here in this desolate place to feed these people?” 5 “How many loaves do you have?” he asked them. “Seven,” they said. 6 He commanded the crowd to sit down on the ground. Taking the seven loaves, he gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people. So they served them to the crowd. 7 They also had a few small fish, and after he had blessed them, he said these were to be served as well. 8 They ate and were satisfied. Then they collected seven large baskets of leftover pieces. 9 About four thousand were there. He dismissed them.

Luke 9:12-17

12 Late in the day, the Twelve approached and said to him, “Send the crowd away, so that they can go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find food and lodging, because we are in a deserted place here.” 13 “You give them something to eat,” he told them. “We have no more than five loaves and two fish,” they said, “unless we go and buy food for all these people.” 14 (For about five thousand men were there.) Then he told his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15 They did what he said, and had them all sit down. 16 Then he took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he blessed and broke them. He kept giving them to the disciples to set before the crowd. 17 Everyone ate and was filled. They picked up twelve baskets of leftover pieces.

John 6:5-13

5 So when Jesus looked up and noticed a huge crowd coming toward him, he asked Philip, “Where will we buy bread so that these people can eat?” 6 He asked this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread wouldn’t be enough for each of them to have a little.” 8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9 “There’s a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish—but what are they for so many?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place; so they sat down. The men numbered about five thousand. 11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and after giving thanks he distributed them to those who were seated—so also with the fish, as much as they wanted. 12 When they were full, he told his disciples, “Collect the leftovers so that nothing is wasted.” 13 So they collected them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces from the five barley loaves that were left over by those who had eaten.

Here seem to be the basic complaints:

  • Aren't the similarities between the feeding of the 5,000 and 4,000 suspicious?

  • Isn't it strange that only Matthew and Mark mention the feeding of the 4,000?

  • Why do the authors put these events in different orders?

(That last question requires a look at the larger context and is the one I enjoy the most, and we also don't have time to get into it.)

Let's start with that first complaint. No. The "feeding of the 5,000" and the "feeding of the 4,000" are different events. It seems pretty obvious to me. (All I can think it that the skeptics don't like this miracle at all, let alone two of them. It's a miracle. By definition, it can't be explained by natural means.)

Look at the details that are similar and that are different. What explanation do they want? The slam-dunk is what Jesus says in Mark 8:

8:19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of leftovers did you collect?” “Twelve,” they told him. 20 “When I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many baskets full of pieces did you collect?” “Seven,” they said. 21 And he said to them, “Don’t you understand yet?”

The second complaint is even easier to answer (and tougher to accept). So Luke and John didn't want to include the second miracle feeding! What do you want from them? They wrote the Gospel. They didn't include it. Their decision.

What Does It All Mean?

The best way I know to address the skepticism about these two miraculous feedings is to talk about what Jesus said in Mark 8:21 (quoted above). "Don't you understand?" Well, no. In fact, most people don't understand what this was all about. Hence the controversy.

According to Jesus, the "meaning" of these miracles can be sussed from their "leftovers".

First and foremost, the question "don't you understand?" is based on Mark 8:14-18. Jesus warned the disciples about the "yeast of the Pharisees", and they thought Jesus was talking about their lack of bread. Why would Jesus be complaining about a lack of bread when they just had baskets of leftovers after many thousands of people ate from a few loaves and fishes? The food isn't about the food. It was (among other things) about the foolishness of their doubts and questions. God could take care of them (more on this below) (and I think He was also trying to prepare them to trust in God after He ascended).

That would suggest that at least one purpose of this miracle is to demonstrate the inexhaustible provision of God in His kingdom. Those who have been invited to share the Lord's Table will never want. In other words, these miracles are themselves parables of kingdom life.

But Jesus paid close attention to the details of the leftovers. There were twelve baskets and seven baskets of leftovers.

A long (long) time ago, I talked about numerology (so long ago that I haven't made it that far back in posting those lessons to the web). The numbers "12" and "7" were very important in ancient Hebrew numerology (the study of the symbolic meaning of numbers). You know that there were twelve tribes (and twelve disciples), and there were seven days in creation (and seven signs of Jesus' deity). The numbers "12" and "7" are themselves combinations of the numbers "3" and "4". Three is the number of God (we now know that there are three Persons in the Godhead). Four is the number of the earth (four seasons, four compass directions, etc.).

Where some Bible scholars go astray is by reading too much into the specific numbers. The presence of the symbolic numbers is itself the meaning. This was all the work of God, right down to how much they would collect as leftovers. And the fact that they collected different amounts of leftovers from the different meals should be all the proof we need today that these were two different events. God pays attention to details.

But let's take this a step further. Mark 6 takes place in Galilee -- Jesus had just recalled the disciples from their ministry throughout Galilee. Mark 8 takes place in Tyre, Sidon, and the Decapolis (the feeding happens in the Decapolis) -- all Gentile populations. The first miracle (with the 12 baskets of leftovers) happens with the Jews. The second miracle (with the 7 baskets of leftovers) happens with the Gentiles. The priority was with the Jews, but the day was coming when Jew and Gentile would alike take their places at God's table.

And because we need to actually study this week's passage, I'm going to leave it at that. Can we possibly have anything left to study? Yes, yes we can.


Part 1: The Disciples Needed Rest and Recharge (Mark 6:30-32)

30 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all that they had done and taught. 31 He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a remote place and rest for a while.” For many people were coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat. 32 So they went away in the boat by themselves to a remote place,

As I said above, the disciples have just returned from their very first on-their-own "mission trip".

[Note: that build-up is excellently dramatized in The Chosen Season 3 Episode 2.]

Jesus wants them to have time to think about everything that happened -- "decompress and debrief" if you will.

I hate to say it, but you could spend an entire meeting just talking about the importance of what Jesus said in verse 31. And I'm barely going to address it.

If you've ever been a part of a major evangelistic campaign, you probably went to some kind of "celebration meeting" that happened after the event. The people came back together and reported on what had happened. The idea is for everyone to celebrate and be encouraged by what God had done through this event.

Jesus is taking that a step further. He didn't want them just to "debrief" -- He wanted them to "rest and recharge and refocus". In "celebration reports", the focus can get on the numbers. Who had the most "yeses". Who added the most church members. Stuff like that. But that's never supposed to be the point.

This was always something Jesus tried to keep in front of His followers. Later in His ministry, He will send out a larger group of disciples ("the 72"). When they returned, all of them were pretty excited about the amazing things "they had done". Jesus said this:

However, don’t rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven. (Luke 10:20)

The most important thing in Christianity is the individual's ongoing relationship with God in Christ -- "remain in Me and I will remain in you". Our deepening relationship with God empowers our obedience and enables the fruits that people tend to get very excited about.

Jesus wanted His disciples to have that priority and that habit.

But it wasn't meant to be this time. Sometimes, there is no rest for the weary.


Part 2: The People Needed Compassion and Spiritual Care (Mark 6:33-34)

33 but many saw them leaving and recognized them, and they ran on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. 34 When he went ashore, he saw a large crowd and had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Then he began to teach them many things.

This is where I got the idea for the "workplace wellbeing" and "mental health" topics. Jesus saw the people around Him as "sheep without a shepherd" and had compassion on them.

So, let's camp out here. What does that mean? We talked about sheep at length in two other studies:

Because my post is already grossly overlong, I'll let you explore those for the details. Sheep are utterly helpless and pathetic. They need a shepherd to provide for their:

  • physical sustenance

  • physical protection

  • guidance around danger

  • accounting for moodiness

  • a carrot or stick to keep moving

But what's the primary thing they needed? Based on what Jesus immediately did, they needed to be taught. They were spiritually adrift and impoverished.

[Yes -- this is a direct indictment of the religious leaders of the day.]

Jesus worried first about their spiritual needs. Then He worried about their physical needs. That wasn't always the case -- sometimes He met physical needs in order to enable the people to recognize their spiritual needs. But for me, this simply reminds me that the spiritual needs are ultimately more important. Death is inevitable for all people, but hell is eternal for those who have not come to Jesus for salvation.


Part 3: Jesus Cared about All of That (Mark 6:35-38)

35 When it grew late, his disciples approached him and said, “This place is deserted, and it is already late. 36 Send them away so that they can go into the surrounding countryside and villages to buy themselves something to eat.” 37 “You give them something to eat,” he responded. They said to him, “Should we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?” 38 He asked them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” When they found out they said, “Five, and two fish.”

Let's recap how I've approached this passage:

  • The Disciples Needed Rest and Recharge (Mark 6:30-32)

  • The People Needed Compassion and Spiritual Care (Mark 6:33-34)

Jesus has taken care of all of this through His teaching. Jesus wanted His disciples to keep their focus on God. Well, they just got a full day of hearing Jesus teach priceless truths. They just happened to be surrounded by thousands of additional people. And those people also got to hear the priceless truths. And we believe that at least some of them must have become Christian because the church grew throughout Israel.

This event took place somewhere on the far side of the Sea of Galilee (there's not agreement on exactly where). The region is sparsely populated. Like actual sheep, the people went out there chasing after Jesus without thinking through what they would eat or where they would stay. (Season 3 of "The Chosen" gets into the inevitability of "tent cities" that must have sprung up around wherever Jesus was staying at for a time.) They would have been a lot more self-sufficient than the "attendees" of last month's Burning Man festival, but I digress.

I do wonder if the disciples were using food as an excuse to get the crowds to disperse and give them a moment's calm. But the Bible doesn't say.

In any event, Jesus knows that this is a teaching moment. He has been providing for the people's spiritual needs, now He will provide for their physical. (In other words, a parable of the kingdom of God.) But He tested the disciples first (John 6 makes that clear). And the disciples demonstrated that they really didn't understand what Jesus was doing.

They've been off casting out demons and healing the sick, but the moment they are presented with a new challenge, they immediately think about money. And it's a lot of money, to be sure! You've probably heard it said that 5,000 men could easily represent 15,000-20,000 total people. A denarius represented an average day's wage, so this was a lot of money. And that missed the point (that Jesus was very aware of) -- there were not enough "stores" nearby to have enough food to take care of these people in the first place. That's why Jesus brought the disciples here, to "get away".

So, what do you have? Not much.

But "not much" is "always enough" when Jesus gets involved.

The leader guide puts this as a great question: do you tend to focus on the problem or on faith that God can solve it? The disciples were focused on the problem. They didn't see how their meager resources could do any good.

Teaching time!


Part 4: Jesus Provided All That and More (Mark 6:39-44)

39 Then he instructed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. 41 He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he blessed and broke the loaves. He kept giving them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. 42 Everyone ate and was satisfied. 43 They picked up twelve baskets full of pieces of bread and fish. 44 Now those who had eaten the loaves were five thousand men.

We all know what happened. Let me just point out a few cool details.

Green grass. This is the same description used in Psalm 23. The leader guide notes that grass was brown this time of year, so the green might have been its own miracle.

Groups of hundreds and fifties. This is similar to how God organized the Israelite camp during the Exodus. Note that the feeding of the 4,000 -- the one with the Gentiles -- doesn't include that instruction.

Gave thanks and broke. This is the same imagery that will appear in the Last Supper.

Was satisfied. In other words, "full". The people didn't eat enough to make it home, they had their fill and then some, and there was still food left!

Now, let's remember where this passage started. The disciples were so busy that they didn't have time to eat, so Jesus took them to a deserted place. Well, the people just followed them there, and the disciples still hadn't eaten that day.

But what's this? Baskets of food left for the disciples to eat? Jesus still cared about His disciples, even as they were following His instructions to care for the people.

[Aside: do you ever feel unappreciated for the work you do in your church? Just remember these verses. You're serving your church because you're serving Jesus, and Jesus knows how to take care of you. "And your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matt 6:4).]

This passage is densely packed with encouraging truth. I don't know how we will get through it all in one sitting.


Closing Thoughts: The Point Is Not the Food!

I have heard this too many times to count -- "The feeding of the 5,000 shows us that Jesus wants us to give food to the hungry." Yes, Jesus wants us to care for the needy, but no, that's not the point of this passage.

How many meals did the disciples eat during their three years with Jesus? 2 to 3,000?

How many meals were miraculously provided by Jesus? 2. If Jesus was so worried about providing food for the people, He sure didn't do it very often.

No, to Jesus, the provision of food was a picture of what the people really needed. John the author explains what happened the next day:

Truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate the loaves and were filled. 27 Don’t work for the food that perishes but for the food that lasts for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set his seal of approval on him. (John 6:26-27)

Jesus didn't come to provide entertainment or free food. He came to bring salvation to the people who understood their need for it.

This miracle was a picture -- a parable -- of how God would supply the people's true needs. And what are our true needs? Let's keep that in mind as we fill our church calendars for 2024.

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