We go from a banquet of people of nobility, military leaders, and other men of status at King Herod’s perverse birthday party. We go from the palace to a side of a hill. I am sure Herod had many exotic foods and expensive wine. However, we see Mark explain that Jesus feeds the crowd of 5,000 men. He does not have an exquisite menu but simply bread and fish. Yet, the contrast is that Christ is the shepherd who cares for the flock.
I. Finding serenity from the Shepherd (30-32)
The apostles come back from their mission, and they explained to Jesus what they had done. Verse 13 gives the summary of what they had accomplished, “And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:13). Verse 30 explains that they not only healed people but also taught people. Jesus’ response is that of a tender shepherd. He tells the disciples to “come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest awhile.” Mark gives two reasons why Jesus tells his disciples to go to a desolate place and rest, 1) they were busy and 2) they did not eat. Jesus had commanded them not to take bread (Mark 6:8), but the work of ministry became overwhelming to them. In Mark chapter 1, we saw Jesus do what he is commanding the disciples to do. He got up early in the morning and went out to a desolate place and prayed (Mark 1:35). The crowds constantly came to Jesus to heal them, yet he found time to go to a desolate place and pray. Jesus takes them away from ministry, Luke explains, to a town called Bethsaida (Luke 9:10).
When the flight attendant explains the emergency procedure on an airplane, they always tell you to place the mask on yourself before helping others. This is Jesus’ response to the disciples. You place the mask on yourself first because it is not good to have two helpless people. I have heard a saying it is better to burn out than to rust out. This saying, although catchy, is not helpful. It only presents two options that are pitted against each other. In ministry, you can burn out or rust out. However, they don’t consider the effectiveness of ministry. If given two options, doing something is better than doing nothing. However, I would argue that you are better not to do ministry if you are not ready. We often look at the fruit of leaders as a good thing, no matter how that fruit comes about. Jesus sees the fruit of the disciples and then tells them they need to pray and rest. Jesus sent the disciples out, showing them to be dependent upon God for their food and housing. They come back explaining what they had done.
Jesus’ response is not to try harder, but you need to pray and rest. The life of the disciple is one of dependence upon God. We realize that we can do nothing by ourselves but need the strength of God in every muscle in our body. Man-driven ministry often is centered around a man, not God. Discipleship is not only about preaching but being with Jesus (Mark 3:14). I have quoted this commentator before who explains, “Discipleship is a relationship before it is a task, a “who” before a “what.” The disciples came back explaining the task they accomplished before thinking about the who. Jesus responds and explains that they need to go to a desolate place (most likely to pray), showing their dependence and rest, showing their proximity to Christ. Jesus, as the good shepherd, invites us to come to him for rest. The disciples are to find that rest in Jesus, not in their accomplishments.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
II. Finding sustenance from the Shepherd (33-38)
Christ shepherds his disciples by reminding them of what the focus of the a disciple is. As they go to a desolate place, people come from all over to receive some of their ministry. Just as Peter came to Jesus at the desolate place telling of the crowds seeking to find him (Mark 1:37-39), now the crowds are chasing down the disciples. When they arrive on the shore of this ‘desolate place,’ it is not desolate. There is a large crowd of over 5,000 men, possibly 7,000 people, if not more. Jesus’ response was the same of his disciples when they came to him. Jesus has great compassion for the crowd. They were like sheep without a shepherd. Three things we need to spend time on are 1) Christ’s compassion, 2) Christ’s reason, and 3) Christ’s response.
a. Christ’s compassion
The word used in Mark 6:34, compassion, is used of Jesus often. Compassion is a good translation but does not capture the fullness of this word. It comes from the root word, ‘compassion,’ which means more than feeling sorry for a whimpering puppy outside but the gut-dropping moment of absolute tenderheartedness. Compassion is more than an emotion but an emotion that moves a person to respond. The good Samaritan saw the man beaten in the ditch, and he was moved with compassion, not only to have sympathy for him but to help him (Luke 10:33). Even the father from the parable of the prodigal son, as he sees his son coming from afar, he has compassion, and runs to greet him (Luke 15:20).
b. Christ’s reason
Mark explains the reason why Christ had compassion for the crowd. That they were like sheep without a shepherd. Christ’s response is again of the gentle shepherd. This metaphor of a shepherd and sheep is not a passing comment but a great significance in the entire Bible. To dive into this would require a study of its own. You could look at 1 Kings chapter 22, with the prophecy of Micaiah against Ahab, and you could see the connections of Ahab and Jezebel and Herod and Herodias. However, we will look at Ezekiel chapter 34. In this chapter, Ezekiel prophesies against the leaders of Israel that they are terrible shepherds who do not care for the flock. They use and abuse the flock for their gain. They feed themselves and not the sheep. Ezekiel 34:4-6 says:
“The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness, you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.”
Sheep do not have many defenses to protect them from predators, domestic sheep that we have today need to be cared for, they need to be sheered, fed and given water. However, you can have wild sheep, the flock generally has one ram to protect them, and their major defense is staying together. However, scattered sheep have no defenses. Jesus sees this crowd and sees them as sheep without a shepherd. However, they should have had shepherds; Herod is too busy throwing himself a party, the Pharisees are too busy plotting to destroy Jesus and tithing on their herbs. Ezekiel speaks of these shepherds who do not care for the sheep. However, God promised that he would be the shepherd. Ezekiel 34:13-16 says,
“And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.”
Twelve times in these four verses, God promises that ‘He will.’ Verse 15 starts with “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.” Christ, upon seeing this crowd, is moved with compassion because he does not see people seeking a show but sheep needing a shepherd—the contrast of Herod in the previous pericope, which focuses on himself and those in high places. Yet Christ is moved with compassion as the good shepherd who does care for his sheep.
c. Christ’s response
The compassion, the gut-wrenching feeling, requires action. Not merely feeling sorry for someone else but enough to be able to do all that you can to help them. Christ sees this crowd of people, and he begins to teach them. The Samaritan sees the man beaten in the ditch and helps him medically. Christ sees this crowd, and his response is not to heal them or start a revolution but to teach them. Often, we can see hurting people in our lives, where we are moved with compassion. Yet, our response is not like Christ’s. How often do we seek to care for their physical needs but neglect their true need? How often do we seek to instruct people from the Bible? Christ saw their need, and he feeds them first with his teaching. Moses writes in Deuteronomy 8:3, “And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” You are better to hunger, trust in God, and live by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord than to have a full belly and live by bread alone. Christ’s teaching is vital to how he shepherds his flock. He commands the apostles in the great commission, “teaching them all that I have commanded to them” (Matt 28:20).
The disciples came to Jesus not eating any bread, and he tells them they should go away and rest. The crowds come, and Christ’s compassion moves him to teach them. Christ feeds the crowd what they need, his word. As our body needs bread, our souls need Christ. Jesus explains in Matthew 11:28-29:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
We feed on Christ through faith, and he sustains us. However, the disciples came to Christ and told him a practical problem; there are many people here, in a desolate place, and the hour is late. The disciple’s solution is to have Christ send them away. However, Christ responds and tells the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” The disciples who didn’t eat while they were ministering are perplexed by this enormous problem before them. Like Moses in Numbers 11, when the Israelites want more than manna, God tells Moses that they will eat meat. Moses is perplexed at where all this meat will come from. The Disciples are unsure how to purchase 200 denarii’s (about 8-10 months’ wages) worth of bread. This task seems impossible to them. However, to Jesus, he asks what they do have, and they find five loaves and two fish.
III. Finding satisfaction in the Shepherd (39-44)
Christ had fed them with what had come from his mouth (His teaching). Now he would feed them, but this time with bread. We see again he is the great shepherd caring for his sheep. He tells the crowd to sit down on the green grass. This could just be a comment describing the time of year this occurred (Spring). However, very rarely do authors of scripture go into great detail to paint a picture of the scene or people. Mark explains the green grass to conjure up the biblical shepherd. Psalm 23:1-2 comes straight to mind:
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.”
Christ makes them sit down in green pastures. He then takes the five loves and two fish and looks up to heaven and breaks the bread and hands it to the disciples to hand out. The whole crowd was satisfied, including the disciples who had not eaten in this time. Christ, the great shepherd, feeds the flock, and they are satisfied. Christ does not hand out a small amount to tide people over to get back to their homes, but he provides enough that everyone was satisfied. So much that there were twelve baskets left over. This is something that comes up again in the feeding the 4,000 and chapter 8.
We should see the similarities to Christ’s institution of the Lord’s supper (Mark 14:22-25). The disciples would have been taken back to this day when Christ had lifted the bread to heaven, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the disciples. Christ, tells them “Take; this is my body.” Christ’s body was given for the remission of sins, Christ’s body that fully satisfied the wrath of God. Augustine said, “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” John Calvin said,
“The whole life of man until he is converted to Christ is a ruinous labyrinth of wanderings.”
Christ is the great shepherd who calls us to come to him to find complete rest. Christ, the gentle shepherd, calls us to sit down in green pastures to restore our souls. Christ, the tender shepherd, calls us to come to be with him that we might find true rest.