Mark 8:1-21 “During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.’ His disciples answered, ‘But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?’ How many loaves do you have?’ Jesus asked. ‘Seven,’ they replied. He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. When he had taken the seven loaves and given thanks, be broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people, and they did so. They had a few small fish as well; he gave thanks for them also and told the disciples to distribute them. The people ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken piece that were left over. About four thousand men were present. And having sent them away, he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the region of Dalmanutha. The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it.’ Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side.
“The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. ‘Be careful,’ Jesus warned them. ‘Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.’ They discussed this with one another and said, ‘It is because we have no bread.’ Aware of their discussion Jesus asked them: ‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ ‘Twelve,’ they replied. ‘And when I broke seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ They answered, ‘Seven.’ He said to them, ‘Do you still not understand?'”
As we preach through the Bible here is no authorised ‘pace’ at which to go. The length of a text is determined by the theme it contains. In a narrative section of Scripture a text might be an entire chapter in length. In the book of Job I could preach on as many as three or four chapters in one sermon, but in the letter to the Ephesians I might have to preach a couple of times on a single verse. It all depends on the unity and importance of a verse. Today our text is 21 verses in length because it tells the story of the feeding of the four thousand and the following debate about miracles and food with the Pharisees and then with Jesus’ own disciples. Many of the details I need not repeat because in Mark chapter 6 we have considered the feeding of the five thousand, and there are many aspects which both miracles share. For example, the Saviour’s compassion is emphasised, an abundance of food is supplied from a few loaves and fishes, both miracles occur in a remote place. The Lord Jesus even repeats an identical question, “How many loaves do you have?” (v.5), and in both cases those present “ate and were satisfied” (v.8). So the first statement we have to make is this:
1. THIS IS NOT A SECOND ACCOUNT OF THE SAME MIRACLE.
What does Mark want us to understand? There is no doubt that he is claiming that this is another and different occasion from the feeding of the 5,000. Many features of the two miracles are different; here the crowd has been with the Lord Jesus for three entire days (v.2), there are also a thousand less present and it is not said that here they were ‘men’, but that they were ‘people’ (the NIV translates it imprecisely in v.9); the number of the fish Jesus was given is unspecified here, with a different kind of fish being referred to in the Greek from the feeding of the 5,000; there are two more loaves here, while the number of baskets of fragments is five less. There is no green grass for them to sit down on, and the Lord Jesus here prays twice (vv.6 & 7). The baskets used are a different type (again according to the Greek word) – here they are large baskets that Gentiles used, the same sort of basket in which Paul was lowered from the walls of Damascus. The people here are not told to sit down in groups. The disciples do not express their scepticism about providing food for this company, just man’s helplessness in finding bread in such a desert to feed so many (v.4). Even more significant is the fact that here the Saviour actually refers to the earlier miracle: “Don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand?” (v.19). How could such a mighty miracle in which thousands of people are fed from a handful of loaves be claimed as a fictional repetition of an earlier miracle which actually did happen? Many of the people in Galilee and Decapolis were still alive when Mark wrote this gospel, but not one person cried, “A fiction! This is a conspiracy!” when the gospel began to circulate.
Someone will point out the parallels between the two incidents, but agreement between two accounts of feeding multitudes of people is no proof that the second is a fictional repetition of the first. Consider the fact that it was two planes, one after another, that flew into the Twin Towers in New York on September 11th two years ago. Planes hit and destroyed New York skyscrapers on two separate occasions on the same morning. Will anyone in two thousand years’ time write a Ph.D. thesis on the theory that it only occurred once, and that a conspiracy explains why the world was led to believe that it happened twice? What nonsense! Even in our own lives coincidences occur far more frequently than we think.
The critics of the Bible have looked at the disciples’ question, “Where can anyone get enough bread to feed them” (v.4), and they have retorted, “That question doesn’t make sense if they had seen a few months earlier the Lord feeding five thousand.” But what would Jesus have said if these men had turned on him and said, “OK, do it again!” It would have been utter presumption for them to assume that Christ would, as a matter of course, repeat what he had done earlier. He was not a vendor of miracles. He is the sovereign Lord, as they are slowly learning. The disciples couldn’t fail to be aware in their months in Decapolis that there were many Gentiles amongst those 4,000 people, and Christ has expressed in their hearing some reservations about giving the children’s bread to dogs. Why should he feed a multitude of Gentiles? He was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. When Christ did a miracle it was breath-taking, on every occasion, to the disciples and utterly unanticipated. They never got used to them; they never began to take them in their stride. “What manner of man is this?” they would mutter to one another. It was his enemies that hankered after miracles, not the Twelve. You don’t find the disciples lobbying for miracles here in Decapolis. Rather, they are perplexed: “Where can we find bread for such a crowd as this?” they ask, just as we would.
Remember the timing of this miracle, that the Lord has probably been with his disciples for another nine months period, walking slowly from Tyre via Sidon in the north to the ten towns of Jewish and Gentile Decapolis, going around those places patiently teaching the Twelve on the way, and addressing all who would hear him. By this process he has gathered a flock of people who are following him from place to place. Now in his judgment they too needed to see this multiplying of the loaves and fishes. It was that they might learn who is Jesus of Nazareth. There is no doubt that there was much repetition in Jesus’ teaching (we can see the similarities of the sermon on the mount in Matthew chapters 5 to 7, and the so-called sermon on the plain in Luke chapter 6). Also in his miracles there were repetitions in the healings, and there were three resurrections from the dead. Different women sat at his feet and anointed him with oil. He cleansed the temple at the beginning of his ministry, as John records it in the second chapter of his gospel, and then again at the very end (Matthew 21) at the commencement of the final week of his earthly life. The Lord again went into the Temple and drove out the money changers. That action on the second occasion was unspontaneous and non-youthful, so revolutionary and defiant and deliberate an act of judgment on the religious leadership that took their cut from the profits of animals sold in the Temple that all the world’s enmity and all hell is let loose on the young head of the Ancient of Days.
So we are affirming that Mark is teaching us that the Lord Jesus again fed a large crowd of men by multiplying a few loaves and fishes. This he had done before, but he repeated that miracle here in Decapolis.
2. THE MESSAGE OF THIS MIRACLE IS ‘CONSIDER THE ONE WHO DID IT.’
All his wondrous miracles are signs that point us to the Lord Jesus himself, telling us who he is. He is not just a healer or a teacher, or a tender loving man. Here in Mark we have two very similar miracles that give us an extraordinary perspective on Christ. I remember as a teenager seeing one of the first three-dimensional films. How exciting was the opening sequence as the camera went through a door into a room where a party was taking place and down fell the balloons from the ceiling and you felt you could stretch our your hand and touch them. You went past people and towards the table where all the food was laid. Later you shut your eyes during a car chase, and you ducked as a bucket of water was thrown at you. There were bursts of scary vividness. A 3D effect can be achieved with two lenses having shot the scene, giving two slightly different perspectives, and by the aid of special glasses the projections are brought together, and so a sense of depth is gained. Thus Mark gives us these accounts of two works of Christ when he fed thousands of men, and so we are able to see these scenes very fully. The camera zooms in on the Lord who is at the very heart of it all, in control and revealing his glory. Who is he?
i] Jesus is the good Samaritan.
Some thieves beat up and robbed a man leaving him half dead lying on the road. When two professional religious men came by one by one, they were both the same race as this man but they walked around him on the other side of the road. A man from a different ethnic group and tradition, hated by the race from whom the victim came, stopped. He changed his whole day, dirtied his hands and clothes, spent his money and energy in saving the life of this man. Christ says to us, “Be like him! Be a good neighbour. Love your neighbour as yourself!” The Lord does not merely talk the talk. He walks the walk. He sees four thousand men and they had nothing to eat, and he starts to think out loud about them. “If I should send them home hungry like this,” he says, “they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance” (v.3). That mustn’t happen, people having heart attacks, or collapsing with weariness. Doesn’t Jesus say such tender words? Did he have to withdraw anything he said, or apologise for anything? Not once! How often we have to. I was reading this week these words of a hymn of Johann Heerman’s:
“Lord, keep me from saying words that later need recalling;
Guard me, lest idle speech may from my lips be falling:
But when, within my place, I must and ought to speak,
Then to my words give grace, lest I offend the weak.” (Johann Heermann, 1585-1647)
This Saviour who is with us today is still just like this, tender, sympathetic and compassionate. He sees your future and you are going to face a great collapse without him helping you. You are going through life in great need because of your defiance of him, and the compounded guilt of all your sin until this very hour. We are all dying men and women and only the great Physician, Jesus Christ, is able to deliver us from death and hell. He is able; he is willing; doubt no more. It is not his lack of compassion that is preventing him helping you today, it is your own refusal to avail yourself of his grace. This Good Samaritan is with us, and he sees you weary and worn and sad. He will stop where you are, and he will help you – unless you wave him on and tell him that you don’t want him to take away your burden, and heal your broken heart. You will then perish in your sin without his aid. But he is willing to cleanse you from the filth of this world, and assist you in the whole of the long journey that lies before you, from here to eternity. Don’t take that journey alone. This Saviour will go with you. He says, “Lo! I am with you always, even till the end of the world.” How dare you face the future without Christ? Listen to him here as he says these words, “I have compassion for these people” (v.2). He has compassion for you now. Can you dare to snub such a tender helping Saviour?
ii] Jesus is God the Mighty Creator.
“He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. When he had taken the seven loaves and given thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before them people, and they did so. They had a few small fish as well; he gave thanks for them also and told the disciples to distribute them. The people ate and were satisfied” (vv. 6-8). Think of it! There were seven loaves, and Jesus prayed and broke them, and kept breaking them and distributing them. So on and on, hundreds, if not thousands of times, so that he created about a ton of food, bread and fish, and all these people “ate and were satisfied” (v.8) with seven big basketfuls of broken pieces left over. You understand that it was not a symbolic supper with tiny pieces of bread and glasses of wine. The bread and fish were instantly multiplied as they passed through his hands; piles of bread and heaps of fish, sufficient for thousands of people. Who could do such a thing? No conjurer on earth. Not all Pharaoh’s magicians. This is the God who said, “Let the water teem with living creatures . . . ‘Be fruitful and increase in number'” (Gen. 1:20 & 22). This is Jehovah who made a fully grown woman from the side of Adam. He was there, in the flesh, in a remote place somewhere in Decapolis on this our planet. Only he could feed four thousand people from a few loaves and fishes.
The Creator has become created; the sustainer of all things has entered the world and become dependent; the Almighty has become weak; the God who is from all eternity has come into time and is subject to it. God has become man while not laying side any of his attributes but rather adding to himself all the qualities that make a true man. He who turned water into wine, and formed an eyeball in the head of a blind man, here creates out of a handful of bread and fish mountains of food to feed the hungry crowd. This is the Lord who is now with us here, all powerful to assist us in our lives, and strengthen us on our earthly course and take us safe to heaven. How can you face the unknown future, and death that lies at the end, and God whom we meet at that moment, without Jesus Christ? Receive this same Jesus as your mighty God!
iii] Jesus is the Promised Messiah.
The God who is, and who is not silent, once made a covenant and promise: one day, he said, the Messiah, that is, God’s specially anointed one, would come to this world. Though God revealed himself through Moses and the prophets he would one day come closer to his creatures than ever before, intimately and humbly exposing himself to the gaze of sinners, to their questions and their curses and their crucifying. When those days of the Messiah would come, God told the prophet Isaiah, men would know this was the Christ because he could supply bread for the hungry. He would be saying: “You who have no money, come, buy and eat! . . . Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labour on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.” (Isa. 55:1-2). When the virgin Mary knew that through her God was going to send his own Son to be that Messiah she praised the Lord who was going to fill “the hungry with good things” (Lk. 1:53).
You consider how this miracle fits in with all the other prophecies that were made about the coming Messiah, that he would be of the royal line of David, his birth would be in the town of Bethlehem, born of a virgin, having to be summoned out of Egypt, the mute would speak and the blind would see and the lame would leap like a deer. All those prophecies were fulfilled. He would be betrayed by one of his friends, and die suffering anguish, despised and rejected, be buried in a rich man’s grave, but on the third day rise again from the dead. Scores of such prophecies were made about him, and every one was fulfilled, and there in the midst of them all this particular one, that the Messiah would fill the hungry with good things. More than that, that the Gentiles would be blessed by his coming. He would be bread for them as well as the Jews. Spiritual bread for a pagan world is found in Christ – for you and me. The people sitting in darkness would see a great light. A great mountain would rise in the latter days on the earth and to that mountain the gathering nations would come. Here that prophecy is being fulfilled. Christ is like a mighty mountain and all this little world’s history is lived in his shadow. This miracle of his is a three-dimensional sign that Christ is the anointed one sent by God to fulfil the old prophecies.
iv] Jesus is the Bread of Life.
The four thousand were grounded in a knowledge of the great deliverance of their fathers from Egyptians slavery under Moses. God led these people through the wilderness and there is fed them with bread from heaven so that is became their staple diet for forty years. They survived in the wilderness by God feeding them. Then one day Jesus of Nazareth appears in the public arena. “He is the promised King,” declares John the Baptist, and he shows his kingly power over his creation, winds, waves, storms, fish of the deep, bread, water and wine – they all so sweetly obey his will. Then he preaches and says, “I am the bread of life. Your forefathers are the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If a man eats of this bread, he will live for ever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (Jn. 6:48-51). Remember on the last night of his life before Golgotha how he took some bread and said, “This is my body which is for you” (I Cor. 11:24). How do we know that he is the bread of life? How do we know that if we eat of him – really take him inside us – we shall live for ever? How do we know that his body was broken on the cross for us? How do we know that these are not mere words? Twice he confirms their absolute veracity in these mighty miracles. A miracle is an event in the external world, wrought by the immediate power of God, and intended as a sign or attestation. This miracle signifies that Jesus is the good Samaritan. Jesus is the mighty Creator. Jesus is the promised Messiah. Jesus is the Bread of Life. You cannot live only by eating. Then you deny that God made you in his image. We are surrounded by thousands of sheep on the Welsh hills, and as you watch them what are they doing? They look down at the grass, all their lives, biting, munching, chewing, swallowing; biting, munching, chewing, swallowing – throughout their entire lives. They live to eat.
You are far more valuable than animals. You are able to consider the heavens. You have a conscience that tells you that serving and helping others is right, and living for yourself is wrong. You can read the Sermon on the Mount and comprehend the most glorious words the world has heard. Animals cannot do that, but you can. The God who made you in his image has made himself known to us in his Son, Jesus Christ. By his own loving and tender personality, and by his teaching, and his great works, especially his atoning death and resurrection on the third day, he is declared to be the Son of God with power. The nursing homes around us are full of old people who have lived by bread alone, but now their fine clothes don’t fit them; their sunken cheeks, and bowed shoulders and sagging skin mean they can’t strut their stuff any longer. They can’t even read the papers. Their money can help them little. What lies before them? They lived for bread and they found bread wasn’t a saviour. What do they ask for? More pills to cheer their spirits and lift them up. Man cannot live by pills alone. Now they face the grave without Jesus; they face a God they have shut out of their lives. Hear, I say, the one who said, “I am the Bread of Life!” Feed on him and you will never die. That is his promise – who never lied.
Kent Hughes of the College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, says, “The people came to Christ famished. They were so hungry that Jesus feared they might collapse on the way home. But when their power to eat was exhausted, Christ’s power to feed them was not! Whatever the Lord has given us, there is still far more for him to give us. Our souls, so to speak, are elastic. The more we eat, the more they expand. The more they expand, the more we are able to eat. None of us has ever eaten as much as he wants to give us. We are meant to hunger, and to eat and eat and eat. ‘Listen, disciples,’ he says by this grand miracle, ‘I am sufficient for the whole world and all its needs. Learn it well.'” ( R. Kent Hughes, “Mark, Jesus, Servant and Saviour” Volume One, Crossway Books, 1989, p.188)
3. DON’T TRY TO TEST THE LORD.
If only you could have been there for yourselves, some of you are thinking, and seen the loaves and fishes multiplied, and eaten the food yourself, and seen Jesus Christ and heard his preaching, then you’d become a disciple. But the Pharisees were sitting there in the crowd; they actually saw and tasted everything that day, and they’d heard Jesus’ preaching. They’ve interviewed Jairus about his daughter raised from the dead. Judas was another who’d heard the sermon on the mount, but none of them became his disciples. It takes more than miracles to make a man a Christian. Christ was always being asked to do a miracle for people. He was very stern in refusing them: “a sinful and adulterous generation is always seeking for signs,” he said. An itch for miracles is no sign of saving faith at all, rather the reverse. When Pilate sent Jesus to Herod then that king rubbed his hands with delight. He had always wanted to meet Jesus to see some miracle. Christ wouldn’t perform any signs for him. The Lord of glory is not a conjurer.
We are told here, “The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. He sighed deeply and said, ‘Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it.’ Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side” (vv.11-13). When we are told that the Pharisees ‘came’ to him it means they came out as if in military ranks, marching right up to him, in order to dispute with him and oppose him and control him. They wanted a sign from heaven, that is, God opening the heavens and revealing himself, some vast shining figure, and booming in a deep heavenly voice, “JESUS IS MY BELOVED SON!” You might think that such occasions would have been a splendid opportunity for Jesus to win over a few of his opponents, even if he merely picked up a pitcher of water and turned it into wine, or walked out on the top of the sea of Galilee twenty yards and walked back again. Do you imagine that these men would then have given up everything and followed Christ? No way! They’d have laughed together in amazement and said, “How does he do it?” Jesus looked at those pip-squeaks, and said, “No.” He said, “No sign will be given,” and off he went and left them foolish and alone.
You may imagine that you’d believe in Jesus if a man were raised from the dead. A man has been raised from the dead, but you still don’t believe. If a woman came into this building at this moment straight from the hospital mortuary, a woman who had been pronounced dead on Wednesday, would you believe? Wouldn’t you doubt, and think how dreadful the mistakes doctors can make in their diagnosis? You want a real miracle? Here is a miracle! A God-breathed book, so that to its very jots and tittles it says exactly what God wants it to say. Here is the mind of Christ. You would pay real money to be in the presence of the greatest mind in the world today. Here is the greatest mind of all time. It is all found in this book. It is the breath of God. It is Spirit and it is life. We have no shortage of miracles in this church. There are over a hundred Bibles here, books that come from another world, above the stars, whose whole process of inspiration has been supervised by God. Here is a book miraculous in its tone and message and the beauty of its composition and its startling claims. It shows me accurately the living God, and it tells me how I may be known by him, and how I can live with him for ever and ever. Here is a book that tells me how I may receive everlasting life. Let me know this book. Let me devour it!
These Pharisees came to ask Jesus questions, but in fact it was to test him (v.11). “This is the basis on which we’ll believe in you,” they said, “if you perform a miracle right now we’ll become your disciples.” Let him send the sun back a few degrees. Let a shower of stars fall from the heavens. Let the sea be parted. They laid down conditions for receiving him as the Son of God. He had to do what they said, and when they said it, and if he passed their test then they might serve him. “Let him prove to us that he is the incarnate Son of God.” Of course this attitude turns everything upside down. In the experiences of our lives it isn’t God who is being tested, we are being tested. Don’t try to reverse things. Don’t say, “I’m putting God to the test. I don’t know if he is all he’s cracked up to be, whether he exists and whether he loves me or not.” So God has to do certain things, and if he does he will pass muster. That is not how it can be. You have to realise that the Bible is actually testing us, and the Christ of the New Testament is searching us every time we get close to it. The question is are you willing to follow Christ. We don’t put him to the test. He raises Jairus’ daughter, and he drives out a demon from a Greek woman’s girl, and he walks on the water, and he feeds the multitudes, and every time he does something like that he is testing us. “I have done all this, and still you are not satisfied. You still want more. You always are seeking more.” Little wonder Jesus sighed deeply and asked why. He has done all this and you still won’t trust him.
The problem is not that there is paucity of evidence for Jesus Christ being the Son of God – “if only there were more proof I’d believe.” That is not how it is. The problem is rather this, the enmity in your heart towards God. You will not have this Lord Jesus rule over you even if someone rose from the dead. The problem is not insufficiency of testimony but absence of inclination. You refuse to be a Christian. You will not bow to Christ, and so the great divine sign God has given us, the Bible, is a closed book to you because you have closed it, and while you remain hardening your hearts against God no sign will be given to you.
Our Lord sighed deeply. This word is found just here in the New Testament and in other pieces of Greek literature only about thirty times. It is an expression of utter dismay, even of despair (though I don’t say that the Lord crossed the boundary into that). People are being pushed to the very limit of their endurance when they sigh like this. That was the Saviour’s response to their attitude to him. I want you who are not Christians to know that we are so concerned about you, that we sigh deeply over you, just as our Saviour did. God’s sovereignty over your destiny is little comfort to us today because we like you so much. You are great people, and some of you are our close friends. How can you go on in your unbelief? Your stubbornness of heart, and the way you seem to set the Lord tests, and lay down conditions, and then go on happily rejecting him grieves us. We feel like the psalmist who said, “I beheld the transgressors and was grieved” (Psa. 119:158 AV), and like the godly in the days of the prophet Ezekiel who “sighed and cried for the abominations in the land” (Ezek. 9:4). Lot’s righteous soul was vexed with the unlawful deeds of them around him (2 Pet. 3:8). Paul tells us, “I have great heaviness and continued sorrow for my brethren” (Rom. 9:2). The members of the body feel the same as the head. I think of people I have joined together in wedlock who have left their wives and children and have given up the faith. We think of the griefs of some Christians and we sigh.
4. LET US NEVER FORGET THE MIGHTY WORKS OF CHRIST.
We are told that the Lord had taken that heavy spirit with him onto the boat with the disciples. He could look back and see the young Pharisees so proud and contemptuous of him standing on the shore. Where were they going to spend eternity? What a spirit was in their hearts that they could be exposed to his standing there in front of thousands of people breaking the bread and distributing it and breaking it again and again and sending it out to the crowds of people for hours, and then, after that, confront him and demand he give them a sign. Jesus is deeply moved, and he speaks to these boys as they raise the sail and set out across the lake: “Be careful,” he says, “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees . . .” (v.15). Don’t let that spirit go down into your souls when you are dissatisfied with all that God has given to you, and you require more, on your terms. It is a terrible yeast that ferments away in a man and makes him bitter and restless, an opponent of Christ. The yeast of the Pharisees and Herod just wanted to see Christ dead.
Do we listen to the cautions of the word of God? If it is profitable for correction and reproof are we anxious to have such instruction? But these boys on the boat with Jesus didn’t understand him at all. They had heard the arrogant demands of the Pharisees and the sigh of Christ but they couldn’t connect what they’d heard with these warnings of Christ. “Watch … out … for … the … leaven … of … the … Pharisees … and … that … of … Herod? He must be cross with us because we’ve forgotten to bring food for the journey,” they decided. Then the Lord is so stern with them, interrogating them with eight questions: “‘Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up? ‘Twelve,’ they replied. ‘And when I broke seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ They answered, ‘Seven.’ He said to them, ‘Do you still not understand?'” (vv. 14-21).
The Lord quotes in part from Jeremiah 5 and Ezekiel 12. You have heard and seen so much but you still don’t understand? This new Israel of God, the Twelve apostles rather than the twelve tribes, were behaving as densely and ignorantly as old covenant Israel. The Saviour is warning them strongly: “Consider all your privileges, the miracles you have seen close up, and even participated in. You were with me and collected all the bread left over on the two occasions I fed the multitudes. You were there! You were observers of a scene men will be taking about in two thousand years’ time. Nothing like this has taken place on this planet before. Don’t you understand still? Don’t you know who I am? Is the absence of food on this little journey more important to you than the miracle you have just seen?” They had seen everything, but they had seen nothing. They had heard everything, but they had heard nothing. They had listened to his warning but they listened to nothing.
Can I end where Mark ends this section. Why should we think every sermon must end in some upbeat manner that sends us home singing? Are not some passages designed to send us way with our tails between our legs? If I understand this passage correctly it is saying that it is possible to be present with Jesus for a long time, to hear his word and see his works and yet to learn nothing at all from it, to be in the end no better but worse. There is a way to hell from the midst of the twelve apostles and Judas took it. It is possible to be the recipient of the exquisite pastoral care of Jesus and yet die in unbelief. The faith of miracles is not saving faith. To perform miracles is not a mark that a man is going to heaven. I can speak with the tongues of men and angels, and I can have all faith so that I move mountains, and I can give my body to be burned and yet I can go to hell if I am stranger to the saving love of God in my heart. Jesus has warned us that in the last day many would say to him that they had actually performed many mighty works in his name and that he will say to them, “Depart from me, I never knew you.”
J.C.Ryle reads the rebuke of our Lord in our text and he says, “Remember what is recorded here of the disciples. It may help to correct the high thoughts which we are apt to entertain of our own wisdom, and to keep us humble and lowly minded . . . There is more ignorance in our hearts than we are at all aware of. ‘If any man think that he knoweth anything, he knoweth nothing yet as he ought to know’ (I Cor, 8:2).
But I cannot send you away with a rebuke. Let us think of the Jesus who is now in heaven and yet has been dealing with us all again this morning in this congregation, by this word, and he despises none of his people. As slow of heart and backward as they may be his patience is never exhausted. He goes on teaching them “line upon line, precept upon precept.” He is taking Peter and John and the others to Jerusalem and the Upper Room and there they are going to hear that mighty discourse followed by that immense prayer. Who would have thought that the man who preached in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost could have been so obdurate in the boat – “It’s because we’ve got no bread he is cross.” Jesus did not give up on Peter and he hasn’t give up on you though some of you have been so slow and hardhearted. Let us learn from Christ. Let us do as he did. Let’s be sure that we never despise the weakness and dullness of young Christians. Let’s rejoice at the slenderest evidences of grace. Let’s be patient, helpful and kind as he was.
“He’ll never quench the smoking flax,
But raise it to a flame;
The bruised reed He never breaks,
Nor scorns the meanest name” (Isaac Watts, 1674-1748).
November 2003 GEOFF THOMAS