Like Sheep Without A Shepherd
Sunday, July 30th 2023
Christ Covenant Church – Centralia, WA
30 And the apostles gathered themselves together unto Jesus, and told him all things, both what they had done, and what they had taught. 31 And he said unto them, Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while: for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat. 32 And they departed into a desert place by ship privately. 33 And the people saw them departing, and many knew him, and ran afoot thither out of all cities, and outwent them, and came together unto him. 34 And Jesus, when he came out, saw much people, and was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd: and he began to teach them many things. 35 And when the day was now far spent, his disciples came unto him, and said, This is a desert place, and now the time is far passed: 36 Send them away, that they may go into the country round about, and into the villages, and buy themselves bread: for they have nothing to eat. 37 He answered and said unto them, Give ye them to eat. And they say unto him, Shall we go and buy two hundred pennyworth of bread, and give them to eat? 38 He saith unto them, How many loaves have ye? go and see. And when they knew, they say, Five, and two fishes. 39 And he commanded them to make all sit down by companies upon the green grass. 40 And they sat down in ranks, by hundreds, and by fifties. 41 And when he had taken the five loaves and the two fishes, he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and brake the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before them; and the two fishes divided he among them all. 42 And they did all eat, and were filled. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments, and of the fishes. 44 And they that did eat of the loaves were about five thousand men.
Father, you are the God who satisfies the desire of every living thing. We thank you for giving us Christ to be the bread of life for us, and ask that you would nourish us now, by Your Word and Spirit. We ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.
We come now in Mark’s gospel to one of the most famous miracles in Jesus’ ministry, the feeding of the five thousand. This is the only miracle (besides his resurrection) that is recorded in all four of the gospels. Each gospel does something a little bit different with it, and here Mark’s emphasis is on the contrast between the feast that Jesus prepares and the feast the King Herod prepares.
Last week we saw that Herod prepares a feast for his nobles and governing officials, and in a sick twist of events, the head of John the Baptist is brought out on a serving dish. The feast of the wicked is to have a prophet on a platter.
Jesus on the other hand is the good shepherd, the true king, and unlike Herod and his court who devour the sheep, Jesus feeds the sheep both physically and spiritually.
The crowds are hungry for teaching and so Jesus feeds them God’s Word. And when the day is spent, and their bodies are hungry, Jesus miraculously multiples bread and fish to feed their bodies as well.
Who else can do this but God alone? Who else can make bread and fish multiply but the God who created bread and fish in the first place?
On every single page of Mark’s gospel, we are given signs both implicit and explicit, that Jesus is the Son of God. This is of course what we should expect because the opening words of this gospel are, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
So Mark is hammering home this thesis that Jesus is divine, Jesus is the YHWH of the Old Testament, Jesus is the promised Messianic King. And in this scene where he feeds 5,000 men, plus women and children, we are given another visual fulfillment of many Old Testament prophecies (Ezek. 34, Jer. 23, etc.).
So let us walk through this text together and see how Jesus fulfills the promises God made through the prophets.
30 And the apostles gathered themselves together unto Jesus, and told him all things, both what they had done, and what they had taught.
We remember that earlier in this chapter, in verses 7-13, Jesus called, anointed, and commissioned The Twelve to go forth preaching in the surrounding villages. We were told they cast out demons and healed the sick, but before we got that full report of their ministry, Mark inserted a flashback to describe the death of John the Baptist. Well now that flashback is over, and we come to back to real-time, and the disciples return.
Mark calls them apostles here (literally “sent ones”), and this is the only time they will be called apostles in this gospel. These apostles tell Jesus about the exorcisms and healings accomplished by their hands, and also tell him what they had taught.
Jesus, seeing that they did what he commanded, now invites them to a retreat.
31 And he said unto them, Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while: for there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat.
Notice again we have this motif/theme of the wilderness (deserted place) as a place where God meets with His people.
The wilderness is especially where God meets with his prophets, his spokesmen, and that was of course the place where John the Baptist’s voice used to be heard.
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3).
John baptized in the wilderness, but now that Herod has beheaded him, it falls to Jesus to pick up Elijah’s mantle. And just as Elisha surpassed Elijah, being given a double portion of Elijah’s spirit and doing twice as many miracles, so also Jesus far surpasses John, having received the Holy Spirit without measure.
So Jesus picks up John’s mantle (so to speak) and continues to show his disciples the way of the Lord, and where does that way lead? It leads back to the wilderness.
However, rather than finding a restful retreat from the crowds and ministry, the crowds and the ministry follow them.
32 And they departed into a desert place by ship privately. 33 And the people saw them departing, and many knew him, and ran afoot thither out of all cities, and outwent them, and came together unto him.
You can imagine the scene here, Jesus and The Twelve get back into the boat, and that is about as much privacy as they are able to find these days.
And while they are casting off from shore, looking forward to a little R&R, some peace and quiet, people see them departing and start to run after them.
These people are so desperate to be with Jesus that they run ahead of the boat (“outwent them”) and get to Jesus’ destination before him.
And this was not just a handful of people who ran to meet Jesus, this is thousands (“they ran afoot out of all cities”). This is a stampede of running sheep. So what does Jesus do?
34 And Jesus, when he came out, saw much people, and was moved with compassion toward them, because they were as sheep not having a shepherd: and he began to teach them many things.
Jesus gets out of the boat, sees this crowd, and it says, “he was moved with compassion toward them.”
In Greek this work for “moved with compassion” is a very visceral term that denotes the bowels or guts or inward parts of us where we feel things. It’s like saying Jesus’ stomach was tied up in knots over what he saw. He was moved in his bosom, in the depths of his being with pity for them.
And the reason for this stomach-turning pity is that the people are like sheep without a shepherd.
They are wandering in herds and hungry, but no one is there to feed them.
They are lost in the woods and in need of rescue, healing, and love, but no one is there to give that to them.
And this is the state of many millions of Americans today, even many millions who call themselves Christians. They are lost. They are lonely. They are easily led astray by the things they read and watch and hear on the internet.
One of the reasons church membership is so important is because we all need a shepherd, we all need accountability, we all need someone to watch over and protect our souls.
This is what Paul commands in Hebrews 13:7, “Remember them which have the rule over you, who have spoken unto you the word of God: whose faith follow, considering the end of their conversation.”
Jesus Christ is our chief shepherd, but he has appointed under shepherds, pastors and elders, to care for his flock, to feed the sheep and tend to them.
There are millions of professing Christians who do not go to church, who have no real relationship with their pastor or elders, and they think that watching a sermon online, or getting together with some friends for a Bible study, is all they need to be spiritually healthy.
But that is so far from the picture of the church we find in Scripture.
In Acts we see the church meeting together in person regularly. At times they even gather daily in the temple for worship, and break bread in one another’s houses (Acts 2:42-47).
The biblical picture of the church is one that has structure, and hierarchy, routine and ritual, government and discipline, and a whole lot of eating together.
That is how God wants the sheep to be organized and cared for. And when the shepherds fail in this duty, the sheep wander. And that is what Jesus finds when he comes to Galilee and it grieves him.
What is God’s heart towards a lost and wandering nation?
Jesus reveals that He is moved in the depths of his being with compassion and pity. God is sad at the lostness of these Galileans.
These are the people that Herod is supposed to protect and care for. But he is away, busy at court, feasting sumptuously and murdering their prophet. The one faithful shepherd they had; Herod executes.
This phrase, “sheep without a shepherd” is actually a quotation from the mouth of Moses back in the book of Numbers.
In Numbers 27, God is talking to Moses about a succession plan for the nation since Moses is going to die, and Moses says this, “Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set a man over the congregation, 17 Which may go out before them, and which may go in before them, and which may lead them out, and which may bring them in; that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd. 18 And the Lord said unto Moses, Take thee Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the spirit, and lay thine hand upon him…”
So the nation of Israel are the sheep, the shepherd is their king/leader, and who does God appoint so that they are not like sheep without a shepherd? God appoints Joshua.
Joshua is just the Hebrew form of the name Jesus (Gk. Ἰησοῦς). And that name Ἰησοῦς or יְהוֹשׁוּעַ (Joshua) literally means YHWH Saves or YHWH is Salvation.
Who is the one who shepherds Israel? YHWH Saves.
Just as God appointed Joshua to lead his flock Israel into the promised land, so also God sent forth His Beloved Son, our Lord Jesus, to lead us into His kingdom.
How then does our Joshua lead us?
Verse 34 tells us, “He began to teach them many things.”
The mark of a true shepherd is to give the Word of God unto the people. The shepherd is like a chef or a cook, who rightly divides the Word, and apportions it out to all who will hear.
And notice the order in which Jesus feeds this crowd. First, he feeds them spiritually the Word of God, and only after that, does he feed them physically.
This order and priority is exactly what Jesus says in Matthew 4:4 (quoting Deut. 8:3), “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.”
We read this story and are rightly amazed that Jesus can multiply 5 loaves and 2 fishes into an abundance that feeds thousands. But think about it, what is of more lasting value? The feeding of someone’s body for one meal? Or the feeding of someone’s eternal soul? Which meal has a more lasting impact? Food is good and necessary, but the Word of God is even more so.
The whole purpose for this miracle we are about to read, is to signify that the teaching of Jesus, the preaching of God’s Word, the food of the kingdom, is unlimited in supply. You just need faithful shepherds to give it out.
So keep that in mind as we watch how this miracle plays out.
35 And when the day was now far spent, his disciples came unto him, and said, This is a desert place, and now the time is far passed: 36 Send them away, that they may go into the country round about, and into the villages, and buy themselves bread: for they have nothing to eat.
Remember, the disciples have just returned from a short-term missionary trip, where Jesus explicitly told them not to bring food, or bread, or a knapsack or extra provisions, and to trust God to give them what they need.
Well, did God provide for them? Yes. They survived. God provided. And so here is a new test for their faith. Can God provide for even this many?
I suspect the thought did not even cross their minds to try to feed this many people. They recognize it’s getting late, they know they don’t have enough food to feed the crowd, and so it’s quite reasonable to tell Jesus to send them away for dinner. How does Jesus respond?
37 He answered and said unto them, Give ye them to eat. And they say unto him, Shall we go and buy two hundred pennyworth of bread, and give them to eat?
The disciples think Jesus is just sending them on an errand to go buy a bunch of bread. And so their first thought it is well we don’t have that much money. We can’t afford that.
Two hundred pennyworth (denari) is roughly two hundred days’ worth of wages. This is a big crowd!
38 He saith unto them, How many loaves have ye? go and see. And when they knew, they say, Five, and two fishes.
The disciples are still confused at this point, and probably think Jesus’ request is a little pointless. Obviously 5 loaves and 2 fishes are not enough to go around.
Nevertheless, Jesus says, “make everyone sit down.”
39 And he commanded them to make all sit down by companies upon the green grass. 40 And they sat down in ranks, by hundreds, and by fifties.
There are two peculiar details that Mark includes here.
The first is that Jesus makes the people to sit down “upon the green grass.” And this is kind of odd because the place they are located is still the wilderness, the deserted place. How can 5,000 men, plus women and children all have green grass to sit on?
Well what Mark is doing is calling to mind by this detail, Psalm 23. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters.”
What has Jesus done in this gospel? He just commanded the Sea of Galilee to become still waters. And now, he makes these thousands of sheep without a shepherd to lie down in green pastures. And now he is going to feed them, so they have no want.
In Psalm 23, who is the shepherd? It is the LORD, YHWH.
Here in Mark 6, who is the shepherd? It is Jesus.
Jesus is LORD. YHWH Saves. This is the message of every miracle!
The second details Mark draws out is that “they sat down in ranks, by hundreds and by fifties.”
In Exodus 18, by hundreds and fifties is how Israel is divided up and organized in the wilderness.
And the Greek word here for “sat down in ranks” (πρασιαὶ πρασιαί) comes from this image of orderly planting rows in a garden bed.
What is Jesus doing here?
He is replanting the nation of Israel. Instead of being a disorganized mass of sheep without a shepherd, he leads them and feeds them and sets them in order. Instead of being thorns and thistles scattered in the wilderness, he plants them in orderly rows like a skilled gardener.
Jesus is the one who comes to make Israel alive again. He comes to make true what they sang in the psalms.
Psalm 100 says, “It is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”
By this miracles Jesus reveals he is both the Creator who made us, and the Shepherd who rules us.
Psalm 104:14-15 says, “He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, And herb for the service of man: That he may bring forth food out of the earth; And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, And oil to make his face to shine, And bread which strengtheneth man’s heart.”
Jesus opens his hands (arms outstretched) and satisfies the desire of every living thing.
Finally, we come to the miracle itself.
41 And when he had taken the five loaves and the two fishes, he looked up to heaven, and blessed, and brake the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before them; and the two fishes divided he among them all. 42 And they did all eat, and were filled. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of the fragments, and of the fishes. 44 And they that did eat of the loaves were about five thousand men.
We are not told exactly how this multiplication happened. We don’t know if the bread and fishes grew in Jesus hands as he divided them, or what this might have looked like if you were there. But what we do know, is that if God spoke the world into existence, and created everything out of nothing, then by that same divine power, he can make fish and bread to multiply.
In Genesis 1:28 it says after the creation of mankind, “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.”
Well here, Jesus follows that same pattern we find at creation. He blesses, he breaks, he gives, and he multiplies. He blesses Adam, he breaks him open, he gives him Eve (he gives them the world), and then tells them to be fruitful and multiply.
Jesus is doing with bread and fish, what God commanded the human race to do at the very beginning. Our sin had frustrated that task. But in Jesus, a new creation is dawning.
A new humanity that lives not by bread and fish alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
We will see this same miracle again in chapter 8, when Jesus feeds the 4,000, and he says afterwards to his disciples in essence, “Are you so blind, is your heart hardened that you do not understand, why are you only thinking in earthly terms? Don’t you see that bread and fish signify something greater. They signify the multiplication of true doctrine. He says to them, “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod” (Mark 8:15). They have false food, false doctrine, whereas Christ has the true food, the true leaven.
Jesus says in Matthew 13:33, “The kingdom of heaven is like unto leaven, which a woman took, and hid in three measures of meal, till the whole was leavened.”
What do five loaves and two fish signify? They signify the Word of God.
The church fathers saw in these five loaves a reference to the five books of Moses (the Law/Torah). And in the two fishes which make the bread more flavorful, they saw a reference to the Psalms and the Prophets which expound that Law. Whatever the case, it is clear that what Jesus is signifying by this miracle is that the entirety of the Old Testament is taken up and blessed and fulfilled in Him (in his death and resurrection).
As Jesus Himself says in Luke 24:44, “All things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me.
So when Jesus is blessing and braking and distributing this food in superabundance, what is the real miracle?
The real miracle is that God’s Word is infinite. God’s Word is unlimited. The message of salvation, the doctrines contained in Scripture, unlike material bread and fish, can be shared and given freely to anyone.
In Jesus, the Law, and the Psalms, and the Prophets, become fruitful and multiply. The truth contained there in seed form, becomes food that can feed the whole world.
And who is going to distribute this doctrine to the people? The twelve apostles. At present they are just handing out bread and fish. But after Christ’s resurrection, their eyes will be opened, and they will understand the true meaning of the feeding of the 5,000. They are the shepherds who must feed God’s sheep. Just as Jesus commands Peter three times in John 21.
There are twelve baskets left over, one for each disciple, one for each tribe of Israel, and Jesus wants them to know that when they preach the Word of God, there will always be more than enough.
If you think about the difference between your physical and spiritual appetites, you will begin to understand more the kingdom of heaven.
We all know what it feels like to be hungry and then full. After we eat our fill, our bodily appetite goes away, and desire for food disappears. And therefore, it doesn’t really matter if you have a superabundance of bread or fish, or whatever your favorite dish is, because your physical appetite is finite and limited. And in fact, eating more, not matter how good that thing is, will probably make you sick.
But this is not the case when it comes to the spiritual appetite. When God awakens our spiritual desire to know the truth, he awakens in us something that is infinite.
As it says in Ecclesiastes 3:11, “He has placed eternity in the heart of man.”
C.S. Lewis famously says in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”
Lewis recognized that there was something inside of him that food and drink and physical pleasures could not satisfy. And when God awakens you to this reality, that you have a spiritual appetite, eternity in your heart, then the only logical conclusion is that you were made for something or someone who is spiritual and immaterial and infinite.
The gospel is that Jesus Christ is the eternal Word from the Father. He is the infinite God, made flesh for man.
And if you want to live forever, then you are going need spiritual food. Because man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.
In the name the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.