Its interesting to see how different groups of people responded to Jesus as recorded within the gospel accounts of His life. For instance, Jesus had been well received in a number of different areas by the people He encountered during His ministry. Unfortunately, that was not always the case and we’ll see another example of the type of rejection that Jesus received in the opening verses of Mark chapter six…
“Then (Jesus) went out from there and came to His own country, and His disciples followed Him” (Mark 6:1).
This portion of Scripture finds Jesus traveling about 20 miles (32 km) southwest from Capernaum and returning to His “hometown,” or Nazareth. While Jesus was born in Bethlehem and spent time in Egypt as an infant, Nazareth was the place where He grew up. This was an area where the members of Jesus’ family still resided and a place where many of His childhood friends likely remained. It was a town where many of His former co-workers probably continued to make their homes and a place where Jesus should have had the expectation of a warm reception.
Unfortunately, the reality was just the opposite…
“And when the Sabbath had come, He began to teach in the synagogue. And many hearing Him were astonished, saying, ‘Where did this Man get these things? And what wisdom is this which is given to Him, that such mighty works are performed by His hands! Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are not His sisters here with us?’ So they were offended at Him” (Mark 6:2-3).
While Jesus’ audience didn’t seem to have much of an issue with His teachings, they did appear to have a considerable issue with Him. So why wasn’t Jesus well received in His hometown? Well, someone might attempt to explain this response by referring to the old adage, “familiarity breeds contempt.” The idea is that once someone becomes well acquainted with the faults and idiosyncrasies of others, an erosion of respect often tends to follow. The problem with that explanation is that Jesus was sinless- He had no faults or idiosyncrasies.
Another possibility is that the people of Nazareth were envious of Jesus’ popularity. After all, Jesus did tend to attract a large following wherever He traveled. But Jesus also had a number of important and influential enemies as well- the kind of people who might seek to have someone killed if he or she wasn’t careful.
We’ll take a look at a more likely explanation for this response next.
“The next Sabbath (Jesus) began teaching in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. They asked, ‘Where did he get all this wisdom and the power to perform such miracles?’ Then they scoffed, ‘He’s just a carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. And his sisters live right here among us.’ They were deeply offended and refused to believe in him” (Mark 6:2-3 NLT).
The fact that Jesus had received no formal rabbinical training or specialized religious instruction apparently led the people of His hometown to reject the idea that He was anything more than just a common laborer. Another Gospel account records a similar view that others who were acquainted with Jesus’ upbringing seemed to hold:“‘…Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that He says, ‘I have come down from heaven’?'” (John 6:42). So it appears that the people of Jesus’ hometown believed Him to be nothing more than an ex-craftsman who had begun to make some outrageous and scandalous claims.
For His part, Jesus appears to have shrugged off this response by observing, “…Prophets are honored everywhere except in their own hometowns, among their relatives, and in their own households” (Mark 6:4 CEB). It seems that Jesus understood that criticism often represents the price of leadership and responded accordingly. And perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that Jesus was rejected in His own hometown for as John 1:10-11 tells us, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (NIV).
While we are not told of how Jesus felt concerning this response, it seems reasonable to conclude that it must have been emotionally painful for Him to be rejected in this manner. Nevertheless, Jesus demonstrated the right response for those who experience the rejection and unbelief of friends, neighbors, family members, or co-workers as they seek to fulfill God’s call on their lives. Remember that Jesus was rejected by those who had once been closest to Him and if the Lord Himself was rejected in this manner, then there is every likelihood that His representatives may be as well.
While its always encouraging to receive a supportive response, its more important to demonstrate faithfulness and a committment to moving forward on God’s agenda for our lives. Jesus’ example shows us that we don’t necessarily need to receive honor or respect from others in order to have an impact for God.
Its clear that the people of Jesus’ hometown responded to His return in a rather uncomplimentary fashion. For example, Mark 6:3 tells us that the residents of His childhood home greeted His return with these responses…
- “Is this not the carpenter…” implying that Jesus was little more than just a woodworker.
- “…the Son of Mary…” a statement that represented a cultural insult in it’s refusal to identify Jesus with His father as was customary in that society. This response may have carried a hint of questionable parentage as well.
- “…and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon? And are not His sisters here with us?” which served to imply that Jesus was simply just an unremarkable person from an unremarkable family.
So despite the fact that Jesus had already restored a paralyzed man to full health, healed a woman of a previously incurable affliction, and even raised a little girl from the dead, His return visit to His old home town ended in a very different fashion…
“Now He could do no mighty work there, except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them. And He marveled because of their unbelief. Then He went about the villages in a circuit, teaching” (Mark 6:5).
A closer look at Mark 6:5 brings up an important question: “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them” (NIV). Does this mean that Jesus was incapable of doing any miracles in that area because the people didn’t believe?
Well we can first say that, as God, Jesus is not limited in His ability to do anything that is actually possible. However, we can also say that Jesus does not work in the presence of unbelief. In other words, the fact that Jesus performed no miraculous works in His hometown (with a few exceptions) was not due to any inability on His part but arose from the existing atmosphere of skepticism, rejection, and unbelief that prevented the people from receiving anything from Him.
Jesus did not lack the ability to do miracles in the presence of unbelief- He could not do so in the sense that the people were unwilling to accept what He wanted to do for them. Because the people of Nazareth chose not to believe in Him, Jesus could therefore only perform a few miracles, presumably among those who did possess some degree of faith In Him.
“He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. And he was amazed at their lack of faith. Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village” (Mark 6:5-6 NIV).
While its easy to focus on Jesus’ astonishment at the residents of His hometown in this passage, the basis for His astonishment is perhaps even more important: “…He was amazed at their unbelief” (HCSB). One commentator offers the following insight regarding Jesus’ reaction…
“This is the only time Mark said that Jesus was amazed. He marveled that the unbelief of the Nazarenes was as strong as it was. This implies that their decision not to believe was in spite of evidence adequate to lead them to another conclusion. They were morally blameworthy for their unbelief” (emphasis added). (1)
In this respect, the people of Nazareth were not very different from some people today: we often don’t refuse to acknowledge Jesus for who He is because there is lack of evidence; we refuse to acknowledge Him because we really don’t want to. While those who aren’t interested in following Christ may offer many different rationalizations, there’s really only one basic motivation for that response: “…even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks…” (Romans 1:21 NAS).
If this is the case, then the question becomes, “why?” Well, John 3:19 provides us with the short answer to that question: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19 NIV). For the people of Nazareth, their familiarity with Jesus as a youth provided an excuse to reject Him and effectively served to eliminate any responsibility to consider Him as more than just a man despite the miraculous evidence He offered. In other words, their decision not to believe was made in spite of evidence that was adequate to lead them to another conclusion.
This same idea holds true for people today: if we are somehow able to convince ourselves that Jesus was nothing more than just a man (if He even existed at all), then we are free to live as we desire without the need for further consideration of Jesus or His teachings.
And so this section ends with Jesus’ decision to visit some other locations where He might be more welcome. That response led the great 17th century scholar Matthew Henry to observe that,“If we cannot do good where we’d like, we must do it where we can.”
(1) Dr. Constable’s Expository (Bible Study) Notes http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/mark.pdf
“And He called the twelve to Himself, and began to send them out two by two, and gave them power over unclean spirits. He commanded them to take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bag, no bread, no copper in their money belts— but to wear sandals, and not to put on two tunics” (Mark 6:7-9).
This passage identifies what we might describe as “on the job” field training for Jesus’ disciples. Up to this time, the disciples had watched and learned from Jesus and now it was time for these men to put what they had learned into practice. This is important because a “disciple” is an apprentice or trainee. At some point, a trainee is always provided with an opportunity to take what he or she has learned, put it to work, and gain practical experience. In a similar manner, the disciples had learned from Jesus and now it was time for them to serve as apostles (or commissioned representatives) and teach what they had learned to others.
Before sending these men out, Jesus said, “You may take along a walking stick. But don’t carry food or a traveling bag or any money. It’s all right to wear sandals, but don’t take along a change of clothes” (CEV). In providing these instructions, Jesus intentionally placed His representatives in a position where they would gain experience in trusting God to meet their needs. It also meant that the people they interacted with would be focused on their message and not on what they may have possessed.
“Also He said to them, ‘In whatever place you enter a house, stay there till you depart from that place. And whoever will not receive you nor hear you, when you depart from there, shake off the dust under your feet as a testimony against them.
Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!’ So they went out and preached that people should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them” (Mark 6:10-13).
The act of shaking the dust off one’s feet was recognized as a culturally appropriate demonstration of rejection and/or separation. The fact that Jesus felt it necessary to provide these instructions to His disciples implied that there would be some (and perhaps many) who would reject them, just as Jesus had earlier been rejected in His own hometown. The disciples were simply responsible for communicating Jesus’ message; the people they spoke with were then responsible for what they did with that message.
“Now King Herod heard of Him, for His name had become well known. And he said, ‘John the Baptist is risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him.’ Others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is the Prophet, or like one of the prophets.’ But when Herod heard, he said, ‘This is John, whom I beheaded; he has been raised from the dead!'” (Mark 6:14-16).
This passage mentions an individual named Herod, a person whose family figures prominently in New Testament history. However, it can sometimes be difficult to identify the various members of the Herodian family when reading through the Scriptures. That’s because the Herodians produced three leaders who later went on to became very important in the New Testament era.
For example, one member of the Herodian dynasty has come to be known to history as “Herod the Great.” He was a procurator (or “governor”) of the Galilee region from 37-4 B. C. His title referred not so much to his greatness but the fact that he was the eldest son of his father. This Herod is referenced in Matthew 2:1-2 where we’re told that, “…in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.'” Herod the Great was later responsible for murdering every infant male in the Bethlehem region aged two and younger in an attempt to exterminate Jesus and eliminate him as a potential rival king (see Matthew 2:16).
There was another member of the Herodian family known as Herod Agrippa the First. He is mentioned in Acts 12:1-2 as the man who was responsible for killing the Apostle James.
Then there is the Herod spoken of here in Mark chapter six. His name was Herod Antipas. Pontius Pilate sent Jesus to Antipas prior to His crucifixion and when Jesus refused to put on a show for his entertainment, Antipas had Him sent back to Pilate (see Luke chapter 23).
So its clear that the Herodian dynasty possessed a long tradition of hostility against Jesus and His church. However, it does seem as if Antipas displayed something of a guilt complex in this passage when he said, “John, the man I beheaded, has been raised from the dead!” (NLT). Its been said that a guilty conscience needs no accuser or tormentor but itself (1) but why would Herod feel this way about John in particular? We’ll see the answer to that question next.
(1) Matthew Henry’s Commentary
“Jesus became so well-known that Herod the ruler heard about him. Some people thought he was John the Baptist, who had come back to life with the power to work miracles. Others thought he was Elijah or some other prophet who had lived long ago. But when Herod heard about Jesus, he said, ‘This must be John! I had his head cut off, and now he has come back to life'” (John 6:14-16 CEV).
As is the case today, many people of the first century came up with their own opinions about Jesus, opinions that may or may not have been based in reality. Herod provides us with one such example.
While Herod surely must have presided over the execution of various zealots, agitators, and political opponents without so much as a second thought, he seemed to feel differently about putting John the Baptist to death. A first century historian named Josephus tells us that Herod arrested John and had him executed because he was afraid that John’s popularity might lead to a rebellion against his own authority. While there might be an element of truth to that explanation, Mark chapter six reveals the real story behind John’s death…
“For Herod himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; for he had married her. Because John had said to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife'” (Mark 6:17-18).
Regarding this affair, one source tells us that, “Herod Antipas was first married to the daughter of Aretas, an Arabian king… But he became infatuated with Herodias, the wife of his half-brother, Philip I. The two eloped together, although both were married at the time.” (1) So John spoke out against Herod’s immoral marriage to Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip and probably called his attention to the Old Testament Scripture found in Leviticus 18:16 where it is written, “Do not have sexual relations with your brother’s wife; that would dishonor your brother” (NIV).
This was something that must have really infuriated Herodias because Mark 6:19-20 goes on to tell us, “Therefore Herodias held it against him and wanted to kill him, but she could not; for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him. And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.”
Now it may have been dangerous for John to rebuke a politically connected leader like Herod but as we’ll see, it was apparently more dangerous to provoke Herodias.
(1) Nelson’s Bible Dictionary
“…John had said to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ Therefore Herodias held it against him and wanted to kill him, but she could not; for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him. And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly” (Mark 6:18-20).
Although Herod had been fearful of John while John was alive, it seems that he was even more afraid of John now that he had put him to death. If Herod had only chosen to place his fear in God (where it really belonged), then things would have certainly turned out differently. But how had Herod come to the decision to kill a man like John- a man that he feared and respected? Well, here’s how that happened…
“Then an opportune day came when Herod on his birthday gave a feast for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee” (Mark 6:21).
This section begins by revealing the fact that there were a number of political leaders, VIPs, and other persons of influence at this dinner party. These details are important in light of what happened next…
“And when Herodias’ daughter herself came in and danced, and pleased Herod and those who sat with him, the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me whatever you want, and I will give it to you.’ He also swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half my kingdom'” (Mark 6:22-23).
Although Herod was probably referred to as a king in the common vernacular of the day (and thus received that designation in Mark 6:22), he technically served as a tetrarch, a leadership position that was roughly equivalent to that of a governor today. A tetrarch held a position lower than that of a king and he was accountable to the Roman governing authorities of that time. Knowing this, we might ask why Herod would promise to give up “half my kingdom” when he really had no kingdom to give.
Well, the phrase “…up to half my kingdom” was an expression that was sometimes used by leaders in the Biblical era to communicate a willingness to be exceedingly generous. In this instance, we might understand Herod’s meaning to be, “I am willing to grant any reasonable request that is within my power, even if it’s one that’s very large.”
So the king offered to give up “half his kingdom” to a belly dancer- and we’ll see how Herodias’ daughter responded to that offer next.
“So she went out and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask?’ And she said, ‘The head of John the Baptist!’ Immediately she came in with haste to the king and asked, saying, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter'” (Mark 6:24-25).
Earlier in Mark 6:21 we read, “Then an opportune day came when Herod on his birthday gave a feast for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee.” The question is, “opportune for whom and for what purpose?” Well, the answer is that Herod’s birthday feast represented an opportunity for Herodias to rid herself of a certain trouble-making moralist named John the Baptist.
An ancient historian named Josephus identified Herodias’ daughter’s name as Salome and from the word used to describe her in the original language, it would appear that she was in her early to middle teenage years at this point in her life. It was during Herod’s “…banquet for his nobles and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee” (Mark 6:21 ESV) that she “…came in and danced for Herod and his guests” (Mark 6:22 CEV).
While the Scriptures do not precisely identify the kind of dance that she performed, its unlikely that Salome engaged in a ballet-type of performance for Herod and his guests. Given the morality (or lack thereof) associated with her family and the response of Herod and his companions (all of whom were male), its more likely that this teenaged girl performed in a manner more associated with that of an exotic dancer today.
This brings us back to Herodias’ role in this event. Given what we know of her character, it doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch to assume that Herodias was well aware of her daughter’s sensual capabilities and the way that her talents were likely to be received by Herod and his guests. If this is the case, then we can say that Herodias knowingly used her young daughter’s seductive performance to leverage Herod into giving her what she really wanted: a humiliating death for John the Baptist.
One clue to indicate that Herodias was the driving force behind these events can be found in the fact that her daughter went back to her to determine how to respond to Herod’s offer. The result was both gruesome and horrific: “Tell him, ‘I want John’s head. I want it on a plate. And I want it right now.’”
“Immediately she came in with haste to the king and asked, saying, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ And the king was exceedingly sorry; yet, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he did not want to refuse her” (Mark 6:25-26).
We learned in Mark 6:20 that “…Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him. And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.” Although Herod may have done many things after listening to John, one thing he didn’t do was allow John’s message to influence his behavior. Like many in our world today, Herod heard the Word of God but he never really let it impact his life.
In this respect, Herod’s example parallels the hard pathway that was illustrated by Jesus’ parable of the sower in Mark chapter four. You see, John “sowed” the Word of God through his relationship with Herod but it never really took root in Herod’s life. Herod knew what was right but did what was wrong- and in the end, he was more concerned with maintaining his social standing among “…his top officials, army officers, and the most important people of Galilee” (Mark 6:21 GW) than with protecting the life of a righteous man. How different things might have been if only Herod had not only heard God’s Word but acted on it as well.
This incident also provides us with another important reminder that we can apply today. Remember that Herod had earlier made this promise to Herodias’ daughter: “…he swore unto her, ‘Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it to thee, unto the half of my kingdom'” (Mark 6:23 KJ21). If Herod had taken the time consider the potential consequences of these words before he said them, he could have avoided being used by an immoral woman to cause the death of a man that he feared, respected, and didn’t really want to kill.
This may be one reason why the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes tells us, “It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it” (Ecclesiastes 5:5 NIV). It may also explain why the New Testament letter of James says, “But most of all, my brothers and sisters, never take an oath, by heaven or earth or anything else. Just say a simple yes or no so that you will not sin and be condemned for it” (James 5:12 NLT).
“Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded his head to be brought. And he went and beheaded him in prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard of it, they came and took away his corpse and laid it in a tomb” (Mark 6:27-29).
In looking at the death of John the Baptist, it may be instructive to consider a comment that Jesus once made concerning him. In Luke 7:28, Jesus said, “In all humanity there is no one greater than John…” Yet how did John’s life end? His life ended when his head was cut off from his body and put on a plate. Again, we should remember that this was the man of whom it was said (by Jesus no less) that “there is no one greater…”
So if God permitted the greatest human being who had ever lived up to that point to die in such a horrific manner, then what are we to make of that? Well, John’s death should inspire us to consider whether we would be willing to suffer the same fate for our relationship with God if it ever became necessary to do so.
You see, John did the right thing at the cost of his life. He might have lived if he had kept quiet, but John refused to take the easy way out. For John, it was more important to obey God rather than compromise- and he preferred to speak the truth and let the consequences (whatever they were) follow.
Because of this, John the Baptist became a great example of something that the Apostle James would later write of in the New Testament letter that bears his name: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12 NIV).
And what of Herod Antipas? Well, one commentator relates Herod’s eventual demise: “In order to take his brother’s wife Herodias, Herod put away his first wife, a princess from a neighboring kingdom to the east. Her father was offended, and came against Herod with an army, and defeated him in battle. Then his brother Agrippa accused him of treason against Rome, and he was banished into the distant Roman province of Gaul, where Herod and Herodias committed suicide.” (1)
Herod’s ultimate fate brings to mind the words of Galatians 6:7: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.”
(1) Guzik, David Mark 6 – Rejection, Opinions and Miracles http://www.enduringword.com/commentaries/4106.htm
“Then the apostles gathered to Jesus and told Him all things, both what they had done and what they had taught. And He said to them, ‘Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.’ For there were many coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat. So they departed to a deserted place in the boat by themselves” (Mark 6:30-32).
Earlier in Mark 3:14 we saw how Jesus “…appointed twelve — designating them apostles-that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach” (NIV). Having now completed their first tour of service as ambassadors, spokespersons, and emissaries for Jesus, The Twelve returned for what we might refer to as a “debriefing” today.
It’s interesting to note that Jesus offered no words of correction, advice, or opinion on the quality of their service upon their return (at least none that were recorded). Instead, Jesus expressed His concern for their physical well-being: “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while” (ESV). This was an appealing idea since the disciples had returned from the road only to find that the needs of the people were so great that they didn’t even have time to eat.
The “desolate place” that Jesus apparently had in mind was a town called Bethsaida according to Luke 9:10, a place that was located on the “…far shore of the Sea of Galilee” (John 6:1 NIV). However, it didn’t take the crowds that surrounded Jesus very long to figure out what He had in mind…
“But the multitudes saw them departing, and many knew Him and ran there on foot from all the cities. They arrived before them and came together to Him” (Mark 6:33).
Since the Sea of Galilee is only six miles (ten km) wide, it is possible to see from one side to the other if the weather conditions are good. This means that those who saw Jesus and the apostles depart had an idea about their intended destination well before they ever arrived.
The fact that these people were able to outrun the boat and meet Jesus and His disciples before their arrival suggests that their ship had encountered some headwinds that made progress difficult during this trip. Since the environment surrounding the lake tended to produce rapidly changeable weather conditions, what may have initially seemed to be the fastest route to their intended destination turned into a much more arduous journey.
“Many people, however, saw them leave and knew at once who they were; so they went from all the towns and ran ahead by land and arrived at the place ahead of Jesus and his disciples” (Mark 6:33).
So the Apostles returned from their road trip and found that the crowds surrounding Jesus were so great that they couldn’t even find time to eat. To address this situation, Jesus decided to schedule some “off-time” at a remote location to provide for some much-needed rest. However, the crowds rushed to meet them before they reached that area with no apparent concern for their fatigue or personal well-being.
This made Jesus’ response all the more impressive…
“And Jesus, when He came out, saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd. So He began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34).
Instead of responding with an attitude of anger, frustration, or regret over their now-cancelled vacation plans, Jesus instead demonstrated compassion for the multitudes that made the effort to come and see Him. However, Jesus’ response indicated more than just a commitment to put His personal plans aside for the benefit of others.
You see, a person who has been trained as an actor is often capable of identifying others in real life who may not be what they appear to be. An experienced teacher can often see beyond a lesson plan to identify someone who is less than prepared for the subject that he or she is speaking on. A contractor can sometimes provide an accurate assessment of a building’s quality before he or she even enters a structure. The point is that our skills often provide us with valuable (and accurate) insights into the strengths, weaknesses, or needs of those we may encounter.
In a similar manner, Jesus, the greatest leader who ever lived, quickly identified the fact that the assembled multitudes were leaderless. But Jesus didn’t only identify the needs of the people- He did something about it: “…because they were like sheep without a shepherd, he began teaching them many things” (CJB). You see, the religious leaders of that day had failed in their responsibility to accurately represent God before the people. The secular leadership likely had no interest other than the continuance of political power and the concerns of the bureaucracy. So Jesus stepped into this leadership vacuum and met the needs of the people by accurately communicating God’s Word to those who were willing to listen.
“When the day was now far spent, His disciples came to Him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and already the hour is late. Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat” (Mark 6:35-36).
It seems that Jesus had spent much of the day teaching and speaking with the large group of people that met with Him upon His arrival. But now the day was rapidly drawing to a close and the options for finding something for the multitudes to eat in such a remote location were very limited.
The disciples saw this need and presented Jesus with a suggestion: “Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat” (ERV). But Jesus proposed to meet this need in a very different manner: “…He answered and said to them, ‘You give them something to eat'” (Mark 6:37).
The act of providing everyone with enough to eat was obviously something that was well beyond the Apostles’ resources. Knowing this, Jesus’ disciples responded with an expression of incredulity: “…they said to Him, ‘Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?'” (Mark 6:38). A “denarius” was a unit of money that was roughly equivalent to an average worker’s daily wage during that time. So in their estimation, the total cost to feed the crowd that had gathered to hear Jesus speak represented more than six months worth of income for an average employee of that day.
What the disciples didn’t know was that Jesus had already formulated a solution to address the needs of the people. You see, John’s Gospel provides us with some additional detail regarding this passage: “Then Jesus lifted up His eyes, and seeing a great multitude coming toward Him, He said to Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?’ But this He said to test him, for He Himself knew what He would do'” (John 6:5-6).
This explains why Jesus asked this question of His disciples and why He did not simply move forward on what He had in mind. While the disciples were focused on the challenge of meeting the needs of this group, they were unaware that this situation also represented an opportunity to assess their own spiritual development as well.
But in fairness to these men, no reasonable person could have anticipated what Jesus was about to do next.
“But (Jesus) said to them, ‘How many loaves do you have? Go and see.’ And when they found out they said, ‘Five, and two fish'” (Mark 6:38).
The loaves mentioned this passage were unlike the common loaves of bread that we may be familiar with today. The “loaves of bread” here in Mark 6:38 were typically made of barley and are identified as such in the Gospel of John’s account of this event. The barley dough was baked into a small flat shape and several “loaves” would usually be sufficient for a typical meal. The fish that the disciples referred to were generally dried, salted, and made to be eaten together with the bread. A look at the Gospel of John also reveals that these five loaves of bread and two fish were provided by a young boy and were presumably intended to serve as his lunch (see John 6:9).
So the image that we are presented with in this passage is one of a resource that was completely inadequate to meet the need at hand. However, the scarcity of these available resources did not prevent Jesus from moving forward…
“Then He commanded them to make them all sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in ranks, in hundreds and in fifties. And when He had taken the five loaves and the two fish, He looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and the two fish He divided among them all” (Mark 6:39-41).
Besides the miraculous nature of this meal, there are a number of other important details within this passage. First, the fact that the grass was green indicates that this event took place in the spring before the summertime heat had caused the grass areas to turn brown. This small detail suggests that Mark was working from an eyewitness account of this event, the kind of account that someone like Peter might have been able to provide.
Next we should notice that Jesus instructed his disciples to seat the people in an orderly fashion. That helped provide for the most efficient distribution and illustrates a general Biblical principle that the Apostle Paul would later apply to worship services with the church: “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).
Finally, this passage illustrates the people’s willingness to follow Jesus’ direction as provided through His disciples. Despite the fact that there was virtually no food for Jesus to distribute (at least at first) the people still acted on His instruction and were about to benefit from doing so.
“And when He had taken the five loaves and the two fish, He looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and the two fish He divided among them all. So they all ate and were filled. And they took up twelve baskets full of fragments and of the fish. Now those who had eaten the loaves were about five thousand men” (Mark 6:41-44).
While Jesus could have distributed these loaves and fishes on His own, He instead chose to give these items to His disciples to distribute. In other words, Jesus wanted to get His followers involved in the work that He was doing. The disciples weren’t responsible for this miracle but they got to be a part of what Jesus was doing because they were willing to carry out the work that He had given them to perform. Of course, the same is also true in our lives today- we must be willing to do what Jesus has called us to do in the Scriptures if we desire to see Him do something great in our lives.
Although the amount that Jesus started with was inadequately small, He simply took what was available and turned it into something abundant. And while the disciples seemed more concerned with the lack of available resources, Jesus helped provide them with a different perspective: it was more important to focus on what He desired to accomplish first and then rely on Him to provide for that need.
This event also provides something else for Jesus’ followers to remember; if Jesus could accomplish so much with so little then He is certainly able to turn whatever seemingly insignificant talents, skills, or resources we may possess into something of great significance. You see, the key is not necessarily found in our ability to do the work that He desires to perform but in our availability for that work.
We should also notice that “about five thousand men” enjoyed dinner with Jesus and His disciples that evening. That figure does not include the number of women and children who may have been present as well. If we were to count everyone who came to hear Jesus speak that day, we might estimate a total crowd of 7000-10,000 (and perhaps as many 15,000-20,000) people, making this miracle all the more impressive.
The fact that twelve baskets of leftovers were collected suggests that each disciple carried one and further demonstrates the overwhelming abundance of Jesus’ provision- and while there must have been some within the crowd who weren’t really interested in hearing or doing the things that Jesus taught, Jesus still graciously provided for them anyway.
“Immediately He made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while He sent the multitude away. And when He had sent them away, He departed to the mountain to pray” (Mark 6:45-46).
If you read through the Gospel accounts of His life, you’ll find that prayer was an important priority for Jesus. For example, Jesus spent the entire night in prayer before choosing His twelve disciples. Jesus also prayed at the Garden of Gethsemane just prior to His crucifixion (see Matthew 26:36-44). We’re told that He prayed before resurrecting a dead man in John 11:41-44. In fact, Luke 5:16 tells us, “…Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (NIV).
Why did Jesus place such an emphasis on prayer throughout His ministry? Well, there are a number of Scriptures that emphasize the importance of prayerful communication with God and the benefit of seeking His wisdom, insight, and direction…
“To God belong wisdom and power; counsel and understanding are his” (Job 12:13).
“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you. (Psalm 32:8 NIV).
” … and if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God. For the LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. (Pro 2:3-6 NIV)
“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).
With regard to the passage in Mark quoted above, it also may help to remember why Jesus found Himself in this mountainous area to begin with. Remember that Jesus had originally intended to get away with His disciples to this secluded area in order to get some rest. Yet the crowds that came to see Him were so great that Jesus was moved with compassion for them. So while Jesus had originally come to seek rest for the disciples, He actually ended up spending the day teaching, feeding, and sending this great multitude of people back home.
After spending the day with thousands and thousands of people, it would be reasonable to assume that Jesus was physically exhausted by this point. Yet despite all these things, Jesus still found time to pray- and He provides leadership by example for us in this area.
“Now when evening came, the boat was in the middle of the sea; and He was alone on the land. Then He saw them straining at rowing, for the wind was against them. Now about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea, and would have passed them by” (Mark 6:47-48).
So after dismissing the crowds from earlier that day, Jesus retreated to the mountainous areas of that region to pray. Meanwhile, the disciples found themselves struggling against a headwind on the Sea of Galilee and apparently not making much progress.
We’re also told that some of this action took place during the fourth watch of the night. While the Jewish people observed three night “watches,” the Romans broke the night time hours into four separate portions: 6 pm to 9 pm (first watch), 9 pm to 12 midnight (second watch), 12 midnight to 3 am (third watch), and 3 am to 6 am (fourth watch). Since this activity took place during the fourth watch, we know that this event took place somewhere between 3 am – 6 am.
John’s Gospel also provides us with some additional detail when it tells us that the disciples “had rowed about three or four miles” (John 6:19 NKJV) by this point. Since the Sea of Galilee is seven miles (11 km) wide at it broadest point, the disciples had only managed to travel about 3.5 miles (5.5 km) within the approximate span of eight hours. Clearly this had been very difficult work but how had the disciples come to be struggling to row a boat against a headwind on the Sea of Galilee at 3 o’clock in the morning? Well, the answer is that Jesus made them do so.
Remember that earlier in Mark 6:45 we read, “Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd” (NIV). Notice the phrasing used in this verse- Jesus made, compelled (Darby), or insisted (Amplified) that His disciples start out on this trip.
Why is this important? Well, the disciple’s experience in these verses reminds us that following Jesus’ direction is not always something that’s easy to do. For instance, Jesus may sometimes ask us to do difficult things (like row a boat against the wind at 3 o’clock in the morning) for little or no apparent reason. But to their credit, the disciples didn’t turn the boat around or stop to say, “This is too difficult for us.” Instead, they kept at it and continued to do what Jesus had called them to do.
“Then He saw them straining at rowing, for the wind was against them. Now about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea, and would have passed them by. And when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed it was a ghost, and cried out” (Mark 6:48-49).
Notice we’re specifically told that Jesus “…could see that the disciples were struggling hard, because they were rowing against the wind” (CEV). In other words, Jesus saw and understood the difficulty of the work that He had given His disciples to do.
While it may sometimes seem as if Jesus is unaware of the struggles we often encounter in life, this incident with His disciples reminds us that Jesus sees and knows the difficulties we experience. In this instance however, Jesus chose to respond in a somewhat unusual manner: “…he came to them, walking on the sea; and he would have gone past them” (BBE).
This passage presents a challenging question: why was Jesus intending to pass His disciples by as they were struggling to cross the Sea of Galilee? To help answer that question, let’s first consider the facts as we know them:
- Jesus clearly meant for His disciples to experience the difficulty of rowing their boat against a headwind since He was the one who originally compelled them to do so (Mark 6:45).
- Jesus was fully aware of the difficulties that His disciples encountered in following His direction since “He saw them straining at rowing…”
- Jesus decided to cross to the other side of the lake through the miraculous means of walking on the surface of the water.
- Jesus clearly intended His disciples to see Him as He crossed the lake since He deliberately came close enough to the boat for them to notice Him.
- It appears that Jesus did not initially plan to join His disciples in the boat or assist them in any way. Instead, it seems that Jesus was originally intent on continuing on His way to the other side of the Sea of Galilee and “…would have passed them by…” until His disciples cried out.
Of course (as already mentioned), Jesus’ disciples would never have had the opportunity to see Him and cry out if He had not intentionally chosen to cross close enough for them to see Him in the first place. So what was the purpose of this event and what can we learn from it? Well, we’ll consider one possible answer to that question next.
“…about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking upon the sea, and would have passed by them” (Mark 6:48 EVID).
It seems highly unusual to read that Jesus would “come to the disciples” with the intent of passing them by, doesn’t it? Perhaps this passage might make better sense if we were to consider what Jesus might have desired to accomplish as He miraculously walked upon the water within visual range of His disciples.
For example, while Jesus “would have passed them by,” we know from the next few verses that He did not do so as a result of His disciples’ response to Him: “…when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw Him and were troubled. But immediately He talked with them and said to them, ‘Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.’ Then He went up into the boat to them, and the wind ceased…” (Mark 6:49-51).
A similar situation occurred shortly after Jesus’ resurrection when two of His followers unexpectedly encountered Jesus while traveling on the road to a town called Emmaus…
“Now behold, two of them were traveling that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was seven miles from Jerusalem. And they talked together of all these things which had happened. So it was, while they conversed and reasoned, that Jesus Himself drew near and went with them. But their eyes were restrained, so that they did not know Him…
Then they drew near to the village where they were going, and He indicated that He would have gone farther. But they constrained Him, saying, ‘Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.’ And He went in to stay with them” (Luke 24:13-16, 28-29).
These two examples from the lives of Jesus’ followers indicates that Jesus will stop and join us if He is called upon, invited to do so, or if we happen to find ourselves in a situation where we may be in need of support. But Jesus doesn’t only seek an invitation from His followers; He also desires to be invited into the lives of anyone who is willing to do so…
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20).
“Then He went up into the boat to them, and the wind ceased. And they were greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure, and marveled. For they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened” (Mark 6:51-52).
In looking the events that have occurred up to this point within the Gospel of Mark, it may be easier to understand why Jesus prayed for an entire night before selecting His twelve disciples (see Luke 6:12). For instance, the disciples had been with Jesus as He encountered a legion of demonic entities (Mark 5:1-20), provided a meal for thousands of people with food that had not previously existed (Mark 6:39-41), and as He resurrected a young girl from the dead (Mark 5:35-41). Then there were the crowds of people who constantly surrounded Jesus virtually everywhere He went. Anyone who was not mentally, emotionally, or otherwise prepared to deal with such things would not have been able to handle daily life with Jesus.
In fact, the passage quoted above indicates that the disciples actually had some difficulty processing the things they had already seen: “…they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” In the words of one commentator, “they were spiritually insensitive to the truth concerning the deity of Christ which His miracles were constantly demonstrating.” (1) In other words, the disciples did not really comprehend or understand the miracle that had earlier occurred when thousands of people were fed with five loaves of bread and two fish. This was surely more than anything they might have been expecting when they agreed to Jesus’ original invitation to “follow me.”
In one sense, the disciples really shouldn’t have been shocked or terrified to see Jesus walking upon the surface of the water. If they had truly understood the significance of what Jesus had done earlier in multiplying the loaves and fishes then they would have realized that Jesus was not necessarily constrained by the physical laws of nature. In reality, the miracle of walking upon the water was no more miraculous than the act of feeding thousands of people with virtually nothing and then picking up twelve baskets of leftovers.
In the same way, its important to guard against a similar feeling of astonishment in response to God’s work in our lives. While we may be rightfully astonished at the manner in which God may choose to work in our lives, we should not be astonished at the fact that He actually chooses to do so.
(1) Charles Ryrie Ryrie Study Bible
“When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret and anchored there. And when they came out of the boat, immediately the people recognized Him, ran through that whole surrounding region, and began to carry about on beds those who were sick to wherever they heard He was.
Wherever He entered, into villages, cities, or the country, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged Him that they might just touch the hem of His garment. And as many as touched Him were made well” (Mark 6:53-56).
Gennesaret was a broad, fertile plain located near the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was an agricultural region that featured some densely populated areas and represented an ideal location for Jesus to continue His ministry. However, it seems that Jesus needed no introduction to the residents of that area for “…the people knew Him at once” (NLV). It also appears that Jesus made an extended tour through this region for we’re told that He found time to visit the metropolitan areas of Gennesaret along with the rural locations and “suburbs” as well.
The “marketplaces” of that time were generally open-air sections located near the wall or gate of an enclosed city. While the first-century marketplace primarily served as a place of commerce, it also represented a area where people assembled to conduct business and gathered for social interaction. Because of this, the marketplace was an area where Jesus was most likely to be once He entered a city and helps explain why those who were sick found their way to Him there.
It also seems that the word had gotten around concerning how Jesus had miraculously healed a woman who had simply touched a garment that He had been wearing (see Mark 5:27-29). While the act of touching a piece of Jesus’ clothing carried no inherent ability to provide healing, those who approached Jesus in this manner clearly had faith in His ability to heal and Jesus graciously elected to do so in every instance.
Unfortunately, this passage does not speak of anyone who approached Jesus to learn from Him or get to know Him better. While there may have been some (or perhaps many) who sought to hear Jesus’ wisdom, it appears that the majority of those who met with Jesus sought Him out simply for what they could obtain from Him. It is a testament to Jesus’ character, generosity, and graciousness that He healed even those who apparently sought Him only for what they could receive from Him.