The Deeper Meaning
Mark 8:1-21 (Jesus Feeds the Four Thousand)
INTRODUCTION: We are continuing in our series on the Gospel of Mark, and today we come to a passage that seems almost a repeat of an earlier passage. Back in Mark 6 we studied the feeding of the five thousand, and now we come to a very similar miracle, the feeding of the four thousand. And you may wonder, why did Jesus do this miracle twice, and why did God choose to have Mark record both of them? If the whole point was that Jesus is able to feed many people with just a few loaves of bread, didn’t he already make that point with the five thousand? And besides, although feeding four thousand is pretty good, it’s not quite as impressive as feeding five thousand. Four thousand seems almost anti-climactic compared to five thousand. So what’s the point? Those are some of the questions we will be exploring as we study this passage today. (Pray.)
If you had miraculous powers like Jesus did, how would you use them? Or perhaps even more important, why would you use them? I imagine some of us would use our powers just to show off a little, you know to draw attention to ourselves. Most of us would also use our powers to benefit ourselves in some way. (If you doubt that, just ask yourself, how many times have you prayed that you would hit the lottery, and how many times have you prayed that someone else would?) I would like to believe that we would also use our powers to help other people, and I believe that most of us would, although probably not at our own expense.
So why did Jesus use his miraculous powers? Certainly not to show off. In fact, we have seen Jesus repeatedly instructing people not to tell others about his miracles. Jesus also never used his miracles to benefit himself. Not once! He refused to make bread for himself when he was hungry in the wilderness, and he refused to call on God’s angels to rescue him at the cross. Jesus did do miracles in order to help other people, as evidenced by his healing and feeding miracles. In fact, all that Jesus did, he did for others, even at great cost to himself.
But although Jesus did miracles out of love and compassion for other people, that was not the only reason. Jesus’ miracles had a deeper meaning. They were meant to demonstrate that he was indeed the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of God. And they were meant to teach spiritual truths as well. Jesus healed the deaf, but he also spoke about hearing and believing God’s word. Jesus healed the blind, but he also spoke about seeing the truth of God’s revelation in his own person and miracles. Jesus cleansed lepers, but he also spoke about spiritual cleansing. Jesus rose people from the dead, but he also spoke about his own resurrection and the resurrection to come.
And so when we look at a miracle like the feeding of the four thousand, yes, we want to be amazed at Jesus’ awesome power to perform such a miracle. But we also want to look for the deeper meaning that Jesus is trying to teach us through this miracle. So let’s take a closer look at this passage today.
I. Jesus feeds a great crowd – again! (verses 1-10)
We begin with verses 1-10 where we find Jesus feeding a great crowd – again!
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, he 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 pieces 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. (Mark 8:1-10)
And so when you read this right after reading the feeding of the five thousand back in chapter six, you immediately think, “Repeat! Re-run! I hate re-runs! I didn’t know God did re-runs!” Yes, God does do re-runs, and praise God he does re-runs! God can do the same miracle as many times as he wants, and that’s a good thing.
But you’re right. This passage does contain many parallels to the first feeding, and Mark brings that out for us in the very first verse when he says, “During those days another large crowd gathered.” (Mark 8:1) The last time a large crowd gathered was at the feeding of the five thousand, and so Mark wants us to think back to that incident. In fact, he purposely structures his retelling of this incident to show how similar it was to the first. Jesus is teaching, a great crowd gathers, they are hungry and far from home, Jesus has compassion on them, he talks with the disciples about feeding them, they only have a small amount of food, Jesus instructs the crowd to sit down, he gives thanks for the food, he has the disciples distribute the food, everyone eats and is satisfied, and there are leftovers.
And so we can learn many of the same lessons from this miracle as we did from the first: the fact that God has compassion on all people; that when God asks you to do something, you can do it; and the fact that you can do anything with God – God has no limits; he is not confined by our lack of resources. But we already learned all that from the first miracle. Why did Jesus do this miracle twice, and what was he trying to teach the disciples and us in the process?
Well, on the most basic level, one reason Jesus did the miracle twice is that there was a real need on the part of the people twice. People were hungry and needed to be fed. At the same time, Jesus was also trying build the faith of the disciples. Does anyone else think it strange that the disciples were wondering what to do in this situation when they had just been through it a short time before with the crowd of five thousand? Jesus calls his disciples together and explains the problem to them just as before, and they answer: “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?” (Mark 8:4) The word translated “remote place” here is the word for “desert” or “wilderness,” and it brings to mind the wanderings of Israel when God provided bread for all the people for forty years in the wilderness.
The obvious answer to the disciples’ question is, “No one, at least no human being, can provide bread for a multitude in the wilderness; only God can. But that’s what Mark’s gospel is all about – demonstrating that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. And so Jesus, the Son of God, does what only God can do. He refused to provide bread for himself when he was in the wilderness, but he will feed the multitude in this remote place.
So the disciples ask, “Where can we get bread to feed all these people?” And you can just imagine Jesus patiently answering them: “How many loaves do you have?” “Seven.” “Okay, let’s have all the people sit down,” and the disciples are definitely in re-run territory at this time.
We shouldn’t be too hard on the disciples here. How many times has God provided for us in the past, and we still have trouble trusting him for whatever we going through in the present? I’m going through a little bit of this myself right now. God has asked me to take a giant step of faith in sending Rose and the boys down to Florida ahead of time while we wait for the house to be sold and for a job offer to come. God has asked me to do some crazy stuff before, like quit my job as a recording engineer and move into a church to serve as youth pastor where they couldn’t really pay me, or when he told me to give my car away to another youth pastor when I could have really used it myself.
There are some great stories that go along with both of those times, but the point is God has always proved faithful in those situations, and so “I know” he will be faithful in this present one as well. But I was the only one at risk back then, and now God has asked me to take some real steps of faith which involve my family as well. That’s a lot tougher, and I need to remember that God can do the same miracles twice, and that he who provided in the past can also provide in the present.
II. The Pharisees ask for a sign (verses 11-16)
Well, we move on to verses 11-16 where the Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign.
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.” (Mark 8:11-16)
So here is Jesus doing all these miracles, and the Pharisees come to him and ask for a sign from heaven to authenticate his words. I guess some people are never satisfied! In one sense all of Jesus’ miracles were signs. They were signs that the kingdom of God had drawn near in his person and that God had sent Jesus and was indeed working through him. That is the deeper meaning to all the miracles. But some people will never be satisfied no matter how many signs God gives them. Earlier on the Pharisees attributed Jesus’ miracles to the power of Satan. Now here they were asking for some direct sign from God in heaven, but they were asking in rebellion and unbelief. Jesus refused to give it to them. Jesus 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.” (Mark 8:12)
Jesus and the disciples get back into the boat, and Mark tells us the disciples forgot to bring bread for the journey. They only had one loaf between them. Meanwhile Jesus was trying to teach them. “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” (Mark 8:15) Well, the disciples are so confused. They have no idea what Jesus is talking about, and they assume it must have something to do with the fact that they forgot to bring bread.
But Jesus isn’t talking about literal bread here. When Jesus talks about “the yeast of the Pharisees,” he is talking symbolically. When used as a symbol in the Bible, yeast is almost always used negatively as a symbol of evil or an evil influence. You might recall that when the Israelites left Egypt, they didn’t have time to leaven the bread, and even today when Jews celebrate the Passover, one of the customs is to remove all the yeast from the house.
And so the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod had to do with their unbelieving rejection of Jesus as evidenced by their asking Jesus for a sign instead of believing on him on the basis of his teaching and prior miracles. (Herod hadn’t actually asked for a sign yet, but he would later at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. [Luke 23:8])
People today who demand that God give them a sign to believe are in a similar situation. God already gave the most important sign of all. He sent his Son into the world who preached the kingdom of God and demonstrated the truth of his words through his miracles, especially the miracle of his own resurrection from the dead. That was the ultimate proof of Jesus’ identity and mission. You don’t need to ask God for a sign. He has already given it. Jesus has come into the world. Jesus died. Jesus rose from the dead. What more do you want? What more do you need?
III. Jesus points to the deeper meaning (verses 17-21)
Finally in verses 17-21, Jesus points the disciples to the deeper meaning in his miracles.
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 the 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?” (Mark 8:17-21)
Jesus asks the disciples a series of questions in this section starting with, “Why are you talking about bread?” Jesus was using the yeast analogy to warn the disciples about the opposition of the Pharisees and Herod, and all they can think about was that they didn’t bring enough bread with them in the boat. Jesus is saying, “It’s not about the bread!” It never was about the bread. Jesus’ miracles were not miracles for miracles’ sake, but they had a deeper meaning, and Jesus asks the disciples this series of questions in order to get them to probe deeper.
Some people have tried to attach symbolic significance to the number of basketfuls of leftovers in each of the feedings. They say that the twelve basketfuls of leftovers in the first feeding represents the twelve tribes of Israel and the seven basketfuls of leftovers in the second feeding represents the fullness of the Gentiles, and so the two feedings represent the gospel going first to Israel and then to the nations. Is that what Jesus is getting at here? I don’t know – I’m not that smart! But I think there is a clearer meaning we can get from the passage.
Others point to the similarity in the language Jesus uses at this feeding to the words of communion found later in the gospel of Mark (Mark 14:22-23). Now there are some remarkable similarities here, and I believe Mark may be making some connection, perhaps he wants us to see some sort of a preview of the Lord’s Supper in this feeding, but I still don’t think that’s the deeper meaning Jesus is talking about here.
The deeper meaning is that this miracle as with all of Jesus’ miracles point to him as Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus does what only God can do. He continues to provide bread for the people in the wilderness, just as God provided manna for the Israelites. And the disciples are worried about only having one loaf of bread?
The key word here is “remember.” Jesus says, “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 the 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?” (Mark 8:18-21)
Jesus Christ is the Son of God. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. What he has done in the past, he will continue to do in the present and in the future. And so if Christ has saved you, if he has brought you to God and provided all that you need in the past, you do not need to worry about the future. Jesus fed the multitude twice. God provided for an entire nation in the wilderness for forty years! And God can take care of you and me.
CONCLUSION: Have you been worrying over God’s provision lately? I know I have been struggling with this. These are difficult economic times, and some of us are feeling financial pressures like never before. We need to take this second feeding of the multitude to heart. Remember! Remember who Jesus is and what he has done. Don’t just look at the feeding of the four thousand and say, “What a neat miracle!” Don’t be like the Pharisees looking for a sign when Christ has already come. Don’t be like the disciples wondering if Jesus can do it again and just focusing on the physical bread. Dig deeper, and see the deeper meaning behind the miracle. Jesus is God. He has not changed. What he has done before, he can do again. He has promised to meet your every need, and he will continue to do so.
© Ray Fowler
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