“In those days there was again a large crowd, and they had nothing to eat. He summoned the disciples and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they’ve already stayed with Me three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, and some of them have come a long distance.” His disciples answered Him, “Where can anyone get enough bread here in this desolate place to fill these people? ” “How many loaves do you have? ” He asked them. “Seven,” they said. Then He commanded the crowd to sit down on the ground. Taking the seven loaves, He gave thanks, broke the loaves, and kept on giving them to His disciples to set before the people. So they served the loaves to the crowd. They also had a few small fish, and when He had blessed them, He said these were to be served as well. They ate and were filled. Then they collected seven large baskets of leftover pieces. About 4,000 men were there. He dismissed them and immediately got into the boat with His disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha. The Pharisees came out and began to argue with Him, demanding of Him a sign from heaven to test Him. But sighing deeply in His spirit, He said, “Why does this generation demand a sign? I assure you: No sign will be given to this generation! ” Then He left them, got on board the boat again, and went to the other side.” (Mark 8:1-13 HCSB)
Xerox. Isn’t it an odd name? Yes, I know it is the name of a company but for many years it was synonymous with a new technological process that the company created, the xerographic process of making a photocopy. Xerox is a registered trademark for the company but it has also become a verb that means to make a photocopy. For example, I’m going to xerox these pages for you. Why the name Xerox? Xero means “dry” in and graphy means to “write” in Greek – xerography is dry writing. The company was originally named Haloid Company and manufactured, sold and distributed photographic paper. When they obtained the commercial rights to the “xerographic process” they changed their name to Xerox.
Why the history lesson on Xerox and photocopying? Well, there is a bit of a debate on whether the story we find in our focal passage is unique or just a “mirror copy” of the feeding of the crowd found earlier in Mark. While you cannot deny the significant parallels that exist in them, they do differ on several key factors. For a comparison, consider the following:
Mark 6:31-44 — Feeding of the Multitude — Mark 8:1-9
Mark 6:45-56 — Crossing the sea, landing Mark — 8:10
Mark 7:1-23 — Conflict with Pharisees — Mark 8:11-13
Mark 7:24-30 — Conversation about bread — Mark 8:14-21
Mark 7:31-36 — Healing — Mark 8:22-26
Mark 7:37 — Confession of faith — Mark 8:27-30
Now, you might be able to see the significant parallels and why some scholars think these two events might be a single event, just repeated with the recipients (primarily Jewish vs. primarily Gentile) and numbers (5 loaves, 12 baskets vs. 7 loaves, 7 baskets) changed for Mark’s purposes. While I certainly do not have the educational and theological credentials of these very learned and distinguished scholars, I humbly disagree with those who see this as a single event that is simply repeated with some details slightly change to fit Mark’s ethnic and cultural context and purpose. But I do think the ethnic and cultural context is a HUGE factor in this story and I’ll show you why, in just a bit.
First, the phrase “in those days” indicates a transition and a focus in Mark’s narrative just as it did in Mark 1:9. Those words are a bit like a prophet declaring “Thus saith the Lord” and then proceeds tell his audience what God is saying and doing. Here, the words “in those days” is an indication that God is actively working, so pay really close attention to what follows… “there was AGAIN a large crowd, and they had nothing to eat.”
Now before we get too far into this story, it is important to note where we are – the physical location and the demographics of the crowd in this miracle will give us a huge clue as to its purpose. Remember, we had been in the Tyre region and met the Syrophonecian woman who wanted to eat the crumbs of grace that fell from the children’s table and was asking Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter. Jesus left Tyre and headed northeast towards Sidon, made a turn and continued his journey southwest towards Decapolis (the ten cities) region. This region is on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee and is primarily a Gentile region and near where Jesus encountered the deaf man with the speech impediment, last week.
While Jesus was still in that region, God began working in a mighty way and Mark introduces us to it with “in those days there was again a large crowd, and they had nothing to eat.” So Jesus has continued to teach and work in the Decapolis region and the crowd has stayed with Him, listening and learning as He teaches them. After three days, it appears that the crowd has consumed what food provisions they may have brought with them and begin to get hungry. Notice, Jesus has compassion for them and their condition.
In previous references to His compassion, Mark simply notes that Jesus was moved with compassion towards the crowd. But in this instance, Jesus states it emphatically Himself: “I have compassion on the crowd, because they’ve already stayed with Me three days and have nothing to eat. If send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, and some of them have come a long distance.” Now, Jesus compassion may not surprise most of us but I can assure you that it no doubt surprised the disciples and would have enraged any Pharisees that might have observed the event, no doubt. Why would the disciples be surprised and any Pharisees enraged? Because of the demographics of the crowd which was undoubtedly composed of mostly Gentiles.
While the Old Testament contains references to God sending the Messiah to shepherd Israel (see Ezekiel 34, for example), the Messiah has come to gather God’s flock from among all the nations and bring them together as one people, one flock comprised of all God’s sheep. God had promised Abraham that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him and his offspring and, more specifically, through the promised Messiah that would come through Isaac’s lineage (see Genesis 15-18). Now, that promise was being fulfilled in Jesus!
However, I want you to see why I believe this story is not just an editorial copy of the previous feeding of the crowd but a unique and powerful story in its own way. In verse 4, Mark tells us that when Jesus was moved with compassion towards the crowd and expresses His desire to feed them the disciples respond: “Where can anyone get enough bread here in this desolate place to fill these people?” What? Are they just forgetful or have really bad memories? How can they ask such a question in light of what they had already experienced with a similar situation? Are the disciples just plagued with poor memory or is something else at work here?
Pay attention to their words, “enough bread… to fill these people?”
I would remind you of where they’ve been (Tyre/Sidon) and where they are (Decapolis region) and the primary ethnic makeup of the crowd, Gentiles. I would encourage you to remember (or go back and review) the last two encounters Jesus has had, a Syrophoenician woman with a demon possessed daughter and a gentile deaf man with a speech impediment. What did He say about the woman? “Because of your reply (her great faith), you may go. It is done.” What did the gentile friends say about Jesus after healing their deaf friend and restoring his speech? “He has done everything well! He even makes the deaf hear and people unable to speak, talk!” Just like God has promised the Messiah would do!
Jesus is taking the Good News of God’s kingdom to the nations. He is crossing cultural, ethnic, religious and political boundaries and taking the message of God’s kingdom to anyone who will listen, to those who have ears to hear. To those who will cast aside their pre-conceived notions of who and how God loves and who will believe, trust and follow Him.
Jesus responds with compassion towards a predominantly gentile crowd and the disciples ask, “where can we get enough bread to fill these people?” I don’t think they had forgotten the previous miracle, I think they had doubts God would perform such a miracle for “these people.” I think that was the purpose of this entire journey into the regions of Tyre, Sidon and the Decapolis. I don’t think Jesus intended to withhold “crumbs” of God’s grace from the Syrophoenician woman or was hesitant to the “good” of God’s creation to the deaf man.
I believe Jesus wanted to show the disciples that God WAS doing a mighty work among “these people.” God was crossing the lines that man had created to divide and separate mankind with the “good news” of His grace and love, will we?
So, Jesus asks how many loaves they have and He commands the crowd to sit on the ground. He takes the seven loaves, gives thanks, breaks the loaves and gives them to the disciples to distribute. They also had a few small fish, so He blessed them and they served them to the crowd, too. They ate until they were satisfied and filled. Then the disciples gathered the leftover pieces (not crumbs, but larger pieces of bread and fish) and they filled seven large baskets.
There are some distinct differences in this story from the previous feeding of the 5,000 men, plus women and children. First, the obvious difference is the number of loaves and the number of baskets – seven loaves and seven baskets here as opposed to five loaves and twelve small, Jewish lunch baskets in the previous story. Numbers can be significant in these stories. In the previous instance of the story, the numbers five (books of the law) and twelves (tribes of Israel) seem to be indicative of feeding a predominantly Jewish crowd and God’s work among them. With this instance, the number seven is indicative of God (perfection and completion) and all of His creation.
One last observation is the type of basket is different in each story. The first story mentions 12 baskets that are specifically Jewish, fairly small and individually worn to carry items and an individual lunch. The second story references a large basket that is more generic and is used in both Jewish and Gentile cultures and is large enough to hold a man. In fact, it is the same type of basket used to lower Paul over the wall in Acts (9:25).
Finally, after the crowd is fed and dismissed (sent home) the group gets into the boat and heads to Dalmanutha. While the exact location of this region is unknown, it is believed to be on the western shore of the lake, near Magdala/Magada. While they were in that region, the Pharisees came out and began to argue with Jesus and to demand a sign to test Him. Based on the context and the fact that He had just spent time preaching and performing miracles in primarily gentile regions, it would appear that their demand for a sign to prove Himself is related. Jesus response? He sighs deeply in His spirit and says, “Why does this generation demand a sign? I assure you, NO sign will be given!”
The phrase, “I assure you” is the same phrase “I tell you the truth” or “Truly, truly I tell you”. It is an oath, such as: “I give you my word” or “I swear I’m telling you the truth”. Mark notes that the Pharisees request is a “test” or a temptation to Jesus. This is the same word that Mark uses when he tells us that Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit for a period of “tempting” or testing by Satan. Mark recognizes that their request is in opposition to God’s will and may be an attempt to get Jesus to use His divine power for personal affirmation and benefit. Unfortunately, we often want God to use His power for our personal affirmation and benefit. But notice Jesus response, He turns and walks away from them. When this temptation hits us, we must do the same – turn and walk away.
I want to conclude by sharing one final observation. In Matthew’s version of this story (Matt. 16), Jesus tells the Pharisees that the only sign they will receive is the sign of Jonah. Do you remember what bothered Jonah about his call to preach repentance to Nineveh? He knew that if he preached God’s judgment and they listened and repented, God would spare them the judgment He had promised. In other words, Jonah was disappointed that God forgave the people of Nineveh, poured out His mercy and withheld his judgment. Jonah wanted God’s wrath to fall on them! They deserved it and he was upset that God granted forgiveness and poured out His mercy on Noah’s enemies.
Sound familiar? It doesn’t just sound like the Pharisees in this story, it sounds a LOT like us. Jesus sighed deeply in His spirit when they requested a sign. These people had been given sign after sign after sign. They refused to see them. They refused to listen to God’s Word. They wanted another sign but no sign would be given – He turned and walked away.
Did the Pharisees lack faith in God’s ability to perform such miracles? I don’t think they really questioned God’s ability to feed a crowd, I think they questioned God’s willingness to feed THIS crowd. They had NO faith that God would love and grant mercy upon such people. They didn’t lack faith in God, per se, but they lacked and doubted the love and compassion of God as exhibited in Jesus, His Messiah.
We approach God in a similar fashion. We want proof, but the only proof given is what we’ve already seen. “If God would just _________ , then I’d believe.” You fill in that blank. You want proof, look at what God has already done. Look at the barriers He has torn down. Look at the lives He’s changed. Look at the people transformed by His grace. Are there some who claim His name but show no evidence of His presence and power? Absolutely, just like the Pharisees. Just like many who claim the name of Christ.
What does Jesus do? He sighs deeply in His spirit, refuses to honor their demand for proof and turns and walks away… and tells His disciples, “beware the yeast of the Pharisees!”
We’ll consider those words, next week.