A devotional from Central Presbyterian Church. Find the complete archive here.
Wednesday, December 9, 2020
In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, 2 “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. 3 And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” 4 And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” 5 And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” 6 And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. 7 And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. 8 And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 9 And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. 10 And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.
Just a fifteen minute walk from the church that we serve with in Samana, Dominican Republic, there is an open air market. Although it is on the main road coming into the city, tourists rarely make the trek that far away from the center of town, which means that unlike many markets in tourist areas, this one is essentially locals-only. People from Samana come there everyday to pick from the freshest local produce (like mangos, pineapples, and many other fruits and vegetables that I have never seen anywhere else) and meats (as in still-moving-that-morning-when-it-arrived-at-the-butcher-stand fresh). Lining the outside of the market is a hardware store (where, we have learned, when you go to purchase lumber you must specify if you want boards that do not already have nails in them), electronics shop, pharmacy, and several clothing booths. Now, in places like these, you can often find seemingly amazing values on some of the same items that cost much more back in the States. At the electronics store there are name-brand headphones for sale at prices of less than one tenth of what it would cost to buy the same product at home. But when you take a closer look at the package, you begin to notice small discrepancies, like misspelled words, and once you open the outside seal, you find that there are mismatched pieces, missing cords, and the contents of the box does not match the picture on the outside. One of my favorite items that one team member bought at the market was a basketball jersey of a very famous NBA player that had the insignia “Property of the National Football League” stitched into the bottom corner of the jersey. Apparently the local counterfeit apparel maker accidentally confused basketball and football but didn’t know enough English to catch their mistake.
If our passage today sounds familiar, it is probably because previously, in chapter 6, Mark already wrote about Jesus and the disciples feeding five thousand men (plus many more women and children) with just five loaves of bread and two fishes on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Now, just a few chapters later, we read about another miraculous feeding, this time involving (at least) four thousand people with seven loaves and a few small fish, also on the shore of the same body of water. Like many others who have read these passages we might instinctively ask the question, did Mark make a mistake here? When he was recording the events of the life of Jesus did he accidentally repeat himself, but then just alter some of the details so they weren’t exactly the same? Believe it or not, that is what many critical “Bible scholars” have come to understand about this miracle. In fact, people actually use this as a prime example of the untrustworthiness and inauthenticity of Scripture. If Mark —and Matthew along with him—is so sloppy as to include a duplicate account of an impossible-to-believe miracle account while only changing a few numbers, then how can he be trusted to accurately record the truth in areas of more significance, like the death and resurrection of Jesus? But is that really what is happening? Did Mark just have a brain lapse and Matthew copied from his gospel and foolishly included the same mistake? Let’s take a closer look.
Like a knockoff basketball jersey or set of high-end headphones, in any case of possible contradiction or replication identified in the Bible, the devil is always in the details. The first difference in the feeding of the multitudes is the setting. Previously, Jesus was in a predominantly Jewish area, outside of Bethsaida, surrounded by predominantly Jewish people. When Jesus looked out over the field upon the people of God, He saw that they were like “sheep without a shepherd.” We see that He has the same heart for His people as His father David of whom, when he was anointed king over Israel in 2 Samuel 5:2, the Lord proclaimed “You shall be shepherd of my people Israel.” In Micah’s later prophesy to Israel of God’s coming judgment and subsequent exile, the Lord promised that after a time of devastation, He would once again send one who would reign as David’s heir and shepherd His flock in the strength of His might.
Now, we find Jesus on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Gerasenes, a Gentile area filled with unclean people and animals (remember the uncontrollable demoniac and the pig farmers?). While Jesus began His ministry to the Jewish people, the religious leaders had rejected His authority and began to plot to take His life. To escape from the madness, Jesus travelled north and was now ministering among the unbelieving Gentiles, who brought Him their sick, lame, and possessed, just like the Jewish people had done. He didn’t just heal them, but He taught them as well and many Gentiles began to put their faith and trust in Him.
Just like before, the crowds gathered en mass, following Jesus out away from the surrounding towns and villages. This time, rather than just one long day of preaching and teaching, Jesus notes that these Gentiles had been with Him for three days. Even if they had brought some initial provisions by now the food had run out, but even so they refused to leave Jesus. Besides, Jesus can see that many of them don’t have the physical strength to return to their homes. Just as before, Jesus turns to His disciples to help Him assess the situation and, just as before, the disciples don’t understand what they could possibly do. Now, some would point back to Mark 6 and say, “If this really happened, the disciples would have remembered the last time and just told Jesus to make bread like before,” but as we have seen throughout the gospels, even with the advantage of spending lots of time with Jesus, the disciple’s faith in Jesus wavered even after the resurrection.
Then we turn to the number of loaves. Once again, Jesus asks them to count up their loaves. Last time they came up with five, which for the Jewish audience would have brought to mind the Pentateuch, the five books of the Law of Moses. After everyone had eaten, Mark makes it a point to show that there were twelve baskets of leftover food. Twelve is also a significant Biblical number, which the reader would immediately associate with the twelve tribes of Israel. Along with filling the hungry bellies of the Jewish people with bread, like God’s provision of manna for Moses and the Israelites, this miracle showed that Jesus was the promised Messiah that the people of God had been waiting for.
This time, the disciples find that they have seven loaves, and also there are seven full baskets left over. Seven is a number used throughout Scripture to signify God’s completion or perfection, and Mark is showing that not only is the power of Jesus perfect and without limit, but it is sufficient for all the people of the earth, just like the desperate Syrophoenician mother had recognized. The idea that God loved and cared for all of humanity, not just the Jews, is one that many people of Jesus’ day did not understand, but it was not a new message by any means. Throughout Scripture God had promised a Savior for the whole human race. Recall God’s promise to Abraham: that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through his heir, or the prophecy of Isaiah, in which the Suffering Servant of God would bear the sins of many. Remember the message of the angels in the skies above Bethlehem on the night that Jesus was born, proclaiming to the frightened shepherds “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
The feeding of the four thousand was no accidental duplication or a product of lazy copy-editing. God is continuing to show us that Jesus did not come only for the Jew, or the holy, or the worthy. Jesus came for all. He was born for all, to serve all, to suffer for all, to die for all, to redeem all who place their faith and trust in Him. We all need Jesus, and we need all of Jesus to cover all of our sin. May this good news bring us great joy as we continue to herald it to all the people.
Prayer for Today:
Lord Jesus, we thank You for how You have moved and worked in this world. Thank you for Your Word and the constant reminders that we see of Your heart for the people of this world. We have done nothing to deserve You, in fact we have done everything to earn Your judgement and wrath. But in Your mercy You find us, You came to us, for us, so that we might come to You. We ask that You would fill us anew today with a sense of wonder, peace, and joy for the great things You have done. We pray this in Your all-sufficient name. Amen.