Tuesday, July 30, 2019

According to Mark: Looking for Provision

As you may know, chapter and verse numbers are not an original part of the Bible. It is not as if Mark included them while writing his gospel, which is why we get a bit of an odd start to this week’s entry of our “According to Mark” study. The first half of Mark 6:6 completes the thought of the preceding verses in the chapter, while the second half begins what follows. So today, we are looking at Mark 6:6b–56. At least we are staying inside one chapter this time.

Most of this chapter is another one of Mark’s word-sandwiches, and it is actually one of the trickier ones to understand. Why does he interrupt the sending out of the apostles with the story of the execution of John the Baptist? And does it connect with the feeding of the 5,000 in any way? I believe it does, and the miracle is actually the lynchpin of that connection.

Trusting God

To begin with, consider the sending of the apostles in vv. 6–13. There are a few important elements here. For one, it presents the power of the gospel. Another theme is judgment. If people do not want to listen to the good news of Jesus Christ, we cannot force them. We have to accept it and move on, leaving every trace of them behind and knowing that their condemnation is their choice. But the most important comments are the ones Jesus makes about trust.

He does not even use that word here, but it is the point of what He is saying. The apostles, and all other Christians by extension, go out into a hostile world. We need to plan for that, but we should not make the mistake of thinking success depends upon us. Instead, we need to learn to rely on God. That is why Jesus tells the 12 to take so little. They are to look to God for provision. Note, though, that the Lord does not require them to accept only supernatural assistance. He tells them they will find others along the way who will support their mission, and they should accept the help. But the point is God provides that, as well. Stepping out in faith allows us to see how He does so.

Trusting No Matter What

So the disciples go out and the story is interrupted. In part, this is just a matter of timing. It seems reasonable to conclude that John was executed in between the time that the 12 went on their mission and their return. But surely a number of other things would have happened, including things done by Jesus Himself. Why does Mark take us to Herod Antipas’ palace?

There appear to be at least three reasons. The first is contrast. While the followers of God are to look to Him for their needs, worldly people rely on their own power. Self-reliance leads to pride, and pride leads to decadence and debauchery. The family of Herod the Great (whose son Herod Antipas was) is the perfect example of this.

But there is another contrast here, too. It is the contrast between John and the disciples of Jesus. They had been sent out in power to cast out demons, heal sickness, and proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom. They would have been on a spiritual high. John’s suffering brings the story back down to earth.

Mark does not present John as a failure. Quite the contrary, his mission as the precursor of Christ gives him a position of prominence. But he suffered anyway. If he could, then anyone can. Being on God’s side is not a guarantee that this life will be easy. Actually, since we are in opposition to a world that wants to rely on itself, being on God’s side makes us a target. The point is that there is more than this life. We can enjoy our time here, and we should try to, but what matters most is the relationship we have with the Lord. Our pain here does not compare with the joy we will have with Him forever. Pain does come, though. We need to be ready for it.

So that is the second reason I think Mark includes this story here. Along with the contrast between the world and the church, he wants his readers to understand that suffering is part of doing God’s will. That extends the concept of having to rely on Him. The third and final reason Mark tells of the Baptist’s death is that it completes John’s ministry. Not only in the obvious sense, but as the capstone of his mission to pave the way for the Messiah.

John’s death provides foreshadowing. He was arrested for proclaiming God’s truth. The ruler who had him in his power knew that he was innocent, but the ruler was weak-willed and allowed himself to be manipulated into having the righteous man executed. If you know the whole story of Jesus, that should sound familiar. It is precisely what happens to the Lord, as well. Mark tells us of John’s experience to prepare us for what will happen to Jesus.

Trusting Jesus

This somber note returns to a more joyful one in v. 31. The apostles have come back to Jesus and reported what they have been able to do in His name. They are happy, but exhausted. Jesus attempts to provide for their need for rest by directing them to a quiet place, but they are not able to escape the crowds that want to see Him.

Let’s focus on that for a moment, since it is so often overlooked in our society. We are fixated on productivity. If you are not getting something done, even in leisure time, then you are being lazy. That is the message American culture tends to send. But it is not true. Rest is a necessity of human life. No one has ever had more to do than Jesus Christ. There were always more people for Him to help. But He made it a priority to set time aside for refreshment, and He encouraged His followers to do the same. Interruptions occurred, of course. That is part of life. But it is still valuable, and we should make provision for it.

So again, Jesus is surrounded by a massive crowd and He responds with compassion. That is what we see in v. 34, which includes what I consider to be the most important comment in the entire passage. It says that Jesus recognized the people as being “like sheep without a shepherd.” On the one hand, this is an indictment of the religious leaders of the day. They were not doing as the Lord instructed them, and it left the masses without guidance and protection. More importantly, though, Jesus came to be the shepherd that they really needed. He would give them the love and the life that no one else could.

In order to signify this, Jesus performed another of His great miracles. This one certainly seems to have left an impression, as it is the only one besides His resurrection recorded in all four gospels. And it is easy to see why.

We need to take a good look at the numbers here. The CSB translation tells us that the disciples believed it would cost 200 denarii to feed all the people present. One denarius was equal to a day’s pay for an unskilled worker, so 200 denarii would be worth about half a year’s labor. Speaking into our context, it would probably be about $10,000–$15,000. It is not a hyperbolic amount, but it is certainly a hefty sum for an itinerant minister and His small group of followers to produce on the spot. Especially when He had told those followers not to take any money with them.

Along with that, consider the logistics of the crowd. Mark tells us that the group was made up of “5,000 men” (v. 44). Matthew adds that this was “besides women and children” (Matt. 14:21). So Jesus did not need food for 5,000 people. He was looking to give it to 5,000 families. Again, that 200 denarii price tag looks like a reasonable one. If anything, the disciples might have been underestimating the cost. So we are looking at a large gathering and a considerable need for food, but not an impossible one in either case. We need to know these things so we can be aware of both the magnitude and the reality of what Jesus does next.

By multiplying five loaves and two small fish to be enough to fill the bellies of roughly 15,000 people, Jesus once again displays His absolute mastery over nature. The prophet Elisha, who had been the successor of Elijah, had done something similar (2 Kings 4:42–44). However, he had done so at the Lord’s command and it was orders of magnitude less than what Jesus does. The point being to show Jesus’ continuity with the prophets while also proving His superiority to them. He is something more. We are constantly building to Mark’s thesis statement, that Jesus is the "Christ, the Son of God" (Mark 1:1).

Most vitally, however, this is where everything finally ties together. In v. 43, it says that Jesus had produced so much food that there was still enough to fill 12 baskets after the multitude was satisfied. That is one basket for each of the apostles. This links us directly back to His instructions in v. 8 that they were not to take any bread with them because God would provide, and that is precisely what He has done.

We can now recognize that the single uniting theme of this passage is provision. The followers of Jesus must trust that He will give us the things that we require. That does not mean we will avoid all suffering. John did not, and Jesus did not. But that pain should not discourage us. It should teach us to rely even further on the Lord. When we do, we will discover that He is the Good Shepherd who gives us rest (John 10:11–18) and the Bread of Life who fills us (John 6:35–40). We have all we need in Him.

The Lord's Care

That is the primary message of Mark 6, which makes vv. 45–52 the epilogue. For one thing, we continue to see Jesus’ deity and His identification with the God of the Old Testament. His walking on water is a reference to Job 9:8, which says that God alone “treads on the waves of the sea.” And when it says that Jesus was going to “pass by” His struggling disciples, this does not mean He did not care about them. Rather, He wanted them to see Him and find peace, just as Moses and Elijah had when the Lord’s presence passed by them (Ex. 33:18–23; 1 Kings 19:10–12).

But in an increasingly alarming theme, the disciples do not understand what they are seeing. For whatever reason, Mark does not include all the detail Matthew does to explain Peter leaving the boat and then floundering after looking at the waves (Matt. 14:27–31). But the message comes across for us here. They missed the point. Rather than looking to Jesus, they looked to their fears. Everything they had seen should have taught them to rely on the Lord. They failed, and it put them at risk. Their hearts were hardened, meaning that they might miss out on the kingdom just as the rest of Jesus’ opponents were. They were supposed to be the insiders, but their lack of faith put them in a position where they could wind up on the outside. This unfavorable light will continue to be an important theme for Mark. He wants those of us who read this book to understand the dangers of spiritual blindness. If even the apostles were threatened by it, then we need to be doubly on guard against it.

In spite of their failure, however, Jesus still rescues them. That remains the most important thing we want to take away. Jesus loves us, and He provides for us. We need to be willing to take what He gives. When we suffer, we need to look for Him. When we falter, we need to come back to Him. And when we do, we will find safety in Him. That is how we experience life’s true fullness.

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