Mark 6:30 returns to the disciples after recounting the execution of John the Baptist. The sending of the twelve in Mark 6:7–12 introduced Mark’s new focus: Jesus is teaching his disciples the pattern of gospel ministry they are to practice through the apostolic age. The three stories featured in Mark 6:30–56 continue and conclude Mark’s framing of apostolic ministry. Their training did not end when they returned from their missionary trips. That was only the beginning—the real lesson began when Jesus tasked them to provide for the people gathered in the wilderness.
Upon their return, Jesus invites them to come with him to a desolate place and rest. They apparently had not returned alone; so many people accompanied them back to Jesus they could not break to eat. Jesus’ direction to take their boats and leave behind the crowds must have come with sighs of relief. The realization that the crowds had spotted and followed them must have come with groans of frustration and exhaustion from all but Jesus. His heart was moved to compassion in this pivotal moment.
The feeding of the five thousand is the only miracle which appears in all four Gospels outside of the resurrection of Jesus. Clearly this story carried profound and obvious meaning for the Gospel authors’ original audiences. Most people might not think of desolate places as an ideal location to rest, but in Scripture, wilderness rest carries great significance. God delivered Israel out of Egypt and gave his people rest in the deserts and mountains of the Sinai peninsula. The events of the exodus became a primary symbol used by prophets of a future, perfect, eternal rest for God’s people. Here in this moment, Jesus recognized what the disciples and Gospel authors would come to marvel at: the New Exodus was taking place.
Rather than escaping the crowds, Jesus was drawing them out into the wilderness with them. He was not the first to look upon the people of God as sheep without a shepherd. In Numbers 27:15–17, Moses anticipates his death and Israel’s need for a successor. He prays to the Lord, asking for him to give the people a leader “who shall lead them out [of the wilderness] and bring them in [to the promised land], that the congregation of the Lord may not be as sheep that have no shepherd.” In response, the Lord appoints Joshua, son of Nun, to succeed Moses. In Mark 6:34, a new Joshua (Jesus’ Hebrew name) stands ready to shepherd the Lord’s people.
The wilderness was not a place of sustenance. Though the green grass they sit on was suitable for grazing herds, no food would be found to feed such a great crowd. Mark reports that five thousand men were present; the total number of mouths to feed, including women and children, could have easily exceeded seven thousand. None of the nearby villages would have been able to feed all these people. Even large towns on the coast of Galilee like Capernaum had only two to three thousand inhabitants.1 The situation was dire and the people were desperate.
While the wilderness was not a place of sustenance, it was a place of divine provision. In Moses’ day, God provided quail and manna all the days Israel wandered in the desert (Exodus 16). It is no coincidence that both meat and bread were brought to Jesus. The exact nature of how the bread and fish were multiplied is unclear. What is clear is that the food comes from heaven. Lane explains why the disciples gathered the scraps of bread: “Reflecting on the traditional respect for bread as the gift of God, it was a regulation that scraps which had fallen upon the ground during a meal were to be gathered. The fragments were gathered in the small wicker baskets that every Jew carried with him as a part of his daily attire.”2 Every disciple came back to Jesus with definitive evidence of God’s provision.
The key parallel between Mark 6 and the exodus story which ties back to the training of the disciples is the division of the crowd into fifties and hundreds. In Exodus 18:13–27, Moses institutes the first recorded structure of pastoral care over God’s sheep. The burden of shepherding is too great for him to bear alone, so, following the guidance of his father-in-law, he recruits trustworthy, God-fearing men to share the load of providing for Israel. Unlike Moses, Jesus recruits his disciples not to compensate for his weakness, but instead to display the fullness of his strength. It will be through these apostles that Christ’s Spirit will reach the ends of the earth to call sheep from every flock and to bring forth streams from the desert.
The disciples we see in Mark 6 are a far cry from the apostles in Acts. When Jesus commands them “You give them something to eat,” they respond harshly. They assume Jesus wants them to manage these people by their own strength. They lack the eight month’s wages needed to buy the food the crowd would need. The nearby towns would not have enough food in the first place. Above all, the disciples are exhausted. By their estimation, they literally and proverbially have nothing left to give. Jesus does not rebuke them. Instead, he equips them.
As Jesus dismisses the crowd and sends the disciples away, they likely let out even deeper sighs of relief than before — only to groan with even greater frustration and exhaustion as they encounter the headwind. Once again, Jesus meets them in their weakness by passing by them on the water. This is Mark’s greatest allusion to the exodus narrative. Just as God passed before Moses in Exodus 34:1-8 declaring his name, “I AM, I AM, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,” Jesus walks beside the disciples and calls out “I am.”3
Despite all these miraculous signs and all these parallels with the exodus, the disciples cannot understand what Jesus is doing. Mark informs us why. It is not because the disciples are too tired to process these things or too ignorant of the Torah to recognize the parallels. It is because their hearts were hardened — the passage’s final parallel with Exodus.4 Again, Jesus does not yet rebuke them. He will allow their hearts to grow harder until they find themselves in the same position, setting sail after feeding thousands (Mark 8:14-21). Only then will they be given eyes to see exactly who Jesus is. Until then, Jesus and the disciples return to ministry as usual — at least, as usual as performing miracles can be. Mark 6 closes with another general summary of Jesus’ ministry to indicate a transition of focus as Mark returns to Jesus’ teachings.
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Exodus and Mark 6 are not the only places to depict the wilderness as a place of rest and divine provision. Prophets throughout the Old Testament use desert imagery to illustrate God’s abundant love and care for his people. Isaiah 35 shows the desert blossoming with life and a safe, straight road cutting through it. Ezekiel 47 portrays a river flowing out of the temple in Jerusalem into the desert, filling a wasteland with life-giving fresh water. In Jeremiah 31:2–3, the Lord says “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the Lord appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” Jeremiah goes on to describe the return from Babylonian exile as a second exodus, another crossing of the desert to enter into the promised land. God promises to meet his people in the wilderness.
The New Testament continues this theme. Last week we considered what it meant to be God’s royal priesthood as described in 1 Peter 2. In that same chapter, Peter describes Christians as “sojourners and exiles.” We, too, are in the wilderness. We have been delivered from the slavery and oppression of sin and are headed toward the promised land, the new heavens and new earth. The Christian life often feels like being a sheep wandering in the desert, with little sustenance and dangers all around. Left to ourselves we have no guarantee of safety. For those of us charged with leading our fellow believers — whether we be pastors, ministry volunteers, mentors, parents, older siblings, or any other leadership role — we often feel unequipped and overwhelmed. The good news is, we have a Good Shepherd leading us.
In the classic devotional work The Valley of Vision, Arthur Bennett crafts and compiles a collection of Puritan prayers. The opening prayer of the book, also titled “The Valley of Vision,” speaks directly to the paradoxical nature of the wilderness for believers. It is a place of desperation and provision, isolation and communion, danger and safety. Meditate on this prayer as you process your own wilderness rest.
Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,
Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold thy glory.
Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.
Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine;
Let me find thy light in my darkness, thy life in my death,
thy joy in my sorrow, thy grace in my sin,
thy riches in my poverty thy glory in my valley.
(“The Valley of Vision” by Arthur Bennett)
1 William Lane, The Gospel of Mark, NICNT. 232.
2 Lane, Gospel, 231.
3 Mark records Jesus’ words in Greek as θαρσεῖτε, ἐγώ εἰμι, which woodenly translate to “Be brave, I am.”
4 In Hebrew, the same root is used for the words “to be brave” and “to harden” (חזק). Though he writes in Greek, Mark might be incorporating Hebrew word play in his retelling of this event. The disciples were called to be brave, but instead were hardened in heart.