Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Feeding of the Five Thousand

This morning, I was reading the accounts of the feeding of the multitudes recorded in the Gospels (HT: Dan Phillips), and I ran across something that I had not noticed before.

Mark 6:34-44 says:

34 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things. 35 By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. "This is a remote place," they said, "and it's already very late. 36 Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat." 37 But he answered, "You give them something to eat." They said to him, "That would take eight months of a man's wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?" 38 "How many loaves do you have?" he asked. "Go and see." When they found out, they said, "Five--and two fish." 39 Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties. 41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. 42 They all ate and were satisfied, 43 and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. 44 The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.

Read that through again. I will give you a hint: it is a single word, and an earlier verse in this passage makes me think it is a proper observation.

Now that you've read it again...

Mark 6:34- "When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd."

Mark 6:39- "Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass."

Green grass...doesn't it make you stop and think a bit? Could it be that Mark, after telling us that Jesus saw the multitudes as sheep without a shepherd, that he suggests shepherd imagery again in verse 39, for Psalm 23:2 says, "He makes me lie down in green pastures."

Kim Riddlebarger picks up on this imagery and states:

What seems to set this miracle then apart from the others Mark has just covered is that Jesus called the people into the wilderness, knowing that there would not be enough food. He also specifically assigns to the disciples the responsibility of feeding the people. Jesus is clearly making a point. While the twelve do not yet see nor understand the significance of this–and their attitude of incredulity reveals that they are still struggling with Jesus’ identity–they will soon learn why Jesus has brought these things to pass.

Jesus is clearly in control of the situation. As we read in verses 39-40, “Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties.” The imagery of green grass has troubled many–how could there be green grass in the wilderness? Well, the fact that Mark mentions that the grass was green certainly indicates that his source for this information was present when this miracle occurred–probably Peter. For one thing, the wilderness area is not necessarily a desert area. It could have been Spring when the hills were green from rain. Jesus could have led them to an area naturally irrigated by springs, as there is no mention here of a shortage of water. But what is most significant about the green grass is its redemptive-historical symbolism.

God’s people will find rest in the wilderness, and the green grass implies that God’s glory can transform the arid places. This was a theme throughout the prophets, especially in Ezekiel 34:26-29. It is also the image invoked by the famous “shepherd Psalm,” Psalm 23. It is the Lord who causes his weary people to recline in green pastures. The whole scene cries out, “new Exodus,” especially when read in the backdrop of Exodus 16, our Old Testament lesson. God was about to provide his people with food in the desert. The scene is not only loaded with images from the wilderness journey, it is also messianic. That which the prophets had foretold was even then coming to pass. God would feed his people in the wilderness and join in a fellowship meal with them. Furthermore, they will lie down in green pastures.

William Lane writes the following:

At the command of Jesus the vast gathering was constituted into table-companies in preparation for the meal. Two details of the Marcan account are narrowly related to the wilderness motif noted in verses 30-34. 1. The reference to the "green grass" is not in contradiction to the description of the locale as "wilderness." The concept of the wilderness is broad enough to include pastures sufficient for the grazing of flocks, particularly after the winter rains. Yet the vivid description is most intelligible when read in the larger context provided by the introduction to the feeding narrative. The transformation of the desert into a place of refreshment and life through the power of God is an aspect of the wilderness tradition which is prominent in the prophets. By divine intervention the land of curse will become fat pastures where the sheep will be gathered and fed by the true shepherd (Eze. 34:26f.,29). The Lord who causes his people to recline in green pastures (Ps. 23:1) evokes the shepherd imagery of verse 34 and implies that the wilderness is already being changed into the land of fertility and rest.

Here is a good sermon on God's provision in the wilderness by Reformed Baptist pastor Brian Borgman. He is the one who wrote My Heart for Thy Cause: Albert N. Martin's Theology of Preaching


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