Lessons from the Loaves

Mark’s gospel records Jesus feeding the five thousand (Mark 6:35-44) and the four thousand (Mark 8:1-9). Immediately following both instances, Jesus got into a boat with his disciples and rebuked them for their lack of faith and understanding. First, after feeding the five thousand, the disciples were rowing across the sea at night in a storm and were frightened by the sight of Jesus walking on the water. When Jesus entered the boat the wind stopped immediately. Mark records the disciples’ response: “they were utterly astonished, for they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, but their heart was hardened” (Mark 6:51-52).

Likewise, after the feeding of the four thousand Jesus warned the disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod. Apparently, the disciples took him literally because they began to discuss the fact with one another that they had no bread. Jesus then rebuked their misunderstanding: “Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet see or understand? Do you have a hardened heart?...And do you not remember, when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces you picked up?” (Mark 8:17-18).

Consider for a moment three lessons we can take from these two incidents.

1. God expects us to think and draw logical conclusions from His word. Jesus’ rebuke (“Do you not yet see or understand?”) implies the disciples should have learned something from the amazing miracles Jesus had performed, especially since they had been personally involved in distributing the food and collecting the leftovers (Mark 6:41; 8:6). This reminds me of another question Jesus asked, this time of the Sadducees, regarding the resurrection: “Have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the burning bush? ...He is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Mark 12:26). Anyone who believes “necessary inference” is a man-made method of discerning God’s will needs to revisit this section of Mark’s gospel. We also should consider that God requires a mature, discerning mind to know what qualifies as “things like these” in addition to the deeds of the flesh listed in Galatians 5:19-21.

2. Jesus’ miracles had (and have) a distinct teaching purpose. Jesus did not feed more than nine thousand people for sheer “wow effect.” In fact, Mark records no amazed reaction by the crowds after either feeding, though he does with other miracles (see Mark 1:27; 2:12; 5:20). Instead, Jesus wanted His miracles to teach something about who He is and why He came. Perhaps this is why Jesus refused to satisfy the Pharisees’ request for a sign; He knew they were not seeking to learn anything, but wanted to catch Him in a trap (Mark 8:11-12). How do Jesus’ miracles compare with the “healing shows” seen on TV today? One only needs to ask, “What are your miracles trying to teach me? Or are they merely trying to impress me?” Certainly awe this is the proper response to Jesus’ power; but miracles were performed to create lasting faith, not merely arouse man’s fickle emotions.

3. Our ability to discern what God is teaching us is affected by the condition of our hearts. After both feeding instances, Jesus directly attributed the disciples’ lack of understanding to the hardness of their hearts (Mark 6:52; 8:17-18). The disciples couldn’t understand because their hearts were not quite ready to receive Jesus’ teaching; their sight was too blind, hearing too dull, and memories too short. Let this be a warning to us: it’s not just the reprobate unbelievers who have hardened hearts (Mark 4:11-12); we too can fall victim to the same thickness of skull (Mark 8:18). Hebrews warns of this when it says, “Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing” (Heb. 5:11). Are we too distracted by the cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, or the pleasures of this life to receive and understand what God’s word says?

Sometimes we may ask, “How could the disciples overlook the obvious?” It sure seems like they were so dense! Then again, so are we. Not much has changed since then. Finally, then, we should take comfort in the fact that Jesus was very patient with His hard-headed disciples. He rebuked them, yes, but He also instructed them further, giving them time to grow. How grateful we must be for Jesus’ patience with us!