Does anybody here remember when tents were simple? There was a time when, if you wanted to go camping and you went to the store to buy a tent, they only came in one style: a simple two-man pup tent – two poles, some canvas, and a few pegs for the ropes. But that is no longer the case. Now we have Modified A-Frames and Cabin Styles and Umbrella Frames and Geodesic Domes. Camping has gone hi-tech.
Unfortunately, hi-tech camping tends to be complicated. You just about have to have an engineering degree to put up one of these tents for the first time. And if you arrive late and you have to put up your tent in the dark or during a thunderstorm, you might as well just plan to get a hotel room for the night (some of you are saying, “That’s what I would have done in the first place!”)
The key, though, to putting up a tent is to get the frame right. Once you understand the structure of a tent, everything else takes care of itself. You put the frame together correctly, and the result is going to be a well-built shelter.
And that’s the way it is with the gospels. At first, they may look like just a collection of stories about the life of Christ. But the more you understand about them, the more depth there is in the gospels. There are themes and counter-themes, motifs and foreshadowings and symbols.
The key to the gospels, though, just like with tents, is to get the frame right. Once you understand the structure of a gospel, everything else begins to take care of itself. What may seem like disconnected stories begin to take on a beautiful unity that leads to some powerful insights into Jesus and the meaning of discipleship.
So, this is a good time for us to go back and do an overview of the first half of the gospel of Mark.
As you may recall, Mark begins his gospel in chapter one by showing us that Jesus is the Messiah (1:1-13) — John the Baptist says it, God the Father says it. What’s interesting is that Mark gives us the answer before he gives us the question. You could say that Mark was the forerunner of the Jeopardy game show. “Mark, I’ll take ‘Important Historical Figures’ for 1000.” The answer is, “Messiah, the Son of God.” <<bing, bing, bing, bing, bing>> “Mark, that would be Jesus.” “I’m sorry, your answer must be in the form of a question. The correct answer is, ‘Who is Jesus?’”
And, of course, I’m being a bit facetious, but that‘s exactly what Mark does. He starts off by telling us that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and then he raises the question, “Who is Jesus?” as he works his way back to that point. Mark shows us some of the initial reactions to Jesus in chapters 1-3. He shows us that Jesus was popular, but he was also controversial.
Then Mark shows us in chapter 4 that the different reactions to Jesus were determined by people’s hearts — remember the parable of the soils? It makes sense that different people would react differently to Jesus, and so it’s important that we have the right kind of heart.
Those different reactions begin to intensify as we come into chapter 5. There is more and acceptance of Jesus, and there is more and more rejection, and there is a great debate over Jesus’ identity. Last week, we saw that Jesus showed his great power — power over nature, power over disease, power over death and power over Satan himself, and, as I pointed out, the question, “What kind of man does such things?” seems to be the focus of this section.
After all of that, it may surprise you to find that, after everything they’ve seen, even the apostles still don’t really understand who Jesus is, and that’s what we want to look at this morning, beginning in Mark 6:30.
I mentioned earlier that the old-style tents have only two poles. Well, the two “poles” that hold up this section of Mark are the two accounts about the feeding of the multitudes. There is the feeding of the 5,000 in Mark chapter 6, and then there is the feeding of the 4,000 in Mark chapter 8.
To get started, let’s just read through both of these accounts.
Mark 6:30-44: “The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves.
“Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.
“And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.’ But [Jesus] answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ And they said to him, ‘Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?’
“And he said to them, ‘How many loaves do you have? Go and see.’ And when they had found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’ Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all.
“And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.”
Just a side note — this may be considered one of Jesus’ most important miracles, because it is the only miracle Jesus performed that is recorded in all four of the gospels.
Now let’s read the story of the feeding of the multitudes in Mark chapter 8, and I want you to try to notice both the similarities and the differences in these two stories.
Mark 8:1-9: “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, ‘I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. 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.’
“And his disciples answered him, ‘How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?’ And he asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ They said, ‘Seven.’ 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.
“And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people.”
Notice the similarities between these two events. In both cases, a large crowd gathered. In both cases, it happened in a “desolate place”. In both passages, it specifically says Jesus had “compassion” on the crowd. In both passages, Jesus asked his disciples the question, “How many loaves do you have?” and both times their response involved a few loaves and a few fish. In both passages, the people sat down, Jesus took the loaves and fish, gave thanks, broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to give to the people. In both passages, everyone ate and was satisfied, leftovers were gathered up, and the number of men is given to us.
You’ve got to agree there are a lot of similarities. There are also some differences, but they almost seem insignificant in view of how many similarities there are. Yes, the first feeding involved Jews, the second involved Gentiles. The first feeding took place after one day, while the second feeding took place after the crowd had been with Jesus three days. In the first feeding, it was the disciples who first mentioned food, while in the second feeding it is Jesus who brings up the subject of food. There are five loaves in the first feeding, seven loaves in the second. Twelve baskets of leftovers compared with seven baskets.
There are some differences but these two stories are so similar, you’ve got to wonder why Mark devoted so much space to such similar accounts? The gospel of Mark is short enough as it is! It is, by far, the shortest of all the gospels. And here, Mark seems to be duplicating himself! Why would he go to the trouble of writing down both of these stories? Well, as someone has put it, there is buried treasure lying here if only we will dig a bit.
I think Mark’s point in the first miracle is this – Jesus has tremendous power. But his point in the second miracle is this — the disciples just don’t seem to get it! Now, that’s nothing new. We’ve seen this before. Jesus rebuked the disciples for failing to understand his parables in chapter 4. And then, when Jesus calmed the storm, he rebuked his disciples for not having any faith.
Now, let’s notice what happened right after the feeding of the 5,000, the first miraculous feeding. In chapter 6, beginning with verse 45, “Immediately [Jesus] made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land.
“And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’ And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased.” (Mark 6:45-51)
So, there is this strong wind blowing and the disciples are trying to row across the Sea of Galilee. It’s the middle of the night, they see something very unusual — Jesus is walking on the water. But, at first, the disciples don’t recognize him — they think it’s a ghost, and they react just like you would expect for them to react – they’re terrified. But then Jesus identifies himself and calms both them and the storm.
But I want you to notice carefully what Mark tells us in verse 52: “And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”
The explanation Mark gives us for their fear and amazement wasn’t their fatigue. He could have said, “They were so tired that they couldn’t hardly even think straight, much less make sense out of what was going on.” No! And his explanation didn’t have anything to do with the strangeness of what they saw. Mark could have said, “The disciples were terrified because they had never seen anything like this before in their lives!”
But no! Mark tells us that the reason the disciples were afraid, the reason they were amazed, is because they didn’t understand about the loaves and, because they didn’t understand what happened back there with the loaves and the fish, they were amazed that Jesus could walk on water. The implication seems to be that if they had understood about the loaves, then they wouldn’t have been quite so amazed.
Chapter 7 continues to show us that the disciples still don’t understand the teachings of Christ. There’s a controversy with the Pharisees over hand-washing in the first 13 verses. Then in verse 14, “He called the people to him again and said to them, ‘Hear me, all of you, and understand: There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.’”
Which doesn’t sound all that difficult to understand. But, in verse 17, “When he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, ‘Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’” (Mark 7:14-19)
Jesus rebukes his disciples for their lack of understanding. In the Greek language, he calls them asunetos. It’s a Greek word that describes a person who fails to structure information in a meaningful way, and is therefore unable to reach the proper conclusion. In other words, Jesus was saying, “You guys just don’t get it!”
And so, when we come to the second feeding in Mark 8, Mark seems to be pointing out the fact that the disciples didn’t remember the lessons that Jesus had already taught them back at the first feeding!
It’s like déjà vu all over again. The two events were so similar, the disciples surely must have remembered the first feeding. And you would expect that when they had these 4000 hungry people, they would react this time with calmness and confidence — after all, they were with the Son of God who had already shown them that he could feed 5000 people with just a handful of food.
But the disciples didn’t respond any better the second time — they still don’t know where they’re going to get enough bread to feed such a large group. And it seems to me the point of the second feeding is not so much to show us the power of Jesus, as it is to point out to us just how slow the disciples were to really understand what Jesus could do.
Twice in these three chapters, we read that the disciples had hardened hearts. That’s the kind of language we’re used to hearing when Jesus is talking about the Pharisees. We know they were hard-hearted, but Jesus’ disciples?
The difference, though, is that the Pharisees were deliberately dense. In verse 11, they asked for a sign from Jesus. They said, “Jesus, prove to us who you are.” Excuse me! They already had a tremendous amount of evidence. They had seen it with their own eyes and they had heard the reports of the marvelous things Jesus was doing. Jesus has healed the sick, including lepers, cast out demons, raised the dead, calmed the storm, walked on water, made food multiply, and the Pharisees have the audacity to say, “We just need a little more proof before we’re willing to believe.”
What they had seen and heard still wasn’t enough. And, the truth is, nothing Jesus could say or do would ever convince them. Even at the cross, they’re going to insist on just one more sign – if Jesus would down from the cross, then they would believe. Nonsense!
It’s obvious that the Pharisees didn’t believe because they refused to believe. They made the deliberate decision to reject Jesus.
On the other hand, the disciples were simply dense. While Jesus is talking with them about the bread of the Pharisees, Jesus says:
“‘Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?’ They said to him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?’ And they said to him, ‘Seven.’ And he said to them, ‘Do you not yet understand?’” (Mark 8:17-21)
This is one of the few times where Jesus seems to be on the verge of losing his patience. Jesus is saying, “Come on, guys, don’t you get it yet?” The disciples are still worried about whether or not they have enough bread. How much do they need to see before they realize that Jesus can make bread any time he wants to. Come on, guys. Don’t you remember what happened out there with the 5000? Don’t you remember what happened out there with the 4000? “Do you still not understand?”
Now, I don’t want to too hard on the disciples. It’s not my intent this morning to focus on how slow they were and put them down. Because I realize there’s a danger, if we’re not careful, that we might feel superior to the disciples, thinking we would have been more dedicated, we would have been more perceptive, we would have been more faithful than they were if we had walked with Jesus.
But, the truth of the matter is, we act the same way they did. And we are all in danger of missing the call of Christ not because of our love for evil but out of a lack of listening and understanding.
I heard a story about something that supposedly took place back when the telegraph was the fastest way to communicate long distance. There was a young man who applied for a job as a Morse code operator.
He answered an ad in the newspaper, and went to the address that was listed in the ad. When he got there, he entered a waiting room filled with noise and clatter, including the sound of the telegraph in the background.
There was a sign on the receptionist’s counter that instructed the applicants to fill out a form and wait until they were called to enter the office. The young man filled out his form and sat down with seven other applicants in the waiting area.
After a few minutes, the young man stood up, crossed the room to the door of the office, and walked right in. Naturally the other applicants perked up, wondering what was going on. They muttered among themselves that they hadn’t heard anybody call for them yet. They assumed that the young man who went into the office made a mistake and he would be disqualified.
But, a few minutes later, the employer escorted the young man out of the office and said to the other applicants, “Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming, but the job has just been filled.”
They began grumbling to each other, and one of them spoke up and said, “Wait a minute, I don’t understand. He was the last one to come in, and we never even got a chance to be interviewed. Yet he got the job. That’s not fair!”
The employer said, “I’m sorry, but all the time you’ve been sitting here, the telegraph has been ticking out the following message in Morse code: ‘If you understand this message, then come right in. The job is yours.’ None of you heard it or understood it. This young man did. The job is his.”
You see, the question for us is not just, “Do you hear the message of the gospel?” We all hear it. We can’t help but hear it. The question is, “Do we really understand it?” Do we really understand what these passages are teaching us about the power of Jesus and his ability to take care of us?
The truth is, we don’t understand any better than the disciples did. How do I know that? Because we constantly find ourselves asking the same question they did, “Where in the world are we going to find enough bread for this huge crowd?”
Oh, I know, we don’t use those exact words. More often it goes something like this — “How can God possibly take care of me in this crisis that I’m facing? What am I going to do? Things are terrible and I don’t know how I’m going to cope!” And every challenge we face, there is a tendency for us to forget what God has done for us so many times before and we show our continuing lack of faith.
And even if someone points out to us, “Don’t you remember when God was there for you when you lost your job, and he was there for you when you were diagnosed with cancer and he was there for you when your mother passed away?” Our typical reaction is to say, “Yes, but I just don’t know how I’m going to get through this crisis!”
And I can just imagine Jesus shaking his head and saying, “Will they never understand? What will it take before it gets through that thick head of theirs?” And then when things do work out in our lives again, we are amazed all over again — because we don’t understand about the loaves. We hear the stories in the gospels, we see the evidence of his power in our lives over and over again, but we really don’t understand.
May we all keep open hearts as we strive to learn, as we see the power of God working in us, through us, and around us, and may we develop a confidence of faith that says, “I’m not worried about what I’m going through, or whatever lies ahead. God has proven himself over and over again, and I’m confident that he is quite capable of meeting my needs!