“They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand”(Mark 6:42-44, NIV). The preceding scripture is the culmination of one of Jesus’ most famous miracles, but what if the incident had less to do with the five thousand and more to do with the disciples? In order to get the whole story, we have to go back several verses.
In summary, prior to feeding the five thousand, the disciples recently returned from being sent out by Jesus. They were excited and tired all at the same time. Can you imagine the reunion taking place as they share their reports and tales from the road? That’s not all, the scripture tells us that people followed them back, “Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest”” (Mark 6:31, NIV). Jesus recognized their need for rest.
All too often we become weary and hungry in ministry. We get excited about the things that God is doing, and rejoice in our time with Him as we pray in the afterglow of a successful event. Then, sooner or later, that glow wears off. We need to rest and nourish our spiritual needs. Jesus recognized this in the life of His disciples and began making provision for them. Then something completely unexpected happened: people.
32 So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. 33 But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 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. (Mark 6:32-34, NIV)
When confronted with people who were needy, Jesus chose the needy people seeking Him over the needy people who already had Him. So the disciples are hungry and tired, and here goes Jesus into one of those extended teaching and healing sessions. So they do what we all tend to do, come up with a way to remove the distraction. But Jesus isn’t just teaching the people, he’s also teaching the disciples.
At this point, Jesus performs the feeding miracle and uses the disciples to deliver the food to the people. The tired, hungry disciples have to serve five thousand men plus all the women and children. I’m sure at some point there was some grumbling, even if it was in the midst of a miracle. The account ends there and Mark doesn’t give any further thought to it.
After the feeding is complete, Jesus recognizes there’s still a need for rest for the disciples. He then send them off across the water again. This time he stays behind to finish up with the crowd. Here we read the account of Jesus walking on water to the boat. The same account where Peter gets out of the boat to walk toward Him. Notice the insight that Mark gives at the end of the water-walking account.
51 Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, 52 for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. (Mark 6:51-52, NIV)
Jesus was trying to teach the disciples something with the feeding of the five thousand. Mark doesn’t give us any more insight into what they’ve missed. However, John also gives an account of these events, and he continues where Mark left off. In John 6:22-40, Jesus explains that the bread is symbolic of Him, and that it represents the Bread of Life, from heaven. Now, consider what he might have been teaching the disciples. The disciples were tired and hungry, but Jesus was showing them it was more important to bring the Bread of Life to the people in that specific divinely-appointed moment, than it was for them to rest.
The disciples missed it. They missed how the people were spiritually, and physically, needy for Jesus. They didn’t consider how Jesus could have fed those people without the aid of the disciples. They didn’t consider Jesus was pouring Himself out for those in the most desperate need through His disciples. He intentionally used them in the midst of their fatigue to serve His people the very thing they needed most.
How often do we, as Christians, grumble in our spiritual, and even physical, fatigue when God is seeking to use us to administer the Bread of Life to those who need it most? We can all learn a lesson from the feeding of the five thousand. Don’t interfere with divine appointments by placing ourselves above those whom Christ is bringing to Himself.