The incident of feeding the multitudes is recorded in all four Gospels, and is clearly considered by the witnesses of Christ’s ministry to be very important. And as we consider the meaning God has written for us here it is crucial for us to note the context.
“And he said unto them, Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while . . .” (Mark 6:1-44)
This narrative does not stand alone, by any means. There is a marked contrast — remember that this banquet in the wilderness is set in stark opposition to the royal banquet of Herod, just concluded. One was in a palace, the other in the wilderness. One was sumptuous fare, and the other fish and bread. One was presided over by a grasping king, the other by a shepherd king. In the former, a saint of God was devoured. In the latter, the saints of God were fed.
The disciples had just returned from their preaching tour, and Christ considered that they needed rest, but the place they were was so mobbed that they could not even eat (v. 31). The disciples must have been looking forward to their rest (v. 32).
It is in this context that find a new nation, and new food, both of which are Christ Himself. The crowds figured out where Jesus was going, and hastened there before Him on foot (v. 33). The disciples were ready for their rest, but it was not to be. The shore they approached looked like the one they left. When Christ saw the people, He was compassionate to them. He taught them many things, acting as their true shepherd (v.34). This was necessary for they were like sheep without a shepherd. They had a king (remember Herod?), but he was no shepherd. In this, the Lord fulfilled the Scriptures. “Which may go out before them, and which may go in before them, and which may lead them out, and which may bring them in; that the congregation of the Lord be not as sheep which have no shepherd” (Num. 27:17). “And they were scattered, because there is no shepherd: and they became meat to all the beasts of the field, when they were scattered” (Eze. 34:5). What was the answer? God would shepherd the people Himself, sending a new David (v. 23). And Christ is a new Moses here, feeding the people of God in the wilderness(Num. 11:13,22).
When the day was far spent the disciples were ready for everything to be over (v. 35). Send them all away (v. 36), but the request was at least phrased the right way (vv. 36-37). But Christ tested His disciples, and they were not doing well in the test. He told them to feed the people, and they replied, somewhat disrespectfully, “Does He want them to go off and buy mountains of food with mountains of money they don’t have?” Their feet are sore, their heads hurt, and there is no way anyhow.
But the Lord asked them for what they did have, and so they hunted around and got five loaves and two fish (v. 38). He commanded them to have the entire company seated, and they did so in groups of fifty and one hundred (v. 40). They all sat down on the green grass (v. 39) — in the uncultivated countryside, Christ gave both rest and food. Before performing the miracle, Christ blessed the food in the ordinary way, with one exception, that of looking up to heaven (v. 41). As John teaches us, He gave Himself. In the eating, the people were filled (v. 42).
There were twelves baskets left over, so consider the number. Christ chose twelve disciples, clearly the foundation of a New Israel. But the Israel of God, the old Israel, was in a bad way. The woman in the previous chapter had been sick for twelve years. The girl raised from the dead was twelve years old. The leftovers from this miracle filled up twelve baskets, and they were not just any old baskets. Each basket was called a cophinus, and was part of a Jew’s daily attire. Each disciple filled his up. Christ gathered a multitude in the wilderness, He fed them, and there was a surplus afterward.
And we even learn something from the leftovers. “And when Jesus knew it, he saith unto them, Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? perceive ye not yet, neither understand? have ye your heart yet hardened?” (Mark 8:17). We know that the leftovers had symbolic significance because Christ rebukes the disciples for not understanding it. The meaning of all this was the creation of a new Israel in the wilderness, with all their needs provided for.
But we should also consider why the disciples’ hearts were hard. The miracle was done in the presence of the five thousand, but the five thousand did not see it. The ones who saw were the disciples. And yet they were in no condition to understand what had been done before their eyes. And why? They had ministered as commanded, and they were tired, Jesus even said so, and had sought to provide them with rest and food. But the selfish multitude intervened, getting between the disciples and their getaway, and the disciples were annoyed. Because they were annoyed, they missed a tremendous blessing from heaven.