FEEDING FIVE THOUSAND
Jesus’ twelve disciples have just returned from their first solo mission trip. He sent them out in pairs to spread the Good News about Yahweh’s change in Covenant. Of course it doesn’t really sound like good news to Old Covenant Jews—it sounds more like outrageous blasphemy. But since Jesus’ boys are also cranking out the healing miracles, no one is complaining too loudly. After all, though they claim to be ardent followers of Yahweh, most of the Jews in Israel at this time really don’t care about Yahweh at all. Judaism is just their national religion—an expression of patriotism.
Now when the twelve come back with the depressing news that John the Baptist has been beheaded by Herod, Jesus suggests that they all get away for some downtime. Sounds good. But thirteen miracle workers have a hard time disappearing in the days where walking was the main mode of transportation. Sailing out across the Sea of Galilee is a guaranteed way to get a minute of peace, but as soon as Jesus and His boys pull up to shore on the other side of the lake, a huge mob is already waiting for them.
Now Jesus has intentionally picked a desolate place—somewhere that’s far from any cities or towns where supplies could be bought. In their eagerness to meet up with the supposed Messiah, this crowd has arrived unprepared for a long visit. After watching Him preach and heal for hours, Jesus’ disciples point out that it’s getting late and the crowd needs to be sent on their way so they can make it to some of the local villages before dark.
But Jesus said, “You feed them.”
“With what?” they protested. “We’d have to work for months to earn enough money to buy food for all these people!” (Mk. 6:37)
Jesus can always be counted on to say something unhelpful. While the disciples are feeling frustrated, Andrew looks around and notices one boy has five loaves of bread and two fish with him. Well, whoopee. This is a crowd of about 5,000 people.
So why did Jesus tell His boys to feed this mob? Was He really serious? Yes, He was. Let’s remember the timing. The disciples have just experienced God performing a ton of miracles through them when Jesus wasn’t even around. The mission trip Jesus sent them on was supposed to be a faith building exercise. But as soon as His boys get back within visual range of Him, their faith fizzles and they lose all interest in their personal growth. Jesus is not pleased with the fact that they expect Him to constantly bail them out instead of opening their minds to new possibilities. But since they’re so clearly not in the mood to work, He miraculously multiplies the loaves and fishes to take care of the hungry mob. When everyone is full, there are twelve baskets of leftovers. The crowd is impressed, but the disciples have missed an important opportunity to stretch their faith.
Now let’s take a moment to consider how Jesus looks to the average Jewish citizen who is hoping and praying that Yahweh will deliver Israel from the power of Rome. Jesus heals people. Jesus raises people from the dead. And now He just created food out of thin air. Imagine what a fabulous help Jesus could be on the battlefield. The Israelite army would never run out of food. Fallen soldiers would be instantly revived. Even Rome couldn’t stand up against such power. This mob suddenly decides that it’s time to make a bold move for Israel.
When the people saw Him do this miraculous sign, they exclaimed, “Surely, He is the Prophet we have been expecting!” When Jesus saw that they were ready to force Him to be their king, He slipped away into the hills by Himself. (Jn. 6:14-15)
How do you “slip away” with 5,000 people watching your every move? It’s always miraculous when Jesus manages to get away by Himself and right now He’s decided to take a break from the company of other humans.
WALKING ON WATER
While Jesus is off communing with Yahweh and the Holy Spirit, the disciples are entertaining themselves out on the Sea of Galilee. Drifting about in a boat is relaxing until a storm suddenly whips up when they are a long way from shore. Suddenly the disciples are fighting for their lives, straining at the oars, getting tossed about by the waves. We’re told that it’s the fourth watch of the night—which means sometime between 3 and 6 a.m.—when suddenly they see Jesus strolling towards them on the water. Mark’s description of this scene is priceless.
Seeing them straining at the oars, for the wind was against them, at about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea; and He intended to pass by them. (Mk. 6:48)
This is classic Jesus behavior. He comes strolling out onto the choppy waters acting like He’s going to walk right past them as if they’re not even there. Such indifferent behavior doesn’t at all fit with the warm, loving Jesus you’re always hearing about in church, does it? But this is how the real Jesus behaved on earth: He was difficult, derogatory, and constantly looking for ways to upset His disciples. And let’s remember that the four Gospel books were written by Jesus’ fans, not His enemies. Naturally they would have tried to present Him in the best possible light, yet still He comes across as such a frosty Fellow. How could anyone bond with Jesus when He was so standoffish? Yet was all the resistance on Jesus’ side, or were the disciples doing their part to keep Him at arm’s length? Mark makes an interesting comment.
When they saw Him walking on the water, they cried out in terror, thinking He was a ghost. They were all terrified when they saw Him.
But Jesus spoke to them at once. “Don’t be afraid,” He said. “Take courage! It’s Me! Don’t be afraid!” Then He got into the boat with them, and the wind stopped; and they were utterly astonished, for they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves because their hearts were too hardened. (Mk. 6:49-52)
We’re going to find the theme of the disciples’ hardened hearts coming up all throughout the Gospels. In the Church today, you’re taught to look up to those original twelve as great spiritual role models (except for Judas, of course). But when we actually read through the four Gospel accounts, we don’t find men of great faith being described. Instead we find a God who we know to be very gracious and patient constantly expressing His exasperation with His followers’ lack of spiritual progress.
Now in Matthew’s account of this same event, we receive some extra detail that is well known to many of us.
When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out for fear.
But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid.”
Then Peter called out, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.”
So Jesus said, “Come.” And when Peter climbed out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, Peter was afraid and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”
Immediately Jesus reached out and caught Peter. “O you of little faith,” He said. “Why did you doubt?” Then they climbed into the boat, and the wind ceased.
Then those who were in the boat worshiped Jesus, saying, “Truly You are the Son of God.” (Matt. 14:26-33)
The story of Peter walking on water has been preached countless times. Often Peter is praised for his great courage and faith. Often it’s pointed out that he’s the only one who dared to get out of the boat. And since most of us have never experienced the miracles Peter has, his actions sound very exemplary indeed. But were they?
The more God gives us, the more He expects from us. Peter can’t be compared to your average modern day believer who has never walked around with God in human form. By now, Peter has seen countless miracles. He has seen Jesus raise people from the dead, heal all manner of diseases, drive out demons, and demonstrate His control over the weather. Just a few hours ago, Peter watched Jesus feed 5,000 people with a few loaves and fishes. So what’s with this sudden refusal to believe that Jesus can keep Peter’s feet on top of the water molecules? Such weak faith is appropriate for someone who hasn’t received Peter’s training. You don’t expect a three year old child to color inside the lines. But if you tell an adult to stay inside the lines and instead he scribbles all over the place, you’re going to suspect that willful defiance is the reason, not a lack of motor skills.
Jesus’ crisp snap at Peter is not the unreasonable thing that it sounds like to us. Remember that Peter has just returned from his first mission trip, during which he experienced God doing all kinds of miracles through him. Peter sank because Peter was refusing to apply the resources God had already given him—this is why Jesus is so impatient with him. And Peter is going to keep on refusing to grow as time goes on. Don’t let this impromptu worship session in the boat fool you—this is about as meaningful as idolatrous Israel singing Yahweh’s praises in the Old Testament after He has just rescued her from her enemies. It’s shallow and adrenaline driven. If these men really believed that Jesus was Yahweh’s Peer—which is what Jesus meant by using the the title Son of God—then they would treat Him a lot differently.
Or would they?
Today we Christians claim to know the real Gods, yet are we acting like it? How easily we toss out the phrase, “God created everything from nothing,” yet when’s the last time we thought about what such a statement implies? How awesome and powerful must our Creators be to make everything from nothing. If this is what we really believe, where is our reverence? We claim that Jesus is our Lord and King, but every time we open our mouths to pray, we’re bossing Him around. “Do this. Do that. Heal her. Help him.” We love to talk about serving, but do we even know what the word means? How long would you keep a servant who talked to you the way you talk to your Creators? When God asks us to do something, so often the first thing we do is criticize. “But God, this isn’t the right time for that. But God, I’m not equipped. But God, that strategy isn’t going to work at all. If You really want this ministry to thrive, let me handle it. After all, I’ve read a lot of books on the subject.”
Studying the way Jesus’ disciples interact with Him gives us a sobering picture of how being physically close to God doesn’t do anything to improve our spiritual connection with Him. Today Christians crave sensual feedback from God—they want to feel Him drawing near, hear His Voice in their minds, feel some surge of adrenaline rush through their veins. This is only natural—we’re souls stuck in sensual earthsuits. We’re used to relying on our senses to confirm reality to us and we simply refuse to believe God when He says that He can’t be found through sensual channels. Yet look at the disciples. They could touch, see, and hear Jesus. They slept and ate beside Him. They traveled with Him. Following Him around was their whole life for a good three years, yet did this constant diet of sensual confirmation propel them down the road of spiritual maturity? Not hardly. Instead of thriving, we’re going to see these men stagnate. Now and then they’ll declare that Jesus is Lord when they’re feeling some surge of excitement or when they’ve been blown away by some wild show like the Transfiguration. But none of them will really believe He is God until they’ve been totally cut off from His physical Presence. Though He’ll predict His death and resurrection many times, none of them will be prepared for it. None of them will expect Him to come back to life. And even as they stand with His resurrected Self on a mountainside receiving that famous Great Commission, some will secretly be doubting that He is who He says He is. If sensuality is as fabulous as we think it is, why do these men remain such spiritual numskulls when they are being bathed in sensual feedback 24/7? How come it’s always some outsider who is outshining everyone in the faith department—guys like the Roman centurion from Lesson 51? It’s so rare to hear Jesus praise someone for their great faith, and those compliments are always going out to those who aren’t close up to Jesus—those who have had to do the work of faith apart from all the warm fuzzies we’re so busy chasing today.
If we are serious about growing closer to God, we need to stop kicking and screaming and running away the moment He starts trying to haul us into some spiritual valley. The valleys we loathe so much are what make intimacy with God possible. To grow strong, faith must learn to stand in the face of no sensual confirmation and it must learn to stand in the face of countering feedback. When we go into our griping meltdowns the moment God shuts down on us–when we accuse Him of not caring about us because He refuses to commune with us in sensual ways–we are talking like blind fools. And indeed, blind fools are what we are at first, but God wants to grow us past this. He wants to give us the very thing we are constantly pleading for: a closer walk with Him. But it must be done His way using the methods that He knows will work. If we refuse to cooperate with Him, no amount of warm fuzzies will ever be able to compensate for what we’re missing out on.
Today many Christians wistfully sigh and say that they wish they could have lived in the days when Jesus walked on earth. They say this because they think being able to touch and see Jesus would magically transport them into some state of intimate soul communion with Him. But no, it wouldn’t. You ought to be thanking God that He didn’t set you down on the earth in Jesus’ time. You’re much better off where you are today: with no hands on access to one of your Creators. You’re much better off being forced to do the work of faith, and if you’re currently going through some hellish valley season, you need to open your eyes and recognize the great gift God is giving you. You’re a thousand times better off than all these spiritual infants who are running from one manufactured high to the next. Real intimacy with your Creators costs. It is extremely expensive, but They are worth it. So when you see Peter playing “I just can’t do it” games with Jesus on the Sea of Galilee, don’t be impressed with his great faith. In reality his faith was a pathetic, shriveled up thing compared to what it could have been if he’d been willing to do the work and actually use the many growth opportunities Jesus kept throwing at him. And before you accuse Jesus of having unreasonable expectations, remember who He is: our gracious Creator who never overestimates our abilities and who is ever patient and encouraging with those who are sincerely seeking Him. Our Gods always respond to our hearts. When They sound annoyed, They have good reason to be.
As the sun rises, the miracle seeking multitude returns to the seashore to try and find Jesus. But Jesus and His disciples are nowhere to be found. A great manhunt begins, and the people jump into some boats to start checking likely spots along the sea’s coastline where Jesus had been found before. When their first hunch is a flop, they head on to Jesus’ home base of Capernaum. There they find Him. Good. Let’s have some miracles—maybe some more free bread. This crowd is just looking for free goodies. Jesus knows it and He isn’t pleased. Such carnal priorities will land these people in Hell. It’s time for a lecture on faith.
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