Why did Jesus feed the 5,000?
Each Gospel writer gives a different answer. In this post, I’ll unpack Mark’s account. I’ll start wide before zooming in on the passage.
In one sense, Mark’s Gospel is the simplest Gospel. It’s the shortest. It’s a to-the-point Gospel. It’s a matter-of-fact Gospel.
In Mark, there’s much more doing than teaching, which is great for those readers who find Jesus’ teaching confusing. The action comes fast (notice the repetition of “immediately” in Mark 1:10, 12, 18, 20, 21, 23, 28, 29, 30, etc.) and hard (people respond strongly: Mark 1:20, 26, 27, 28, 45, etc.).
In another sense, however, Mark is challenging to interpret because he does more showing than telling. His rarely states his point explicitly. For example, compare Mark 8:14-21 with Matthew 16:5-12. Matthew and Mark tell of the same conversation, but only Matthew writes a narrative conclusion for the episode (Matt 16:12). Mark leaves the narrative open, and we must infer Mark’s conclusion from the context and flow of thought.
Mark sneaks his points into the order of events far more subtly than the other Gospel writers do. Interestingly, however, Mark’s versions of parallel episodes usually have more narrative detail than either Matthew or Luke. For example, Matthew and Luke each take only 8 verses to recount the feeding of the 5,000, but Mark stretches the tale to 15 verses. (John gives it 64 verses, but remember that much of that is dedicated to the debate surrounding Jesus’ identity. The feeding itself gets 14 verses in John’s account.)
My point is this: When Matthew, Luke, or John have a point to make, they usually say it. When Mark has a point to make, he prefers to show it.
Mark structures his action-oriented Gospel around the works of Jesus. In the first half of the book, those works involve healing and calling disciples. In the second half, they involve preparing for his death (and, of course, dying).
Early on, Jesus calls four disciples and heals four people (Mark 1:16-2:12). Then he calls one and heals one (Mark 2:13-3:12). Along the way, he establishes his authority over sickness, the Sabbath, the unclean spirits, the forgiveness of sin, and the Jewish traditions.
Then he appoints 12 apostles, redefines his family, and praises those who show faith (Mark 3:13-6:6). He shows what sort of people—those of faith—will comprise his new kingdom.
Then he sends out his duly appointed kingdom representatives. When they return, they struggle to keep the faith they began with, but Jesus will not let them go. He can heal their blindness and make them useful in his kingdom (Mark 6:7-8:30).
Once they get it (Mark 8:29: “You are the Christ”), Mark launches into Part 2 of the book, designed to show them—and us—what sort of Christ Jesus is. This Messiah will usher in God’s new kingdom by his death; his followers must also trod the way of the cross as they come after him.
Here’s an outline:
Introduction: the Kingdom’s call is to repent and believe the gospel—Mark 1:1-15
I. Establishing the Kingdom—Mark 1-8
A. Jesus establishes his authority—Mark 1:16-3:12
B. Jesus assembles his new people—Mark 3:13-6:6
C. Jesus help his people understand his authority—Mark 6:7-8:30
II. Securing the Kingdom—Mark 9-26
A. Jesus prepares to die, calling his followers to die as well—Mark 8:31-10:52
B. Jesus’ kingdom will displace Israel’s kingdom—Mark 11:1-14:11
C. Jesus dies and is crowned king—Mark 14:12-16:20
The feeding of 5,000 occurs in Mark 6:30-44. The disciples are fresh off a successful preaching tour, packed with exorcisms and miracles of healing (Mark 6:12-13), and they’re exhausted (Mark 6:31). Readers sense a hint of doom, however, as they remember the fate of last one to preach God’s word powerfully (Mark 6:14-29). Will these twelve apostles likewise donate their heads to the hors d’oeuvre platter?
Jesus already gave them the key to his kingdom: “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear…Pay attention to what you hear: With the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you. For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Mark 4:23-25, ESV). They must listen and respond with faith. If they have ears to hear, they will be given more. If they stop listening, they’ll lose whatever momentum they once had. Such is how the kingdom works.
So they go off with Jesus to find a quiet rest (Mark 6:32), but many recognize them and run to meet them (Mark 6:33).
Jesus has compassion for those who seek him. Sheep in need of a shepherd win his heart every time (Mark 6:34). But those who don’t think they need shepherding should be wary.
The disciples endure the change of plans for a day, but by evening they’re ready to send folks away to buy their own food (Mark 6:35-36). Will the disciples pay attention to all Jesus has shown them about his kingdom authority? “You give them something to eat” (Mark 6:37).
Their answer: “Shall we go and buy 200 denarii worth of bread [everything we have] and give it to them to eat?” (Mark 6:37).
Uh oh. They’re in danger of losing what they had…
“How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” Jesus won’t make them into martyrs just yet. All he wants for now is the first five loaves and two fish (Mark 6:38).
Then Jesus shows his tremendous authority over the elements, commanding the sheep to sit in green grass (remember Psalm 23:1-2), dividing them into groups of hundreds and fifties (like Israel in Ex 18:25, etc.), blessing, breaking, and giving. Jesus gives and gives what he has until all eat and are satisfied. They end up with twelve baskets full of broken pieces (Mark 6:39-44).
The full beauty of Mark’s account lies in the flow of the entire section.
Jesus feeds a multitude (Mark 6:30-44), crosses the sea (Mark 6:45-52), corrects the Pharisees (Mark 7:1-23), dialogues about bread (Mark 7:24-30), and heals a sensory problem (Mark 7:31-37). The section climaxes with a confession of Jesus’ authority: “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak” (Mark 7:37). Terrific, but can he work such miracles on the disciples?
Next, Jesus does it all again: feeding (Mark 8:1-9), crossing (Mark 8:10), correcting (Mark 8:11-13), dialoguing (Mark 8:14-21), and healing (Mark 8:22-26).
That last healing occurs in two stages (a picture of these two cycles of events in Mark 6-8) and results in the disciples finally understanding who Jesus is: “You are the Christ.”
Jesus healed their blindness! They’re not worthy of him, but he has kingly compassion anyway. What grace! Such grace will lead them to lay down their lives with him (Mark 8:31-37).
The Main Point
The point of the story (according to Mark) is this: When Jesus is your king, he will transform your selfish faithlessness into compassionate self-sacrifice.
It’s okay if you’re not perfectly selfless yet. It’s even okay if you don’t have as much compassion as Jesus has for his sheep. If you follow him, he’ll get you to where he wants you to be. He’ll give you the faith you need to lay down your life for him. His kingly authority is transformative.