Mark 6 Commentary
Fresh off a string of successes in Capernaum, Jesus returns to his hometown to preach with the same wisdom and authority that had amazed the neighboring towns in Galilee. But Nazareth’s amazement at Jesus’ preaching soon faded into bitterness as they began to judge Jesus solely on external observations. Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Aren’t his siblings and mother here with us? What are these miracles that we’ve been hearing about but haven’t seen with our own eyes? The people of Nazareth were unable to ‘”stop judging my mere appearances and make a righteous judgment” (Matthew 7:6) and Mark then tells us that their unbelief prevented Jesus from doing more than heal a few sick people.
Envy is never far from sibling rivalries and many jealousies begin at home. The Nazarenes looked on Jesus through unspiritual eyes. They judged him based on his family ties and his unremarkable former vocation. They had seen him grow up before their eyes and watched him serve a carpenter with his father while not taking note of his humility and his righteous character.
Now at this time, there were other social forces at work that were clouding the people’s judgment. It was expected that among a family of carpenters you would rise no higher than carpenter yourself. Sons followed closely in their father’s footsteps, and unless they were truly remarkable, they were expected to take up the family business. Jesus broke convention and abandoned the comfortable and conventional life for a path of hardship.
Like today, children with special gifts and abilities were detected at an early age. Though Jesus had amazed the rabbis at the temple in Jerusalem at the age of 12, his great wisdom and learning went unnoticed in his hometown. For Jesus to suddenly to reveal a transcendent wisdom and preach with an authority at the age of 30, he caught the townspeople off-guard. Given that the people’s insults that flowed so freely, it is clear that their amazement had given way to jealousy and doubt.
The apostle Paul once wrote: “We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise.” (2 Cor. 10:12). This is the standard that the Nazarenes employed to judge Jesus. They used past history and applied a standard of comparing themselves with themselves and judged him unjustly. And when Jesus’ great wisdom and gifts were put on display, they still could not see past mere outward appearances – they could not even look at their own hearts and make a reasonable comparison.
The reckless and stubborn defiance the people exhibited in the face of God’s wisdom and power astonished Jesus. The people of Nazareth dismissed the Good News and did so not on its merits or because of its obvious power, but because in their jealousy and pride they refused to accept the Messenger based on their evil preconceived notions.
When Jesus sent the disciples out it was like a trial run for the great missions they would embark upon after Pentecost. Following that Great Day, when the Holy Spirit would crash into their hearts and give them power, the disciples would come to know first-hand what the life of faith and carrying nothing but the Gospel would be like day after day. On their mission, the disciples would come to intimately know the power of God and receive a taste of it. They would begin to realize that the power of God is more fulfilling than any pleasure and more precious than any treasure this world can offer. But on this occasion, Christ sends his disciples on a shorter and relatively friendlier mission to preach the Gospel to their fellow countrymen. The report back is largely good and the hearts of people were tilled to receive the confirmation of the Good News that would follow Christ’s resurrection.
God’s joy and power was given to the disciples to preach and heal and to spread the Good News. The disciples went out with the instructions to take only a walking staff, their trust in God and to stay at the house they first entered. They preached repentance in Jesus’ name, drove out demons and healed the sick. And the disciples were now tempered by experience to better understand that the Rabbi who had called and sent them out was not a mere prophet but the Son of God.
Herod must have felt hell’s breath on the back of his neck when he learned about the amazing things that Jesus was doing. So terrified was he after hearing about Jesus’ miracles that he superstitiously believed that John had been raised from the dead. Guilt and confusion lingered on into Herod’s life long after the bizarre and evil ways he had dealt with God’s herald and prophet and it apparent here that the sins that led to John’s beheading were still haunting Herod.
Herod liked hearing John preach in the same way some people love to be entertained by a historical novelty, like the way some people enjoy watching reenactments of famous battles or great moments in national history. Herod had been amused by the Elijah-like John, but his amusement was always shallow and short lived. In every case, his warm feelings for John’s preaching never led him to the repentance that John preached and always dissipated when he forced to choose between his crown and God. In fact, the tetrarch was infuriated when John’s preaching began to touch his heart on account of his adultery, so much so that in his anger he jailed the prophet for simply preaching what the Scriptures had stated since they were first written down centuries earlier.
Despite his rage and the order to have John imprisoned, the Scriptures also tell us that Herod respected John and had, for a time, protected him from his wife’s grudge. Herod knew John to was a holy and righteous man and there was something about John that always perplexed Herod. But there was also still something about him that delighted him at the same time. The Gospel attracted Herod from a distance, but it never was able to draw the foolish king close to the repentance and faith it offers. When it touched his heart, Herod chose his sin over repentance and faith.
Chief among Herod’s sins was his slavery to the approval of others. His ambitions for power and the lust of his brother’s wife each also played into this sin too. His downfall came at a fateful dinner party. Granting his step-daughter a virtual blank check after dancing impressively for him and his guests, Herod’s happy evening turned into a crisis of conscience when his step-daughter asked for John’s head. At last, his wife’s vengeance was complete and the tetrarch was trapped. Would Herod lose face in front of his dinner guests or would an innocent man die because of his rash decision? Though Herod was distressed briefly, the greater fear won out. Losing the approval of his guests was a greater fear than having an innocent man killed for telling him the truth, and so Herod chose to execute John rather than face embarrassment in front of his influential guests.
When many Christians read the Gospel and come across a miracle, they often look no farther than the miracle itself. They read about how Jesus performed some great feat and think about wonderful it must have been to see it, but then go away thinking that they understand all there is to know about the story without reflecting on what it teaches us about him and how we should put our faith in Jesus. So when these Christians read an account about how Jesus had compassion for people who ended up chased him around the Sea of Galilee, they only see the story in the context. The only think about how Jesus took a small amount bread and two fish and then fed 5,000 men and that these men then became excited and chased him around the sea to get more. To many, this miracle is the beginning and end of the story.
Jesus’ miracle in that lonely place does show us the greatness of his power and that our God has a very deep love for needy souls. It also shows us that the finger of God was indeed at Jesus’ command. However, we learn a much more personal and profound thing from the miracle than simply that Jesus possessed great power and loved others. We learn that miracles are always signposts to deeper spiritual realities about the heart and nature of God.
When Jesus said to his disciples, “You give something to eat” everything in the story changed. Until this point, the story had been about the disciple’s return from their long and successful journeys and about how they were unable to find rest due to the clamoring masses. But now the disciples, who thought they were finally going to get that rest, are seemingly burdened with the task of how to feed a virtual army so late in the day. Their reply was incredulity and confusion. What are we to do? Do we go into the neighboring towns and try to buy all this bread? Do we really want to spend so much money?
The disciple’s questions demonstrated that they had all but forgotten what Jesus had just tried to teach them. They sought a human answer to a divine problem. They sought a self-reliant solution rather than God dependence. For many days prior to the miracle the disciples had relied on God’s power and protection to see them through the preaching and miracle working they had performed on Jesus’ behalf. But now, even though they had returned to the Source of this great power, they showed how little of his teaching had actually sunk into their hearts.
Unfazed by his disciple’s weakness, Jesus gave thanks for what the Father had provided. He broke the food into pieces and then miraculously distributed so much bread and fish that the crowd ate all that they wanted. Even twelve basketfuls of food were left over – which in and of itself was many times more than the original amount.
God is sufficient for all things. He is able to overcome any obstacle and nothing is too difficult for him. Christ, who is the Bread of Life, distributed the bread to the crowd in the same way he would distribute himself through the hands of these very same men. These weak and doubting souls, souls who are no different than us, were shown symbolically how they would carry the words of their Master’s sinless life, his death and resurrection to the ends of the earth. And even after the disciples lives were spent distributing his Gospel, there was still more than enough of his mercy and grace leftover for us.
When Jesus put his disciples into a boat to cross the Galilee he wasn’t trying to keep them ahead of the crowd. He was trying to teach the disciples crucial lessons that had escaped their sensibilities during the miracle. The loaves and fish were distributed to thousands, the disciples were amazed, but their amazement wasn’t the central point of the miracle.
Christ’s objective was to show his disciples that he was the Bread of Life who had come down from heaven. Jesus’ goal was not to stir up large crowds and to have many followers. His goal was to show how he would mercifully give himself up for his people and save them from their sins. First, the Lord needed to teach his disciples that they were to be the distributors of his Good News because the lesson wasn’t sinking in – and so the stakes were raised an even greater miracle was performed.
Scripture tells us that when Jesus climbed into the boat that his disciples still didn’t understand who he was or the significance of this miracles. Mark tells us that the disciple’s hearts were hardened and that they did not understand the lesson from the loaves and fish. They hadn’t understood when they went out with his power to preach in Galilee. They didn’t understand now that they had returned to witness even greater displays of power.
Had the disciples understood who Jesus truly was there would have been no reason for them to be amazed. They would have understood that the same God who granted them power to go out and preach, and who turned a few loaves into several bakeries worth of bread, was the same God who walked on the water, calmed the seas and then climbed into the boat with them.
The disciple’s hearts were not sensitive to spiritual things. Their minds hadn’t been honed to process and understand the spiritual realities that were unfolding around them. So the disciples found themselves in a boat to be taught the same lesson all over again. The great storm came up to test and teach them again that Jesus is the Son of God. The wind and waves rose so that they would understand that God is with them and will provide for all their needs. And then Jesus walked on water.
There are few accounts in the Gospels that are more mind-bending than this one. For Jesus didn’t walk on water to glorify himself. He walked on water to meet the disciples in their time of need and to show them that no barrier, whether it would be hell’s grip or an inland sea, could keep them from the mercy of Christ.