Mark 8:1-21. All the world inherits the promise.

In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away.

 And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha. The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side. Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

 1.      Why are there two feeding accounts in Mark’s Gospel? Did this really happen twice?

 2.      What is the difference between them?

 3.      Jesus makes remarks about the numbers involved, and seems to imply that the disciples ought to understand the significance of these numbers. Is he talking in some secret code?

 4.      The Pharisees seek a sign from heaven. They would doubtless defend this as sensible and prudent. Jesus clearly thinks it is neither. Why? And how does it fit in with the feeding miracle?

 5.      What is the “leaven” of the Pharisees and Herod, and why do the disciples need to be warned against it?

1.      Why are there two feeding accounts in Mark’s Gospel? Did this really happen twice?

 As we read Mark 8, it will be helpful to have at the forefront of our minds, recent events of Mark’s Gospel.  We’ll spot some rather striking similarities between this passage and the passage from 6:31-7:37. Perhaps most striking is the similarity between the two feeding accounts. Not only is it striking that the miracle of multiplying bread is repeated, but many of the incidental details are the same. In both accounts, a “great crowd” comes to a “desolate place”, and there is no food. Jesus mentions the problem to the disciples. They don’t know what to do. Jesus takes bread, says a blessing, breaks it, gives it to the disciples to distribute, and there is enough to feed many thousands, and there are baskets of fragments gathered up afterwards.

In fact, the two accounts are so similar that nobody familiar with unbelieving Bible commentary will be surprised to learn that any number of commentators suggest that there was really only one occurrence of the miracle. They argue that the story of the miracle was told and retold, and some of the details got a bit changed in the repeated retelling, and by the time Mark is writing, there are any number of different but similar versions of the same story floating around. Poor old Mark has heard at least two versions of the story, and he thinks the thing must have happened twice!

Why such commentators think it so vanishingly unlikely that Jesus could actually have done the same thing more than once, they don’t say. In any case, their thesis doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny.

 In the first place, Mark is no dimwit. This is a man who has written a work of literary genius, which has become one of the best-selling, most translated, and most influential books ever. This is especially true if you take the view that Mark’s was the seminal Gospel- the first of the four to be written- and that Matthew and Luke drew heavily on Mark as source material. But even if not, Mark has had an influence greater than all but a small handful of all the other men ever to have put pen to paper in the entire history of the world. He is not a thicko who needs to be corrected by scholars who, despite living some 2000 years after the events they read about, reckon themselves capable of reading between the lines and supplying the insight Mark lacks as to what really happened.

Secondly, we know from Peter’s letters that he viewed Mark as a son. Mark was an intimate friend of at least one eyewitness of the events. It seems unlikely that a miracle on this scale is the sort of thing that Peter would get so mixed up about as to accidentally duplicate in his re-telling, however dull he might have been in comprehending the meaning of the miracles.

And thirdly, take a look at Jesus’ words in the boat, talking to his disciples about both miracles. Jesus obviously knows that he did this miracle twice. So the liberal commentators either have to say that Jesus himself was confused at this point about what he had been doing in recent months, or that the whole section recording Jesus’ teaching in the boat is pure fabrication (the latter option is unsurprisingly more popular).

 Those who want to maintain that the feeding of a multitude only happened once are not just left saying that the Gospel writers are more than a bit mixed up about events, they are saying that the Gospel writers made up chunks of dialogue, putting words into Jesus’ mouth which they knew he never said. It is just an example of unbelief for unbelief’s sake. Some of these people have a desperate desire to find errors, resulting in making errors up when they can’t find any. Others are cowardly, and desire to appear respectable in the eyes of the academy.

 2.      What is the difference between the two accounts? 

 So then, this miracle happened twice- which leaves us with a question, does it not? John says in the very last verse of his Gospel, that if all that Jesus did was written down, the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. All the Gospel writers have been very selective with their material. And Mark’s is the shortest Gospel. Mark has been superlatively selective about what went into his book. He isn’t about to waste space saying the exact same thing in the exact same way- not when there are hundreds of things to say and hundreds of different ways to say the same thing. The mere fact that Mark gives space to two accounts shows us that neither could be omitted without losing something vital. Mark saw both miracles as important revelations of Jesus’ significance. So what does this one tell us, that the other one didn’t?

 To answer that question, we need to look at the differences between the two miracles. The most obvious differences are to do with the numbers- 5000 men versus 4000, 5 loaves versus 7, and 12 baskets of fragments versus 7. We will consider those shortly. There are also other significant differences.

 Look at the key themes in the first account. There we noted that Jesus was acting as the shepherd of Israel, and as the commander of the army of Israel (see notes on Mark 6:30-44). Mark used language reminiscent of several OT passages, and the first miracle was crammed full of implicit references (Sheep without a shepherd, green grass, David’s five loaves, companies of 100 and 50…). There are not the same allusions here to the messianic hope for Israel. All of the above connotations are notable for their absence from the second account.

 Look at the context surrounding this second miracle. It is placed just after a section where Jesus defines what makes a man unclean- contra the Pharisees’ definition- and then goes to Gentile territory in the North and blesses a Gentile woman, and then to Gentile territory in the East and heals a deaf mute man. It is placed just before a rejection of the Pharisees, and a warning to the disciples about the Pharisees and Herod.

 Look especially at one theme which is carried over from the first miracle; that of the “Edenification” of the wilderness. It is pointed out on both occasions that the feeding occurs in a desolate place. This is language used especially in Isaiah…

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus…”

“For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water…”

“Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honour me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people…”

“For the LORD comforts Zion; he comforts all her waste places and makes her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song…”

 (Isa 35:1,6-7; 43:19-20; 51:3).

Isaiah speaks of the complete alteration of the desolate place. There will come a day when God will make even the desert into a garden. The coming of Jesus’ kingdom brings about the fulfilment of these prophecies. Jesus can offer food even in the desolate places. The promises here are broader in scope than promises of a new David or a new Moses. David was a child of Abraham and a king of Israel. Adam was the father of all men, and given dominion over all the world. These prophecies of a new Eden-in-the-desert were given to Israel, but they are much less specifically Jewish than themes of the shepherd and commander of Israel.

 And there is a new theme in this second feeding miracle, harking back to the OT again. Some of these people are said to come to Jesus “from far away”. Isaiah (60:4) and Jeremiah (46:27) also thought of people coming from afar. The were thinking primarily of a return of scattered Jews from exile, but Jesus sees a wider ingathering, not just a gathering of the sons of Abraham from among the Gentiles, but an ingathering of the Gentiles themselves as they become God’s people. And these people will gather to Jesus as the focal point.

 Both context and themes point to the first miracle as exclusively Jewish in character, and the second as inclusive of the Gentiles. That is the reason why both must be included in Mark. They come as a pair. The Jew first, and then the Gentile.

 3.      Jesus makes remarks about the numbers involved, and seems to imply that the disciples ought to understand the significance of these numbers. Is he talking in some secret code?

 With the answer to question 2 in view, we are not surprised to find that the differences in numbers tell a similar story. In a way, Jesus is talking in code, but it is a code that will be familiar to the disciples, and to anyone else conversant with the Old Testament. 5 and 5000 are Israelitish numbers. Not only is there a link to David, the great king of Israel, with the 5 loaves; but 5 is the number of books of Moses, the Torah. In the first miracle, there are 5000 Jews, forming an army of Israel, God’s nation under their true shepherd. 12, the number of baskets of fragments, is yet more obviously the number of Israel- the correlation with the tribes of Israel is hard not to spot (the disciples will surely be aware that they are 12 in number because they are to be the foundation of the new Israel).

 So in the first miracle, Jesus feeds the army of those Jews willing to receive his teaching, and there are 12 baskets left over. So why 5000 men and not 12,000? Because not all Israel are gathered before Jesus to be fed by him. 12 is the number of the complete Israel. And why 12 baskets rather than 5? Because Jesus lays claim to a greater authority and responsibility than that over the army before him. Jesus can feed not only those who are his followers in some sense, but he can feed them and have enough left over to feed all Israel.

 In the second miracle, there are 4000 people, probably mostly Gentiles. This miracle happens in the region of the Decapolis, a Gentile dominated area. These numbers are full of Gentile symbolism.

How many corners does the earth have- not geographically, but conceptually? (Isaiah 11:12; Revelation 7:1; 20:8) How many rivers go out from the mountain of God to water the whole earth? (Genesis 2:10-14) How many points do we have on a compass? The number 4 is concerned with the whole earth. Jesus makes the point that some of the crowd have come from afar off. These people are definitely not all Israelites. They could be from anywhere. They are, as it were, from the 4 corners of the earth.

The crowd consume bread from 7 loaves, and there are 7 baskets of fragments left over. 7 is a number of completeness. How many days are there in a full week, before you complete the circle and start again? Which day is the final day, the day of rest when work is finished for the week? (“Sabbath” means “seventh”) How many is the standard tally of all the nations in Gen 10? When Joshua went to Jericho, for how many days did he circle the city? How many times did they walk round on the final day? How many priests led them with how many trumpets? (Joshua 6).

If you want to completely and fully forgive your brother, how many times should you forgive him? Peter thought that seven would be a good number, but Jesus tells him seventy times seven. Both men are working in a mental framework of seven pointing to fullness, but Peter thinks that a literal 7 forgivenesses would be more than generous, and Jesus tells him he’s not even close. (Matt 18:21).

If the 12 baskets were a statement that Jesus brought blessing to all Israel, then this is a wider statement still. Jesus is the saviour of Israel, and the nations of the whole earth, and everything. He is the only saviour, and he is the saviour for all. There is enough left over for everyone ever created to be fed.

 4.      The Pharisees seek a sign from heaven. They would doubtless defend this as sensible and prudent. Jesus clearly thinks it is neither. Why? And how does it fit in with the feeding miracle?

 The Pharisees demand a sign. They want some sort of authentication. Some proof that Jesus is a prophet from God- a sign from heaven, is what they ask for. But Mark tells us that they’re testing Jesus. The choice of word “testing” is meant to remind us of many OT passages that speak of Israel testing God by doubting what he’d already done for them, and always demanding more e.g. Pss 95:9-10, 78:17-20, 40-43, 56, 106:13-14, Num 14:1-10, 20-25.

Remember Jesus quoting scripture to Satan- “you shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Jesus quoting from Deut 6:16). The demand of the Pharisees is an act of disobedience. They are like Israel in the wilderness years. They have had plenty of signs. The scribes from Jerusalem have seen miracles a-plenty, and what effect has it had on them? They said “He is possessed by Beelzebub, and by the prince of demons he casts out demons”. Jesus is doing signs all the time, but they’re blind. They account these things to be of the devil. And of course, as teachers of Israel, they should know that signs were not absolute proof in any case (Deut 13:1-5). These Pharisees have seen signs more than enough to convince them, if signs had been what they needed.

Having just described Jesus as the one saviour sent to all the earth, Mark moves back to the rejection of Jesus by those who should have recognised him, the teachers of Israel. The Gentiles are brought in as inheritors of the promises, but at the same time, some of the Jews cut themselves off by their unbelief.

 5.      What is the “leaven” of the Pharisees and Herod, and why do the disciples need to be warned against it?

 The problem the Pharisees have isn’t lack of evidence. Their problem is wickedness in their hearts. These men ask for a sign, but that’s just a lame excuse. They are already dead set against Jesus. Even if a man came back from the grave to testify to them about Jesus, they wouldn’t believe him (see Luke 16:30, also spoken to the Pharisees). We meet people like this, who are determined not to believe. The hatred for God in their hearts hasn’t been put there by the weight of evidence, and so no amount of evidence will convince them to give that hatred up. Their arguments are just rationalisations of what they want to think.

 Jesus will not be tested- he’d continue to perform works of compassion, so that those prepared to believe would see the reign of God come to earth, but he would not do miracles on demand for a wicked and hardhearted generation. More significant than the Pharisees rejection of him, is his rejection of them. Jesus turned his back on them, got into the boat, and put some water between them.

 The “leaven”, or “yeast” in some translations, of the Pharisees is blind unbelief, a hypocritical claim to be oh-so-faithful to God, with a real determination to resist God. These men saw God come in the flesh, and hated him. Why does Herod get a mention here as well? He wanted to kill Jesus too (Luke 13:31). And the Herodians and Pharisees have plotted together to kill Jesus. Both groups are dead set against Jesus. No matter what he does now, they will not recognise him as Messiah. They’d rather die. When Jesus tells his disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod. He is talking about the attitude they exemplify and teach. A little yeast has huge effect. You only put a sprinkling into your bread mix, and it is alive, it grows, it changes the whole lump of dough. So this refusal to see, this wilful blindness, will affect the whole life of a man. It doesn’t matter how law-abiding and pious the Pharisees are, they have this cancer in their hearts.

 The mention of the leaven of the Pharisees leads into a discussion about bread. The disciples have not brought enough bread for the journey, and as soon as Jesus mentions yeast, they think “Oh, he’s talking about breakfast, and we’ve messed it up.” It’s the way conscience works, isn’t it. You do something wrong, and it preys on your mind and colours all your interactions with other people.

 But Jesus isn’t at all worried about food. What worries him is that the disciples don’t understand the miracles he has done. How can they be discussing the lack of bread, when they’ve just seen that he can multiply bread enough for all Israel, and enough for all the world? Are they really that boneheaded as to think that they Jesus will let them go hungry?

Jesus fires 8 questions at them in a row. We should be familiar by now with the passage he references- or rather the passages, since it was a favourite idea of the prophets. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all use similar phrases. Jesus has already quoted Isaiah 6 as his reason for teaching in parables- that seeing, they may not perceive, and hearing, may not understand. Jer 5:21 is the passage directly quoted here, a condemnation of Israel for failing to recognise their God. (also Isa 6:9, Ezk 12:2), and a prediction of God’s judgement upon Israel for failure to acknowledge God as God, especially referring to her wicked leaders- the seriousness of rejecting Jesus.

The disciples themselves are in danger of failing to see who Jesus is. They see the miracles and do not reflect upon the meaning of them. They are almost as bad as the Pharisees. They follow Jesus, and obey him, but they haven’t really seen who he is. They know he’s special, but do they know why? Again and again, Jesus has had to rebuke them for their lack of understanding. They don’t understand the parable of the sower, and therefore how will they understand any of the parables? (4:13). They are afraid on the lake, and so… have they still no faith? (4:40). They did not understand about the loaves but their hearts were hardened (6:52). They have to ask what Jesus was speaking about when he said that the things that come out of a person are what makes him unclean, and Jesus says “Are you also without understanding? (7:18)”

 Jesus is the saviour of the world, and the provider of all good things for all men. He brings healing and nourishment to both Jews and Gentiles. He is the leader, the shepherd, the commander the world needs. It is vital to understand the fact. It is vital to understand that the world needs a saviour, that the whole creation groans against the burden of sin upon it since the fall- and that Jesus is the one who can deliver from sin. He has the power to save anybody, Jew or Gentile. Come to him, be fed by him.

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