The feeding of the five thousand is one of Jesus' most well known miracles. But as familiar as these verses might seem to us, its likely that the original readers of Mark's gospel would have had an even greater sense of déjà vu.
Mark's accounts of the feeding of five thousand and Jesus' walking on the water are packed with allusions to Israel's experience in the Exodus: there's the 'desolate place' (Mark 6:31, 32 & 35, Exodus 13:20, 15:22, 16:1,3), the impossible number to feed (Numbers 11:21-23), the miraculous provision of bread (Exodus 16:13-15), the organisation of people into groups (Exodus 18:21), one man going up a mountain (Exodus 19:2, 24:13), the need for a shepherd (Numbers 27:15-18), a sea being walked across in the morning (c.f. Exodus 14:22, 24).
Mark clearly wants us to draw the link - the question is, why?
The clue to this is in a curious phrase that Mark uses in Mark 6:48; 'He meant to pass them by'. At first that appears a bit odd. Was Jesus really not intending to go to the disciples? If not, was it just an accident that He was in the same part of what was a pretty big lake? And what was He doing walking across the water anyway?
These questions are cleared up when we see that this little phrase is yet another allusion back to Exodus, when God's glory 'passed by' Moses (Exodus 33:22). To say that Jesus 'meant to pass them by' then is a hugely significant phrase - it is to say that He meant to appear to them as the God of Exodus! That idea is reinforced in v50, where Jesus literally says 'Take heart: I AM' (Exodus 3:13-14).
Mark's point is to show us that Jesus is the same God who provided for Israel in the wilderness, and who promised to Himself be the shepherd of His people (Ezekiel 34 - this is a wonderful chapter to read if you've never read it, or even if you have!).
Questions to ponder
- How does this passage expand our view of who Jesus is and what He is like?
- Mark 6:52 ends on a deeply worrying note for the disciples. Given what we've seen in Mark's gospel so far, can you see why? (Compare 6:45-52 with 4:35-41. What are the similarities? What don't the disciples understand?).