Jesus Full of Power and Mercy
So today we’re looking at two events in the life of Jesus that happen back to back here in the Gospel of Mark Chapter 6, and I think the key to these two events is stated here in verse 52.
Notice at the end of verse 51 that the disciples were “utterly astounded.” That is their response after seeing Jesus walk on the sea. First, they are terrified in verse 50, and then they are astonished or confused in verse 51, and then Mark tells us why.
In verse 52 Mark says, “they were utterly astounded, for [because] they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”
Now, what does Mark mean by the “loaves”? Well see Mark is talking about the passage just before this one when Jesus feeds five thousand men with five loaves and two fish. The disciples didn’t understand the the meaning of why Jesus did that.
So the disciples reacted the way they did to Jesus walking on the sea because they didn’t understand Jesus feeding the five thousand. Mark makes that super clear in verse 52.
Here’s how that goes: The disciples were utterly astounded by Jesus walking on the sea because they didn’t understand the meaning of Jesus feeding the five thousand.
And the goal of today’s sermon is to understand that. What does that mean? Why is that the case? What is God teaching us here? What can we learn in this passage?
And so there are three steps we’re going to take:
- Why did Jesus feed the five thousand? (vv. 30–44)
- Why did Jesus walk on the sea? (vv. 45–52)
- What’s the connection between the two?
Let’s pray, and we’ll get started.
Father, your church is only as good as your Word, and it is your Word, you tell us, that increases and prevails. And therefore, because of your Word, your church lives. In different times and in different places, you have had for yourself a people — and it’s anyone and everyone who comes to Jesus for grace. And that is what we’re doing here this morning. Father, we are hungry. Please feed us with your Word. In Jesus’s name, amen.
1. Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand (vv. 30–44)
This is one of the greatest events in the earthly ministry of Jesus. It’s actually the only miracle that’s told in all four Gospels. And I want us to look at it this morning at a couple levels. First, there is just the reality of what happened; so I want us to just walk through how this story unfolds. But then, second, there is something that Mark wants us to know about Jesus here, and that’s main point we’re going to see.
How It Happened
So starting with the story: the story picks up in verse 30 when the disciples return to Jesus after being called and sent out by him in verse 7. So they had been in Nazareth with Jesus (vv. 1–6), then they are sent out by Jesus in verse 7, and they come back to Jesus here in verse 30 telling him about all that they had done and taught, and then Jesus tells them they should get away and get some rest.
Apparently the popularity of Jesus was growing. The disciples had spread the news of Jesus in the surrounding area so much so that Mark says in verse 31, “For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.” Everyone was buzzing around like bees.
So Jesus says that he and his disciples need to go. They jump in the boat together and head over to a more “desolate place” — that word is used three times in this story and it simply means wilderness. And we don’t exactly where they were, but most likely it was somewhere on the western side of the Sea of Galilee.
And they stayed close enough to the shore here that when they were sailing in the boat, the crowds could see them from the land, and the crowds all ran on foot to where they were headed. And so by the time that Jesus and his disciples got to this desolate place, this empty countryside, there was a crowd of people already there waiting for them.
In verse 34 Mark says that when Jesus went ashore he saw a great crowd, and when Jesus saw them, Mark says, verse 34,
he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things.
And as Jesus was teaching, the day was getting later, and the disciples — good, practical men that they are — came to Jesus and said,
Excuse me, Rabbi, but it’s getting late here, and there’s a lot of people out there, and we should send them away so that they can go and buy themselves some food.
And that is a reasonable idea. There is an etiquette happening here that still operates today. It’s that if you’re going to have an event during customary eating times, then you need to offer some kind of food. That’s a good instinct. The problem is that there are five thousand men here, and the disciples know they can’t handle that, so hey, let’s send them away.
But Jesus tells them, “You give them something to eat.”
And the disciples get snarky again. In verse 37 they said (it was probably Peter), “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?”
Two hundred denarii was two hundred days worth of wages — so we’re talking about eight months worth of someone’s full salary. It’s like they were saying, “What, Jesus? Should we just take 40 grand and go buy some bread and give it out?”
It was a sarcastic question.
But Jesus asks them back, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.”
They come back with five loaves and two fish — which is not a lot. But Jesus commands everyone to sit down in groups by hundreds and fifties, and he prays and gives thanks for the food, and then the disciples distribute the food, and it keeps going. There is so much food that everyone ate and was satisfied, and the food even ran over into twelve baskets.
So five thousand men; five loaves, two fish; and there were twelve baskets full of leftovers. This is a miracle. Jesus has performed a miracle.
Jesus the Shepherd
And there’s really no question what this is about. This is not about how to manage a crowd. This is not about the disciples’ reluctance. This is not even about Jesus defying the laws of nature. The point of this story is what Jesus does when he looks into a crowd of “lost people.” Jesus looks into a crowd of confused, hurting, hungry people. And what does he do?
He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.
And Mark wants us to get what is happening here.There’s something important about this image of a shepherd and his sheep. We see this image in the Old Testament.
One clear place is Ezekiel 34, verse 11. Listen to this. This is God speaking:
For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. . . . 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God.
So who does God say is the shepherd of his people? Who is it?
It’s God himself.
In the Old Testament, God talked about his relationship to his people as that of a shepherd caring for his sheep.
Like in Psalm 23
And King David shows us this in the psalms. This is what David is saying in Psalm 23. David says in Psalm 23, verse 1:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
And Jesus in Mark 6 sees a crowd of people like sheep without a shepherd, and so in Mark 6, verse 39:
He commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass.
Do you see what’s happening? You see what Jesus is doing?
Psalm 23 again, David says,
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Mark 6, verse 42: “And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full…”
See, in the Old Testament God is the shepherd of his people, and his goodness to his people is a goodness that overflows. And so when Jesus feeds the five thousand he is saying that he is that God. Jesus is YHWH. Jesus is the Shepherd of his people, and he has compassion on them. He is good to them — so good that it overflows.
That’s what we’re supposed to see here. That’s why Jesus feeds the five thousand.
Now why does he walk on the sea? This is our second question.
2. Jesus Walks on the Sea (vv. 45–52)
This is in verses 45–52, and so again let’s start with how this event happened, and then let’s slow down to see what this is telling us about Jesus.
How It Happened
Mark says in verse 45 that this happened immediately after Jesus and his disciples fed the five thousand.
Jesus dismisses the crowd and tells his disciples to get in the boat and go to the other side of the sea. So they had been out on the western side of the Sea of Galilee, in a desolate place, on the countryside. And it’s from there that Jesus tells the disciples to go over to the other side, to Bethsaida, which is to the northeast.
And the disciples listen to him. They leave in the boat during the day, when it’s still light outside, but Jesus leaves on foot and goes up on a mountain to pray. So in verse 47, during the night, when its dark, we read that the boat was out on the sea, but Jesus was alone on the land. Mark tells us this very plainly.
And in verse 48 Mark says that Jesus knew the disciples were struggling. “They were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them.” The NIV English translation says, “the disciples [were] straining at the oars.” It means they were having a hard time in this boat on the sea.
And so, in verse 48, at about fourth watch of the night — which means somewhere between 3am and 6am — “[Jesus] came to them, walking on the sea.”
And when they saw him they were terrified because they thought he was a ghost. Again, there were some experienced fishermen in this group. They had been in storms before on the Sea of Galilee — we saw that in Chapter 4 — but they had never seen a man walking on the water. That sort of thing doesn’t happen, and so this man they see must be a ghost. But then Jesus speaks to them, and tells them not to be afraid — and apparently that’s when they recognize him — and he gets into the boat, and the wind ceases, and the disciples are stunned.
That’s how it happened.
Getting to the Main Point
And this means something. Jesus, in this event, is saying something important about who he is and Mark wants us to get it. That’s the main point here. And there are two key allusions to the Old Testament that show us this, first in verse 48, and then in verse 50.
Notice verse 48. Mark says that “[Jesus] came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them…” — and this is a little confusing at first. If Jesus is coming to the disciples, why would he mean to pass by them? How do these two things go together: Jesus walking on the sea and passing by his disciples? What’s that about?
I know a lot of you guys have heard about the Book of Job. Has anyone read Job recently?
It’s a long book in the Old Testament, and it’s about this man named Job who goes through some of the most intense suffering we could imagine. And the wonder and beauty of the book is Job’s relationship with God through his suffering.
All these deep questions of the soul sort of rise to the surface, and several times throughout the book we get to see this happen for Job. We get to hear him pray. We get to eavesdrop on these dialogues that Job has with God, and they’re unlike anywhere else in the Bible. Job is speaking from pain and heartache, in faith and humility, and he is trying to make sense of this God who he knows is sovereign over everything. And in one of these places, in Job Chapter 9, Job says something amazing. I want you to see this.
Turn to Job 9 if you can (it’s right before Psalms, in the middle of the Bible) — Job is speaking to his friends. Job 9:1,
Then Job answered and said:
Truly I know that it is so:
But how can a man be in the right before God?
If one wished to contend with him,
one could not answer him once in a thousand times.
He is wise in heart and mighty in strength
—who has hardened himself against him, and succeeded?—
[So Job is grappling here with the power of God. God is sovereign and free. This is the God who, in verse 5, Job says …]
he removes mountains, and they know it not,
when he overturns them in his anger,
who shakes the earth out of its place,
and its pillars tremble;
who commands the sun, and it does not rise;
who seals up the stars;
who alone stretched out the heavens
and trampled the waves of the sea;
who made the Bear and Orion,
the Pleiades and the chambers of the south;
who does great things beyond searching out,
and marvelous things beyond number.
Behold, he passes by me, and I see him not;
he moves on, but I do not perceive him.
Behold, he snatches away; who can turn him back?
Who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?’
Job is saying that God so mighty, so sovereign, and so free that he is incomprehensible to man. God is nothing like us. His wisdom is beyond comparison; he can move mountains; he shakes the earth; he obscures the sun; he arrays the heavens in splendor; he “tramples on the waves of the sea.”
God does great things beyond searching out and marvelous things beyond number — which means you can’t put God in a box. He doesn’t operate in our man-made categories. He is not a subject to be mastered. In fact, we would never know anything about this God unless he makes himself known. He is so big and we are so small that we can’t scrutinize him; we can’t examine him; we can’t understand him — not unless he comes down and tells us who he is.
This is one of the most foundational things that we need to know about God — it’s that he is so completely unknowable and unapproachable in his ‘otherness’ that we don’t have a chance of knowing anything about him unless he reveals himself to us.
Job says in verse 8 he “tramples on the waves of the sea.” And actually, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament — called the Septuagint (which is what Mark would have read) — that phrase in verse 8 is literally, “he walks upon the sea as upon dry land.”
So Job says, verse 8, that God “walks upon the sea as upon dry land,” and then in verse 11, “Behold, he passes by me, and I see him not.”
And in Mark Chapter 6, the disciples are out in this boat, on the sea, it’s in the dark of night, and in verse 48, Jesus “came to them, walking on the sea” and “he meant to pass by them.”
And they “see him not.” They don’t recognize him. They’re terrified.
So we can see what’s going on here.
Mark wants us to know that Jesus is the sovereign, free God of Job Chapter 9. He is the God so above us and so different from us — and yet he has been with his disciples; he’s a man like them. The God beyond our comprehension, then, is making himself known. That’s what is happening here.
The Burning Bush
And the central place in the Old Testament where this happens is in Exodus 3 at the burning bush. In Exodus Chapter 3, Moses is in the desert, “a desolate place,” and there is this epic theophany (which just means God reveals himself). God comes to Moses in a burning bush, and he speaks to Moses, and he calls him to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt, and what makes this so special is the question Moses says back to God. Moses says,
Okay, so if I go and tell these people that the God of their fathers has sent me, and they ask me your name, what do I say? What is your name?
And oh man, this is big. God is about to tell Moses his name.
Exodus 3, verse 14,
God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say to the people of Israel, “I am has sent me to you.”
Moses, I’m going to reveal myself to you. I’m going to tell you who I am: I am who I am —
[hayah, it’s the verb “to be;” it’s where the name Yahweh comes from]
— I am the God who IS. I am the God who is there, who is here. I am revealing myself to you, Moses. I am is sending you.
And in Mark Chapter 6, the disciples see Jesus walking on the sea, and they don’t recognize him and they’re terrified. But then in verse 50, immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I.”
In the Greek it’s two words: ego eimi . . . I am.
Jesus says: “Take heart; I am. Don’t be afraid.”
Take heart, disciples, because I am the God who IS. I am the God who is there, who is here. And I am revealing myself to you.
Don’t you get it, disciples? This is your God. Jesus is YHWH. He is the God of Job Chapter 9 who walks upon the seas and passes by us, surpassing our understanding; he is that God! — the same God who in Exodus 3 reveals himself to Moses as the great I am, the God who is there. Jesus is that God! Jesus is YHWH, the sovereign and free God who reveals himself to his people on his terms. Don’t you see, disciples?
But no, they didn’t see. “They were utterly astounded.” They were confused. But why? Why didn’t they get this theophany? Why didn’t they understand this revelation of Jesus?
It’s because they didn’t understand why Jesus fed the five thousand. That’s what verse 52 says.
Which means now we’re back to our original observation:
The disciples were utterly astounded by Jesus walking on the sea because they didn’t understand the meaning of Jesus feeding the five thousand.
3. The Connection Between the Sheep and Sea
We started with this observation of verse 52, and we’re ending here, and maybe now we can say a little more about the connection.
In general, I think the main issue is that the disciples are not able to grasp the full identity of Jesus yet. They understand that he’s a teacher like no one else, and even that he’s the Messiah, but they don’t get it all yet. In both these events Jesus is showing himself to be YHWH, but the disciples miss it. That’s what’s happening overall.
But I think there’s also a more particular issue going on, and I think we can learn something here. It’s in the connection between these two events, and I’m going to try and paraphrase it like this. Here it is:
- Jesus shows himself to be the sovereign, free God who reveals himself on his terms,
- resulting in complete confusion for the disciples,
- because they didn’t understand that Jesus is the Shepherd who has compassion on his people.
If we slow down on verse 52, we see that the disciples can’t comprehend Jesus in his power because they can’t comprehend Jesus in his mercy.
And there’s something here for us, because I think we can run into this same problem.
Power and mercy. How does that work?
For some of us, these two truths are some of the earliest things we learn about God. It’s that God is both great and good. Maybe that was one of the first prayers you ever learned to pray:
God is great; God is good;
Let us thank him for our food;
By his hand we must be fed,
Give us, Lord, our daily bread.
You ever prayed that?
The wonder of this prayer is that first line, that God is great and good. That’s a basic truth about God — many of us know that or have heard that — and it’s still one of the hardest things to believe.
God is great and good, and we have to hold them both together. They both are true, and it couldn’t be any other way. The goodness of God without his greatness makes him just a divine well-wisher, and that doesn’t help us. But the greatness of God without his goodness means we’re going to be crushed, because we don’t know what he’s going to do with all that power. Power scares us. Authority scares us. A God who is only sovereign and free terrifies us.
What will he do with all that power? He moves mountains and shakes the earth and walks on the sea — he’s in control of it all. He does whatever he pleases. Everything that exists must bow to him. What will he do with all that power?
“He had compassion on them.”
See, this whole week is about what God did — what Jesus did — with that power.
And we’re going to see it Thursday night, where Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God — knowing he had all of that power — he rose from supper; he laid aside his outer garments; and he took a towel and tied it around his waist, and with all that power, he began to wash the disciples’ feet.
And then on Friday at noon, with all that power, he took upon himself the sins of the world, and he went to the cross and he died. With all that power he suffered in the place of sinners. He suffered for you. He absorbed the wrath of God that we deserve, and so Jesus was dead, and then he was buried.
And then, on the third day, with all that power, he rose from the dead, and he is alive right now — right now Jesus is alive, sovereign, free, and good.
And until you know that, his power will not comfort you. We have to look to the cross. His cross proves this is true — that he is great and good. He is full of power and full of mercy. And he feeds us. By his broken body and shed blood, Jesus feeds us. And has prepared this Table for us at a symbol of that.
The bread here represents Jesus’s body, which was broken for us on the cross. The cup here represents Jesus’s blood, which he shed for us on the cross. And each Sunday when we receive the bread and cup, we are remembering what he did for us. We are symbolizing our union with him by faith, and we are confessing that indeed he is great and good, and that his cross proves it.
This morning, if that is your confession, we invite you to eat and drink with us.
Lord Jesus, in this moment we recognize that you are real, and that by your Spirit, you are here. Right now, in this moment, you are near to us in power and mercy, and you’ve proven it. Jesus, thank you. …