Mark 8:1-21 Hungering for the Bread of Life

When was the last time you were really hungry?  I mean famished to the point that everything you saw or smelled or thought about sounded delicious.  For most of us that kind of hunger isn’t a normal part of our lives.  About as close as I can get to that is working a hard day outside in my yard or just finishing a backpacking trip and then walking into a supermarket.  When I do that, the smells from the deli, the fruit on the stands, even the junk food in the candy aisle looks good and I am all too inclined to buy more than I need.


But there is another kind of hunger.  It is a hunger that resides deep within the soul of a person.  It is a craving for truth, a longing for love, a desire for a meaningful life.  In short, it is a hunger for God, who alone is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6)!  It is the need to be loved by the Only One who is Love (1Jn. 4:8, 16).


The people of Jesus’ day were hungry just like many of us.  As we meet them in today’s passage, they are physically hungry, but that physical hunger was caused by a spiritual hunger for God.  The crowd that came to Jesus in the wilderness were a people like you and I. They were a people who longed to know the truth.  They were a people who yearned for God to be made real in their lives.  They were a spiritually hungry people.  They had to have been, why else would you walk for days to come and hear Jesus speak and heal (Mark 3:8).  And why would you stay even when your food and supplies had run out, if you were not spiritually hungry for the Word of God and the presence of the Kingdom of God.  Jesus recognizes the hunger in these people when he says, they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat” (Mark 8:2).


The people gathered to hear Jesus have been fasting for a few days already just to listen to Jesus teach them.  They have been like sheep without a shepherd (Mark 6:34).  At least those were the words that Jesus used in the sixth chapter when he miraculously fed the 5000 and had 12 basketfuls left over.  Though chapter 8 doesn’t reference that same sheep without a shepherd analogy directly, I believe it is one of the main assumptions that Mark has made in his entire Gospel narrative.  The people of God have been leaderless for far too long and the spiritual hunger of the nation is evidence of it.


You see, this sheep without a shepherd analogy finds its origin in Numbers 27:15-17 where “Moses said to the Lord, “May the Lord, the God of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over this community to go out and come in before them, one who will lead them out and bring them in, so the LORD’s people will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” To be shepherdless was to be exposed to the evil of the world.  It was to be hungry and scattered and Moses didn’t want this for the people of God.


Unfortunately, the shepherds of Israel had been failing in one of their primary responsibilities – to feed the sheep with the Word of God.  As God declared through Ezekiel 34:6-10, “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock?  “‘Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, because my flock lacks a shepherd and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than for my flock, therefore, O shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.”


But where they failed, God came in power in order to care for his hungry people.  God came in the person of Jesus Christ in order to feed the spiritual hunger of the people and direct them back towards the ways of truth and life.  And when that spiritual hunger created physical need as well, the Son of God always met it with his miraculous provision – sometimes in physical healings, at other times in exorcisms and today in the provision of food for a very large crowd.


And in typical fashion these clueless disciples ask, “Who has the resources to feed these people?  We are out here in the middle of nowhere.  There isn’t a bakery for miles.  There are only a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.  That isn’t enough.  What are you going to do Jesus?”  Do you sense the lack of understanding and the lack of faith in these men?  They don’t really understand who Jesus is and what he is doing?  They are completely oblivious to the fact that their master is fulfilling the job description of the Shepherd of Israel.  He is reading and teaching and rescuing the people.


You would think that Jesus would take a few moments to give these guys a plain answer about whom he is and what he is doing, but he doesn’t.  Instead, he tells them to get the crowd ready and he does three very telling things: He gives thanks, breaks the bread and gives it to the disciples (Mark 8:6).  He utters a prayer of thanks – One prayer over the bread, another over the fish.  The Scriptures don’t tell us what his prayer was, but rabbinic tradition tells us that before eating bread one is to recite these words: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the 
Universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.” And before eating fish, one should say, “Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the 
Universe, for all was created according to his word.”[1]


In the prayers themselves, the disciples are being given a lesson in spiritual truth.  God is not constrained by the material world in order to meet the needs of his people.  In fact, by his word alone, he created it all, and so by his word alone, he can and will continue to create what is needed to nourish the physical hunger of the people just as he has been nourishing them by the preaching of his word and the healing of their diseases.  The disciples are being taught a poignant truth about the creative God who brings forth life for those in communion with him.


And as the story unfolds, we find that the people are and were satisfied (Mark 8:8).  The obvious answer to the question of the disciples asked earlier is this: In God we can get enough bread to feed the people.


Now, holding that story in your mind for a few moments, lets focus on the next part of the story this morning:  The unbelief of the Pharisees and their need for a sign.  What exactly do these guys want?  They have seen Jesus perform miracle after miracle in their presence.  They have heard his teaching and now they want a sign.  It is important to understand that their request was for more than just a miracle.  They were asking for a ‘public, definitive proof that God is with [Jesus]’ (Lane, NICNT Mark 277).  And they are doing it based upon the stipulations in the Mosaic Law.  If you turn to Deut. 13:2-5 and 18:18-22 you can find those stipulations.  But in short they tell God’s people to test any prophets by demanding a sign, something that will happen in the future, which can corroborate their message.


This is what the Pharisees are asking for.  Give us some future telling that will corroborate your presence among us.  Unfortunately, what they really wanted to do was find a way to kill Jesus.  That has been their desire since Mark 3:6 when they began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. William Lane writes of this episode, “Theologically, the demand for unmistakable proof that God is at work in Jesus’ ministry is an expression of unbelief.  It represents the attempt to understand the person of Jesus within categories which were wholly inadequate to contain his reality” (NICNT Mark 278).


And that leads us to the warning about the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod.  Yeast was a symbol of the evil of the human heart to the Greek and the Jew (Riddlebarger Mark Sermon 24, pg5).  It was a common metaphor to denote the corruption of people (Lane, NICNT Mark 280).  But what is that evil which Jesus is telling the disciples to beware?  Given the whole tenor of the eighth chapter so far, I think a strong case can be made that it is the sin of unbelief.  Jesus is warning is disciples against the sin of unbelief.  By calling it yeast he is telling them that unbelief is a pernicious danger to the human heart.  A little unbelief has a way of spreading throughout one’s life until they are so blind that they are unable to recognize the work of God any longer.  Isn’t that what he is trying to get them to realize as he rehearses the feedings of the 5000 and the 4000?  Isn’t he trying to make them aware of the unbelief that has been present in their own life concerning the power of God and the identity of the one whom they walk and talk and call their Rabbi?


So what can we learn from this story today?  First there is the call to faithfully trust in God and in his Christ.  Far too many people are out there looking for the “definitive proof” that will convince them that Jesus is really who he says he is.  But like the Pharisees, these skeptics really want to find just another reason to sideline Jesus and ignore him.  As Jesus told the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, he closed with these words, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead (Luke 16:31).”


But even people in the church can fail to exercise faith.  Far too many Christians want “signs from Heaven” like the signs given to Gideon before they are willing to step out and trust where their Savior is leading them.  I know, because I recently went through a time of demanding signs from God to assure me that what I was reading and hearing in the word of God was really what I was supposed to do.  The signs never came, but the continued unction of the Spirit pressed in until I was forced to either step out in faith or reject my Lord and his leading.  I stand here today having stepped out, and boy it is a freeing place to be.  Maybe you too are in that place, you have heard the word of God clearly, but you want more proof if you are going to exercise your faith in that area.  Jesus’ words are a challenge to you as well.  There will be no sign, so will you persist in unbelief or step out in faithful obedience?


But isn’t there more to this story.  Isn’t Jesus trying to lead his disciples and us into a greater faith in the Kingdom of God and the power of God and the presence of God in the world?  You see, the danger for the disciples was this: The longer they were exposed to the teaching and miracles of Jesus the easier it would be to fail to understand their true meaning.  The more they witnessed the wonder of Christ’s actions and heard the superb teaching of the master, the easier it would be for them to become insensitive and dull to the actual meaning of the words (Lane, NICNT Mark 281).  The longer they were around Jesus without getting it the more perilous would their presence with him be, for they would come to think they got it, when in fact they never got it at all.  And this is a danger still alive and well in our churches today.


Our churches are filled with people who think they get it.  They think it was all about simply removing their sin so that they could stay the same.  They think they are truly converted when in fact they are dead as a corpse lying on a mortuary table.  They think that they have faith, when their life is devoid of the works of faith and the gifts of faith and the fruit of the spirit.  But they have been in the church their entire life and you could never convince them that they are in fact dead.  They exhibit no love of God, or his word or his people.  They are grumpy and scowly-faced without even a hint of joy.  Criticism flows from their lips and they refuse to be led by the ministers and elders of the church.  And yet, they come faithfully every week, just like a disciple – clueless to the fact that Christ was preaching “The Kingdom of God is Near! Repent and believe the good news (Mark 1:15).”


And if that isn’t the church you recognize, then maybe this is.  There are plenty of folks sitting in the pews content to get their fill of Jesus but failing to perceive the call to follow.  They are nice enough people, polite, courteous and kind.  They smile a lot, and probably have even served on a church committee or council. They are respected and successful, but they like Jesus and his words because they are comfortable and familiar.  They align with their view of good morals and respectable culture.  But they don’t really get the message of Jesus that stuff cant satisfy, or their life is broken and decrepit as long as they sit on the throne and rule.  They fail to comprehend that Jesus is establishing a kingdom that looks very different from the kingdom of Americana 2013.  They have missed the call to raise up a kingdom that challenges the culture at every point, and so they continue to live a life that looks identical to the life of the non-Christian.  They pursue stuff as much as others pursue it.  They divorce as much as others divorce.  They educate their kids just like everyone else educates their kids.  They fill their time just like everyone else fills their time, except that on Sunday morning and maybe one or two other hours in the week they attend a sermon and hear some words that they agree with but never put into practice.  “Repent!” they tell others, when they have never repented themselves.  “Have faith,” they proclaim, when they have never stepped out in faith taking the Lord at face value that he alone is to be obeyed and trusted.


And that leads us to the final application for today.  The full import of Jesus’ words in the feeding of the 4000, his conversation with the Pharisees and his challenge to the disciples was this: I am the Bread of Life and only those who feast me will be filled.  The whole story has amazing parallels to the communion scene at the end of Mark where the Lord Jesus gives thanks, breaks bread, and passes out the bread to his disciples.  Each of us is called to a radical faith in Christ that finds the nourishment for our spiritual hunger and our physical sustenance fulfilled in the Son of God.  He alone is the Provider for all that we need.  Will we come to him?  Will we have faith?


The Son of God is calling us to understand.  Understand that he gave his life as a ransom for many.  Understand that he is the Good Shepherd and where he leads is always to a life of greater abandon and trust in the Lord who brings forth bread from the ground, fruit from the vine and whose very word man can live by.  Will you follow him in faith?


[1] Mishna Berakhot. 6.1-3


About Scott Roberts

pastor of Hope in Christ Church, Bellingham, WA
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