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3. Inadequate Servants, Adequate Lord (Luke 9:10-17)

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December 2, 2018

In February, 1977, just shy of my 30th birthday, I began to serve as the pastor of a small church in a Southern California mountain community. To say that I was unsure of whether I could fulfill the demands of the job is a gross understatement! I told the Lord that I’d try it for three years and then see where things were at. By His grace alone, I served that church for just over 15 years before moving to Flagstaff, where I’ve served for over 26 years.

You might think that the longer you serve the Lord, the more confident and competent you become, but the longer I’ve served, the more inadequate I feel. But that’s good, because it forces you to realize that you have to depend on the Lord for His blessing. If He doesn’t work far beyond your inadequacy, everything will bomb. Even the apostle Paul, who was more gifted and more zealous than all of us, exclaimed (2 Cor. 2:16), “Who is adequate for these things?” A few verses later (2 Cor. 3:5), he explained, “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God.”

If you have trusted in Christ as your Savior, He wants you to serve Him in some way in line with the gifts He has given you. Peter wrote (1 Pet. 4:10-11):

As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

This church will be healthy only to the extent that every member uses his or her gifts in dependence on the Lord, seeking Him constantly for His blessing on His church. Serving the Lord is more of a mindset and way of life than a particular job or role. It’s who you are if Jesus has saved you. If He bought you with His blood, then you are not your own. You’re His slave and you serve however, wherever, and whenever He wants you to serve.

But perhaps you want to serve the Lord, but you feel paralyzed by inadequacy. Remember, in Jesus’ parable of the talents, it was the guy with only one talent who buried it, but then got chewed out by his master (Matt. 25:14-30). So if you think you’re an inadequate, “one-talent” Christian, be careful not to bury what the Lord entrusted to you. He expects you to use your one talent for His kingdom purposes. I want to talk about how to serve the Lord when you feel inadequate to do so.

No passage of Scripture has had a more profound impact on my service for Christ than the accounts of the feeding of the 5,000. You could argue that it’s the most significant miracle Jesus performed, since it’s the only miracle reported in all four gospels. The Lord used this incident to train the twelve. We see this in His pointed challenge (Luke 9:13), “You give them something to eat!” John 6:6 tells us that Jesus was testing them (especially Philip), knowing what He was about to do. The miracle itself is almost passed over. We’re never told exactly how Jesus did it. The focus is not on the spectacular nature of the miracle, but on what it teaches those who serve Jesus about how He meets the overwhelming needs of others through them.

Christ gives us His adequacy to meet the overwhelming needs of people when we yield our inadequacy to Him.

Three things stand out in this story: the needy people; the inadequate disciples; and the adequate Lord Jesus.

1. People are needy.

The apostles returned from their first preaching tour (Luke 9:1-6) and gave an account to Jesus of all that they had done (v. 10). Jesus withdrew with them near to Bethsaida, on the northeast side of the Sea of Galilee. Mark 6:31 tells us that the purpose of the getaway was rest. Mark also states that there were so many people coming and going that Jesus and the disciples didn’t even have time to eat. So they got in the boat and started off across the lake for a short “vacation.”

But the five-mile trip across the lake was the only vacation they got! The people saw them going and ran there from all the cities and got there ahead of them. When the disciples saw that crowd of needy people waiting for them on the shore, they must have thought, “Oh, no! Lord, how can we escape?”

The fact that this many people would go to this effort to be with Jesus shows how needy they were. If you had asked around the crowd, many would have said that their greatest need was for physical healing. There were blind, deaf, lame, diseased and dying people there. By the end of the day, others would have said that their greatest need was for food. There was no food in that desolate place. Others had other needs. But whether anyone recognized it or not, every person’s greatest need was spiritual. Jesus could heal their bodies and fill their stomachs, but that was only a stopgap measure if they perished in their sins. So Jesus taught them about the kingdom of God, how they could rightly be related to Jesus the King (Luke 9:11).

I’ve seen a bumper sticker that reads, “Life is tough; then you die!” If a person does not know Christ and have the hope of eternal life, that bumper sticker is really true! Sin has taken a terrible toll on the human race. Often the problems people have can be the entry point for us to serve them, not only physically or emotionally, but also spiritually, which is their greatest need. But that’s where we encounter our own problem:

2. We are inadequate to meet people’s overwhelming needs.

Note the contrast between Jesus’ attitude toward the multitude and that of the disciples: Jesus welcomed them (Luke 9:11), but the disciples said to Jesus (Luke 9:12), “Send the crowd away.” Maybe the disciples were just being practical about how to provide food for this huge crowd, but given the situation, I think it’s legitimate to assume that they were exhausted. They wanted a break from the needy people.

Then Jesus said something utterly ridiculous (Luke 9:13): “You give them something to eat!” “Say again, Lord?” “You give them something to eat!” There were 5,000 men, plus women and children. Assuming two children per couple, there were 20,000 mouths to feed! The only food the disciples could come up with was a boy’s meager lunch (John 6:9), five loaves and two fish. So we see the complete inadequacy of the disciples to meet this overwhelming need that Jesus commands them to meet.

The manner in which Jesus performed this miracle is significant. He could have called down manna from heaven. This miracle took place in the wilderness and having the people sit in groups of fifty pictures Israel in the wilderness under Moses, camped by tribes. Calling down manna would have shown Jesus to be the new Moses. But He didn’t do it that way.

Or, Jesus could have spoken the word and a loaf of bread would have appeared miraculously in each person’s hand. It would have been much more impressive than the quiet way He did this miracle. And it would have been much more efficient than having the 12 disciples distribute the bread and fish to this huge crowd. Each disciple would have had to serve over 1,600 people, which must have taken a long time.

Or Jesus could have called angels who could have taken the bread from His hand and flown directly to each group and given them the food. People would have been amazed. They would have talked about it for the rest of their lives.

But how did Jesus do it? He used the weary, inadequate disciples to distribute the bread and fish to the people. I’m convinced that the Lord did the miracle that way to teach the disciples that His method for meeting the overwhelming needs of a lost world is through His people. But not just any kind of people. He uses inadequate people!

Jesus uses tired, emotionally drained people. The disciples had just returned from their first preaching tour. Jesus knew that they were tired and needed a rest. But their only rest had been the short trip across the lake. True, Jesus let them rest all day as He taught and healed the multitude. But we see their tiredness and emotional weariness in their request, “Send them away.”

Jesus uses busy people. They didn’t even have time to eat because of all the people coming and going (Mark 6:31). I thought that our hectic schedules were unique to our culture, but apparently not! I’ve worked as a banquet waiter, so I know that once they started handing out the food to this huge crowd, the people were making demands: “Over here! We need more bread here!” They were busy men! But invariably the Lord doesn’t use people with extra time on their hands. He uses people who are already busy. The disciples didn’t have time to eat until that entire crowd had been served.

Jesus uses people who lack resources. The disciples’ comment (v. 13) about buying enough food for all these people was probably said with some sarcasm. They didn’t have nearly enough money to do that. Philip did a quick calculation and told Jesus that 200 denarii (seven to eight months’ wages) would not be enough to give each person just a little bread (John 6:7). Obviously, the disciples didn’t have anywhere near that much cash in hand. Besides, they were in a desolate place. Even if they went to Bethsaida to buy bread, the town wouldn’t have had enough bread to feed this crowd. They were hopelessly lacking in the resources to feed this multitude.

Some people say, “I’ll serve the Lord someday, but I’m too busy to get involved right now.” Or, they think, “I plan to give generously to the Lord’s work after I get my finances in better shape. But right now I can’t give much.” But they’re making the mistake of thinking that serving Christ is something we volunteer to do when we have adequate time, energy, and financial resources. Then they’ll volunteer to serve Him.

But Jesus doesn’t work through volunteers. He works through His servants (the Greek word means, “slaves”; see John MacArthur, Slave [Thomas Nelson]). Slaves don’t volunteer to serve. They don’t tell their masters, “I’ll clean your house and fix dinner tomorrow, but I’m too tired and busy today!” Slaves serve when they’re tired, wiped out, busy, and lacking in resources. Slaves serve because they’re under obligation to their master (Luke 17:7-10).

How do we do it? By yielding our inadequacy to the adequate Master to use as He pleases. Five small loaves and two fish, a boy’s lunch—not much to feed such a crowd. In Matthew 14:18, Jesus says, “Bring them here to Me!” That’s the key! Give your inadequate resources and abilities to Jesus. The insufficient becomes more than sufficient when surrendered to Christ! That points us to the third prominent feature of this story. We see the needy people; the inadequate disciples; and, the adequate Lord:

3. Christ gives us His adequacy when we yield our inadequacy to Him to use as He pleases.

Two thoughts:

A. Yield what you have, not what you don’t have.

That sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But so often we make up excuses about what we don’t have and we fail to offer to Jesus what we do have: “If I just had more time, I’d serve the Lord!” “If I just had more money, I’d give regularly to the Lord’s work!” “If I just had the ability that others have, I’d serve the Lord.” “If I just ...”! But Jesus didn’t use the 200 denarii and all the bread in Bethsaida, which the disciples didn’t have. He used the five loaves and two fish that they did have. Jesus doesn’t ask you to give Him what you don’t have. He asks you to give Him what you do have.

A country preacher went to a farmer in his church and asked, “If you had two farms, would you be willing to give one farm to God?” “Yes,” replied the farmer. “I only wish I were in a position to do it.” The preacher persisted, “If you had $20,000, would you give $10,000 to the Lord’s work?” The farmer replied, “Yes, I’d love to have that kind of money! I’d gladly give $10,000 to the Lord’s work.” Then the preacher sprang his trap: “If you had two pigs, would you give one to the Lord’s work?” The farmer blurted out, “That’s not fair! You know I’ve got two pigs!”

The Lord doesn’t use what you don’t have. He uses the inadequate things you do have when you yield them to Him.

B. Yield your inadequacy to Him to use as He pleases.

The disciples weren’t giving the orders here. They were following Jesus’ orders (Luke 9:14): “Have them sit down to eat in groups of about fifty each.” “Eat what, Lord?” “It won’t work, Lord!” “This is crazy, Lord!” No, they did what Jesus commanded. Yield yourself to Him and let Him do as He sees fit. What Jesus did with this boy’s lunch is what He does with us when we yield our inadequate abilities and resources to Him:

  • Jesus blesses.

Without His blessing, we’re wasting our time. Psalm 127:1: “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.” Do you covet God’s blessing in your life and service for Him? Decades ago, Watchman Nee’s chapter, “Expecting the Lord’s Blessing” (Twelve Baskets Full [Hong Kong Church Book Room], 2:48-64) deeply affected me. I’ve read it many times. Nee argues that everything in God’s work depends on His blessing. If it is there, even an insufficient amount is sufficient; if it is lacking, the greatest resources and efforts in the world will not be enough.

By God’s blessing, Nee means a working of God that is far in excess of human calculations. If you scrape together 200 denarii and buy enough bread to give everyone a little, that is not God’s blessing. But if there is no human way to explain the results by the gifts or the efforts of those involved, that is God’s blessing. It’s not that we’re sloppy about our work and expect God to cover for our laziness or incompetence. We ought to work hard and be skilled in what we do for the Lord. But to have God’s blessing is not to expect results in proportion to my hard work or my talents, but for God to do “far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph. 3:20).

So often we’re just like the disciples. We see the need and start calculating with what we don’t have. Pastors think, “If I just had Bill Gates in my congregation as a tither!” But as Nee points out (ibid., p. 63),

If we have to accumulate sufficient wages to buy bread for the needy multitudes, years and years will elapse before their need is met. We must expect God to work beyond all that man can conceive.

Without the Lord’s blessing, five loaves and two fish were ridiculously inadequate. With His blessing, it was more than enough. However you serve, seek God’s blessing and make sure that nothing in your life hinders it!

  • Jesus breaks.

After blessing the bread, Jesus broke it. Blessing and brokenness go together. You won’t find God’s blessing apart from God’s breaking. You can see it in the lives of every person God has used. Abraham and Sarah had to be past their ability to produce a child before God gave them Isaac. Jacob had to be crippled in his hip before he prevailed with God. Moses had to fail in his own strength and spend forty years tending sheep in the desert before God used him to deliver Israel. David wrote (Ps. 51:17), “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” Vance Havner observed (source unknown),

God uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength. It is the broken alabaster box that gives forth perfume. It is Peter, weeping bitterly, who returns to greater power than ever.

Most of us aren’t too weak to serve the Lord. We’re too strong, or at least we think we are. The Lord does not want our adequacy; He wants our inadequacy so that we trust Him to supply what we lack. When we’re weak, then we’re strong (2 Cor. 12:10). His strength is made perfect in our weakness when we yield ourselves to Him and allow Him to bless, break, multiply, and distribute our few loaves and fish to meet the needs of others. Jesus blesses; He breaks. Then,

  • Jesus satisfies.

Luke 9:16b-17a: He “kept giving them to the disciples to set before the people. And they all ate and were satisfied.” The “all” included the boy who generously gave up his lunch! Everyone had enough. No one went hungry.

Don’t miss the end of verse 17: “The broken pieces which they had left over were picked up, twelve baskets full.” How many disciples? Twelve! How many full leftover baskets? Twelve! A basket full for each disciple! But the disciples had to serve the hungry multitude first; only after that did they each collect their basket full. Sometimes we worry, “If I give my time and energy and money to serve the Lord, I’ll be drained and burned out!” But as Jesus goes on to explain (Luke 9:24), “Whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.” Lose yourself serving Jesus and He will make sure you get a basket full for yourself! You may be tired, but you’ll be full of joy in Jesus!


The bread in this miracle is symbolic of Christ. After performing this miracle, He said (John 6:35), “I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me shall not hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.” The Lord is teaching that if we will surrender ourselves to Him to use as He pleases in meeting the needs of others, then He will satisfy us with a full measure of Himself.

We hear a lot about “burnout.” While we all need adequate rest and time off, we can test our labors for the Lord by this: If we’re burned out, probably we’ve been trying to meet others’ needs with our inadequate abilities and resources. But if we come away tired, yes, but with the satisfaction of the fulness of Christ left over in our souls, then the Lord’s blessing was on us.

Do you feel inadequate to serve the Lord? Hudson Taylor, the great 19th century founder of The China Inland Mission, said that when God decided to open inland China to the gospel He looked around to find a man who was weak enough for the purpose (E. H. Broadbent, The Pilgrim Church, p. 40). He also said (Dr. & Mrs. Howard Taylor, Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission; The Growth of a Work of God [China Inland Mission], p. 279), “All God’s giants have been weak men who did great things for God because they reckoned on His being with them.”

Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to China (we stood by his grave in Macao in 1987), was asked, “Do you really expect to make an impact on that great land?” “No, sir,” he replied, “but I expect God to.”

A. T. Pierson said of George Muller, who supported thousands of orphans without ever making their needs known (George Muller of Bristol [Revell], p. 112), “Nothing is more marked in George Muller, to the very day of his death, than this, that he so looked to God and leaned on God that he felt himself to be nothing, and God everything.”

We’re inadequate to meet the overwhelming needs in this world. But when we yield ourselves to our adequate Savior, He blesses, He breaks, and He satisfies.

Application Questions

  1. Since there are so many needs in the world, how do we know where to devote our time, effort, and money?
  2. Is it ever right to say “no” to the needs and demands of people? How can you know when to say “no”?
  3. Sometimes you should refuse to serve because you know that you are not so gifted. How do you know if God wants you to trust Him to serve in a situation that threatens you?
  4. Are there conditions we must meet to experience God’s blessing? What are they?

Copyright Steven J. Cole, 2018, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry

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