29. The Training of the Twelve (Luke 9:1-27)
As the father of five daughters, I can only read the command Jesus gave to His disciples to “travel light” with wonder and a touch of envy. Many times we have packed up to drive to the Northwest to visit family and friends with the car literally sagging with all that we carried. It would not be very truthful for me to give the impression that my daughters and wife were the only culprits. I have been known to carry “a few” tools and spare parts in the car—just in case. When I drove a Volkswagen bus, I even carried along a spare cylinder head. If I could have, I would have carried along a spare engine (I did this only once).
Our two older daughters just returned to college. The younger of them had a friend meet her with a pickup truck. Our older daughter once had an uninformed friend meet her with a compact car. When our older daughter got on the plane bound for Chicago my wife had to hang her carry-ons on her like a Christmas tree. The last item placed into her hands was—I assure you this is true—a fairly good sized electric fan which had to be disassembled to be placed safely under the seat. I just knew that if the plane crashed on take-off, it would be due to having been overweight.
When Jesus sent out the twelve to preach and to heal in the villages of Galilee, He specifically forbade them to carry along the kinds of things which we always try to take on a trip. It is with great wonder and admiration that I read these words. If only I could get my family to travel that light.
The Tensions of our Text
But the way in which our Lord had the disciples go out raises some very practical problems. We find that the instructions Jesus gave in this first section of our text raise the first of three “tensions” in our text. Let me briefly point out these tensions, which we shall seek to explain in our exposition of this passage.
(1) In verses 1-6, why did the Lord Jesus command His disciples to go about, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, in such a way as to be without basic necessities? Why did Jesus forbid the disciples to take along things which they really needed?
(2) In verses 7-9, why did the Luke record (as did Matthew and Mark) the interest of Herod, and why did Jesus avoid seeing Herod, when Herod was continually trying to see Him?
(3) In verses 10-17, why did Jesus command the disciples to feed the five thousand when they did not have the means to do so?
These are the “tensions of our text,” the answers to which will provide us with the necessary keys to understand what the events described by Luke were designed to teach the disciples, as well as the readers of his account, readers from his own day until now.
In chapter 8 of Luke’s gospel we have been told of the band of followers of our Lord, some of whom were women, who supported Jesus and the group out of their private means. One of these women will be of particular interest to us as we study our text. We have also read of the stilling of the storm and of the deliverance of the demoniac. Finally, we read of the two intertwined miracles, of the healing of the woman with the issue of blood and the raising of Jairus’ daughter.
In the verses immediately following our text, Luke will record the question which Jesus asked His disciples concerning His identity, and the “great confession” of Peter. Then, in response to this confession we have the revelation of the glory of God on the mount of transfiguration, along with out Lord’s revelation of His coming rejection and crucifixion.
The Structure of the Text
The structure of our text falls simply into three major divisions:
(1) The Sending out of the Twelve (9:1-6)
(2) Herod’s interest in Jesus (9:7-9)
(3) The Feeding of the five thousand (9:10-17)
The Sending out of the Twelve
1 When Jesus had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, 2 and he sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick. 3 He told them: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic. 4 Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. 5 If people do not welcome you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave their town, as a testimony against them.” 6 So they set out and went from village to village, preaching the gospel and healing people Everywhere (Luke 9:1-6, NIV, emphasis mine).
The sending out of the twelve, on one hand, is no surprise. Matthew informs us just prior to his account of the Lord’s commissioning of the twelve that Jesus had instructed His disciples to pray for workers for the harvest (Matthew 9:38). The sending out of the twelve (and later the 70) is a partial answer to this prayer. We are also indebted to Matthew (10:2-4) for telling us the pairs of those who are sent out two-by-two:
- Simon and Andrew
- Thomas and Matthew (tax collector)
- James and John
- James and Thaddaeus
- Philip and Andrew
- Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot
All three gospel accounts inform us that the disciples had to be called together,163 which informs us, perhaps to our surprise, that the disciples were not always together, and not always with their Lord, even at this stage in His earthly ministry. Some were family men, and it should therefore not come as a surprise that they were not always with Jesus.
A divine mandate was given the apostles. They were given both the authority and the power necessary to carry out their commission. Only Luke tells us that the apostles were given both power and authority.
The ministry of the apostles was two-fold: they were to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God was at hand; and, they were to heal the sick, which included casting out demons and the raising of the dead (Matthew 10:8). Luke tells us that the disciples were given authority over all demons, which is important, for not all demons were of equal rank or power, and some were much more difficult to cast out, as will be seen in the case of the disciples left behind during the transfiguration (Mark 9:14-32). At this early stage of their ministry, every demon was subject to them.
It is noteworthy that the physical and the spiritual were intertwined in the ministry of the apostles. They were to minister both to the physical (healing) and the spiritual (preaching) needs of the people. This is consistent with the practice of the Lord (cf. 9:11). There is another reason why healing (Mark 6:12 indicates that the healing was accompanied by anointing with oil) was necessary, in my opinion. The practice of the apostles and the power they manifested needed to be consistent with and to underscore the message of the kingdom which they preached. In the Book of Deuteronomy, for example, the Israelites were told that God’s blessing for their obedience to His (Mosaic) covenant would include health and physical prosperity cf. 28:1-14), while disobedience would bring sickness and disease (cf. 28:15ff.). The healing ministry of the apostles was a prototype, a foreshadowing of the kingdom which was to come if the nation repented and turned to God.
The Lord Jesus not only gave the apostles specific instructions about their ministry and message, but also concerning their methods. They were to go all about, from village to village in Galilee. This was, it seems, to be the closing proclamation of the kingdom to Galilee, the conclusion to His Galilean ministry. In this instance, the ministry was to be from village to village, which suggests that it was those small, out of the way places to which the apostles would go, those places which had not yet been visited with a messenger of the good news of the kingdom. No doubt rumors had reached these places, but not an accurate, authoritative proclamation of the good news of the kingdom of God.
We do not know now long this campaign went on, but it would seem to have lasted several weeks anyway. For this, one would normally require a number of provisions. Jesus not only forbade the disciples to take along extra supplies, He insisted that they not take along even the necessities, such as their food. The apostles were to be provided for by the people in the villages they visited, but in a very closely regulated way. They were to come to one of the houses in each village, and announce their message to the residents, and, I would assume, to offer to minister to the physical needs of those people as well.
If the people of this particular house received the pair, they were to make this house their headquarters, the central hub of their ministry. From here the entire village could be reached. The disciples were not to go from house to house, which is the way our minds would have conceived it (since this is one of the popular means of evangelism used by true Christians, and by the cults as well). If welcomed, they were to stay at that one house until they left to go to another village. The people at that home were expected (perhaps aided by food from others in the village) to provide “bed and breakfast” as it were, food and lodging as long as the disciples stayed. Since the apostles not only preached, but healed and cast out demons, their ministry was well worth this small price. If the apostolic team were not welcomed, the entire village was to be abandoned, accompanied by a symbolic gesture which underscored the Gentile-like uncleanness of these people. The response of the first household, then, determined whether or not the team would stay in that village or not.164 There were no second chances.
These instructions which our Lord gave to His disciples—not to take along any of the needed provisions for their travels—should not be viewed as universals, applying to all missionaries or witnesses in all situations. We know that traveling this way is not always required, for later in Luke Jesus specifically reversed the instructions He gave the disciples in our text:
“When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered. He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:35-36).
There was a specific purpose for the instructions which Jesus gave His disciples, a purpose that would be fulfilled, so that different instructions could be given for their future ministry. What was the purpose? What was Jesus trying to do by sending out His disciples without the essentials they needed? I believe that the answer is that Jesus was training the twelve to trust Him for their every need, and especially for their daily needs. If the disciples were to have a roof over their heads at night and food on the table, the power of God would have to be real in and through them. The gospel would have to work. “No work, no eat” has a very different, but a very real relevance to the apostles as they went about, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God and healing the sick.
Had the disciples been allowed to take their own provisions along, the response of the villagers to the gospel messengers would not have been as evident, and the faith of the disciples would not have been stretched. Our Lord’s instructions to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11) could not have more relevant to these twelve men as they went their way, relying upon God’s power to work in and through them, so that the people would receive them and their message as from God, thus supporting them with food and lodging.
The disciples had heard a great deal of teaching from the lips of the Lord Jesus. They had learned a great deal of theology. But now they needed to learn to trust in Him and in His Word. It was the practical theology of trusting Him to empower their ministry and to meet their needs that they were going to learn on this, their first, missionary campaign. The command to take no provisions was designed to create an environment of need where faith was required and where obedience was tested. The ultimate issue for the people of God in every age is not, “How much do you know?” but, “Who do you trust?” The disciples are about to experience the faithfulness of the Lord Jesus in a new way, by living and walking by faith, by trusting in His power and faithfulness, even in His absence.
Herod’s Interest in Jesus
7 Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was going on. And he was perplexed, because some were saying that John had been raised from the dead, 8 others that Elijah had appeared, and still others that one of the prophets of long ago had come back to life. 9 But Herod said, “I beheaded John. Who, then, is this I hear such things about?” And he tried to see him.
It would not have been difficult for Herod to have kept up to date on Jesus’ teaching and activities. Jesus was “the talk of the town.” Word of His approach or arrival was quickly spread (cf. 9:11). In addition, Herod, a highly threatened man, would have undoubtedly had some counterpart to the secret police, who would have kept track of Jesus. But even beyond this, Herod had a very direct source of information. Among those listed of those who accompanied Jesus and contributed to His support was Joanna, the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household (Luke 8:3).
Can’t you just see Herod getting a daily update from Cuza, whose wife must have kept him informed as to Jesus’ every activity?
We are told by all three synoptic writers (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) that Herod had a keen and on-going interest in Jesus. Luke tells us that Herod kept on trying to see Him,165 something which would not occur until the trial of our Lord, preceding His crucifixion (cf. Luke 23:7ff.). I believe that there are several reasons why Herod would have been interested in Jesus.
(1) Herod was a Jew, at least in religion,166 and may have had some religious interest in Messiah.
(2) Herod was a king, and Jesus and His disciples were going about his territory, preaching about THE KINGDOM OF GOD. Herod the Great was so fearful of losing his territory that he was threatened by the birth of a baby, and that he would kill innocent children to rid himself of a potential rival. No doubt Herod Antipas was apprehensive about this Jesus and His teaching. Politically speaking, what the people thought of Jesus (which is where the emphasis falls in our text) would have been more important to Herod than who Jesus really was. Public opinion is always vitally important to a politician, and Herod was well-informed as to who the people thought Jesus was.
(3) Herod was guilty of the murder of John the Baptist, and thus he was haunted by guilt and by a fear that he may have been raised from the dead. John may well have spoken of resurrection from the dead in connection with his preaching on the kingdom of God. Since the message of Jesus (and now His disciples) was the same as that of John, Herod feared that the person was the same, too. The situation is similar, in Herod’s mind to the story of the sorcerer’s apprentice. The apprentice thought that he rid himself of the one “spirit” and ended up with many more. Herod thought his problem was John, but now there was Jesus, and the twelve, and the seventy. Where was it to stop?167
(4) Herod wanted to see Jesus to see a miracle.
When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a miracle. Herod was eager to see Jesus, something like a child being eager to go to the circus.
With Herod’s interest in seeing Him and knowing His identity, why did Jesus actively avoid him? Here was a man with great political power and influence. Here was a man with a keen interest in Jesus. Why would Jesus send His disciples out to the “boonies”—to the insignificant and remote villages of Galilee, when He would not go to the capital? It would seem today that Jesus would have been expected to go to Herod personally. We would justify this with the reasoning, “Just think what Herod could do for the kingdom of God if he were converted … ”
Let me remind you that Herod also had a keen interest in John the Baptist and his ministry. Look what happened to John! The message which Jesus would have delivered to Herod was no different than that which John (unsuccessfully) had delivered to him already. Herod could easily have seen Jesus, but he wanted Jesus to come to his own turf. Herod was, at best, curious about Jesus, and, at worst, jealous and fearful of losing his political power. The kingdom of God is not brought in by human might, nor by political intrigue or ploys. The kingdom of God is not made up of mighty men, but of those who are child-like. Herod was no true seeker. Jesus had no time for him. Herod would have his day with Christ, and on that judgment day Herod would show his true colors. There is yet another appointment for Herod to stand before Christ.
The Feeding of the Five Thousand
10 When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida, 11 but the crowds learned about it and followed him. He welcomed them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing. 12 Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here.” 13 He replied, “You give them something to eat.” They answered, “We have only five loaves of bread and two fish—unless we go and buy food for all this crowd.” 14 (About five thousand men were there.) But he said to his disciples, “Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.” 15 The disciples did so, and everybody sat down. 16 Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to set before the people. 17 They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.
We should begin by taking note of the fact that this miracle, the feeding of the five thousand, is the only miracle, apart from the death and resurrection of our Lord, which is recorded in all four of the Gospel accounts.
The apostles had returned from their missionary tour throughout the villages of Galilee. They reported to the Master all that they had done (9:10). Jesus was taking His disciples aside for a while, in a remote place somewhere near the town of Bethsaida (9:10). A retreat from the crowds seemed advisable for several reasons. First, from Mark’s perspective, they were weary and they needed some relief from the crowds:
The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:30-31).
Matthew’s account gives us a second reason: the beheading of John the Baptist had created a hostile atmosphere. Jesus and His disciples had been ministering in Galilee, Herod’s territory. The retreat was beyond Herod’s territory. This “retreat” would allow the situation to cool down, and to let Herod’s interest in Jesus diminish. Since the Jewish Passover was near (John 6:4), this would remove Jesus from the Jewish mainstream, and it would also help to minimize premature enthusiasm and efforts to make Him king.
Luke does not give us a particular reason or purpose in this retreat, but I think that we can see the above reasons as explanations for it. From Mark 6:31 we know that the disciples were so busy in dealing with the crowds that they didn’t even get the chance to eat. When Jesus therefore invited the disciples to come with Him “to a quiet place and get some rest” (Mark 6:31), it is very doubtful that food was not a part of this plan. I think that they had packed some kind of picnic lunch to take with them. They surely did not expect to find a McDonald’s nearby in the wilderness and to buy a “big Mac” for lunch.
Apparently only one other person had come with a packed lunch. A young boy, whom Luke does not mention, had come with a small and modest lunch (barley loaves and fish was not “steak and ale”). I wonder if he had planned to go fishing at the Sea of Galilee and had come with a sack lunch. When he saw the crowds running around the lake, some of whom reached the other shore before the Lord’s boat, he saw this as more exciting than fishing. He must have followed them with keen interest. Little did he know the role he would play in the events of that day.
Jesus taught and healed, just as He had always done, and as the disciples had done in the villages. As the day wore on, the disciples besought Jesus to send the crowds home, so that they could obtain food. On the surface this appears to be a request based upon the disciples compassion for the crowds. We know, of course, that Jesus had compassion on the crowds. Luke tells us that Jesus “welcomed” the people (9:11). It is Mark who emphasizes His compassion:
When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things (Mark 6:34).
I am not so sure that that disciples shared this compassion. Mentally and emotionally, I don’t think they put out the welcome mat, as Jesus had done. I think that they, like me, would have sighed, “Oh, no!” at the sight of this crowd, at the very time when they had looked forward to a brief retreat, away from the crowds.
I think that they also looked forward to a good meal. I believe that they had packed something very special to eat. Since there was no way that their provisions could feed such a crowd, I think they didn’t bother to mention what they had. They expected Jesus to come to the same conclusion they had reached. It was time to tell the people to go home. They had interrupted the disciples’ retreat. They had delayed their dinner. Enough is enough. Send them home!
It seemed a very reasonable solution. It seemed to be the only possible solution. It even appeared (though I doubt that it was such) to be a compassionate one. How shocked the disciples must have been to hear Jesus’ response, “You give them something to eat” (Luke 9:13).168
Jesus, who would not command a stone to become bread, so as to satisfy His own hunger, commands His disciples to feed the masses. Jesus, who would not feed Jairus’ daughter, but commanded her parents to do so, now tells His disciples to feed this crowd!
The disciples thought that acquiring food was the people’s problem. Jesus told the disciples it was their problem. How could this be? How could Jesus command His disciples to do what was impossible? Jesus held His disciples responsible for meeting the physical needs of this huge crowd. Those who had just spent several weeks, living by the hospitality of the village people, were now to be hospitable. But how?
Jesus could have done things much differently, making things a great deal easier on the disciples. He (knowing all things) would have known that this problem was going to arise, so He could have made advanced preparations. He could have had food brought out. He could even have miraculously provided a huge supply of food, and then commanded His disciples to serve it. But this is not the way that Jesus chose to meet the needs of the crowd.
While the Lord is the One who fed the five thousand, it was the twelve disciples were very much involved in the process of the feeding. They were to survey the crowd, seeking to discover what their resources were (Why did they not include their own food, which I think they had brought with them?). They were to have the crowds sit down in groups of 50,169 so that they could eat. The disciples passed out the food, miraculously multiplied as it was divided by Jesus. And, the disciples also collected the portions which people had not taken (not, I think, what scraps were left on their proverbial plates).
What the disciples were commanded to do, they had to do in faith. They had to act before Jesus provided. They had the people sit down to eat when there was no food. The people surely knew this. They had heard the disciples asking how much food was on hand. They knew there was virtually no food. They saw what little the boy had brought. The disciples had to begin passing out the food. When and how the food was multiplied, we do not know. But just as the priests who bore the ark had to get their feet wet before the Red Sea parted or the Jordan ceased to flow, the disciples had to act before the solution was given. God acted through the disciples, as they obeyed.
The unused, unneeded portion of food was collected by the disciples. It was surely no coincidence that there were twelve baskets full, one for each disciple. Those who had tried to persuade Jesus that there was no way this crowd could be fed, now had to carry the leftovers. Can you imagine walking alongside Peter as he carried his basket and groaned, “Man, this basket is heavy!”
By the way, is this story of the feeding of the five thousand not a beautiful illustration and assurance of our Lord’s promise of provision which can be found in the Sermon on the Mount? Remember these words:
“So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 7:31-33).
The crowds sought the Savior, first and foremost. They took no thought about what they would eat, wear, or drink on that day. Something which may have annoyed some of the disciples as foolish. But because they sought the Savior most of all, He met their physical needs.
I believe that we can see from our text that the purpose, the goal of our Lord’s dealings with the disciples was to train them in the area of faith. The “Training of the Twelve” was, first and foremost, training them to trust in Him. The means of training the twelve in faith was not “teaching” per se, but testing them. Jesus commanded the twelve to act in obedience to His command, without the means to do so. Jesus commanded the disciples to obey Him, without having the human means of doing so, and thus having to trust Him to provide for their needs.
Jesus commanded the disciples to go out, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God and healing, yet without the necessary provisions of food, housing, and clothing. These would be provided for them through those who believed their message, as the power of the gospel was worked out through their preaching and healing. If the gospel did not work, if the Lord’s promises were not true, the disciples would have been in trouble. Jesus’ commandments were purposed to create needs which only He could provide, and which would be obtained only through faith.
The great need of the disciples, like us, was not to know more (in a purely intellectual way) about Jesus, but to trust Him more. The disciples also needed to learn to trust in Him in His absence. Jesus could have gone with His disciples, but He purposely stayed behind. They needed to find Him sufficient in His absence, for they would soon learn that He would not be with them (in His physical body) for long.
There are several principles evident in our text which not only apply to the disciples, but also apply to us. Let me mention these, along with some of their implications, as we conclude this message.
(1) The Lord teaches us to trust Him by commanding us to do that which is beyond our means to do. When you stop to think about it, all of the commands of God are impossible for fallen, sinful man to obey. That is why we must not only be saved by faith, but we must walk by faith. God’s commandments are not humanly possible. The burden imposed by Judaistic Pharsaism were heave because no one offered help to do them (Matthew 23:4). Jesus’ burden is light, not because it is easy, but because He provides the means to do what He commands (cf. Matthew 11:28-30).
(2) God uses human “needs” as an avenue for teaching and testing our faith. In the first section of our passage, the disciples had to go forth, trusting in the Lord for their “bed and breakfast,” as well as for their power and authority to preach and to heal. It is indeed difficult to trust God in those areas where we do not sense of need. This is why it is so difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, and so blessed to be poor, by our Lord’s own words (cf. Luke 18:25; 6:20). Jesus’ commandments in our text would remind us that faith is seldom learned in the classroom, but is learned in the crises of life, when we must obey God without all the visible means available to do so.
(3) Human needs will either be viewed as an occasion for faith, or they will become the excuse for our unbelief and disobedience. In the case of the feeding of the five thousand it was the lack of food supplies in hand which seemed to justify the disciples’ conclusion that the crowds be sent away, hungry. In what appears to be “pseudo compassion” the disciples urge Jesus to send the crowds away, to meet their own needs. I think that the disciples were disappointed that they could not be alone with Jesus. I suspect that they did not want the crowds at all. This was their “lion in the road” (to use a expression from Proverbs), their compelling reason to do what they wanted to do anyway. Jesus’ response indicated that the disciples were wrong. That the peoples’ need for food was to be met.
Deficiency, the absence of the needed element, is often used as an excuse for sin and for disobedience. I believe that the lack of food masked the disciples’ lack of compassion and even their exasperation with the crowds. It may also have masked the fact that they had a private stock of food (which they brought for their picnic lunch—they planned to be away, in a remote place, the people didn’t) which they did not count in the “resource search,” which they planned to consume when the crowds left.
In businesses, and even in Christian ministries, there is one statement which seems to put plans to rest, without any further discussion: “We don’t have the money.” Everybody says, in effect, “Well, I guess that does it. I guess we cannot do anything more.” Jesus did not tolerate this answer. Not having the means was no excuse. Jesus thrust the responsibility for feeding the crowds back on the disciples, even though they lacked the (human) means to feed them. The one thing they failed to recall was that Jesus has all the means required to do any task he purposes to do. The question is not our Lord’s means, but His purposes, His will. When Jesus commanded the disciples to go out from village to village, even without provisions, it was obvious that the disciples must obey, with provisions in advance or not. When Jesus commanded them to feed the five thousand it was their obligation to obey, whether or not the food was yet present.
Lacking the means to do what God commands is not only evident in the sinful excuses men sometimes offer when money is lacking, deficiency of various kinds are used to excuse many forms of sin and disobedience. In a land of plenty, I am amazed how often we talk about our deficiencies, and seldom speak of our over-abundance.
Let me mention some of the present-day deficiencies which are often used to excuse sin. There is the lack of proper balance of body hormones. A specialized form of this is seen in frequent references to PMS. There is the problem of low blood sugar, low self-esteem, and the deprivations of parental affection. There is the lack of submission on the part of the wife, the lack of leadership of the part of the husband, which excuses all kinds of evils.
I do not deny that all of these deficiencies are real (many times) real problems, with great pain and difficulty associated. But what I am saying is that the lack of these things is, according to our text, the occasion for faith and obedience, not the excuse for disobedience, sin, and bad behavior. We always lack the means to do what God requires of us, and yet He commands us to obey because He is always faithful to provide the means to do His commands. When we excuse ourselves from obedience to His commands, we use our deficiencies as an excuse for sin, rather than as an occasion for faith.
(4) Lacking the means to do something is not necessarily proof that God does not want us to do what requires these things, nor that we should not attempt to do them. Having no food was not justification for sending the crowds away hungry. Are we always to see deficiency as a justification for failing to do anything? Are we always to suppose that we are to act when we do not have the means? How do we know when we should or should not do something? I believe that the ultimate answer is that we are always obliged to act to meet the needs of others when those needs are valid and vital, and when we have a clear imperative from God to do so. In my opinion, the Great Commission is a clear imperative from God to meet the need of a dying world to hear the good news of the gospel. In addition, we have His promise to be with us as we carry out this task. The commandments to live holy lives, to put off the old man, to put on the new, to be filled with the Spirit, are all impossible in the power of the flesh, but provided for by the sending of the Holy Spirit. We have in each of these cases, a command and a promise of His provision. We must act, we must obey, when we have a clear command, and a promise of His provision.
(5) God’s provisions come at the point of our inadequacy. The Lord did not provide for His disciples or the crowds until their human resources were expended. That is why Jesus did not feed Jairus’ daughter, but He did feed the crowd. Our insufficiency, our inadequacy is the point at which divine power is provided, and usually not before. Paul put it this way:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
(6) Some needs are more important than others, and thus they must be prioritized. Some needs are not genuine needs at all. Satan, for example, fabricated a “need” for Adam and Eve to eat of the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, so that they could be “like God.” Other needs are real, but of lower priority than others. Jesus, during His temptation in the wilderness, had the “need” for food, and Satan tried to persuade Him that He should use His divine power to satisfy this need (“turn this stone into bread”). Jesus’ response informs Satan that His need to obey God is more important than His need for food, even for physical life. Jesus commanded His disciples not to take along provisions for their journey so that their need for food and shelter would be subordinated to their need to obey.
In the feeding of the five thousand the disciples were also to learn that the meeting of their physical needs was to be subordinated to meeting the needs of the crowd for food. They were to trust God to meet their needs, and were to devote themselves to meeting the needs of the crowd. And when they let God worry about their needs, they ended up abundantly provided for, each having a basket filled with food. The world says, “God helps those who help themselves.” This text teaches us that “God helps those who help others.”
(7) God often chooses to use little to create much. Jesus could have created a sumptuous meal out of nothing, just as He created the world ex-nihilo, from nothing. But Jesus chose to feed the five thousand by multiplying the scant sack lunch of the little boy. This “little” includes not only the grossly inadequate supply of food of the young lad, but our faltering, fallible, puny efforts as men and women.
There is a frequently employed little/much theme in the Bible. Elijah used the little bit of flour in the widow’s container, and it become, over time, much. God used the little thing of Moses’ staff to become the instrument through which much was done. Gideon’s army was whittled down to a more little group of 300 so that God could bring about a great victory through them. David was but a little shepherd boy when he killed Goliath. On and on it goes.
Jesus used the five loaves and two fishes and made a great meal. He used “little people,” that is weak, uneducated men as His disciples, yet what great things He accomplished through them. Jesus commended the apparently insignificant gift (of two mites) of the widow. He taught that the slave who did not make good use of that which was entrusted to him was lazy and wicked, even though he was given little, compared to others (Matthew 25:24-30).
We often have a “drop in the bucket” mentality. We see the needs around us as so great, and our resources as so small, that we despair of making any significant contribution. We, like the disciples, conclude that it is better to send people away (or to stay away from them) then to do something which is small. We think of India, for example, and its poverty, and we want to throw up our hands and forget it. But this text and many others teach us that our “little contribution” is all important.
Sometimes it may be due to a misapplication of our theology that contributes to our sin in this area. We believe (or we should!) that man is totally depraved, that he is not sick with sin but dead in sin. Fallen, sinful man cannot do anything to contribute to his salvation. God must do it all. We merely accept what He has accomplished.
But then we go on to think that we cannot contribute anything in the realm of Christian service, and in so doing we are wrong. Apart from God’s supernatural intervention and blessing, apart from His multiplication of what we have done, our service will accomplish nothing, but the Bible teaches that we are to do what we see needs to be done, to the degree that we are able. God often uses the little that we do to accomplish great things.
For example, we know that we cannot create light in the darkness of men’s hearts, nor can be bring dead men to life (spiritually speaking, as well as physically), and yet we can share our faith, we can tell others the good news of the Gospel. The Holy Spirit of God can multiply that simple effort. He can convict men of their sin. He can regenerate men, bringing them to life. God has chosen to save men through the seemingly little thing of others sharing their faith. When we fail to do the little things which we can do, we sin, and we hinder (not prevent) the work of God through us.
If the events of our text were intended to teach the disciples to trust and to obey, I believe that God’s purpose in this account was to do likewise for each of us. For any who have never come to a personal faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior, their Sin-bearer, I urge you to trust in Him for salvation. And for those who have come to faith in Him as Savior, I pray that we may trust in Him as the all-sufficient One who provides for us to do all that He commands.
163 “We should not exaggerate the amount of time the apostles spent together. some of them had homes and families in Capernaum and we need not doubt that they spent some of the time at their homes. But on this solemn occasion Jesus called them all together.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According To St. Luke, The Tyndale Bible Commentary Series, R. V. G. Tasker, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p. 163.
165 “Not merely ‘he desired’ (AV.), but ‘he continued seeking to see Him.’ He made various attempts to apply a test which would have settled the question.” Alfred Plummer, The Gospel According to S. Luke, The International Critical Commentary Series, (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1969), p. 242.
Herod’s father, Herod the Great, was an Idumaean by race and Jewish in his religion. He was thus considered, at best, a “half-Jew” by the Jews themselves. My point is that Herod Antipas considered himself Jewish, and thus would have had an interest in the identity of Jesus.
168 There is an emphatic “you” here. The disciples are responsible for feeding the people. They play a strong role in this, directed by the Lord: “‘Ye are to find food for them, not they.’” Plummer, p. 244.