Mark 6:41-44 And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And they all ate and were satisfied. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.
The feeding of the five thousand. It is the only miracle Jesus performed prior to his crucifixion that all four Gospel writers saw fit to include in their accounts of his life and ministry (see Matt 14:13-21; Mark 6:30-44; Luke 9:10-17, and John 6:1-15), no doubt for the unique and unforgettable way the miracle reveals Jesus’ glory as the great provider for his people.
The significance of the feeding of the five thousand is not simply that Jesus made bread and fish for people who otherwise wouldn’t have had any. The significance of the miracle is that Jesus is able to make bread and fish with his bare hands; that he can create bread and fish at will, by his own power. What this reveals is that he is no mere man. He is truly and fully man, and yet truly and fully God. He is the one through whom all things were brought into existence. He is the one who upholds all things by the word of his power, and it is out of that very power that he promises to faithfully provide for his people.
And lest we forget, this same all-powerful Lord is the one who paid for our redemption in full through his death on the cross, who has set us free from the punishment our sins deserve, and who gives us increasing freedom from sin’s dominion over our lives by the same power that raised him from the dead.
The feeding of the five thousand, when we remember who it was that multiplied the loaves and fish for thousands of people late one evening many years ago, helps us remember that all who follow Jesus in repentance and faith will be safe with him wherever he leads, whether in life or in death. Jesus always provides for his people, and Christian, he will provide faithfully for you.
Yet, one thing Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the five thousand also reveals, which I can testify to from my own experience, is that often times it is the will of Christ to provide for his people in the wilderness.
Provision in a Desolate Place
Matthew and Mark tell us that the feeding of the five thousand took place somewhere offshore of the Sea of Galilee in Jewish territory, in what each of them describe as a “desolate place” (Matt 14:13; Mark 6:31); a wilderness type of place.
That this amazing miracle was performed in the wilderness is greatly significant, and what it shows is that one of the main messages of this miracle is not simply that Jesus will provide for his people, but that he will provide for them in places of zero resources.
Consider the scene of the feeding of the five thousand. The disciples are tired, spent, hungry, perhaps discouraged, and even afraid, because ministry in Jesus’s name is hard work. They have been preaching about Jesus, calling people to repent of their sins, and ministering to hurt and satanically oppressed people. When they return to Jesus He notices they need rest. Mark 6:31 says, “And he (Jesus) said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest a while.’ For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.” Jesus is not simply working to provide for his disciples; he is going to provide for his tired disciples. Their weakness is the backdrop of this miraculous provision.
Jesus calls them away to a “secluded place” – an uninhabited, deserted, lonely, solitary, desolate place. Mark reiterates this in three different places (Mark 6:31, 32, 35). It is not a place where people live.
Furthermore, no one has adequate food supply to feed the massive crowd. There are no resources to meet the need of the crowd. The disciples get this. They don’t have food for themselves, let alone enough to feed this crowd. As they walk around to find out what others have, they discover that no one in the crowd has any more than them. Jesus seems to want to press this point home for them, which is why when then they come to him with the need for food he says, “You give them something to eat” (Mark 6:37, italics mine). Jesus is helping the disciples see how much they lack and how inadequate they are to meet the need of the people on their own.
This is also why Jesus told the disciples to go out and find out how much food they could collect, for how much do they find? Only enough to feed a poor kid. Jesus wants them to take note of the fact that human resources are utterly inadequate to meet this need. This is one of those overwhelming situations where you look around and say, “How in the world is this going to get fixed?” And Jesus wants it this way.
So, the scene is set. Tired disciples. A desolate place. Hungry people. No resources. And no workable plan. Yet, it is here that every person eats to complete satisfaction. Mark 6:42 says, “They all ate and were satisfied.” That is, they were fed until they did not want any more food. The food never ran out; their stomachs just couldn’t hold any more. Jesus provides abundantly for his disciples, even in the wilderness. The context around this miracle helps us see that.
The wider testimony of Scripture consistently teaches us this same principle. Time and time again, God shows his faithfulness to provide for his people in barren places. In fact, often times the sweetest provisions of Christ are reserved for the most barren of places, which so many people and situations in the Bible demonstrate. God often takes those He loves into desolate places. He did it with Israel, as he did with Abraham and Joseph and David, along with many others, including his own Son, Jesus, and a great majority of his followers.
He often does this with us as well. The wilderness is often the setting of God’s provision. When you find yourself in a desolate place, remember that many people deeply loved by God have been there before you. It is God’s way to bring discomfort to the lives of his people that He might show them hisfaithfulness in a striking and memorable way.
Why does God work this way?
Without a doubt, the ways of God in this case (as in many cases) are highly counter-intuitive. We tend to think his care for us ought to compel Him to give us immediate comfort. If He cares for us, why would he ever take us to the wilderness? When we find ourselves in the wilderness we’re often tempted to question his purposes and doubt his goodness, but we must remember this is simply how he often works.
The Lord works this way in large part to show us that he is the one we ultimately need; to show us that we need him more than we need food. Times in the wilderness are times for our hearts to learn that what we ultimately need is neither food nor money, neither nice clothes nor a nice house, not a good job nor people to admire us, nor “successful” ministries, nor happy marriages, nor vacations or relaxation or entertainment or even sleep. We tend to treat these things as ultimate in barren days, but they are not ultimate things. They are not what we ultimately need.
What we ultimately need is God; God in the flesh. We need the Good Shepherd who came to sheep without a shepherd, who laid his life down for His sheep, and who cares for them by his Spirit through his sovereign word. We need Jesus. He is the One we need the most.
In Deuteronomy 8:3, Moses says that this is essentially what God sought to teach the Israelites during their days in the wilderness. There he says to the people of Israel, “He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD.”
It was the love and faithfulness of the Lord that compelled him to lead Israel into the wilderness, and it is his love and faithfulness that will often lead us there as well. The Lord will lead us into barren places, in order to show us that he is the one we ultimately need and that his word is more necessary to our existence than food.
A Word of Encouragement
On my heart in this post are those I know who are living in a barren place right now. Many people I love are experiencing some very difficult (even excruciating) circumstances, even as I write. Some are staring at empty bank accounts; others at empty pews. Some are dealing with physical pain; others with the pain of relational conflict. Some are family members; others are dear friends. Some are in my local church, while others I only know from the internet. Each of them have one thing in common; as they look around at their circumstances, needs abound and natural resources are nowhere to be found. They’re living in the wilderness.
As for myself, while I am not currently living there, I certainly have in the past. I’ve lost jobs, been betrayed, struggled in a broken marriage, lived on ramen noodles and bologna, watched our local church shrink, feared the future, and have had to reckon with what I have at times perceived to be a remarkably unsuccessful ministry with little visible fruit. I know what it’s like to live in the wilderness too.
To those who are living there now, I encourage you to take heart. You are not in the wilderness without cause, and you are not there alone. Many have been there before you and many are with you now, including Jesus himself, who could fix your circumstances in a heartbeat, but whose love for you prevents him from doing so. He will provide for you, brother, sister. He will demonstrate his power and grace in your life, that much is sure. But there is a strong possibility that he may do that not by leading you out of the wilderness, but by encouraging you with his abiding presence through his living word in the wilderness; that you might see just how much you need him and just how sufficient he is to meet the greatest needs of your soul.
There are things for us to learn in the wilderness that are far more difficult to learn in times of prosperity and ease. While we might prefer times of prosperity over times of barrenness, in many ways seasons prosperity are far more dangerous to our spiritual health than seasons of great need. In prosperity, it becomes altogether too easy to forget how much we need Christ. Prosperity in the Christian life often leads to a spiritual inebriation that only suffering can cure. Though the stomach may growl intensely in the wilderness, there the soul is awakened and the eyes of the heart opened to our great need for Christ, and his great sufficiency to meet our every need.
Don’t fear the wilderness, Christian. Jesus will provide for you there. Perhaps not in the way that you desire, but quite assuredly in the way that you need. One way or another, he will surely come through, even in the wilderness.