Mark 8:1-10 | The Feeding of the Four Thousand
8 In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, 2 “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. 3 And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” 4 And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” 5 And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” 6 And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. 7 And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. 8 And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 9 And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. 10 And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.
Mark loves to talk about the miracles of Jesus. He includes eighteen in total, thirteen in the first seven chapters, and a fourteenth here in chapter 8. This feeding of the four thousand is very similar to the feeding of the five thousand back in chapter 6. Some scholars think they’re the same event. Maybe Mark got confused, or put it in twice to make some point. But that can’t be. The Bible doesn’t include mistakes and it doesn’t tell us things happened that didn’t just to make a good story.
The feeding of the four thousand and the feeding of the five thousand, while similar, are two separate events. Compare them, and the details prove it. And if that’s not enough, Jesus himself refers to them as separate events in Mark 8:19-20. But if we read the whole Bible, this story doesn’t surprise us. Throughout the Bible God provides for his people time and time again.
For example, remember back in the Old Testament when God brought Israel out of Egypt? In the wilderness without food, what did God do? Every day he dropped a brand new food, called Manna, from heaven. God worked this miracle every day.
Fast forward about 600 years and in an event eerily similar to the feeding of the four thousand, a man brought twenty loaves of bread to the prophet Elisha. Elisha commanded him to give it to the hundred men before him to eat. The man, rightly, wondered how so little could feed so many, But he obeyed, and as he set it before them, God multiplied the loaves, they all ate, and had some left over.
So what we have here in Mark 8 isn’t just a retelling of Mark 6. It’s a retelling of Exodus 16 and of 2 Kings 4 and all the other times throughout the Bible when God provided for his people. What Jesus is doing is proving he’s from God and, more deeply, that he is God.
Jesus didn’t perform a new kind of miracle with these four thousand. He didn’t intend to. What he intended to do was to do for this crowd what he’s done for so many throughout history. He intended to tie this event in with the whole witness of Scripture that screams to us all: God cares for his people!
When we read the Bible, we can’t argue with that truth. It’s just so clear. But when we think about applying that truth to ourselves, I wonder, do we believe it? Do you believe God cares for you? I find it so easy to believe God cares for someone else. But me? I know myself. I know I’m not lovable—not really.
Yet I want to be loved. I want to be cared for. So do you. Well, God considers that desire, when it’s turned toward him, requirement enough to lavish himself upon you. He will take that need and multiply it into a glorious future.
But here’s our problem. We forget Jesus is the one who can fill us up. Like his disciples, we can stand with Jesus and forget Jesus at the same time. So passages like this help us see how wonderful Jesus really is. This is the kind of passage that clears our view, that wipes away the grime from off the windshield and lets the sun in.
So let’s consider it in three parts:
The compassion of Jesus
The provision of Jesus
The satisfaction of Jesus
The Compassion of Jesus (vv. 1-3)
Look at verse 2. Jesus says something really interesting. “I have compassion on the crowd.”
It’s interesting because Jesus doesn’t often tell us what he’s feeling. The authors of the gospels give us insight via commentary, but it’s rare to have Jesus’ own words explain his emotional state. In fact, this is the only time where Jesus speaks of his own compassion toward a group of people.
This is striking for a few reasons.
First, because of who’s in the crowd. We know from the end of chapter 7 that Jesus was in the region of the Decapolis, which means he was beyond the Jewish world of Galilee and in Gentile territory. I’m sure some Jews were among them. After all, Jesus’ going tells us it wasn’t off limits. But by and large these weren’t good, church-going people. They were idol worshipers and pagans. But they heard of Jesus, and when he came to town, they went out to a desolate place to listen to him. It’s these people upon whom Jesus has compassion.
The word Mark used for “compassion” comes from a word meaning entrails or vital organs. It means to be moved deeply within, in the very seat of emotions. One commentator says this word “is not used of people for whom one would naturally feel compassion (such as friends or compatriots), but for those far removed and even offensive: lepers (1:41), revolutionaries (6:34), Gentiles (8:2), and demon-possessed (9:22).” (Edwards, J. R.)
So we see again that Jesus has compassion on the undeserving. He loves the unlovable. That’s really good news because it opens him up to us all. If Jesus had compassion on that crowd, maybe he could have compassion on this crowd. Maybe our past doesn’t define us but Jesus’ compassion does. Maybe his compassion is for all kinds of people with all kinds of sin because his love is too great to be limited to what we deserve (Ray Ortlund).
But that doesn’t mean Jesus’ compassion comes to people who don’t want it. Notice why Jesus had compassion on them. Look again at verse 2. “Because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat.”
That phrase “have been with me” (other translations say “remain”) means more than just attendance. It means they’ve been paying great attention to him. Commentator R. Allen Cole said, “they had not merely sought him for the food that he would give…This audience had proved their sense of spiritual values by three days of eager listening to the preaching of Jesus first. It was not merely that they were hungry, but that they had become hungry in God’s service, and so theirs was to be an experience of ‘seek first his kingdom…and all these things shall be yours as well.’…For such a people, Jesus would work a miracle, and give them the food that they had not sought first.”
They weren’t there to see a show. They were there to see Jesus, to listen and learn and grow. Mark doesn’t often paint the crowds in a positive light, but he does here because they’ve come to see Jesus and Jesus only. They weren’t there for a miracle, and that’s why they got one.
So these people didn’t do anything to draw out Jesus compassion. The only reason they received it is because they stayed with him. Isn’t that amazing? They didn’t give him anything. They didn’t perform for him. All they did was remain with him and listen to him. Some were Gentiles and some were probably Jews, but that didn’t matter. Some were probably healthy and some were probably sick, but that didn’t matter. Some were probably wealthy and some were probably poor, but that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that they were still there after three days even with nothing to eat.
This is so convicting! I find it hard to remain with Jesus for a few minutes, much less three whole days. Have we not all left Jesus for far less than a starving belly? Our phone beeps and it’s more urgent than Jesus. Something catches our eye or ear and we turn away from him. Small things interrupt us while our big God is before us. But these people stuck with Jesus even as their bellies rumbled and their bodies grew weak. Some came from far away, and we find it difficult to come to church on Sunday morning. They were willing to journey to the desolate place just to be with Jesus. That’s the kind of heart that gets Jesus’ attention—the open heart, the listening heart, the heart needy for a word from God.
Jesus had compassion on the crowd and wanted to give them something before they went away. He didn’t want them to faint. So he summoned his disciples—a phrase Mark often used to indicate Jesus is about to do something special. He saw their need and prepared to provide. The compassion of Jesus always leads to the provision of Jesus, which is our second point.
The Provision of Jesus (vv. 4-7)
The crucial point of the passage comes in verse 4. It’s crucial because it gives insight into Jesus’ disciples that becomes a major theme in the next half of Mark’s gospel. And it’s crucial because it give insight in our attitude toward God far too often.
Look at it again. After Jesus says he has compassion on the crowd and wants to feed them, the disciples answered, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?”
This is astounding. Have they forgotten what just happened in the feeding of the five thousand a mere two chapters ago? Apparently. Here are fewer people and two more loaves than before, yet the disciples still wonder how they’ll be fed.
They only see an impossibility, not an opportunity. They’re not even thinking about what Jesus could do. The literal reading of this question is more like, “Who in this desolate place can satisfy their hunger?” The emphasis is on the “who” and the “satisfaction.” Having experienced his provision in a setting just like this before, they have no idea who in the world could possible provide for these hungry people.
We just want to scream, “What idiots!” But we can’t, can we? Aren’t they just like us? Don’t we forget the past provision of God? Don’t we factor God out of the equation in so many of our problems? Even when he’s made himself so apparent throughout our life, even though he’s rescued us from our sin, when we’re faced with a difficulty, it’s hard to trust God can do something we can’t see.
The Reformer John Calvin put it this way. “There is not a day on which a similar indifference does not steal upon us; and we ought to be the more careful not to allow our minds to be drawn away from the contemplation of divine benefits, that the experience of the past may lead us to expect for the future the same assistance which God has already on one or more occasions bestowed upon us.”
The biggest sin in our life is not the one most obvious to us. We focus on lust or jealousy or something else, but God says our biggest sin, the sin underneath every other, is our forgetfulness of him as God. That’s why the first of the Ten Commandments is, “You shall have no other gods before me.” We break all the other commandment only after we break the first one.
We forget who God is so quickly. God knows that, so on the front end of the Ten Commandment, in Exodus 20, he reminds Israel who he is. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Before God commands, he reminds. Why? Because if we have any hope to obey him at all, we must remember what he’s done in the past. This is part of what makes the gospel so unique. God doesn’t save us after we’ve earned it. God saves us before. Grace comes before the law, even in the Ten Commandments. The Bible says, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
The greatest sin for which Christ died is this sin of forgetting that God is God. This is the mega-sin God’s people have always been guilty of. Israel committed this sin time and time again. One day, the prophet Isiah was sent to rebuke them. Isaiah 42:18 says, “Hear, you deaf, and look, you blind that you may see!” God is blunt with Israel. “You’re deaf. You’re blind. I’ve done so much for you in the past but you can’t—or you won’t—hear or see.” Israel turned their back on God. They forgot who he was. They couldn’t hear his miraculous works and couldn’t see his miraculous provision. When everything was on the line, they looked at the world and wondered who would save them. And here in this desolate place with Jesus standing before them the disciples wonder the same thing. They, of all people, should have heard Jesus’ words and smiled at one another, knowing something great was coming, but instead they questioned him as if he was just another man with a good idea. Why do tend to treat Jesus as if he’s just another voice among the many? As if he has some good ideas, he has something to say, but he has no power to provide. Jesus was preparing a coming miracle and all the disciples heard was a problem. What do we hear when Jesus speaks? Do we hear his promise or do we only see our problems?
The disciples show us that it is possible—oh, this is terrifying—it is possible to be with Jesus, even listening to Jesus, and not hear what he’s saying. It’s possible to be standing with Jesus and forgetting Jesus at the same time. These disciples are proof and, as Calvin said, they are a warning to us to not allow our mind to be drawn away from what God has done in the past as we look at the present and into the future.
So how can we be the opposite of the disciples in this passage and stick close to Jesus, expect much of him, and consider him in all our troubles? Well, how did it happen for the deaf and blind people of Isaiah’s day? A few verses after calling them deaf and blind, God says this, “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1). The only hope we have is God coming to us again in mercy and grace. Our only hope is that God has redeemed and called us by name and made us his. If you’re in Christ, your deafness and blindness does not define your future; Christ’s provision does. Though we forget Jesus, Jesus never forgets us. Our sins, they are many, but his mercy is more!
Jesus helps us grow and change, forgiving us and bringing us back to himself. The disciples are proof. Look at what Jesus does with them. Why did he summon them? He needed supplies. He asked how many loaves they had. “Seven.” He asked how many fish. “A few small ones.” (Actually, they were like sardines, that’s the word there.) At what point do you think their eyes and ears began opening? When do you think they realized what Jesus intended to do? We don’t know, but as they brought their resources to him—look at verse 6—“he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to”—what?—“to set before the people.”
What’s Jesus doing? He’s providing food for the crowd, yes. But he’s doing something else too. He’s providing for his disciples. He’s reminding them of who he is for his people. He’s reminding them that he cares for his people—he even cares for them, deaf and blind as they are. And the fact that he put the miraculous bread in their hands to deliver to the people proves he hasn’t given up on them. That he is the God who blots out their transgressions for his own sake, and will not remember their sins (Isaiah 43:25).
We are deaf and blind but God has made us for purposes of glory. He knows our frame, that we are dust, but he keeps using us because he keeps summing us to himself for another miracle. And when we awake afresh to him, he deploys us for his glory. Jesus uses normal things like bread and fish and you and me to work miracles in this world.
Jesus did not ask the disciples to create the miracle. That was his job. All he asked them to do was deliver the miracle to those who needed it. That’s what he’s asking of us as well. There is no miracle this world needs that Jesus won’t provide in himself. He’s simply asking us to trust him enough to take what he’s provided to those who need it. We are merely servants of the King—the kind of king that has compassion on a crowd that no one else would want and forgives disciples that others would abandon. He not only cares, he provides.
All we must do to enter that wonderful reality is yield to the Spirit of God moving right now. To trust him, no matter what we face, and see what only God can do for people like us. Our greatest fear is that Jesus can’t, or won’t provide. Let’s deny that thought. Let’s lift our eyes to Jesus who can wash away our sins and make us new, who can multiply loaves and fish in the desert, who can raise the dead. Let’s lift our eyes to the God who has already done so much for so many and dare to believe he can do it for us right now. A.W. Tozer said it well. “Unbelief says: Some other time, but not now; some other place, but not here; some other people, but not us. Faith says: Anything He did anywhere else He will do here; anything He did any other time He is willing to do now; anything He ever did for other people He is willing to do for us! With our feet on the ground, and our head cool, but with our heart ablaze with the love of God, we walk out in this fullness of the Spirit, if we will yield and obey.”
You know, we don’t know how Jesus performed this miracle. Seven loaves and a few sardines shouldn’t feed four thousand people. But that’s what make him God and us not. There’s no scientific explanation for this. Who cares? That’s not the point. The point is that we have a king who doesn’t look at a crowd and wish he could do something. We have a King who looks at a crowd and creates a feast in a desolate place with more left over.
All he’s asking of us right now is to believe him and follow him all the way to the end. What else does he need to prove before we trust him? He became the King who was crucified, the Savior who suffered, the man of sorrows who endured the cross to save us and forgive us and set us right with him forever.
When we come to Christ, we find he not only provides but also satisfied, which is our third point.
The Satisfaction of Jesus (vv. 8-10)
Look at verse 8. “And they ate and were satisfied.” Oh, I love that sentence. The provision of Jesus is not just an okay meal. What Jesus gives is satisfying.
But he doesn’t just satisfy. He more than satisfies. Look at verse 8. “They took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full.” These weren’t to-go boxes. These were big baskets. This is the same word Luke used in Acts 9 to describe the kind of basket Paul was put in to lower him over the wall. These were man-sized baskets!
When it comes to Christ, my friend Jared Wilson says, “We are not marginally satisfied—steadying the rumble in our tummies—but joyously full! In Christ, we are eternally satisfied, abundantly satisfied, mightily satisfied. And because the miracles are not ends in themselves but signs pointing to Jesus himself, we are reminded here that we are not merely saved but eternally saved, abundantly saved, mightily saved.”
When Jesus provides, he gives more than we were expecting. When we come to him for forgiveness, we expect a cleaning of the slate. But Jesus does more than that! He gives us his slate, full of his perfect righteousness. When we come to him for peace, we expect a relief of anxiety. But Jesus does more than that! He gives a peace that passes all understanding and guards our heart and mind in him. When we come to him for spiritual strength, we expect a mild pick me up. But Jesus does more than that! He gives far more abundantly than all that we ask or think. Whatever you need from Christ, he over-provides. He totally, and fully, satisfies.
But maybe you’re thinking about a need right now. Maybe you feel like you’re in the desolate place. You’ve come and listened to him. You want him, but you’re not sure what else to do. You need a break-through. You need King Jesus to do something new in your life. Well, listen, Jesus can do that for you. His eye is upon you. You are not here by accident. You are here by divine providence. He sees all your needs, even down to the rumble of the belly that’s gone too long without food. He knows your need before you ask for provision. He has compassion on you, and though it may feel like a long time coming, Jesus is going to fully satisfy your every need.
But Jesus hasn’t promised to satisfy our every longing today. We aren’t home yet. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have enough bread to get you home today without fainting. He will provide what you need as you go where he leads. His mercies are new every morning.
Jesus sent these people away full, but he knew it wasn’t a fullness that would last forever. We can’t live on one meal. We can’t live on one memory. We need constant nourishment. We need a constant miracle.
So Jesus did something more than anyone that day could have imagined. In Mark’s gospel, this is near the end of his presentation as Jesus as the long-awaited King. He’s about to pivot to present the King’s cross. Jesus left that desolate place and walked toward another, to satisfy a wrath that hung over our head since the day Adam and Eve fell in the Garden. To care for his people.
As Jesus went, his ministry became more public, the opposition became more intense, death’s shadow stretched out over him. But he had compassion on his people, and he aimed to provide the satisfaction they needed.
The deepest meaning of this miracle is not the bread and fish that the people ate that day. The deepest meaning of this miracle is that through his death on the cross, Jesus became the bread of life given for us. He became, as the Apostle Paul said, the one bread that we all—Jew and Gentile alike—partake of (1 Corinthians 10:17) and find life in.
Way back in the Garden of Eden, surrounded by food, the Devil came to Adam and Eve and said, “Take, and eat.” That taking and that eating was in rebellion against God because it was the one tree they from which they shouldn’t have taken and eaten. That was a devastating meal. It left them emptier than ever before and more unsatisfied than they ever imagined they could be.
What was God’s response? Thousands of years later, Jesus stood and said, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger” (John 6:35). He said, “Take, and eat.” In that taking from Jesus’ hand and eating of Jesus’ bread, he undid the work of Satan. He reversed the curse and put his people back in the Garden with him. He satisfied his people. But while he offered the bread of peace, he knew to accomplish it, he must be broken. Because of our sin, the wrath of God hung over us. He was not satisfied yet. But in Christ, he would soon be. Jesus went from the last supper, where he commanded us to remember his dying love, and he turned to the cross to accomplish that dying love.
The cross is the greatest miracle of all. Jesus took our sin to the desolate place, and upon the cross, the Bread of Heaven was broken for us. Jesus lost the Father’s compassion so we could have it forever. Jesus lost the Father’s provision so we never would. On the cross, Jesus satisfied God’s wrath to satisfy our need of forgiveness.
The Bread of Life died on the cross, but as a seed planted in the ground, from the grave grew a glorious provision. Our greatest need, our greatest desire, our deepest longing is not for another full belly; it’s for a full life—the life we lost long ago, the life we wonder if we’ll ever get back, the life we know we should have but cannot get on our own. We’re so tired of getting hungry. We’re so tired of hurting. We’re so tired of sinning. We’re so tired of being tired. We long for a satisfaction that only a good resurrection can give. Well, Jesus has one for you. It’s coming soon. How’s that for satisfaction?
The only thing you need for this story to become your story is to want Jesus. When you come to Christ with empty hands of faith, he turns to you in compassion and fills them to the brim.