The Dubious Disciples: Christ Speaks to the Problem of Limited Faith
February 11, 2001
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Here’s a letter I recently received from a prisoner in the Cook County jail. Just before Christmas we donated 500 copies of the book An Anchor for the Soul to the “Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” ministry to be given out to prisoners at the jail. The following letter comes from a man who read the book after his cellmate loaned him a copy.
Dear Ray Pritchard,
Hello! I am 37 years old. I am writing you from Cook County Jail. Actually I am in the drug unit here.
I have some “Good News” and some “Not so Good News” that I would like to share with you. First, the “not so Good News.” This is not my first time, second time, or my fifth time, but somewhere around my tenth time that I have been locked up at the “County.” Sir, I have an alcohol/drug problem that has caused me to steal to support my cocaine habit. I have been to prison three times. I was released in November 1999 with two years of parole. A year went by, and in November 2000 I again was arrested and charged with burglary. So here I am, charged with burglary, on parole for burglary, and my entire life is burglary (5 to be exact). I am sure you would say to me that I need to change “careers.” I am looking at 6 to 30 years of prison time.
(He goes on to talk about his desire to be in a special drug treatment program but doubts that he will qualify because in the past he was not at “rock-bottom” but thought he could handle cocaine and alcohol without destroying his life.)
Sir, today I am scared! I am afraid the courts are going to “lay me down” for a long time. It is very sad that until now I am finally realizing this.
Have you had enough of my “bad news” yet? I could go into detail of all the people I have emotionally hurt–my family, my friends, and most of all myself! I think you have had enough, and you know what, I HAVE TOO! I have had enough of this crazy insane life, due to the alcohol and drugs. My whole attitude and outlook on life must be changed.
Now the “Good News.” My cellmate, Charles, offered a book for me to read. The title of the book is An Anchor for the Soul by (none other than) Ray Pritchard. I have read it from front to back. I have heard the “knock on the door,” I have “went to the door,” and “I have finally opened it.”
I HAVE LET CHRIST INTO MY HEART.
I wake to a morning prayer, and end my day with prayer. During my day I practice what you have preached. I know I will be distracted by the devil, and conflicts will arise most likely when everything is going smooth.
To end my letter to you, I cannot say “Thank You” enough for sharing the knowledge and encouragement to seek God. I truly believe your book will have great impact on the rest of my life as long as I continue to “open the door” and let Christ in every day. I believe I will then never, ever have to be locked up physically or spiritually again.
He signed the letter “A grateful recovering alcohol/drug addict.” Then he added this P.S: “I have thanked you, I have thanked Jesus. I believe it is time to thank my cellmate, Charles.”
That’s a wonderful letter. I share it as an encouragement to all of us about the power of the gospel. This letter also illustrates an important biblical truth, one that is repeated many times in many ways: God’s greatest miracles tend to happen when we are most desperate. Most of us have to hit “rock bottom” before we finally come to our senses and begin to cry out to the Lord. And often we have to be backed into a corner before we will admit our need and realize that unless God moves from heaven, we are in big trouble.
Moses Calls in the Air Force
Sometimes the miracles in the Bible are hard to believe. And sometimes we feel like we need to “modernize” them a bit. This week I read about a young boy who burst out of Sunday school filled with excitement. Seeing his father, he ran up to him and said, “Dad, that story about Moses and the Jews escaping from Egypt was incredible.” Looking down with a smile, his father said, “Tell me about it.”
“It happened like this,” the boy said. “Moses and the Jews got out of Egypt and came to the Red Sea. They couldn’t get across and the Egyptian army had them trapped and almost caught them. But at the last second Moses got on his walkie-talkie and called in the Israeli Air Force to bomb the Egyptian army. At the same time, the Israeli Navy built a pontoon bridge and the Jews walked across the Red Sea to safety.”
Shocked, his father said, “They didn’t really teach you that in Sunday school, did they?” “Not exactly,” replied the little boy sheepishly, “but if I told you what they really said, you’d never believe it!”
That youngster speaks for the skepticism of our sophisticated generation. Because we think we have advanced beyond the Bible, it’s easy to want to “explain away” the miracle stories of the Old and New Testaments. But that tendency says more about us than it does about the Bible.
This morning we come to one of the great miracles of the Bible. We would do well to take it just as it is written. This is the story of 5000 hungry men who show up uninvited and then stay for supper. Imagine ordering 5000 pizzas—deep-dish, Chicago-style, of course. That would cost a pretty penny. It would be a huge order and I don’t think Dominos would deliver either. Suppose you had to feed 5000 hungry men tonight. What would you do? As you think about your answer, please consider that this is precisely the dilemma that faced Jesus and his disciples in Mark 6.
This is a very familiar story. It must be very important because it is the only miracle of Jesus mentioned in all four gospels. The disciples never forgot what happened that day. This is an amazing example of Christ’s power. It is also the most public of all his miracles. If you study the gospels, you discover that most of Christ’s miracles were performed for a tiny handful of people. But here is a miracle seen and experienced by thousands of men.
I. A Great Need 32-36
“So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place. But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 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. By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. ‘This is a remote place,’ they said, ‘and it’s already very late. Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat’” (Mark 6:32-36).
This particular incident takes place after a very busy period of ministry. It also comes just as the disciples hear the distressing news of the beheading of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas. Knowing that his disciples needed to rest and needed a break from the pressure, he took his men by boat to a remote region on the northern edge of the Sea of Galilee, not far from the little fishing village of Bethsaida. He meant it to be a time of retreat, rest, and rejuvenation. But when word spread that Jesus was on the move, men from everywhere began racing along the shore. They came from all directions, drawn to Jesus like metal to a magnet.
In a sense Jesus is a victim of his own success. But John 6:6 tell us that Jesus knew what he was going to do. Nothing is happening by chance. What seems like a catastrophe turned out to be planned by our Lord as the platform for a remarkable miracle. So it is with us. Even the “chance” happenings are not “chance” at all but are divinely ordained by our Heavenly Father.
How will Jesus respond to this large, disorganized crowd? He’s a celebrity now, and he’s spoken to them before. They love to hear him talk and they want to see him work more miracles. Most of them don’t think of him as the Messiah and certainly not as the Son of God. But they like him, and are intrigued by him, and want to be near him. Many modern celebrities would be angry. “Go away, I’ve given you enough. Leave me alone. I deserve this time for myself.” Not Jesus. Consider how he responded:
1. He welcomed them.
2. He saw their deep need.
3. He felt compassion for them.
4. He taught them many things.
5. He healed those who needed healing.
Never Too Many People
And most importantly, he did not turn them away. Leith Anderson points out how easy it is in a larger church to get a satisfied mindset. Sometimes people in a growing congregation will say (think to themselves), “This church is too large. I want to know everyone when I go to church and I can’t do that anymore.” And when more people come, we’re tempted to say, “Go away. This is our church. There are plenty of people here.” Not Jesus. He never felt there were too many people. As long as they were sincere, he welcomed them. Jesus was glad to minister to one person or to a small group but he never disdained the masses either. He welcomed thousands. He put no limits on his ministry.
Aren’t you glad Jesus didn’t have a cut-off number? What if he cut off the crowd just before he came to you and your family? What would you do then? What if Jesus said, “Sorry, I’ve seen my limit for today. Come back next week and maybe I can squeeze you in.” But he never said that. He always had time for the people who wanted to see him.
But now a problem arises. It’s late, the people are tired and hungry, and the local Burger King is closed for remodeling. The nearest Denny’s is in Jerusalem and Pizza Hut doesn’t deliver to the wilderness. The disciples make a very practical suggestion: Send them away and let them find food. That’s logical. The suggestion is not made from bad motives. In themselves the disciples had no resources to meet this enormous need. They had no food and no money. What else could they do? Answer: They could do nothing! But Jesus has other ideas. Their suggestion was practical but it was also shortsighted. They assumed that if they lacked the resources, then no one else could help these hungry people. They didn’t see 5000 people; they saw 5000 problems they couldn’t solve.
Most of us would have said the same thing. We’re quick to see what we can’t do and quick to talk about what we don’t have. The disciples saw the crowds and realized their inadequacy. Somehow they forgot that the Son of God was standing right there with them.
II. A Great Challenge 37-40
“But he answered, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said to him, ‘That would take eight months of a man’s wages! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?’ ‘How many loaves do you have?’ he asked. ‘Go and see.’ When they found out, they said, ‘Five—and two fish.’ Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties” (Mark 6:37-40).
My favorite line in this whole story is when Jesus says, “You give them something to eat” (verse 37). It’s funny because the disciples have just gotten through explaining why they can’t feed this massive crowd. One wonders if they were thinking something like this: “You want us to feed this crowd? You gotta be kidding! Did you hear what we just said? We don’t have any money and we don’t have any food. What we have here is a failure to communicate.” But Jesus wouldn’t let his men off the hook. He wants them to get involved in the grand adventure of helping others.
This is how Jesus often works with his followers. Over and over again he puts us in positions where we are helpless, and then he says, “Do something!” In our desperation we cry out to heaven, “How?” and he replies, “I’m glad you asked.” It’s not that Jesus wants us to fail, but he does want us to know that without him we can do nothing. Our success depends totally upon him, and the sooner we learn that, the happier we will be.
We know from the other gospels that it was Phillip who calculated the cost of buying food for 5000 men. In modern terms we would call him the Deacon of Finances. He has been using his pocket calculator to figure out how much it would cost to give a snack to 5000 men. But even if you figure on a piece of bread and some cheese, the total was still enormous—200 denarii, which would be about eight months’ wages for a common man. In the first place, nobody carried that much money around with them on a daily basis. And if you did, why would you spend it to buy snacks for this crowd of men? Phillip is trying to make an excuse to get himself (and the other disciples) off the hook. “We’d like to help, but you know how it is, Lord. We just don’t have that kind of money.” He answered precisely the same way an atheist would answer. An atheist would survey the crowd, and because he does not believe in God, would never consider the possibility of supernatural resources. But the disciples at this point are acting like practical atheists. If they can’t figure out a way to feed these men, they assume it can’t be done.
“Pick up that snake!”
At this point Jesus asks a penetrating question: “How many loaves do you have?” (verse 38). He wasn’t asking for information but to press home an important point. “You say you don’t have anything, but are you sure about that? Take a look around and survey your resources. What do you have to work with?” The question reminds me of what God said to Moses in Exodus 4:2, “What is that in your hand?” It was a staff. God told Moses to throw it on the ground, whereupon it became a slithering serpent. Moses was scared and ran from the snake. God then told him to pick up the snake by the tail. I can imagine Moses saying, “Who do you think I am? The Crocodile Hunter?” But he reached out anyway, picked up the snake, and it turned back into the staff. Thus does God demonstrate to Moses that when we give what we have to God, great miracles can take place.
Food From a Poor Boy
John’s account of this miracle tells us that it was Andrew who found the young boy with the five loaves and two fish and brought him to Jesus. The term “loaves” doesn’t refer to something like Wonder Bread. It means a flat biscuit made of barley, the food of the poor. When I visited New Orleans last summer, I discovered a very popular sandwich called the “Po’ Boy.” It is a roll of French bread filled with oysters or shrimp or meatballs or beef covered with gravy. The sandwich originated many years ago when a local restaurant began serving immigrant longshoremen who couldn’t afford anything else. (I enjoyed the sandwich and had one as often as I could, but Marlene did not join me in my enthusiasm.) Jesus took food from a poor boy and used it to work an unforgettable miracle.
We should not miss the obvious lesson here: Don’t ever despise the day of small things. Just because something is small or seemingly insignificant doesn’t mean God can’t use it. He used a baby’s tears to attract Pharaoh’s daughter—and the infant Moses was saved from certain death. Later he used Moses’ rod to deliver the children of Israel. And still later a teenage boy named David used one smooth stone to defeat the mighty Goliath. Now Jesus is about to feed 5000 men with five biscuits and two fish. Size doesn’t matter with God. He can use anything we offer to him.
When Andrew brought the boy to Jesus, he reported what he had found, and then offered this editorial comment: “But how far will they go among so many?” (John 6:8). Andrew’s faith is mixed with doubt. He offers what they have but admits it isn’t enough! He’s right, of course. In the Greek Andrew uses a diminutive form that means a “young lad” of perhaps seven or eight or nine years old. And the word “fish” literally means “tiny fish.” Here is a young lad with five barley biscuits and two sardines! What would barely feed a little boy is about to become a feast for 5000 people.
Steps to a Miracle
In this story we have a clear outline for receiving a miracle from the Lord. First, you must admit your need. In this case, that meant the disciples had to confess their total inability to feed the huge crowd. Second, you must offer what you have to the Lord. Most often God works through means. He can work a miracle wholly independent of anything we say or do, but God generally chooses to work through the means at hand. I’m not suggesting that admitting our need and offering what we have to the Lord guarantees a miracle. That would not be a true statement of the facts, but it is true that supernatural power is often released in precisely these sorts of circumstances.
Even after the meager bit of food is offered to Jesus, it’s still not very much. You couldn’t feed the “Sons of Thunder” with it, much less all 12 apostles, much less the vast crowd of men. But here is where the miracle must begin. All too often, we are quick to make excuses, to evade responsibility, to give up and say, “It can’t be done.” And sometimes we do nothing because we think what we have doesn’t matter. “I can’t sing. I can’t speak. I’m not rich. I don’t have many talents. I’m not beautiful. I’m not well connected. I don’t know many people.” But things change when we step forward and offer whatever we have to Jesus. And he never asks us to start accumulating more before we begin to minister. It’s not as if he said to Andrew, “Go out and round up three dozen more biscuits and 15 more fish, and I’ll see what I can do.” All he wants is what we have right now. As long as we keep what we have in our own hands, we are limited to what we can do. But when we transfer what we have to the mighty hands of Jesus, there is no limit to what he can do.
Note that Jesus told the disciples to make the crowd sit down. This was quite a test for his men because the miracle has not yet been performed. They have no idea what is about to happen. All they see is five biscuits and two tiny fish. Here is a test of faith and obedience. Would they believe what their eyes could see—the vast crowd and their little resources—or would they believe the word of the Son of God?
III. A Great Miracle 41-44
“Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. They all ate and were satisfied, and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish. The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand” (Mark 6:41-44).
I love the way Leith Anderson summarizes what happens next: “Jesus did what Jesus does.” Where there is a lack, he multiplies the resources until all are fully fed. It happened this way. First, the disciples organize the crowd. This makes it easier to serve the people. Plus it means that in Jesus’ mind, the miracle has already been done. Then he looks to heaven and gives thanks for the bread and fish. Not only did he thank God for what he had, he gave thanks for what the Father was about to do through him. Then he broke the bread. The verb is in the imperfect tense, which means something like “he broke the bread and kept on breaking it.” This is where the miracle took place—in his hands. As the disciples watched him break the bread, it miraculously multiplied until all were fed. I am struck by the fact that the disciples served as the waiters. This ensured that their faith would grow as they participated in the miracle Jesus was performing.
And everyone was satisfied because there was plenty to eat. This is not an airline meal and it’s not a snack or a box lunch. Omnipotence has an unending supply. And there was plenty left over after everyone had eaten his fill. With Jesus there is always enough to go around, and then some! What a lesson for the disciples to learn. Each one ended up with a full basket of leftovers. This is why this miracle is in all four gospels. The disciples never forgot how he fed that vast crowd in the wilderness near the shore of the Sea of Galilee.
Lessons For Impossible Situations
As I stand back and ponder this wonderful miracle, one truth seems to stand above all the rest. If you like, call this the moral of the story: God often puts us in situations where we are doomed to failure in order to force us to depend totally on him so that when the miracle comes, he alone gets the credit. This is a divine strategy repeated many times in the Bible and in our own experience. We often find ourselves in desperate straits with no way out, no good options, and no human way of remedying our situation. God allows this to happen so that we will cry out to him. And when the deliverance comes, we are obliged to give God the total credit.
Let’s wrap up this message with three lessons for those who face impossible situations. Most of us face at least one seemingly impossible situation right now, and if this doesn’t fit you, file it away because you’ll need these truths sooner than you think.
Lesson #1: The fact that something is impossible is no excuse for not trying to do it. All too often we conclude that something can’t be done so we don’t bother trying to do it. If Moses had taken that attitude, the Jews would still be in Egypt. If Joshua had felt that way, he would still be marching around Jericho. And if David had adopted that opinion, Goliath would still be terrorizing the Israelites. You never know in advance what God may do so don’t rule out the possibility of a mighty miracle coming your way.
Lesson #2: God asks us to do the impossible and then he gives whatever we need to obey his command. Erwin Lutzer points that Jesus often told people to do impossible things. To a lame man he said, “Rise, pick up your bed, and walk.” To a dead man, he cried out, “Lazarus, come forth.” There is a true sense in which every command of God is totally impossible for us to obey. We always lack what we need to obey God’s commands. But God is faithful to give us whatever we need when we ask him. What God demands, he supplies. He “bids us fly and gives us wings.”
Lesson #3: When we offer our meager resources to God, we discover that the impossible isn’t. Years ago I ran across a quote from J. Hudson Taylor, a great man of faith whose missionary efforts helped open China to the gospel. Time and again he saw God do amazing things in the face of hopeless circumstances and murderous hostility against him. Reflecting on his experiences, he remarked that “there are three stages in any work attempted for God: Impossible, Difficult, Done.” I am very encouraged by that because there are many moments when we all seem to be stuck in the “impossible” stage of life. Cheer up, you never know but your impossibility may simply be “Stage 1” of a mighty miracle God will perform on your behalf.
The bottom line on all this is very simple: Start with what you have, give it to Jesus, and see what he will do with it. Don’t limit God. He may send the Israeli Air Force after all. You never know what God will do.
What a story! What a miracle! What a Christ we serve! Amen.