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Three Gospel writers, three introductions--they all combine to set the stage for the main event, which is the feeding of the 5,000.
John's disciples came and took away his [John's] body and buried it, and went and told Jesus. When Jesus heard it, He departed from there by boat to a deserted place by Himself. But when the multitudes heard it, they followed Him on foot from the cities. When Jesus saw the great multitude; He was moved with compassion for them, and healed their sick.
Matthew 14:12-14 NKJV, condensed
John's disciples came, took away his corpse and laid it in a tomb. Then the apostles gathered to Jesus and told Him all things, both what they had done and what they had taught. Jesus said to them, "Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while." For there were many coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat. So they departed in the boat by themselves. But the multitudes saw them departing, and ran there on foot from all the cities. They arrived before them and came together to Him. And Jesus, when He saw a great multitude was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd. So He began to teach them many things.
Mark 6:29-34 NKJV, condensed
The apostles, when they had returned, told Him all they had done. Then He took them and went aside privately into a deserted place belonging to the city called Bethsaida. But when the multitudes knew it, they followed Him; He received them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who had need of healing. Luke 9:10-11 NKJV, condensed
How did it happen that all these people came together that day in a desolate location? Matthew said it started with the beheading of John the Baptist. John had baptized Jesus in the Jordan and was the first to recognize and appreciate who he was. Grieved by John's violent and unjustified death, Jesus needed to be alone so he got into a boat and went off by himself. John's execution was a stark reminder that he himself was also doomed. In fact Jesus would soon start talking to his disciples about his own death in order to prepare them for it.
Luke remembered the scene differently. The apostles returned from their first mission trip, full of stories. They had much to tell Jesus, who then decided they needed to stop and rest for awhile. So they all departed as a group, leaving the needs of the general public behind.
Two of these three Gospel writers associate the return of the Twelve with the untimely death of John the Baptist. According to Mark, Jesus had sent his disciples out two by two to preach and heal just before that tragic event. They probably returned when they received the devastating news.
The details are a bit conflicted, but somehow Jesus and his disciples headed for a deserted spot with the intention of being alone and taking a break. As waves gently rocked their boats, I believe they shared a leisurely time together, with nothing in particular on their schedule and no pressures. We know they took their time, because people on foot reached their destination before they did.
What kind of retreat did Jesus have in mind? Did he need to pray and spend time with his Father in heaven? Were they going to talk about John and what his life meant to each of them? Maybe berate the evils of Herod's palace? Would the disciples compare notes regarding their recent adventures and misadventures? Did they feel the exhilaration of possibly taking up a piece of John's mantle? Or consider what would happen if Jesus were killed in a similar manner? Did they worry for their own lives?
It was death and sorrow that brought them to the remote place. It was also the joy and enthusiasm of the returning evangelists. Bad news and good news. Sorrow and joy walked hand in hand that day. Complementing each other, keeping life in balance.
While the disciples were out on the water anticipating a mini-vacation, the solitary place to which they were headed was filling up with a capacity crowd. These people, too, were grieved. Herod had robbed them of a great man. Surely John's death had played into their emotions--anger, disbelief, frustration, the fragile nature of life itself, the unifying effects of having an outsider to blame, a helpless feeling because the Romans could walk all over them.
Jesus looked at this crowd and there was no way he could send them home empty. The text tells us exactly what Jesus saw. They were like sheep without a shepherd, sheep who needed someone who would direct their feet along favorable paths and satisfy their hunger and thirst for righteousness. So Jesus sat down and taught them about the kingdom of God.
While they were in his presence, Jesus would be their Good Shepherd, leading the way to their eternal Father in heaven. He inspired them to lift up their eyes, because there's more to life than what they could see by looking down at the tyranny of their daily circumstances. Then Jesus alleviated the suffering of the sick ones who were brought to him.
Jesus didn't seem to notice, but his disciples were looking up, too, at the setting sun. And it concerned them. It would be dusk in a few short hours, and all these people, like lost sheep, would be caught in the wild if they didn't leave for home.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: Select one day of national tragedy and tell where you were and what you were doing when you heard about it.
Talk about the death of someone you admired. Explain why that person was your "hero". What impact did their dying have on you?
When someone you love dies, are you drawn toward solitude or community? Do you want to avoid people or talk to them?
This is a good place to do a comparative Bible study. Start with Mark and Luke. Which words and ideas do they include that are the same? What does Mark tell you that Luke doesn't? What does Luke add that Mark didn't?Then check for similarities in Matthew's version. What phrases are found in all three Gospels? How is Matthew's account different from the other two?What conclusions did you reach by looking this closely at these passages?
Jesus' plans for a get-away were thwarted by a crowd of people, yet he reacted graciously and had compassion for them! How would you react in a similar situation? Describe how you imagine the disciples reacted in word and deed.
Why would Jesus use the image of sheep to describe a crowd of people. In what ways are people like sheep?Lift up your eyes and behold your shepherd! When you recognize the Lord as your Shepherd, how does that change and impact the way you live?
Where have you witnessed a mix of sorrow and joy? Did either of the two prevailed over the other in that situation? Do you believe there is a joy in most every sorrow and a sorrow in most every joy? Explain your answer.
Put yourself in the position of the returning apostles and share one meaningful experience you have had while acting on behalf of Jesus.
What are you looking for when you go on retreat (or other form of R&R)? What must happen for that retreat to be successful? When was the last time you really needed to talk to your heavenly Father?