He Had Compassion On Them
Key Verse 6:34
“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.”
One of the few stories that appear in all four gospels in this one— the feeding of a crowd of five thousand. The story begins when Jesus’ compassion for a crowd of people wouldn’t quit. Jesus wanted to serve the crowds even after an exhausting day for him and his disciples. Jesus was always thinking about how to serve people. And this time he took the opportunity to help his disciples do the same. He showed his disciples what it takes to serve the people, especially when it seemed impossible to serve them. He taught them that if they would only have compassion, and add faith to compassion, they would always find a way to serve people as Jesus served them.
We saw previously that Jesus had sent out his disciples two by two and had given them the spiritual authority to serve people in his name. When they accepted this commission by faith, they went out and did what Jesus had been doing. According to verses 12 & 13, “They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.” It was astonishing that such young and inexperienced shepherds boldly challenged people to repent, giving them the word of God until they were delivered them from spirits. It was astonishing that they were involved in the healing of corrupt hearts turning them away from a life of sin to a life of faith. It was an eye opening experience for them. When they believed that Jesus had blessed them with his own authority, they could see how God worked through them in the same way he was working through Jesus. It was a spiritual awakening for them. Look at verse 30. They came back to report to Jesus all that they had done and aught. They were not young and inexperienced disciples anymore. Instead they had become the apostles of the Lord. A thousand Bible studies with Jesus couldn’t have matured them in this way. In his wisdom, Jesus helped them practice what they learned out on the mission field. He helped them to put faith into practice. And it would be this way thereafter. Another incident happens now that required them to put faith into practice.
The apostles reunited with Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. It was a time of great rejoicing. They must have felt like victorious soldiers returning home from war after defeating their enemies. They carried stories of conquest to their Commander. For once they felt that they had accomplished something worthwhile in their lives as his disciples. They must have felt self-assured as if nothing could stand in their way of doing the work of God, no matter how difficult it may be. But feelings are short-lived! Something was about to happen which would severely test their faith and make them forget their victories. For this reason, Jesus wanted to help them learn something else as well— that this authority that he had given them was surely effective, but not without faith. They needed his authority to do the work of God. But ultimately, they needed faith. And so, a remarkable lesson was about to unfold.
The disciples’ effort to have a quiet reunion with Jesus once again failed. Read verses 31-33. “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.’ 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.” The crowds that had followed Jesus had been growing larger every day. They were so large that serving them was becoming a duty beyond the limits of human ability. Hard as Jesus and his disciples tried to serve the crowds, the work seemed to never end. Now, the work of serving the crowds had become so demanding, that the tired disciples were unable to eat. When Jesus took a look at his hungry disciples working with no end in sight, his shepherd instinct compelled him to take them away for a time in order that they might get some rest. But even this effort failed. The people saw them slipping away into a boat and crossing the lake. These people didn’t stop to consider that Jesus and his disciples were only 13 men in the face of many thousands. They only thought of their own needs. And so, they began a mass migration to the other side of the lake to wait for Jesus and his disciples. They were people whose personal needs blinded them to the needs of others. So they circled the lake on foot and lay in wait for Jesus’ boat to arrive.
We are sure that the disciples felt some relief to take the boat across the lake and away from the crowds. If they had known what the crowds were up to, they would have remained in the middle of the lake, waited for nightfall, then headed back in a different direction. Finally they made it to shore to a most disheartening scene. Thousands of faces were staring at them and thousands of arms stretched out to lend them a hand at dock. It is not very difficult to imagine what sort of feelings they might have felt for this obnoxious crowd at that moment. It was only natural.
But somehow, the Lord of grace and truth felt differently about this crowd waiting to pounce on him. Read verse 34. “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.” Jesus was also a Man in every way. He was subject to all the human emotions and thoughts inherent to the human nature. But he was not led by his emotions. He was led instead by the heart of a shepherd. The heart of a shepherd understands the intensity of human suffering. The heart of a shepherd feels the depth of other’s pain. Mark tells us that Jesus “had compassion on them”. Jesus’ face should have turned red with anger and he should have rebuked them for their senseless intrusion. But “he had compassion on them”. To have compassion for someone, is to know the other person’s agony, to share in it, and to feel the need to alleviate it. For example, a stranger feels pity for another person’s suffering son. But a father or mother have compassion for him. The son’s suffering becomes their own, so much so, that if possible even to transfer his suffering onto themselves. Jesus had this kind of compassion for them. He felt their anguish. They were people who had been ignored and neglected by those who should have cared for them. They had been treated as the “losers” of life. No one helped them. No one understood them. But Jesus did. He was born in a manger of a stable to parents who were considered insignificant. His mother was shunned as a woman of questionable character. He grew up in abject poverty. He was despised and rejected. Who could understand their pitiable existence more than Jesus! His compassion for them was not feigned. It was real.
Jesus’ compassion for the crowd went even beyond the miseries of their physical lives. Read verse 34 again. “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.” Jesus had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Jesus saw deeper than their physical misery. He saw to their souls. He saw that they were spiritual orphans with no one to care for their spiritual needs. In their pitiful situation, they had become desperate for a shepherd’s love and concern. But there was no one to take them by the hand and lead them to God’s grace. For this reason, Jesus had compassion on them because they were sheep without a shepherd.
Compassion isn’t compassion if it does not offer a helping hand. The crowds numbering several thousands suffered from many things. They suffered physically and they suffered spiritually. Some were poor and diseased. Others had wounds of heart and soul that made them offensive. Jesus had felt their anguish. He also felt the urgency to help them all. But what could the Good Shepherd do in the face of the many whose problems outnumbered the sands on the seashore? In compassion Jesus taught them the word of God. The word of God is the best expression of compassion for suffering people.
Look at verse 35a. “By this time it was late in the day…” The disciples had done their best to endure the long day. Jesus taught the word of God all day long. He went from group to group, listening to the people’s troubles and planting the word of God in their midst. But towards the end of the day the disciples were exhausted. So, they approached Jesus with a suggestion. Read verses 35 and 36. “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.’” It was a reasonable suggestion. The people were hungry. They needed to have something to eat. It was necessary to dismiss them so that they might have an opportunity to eat. It is remarkable that the disciples were concerned for this crowd. Usually selfishness forbids people from thinking of anyone else’s needs besides their own needs. But the disciples had grown in a sense of responsibility for the crowd. They had developed some compassion for the crowds. They felt the crowds’ hunger. They shared in the crowds’ hunger. Now they even had a solution for the crowds’ hunger needs. Their way of thinking to, “send the crowds away that they might get something for themselves to eat”, seemed as the most reasonable course of action. But Jesus did not think so.
How did Jesus think? Read verse 37a. “But he answered, ‘You give them something to eat.’” Why did Jesus ask such an unreasonable thing from his disciples when he knew they had no means to feed such a large crowd? Because, Jesus didn’t think his demand was unreasonable. Humanly, it was unreasonable. But from a spiritual point of view there was nothing unreasonable about his demand that his disciples feed the crowd. The disciples had been thinking from a human point of view. Jesus wanted them to think from a spiritual perspective. Jesus had called these disciples not to make just believers out of them, but to make compassionate shepherds out of them. For that they needed to change their way of thinking. They should not think “We’ve done enough already” or “we can do no more.” They should think differently- like shepherds familiar with God’s compassion for the needy. “You give them something to eat” was not so unreasonable. It was what Jesus expects his disciples to do. “Feed my sheep” (John 21:15) is always on Jesus’ heart, then, now and always.
How did they receive his blatant demand? Read verses 37a,38. “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.’” When Jesus said: “You give them something to eat” Jesus knew it would only seem impossible if they remain in their thinking. So they should have honored his word and changed the way of their thinking. They could have said, “Yes, we need to feed this crowd Lord, as we ourselves have been so graciously fed by your undeserved compassion. Forgive us Lord for being so wrapped up in our own needs and troubles that we completely forgot your broken heart for this suffering crowd.” They could have said: “Lord, we have become slaves to our own ways of thinking that we have lost sight of our calling as shepherds and are acting more like ungrateful sheep. Lord, thank you for helping us to widen our hearts and to act like shepherds again. Lord, we’re struggling a lot, but for your sake, we’ll put our struggles aside in order to share in your broken heart.” But of course they did not say that. Instead, they complained that what he expected of them was simply too much. They said it was too expensive. They thought it would be a waste of good money to spend on a crowd for one meal.
To Jesus each soul among the crowd was worth more than the whole world. Jesus would gladly spend not only eight months’ wages, but eighty times eight months’ wages to feed even one soul with the hope of saving that soul. But when the disciples did not think like a shepherd, they thought like ungrateful sheep, who either thought that the crowd was not worth such a big sacrifice on their part, or they thought of their own losses rather than thinking about the gains of one soul. Jesus should have said to this bunch of ungrateful disciples, “Am I to go and spend that much of my blood on you and on the forgiveness of your sins? Am I to sacrifice my life for you. Are you worth it?” But of course, Jesus did not say so. Jesus loved them. He knew that his disciples were just frustrated because shepherd life was not easy. Jesus knew that their lives were as difficult as those of the crowds, if not more. He knew that they really wanted to be just like him, compassionate shepherds, but they were just hindered by their own human limitations, which they were also desperate to overcome. So Jesus was willing to just continue teaching them the word of God until their way of thinking changed and they could think with the heart and the mind of a shepherd.
He said to them: “‘How many loaves do you have?’ he asked. ‘Go and see.’ When they found out, they said, ‘Five —and two fish.’” Jesus knew that his demand was humanly impossible, but not unreasonable. Not unreasonable because as shepherds he expected them to feed his sheep regardless of their situation. On the other hand it was not unreasonable because while it was humanly impossible it was not spiritually impossible. It did not demand ability or means, but it demanded faith. Equipped with his authority, they had already done remarkable things. It was impossible to effect change even in one person’s heart. But they had done it when they acted out their authority by faith in Jesus. Now, they still had that same authority to do anything big or small, possible or impossible, through that same faith. Then what was the problem? They did not act out their faith when challenged to do the work of feeding his flock. So Jesus reminded them to think not with their limited mind, but with faith. “Go and see” what you have, is the faith that overcomes the impossible situation. “Go and see” what you have, is the mind of the shepherd who is not hindered by limitation, but sees possibilities through faith. Feeding one sheep is impossible. Feeding five thousand sheep is beyond impossible. But “go and see” transcends the impossible. When they were willing to at least “go and see” they found five loaves and two fish. Their human minds were unable to foresee that the five loaves and the two fish were more than enough. But Jesus knew that it was enough, it was all that was expected of them!
Five loaves and two fish were enough because it was faith that brought these small things to Jesus. It was enough because faith is all that Jesus expects from his disciples. It was enough because faith is enough! It is enough to do anything for the glory of God. Jesus wanted them to begin to think all things by faith. Then nothing would be impossible for them. Look at verses 39-44. Jesus took the five loaves and two fish in his hands and was ready to distribute them among the five thousand. But there was still one act of faith which Jesus expected his disciples to do. The corwds needed faith as well. So Jesus asked his disciples to make the people sit down in groups. His disciples knew that he wanted to feed the crowd, they just did not know how he was going to do it. So Jesus wanted his disciples to make an environment of faith among the crowds so that their hearts might also be ready to receive the blessing God had in store for them. The disciples did so. The crowds, whose hearts were now ready to receive the blessing waited in anticipation of what Jesus was about to do. And Jesus took the bread and the fish, blessed them and distributed them among the five thousand. It was a miracle that would be spoken of as long as man lives on the earth. Jesus wanted his disciples to think like shepherds. He wanted them to act out by faith. He wanted them to become the shepherds and Bible teachers of the world. He wanted them to take this gospel of life to the ends of the earth. Jesus’ broken heart that the crowds “were like sheep without a shepherd” should touch our hearts. His words, “You give them something to eat” should also touch our hearts and guide our footsteps as we serve his purpose.