Jesus as the New Moses

loaves
“Miracle of the Bread and Fish,” by Giovanni Lanfranco (ca. 1620)

This passage covers Mark 6:35-44

A person can know who Jesus really is by looking at what He said about Himself, and what He did. His actions tells us who He is.[1] Here, in this miracle account, Jesus’ actions show He is both divine and yet distinct from the Father. And, in doing so, Mark shows us the doctrine of the Trinity.

This miracle is mentioned in all the Gospel accounts. It clearly occurred in an isolated location (Mk 6:31); likely in the hill country north of Capernaum and west of Bethsaida.[2] Mark has already identified Jesus as the shepherd who leads and teaches Israel (Mk 6:34); a metaphor of royal power and military might, not pastoral tenderness.[3] Jesus is often compared to Moses, especially by Peter (cf. Acts 3:22f), who tradition tells us was Mark’s mentor.[4] Now, Mark gives us another parallel. Just as Moses led the Israelites into the wilderness and relied on God to supply their needs in the desert, Jesus led His people into a “lonely place” and He, too, must find a way to feed them.

Moses was angry at the people, and preferred to die rather than continue to endure their treachery (Num 11:15). Earlier, immediately after the miracle at the Red Sea and their divine rescue from the Egyptian armies, the people had begun their grumbling;

Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger (Ex 16:3).

Yahweh responded by miraculously supplying them with bread; “It is the bread which the LORD has given you to eat,” (Ex 16:15).[5] In the same way, Jesus will supply His people with bread. Moses waited on Yahweh to act; here it’s Jesus who acts – because He is God. He is infinitely more than Moses, or even Elijah (2 Kgs 4:42-44).

The meal itself is a stunning contrast to Herod Antipas’ court of debauchery. This man had married his sister-in-law, wanted to kill John the Baptist for condemning his behavior, and had lecherous designs upon his niece (Mk 6:17ff).[6] Jesus, though, had compassion on the people because they had no spiritual and political leadership. So, “he began to teach them many things,” (Mk 6:34). Throughout the sermon in this desert place, the massive crowd never asks for anything. They’re enthralled. In Mark’s account, it’s the disciples who begin to worry about the logistics (Mk 6:35-36).[7]

Why does Jesus respond the way He does; “You give them something to eat,” (Mk 6:37)? He’s allowed this situation to develop, and now casts the responsibilities back on the disciples. In John’s account, Jesus is the one who brings the matter up on purpose (Jn 6:5); “this he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do,” (Jn 6:6). Jesus is using this situation as a teachable moment, to help his disciples understand who He actually is.[8] This is key to their training (cf. Mk 8:27-30), and it should be to ours, too. The crowd benefits from the miraculous feeding, but the true audience is the disciples.

They’re astonished; even 200 days wages wouldn’t be enough to feed a crowd this size (Mk 6:37).[9] The disciples have accurately summed up the logistical impossibility of feeding the crowd, even as they misunderstand who Jesus is. Christ responds by ratcheting up the confusion; he commands them to pool their resources and report back on how much food they had among them (Mk 6:38). Again, Jesus intends to heighten their confusion to teach them a lesson – His actions always prove who He is.

Mark tells us Jesus took the small amount of food they’d collected, then “looked up to heaven, and blessed . . .” (Mk 6:41). Who did Jesus look up heaven to, and bless the food to? As he prepares to document Jesus’ miracle, Mark is careful to distinguish the Son from the Father. Jesus, as God the Son incarnate, is perfectly obedient to the Father, and understands “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights,” (Jas 1:17, KJV). Jesus models obedience for us by His thankfulness for food.

Mark doesn’t tell us how the miracle occurred; only that it did occur. It probably occurred as Jesus distributed the bread and fish; it just kept replenishing itself as He doled it out to the disciples.[10] This was not a flashy miracle, accompanied by thunderclaps or a booming voice from on high. The people who were most aware of it were the disciples; who’d just pooled their supplies and produced this small meal! In an understated but profound way, they’re forced to make a determination about who Jesus is. Who is this man . . .

  • who preaches He is the Messiah,
  • who claims to be the strong man who binds Satan and plunders his goods,
  • who gave them power over demons and the curse of sickness,
  • who now provides an unending supply of food for the Israelites in this desert place?
  • Is He a normal man? Or, is He something more?

Like Moses before Him, but in an infinitely more powerful way, Jesus has provided a banquet for the Israelites in the wilderness. Moses had to wait on God for the manna. Jesus is God, and provides the bread Himself.

Some commentators suggest the crowd didn’t realize it was a miracle, and this demonstration was only intended for the disciples.[11] Unless the people in the crowd were extraordinarily dense, this is very unlikely. The obvious logistical hurdles necessary to feed such a massive crowd were surely obvious even to the simplest of men. Clearly, Jesus couldn’t have produced this feast by natural means. And, this position cannot explain the conclusion the crowd draws from this miracle (Jn 6:13-15).[12] It’s best to say the miracle was primarily intended for the disciples, but Jesus took no steps to shield the crowd from the obvious conclusion – this man who claims He is the Messiah is also divine. The dots are there, ready to be connected for all who have ears to hear, and eyes to see (Mk 4:9).

Mark tells us “and they all ate and were satisfied,” (Mk 6:42). John says they ate “as much as they wanted,” and had their fill (Jn 6:11-12). This wasn’t a light meal; Jesus allowed them to gorge themselves and eat as much as they wanted. And, once they were full, there was a large amount of food left (Mk 6:43).[13] The parallels with the wilderness wanderings are startling, and Jesus clearly eclipses Moses in power and authority. He is the shepherd who has come to lead Israel and provide for them materially, spiritually, and by divine appointment. He is the penultimate successor Moses asked for so long ago (Num 27:15-17).

Isaiah wrote about a time when Israel would return to the Lord, who would invite them to come and dine at the banquet table of salvation, sealed by the everlasting covenant (Isa 55:1ff).[14] The New Testament tells us Christ Jesus Himself is the new covenant for all who believe. The God-Man who will inaugurate this covenant sits before them, after a long day of teaching them “many things” about the kingdom of God. He produces an unending feast for them, and fulfills (in miniature) Yahweh’s call for Israel to “hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in fatness,” (Isa 55:2). Yet, here, Jesus is doing the teaching and the people are listening to Him – because He is Yahweh.

These allusions (and others) explain Jesus’ instructions to some of these same people the next day. “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you; for on him has God the Father set his seal,” (Jn 6:27).

We understand who Jesus is by considering what He does. “He is like Moses, not only in providing the people with food in the wilderness, but in acting as their shepherd and teaching them. Both activities testify as to who Jesus is.”[15] This miracle is so familiar that I fear it’s lost its impact. Mark tells us Jesus fed 5000 men (Mk 6:45), and Matthew adds, “aside from women and children,” (Mt 14:21). There were likely between 10,000 – 15,000 people present! What Jesus does here is extraordinary, but you won’t ever appreciate that unless you know and love the Old Testament scriptures the incident alludes to.

The Apostle John tells us the crowd understood what Jesus did, and understood at least some of His teachings about the kingdom of God. “When the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!’” (Jn 6:14). They clearly grasped that Jesus was the prophet Moses wrote about so long ago – here at last (Deut 18:15ff)! They were right, but for the wrong reasons – but that will have to wait for another article . . .

In this passage, Mark showed us Jesus as the new Moses, shepherding (i.e. leading) and teaching God’s people in the wilderness, and providing for them. He is like Moses, but infinitely better (cf. Heb 3:1-6a). Moses waited on God to provide; Jesus provided for Himself – because He is God. In a real sense, Christ re-created the wilderness exodus in miniature, but played the part of Moses and Yahweh all by Himself. And yet, the Bible shows us a distinction in Yahweh’s being, because Jesus “looked up to heaven, and blessed,” (Mk 6:42).

These subtle but critical distinctions teach us our one God has revealed that He consists of Father, Son and Spirit. This is what Carl Beckwith has called the ordinary language of faith; “ordinary on the one hand because it is so prevalent throughout the New Testament, but also because so much is assumed by the New Testament writer and left unexplained . . . it represents for us the most basic way in which the faithful talk about the Trinity according to the Scriptures.”[16] We see our triune God not only in the usual didactic passages, but in the ordinary, unassuming and everyday descriptions of Jesus’ activities in Scripture.

Notes

[1] Carl Beckwith, a Lutheran theologian, remarks, “Many New Testament scholars make a distinction between functional Christology and ontological Christology. The former focuses on the activities or functions performed by Christ, and the latter assigns metaphysical categories to the person and nature of Christ. A chief argument used by the Fathers to show the coequality of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit centered on the relationship between nature and activity.

For them, we rightly understand ‘who’ someone or something is when we grasp ‘what’ they do. The activity reveals the identity of the doer. Furthermore, for the Fathers, common works indicate common nature. This insight stands at the center of patristic trinitarian thought, and it is an insight owing to Scripture, not philosophy. Simply put, Scripture demanded the correlation of activity and identity or function and ontology,” (Carl L. Beckwith, The Holy Trinity, in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, vol. 3 [Fort Wayne, IN: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.], KL 3720 – 3722; 3727 – 3730).

[2] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 190.

[3] On this point, see the previous article in this series, entitled, “Against Cardboard Shepherds.”

[4] See Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.15 and 3.39.15. He called Mark “the interpreter of Peter.”

[5] It is amusing to see how, almost without fail, commentaries on Mark’s gospel which I consulted repeat the same reference from Numbers 11:13, 23. However, that passage deals with the Israelites complaining about the manna, not Moses’ conundrum about supplying them with food. The contexts are different. I’m not sure why every commentator leaps to this passage. I suspect it is incestuous; commentators repeat each other and reuse trusty prooftexts without too much critical thought. The only possible parallel is Moses’ frustration contrasted with Jesus’ omniscience. But this, too, doesn’t gel. Jesus has no reason to be frustrated, whereas Moses was frustrated for good reason.

The real parallel is positive; Moses led the people out and God provided vs. Jesus led the people out and He provided – because He is God. Jesus is like Moses, but infinitely better.

[6] For a short discussion about the niece, see Edwards (Mark, 187-188).

[7] See Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, 6 vols. (New York, NY: Revell, n.d.), 5:489.

[8] “Jesus, in contrast to the circumstances depicted in all of the other miracles, appears deliberately to create the situation in which the people must be fed . . . His instructions to the disciples, which perplex and baffle them, are intended to lead them to understanding,” (William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, in NICNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974], 228).

[9] A denari was “a Roman silver coin. The equivalent of a typical daily wage (e.g., Matt 18:28; 20:2–13; 22:19; Mark 6:37; Luke 7:41; John 6:7; Rev 6:6),” (“Denarius,” in Lexham Bible Dictionary, ed. John D. Barry et al. [Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016]).

[10] Some translations, like the NASB, render the imperfect verb with an iterative sense to get this across (“He kept giving them to the disciples to set before them,” Mk. 6:41).

[11] “The disciples do not understand him although they were given an abundant opportunity to see his glory. That is why they alone are reproved for their hardness of heart and their failure to grasp the meaning of the miracle of the loaves in the subsequent narrative,” (Lane, Mark, 232).

[12] Mark Strauss agrees the crowd wasn’t aware of the miracle, and suggests Jn 6:14-15 refers to the actions by a select few in the crowd who did understand (Mark L. Strauss, Mark, in Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 277). I also find this unconvincing. The crowd understood what happened; this is the best way to explain John 6:14-15.

[13] “Jesus is therefore able to provide the people in the desert what Moses could not. Moses had to contend with disgruntled people teetering on the edge of starvation. Those gathered around Jesus are all satisfied. In contrast to the manna that could not be gathered up and held over until the next day, Jesus’ bread can be collected,” (David E. Garland, Mark, in NIVAC [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996], 254).

[14] “The feeding also echoes Isaiah’s call for Israel to come now to God’s banquet, celebrating the salvation about to be realized,” (Garland, Mark, 255).

[15] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark, in Black’s New Testament Commentary (London: Continuum, 1991), 165.

[16] Carl L. Beckwith, The Holy Trinity, in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, vol. 3 (Fort Wayne, IN: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.), KL 4743-4750.

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