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It appears that the disciples’ mission trip brought the first news of Jesus to the ears of King Herod. John the Baptist had been beheaded recently, as we know, because Jesus restrained His ministry until John’s had been completed. When John was cast into prison, Jesus began to preach, but when John was executed, Jesus then inherited the high priesthood from John and thus had no further restraint. Recall that John had been God’s choice as High Priest, although he was never recognized officially and never served in that capacity in the temple itself.
In Luke 9:1, 2 Jesus sent His disciples on their mission trip. Then Luke 9:7-9 says,
7 Now Herod the tetrarch heard of all that was happening; and he was greatly perplexed, because it was said by some that John had risen from the dead, 8 and by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others, that one of the prophets of old had risen again. 9 And Herod said, “I myself had John beheaded; but who is this man about whom I hear such things?” And he kept trying to see Him.
It is clear from this that John had already been beheaded, though Luke had not recorded this event earlier in His gospel. The other gospels treat the story in the same manner. In Matthew 11:1 Jesus sent His disciples out on their mission trip, and in Matthew 14:1-13 we are told that Herod heard of Jesus and thought that John had been raised from the dead. This was the first time Matthew mentioned John’s death as well.
Likewise, in Mark 6:16-29 we read that Herod heard of Jesus shortly after He had sent out His disciples. It was during their mission trip that Herod killed John. The disciples, then, were responsible for getting Herod’s attention. Herod, whose conscience troubled him, wanted to see Jesus (Luke 9:9), but Jesus avoided him. Perhaps a year or two later, as we will see, some (friendly?) Pharisees informed Jesus that Herod wanted to kill Him (Luke 13:31). Even so, he was glad to see Jesus just before His crucifixion (Luke 23:8).
It appears that Herod was first troubled by his conscience, and then became alarmed by His popularity, but finally realized that Jesus was not a revolutionary that might cause trouble in his territory. No doubt his steward, Chuza, had eased Herod’s mind on these matters, having received good reports from his wife, Joanna (Luke 8:3).
Luke 9:10 then tells us,
10 And when the apostles returned, they gave an account to Him of all that they had done. And taking them with Him, He withdrew to a city called Bethsaida.
It is of interest that Luke uses the term “apostles” here. The Greek word is apostolos, “a delegate, messenger, one sent out with orders.” The disciples’ mission trip is what made them “apostles,” for that was the first time that they were sent as His messengers. This is what Luke meant earlier in Luke 6:13 as Jesus chose His twelve disciples, “whom He also named as apostles.”
Disciples are trained to be apostles.
When the apostles returned, they gave an account of their journeys to Jesus, and then they tried to take a short vacation in Bethsaida. In Mark 6:31 we read that Jesus told them, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place and rest a while.” Half the disciples were from Bethsaida on the north end of the Sea of Galilee, so no doubt they went there to see their families. However, the news spread fast, and soon the crowds came to see Him in Bethsaida. No doubt He ministered to the crowd for a short time, but then He escaped with His disciples by boat to the other side of the lake. Luke 9:11 picks up the story at this point, saying,
11 But the multitudes were aware of this and followed Him; and welcoming them, He began speaking to them about the kingdom of God and curing those who had need of healing.
Luke says this is where Jesus fed the five thousand men (plus women and children). In fact, Matthew 14:10-13 says that Jesus had just heard that John had been beheaded, and that Jesus wanted to get away from the crowd in order to pray alone:
10 And he sent and had John beheaded in the prison…. 12 And his disciples came and took away the body and buried it; and they went and reported to Jesus. 13 Now when Jesus heard it, He withdrew from there in a boat, to a lonely place by Himself; and when the multitudes heard of this, they followed Him on foot from the cities.
Jesus could not resist ministering to them, because “He felt compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). Luke 9:11 says that Jesus was “welcoming them,” even though He had been trying to get away from the crowd.
After teaching for some hours, it was dinner time, but because it was a “lonely place,” there were no restaurants in sight. The people themselves had not planned this trip very well, and most, in their haste, had taken no food with them. Luke 9:12, 13 says,
12 And the day began to decline, and the twelve came and said to Him, “Send the multitude away, that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside and find lodging and get something to eat; for here we are in a desolate place.” 13 But He said to them, “You give them something to eat!” And they said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish, unless perhaps we go and buy food for all these people.”
This is one of the few occasions where John’s gospel repeats one of the stories told earlier in the Synoptic Gospels. (The purpose of John’s gospel, written decades after the others, was to record stories not told by the others and to give the spiritual meaning behind those stories.) John 6:9 tells us,
9 There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are these for so many people?”
So we see that one enterprising young man had brought some food with him. Yet when he saw the need, he donated it to Jesus’ disciples. Mark 6:38 says,
38 And He said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go look!” And when they found out, they said, “Five and two fish.”
It appears that they received only one meal offering on that trip, for we know that the boy was the one who had offered the five loaves and two fish. So the disciples counted the offering and reported back to Jesus. Matthew 14:18 says,
18 And He said, “Bring them here to Me.”
Luke 9:14-17 then says,
14 (For there were about five thousand men.) And He said to His disciples, “Have them recline to eat in groups of about fifty each.” 15 And they did so, and had them all recline. 16 And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed them and broke them, and kept giving them to the disciples to set before the multitude. 17 And they all ate and were satisfied; and the broken pieces which they had left over were picked up, twelve baskets full.
None of the Synoptic Gospel writers give us any commentary on the meaning of this miracle. Matthew and Mark tell us that “immediately” after dinner Jesus told the disciples to go get into the boat and go back to Bethsaida. Since it was approaching sunset, it would be a night journey, but this was not unusual since many of their fishing trips had been at night (Luke 5:5). Of course, this was destined to be a night to remember.
John’s gospel comments extensively on the meaning of this miracle in John 6:26-58, but he also tells us that Jesus did not take the time to teach this lesson to the people that day. Instead, He taught on it in a synagogue in Capernaum some time later (John 6:59).
In brief, the lesson was that the bread represented His body that was to be broken in order to feed the multitude. Those who would eat His flesh and drink His blood would receive life from it. He spoke metaphorically, of course, but many of the people did not understand His words, and so they were offended (as usual). This is also the background teaching for Communion in the church.
We know from Matthew, Mark, and John that Jesus’ disciples ran into a violent storm on the way to Bethsaida. Jesus had gone up the mountain to pray alone, but during the storm, He crossed the lake by walking on the water. Meanwhile, the wind was contrary, and the disciples could make no headway. Jesus caught up to them in the middle of the lake. Mark 6:48 says, “He intended to pass by them.”
They saw Him and thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus called out to them, “Take courage; it is I, do not be afraid” (Mark 6:50). Matthew 14:28-31 tells us that Peter then wanted to go to Jesus by walking on the water. He did so, though not without some fear that caused him to sink until Jesus rescued him.
This story is prophetic of the second coming of Christ in the storm of tribulation, where Peter (representing the overcomers) go out to meet Him and escort Him back to the boat. The storm is suddenly calmed, and it appears that their trip to Bethsaida was detoured, for the disciples suddenly found themselves at Capernaum, “the covering of the Comforter.” In other words, the overcomers fulfill the feast of Tabernacles and are brought into the fullness of the Spirit.
Luke skips the entire story, because his focus was upon Jesus’ identity. Herod had wondered if He were John the Baptist raised from the dead (Luke 9:7). Others thought He was Elijah or one of the prophets risen from the dead (Luke 9:8). So after telling us the story of feeding the five thousand, Luke immediately returns to His main focus in Luke 9:18-20,
18 And it came about that while He was praying alone, the disciples were with Him, and He questioned them, saying, “Who do the multitudes say that I am?” 19 And they answered and said, “John the Baptist, and others say Elijah; but others, that one of the prophets of old has risen again.” 20 And He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered and said, “The Christ of God.”
It is obvious that Luke has skipped many details that are recorded in the other gospels. This event took place at Caesarea Philippi, located at the base of Mount Hermon far to the north of Bethsaida. A fuller account is found in Matthew 16:13-19.
Hence, Luke’s purpose was to answer Herod’s question and correct the error of some of the people in the crowds. Yet the story of Jesus feeding the five thousand also leads into the calling that the Messiah was to have. Even as He broke the bread to feed the multitude, so also would the Messiah’s body have to be broken and “eaten” in order to give life to the people.
And so immediately after Peter identifies Jesus as the Christ, He begins to reveal to them that He was called to die for the sin of the world.