The Powers of the Kingdom (preaching resource for Pentecost 8 & 9: 7/14 & 7/21/24)

This post exegetes Mark chapter 6, providing context for the RCL Gospel readings on 7/14/24 (Pentecost 8) and 7/21/24 (Pentecost 9). This exegesis draws on commentary from Alan Cole in "The New Bible Commentary," John Grassmick in "The Bible Knowledge Commentary" and N.T. Wright in "Mark for Everyone." 

"Christ Heals the Deaf and Stammering" by DeVere
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Introduction

Mark chapter 6 continues a subsection of Mark's Gospel where Jesus is using miracles to demonstrate the powers of the Kingdom which he possesses as Messiah (the Kingdom’s King). Chapter 6 opens by noting the limitations of such miracles, then continues with stories of a few more miracles. 

1. The limitation of miracles 

Mark 6:1-6

A common theme of Mark’s Gospel is that Jesus’ miracles often do little to illicit faith in those who witness them. This is a reminder that miracles in themselves do not produce faith—rather they are intended to witness to Jesus and to lend strength to the faith of those who already trust in Jesus. In both ways, the Kingdom is preached and thus advanced.  

Mark here notes that Jesus leaves Capernaum and travels about 20 miles southwest to his hometown of Nazareth. Those who hear him teach in the synagogue there are amazed at his teaching and miracles. However, amazement is not the same as faith. Instead of trusting in Jesus, they ridicule him as a mere commoner—a carpenter related to other commoners like Mary and her other adult children. The brothers and sisters of Jesus listed here are, most likely, the children of Joseph and Mary born after Jesus’ birth. James became a leader in the early church at Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21). Judas was probably Jude, author of the Epistle of Jude. Nothing more is known of Joses and Simon or his sisters. Perhaps Joseph is not mentioned because he was already dead. 

The members of the Nazareth synagogue debate how such a familiar figure as Jesus could do and say such things. Sadly, they are too busy arguing about Jesus to listen with open minds and hearts to his words. The result is that Jesus (the Son of God!) can do no miracles in Nazareth, apart from healing a few sick folk, humble enough and needy enough to trust in him. This does not mean that God’s power is absolutely limited. Rather it means that God is choosing to act at this point only in response to faith. Usually, Mark says that people are amazed at Jesus; here, he says that Jesus is amazed at them. The people of Nazareth are so familiar with Jesus that they are unable to enjoy the blessing and power of his presence. Indeed, as the proverb says, familiarity breeds contempt. 

These unbelievers in Nazareth represent the blindness of all Israel toward Jesus. Their refusal to believe in him pictures what the disciples will soon experience (as we sill soon see) and what true followers of Jesus experience as they seek to join with their Lord in his proclamation of the gospel in the world for the advance of the kingdom of God.

2. Sharing Kingdom power 

Mark 6:7-13

In spite of unbelief, the work of preaching the Kingdom in Galilee must continue and so Mark tells us that Jesus sent (from apostellō) the Twelve out two by two, a common practice in that day for practical and legal reasons. The Twelve are Jesus’ authorized representatives in keeping with the Jewish concept of šelûḥîm, that is, a man’s representative (šâlîaḥ) is considered as the man himself. They are to fulfill a special commission and bring back a report (see Mark 6:30); so Jesus’ unusual instructions (vv8-11) pertain only to that particular mission. 

Jesus gives them authority (exousian; the “right” and the “power”; see Mark 2:10; 3:15) over evil spirits. This power to exorcise demons will authenticate their preaching (v13). The urgency of their mission requires that they travel light—they are to take a staff and wear sandals (ordinary footwear), but they are not to take bread (food), a bag (probably a traveler’s bag for provisions), money (small copper coins easily tucked in their cloth belts), or an extra tunic (an additional inner garment used as a covering at night). They are to depend on God to provide food and shelter through the hospitality of Jewish households.

The two concessions of a staff and sandals are unique to Mark. Both are forbidden in Matthew 10:9-10, and the staff is forbidden in Luke 9:3. Matthew uses ktaomai (“to procure, acquire”), instead of airō (“to take”); so the disciples are not to acquire additional staffs or sandals—but to use the ones they already have. Mark and Luke both use airō, “to take or carry along.” But Luke says, “Take nothing for the journey—no staff (rhabdon),” presumably no additional staff; while Mark says, “Take nothing for the journey except (see Mark 6:5) a staff (rhabdon),” presumably the one already in use. Thus each writer stresses a different aspect of Jesus’ instructions.

Whenever the disciples enter a house as invited guests, they are to stay there making it their base of operations until they leave town. They are not to impose on the hospitality of many people or accept more attractive offers once they are settled. They should also expect rejection. If any place (household, synagogue or village) will not offer hospitality or listen to their message, they are to leave there and to shake the dust off their feet. Devout Jews did this when leaving Gentile (alien) territory to show that they are dissociating themselves from it. This act will tell Jewish hearers that they are acting like pagans in rejecting the disciples’ message. This is to be done as a testimony (see Mark 1:44; 13:9) against the rejecting citizens. It warns them that the disciples’ responsibility to them has been fulfilled and those who reject the message will have to answer to God (see Acts 13:51; 18:6). No doubt it provokes serious thought and perhaps repentance by some. 

In obedience, the Twelve preach repentance (see Mark 1:4, 14-15) and exorcise many demons (see Mark 1:32-34, 39), and heal many sick people (cf. Mark 3:10). As Jesus’ representatives (v7) they learn that his power extends beyond his personal presence. Their mission shows the coming of God’s kingdom (cf. Mark 1:15).

Anointing of sick people with oil is unique to Mark. This use of olive oil was both because of its medicinal properties (see Luke 10:34; James 5:14) and its symbolic value indicating that the disciples acted by Jesus’ authority and power, not their own. This example, and James comment (James 5:14) should not be taken as a universal command to use oil in prayer for healing. There is no record of Jesus ever having used oil, and there are plenty of examples in the New Testament of healing without it.

3. The death of John the Baptist 

Mark 6:14-29

John’s imprisonment was a sign that Jesus’ ministry was to begin, and an indication of how it will ultimately end. It is striking to see here the different ways Jesus’ ministry is being perceived. Some see him as the return of Elijah (who was expected to return before the coming of the Messiah). Others see him as at least a prophet. Herod’s guilty conscience leads him to see Jesus as John, risen from the dead to confront him again.

In this sordid story about John’s martyrdom, we encounter a fearless prophet, a vicious king, a vindictive woman, a shameless girl (none else would dance in public to entertain party guests!) and a lonely death. Where are the powers of God’s Kingdom in this? Even John was tempted to ask that question while in prison (see Mat 11:3). We can answer only in the light of Calvary, where Jesus himself walked the same path of undeserved suffering for us; for the cross, in spite of its apparent weakness, is God’s power leading to our salvation (Romans 1:16). Since Jesus took this path, his followers must be prepared to take it as well.

4. Feeding the five thousand 

Mark 6:30-44

Having explored the apparent weakness of God’s Kingdom in the eyes of this world, Mark now gives more stories that show its great power. In these incidents, Jesus demonstrates the power of the Creator, who still is in control of the universe that he created. 

Having completed their successful mission, the Twelve debrief with Jesus, and he then takes them away by boat to a quiet place where they can get some rest. That place, according to Luke 9:10 is near Bethsaida, a city on the northeast side of the Sea of Galilee. Many people there have anticipated their arrival and go there on foot ahead of them. Thus the planned rest is interrupted by people in need.

Seeing this large crowd, Jesus is moved with compassion (not annoyance) toward them. This inner emotion moves him to help them. He views them as sheep without a shepherd, lost and helpless, without guidance, nourishment, or protection. In several Old Testament passages (Num. 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17; Ezek. 34:5, 23-25) the sheep/shepherd image is associated with the “wilderness” (see Mark 6:31-32). This crowd, representing the nation of Israel, receives compassion, extensive teaching concerning God’s kingdom (see Luke 9:11), and the provision of their needs (Mark 6:35-44) from Jesus, the true Shepherd (see John 10:1-21).

Late in the day (after Jesus teaches the crowd), a significant dialogue occurs between Jesus and the Twelve. Since it is late (after 3 p.m. Jewish time) and they are in a remote place, the disciples ask Jesus to dismiss the crowd so that they can buy food in the surrounding villages before darkness falls. Unexpectedly, Jesus tells them to feed the crowd! He emphasizes the word you (hymeis). The disciples’ caustic reply shows the inadequacy of their resources and the impossibility of meeting his command. According to their calculations, to feed such a crowd will take, literally, 200 denarii (NIV margin). A denarius was the average daily wage for a farm laborer. Consequently 200 denarii was roughly equivalent to eight months of a man’s wages, a sum beyond the disciples’ means.

Jesus insists they find out what bread is available, probably back at the boat and also in the crowd. The disciples return with the answer: a mere five loaves of bread and two fish (salted and dried or roasted). These details indicate that Mark has been given the details by an eyewitness (perhaps Peter). To insure orderly distribution, Jesus commands the disciples to have everyone sit down in groups on the green grass (suggesting springtime). The words “in groups” in v39 could be rendered “table company by table company,” however, the words “in groups” in v40 are literally, “garden plot by garden plot”—words used figuratively to picture well-arranged plots of people, perhaps colorfully dressed, seated on the grass in groups of 100s and 50s. This command is a challenge to faith for both the disciples and the crowd.

Jesus, serving as host of the meal, speaks the customary Jewish blessing over the five loaves (round wheat or barley cakes) and two fish. The words give thanks are from eulogeō (lit., “to praise, extol” [God], or “to bless”; see Mark 14:22). The object of the blessing in such a prayer is not the food, but God who gives it. Jesus looks up to heaven, regarded as where God is, in dependence on the Father for a miraculous provision of food. Then he breaks the loaves of bread into pieces, divides the fish into portions, and gives (gave here is literally “kept giving”) them to His disciples to set before the people. How the miracle itself takes place is not stated, but the imperfect tense of the verb “gave” indicates that the bread multiplies in Jesus’ hands (see Mark 8:6).

This provision of food for the crowd is both miraculous and abundant. Mark emphasizes this by noting that all ate and were satisfied. This is confirmed by the fact that the disciples collect 12 basketfuls (kophinoi, small wicker baskets; contrast Mark 8:8, 20) of leftovers, probably a basket for each of the disciples. The count of 5,000 men (andres, “males”), a very large crowd by local standards, does not include women and children (see Mat 14:21), who are probably grouped separately for the meal according to Jewish custom.

The usual theme of astonishment at the close of this miracle story is not included. This, plus subsequent comments in Mark 6:52 and Mark 8:14-21 on this event, indicate that Mark regards it as an important disclosure to Jesus’ disciples of who he truly is. But, at this juncture, they fail to understand its meaning (see Mark 6:52). Jesus will need to repeat the lesson later. This is not because they are stupid or unresponsive; it is because they are just like us!

5. Lord of nature 

Mark 6:45-56

When everyone had gone and Jesus had packed the disciples on to a boat to return to Bethsaida he climbed the hill for a time of prayer alone. He had fed the crowds as Moses had fed Israel in the wilderness with manna. Would they now be in danger of following him purely in hope of food, as before they had done purely in hope of healing? (see John 6:26). Jesus’ prayer was interrupted by his concern for his disciples. From the hill he could see the boat far below on the lake, making no headway because of the wind. So, at dead of night, he went to them, walking on the lake. This reminds us of Old Testament accounts where God controls the raging waters. Here the Son of God incarnate does the same. 

We do not know why Jesus was about to pass by them. Perhaps he wanted them to recognize him and call for help, or to show their faith in some other way. If so, he is disappointed, for when they do cry out it is only in terror—not fear of the storm (they are experienced fishermen) but of Jesus! Their cry of fear is enough to bring Jesus onto the boat, from where he calms the wind. They have forgotten the miracle of multiplying the loaves and fish; they have forgotten that he had calmed one storm already. Their reaction is to be completely amazed because they do not understand, even though the powers of the kingdom of God have been clearly shown to them.

On landing the boat, Jesus is met by a crowd of people bringing their sick to him for healing. Their faith is like that of the woman who suffered from bleeding; they only ask to touch the edge of his cloak, for they know and believe that he can heal them. Here Mark contrasts the yet unbelieving disciples with the believing crowds (though as we know, the crowds do not really trust in Jesus himself).

Conclusion

In this chapter, Jesus continues to show through miracles that he possesses the powers of the Kingdom of God—truly he is the Messiah. However, those who witness these miracles usually fail to believe in Jesus. Miracles are signs of the Kingdom, but not substitutes for the essence of the Kingdom, which is Jesus himself. We are called to trust in Jesus, not in miraculous signs.