If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me now to Luke chapter 9. It’s also printed there in the prayer bulletin for you. And I want to begin by saying what a privilege it is to stand before you as we study God’s Word together tonight. Yes, yes, yes - I know everybody has said that and you’re supposed to say that but it truly is my joy to do so because, you know, many times when a seminarian or a young man preparing for ministry comes to stand before his home congregation sometimes he really, really feels the need to prove himself. And he gets it in his head that the people are up there staring at him and thinking to themselves, “You know, he’s been up there at that seminary for three or four years now - what has he really learned at all? Is he really learning anything? What’s he been doing this whole time? All of this time and this money that we’ve invested into him to support him and encourage him - what the heck has been going on?” And so sometimes that young man will really feel the need to dazzle and amaze the people with all of his erudite learning and so they are in awe of everything he’s just said and that he’s been working so hard. He’ll be throwing out all sorts of terms and dates and names and places, most of which are only vaguely related to the Scripture passage in the beginning and so in the end everyone sort of leaves the room in this dull, confused kind of haze with absolutely no clue what the passage was about but they sure can tell that that young man was excited. “Bless his tender little heart,” my grandmother from West Virginia would say!
Well my wife, Sarah, and I had precisely that kind of experience a couple of years ago. We went to another PCA church and there was a young man preaching, a young seminarian. It was his first time to preach for his home congregation and I’m pretty sure we heard the words, “Protoevangelion, tetragrammaton, over-realized eschatology, anthropopathism, and monophysitism” all in the same paragraph of the same sermon! Please rest assured that I have absolutely no intention of doing that to you tonight and I feel absolutely no pressure whatsoever to preach a sermon that so dazzles and amazes you that you’ll be speaking about it for weeks. I hope that what I have to say will be helpful, but I want you to know that Sarah and I have felt nothing but love and support and encouragement from this congregation. We love you, we feel loved by you, and I’m just excited to get to stand up here as we open the Bible and study together tonight. And so with that, let’s pray together and we’ll read God’s Word from Luke 9.
Father, as we open Your Word tonight we ask that we would behold wonderful things in it, and that by Your Holy Spirit we would see that Your Word is true, that it is for Your glory, and that it is for our growth in grace. Father, we do not live by bread alone but by every word which proceeds from Your mouth, so we ask that You would bless us tonight as we study. Help us to understand and to obey. We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.
This is God’s Word to us from Luke chapter 9 beginning at verse 10. Hear it:
“On their return the apostles told him all that they had done. And he took them and withdrew apart to a town called Bethsaida. When the crowds learned it, they followed him, and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God and cured those who had need of healing. Now the day began to wear away, and the twelve came and said to him, ‘Send the crowd away to go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find lodging and get provisions, for we are here in a desolate place.’ But he said to them, ‘You give them something to eat.” They said, ‘We have no more than five loaves and two fish - unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.’ For there were about five thousand men. And he said to his disciples, ‘Have them sit down in groups of about fifty each.’ And they did so, and had them all sit down. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing over them. Then he broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. And they all ate and were satisfied. And what was left over was picked up, twelve baskets of broken pieces.”
Amen, and thus ends our reading of God’s holy and inerrant and inspired Word to us tonight.
An American mentality vs. Christianity
“God helps those who help themselves.” Uh-oh! Well, according to a recent study by The Wall Street Journal and George Barna, 68% of self-described “born again Christians” agree with that statement. And out of all Americans in general, 75% agree. Well, where does this idea come from? It doesn’t come from the Bible. It comes, in fact, from Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richards Almanac. Indeed, Franklin actually adapted it from a fable about Hercules: A wagon gets stuck in the mud and a man cries out to Hercules for help and Hercules replies, “Get up and put your shoulder to the wheel, for the gods help them that help themselves!” And so I wonder if that, at least in part, might be your default mode of thinking when it comes to God. If you are an evangelical Christian in America, and all of you are, then there’s at least a two out of three chance that you do think that to some degree.
You see, Benjamin Franklin gives us a religion that is quintessentially American, doesn’t he? “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, work harder, and God will show you favor. God helps those who help themselves.” Christianity, on the other hand, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, gives quite a different story of God’s favor. “For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly... For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Help for the helpless. Peace and grace for those who cannot help themselves. Grace for those who will not help themselves. Even grace for those who don’t deserve to be helped. Scandalous grace, if you will.
Scandalous Grace Series: A Recap
So far in these Wednesday night meals with Jesus we’ve gone to a wedding party with loud drunken celebrants, we’ve seen Jesus befriend a loathsome, greedy, tax collector named Levi, and we’ve seen Jesus eating with a sinful woman who bursts into the door, comes in and weeps over His feet anointing them with oil, and Jesus tells her that her sins are forgiven, much to the horror of a Pharisee with whom He is eating. Scandalous grace. You see the pattern there. The type of people that Jesus seems to befriend at these meals are not the type that would be on your or my A-List for a fundraiser or a cocktail party, would they? You see, and I’m borrowing David’s wording here, what we are doing in this series is taking a look at Jesus’ culture because in Jesus’ culture, table fellowship was a sort of social badge. Who you ate with said a great deal about you and so you can imagine why such controversy arose about Jesus’ friends at dinner. For Luke in particular, these meals with Jesus give us a glimpse into the heart of our Savior - opportunities He takes to minister grace to the weary soul and to the broken-hearted soul even while He exposes the self-righteous and the apathetic man.
So tonight in our series of meals with Jesus we come to Luke 9 and one of Scripture’s most famous meals - the feeding of the five thousand. And even though we have heard this passage probably hundreds of times before, there is still a wealth in it for us to unpack. So let’s briefly look at it, and I’d like to do so with just two points. For those of you who like to take notes or like to have an outline, like me, to help follow along - two points - a desperate, despised people and an all sufficient Savior. A desperate, despised people and an all sufficient Savior. Two points and then we’ll think a little bit about what it means for us tonight.
I. A Desperate, Despised People
So first, if you look at Luke 9 and just allow your eyes to scan the page, you’ll see that Luke gives us a very jam-packed chapter, doesn’t he? We have the twelve apostles out on a mission to cast out demons and to heal, we have the feeding of the five thousand of course, there’s Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ or the living God, there’s Jesus telling His disciples that they must take up their cross in a life of discipleship, we have the transfiguration of Jesus, and a number of other familiar passages. This is a busy, busy chapter, and so because of it we don’t get quite the whole back story of this crowd of five thousand that we meet here. And so for a little more of their story, we might want to turn to Mark chapter 6. If you have your Bibles, feel free to turn there. Mark chapter 6. At this point, Jesus and His disciples, they’ve just had an exhausting season of ministry and Jesus wants to get away for a little bit. That’s why He’s doing this. The Master and His disciples need some time together. So they get into a boat, they sail across the Sea of Galilee, and they land over in Bethsaida. And what do the crowds do? They follow Him. Jesus’ desire is to get to a lonely place so that He and the disciples could have some refreshment, some time together, and it all comes to nothing because these masses follow them. Why?
Well in Mark 6 one verse in particular that I want to point out - verse 34. Why describe these folks as a desperate, despised people? Mark 6:34 - “When he went to shore (that is, Jesus) saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” And this is most likely a reference to Ezekiel 34. Ezekiel chapter 34 says, among other things, it says, “Ah, shepherds of Israel, the weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the lost you have not sought. With force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd. ‘Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds.’” You see, this was the spiritual condition of Israel in the first century in Jesus’ time. Here are the Lord’s people, the Jews of the first century, and they are leaderless. Where are the teachers? Where are the priests? Where are the prophets - the ones who are to expound to them the Torah, the Holy Scriptures of God, the Old Testament? They’re nowhere and Jesus is moved to compassion because they are directionless, they are leaderless. Jesus looks at them in pity as sheep without a shepherd.
I did not grow up on a farm but my grandfather did; he grew up on a sheep farm, in particular ,in northeast Ohio where I was originally from. And he would tell me all sorts of ridiculous stories of the things that would happen growing up. And one time he was having a conversation with his brother and he was trying to pen up the sheep and his brother got him distracted, got him to talking, and he’s leaning up against the fence. Meanwhile the gate swings wide open and in less than thirty seconds, nearly two hundred of their sheep have scattered all across the countryside. It took them four and a half days before they could collect all the sheep back together. That’s what sheep will do! Sheep without a shepherd, sheep without a leader, without any sense of direction, they will wander anywhere, sometimes even to their own death. Two of the sheep in my grandfather’s story plummeted into a creek ravine and drowned themselves. It’s a very fitting description that Scripture gives us, calling the people of God “sheep,”, especially sheep without a leader, without a shepherd.
You see, these people are desperate for sustenance for their souls, for someone to give them spiritual counsel. They have no teachers; they have no pastors that are caring for the needs of their souls at this point in Israel’s history, to speak to their needs and longings. No wonder they so desperately chase Jesus around the lake. They are despised—despised in the sense that the spiritual leaders of Israel do not care for their souls. They do not give a rip about these common people. You remember the sinful woman in Luke chapter 7 which we took a look at last week - the disdain that that Pharisee had for her? There was no help for her, only scorn. And we have something very, very similar, if not quite as explicit, here with these crowds of five thousand chasing after Jesus. You see, these are the dregs of society. And in the view of some folks they are a drain on society. Here’s what one writer says about them. He says, “If you were to ask the leaders of Israel about these poor, backwoods hicks from Galilee they might just quote Ebenezer Scrooge and say, ‘If the poor are going to die they’d better do it and decrease the surplus population. Be done with them.’” A desperate, despised people - that’s the first thing.
II. An All-Sufficient Savior
But then, but then there’s this feast, this feast with Jesus. And the second thing that we see here is an all sufficient Savior. I love that line from tonight’s hymn, “Twas the same love that spread the feast that sweetly drew us in, else we had still refused to taste and perished in our sin.” I love that line. And it is beautifully appropriate that these people who are starved for sustenance, in more than one way mind you, it is a beautiful thing that they should encounter here the Bread of Life itself. Do you notice what Jesus does? Back to our actual passage here, Luke 9. Luke 9 - look at verse 11 in particular here. “They followed him, and he welcomed them” - the grace and hospitality of Jesus at this meal. We’ll get more on that in a moment. But “He welcomed them and he spoke to them of the kingdom of God and he cursed those who had need of healing.” And verse 12 says, “Now the day began to wear away.” “The people are hungry,” the disciples come and tell Jesus. They’re hungry and what does He do? He preaches to them. And Luke makes a point, doesn’t he, when he says, “Now the day began to wear away” because this was not some short little ten minute homily. No, this was a Eutychus kind of situation that just went on and on and on and for hours until it grew late. And isn’t that extraordinary that the main need as Jesus saw it was not their physical hunger. They would get over a few hours of hunger. But there was something far more needful here - the need of their souls. Oh, I would absolutely love to tease out the implications of that; don’t misunderstand me, but as Derek Thomas would tell me, that would be very, very naughty of me—to indulge that selfishly! No, but it is an extraordinary thing that Jesus, having compassion on them, seeing their need, seeing their desperation, he preaches to them. You know the world would say that that’s the last thing that people need, isn’t it - more teaching and preaching. And yet Jesus seems to show us, even in this scene of feasting and banqueting, that there’s more than food here that’s needed - a word from the mouth of Jesus is a fundamental thing that we need.
This miracle, the feeding of the five thousand, actually there in verse 14, “five thousand men,” it uses the actual male term in Greek so scholars have gone on to suggest that perhaps there were women and children there as well and some scholars estimate maybe ten thousand people or more. Notice the disciples’ response to this particular event. “Send them away,” verse 12, and isn’t that a picture of how we love often to refer and respond to problems? Here’s a problem, it’s a big problem - five thousand, maybe ten thousand people, it’s late in the day and there is no Chick-fil-A, there is no McAlister’s in Bethsaida, and besides bread, even if they wanted to go get it, bread was usually baked at night and brought and purchased at the market in the morning. The disciples say, “Let’s send them away to the villages to buy bread.” But where are they going to buy bread for five thousand people this late in the day? So you see their response. “Look, here’s a problem. Send it away. Let’s get rid of it!” But that is not the way that Jesus deals with problems, is it? Praise God that is not the way that Jesus deals with problems. There is absolutely nothing here to meet the need of these five thousand plus people and the disciples realize that but they have overlooked one crucial thing, haven’t they? Jesus is there. Jesus, the Son of God is there, Jesus the divine Messiah is there, Jesus who is the Bread of Life is there among them. And so the sufficiency of God is on display here in more ways than one.
Verse 13 He said to them, “You give them something to eat.” They said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish unless we are to go and buy food for all these people.” John’s gospel tells us that this food they were talking about here was some little boy’s lunch - the only food to be found for some ten thousand people for miles around and nowhere near enough money to buy anything for this starving crowd. And even if they did have the money to buy, who in the world is going to be the caterer for this size of people? You see what Jesus is doing, don’t you? Jesus is underlining their inability to meet the need in and of themselves. But the problem is going to be remedied, not by some clever, thoughtful initiative on the part of the disciples. No, the only way this problem is going to be remedied is by a demonstration of the sovereign power and provision of Jesus Christ. And remedy it He can and remedy it He does.
So Jesus has the disciples sit people down in groups of fifty, about fifty each there, verse 14, and He takes this paltry little bit of food, this little boy’s lunch, and Jesus at this point does what every male head in a Jewish home would do at mealtime. It’s extraordinary. He gives thanks to God, verse 15, and He breaks the bread and a miracle takes place. From seven tiny little scraps, five thousand plus people are fed.
But look also what Luke says there in verse 17. “And they all ate and were satisfied.” Now isn’t that beautiful? All they had been eating was bread and fish, yet that is the word that you and I might use at Thanksgiving with the turkey and the gravy and the sweet potato casserole and the pumpkin pie. You’ve gone on for hours, you’ve stuffed yourself silly, your belt’s about to pop, you lean back and you feel satisfied. You’re not hungry anymore; you’re replenished. And isn’t that what Jesus always does? You can feast on the food of this world but that food is insufficient and you will be hungry again, my friends. But when you feed from the provision that Jesus feeds you it satisfies as nothing else can do. That’s part of what this meal is teaching us here, this scene here in Luke 9, because this miracle, as impressive and astonishing as it might be, it pointing beyond this little gift of bread to a crowd of people to the Giver of that gift. It’s pointing us to God the Son who provides not only for their stomachs or for their physical needs or for their bodies but He provides for their souls.
Old Testament Fulfillment
Yes, yes, when we come to this passage there is a sense in which there is a great deal of fulfillment going on here, an Old Testament prophecy fulfillment. You remember Israel, starving in the wilderness, wandering under Moses, and what happened? God provided them the bread of heaven. And what was the point there in that happening? That God was their supplier and that He would meet all of their needs. And here is Jesus providing bread for the multitudes. Here we have a new and greater Moses. That’s certainly something that’s going on here. Or remember the story of Elijah, Elijah and the widow with the flour and oil and how she was supplied everything she needed by that miraculous work of the prophet, Elijah. Here we have a new and greater Elijah. That’s part of what’s going on here.
The Great Messianic Banquet
But this is more than just Old Testament prophetic fulfillment. This is more than just Jesus providing bread for the crowd because these people need more than bread, don’t they? These are sinners who need saving and they are sinners who need a Savior. You see, though this miracle is impressive and astonishing and makes our jaw drop, this miracle of Jesus is pointing us toward an even greater provision for His people. Isaiah 26 verses 6 through 9 which David mentioned a few weeks ago is a prophecy of the great Messianic banquet, Isaiah 26:6-9. And Luke is saying, “Look here, the great Messianic banquet is coming to fulfillment now before your eyes in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, the Messiah of God’s people.” Do you remember some of those beautiful words from Isaiah?
He says, “On this mountain,” says Isaiah, “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined, and he will swallow up death forever. And the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth. For the Lord has spoken. It will be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God! We have waited for him that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him. Let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation!” We get a glimpse of that here, don’t we, at this feeding of the five thousand?
Look again at verse 16 there in Luke 9. “Taking the five loaves and the two fishes and looking up to heaven he gave thanks and broke them. Then he gave them to the disciples to distribute to the people.” You know when Luke describes the Last Supper at Luke 22 verse 19 he writes, “And he took the bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them saying, ‘This is my body which is given for you, do this in remembrance of me.’” Taking, thanking, breaking, and giving - the same exact four words in the same exact order in both of those passages. Now that’s not by accident. That is on purpose by design. Luke is making a connection that Jesus is the Messiah who provides for God’s people and hosts God’s great banquet, the banquet foretold by Isaiah 26, and ultimately He provides for us by dying and He welcomes us because He was stricken. He will be judged in the place of His people so that His people can escape God’s judgment and be welcomed to God’s great feast. That is the grace message, the banquet message that we see throughout the gospels. Is it not the point that’s being made?
Indeed, in John’s version, in John 6, John tells us that this happened, this miracle of the five thousand, at the time when the Passover was at hand. So again, scholars debate maybe this was a pre-Passover feast, maybe it was Passover itself, but you see the point, don’t you? He who is the fulfillment of Passover and who leads His people out of an even greater exodus than Moses led the people, He is now here eating at Passover with His people. This miracle is but a microcosm of a greater work of grace that Christ is ushering in here, isn’t it? Jesus is the host of God’s banquet and He provides for us by dying for us and Luke will go on to demonstrate that for the next chapters of his gospel. And this meal, this meal with the five thousand is just a tiny picture of that good news of grace and hospitality on a cosmic level, isn’t it? The all-sufficient Savior.
III. Application: Good News for the Desperate and Despised
So what does this mean for us as we conclude tonight? We’ve seen heavenly grace and hospitality on display, we’ve seen this meal with Jesus, we’ve seen Jesus as the all sufficient Savior for a desperate, despised people. So should this impact us at all? Well, two or three things in particular. Think for just a moment about outreach. You know, missions conference is upon us in just a few weeks and so I think it’s appropriate to think about that in light of this passage. You know it well that if Jesus feasted with the despised of society as we see them here, the dregs of society, and if He is to some extent providing a model for kingdom ministry, if we are to imitate our Savior and to obey the Great Commission and to observe everything that He has commanded to us, could that mean that you and I have a responsibility to bring this Good News to the disenfranchised and the despised of this world, a responsibility to share the Biblical truth of Jesus Christ with the marginalized and the ostracized and the despised of our world? Yes, I think so. I think so. In fact, it’s because of that very same conviction, that need, that our own Wiley Lowry in fact hosts a Bible study just a few blocks from here every Wednesday night over in Midtown. Did you know that? A conviction and a need to reach the disenfranchised and the despised and the ostracized of society with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
A Word of Warning
Part of what makes this passage uncomfortable is the indictment that Jesus gives, not so much with His words but with His actions - the indictment against the leaders for their calloused indifference to these lost sheep. There’s a word of warning here. You see, part of what we’re trying to do in this little Wednesday night series is to show how Jesus simultaneously gives grace to the weary and exposes the self-righteous or the calloused or the indifferent man. So here is a word of warning that calls for us to examine our own hearts. What’s our attitude to the spiritual impoverished in our world? Do we care at all? Are we calloused and cynical? Are we content to have the riches of truth to feast upon and well, so what if they don’t have it? The answer to that question is very revealing. So there’s a warning as our hearts are exposed in light of God’s grace at this meal.
At the very least, my friends, at the very least, we have a duty to pray. In the very next chapter, in Luke chapter 10, Jesus says, “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Friends, we have a duty to beg the Lord of the harvest to send out an army of laborers, including those gifted to take the Gospel of scandalous grace if we can call it that to all kinds of people whom society would rather ignore and simply leave for dead. One of the many privileges that we enjoy here at First Presbyterian Church is rich, Biblically faithful teaching. And I mean that. Praise God for it. Praise God for it. Do you? Do you thank Him for it? I hope so, because it is only out of His sheer good pleasure that we have it and it is very, very easy to forget that a scenario where you have people who love Jesus and love His Word and give the people a consistently nourishing diet from the Word, it is easy to forget that that kind of scenario is very much a minority situation. There are people in our own backyard who are despised and desperate and not necessarily in a financial or socio-economic sense, mind you. They are lost and wandering sheep that are alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world - Ephesians 2.
Friends, I encourage you to give thanks to God for the privilege that you have to belong to a congregation like this one, but do not merely bask in it. Let’s not simply wallow contentedly in the gifts that we’ve been given; let us pray for our fellows who do not have the food for their souls that they need. Pray that the Great Shepherd would raise up faithful under-shepherds to feed the sheep. Pray, pray without an ounce of pride or some sort of self-congratulatory pat on the back, because I hope that when we think of the lost, the pagan, the un-churched man or even the churched man whose soul is starving, and there are many, whose soul is starving because he is being fed a diet of weak, watery, or even unbiblical teaching—I hope that when you think of folks like that your heart breaks a little and that you are moved to prayer. Cast your cares unto Jesus, the King of the Church and the Lord of the harvest and then ponder how you might obey Him in that area because my friends, we have the greatest feast in all the world and that is a feast worth sharing. Is it not?
A Word of Encouragement
A word of warning to us but also a word of encouragement here. We’ve seen Jesus’ grace in providing for His people but there’s also grace to keep us from despairing. It’s helpful for us to be reminded that even as Jesus miraculously fed these people they would eventually be hungry again. This feast, as miraculous as it was, as powerful as it was, was but a foretaste of the real banquet which is to come. And even though it is our duty to take part in our Savior’s mission, the success of that mission does not ultimately depend on us. Here’s how one writer puts it. He says, “When you get right down to it, the disciples cannot provide for the people, which probably why they were eager to send them away in the first place. It’s easy for us to play at being Messiah. We want to help and it’s right that we do show love, but we need to be careful not to think that we can solve people’s problems for them. If we try and save the world, we’ll quickly burn out. Reliance upon us may feed our egos for a time but it does not bring lasting change. Christ is the Savior, not us. Our role is to point to Him. We have a responsibility to welcome people to the Messianic banquet but we can’t bring them in. What we offer people is Jesus. His death is sufficient and complete. He is the Provider, He is the host - not us.”
And so I wonder if there’s those of you in this room tonight who are like myself who feel a sense of duty to obey when we see things like this. You want to obey the Great Commission, you want lost people to come to know the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, but you feel weary because the challenges in front of you seem absolutely insurmountable. Luke 9 says to you tonight, here is grace. Take comfort, weary soul, that it is Christ who saves and rescues sinners, not you. Cling to that.
God helps those who help themselves? No, God rescues men and women dead in their trespasses who cannot help themselves, who will not help themselves - dead sinners. Indeed, Friend of sinners they called Him. They scoffed, they sneer, “Friend of sinners,” to which we simply respond, “Man of Sorrows, what a name! For the Son of God who came, ruined sinners to reclaim, Hallelujah! What a Savior!” Let’s pray.
Our Father, we thank You for our Savior, Jesus Christ, who cares for our deepest needs and our deepest fears and our deepest longings and that He satisfies. Forgive us when we complain and grumble. O Lord, You have filled us with good things. You have surrounded us by the wealth of Your provision. So help us tonight to be fed by You, even as we think about the mission that You have modeled before us and that You have called us to join. We thank You for scandalous grace for vile sinners such as us. Bless now Your Word to us for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
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