It had been an exhilarating ride. Sent out as representatives of Jesus, the disciples had travelled in pairs from town to town, preaching repentance, healing the sick, and casting out demons. He sent them with the barest of essentials, no spare clothing, food, or even money. They arrived back days later with stories to tell of amazing healings, exorcisms, and miraculous provision. It had been an experience like no other.
But as exciting as it all had been, the men were now exhausted. The adrenaline rush had worn off. The constant demand had been draining. Jesus saw their weariness, and kindly offered a respite. "Come away by yourselves to a secluded place and rest awhile," he said. They collectively breathed a sigh of relief and boarded a boat to take them away from the crowds.
But respite was apparently not to be had. Word had spread, and people spotted them on the water from land. Many ran along the shore to follow their progress, trying to anticipate where they would dock. A crowd awaited them at the place they disembarked. Rather than avoid the crowd, Jesus went right into their midst and began to teach them. So much for rest, the disciples must have thought. The hours slipped by until it had grown quite late. The crowds must be starving, the disciples wearily decided. They approached Jesus. It surely was time to send them out of this wilderness into the nearby towns so they could purchase food.
Jesus' response took them by surprise. "You give them something to eat!" he commanded them. They looked at each other in dismay. There was not enough money in the till to feed a crowd this size! But Jesus directed them away from that idea. "How many loaves do you have? Go look!" The disciples took a quick inventory and found they had five loaves and two fish. Hardly enough to feed a crowd of 5,000 people.
Jesus ordered the crowd to sit in groups of hundreds and fifties. He then took the five loaves and two fish and thanked His Heavenly Father for the provision. He broke the loaves and fish and gave the pieces to the disciples to distribute to the crowd. The food never ran out. Five thousand ate until they were satisfied, and there were even leftovers. Jesus sent the disciples to collect them. The fragments were gathered in the small wicker baskets that every disciple carried as a part of his daily attire. Each one returned with his basket full.
What did witnessing this miracle mean to the disciples? There were several implications. Jesus had started the encounter by suggesting they go and find rest. Then he took them into the wilderness, but one that quickly became crowded with people. Not exactly what the disciples had in mind. But Jesus was about to show them a different kind of rest.
God's providing rest in the wilderness is a theme woven throughout pages of Scripture. He provided rest for his people in the wilderness with the provision of manna for their daily needs. When He ultimately gave them the Promised Land, Hebrews tells us they entered their rest. Transformation of the desert into a place of refreshment and life through the power of God is prominent in the prophetic books as well. Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah all spoke of a future time when God would provide for Israel, a time when they would live in the wilderness in security and peace. David even wrote a psalm on this: "He makes me lie down in green pastures. He restores my soul."
Now once again, in feeding the 5,000, God had provided rest in the wilderness. As the people sat in groups of 50 and 100, they surely recalled another time in the wilderness when their ancestors were ordered to do the same. It was when Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, told Moses to delegate some responsibility. Moses chose leaders and divided the people into manageable groups: thousands, hundreds, and fifties. Jesus' actions mimicked that history: all to remind us of God's provision for rest in the wilderness.
Jesus had offered the disciples rest, but it was a different kind of rest than they expected. Rest for the disciples didn't mean they got to take a load off and relax. Jesus made them do the work of distributing the bread and fish. So where did the rest come in? They may have been the hands and feet that delivered the goods, but the power and provision were all from God. The disciples had worn themselves out on the road. The miracle was a powerful lesson for future ministry. Their power source would be God alone.
The abundance of that power was amply displayed for each disciple as he filled his basket to the brim with the leftovers from the feast. The crowd ate until they were satisfied, and still there was more. The disciples needed to understand that even as they worked to be the hands and feet of Christ, God would provide more than they could even use. It was just one more reason they could truly be at rest, even as they ministered to others.
It's the kind of rest we must all participate in if we are to be any good to God at all. "Apart from me you can do nothing," Jesus warned his disciples. Yes, we are willing, warm bodies. But the responsibility to accomplish the work is on God's capable shoulders. Even in the middle of taxing ministry, we can be at rest. He intends for us to do all things through Christ, who will strengthen us. And that supernatural power will be all we need.
"[He] is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us..." Ephesians 3:20