The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men. (ESV)
It’s easy to read accounts like this one and be hard on the apostles. They essentially interrupt Jesus’s ministry and tell him to get rid of the people he’s teaching. Then they try to make it about the welfare of the people--it’s late, they need to eat, tell them to go so they can take care of themselves. But it backfires on them! What does Jesus say? “You give them something to eat.”
Of course, it doesn’t end there, but the full story doesn’t begin here in verse 34, either, even though we get a hint. Back in verses 7-13, Jesus sends out the twelve, charging them to do mighty works in his name and preach the gospel. In our passage today, this is what they have returned from doing. As verses 12 and 13 tell us, they spent their time proclaiming “that people should repent,” and “cast[ing] out demons and annoint[ing] with oil many who were sick and heal[ing] them.” In short, they’ve been doing the work of ministry that Jesus called them to and they’re tired. And we know that they’re tired, because the first thing Jesus instructs them to do when they return is to withdraw and rest (31).
Maybe it isn’t so easy to come down hard on the apostles at this point, because it’s getting easier to see ourselves reflected back from the story. We are often worn out from the work of ministry. Whether we are serving our churches in some capacity, or fixing homes, or any combination of different things in different spheres, serving the Lord can be physically and spiritually draining. When we’ve finished with a work, we may feel entitled to pass on the next thing that the Lord puts before us—as though he is ignorant of our situation, and as though it is for us to assess whether it is in our capacity to answer his call.
But our Lord is not ignorant! The same Jesus who calls them to feed these five thousand people called them to withdraw and rest at the beginning of the passage. But the same Jesus who called them to withdraw and rest also has compassion on this great crowd with no shepherd. Jesus knows that the need is great, and though he knows his servants are physically and spiritually spent, he calls them out of their rest to minister to these people. But here’s the thing you shouldn’t miss: the Jesus who calls them out of their rest empowers them to do the work he has for them. Just as he, in verse 7, gave the apostles authority over unclean spirits so that they could cast them out, Jesus now provides the means to pull off this miraculous feeding of five thousand men.
The Lord graciously gives his people rest. He made us, he knows us, and he understands that we, as finite creatures, need time to withdraw and restore our strength. But the Lord also calls us, in his time, to minister to a lost world. Often, that call interrupts our plans for a much-needed rest. Often, that call comes right after we’ve finished serving him in other ways. But brothers and sisters, in these moments, be encouraged: the same Lord who calls us out of our weakness to serve him gives us the strength and power we need to answer his call.