This is right after he had sent his disciples out, two by two, to try out this whole “ministry thing” by themselves. According to Mark, it was an incredibly powerful and effective time of ministry for them. They saw powerful things done, and they were able to play a part in them. They return from their first “ministry internship”, and this is where we pick up the story.
The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.
Jesus’ pastoral concern extends not only to his flock but also to the shepherds. They have done so much ministry and now he insists that they withdraw and rest and eat. Also, they shouldn’t simply do this by themselves as individuals, but with those who are also doing ministry. The leaders of the church should rest together as fellow weary workers.
But note, this plan gets sidetracked by the needs of the community.
And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
No sooner had Jesus offered them a respite, that the people need to be met by Jesus in the midst of the ministers. So even though Jesus turns his focus towards how to serve the leaders well and give them the rest, the community still comes first. There’s a flexibility needed in rest. But the disciples are frustrated by this.
When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?”
The disciples were probably excited about getting rest. But then Jesus starts teaching people, and they sit there impatiently waiting for this sabbatical to come. The first moment they feel like they can leave, they go to Jesus and tell him to go towards the Sabbath he promised. But instead, he tells them to do more work!
I can only imagine how disheartening this was to them. Right when they thought they were on the cusp of rest, Jesus calls them to serve the needy community around them. And its not even the work that they had been doing during their “internship” or that Jesus had specially equipped them for. It was not the exciting gifts of preaching and healing, but rather the mundane act of passing out material goods to address material needs.
Right when they needed rest from their spiritual endeavors, he calls them to manual labor. Also notice that this feeding happens while it is very late out. But then they are done.
Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.
After all this promising of rest, and then calling them to work, I genuinely have no idea how to see these verses. We might think this was now their time to rest, but when Jesus returns from his own prayer, the disciples are busy fishing! They are still doing manual labor. When do they get their rest that he offered them in this life, that he offered them in this season?
When evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the sea. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified.
(A brief side note: Not only was Jesus wanting to pass them by without them seeing him, but he’s walking on the water while he is trying to avoid them. What a weird story. Anyone have any theories about this?)
But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.
Somehow, this whole storm thing is connected to a lesson about the loaves that they’re not getting due to hardened hearts. I think it’s here we start seeing the lesson about rest from Mark.
Jesus invited them into rest, and then had them accompany him into more work, and this work was providing for the community where their need was greatest. Jesus was showing himself as the great Provider, and trying to demonstrate to the disciples that, even in the midst of all their work and weariness, they can trust him to provide what they need, when they need it. The storm of ministry will not overcome them. It is more important to trust than to rest.
This isn’t in the text itself, but I wonder if Jesus intended that time on the boat to be their time for rest, but their own frustration over having to work earlier blinded them to this opportunity. So, they just fished and did more work. The word translated “straining” above is a rare Greek word that is usually translated as “torment”, “torture”, or “agony”.
Can we relate? We strive for some moment of calm in the midst of the chaos, only to have the din grow louder still. And so, we despair and give up. We give ourselves over to the labor and anxiety, never taking advantage of the moments of rest that might come.
We literally lose ourselves in the work of ministry, and in so doing, our hearts are hardened. We give ourselves over to fear and anxiety. We don’t see Jesus. We don’t trust him in the storm.
And yet God still meets us. I wonder if another lesson here isn’t how trusting Jesus actually transforms our work into a type of restful work. Indeed, in that passage in Hebrews that says, paradoxically, to “strive to enter that rest” of God, this rest is spoken of in the context of the work God did in Creation and Jesus did in Redemption. Jesus models a kind of work that guides into rest.
So are you a weary minister of God? Perhaps a tired seminarian like me? A discouraged church planter? A Bible Study leader, campus minister, or just the lone Christian on your block or at your job? Do you feel that you’ve been running yourself a bit ragged trying to figure out your place in the work of God in this world?
Then take heart. Be encouraged. I can’t promise you rest as you imagine and hope for now. But I can extend to you a Jesus that meets you in this need and will feed you when your hungry. The only thing he asks is that we stay cognizant to him and his work, do not fear, and trust him. And in that, perhaps we can find some quiet in rest in our souls, the wind might cease for a time, and we might be renewed. We need this, because there is work to do. In fact, our chapter ends like this:
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
[image credit: “Christ Performing Miracles” by Lucien Simon]