THREE-DAYS OF HEALING, WHOLENESS AND HOPE
Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them. The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.” His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?” “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked. “Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.” He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves and the fish, and when he had given thanks, he broke them and gave them to the disciples, and they in turn to the people. They all ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The number of those who ate was four thousand men, besides women and children. After Jesus had sent the crowd away, he got into the boat and went to the vicinity of Magadan. (Matthew 15:29-39)
ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION
- Jesus returned from the region of Syro-Phoenecia to travel along the road beside the Sea of Galilee.
- He went up onto a mountainside and sat down.
- Great crowds of people came to him bringing those who were lame, blind, crippled and mute as well as many other forms of sickness.
- They brought the sick people to where he was and he healed them.
- The people were amazed to see mute people speaking, the blind seeing and the lame walking.
- They understood that these healing were done by the power of the God of Israel and began to praise him.
- Jesus called the disciples to him and told them of his deep compassion for the people.
- The people had been so drawn to him that they had stayed for three whole days without eating any food just to remain with him.
- Jesus was concerned that if he dismissed them, they would not have the strength to walk to their homes.
- The disciples pointed out that it was a very remote place and it was impossible to get enough food to feed everyone.
- He asked them how many loaves of bread they had.
- They told him they had seven loaves and a few small fish.
- He told the people to sit on the ground.
- He took the loaves and gave thanks to God.
- He broke the loaves and gave the pieces to the disciples.
- The disciples then broke the pieces they had and kept giving them to the people.
- In this way, all of the people ate until they were satisfied.
- There were seven baskets full of left-overs.
- The crowd numbered four thousand men, plus women and children.
- Jesus dismissed the crowds.
- When the crowd was gone he got into a boat and sailed to the region of Magadan.
THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY
29 Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down. 30 Great crowds came to him, bringing the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute and many others, and laid them at his feet; and he healed them.
When Jesus returned from the region of Tyre and Sidon he walked along the Roman road on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. At some point, he and the disciples left the road and walked up the side of a mountain and sat down. The brief detail in the text doesn’t actually tell us how the crowds knew Jesus was there or how they gathered around him. We know that there were possibly five or six thousand people, perhaps more. Four thousand men plus women and children. That would be a large crowd in any part of the world. It would equate to a packed house at the Melbourne Cricket Ground today.
No doubt there were some amazing and wonderful people around at the time who just wanted to hang on every word that Jesus might speak. Doubtless these people would quietly come and sit neatly in rows waiting for Jesus to teach. Then they would go and do everything he said. Such people were not in this crowd. These ones were significantly more complex (and somewhat less attractive). They were people bringing sick family members or friends to Jesus: the lame were being carried, the blind were being led, the crippled were also being assisted or carried. And that’s not all. There were all kinds of other people who had various unspecified physical and spiritual conditions needing to be cured. It would have been like no Emergency Department you or I have ever seen. There could have been thousands of sick and broken bodies there. Not a pretty sight on any day of the week. We would like to think they qualified by some criteria for special attention but there is no evidence to suggest such a thing. They were there because they were desperate to see their friends and family healed. This is like a camp filled with refugees fleeing the danger and deprivations of war. The only ideology is survival, nothing more. In the terms of broken humanity they might represent the same status as a boil on your arm. It’s significance is only measured by your desire to get rid of it – the quicker the better and the sooner it is forgotten the better.
It is important to remember, in those days, if a person had some form of disability or sickness it was a result of the judgment of God for your sin. The worse the disability the greater the supposed sin. It was not just the burden of sickness you would have to carry. The social stigma would be an even greater load to bear. What is there not to love and admire about Jesus being surrounded by people who were condemned to the bottom of the social scale through no fault of their own. It must have been a shock to the system that a rabbi would not only welcome them but attend to their needs. On this occasion, a pattern was established for people to bring their sick or invalided family members and friends to Jesus. They were brought in front of where he was sitting. One after the other, they were healed until there wasn’t a sick person left in the whole crowd.
The people were amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the crippled made well, the lame walking and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.
I have been a few places where one or two people have been dramatically and instantly healed. It is exciting and breathtaking. I have no idea what it must have been like to see a thousand or more people getting healed; not just headaches and pimples either. This whole crowd were exposed to the loving presence of God in one of the most tangible ways possible. Just think of what it must have been like for one lame person to be healed. The person and their family or friends would have been delirious with joy. Unlike some of Jesus detractors among the religious leaders, these people had no theological conundrums to deal with. They saw the power, and saw the result and knew these were the acts of a loving God. It is important to notice that they didn’t praise Jesus. They praised God. It may seem a small thing but it was of great significance. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus teaches people how to recognise a work of the kingdom,
In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:16 (NIV)
It is a work of the kingdom when people see things that you do and give the glory to God. It is unfortunate that so many Christian leaders seem eager to promote themselves or their particular organisation when they achieve comparative success. Jesus, himself was particular about this matter. If more detail had been included in the text we might know the reason they were so clear about who they were honouring for what was happening. Perhaps Jesus said things to this effect as he was proclaiming God’s kingdom promise, I don’t know. We must follow Jesus in these matters. The glory belongs to God – no one else. We are to be jealous for that glory.
32 Jesus called his disciples to him and said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way. 33 His disciples answered, “Where could we get enough bread in this remote place to feed such a crowd?”
I have discovered from these accounts in Matthew’s Gospel that the key to getting revelation comes by paying careful attention to all the information. It often comes in the form of a surprise. On this occasion, it is easy to miss and comes from a quiet piece of chronological information. We are told that Jesus left the main road and headed up the mountain. We know that when he sat down people began to bring the sick to him until they were all healed. What is easy to miss is the fact that no one left for three days.
Four thousand men plus women and children who didn’t care about food or shelter? They just stayed with Jesus. Was Jesus teaching them? Possibly, maybe probably. What we do know is that no one wanted to go home. This is so profoundly counter-intuitive for people with my own cultural perspective. Often when we gather to meet with Jesus people come late and leave as soon as the benediction is spoken. The difference might be that in the story we are reading here it was Jesus they stayed for. After three days they didn’t look like moving. Perhaps when we gather, it is not the presence of Jesus we encounter but the presence of some liturgy or set of regular features on the program. If the purpose of our gathering was to seek the presence of Jesus and to respond to his manifest presence, it might be a different story. Come to think of it, most revivals are times where the clock goes out the window because something more important is happening – and that is usually the Holy Spirit making the presence of Jesus known.
The people saw what Jesus did and only wanted to stay, while ever Jesus was going to be there. Think of it another way. Jesus stayed too. This was three whole days and at least two nights. There was no food and no shelter but no one left. It’s a bit hard for us to relate to, but then most of us have never seen a thousand-plus people healed – lame people leaping, blind seeing God’s creation for the first time, mute people shouting for the first time. Whatever it was, it had everything to do with Jesus and then it had to do with the response of grateful people to him. It would be cheeky of me to say so, but the last thing we know about what this crowd was doing before three days had passed was giving praise to God. Maybe they spent the rest of the three days praising God together. I have noticed that where the kingdom of God is front and centre it is much easier to find the start button than it is to find the stop button. Sadly people with my cultural heritage have had their spiritual liberty shaped by centuries of theological discussions, cold and clammy reasoning and a lack of Holy Spirit awareness. We have created far too many “stop” buttons. People from those cultures less impacted by the tyranny of abstract reason are less likely to worry about “stop” buttons. I think this incident illustrates the point comprehensively. Jesus had brought heaven to where they were. They had experienced heaven and could think of nothing else and nowhere else. There is a challenge for people like us – who can’t even bear to be without access to our smartphones for more than a few minutes at any time and have an alarm system that goes off at the suggestion that lunch might not be happening. When these and other things crowd our heads and hearts it is no wonder that we are running to a schedule that has little to do with the kingdom of God and a lot to do with the kingdom of this world. The only antidote for this is to fix our attention on Jesus and what he is intending or doing in any given situation. That way, elapsed time loses its power to dominate.
In the end, it is Jesus who takes the first precipitative action. What I love about this is not just the fact that thousands of people get to engage with Jesus over a three day period regardless of the absence of food or shelter, but the fact that Jesus pursues them with love to the end. His care for their wellbeing was not limited to the needs they presented. He was willing to tend to the needs that were not mentioned. What amazing pragmatic tender love is that?
The question to the disciples is similar to one made in some other remote place. It is worthy of note that on no occasion did Jesus ask his disciples to heal or cast out a demon in his presence – even though he sent them out to do exactly that. He did ask them to take responsibility for feeding people. Or, at least, he involved them in that process, as he did on the previous occasion. The disciples seem to carry no increase in faith from the previous occasion. When Jesus asked the question I would have expected them to remember what happened last time and say something like, “No worries, Jesus. We have some loaves and fish and here they are for you to multiply like you did before.” But no. No mention of last time. In fact they were as far from the action this time as they were the first time. There is some form of encouragement for us in this. I have been in faith skirmishes that haver been amazing and scary. When God showed his supernatural hand we were like the people described in the Psalms,
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
I remember an occasion when we prayed that God would raise up $40,000 in two weeks as confirmation to the whole church that we should purchase a property. Until fifteen minutes before the two weeks were up we only had $15,000. The last twenty-five thousand came in literally at the last minute. We were stoked beyond words. We were so full of praise to the Lord. None of us ever thought we would ever doubt God again. Until the next time we were needing a miracle. Then, we were plunged into the same battle as we were previously. That’s why I am glad this is in the Bible. It gives me courage to think that I am not the only one who has to struggle to believe God. On this occasion it was the disciples who, when faced with exactly the same issue, faced it like they did the very first time it happened. I think every occasion that demands trust is going to be like the first time. It never happens naturally or comfortably. We will always be called to fight, like the disciples were on this occasion, a battle between normal human reasoning and what is possible with God. Even more encouraging is the patience we see in Jesus to lead them again in the journey to a destination called “trust in what God can do.”
34 “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked. “Seven,” they replied, “and a few small fish.
They say repetition is a good tool for teaching and learning. This was such a day for such a learning process. I seem to find things to wonder about when I read the concise and compressed information recorded in Scripture. On this occasion I would love to know when they twigged to what was going to happen. It was certainly a ‘deja vous’ moment. Jesus proceeded as he had done before. The people were organised ready for a meal to be served. He gave thanks for what had been offered even though it wasn’t ever going to be enough. He gave pieces to the disciples and as the disciples kept breaking the pieces it was multiplied in the act of them giving away what they had (made available for God to use for his purposes). Once again there was an abundance; food was left over and collected into baskets. A crowd of people who had come bringing sick people went to their homes with full stomachs and healed bodies. All because they spent some time in the presence of the King of a kingdom of abundance and wholeness. The kingdom had come and the will of God was being done on the earth as it was being done in heaven.
IF THIS WAS HAPPENING IN MY OWN LIFE WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?
What we have seen in this encounter is the plus of the kingdom of God. These people came looking for healing. When they experienced healing they didn’t just rush off to return to their normal lives. They encountered something far more than healing. And they spent three whole days enjoying fellowship with the Messiah, the Son of God. I love that this was so. In a world like the one I live in people tend to be out for what they can get; self-determined, self-absorbed and self-focused. Such people would rush to be healed and then rush off to selfishly enjoy the benefits and blessing of their healing. On this occasion, they didn’t. They may well have intended to seek healing, but they ended up so bonded to the presence of Jesus that they didn’t care that they had no food or shelter. They just wanted to enjoy fellowship with Jesus.
We can find ourselves drifting into a utilitarian mode as we follow Jesus. We ask for things and we do our duty because we know right from wrong. We minimise the relationship with Jesus at the expense of all of the things that keep us busy and separated from Him. These people discovered that Jesus was offering fellowship, not just healing and answered prayer. On this occasion they chose to stay. They discovered the heart of the kingdom – relationship, fellowship, worship, honour to the Son of God. When are we going to savour the relationship and see the healing, forgiveness and purpose as an outcome of relationship? It amazes me to find how often “fellowship with the Father and the Son” (1 John 1) is challenging for many of us. It doesn’t automatically become our home. When I am working with other leaders, we can talk to each other for hours without any discomfit, but we get uncomfortable when we pray and embarrassed to worship together. Even though we know Jesus has promised to be present in the company of two or three gathered in his name, it is not easy for us to recognise, let alone respond to that presence. We either fall into some semi-formal mode or sit silently waiting for someone to say a prayer. This is weird for members of God’s family whose citizenship is the heavenly kingdom and who have been adopted as full and equal family members. Why are we so comfortable with our own opinions and uncomfortable with acknowledging Jesus’ presence.
I want to make my relationship with Jesus the true foundation and core of my life. I want to spend the time, seek the Lord until I find him or he finds me. I don’t want to rush there and rush away. I want to desire his fellowship more than food and more than material comforts. I want to be like the people in this crowd.
HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?
The gospel was proclaimed first and foremost in the offer represented by the person of Jesus for healing and wholeness. They came to him trusting him for that and he didn’t need to fast and pray to know the will of his Father. As long as there was another sick person in front of him, power and love flowed from heaven through him to make the person whole. This was the first message of good news they knew about and believed. The fact that they came from wherever they were to a remote mountainside along the Galilean shore demonstrated their commitment to the promise.
The first message pulled back the curtain on the second. That was the fact that Jesus was offering a relationship, not just healing. When they stayed no matter what, he stayed. And it went on for three days, and would have gone on further had not Jesus intervened with the offer of a meal to send them on their way. When we discover that the real issue in restored relationship with Jesus and the Father we have discovered the heart of the gospel message. It is an invitation to come home. Home is a relationship with God through knowing Jesus. We can’t know God unless we know him as Jesus revealed him and as we make that discovery, we find that we are more and more at home – the home we were created and redeemed for. In these days of spiritual poverty, we need to hear and respond to this offer and understand that it is the heart and soul of the gospel. The people on the mountainside discovered it the day they followed Jesus to the place where he sat down. We need to follow him there as well.