Last time we saw Jesus show His authority over the elements of creation: nature, demons, illness, and death. Even in the impossible the King has all authority. He encourages those who fear to have faith. But as we turn to Mark 6, we see what happens when faith is overrun by fear and doubt. Acceptance turns into rejection, a clear motif in this chapter (and continuing from the previous!).
A vv. 1-6, There’s No Place Like Home
Jesus and His disciples return home, and when the Sabbath rolls around Jesus teaches in the synagogue. As usual, people are astounded at his wisdom and the mighty works performed by His hands. Yet they don’t attribute His mighty deeds to demonic forces, nor to Yahweh Himself. In fact, they don’t really know what to do with Jesus. They know Him. They think they know Him. By calling Him the Son of Mary, they might be insinuating that His birth was illegitimate. Jesus’ family misunderstood His ministry (3.21), and now His whole town does likewise.
A prophet isn’t even accepted into His own town, yet Jesus isn’t just a prophet. He’s the Son of God! But while the people are astonished at what Jesus can do, He marvels at their lack of belief. He can only perform a few miracles because of it, probably meaning not many came to Him believing for healing.
Jesus has been rejected by the Pharisees and Herodians (3.6), His family (3.21), the scribes (3.22), the Gentile city of Gerasa (5.17), the mourners in Jairus’ house (5.40), and now by His own townspeople. This theme will only increase as the chapter goes on.
B vv. 7-13, Send Them Away
Jesus’ commands to His disciples to go out and expand the ministry of Jesus occurs in-between a tale of two rejected prophets. Their provisions are minimal: sent off in pairs for protection and/or to provide a dual-witness (Dt. 19.15), a staff for walking and protection, and can stay in houses for protection. They are to travel light and simple, but not experience much hardship.
In v11 Jesus instructs them on how to respond to rejection which, if any city does not receive them, they are to shake the dust off rom their feet upon exiting the city. Interestingly enough, We never see Jesus go back home after this point (at least in Mark). Like John (and Jesus), they proclaim that people should repent. Like Jesus, they cast out demons and heal the sick (though, unlike Jesus, they anoint them with oil). The similarity with John brings us to the next pericope dealing with the John the Baptist’s rejection.
A’ vv. 14-29, Off With Your Head
John the Baptist confronts Herod about his adultery with Herodias (the wife of Herod’s brother). Probably by the request of Herodias, Herod throws John in prison. Herod finds John to be righteous and holy (6.20) and does not want to harm him. Though he is perplexed, Herod enjoys hearing John. One commentator said, “Herod loved to be upset by John.”
But the deceptive wife of a king still wants that prophet dead (a la Jezebel [1 Kings 18.4, 13; 19.1-2]?). A party is thrown, her daughter dances, the men enjoy it, a promise is made, and a promise has to be kept because Herod is surrounded by political officials. The seed was sown, but Herod was too busy reveling in the pleasures and cares of this world (4.18-19).
It’s sad that Herod actually loses less face by beheading a prophet of God than he would be breaking an improper oath. The head of John the Baptist is brought on a platter, during the celebration, to Herodias. If John the Baptist’s handing over (1.14) led to this, what might Jesus’ handing over (3.19) lead to (9.12-13)?
B’ v. 30, The Return Home
Here is effective storytelling. Mark adds the rejection of John the Baptist in-between the disciples’ missionary journey to provide the sense of a time lapse. But we also see the double-sidedness of the Gospel. John the Baptist sacrificed himself for his message, while the disciples return with a successful missionary message.
Was John’s ministry a failure? A tragedy? A defeat? No, because while John is martyred, we now have 12 new disciples who will be leading the charge.
vv. 31-44, The Hunger Games
The plan was to rest. But the crowds changed their plans. And they were hungry. And they were just sheep without a shepherd. But we know what they didn’t: Jesus is the Good Shepherd whose motivation is love. He doesn’t disperse the flock but provides for their needs and has them sit down on green grass (Ps. 23.2?). Despite their doubt (6.37), the disciples play an active role in participating in Jesus’ miracle. Jesus feeds 5,000 people (and that’s just the men!). He feeds more than Elijah ever fed, and He is a greater Moses for He didn’t ask for manna or quail from the Father, but He performed the miracle by His own volition (still following the will of His Father, of course).
Is there a rejection here? Not explicitly, but the disciples do have reservations about Jesus’ ability to perform miracles.
vv. 45-52, There’s No Place Like Home
This is the second of three boat scenes Mark gives gives us (first: 4.35-41; third: 8.14-21). In the evening (6-9pm) Jesus has His disciples get into a boat to go to the other side, and then goes up to the mountain to pray. He deliberately waits the entire night to go help them at the fourth watch (3-6am). The disciples spend the night fighting waves; Jesus spends it praying.
Why does Jesus wait so long? His purpose is to walk past them (6.48), but His own disciples fail to recognize Him (6.52). They have eyes, but do not see (8.18). Jesus intends to pass by before them to assure and lead them (Ex. 33.15-23, 19 ). But in fact, His own disciples think He’s a ghost (which is ironic, considering Greco-Romans didn’t believe ghosts could walk on water).
“Mark presents the disciples’ insistence on believing the absurd emphasizing their failure to believe in Jesus. Jesus identifies himself, the disciples are astonished, they lack understanding, and the reason is because their hearts were hardened (6:51–52). The disciples clearly want Jesus to be something that he is not, to the point that they are willing to believe the absurd when Jesus approaches them as something much grander than they had imagined. Gods and divine men walk on water; ghosts do not” (pg. 14, Jason Combs, A Ghost on the Water? Understanding an Absurdity in Mark 6:49–50).
The disciples have misconstrued Jesus’ messiahship.
vv. 53-56, Healing the Sick
In the end, despite the rejection, the misunderstanding, the confusion, the crowds still come to Jesus. The recognize Him and run around their region to bring all the sick to Him, if only to touch the fringe of His garment. These crowds don’t fully understand who He is, but they know He can perform miracles.
One day Jesus will be given a final rejection, but it will not be because the crowds wished it on Him. It will be something much more sinister. A sinister group that Jesus has already dealt with in Mark will go head-to-head with them again in the very beginning of chapter 7.