After Jesus fed the four thousand people, they took their boat across the lake and ran into some Pharisees who confronted Jesus and asked for a sign. Jesus rebuked them, and then got out of town with His disciples. On the trip back, He warned them about the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod. I see that as legalism and power – especially political power. That warning is especially appropriate today, especially when those in power would seek to impose their religious legalism as the law of the land. This isn’t an attack on political leaders in general, because God has ordained government and can work through any kind of government, but it’s a reminder for followers of Jesus not to become enamored of the power found in politics.
1. In those days the multitude being very great, and having nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples unto him, and saith unto them, 2. I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now been with me three days, and have nothing to eat: 3. And if I send them away fasting to their own houses, they will faint by the way: for divers of them came from far.
Today begins with the story of Jesus’s second dinner party for the crowds. It was a smaller affair with only four thousand guests (as seen in verse 9) but Jesus charged His disciples once again to feed the people because they had been with Him for three days and He didn’t want to send them out only to faint from hunger on the way home. A lot of people had come from far away, and the journey home would be difficult if the didn’t have anything to eat. You would think that the disciples would consider this an easy task, since they had been involved with the feeding of the five thousand earlier.
4. And his disciples answered him, From whence can a man satisfy these men with bread here in the wilderness?
The appropriate question, or reaction, to His command might have been something like “So, are you going to do like you did last time when we fed five thousand people?” Instead, even thought they had seen Jesus deal with a similar situation previously, they doubted. They lacked faith. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, or heard said, “If only I could walk with Jesus in person…” I have no doubt that if I had been one of the disciples walking with Jesus and He asked me to feed four thousand people, I would doubt and lack faith also. The reaction of the disciples was natural. “How in the world are we going to feed all these people?” Lack of faith is normal. Trusting God when He asks us to go beyond our comfort zone, or do something miraculous is abnormal – or perhaps a better word to use would be supernatural. God doesn’t call us to normal or natural faith, He calls us to have a supernatural faith that trusts Him implicitly and immediately. We like to be normal and fit in with the crowd. If we truly follow Jesus, we stand above the crowd. But we don’t always do that. Don’t feel bad, though, neither did the disciples.
5. And he asked them, How many loaves have ye? And they said, Seven. 6. And he commanded the people to sit down on the ground: and he took the seven loaves, and gave thanks, and brake, and gave to his disciples to set before them; and they did set them before the people. 7. And they had a few small fishes: and he blessed, and commanded to set them also before them. 8. So they did eat, and were filled: and they took up of the broken meat that was left seven baskets. 9. And they that had eaten were about four thousand: and he sent them away. 10. And straightway he entered into a ship with his disciples, and came into the parts of Dalmanutha.
Jesus took stock of the situation and discovered what they had to work with. I don’t know about you, but if I were in that situation, I’d be worried and sweating bullets. Jesus wasn’t worried, though. He gave thanks for the seven loaves of bread they had, as well as some fish, and then started passing out the food. God has provided abundance from lack on other occasions: Elijah blessed the widow of Zarephath with a supply of oil and wheat that lasted the duration of a drought; Elisha had a woman fill containers with oil from a tiny jar that kept pouring until she ran out of containers. Jesus had no reason to worry. I think about the situations that cause me to worry and I realize that God already knows how He’s going to work on things – He isn’t worried. I note, cynically, to others that God’s luck that He has me around to do His worrying for Him. I’m sure that life would be better for me if I could learn to give thanks for what I have rather than worry about the things that I don’t have.
Once He had given thanks, He passed the bread and the fish out to the disciples, who then passed it out to the people. There’s an important point to notice as we think about that: the disciples were giving to others from what God had given them. I’m a firm believer in helping other people. I’ve learned that the best way to help others joyfully is to recognize that all that we have is God’s and when we help people, we aren’t doing anything ourselves, we’re imitating the nature of God and giving from His resources, not ours. The disciples passed the food out to the people and they ate, and, once again, there were left overs – this time seven baskets. Once the people had eaten, Jesus sent them on their way and then He and the disciples set off for Dalmanutha. Where is that? Who knows? When I looked it up it was described as the unknown destination of Jesus and the disciples in this story. The NIV just says, “the other side.” I like the idea that it’s an unknown destination. There’s a spirit of adventure in that idea. To paraphrase a popular TV show, Jesus was going boldly where no man had gone before. That may be a bit of hyperbole, but sometimes we forget the adventure of living a life in tune with Jesus Christ. It’s easy to get set in our ways and not listen for God’s call. My question to you is where is God calling you? To what is He calling you? Where, or what, is your Dalmanutha?
11. And the Pharisees came forth, and began to question with him, seeking of him a sign from heaven, tempting him. 12. And he sighed deeply in his spirit, and saith, Why doth this generation seek after a sign? verily I say unto you, There shall no sign be given unto this generation. 13. And he left them, and entering into the ship again departed to the other side.
No matter where your Dalmanutha is, you’re going to run into opposition. Jesus ran into Pharisees there who sought a sign. I have no doubt they had heard of Jesus. My guess is that they didn’t walk around asking people if they had a sign from heaven on a regular basis. They had heard of Jesus and they recognized who He was. And they wanted a sign. They were tempting Jesus to reveal who He was before it was time. They were tempting Jesus to give them control over His life in a small way by demanding that sign. We still have people seeking signs today. I’ve seen and heard people talking about seeking a sign of what God wants them to do by using the phrase, “I laid out a fleece,” referencing the story of Gideon’s Fleece in Judges 6:36-40 as if it was a sign of their great faith. When we take a good look at that story, Gideon had so little faith in God’s direction that he laid out the fleece and asked God to perform a miracle to show that He was speaking, and then, after getting what he asked for the first time, asked God to do the same thing, but in reverse. Sometimes God gives us signs that we recognize, but demanding a sign from God doesn’t come from faith, it comes from a lack of faith and a desire to control God. “If you want me to do this God, you’d better do that or I’m not listening.” We should seek wisdom and an understanding of God’s will rather than a sign. An example my pastor uses deals with mission trips. He tells us that when people respond to an offer to go on a mission trip and they respond with “Let me pray and see what God says,” they’re already forgetting that Jesus told us to go! (Matthew 28:16-20) Instead, we need to be ready to say “Yes, unless God shows me otherwise.
Jesus wasn’t happy about the request for a sign, and He lamented the question. In other, similar stories, He referenced the story of Jonah relating to His own resurrection – a sign that most Pharisees refused to believe. After rebuking the Pharisees, He got out of town and went back to the other side of the lake.
14. Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, neither had they in the ship with them more than one loaf. 15. And he charged them, saying, Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod.
I can imagine the conversation on the boat, given these verses. “Shopping? I thought YOU were supposed to buy the bread.” “Me, it was your turn. I can’t believe you forgot!” And so on. Whatever was said, they appeared to have had a bit of discussion on the fact that they only had one loaf of bread. Jesus broke into the discussion and reminded them to avoid the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod. You’ll get a wide variety of opinions on what “the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod” is if you look that phrase up. Rather than recounting all the different possibilities, I’m going to share my understanding knowing that it’s possible that I’m wrong, or, that my answer is one right answer of many. The Pharisees were so enmeshed in the study of the Law of God, that they forgot about the heart of God. They were legalistic and defined how one stood with God based on their adherence, or lack thereof, with the Law. While God’s directives are important, Jesus came to show the heart of God and the love He has for all people. The Pharisees would take the warm, loving relationship God seeks to have with people and reduce it to a system of laws and punishments for obeying those laws. When Jesus talked about the leaven of the Pharisees, I have no doubt that He was trying to get people to focus on their relationship with God rather than trying to follow a set of laws, fearful that He would zap them if they stepped out of line. We still have that battle today. The leaven of Herod is the desire to control others – in this case, politically, but control can happen in numerous ways. One of the problems Christians have in politics is that we come into political power, and then we seek to write laws to make everyone behave like we think they should. While some laws are necessary, to protect people from others, lawmaking is not an alternative to evangelism. We should always seek godly leaders. We should always pray for elected and appointed officials. But we should never think that God needs a certain form of government to act or that making a law will help people know God. If the government wrote a law forbidding people from praying, most Christians would be upset – and some would keep praying anyway, like Daniel. At the same time, I think that if the government wrote a law saying that all people should read one chapter of the Bible every day, there would be a lot of silence from Christians, as if such a law could help people get to know God. We should seek neither religious authority like that of the Pharisees, or political solutions to faith like Herod sought.
16. And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have no bread. 17. And when Jesus knew it, he saith unto them, Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? perceive ye not yet, neither understand? have ye your heart yet hardened? 18. Having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not? and do ye not remember? 19. When I brake the five loaves among five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? They say unto him, Twelve. 20. And when the seven among four thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? And they said, Seven. 21. And he said unto them, How is it that ye do not understand?
The disciples, as usual, didn’t understand Jesus. They focused on the physical bread, rather than the spiritual truth of what Jesus was saying. Instead of recognizing that Jesus was talking about two belief systems that could draw them away from God, they focused on the bread. “So Matthew, the next time you go to <insert name of your favorite grocery store here>, make sure you avoid the Pharisee brand and the Herod brand. Jesus, what brand should Matthew look for?” I’m going to give you a true statement as a (retired) teacher: sometimes students can be exasperating. Jesus’s disciples, His students, were exasperating at times, and this is one of those times. In the midst of their worry over physical bread, they overlooked the meaning of the teaching Jesus was giving them. God will provide. Think about all the leftovers they had from just those two dinner parties. God’s going to take care of physical needs. What they needed to watch for was anything that drew them away from God. In this case, Jesus was concerned that an undue emphasis on physical needs could get in the way of their relationship with God, just a a focus on works, as in the leaven of the Pharisees, or a focus on power, as in the leaven of Herod, could do. Instead, we should seek to deepen our relationship with God as we come to know Him better each day. The best way to get to know Him better is to spend time with Him. What does that mean? I can’t give you a definite answer. Why not ask God to show you as you go through each day.