Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56




The Gospel lesson this Sunday is composed of two passages linked by their similar content:

• The story of Jesus and the apostles going away to a deserted place for solitude together, but being interrupted by the crowds with their great needs (vv. 30-34).

• And the story of the crowds coming to Jesus in Gennesaret for healing (vv. 53-56).

Between these two passages, Mark tells the stories of the feeding of the five thousand (vv. 35-44) and Jesus walking on the water (vv. 45-52). This is an example of a story (or stories) within a story—a favorite genre for Mark. In this case, Mark ties together stories of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry (vv. 30-34, 53-56) with a story of his providing bread—a story with Eucharistic overtones (vv. 35-44).

These passages speak to us, because we have felt like the disciples must have felt—hurried and harried. The needs were great; the crowds were large; and the disciples could not even find time to eat. If busyness was a problem for them, it seems even worse now. Our problem is a world in which experts have engineered out all the breathing room. Our laborsaving appliances fail to save us from laboring—our communications technology fails to bring us together—and our leisure is filled with chores.

Worst are the interruptions! If we could just concentrate on the task at hand, we could get the job done. If we could just plan our work and work our plan, life would be simple. If it weren’t for the phone—and the person with a question—and the sudden requirement for a new report—and the line of people at the counter!

And these passages speak to us, because we have felt like the people who came to Jesus. We, too, have been sick in body and sick in spirit—in desperate need of Jesus’ healing touch. We, too, have rushed around hoping to find help—begging Jesus that we might touch even the fringe of his cloak so that we might be healed.


30The apostles gathered themselves together to Jesus, and they told him all things, whatever they had done, and whatever they had taught. 31He said to them, “You come apart into a deserted place, and rest awhile.” For there were many coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat. 32They went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.

Mark 6:7-13 tells of Jesus sending out the Twelve two-by-two with authority over unclean spirits. They preached repentance, cast out demons, and healed the sick. In verses 14-29, Mark interrupted that story to tell of the death of John the Baptist. Now, in verses 30-34, Mark resumes the story of the Twelve, who report the results of their mission to Jesus. This is another example, then, of one of Mark’s story within a story—the story of John the Baptist set inside the story of the mission of the Twelve.

“The apostles gathered themselves together to Jesus” (v. 30). Jesus sent them out as “the twelve” (v. 7), but now Mark calls them apostles (v. 30). This is the only place in this Gospel where Mark uses the word “apostles” (except for 3:14, where the word is disputed). The word “apostles” is particularly appropriate in verse 30, because it comes from the Greek word apostello, which means “to send”—and it was that word that Mark used in verse 7 to speak of sending out the Twelve.

The apostles, having been commissioned by Jesus, become his official agents. The technical term is saliah—where the representative takes on the authority of the one who sent him. An agent of the king spoke with the authority of the king. Now these apostles speak with the authority of the King of Kings.

“You come apart into a deserted place, and rest awhile” (v. 31a). Jesus sees that the apostles are weary after their busy mission tour, and invites them to a place of solitude where they can rest. Soon Jesus will have compassion on the crowd, but first he has compassion on his apostles, who have not even had time to eat. Discipleship must balance time for service with time for physical and spiritual renewal. Vincent de Paul advises, “Be careful to preserve your health. It is a trick of the devil, which he employs to deceive good souls, to incite them to do more than they are able, in order that they may no longer be able to do anything.”

“For there were many were coming and going, and they had no leisure so much as to eat” (v. 32b). The disciples are so busy that they have no time to eat. It is exciting to be caught up in this kind of response, but disciples need to remember to take their direction from the Lord rather than from the crowd.


33They saw them going, and many recognized him and ran there on foot from all the cities. They arrived before them and came together to him. 34Jesus came out, saw a great multitude, and he had compassion (Greek: esplanchnisthe) on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he began to teach them many things.

They saw them going, and many recognized him and ran there on foot from all the cities. They arrived before them and came together to him” (v. 33). The crowds see where the boat is going, and move in that direction to intercept Jesus.

Jesus came out, saw a great multitude” (v. 34a). When Jesus arrives at his resting place, a great crowd awaits him. Jesus and the disciples have reason to be annoyed. They have not eaten (v. 31), and were in need of rest even before rowing the boat to this destination. We would expect tired, hungry men to respond with anger to this unexpected demand on their ebbing energy.

“and he had compassion (esplanchnisthe) for them” (v. 34b). Mark doesn’t tell us how the disciples respond, but Jesus has compassion on the crowd, because they are “like sheep without a shepherd” (v. 34). Jesus has a sharp tongue for the self-satisfied, but a soft heart for people in need.

This verse affirms the depth of Jesus’ feeling for people in need. The word translated “compassion,”esplanchnisthe, is the word for bowels—guts, and describes a sympathetic feeling that starts in the deepest regions of a person’s being.

“because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (v. 34c). These words remind us of Moses’ request for God to appoint someone to succeed him as leader of the people “so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd” (Numbers 27:17). God chose Joshua, whose name is a variant of the name Jesus.

“Sheep without a shepherd” also reminds us of the words of Ezekiel the prophet, who said, “They were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and they became food to all the animals of the field, and were scattered. My sheep wandered through all the mountains, and on every high hill: yes, my sheep were scattered on all the surface of the earth; and there was none who searched or sought” (Ezekiel 34:5-6).

Sheep need a shepherd to lead them on safe pathways, to help them to find food, to defend them against danger, to find them when they wander off, and to restore them to the fold. “Shepherd” is often used in the Bible as a metaphor:

• For faithful or unfaithful kings, priests and prophets (2 Samuel 5:2; Psalm 78:70-72; Isaiah 56:11-12; Jeremiah 3:15; 10:21; 23:1-4; 50:6).

• For God (Psalms 23:1-4; 28:9; 80:1; Isaiah 40:11; Jeremiah 31:10)

• For Jesus (Matthew 26:31; John 10:11-18; Hebrews 13:20; 1 Peter 2:25; Revelation 7:17)

• For church leaders (John 21:15; Acts 20:28ff; 1 Peter 5:2-4). (Myers, 939-940).

The words, “sheep without a shepherd” imply a rebuke on the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, who have failed in their shepherd role.

And Jesus “began to teach them many things” (v. 34d). What had the crowds expected to find when they hurried to intercept Jesus? Crowds love drama, so they might have come expecting miracles. What they get instead is teaching. However, Mark gives us no sense that the crowd is disappointed. As we will see shortly, they just keep coming (vv. 53-56).

Teaching (v. 34), feeding (vv. 35-44) and healing (v. 56) show Jesus’ concern for people’s physical and spiritual welfare, providing a model for ministry that has served the church well through the centuries. Word and sacrament constitute the core of our ministry, but bread and blankets are almost as important.


While these verses are not included in the lectionary reading, the preacher needs to be aware of them. They are comprised of two stories:

• The feeding of the five thousand (vv. 35-44).
• Jesus walking on the water (vv. 45-52).


53When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret, and moored to the shore. 54When they had come out of the boat, immediately the people recognized him, 55and ran around that whole region, and began to bring those who were sick, on their mats (Greek: krabattois), to where they heard he was. 56Wherever he entered, into villages, or into cities, or into the country, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch just the fringe (Greek: kraspedou) of his garment; and as many as touched him were made well (Greek: esozonto—from sozo—to heal or to save).

“When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored to the shore” (v. 53). After feeding the five thousand (vv. 35-44) and walking on water (vv. 45-52), Jesus travels by boat with his disciples to Gennesaret, a fertile plain about three miles long and a mile wide between Capernaum and Tiberius on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee.

When they had come out of the boat, immediately the people recognized him, and ran around that whole region” (v. 54-55a). The people recognize Jesus and rush to bring sick people to him. The picture is at once awful and wonderful—awful in that dozens or even hundreds of pitiful people converge on one place seeking Jesus’ help—wonderful in the faithful devotion of people who spare no effort to help their loved ones—and wonderful in that all who touch even the fringe of Jesus’ cloak are healed (v. 56).

and began to bring those who were sick, on their mats, to where they heard he was” (v. 55b). The mats on which the sick lie are known as krabattois—mattresses commonly used by the poor. The poor and needy are often more receptive to Jesus than are more prosperous people. We are even more receptive when we are seriously ill.

“the fringe (kraspedou) of his garment” (v. 56a). This fringe is probably the fringe or tassels worn by Jewish men in compliance with Torah law to remind them of God’s commandments (Numbers 15:38-39; Deuteronomy 22:12)—thereby marking Jesus as an observant Jew, concerned with obedience to Torah law.

Significantly, Mark will tell us next of Pharisees and scribes who rebuke Jesus for his disciples’ failure to comply with the “tradition of the elders” (7:5)—in this case, ritual handwashing.

The issue is that of man-made traditions vs. God’s law. The traditions grew out of a desire to provide guidance for the keeping of the law. For instance, when the Torah banned work on the sabbath, Jewish scholars tried to determine in great detail what constituted work. Could a woman cook for her family on the sabbath? Could a man feed livestock? How far could a person walk on the sabbath? Answers to questions like these were codified in the Mishnah and Talmud—commentaries on the law. This was a commendable effort to be faithful to the requirements of the law.

But the problems growing out of this effort were threefold. First, the traditions grew to enormous proportions—many thousands of pages—too much for the average person to understand. Second, the traditions often degenerated into legalism—an emphasis on the fine points of the law rather than the spirit behind it. Third, the scribes and Pharisees began to make these traditions as binding as Torah law.

We might be tempted to think of these traditions as a first-century Jewish problem, but that is hardly the case. Look at the rules imposed by your denomination. I looked online at a book of discipline for a major denomination. The index starts on page 807. Every major denomination has something similar.

I picked up the Bible that I use daily. It isn’t all that much longer than that book of discipline.

I wondered how Jesus would have dealt with our denominational “traditions of the elders.” Probably not happily!

and as many as touched him were made well” (v. 56b). The Greek word for healed is sozo, which also means saved. As anyone who has survived a serious illness knows, to be healed is to be saved, not only from death but from suffering and incapacitation, which can be even worse than death.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan