Mark 6: Gospel Work

Come ye yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest a while (31).

Chapter 6 in the book of Mark is a primer on gospel work, which is largely characterized as overcoming the force that possesses fallen humankind. With its 56 verses, the chapter is one of the longest in the book. (The only one longer is chapter 14, which covers the time preceding Jesus’s execution.) I’ve divided this chapter into five segments and titled them as follows: (1) how the work begins, (2) how it progresses, (3) opposition and advancement, (4) overcoming nature, and (5) restoration to wholeness. Though the chapter is comprised of many different scenes and stories, as a whole, it exhibits one overriding theme: there are ways to handle worldly opposition so that the gospel continues to prosper and, in the end, prevail.  

How the work begins: verses 1-61

Chapter 6 begins by placing the story in Jesus’s “own country” (1). More specifically, the scene occurs in a synagogue on the sabbath (2), that is to say, at the spiritual center of the culture. Jesus’s beginning his ministry at this time and place tells us that gospel work begins when one person – with all his historio-cultural, geographical, and personal specificity – embodies and expresses the Spirit of God. Like the origin on the number line, the starting point for gospel work is the individual – located in time and space – who receives and knows the power of God, and is given to speak His wisdom (2): in short, gospel work begins with a prophet.

These first few verses introduce both the beginnings of and the resistance to gospel work, the forces -pro and con – that will appear repeatedly throughout the chapter. In these opening lines, the ministering prophet is met at once with opposition from the congregation, which having heard and recognized his heavenly wisdom (2), nevertheless strive to bind him to earth with ties of trade and kin: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses,” etc. The group is offended (3) by the prophet’s wisdom, perhaps conscious that God has raised up one from among their number, and it hasn’t been them! Envy of the prophet is the first opposition expressed in this chapter, as it is likewise presented early in Scripture. The spirit of Cain is characterized by outward religious observance and profession and an accompanying persecution of those who manifest inward, authentic faith. The first lesson in gospel work is to recognize that neither earthly ties nor ill-treatment can stop the work’s progress. Opposition will arise from those who profess but do not possess the faith, but the work must continue, even though its pace be slackened:

And he could there do no mighty work, save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and healed them. And he marvelled because of their unbelief. And he went round about the villages, teaching (5-6). 

How the work progresses: verses 7-13  

In verses 7-13, the gospel reach is extended through empowering and delegating others in the work. In this passage, Jesus instructs and enables the 12 disciples to go two by two, to have power over unclean spirits, and to bring certain provisions but not others (7-9). In the next two verses (10 and 11), Jesus continues his instruction, but now it is he himself – not the narrator – who speaks, indicating these spoken commands have more significance than the previously narrated ones. Jesus says:

In what place soever ye enter into an house, there abide till ye depart from the place. And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when ye depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city (10-11).

The earlier instruction addressed logistics: how the disciples were to travel, supply and clothe themselves, and do their work. The instruction Jesus himself gives in verses 10 and 11 guides the disciples in handling the less tangible problems they will encounter. To abide solely in one house while visiting a community (10) heads off wayward tendencies among the townsfolk, such as competition between hosts, speculation on reasons for the travelers’ shifting between households, or discrediting the motives for their travel and visit. For the disciple pairs to remain in one household in each place visited helps both the surrounding community and the disciples themselves to remain focused on what they are there to say and do, rather than become hindered by distractions.  

The second piece of advice Jesus gives (to “shake off the dust under [their] feet” [11]) serves to protect the disciples’ inward state when they come across rejection. In this instance, Jesus’s language is fierce as he teaches the disciples how to respond to those who are unworthy of the gospel message; the disciples’ dismissive dust-shaking will testify in heaven, and divine retribution will come upon all who reject the gospel message (11).

This second passage (verses 7-13) follows a back-and-forth pattern: positioning a prediction of resistance between two segments in which the work is advanced: the first, preparing the disciples for the mission (7-10) and the second, telling of their success (12, 13).

Advancement and opposition: verses 14-44

Mark 6 is about advancement of and opposition to the work of the gospel, the activity of bringing the power of God to earth, as it is in heaven. The first 13 verses of the chapter have briefly eyed this progress and resistance. Beginning with verse 14 and continuing through verse 44, however, is the chapter’s central exposition, which features an illustration of each of these two opposing forces, each presented in its most pronounced, essential form. The evil opposition mounted against the gospel is represented in verses 14-29: the story of a prophet’s execution. By contrast, the second story illustrates the gospel as providing sustenance to a multitude of people: the feeding of the 5,000. The two stories are equal in length, each comprising 15 verses.

The story of John the Baptist’s execution begins in an odd, nonchronological way: we come upon king Herod guiltily obsessing over his part in the prophet’s death. Apparently deranged, he repeatedly claims that Jesus is, in fact, John “risen from the dead” (14, 16). Before we readers are launched into the telling of the horrendous events of this crime, we see its perpetrator distraught with guilt. Killing the prophet is the ultimate act of opposition to gospel work, yet at the outset of the tale of the prophet’s death, we see one of its perpetrators not elatedly triumphant but debilitated and overthrown by his own sin and crime.

Herod is a man of divided mind: he is in awe of John’s righteousness, his holiness; gladly hears John speak (20); and was sorry to execute him (26). These worthy sentiments are countered, nevertheless, by Herod’s unbridled pride and lust (22, 26). HIs inner division weakens him, and he is easy prey for his manipulative and vengeful wife (19), who holds a grudge against the prophet (19) and plots his death (24). Unlike Herod, his wife Herodias entertains neither inward reflection nor guilt prior to or following the death. The dancing daughter, the third accomplice, likewise shows no evidence of inward life; she plays her part and is done. Each of the three has had a role to play in the prophet’s demise, and the lesson gospel workers are to learn from this passage is that conspiracy features in the most severe type of gospel resistance (a fact that will be verified later on a grander scale when religious leaders collude with their people and with empire to kill Jesus).The charger, or large platter, that carries the head of the prophet is an emblem of the moral crime of the three, and in verses 27 and 28, the charger is passed among them, touching all three: 

And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison. And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother (27-28). 

The charger is significant in another way, for it is a platter for carrying food, and, in fact, John’s beheading has occurred during a feast. We are being told that the death of the prophet is food for the demonic, gospel-resenting spirit. It is no accident that the story which follows – the feeding of the 5,000 – also centers on food. In each story, the type of “food” is appropriate to the nature of the spirit it sustains. In the first story, death feeds the demonic spirit. In the second, “food” is blessed by one who looks up to heaven, and leaves all who eat filled with sustenance (41-42): filled and sustained by the Living Word. 

Before getting into the main portion of the second story – feeding the multitude – we’re first given a brief introductory passage, which parallels the earlier introduction to the story of the prophet’s death, which featured the king’s anxious, demoralized state. The brief introduction to the second story shows the disciples returning from their mission, gathering to Jesus, and telling him “what they had done, and what they had taught” (30). Unlike the earlier dark introduction with its deranged king guiltily ruminating over what he had done, the introduction to the second story shows the disciples’ eager and joyful recounting of what they had done in their travel.  Jesus then encourages them to rest in solitude, before they get on with the work of responding to “many coming and going” (31), who want to hear the gospel message. The second introduction brims with jubilant, purposeful, caring, light-filled comradery, which is in high contrast to the king’s guilty, solitary rumination.

The contrast between these two stories is striking, and the narrator accentuates that contrast by using the same format (introduction before the story proper), as well as the same motif (feeding), in both. This technique serves to underscore the many differences between the two stories: in setting; tone; plot; and, most of all, in the spirit of the characters who inhabit each. The settings are different: “a desert place” contrasted with the king’s palace. The class of people who spontaneously and eagerly seek and run afoot to gather to hear Jesus contrasts with the elite society invited (summoned?) to the king’s celebration of himself on his birthday. The worldly king is subject to his wife’s manipulation, the girl’s wishes, and his guests’ favorable opinion, while Jesus, the heavenly king, is subject to no one. After hearing the disciples’ command, “Send them away” (36), Jesus ignores it and counters with a command of his own, “Give ye them to eat” (37). Herod is unable to lead even his own household, while Jesus compassionately takes on the role of shepherd to an assembled crowd of strangers. While the prophet’s head is brought from a dark prison to a dark banquet hall; the feeding of the five thousand occurs in the open air with heaven above and the food blessed. The death of the prophet John is a great loss that figuratively feeds but a few condemned souls; while the prophet’s speaking the living Word – though he  has but little (five loaves and two fishes) – is able to feed and fill a great many. To drive home the point of abundance, we’re told the disciples “took up twelve baskets full of the fragments, and of the fishes” (41- 44).

Overcoming Nature, 45-52, and Restoration to Wholeness, 53-56

Chapter 6 has a symmetrical structure: two short segments of approximately half a dozen verses each begin the chapter; they are followed by one lengthy central portion, illustrating first resistance to and then advancement of the gospel work; and finally, two additional short passages complete the chapter, balancing the narrative structure by mirroring the two short segments at the beginning. On either side of the central main portion of the chapter are two short passages.

In the first of these two ending passages (45-52), Jesus is shown to be in command: putting disciples into a ship and sending away the people (45). Though he directs and sustains others, he himself must turn to God for direction and restoration, and so “he departed into a mountain to pray” (46). Readers are then immediately taken to a night scene where disciples row upon the sea and are troubled by heavy wind. In this vignette, we see the same necessity for reliance upon the Lord (48) that Jesus exhibited in the scene immediately before: in his going to a mountain to pray.

The disciples’ struggle with nature speaks of the need for assistance: they are out of control and afraid. Their situation symbolically represents human nature in its fearful reaction to being overpowered and out of control.  Jesus overcomes human nature, symbolically represented by his overcoming our natural incapacity to walk upon water (49). He hears the disciples cry (49), identifies himself (50), and comes into their ship (51). We can take from this miraculous account the correlating lesson that human nature is stilled and at peace (healed) when Jesus appears and comes into the vessel of our soul.2 As Jesus in prayer relies upon God, so the disciples can rely upon Jesus who restores their “good cheer” (50).

The final verses of this chapter (53-56) rebut the limitation placed upon the work in verse 5, where we were told that Jesus, in “his own country,” was unrecognized by the townsfolk and could “do no mighty work save that he laid his hands upon a few sick folk, and heal[ed] them.” In these final verses of chapter 6, Jesus is recognized for who he is (54), and, as a result, many sick are brought to him (55). Unlike in the corollary verse early in the chapter in which Jesus could heal only a few (5), at the end of the chapter, he heals those from “villages, or cities, or country” (56); we are being told that Jesus is the universal healer.

As Jesus, the prophet “without honor” (4), began his ministry (as told in this chapter), his work was stymied by people’s unbelief and ill-treatment. In chapter 6, we learn that these forces of resistance do not have the last word. Whether the prophetic spirit is raised up in John; in Jesus; in you or me; or in those who come after, we are empowered to persevere in time, undergo persecution, remain diligent, and rely upon the Lord. In doing so, the gospel work goes forward, and the human soul – fractured and fallen – is miraculously healed and made whole, having touched Christ Within (56).  

1 The King James Version is used throughout the essay.

2 And he went up unto them into the ship; and the wind ceased; and they were sore amazed in themselves beyond measure, and wondered. For they considered not the miracle of the loaves: for their heart was hardened (51-52). (Underlining is mine.)

Had the disciples had the tendered heart to understand “the miracle of the loaves,” they also would have understood the wind’s cessation upon Jesus’s entering their ship. Each rendition of a miracle correlates outward events with inward, spiritual reality. A heart made tender by Jesus’s having entered the soul understands that correlation; whereas hardened hearts do not (52). Once again, we are reminded of early Friends’ insistence on the need to read the Scriptures in the same spirit in which they were written.

Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, c. 500, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy


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