What makes a man great? How does God measure greatness? Jesus tells us in Mark chapter 6.
MARK - THE GOSPEL OF ACTION
“GRACE BEFORE GREATNESS”
Around the time of World War I, there was a young black girl who lived in the poverty section of Philadelphia. She had a lovely voice. In fact, the people in her church decided to create a fund. The fund they called, The Fund for Marian Anderson’s Future, and they raised 126 pennies and nickels and dimes. And they planned a way for her to begin voice lessons. When she was 18, they arranged an audition with a very famous instructor. And she had her audition and she failed. Those who believed in her arranged a concert of music in the town hall of New York City and many people came. But she was not ready for the exposure and the critics tore her up. For almost a year, Marian Anderson lived, or wallowed I guess you could say, in self-pity. Until, finally, her mother came to her and said, “Marian, I want you to think about this failure, just a little bit, and pray about it a lot.” And all of the people in her church were praying for her. And then her mother said something that Marian never forgot, and it struck me as I read it, her mother said, “Marian, you must learn that grace comes before greatness.”
We have a problem on our hands and, I think, the Lord Jesus recognized it, of course, being omniscient. His disciples were filled with thoughts of greatness. You see, they had just returned, not long ago, from their first mission. They had performed tremendous miracles. They had seen people come to follow this kingdom program. They had seen people restored. They had seen so many tremendous things happening. And, I think, it was going to their heads. In fact, as one professor always said, “I think they were beginning to believe the press reports.” And so, Jesus, I think, creates the scenario where two miracles can take place. And I want you to turn to Mark, chapter 6, and these miracles will come alive to you and to me as we understand, as we have been going through the Gospel of Mark, everything that has happened prior to these events. I believe that Jesus wanted these miracles to teach His disciples how to serve without selfishness and how to fail without falling. He, the model of grace, was going to teach his disciples, in fact, that grace, indeed comes before greatness.
Let’s pick up the story at Mark, chapter 6, verse 32. “And they departed into a desert place by ship privately.” They were supposed to take a vacation here and get away for a few days and rest. “And the people saw them departing, and many knew Him, and ran afoot thither out of all cities, and outwent” - or outran - “them, and came together unto Him.” I gave all of these facts to a mariner in our church, who does a lot of sailing, and I learned that this trip should have taken the disciples, with all of the weather conditions permitting, perhaps four or five hours. These people had nine miles to run and yet, they outran the disciples. While we consider that fact that Jesus was taking these men to a retreat, we’ll learn, in just a moment, that the retreat or the rest was the four or five hour trip by boat. They get to land and they meet a crowd of, perhaps, 5,000 men and as many women, perhaps, and then children on top of that. There is a possibility, as one commentator stated, that Jesus could have been speaking to or addressing nearly 15,000 people. Now, how would you feel if you were on a vacation and you were met, at your destination, with 15,000 or 20,000 people who wanted the latest report from you. How would you feel if you were the disciples, ready for a break, and you get off the boat and there you find, coming toward you in mass, about 15,000 people? Delighted? “Oh boy, another chance to serve Jesus.” Perhaps, filled with frustration? “Oh no, I can’t believe it, another sermon.” I’m watching! I think, perhaps, the disciple’s overwhelming feeling was irritation and it will reveal itself in the next few verses. But what I want to do for you, this morning by study, is contrast two different reactions and two different perspectives and two different responses that reveal to us the Master of Grace teaching his disciples how to model grace.
Notice, first of all, the different reactions. Verse 34, “And Jesus, when He came out,” - of the boat - “ saw much people, and was moved with compassion”. Note that in your text, “He . . . was moved with compassion”. There is the word that we studied last Sunday, “splagchnon.” He was moved with a “gut feeling” of caring. But, notice why there was His compassion, “because they were as sheep not having a shepherd”. Why is that so bad? In fact, why is that a problem? Well, because sheep without a shepherd cannot find their way. Sheep, without a shepherd, cannot find pasture and they’ll starve. Sheep, without a shepherd, cannot find a defense against their predators. Sheep, without a shepherd, are totally helpless. What an indictment on the religious leaders of that day. Should they have had shepherds? Absolutely. The Pharisees, and the scribes, and the Sadducees, and the lawyers, and those who knew the law should have been shepherds. But, Jesus Christ saw all of these people coming to Him and He said, “They are sheep starving to death. They are sheep without any defense.” And what an indictment against the religious leaders of His day. “And He began” - the last part of verse 34 - “to teach them many things.” How wonderful.
“And when the day was now far spent, his disciples came unto Him, and said, ‘This is a desert place, and now the time is far passed’”. Here’s their reaction. We had compassion by Jesus and, by the disciples we have, I think, frustration. They say, poignantly enough, “send them away”. “Send them away”. One was compassion and one was irritation. Now, we’re going to understand, specifically, that sending them away had to do with the fact that they didn’t have any food. But, I think, this sums up their attitude toward all of these people. “Lord, it’s getting dark. Would you get rid of these people for us, please? Send them away.” And yet, Jesus Christ, one gospel writer records, points His finger at these men and says, “No, I want you to give them something to eat.” “Give ye them to eat.” They said, “send them away”. And I could not help, in my study, but pause just a moment and sense, perhaps, the finger of God pointing to me. And think that, perhaps, His finger is pointing to you, who believe. “Lord, there are all of these people with needs. You know, these people are hungry. I can’t handle it. Send them away.” Have you ever sensed the finger of Jesus Christ pointing to you and saying, “No, I want YOU to meet their need, I want YOU to feed them?”
I want you to notice two different perspectives, not directly from the text but, concluded from the text. Jesus saw, you could jot if you are taking notes, an illustration. And on the other side of that column write, the disciples saw an interruption. Jesus saw an illustration. John records for us that Jesus will look at these people, He will feed them from these five loaves and two fishes and then He, will turn around and preach a message that He is the bread of life coming from heaven. A tremendous illustration of what He was all about. And yet, the disciples saw this as an interruption. Jesus saw this as an opportunity, a sermon in action. Jesus Christ would break the bread in His hands and then He would give them to His disciples to give to the multitude. And that is an opportunity and an illustration that you and I have today. We do not create the message. We do not have, in our hands, the ability to multiply the bread. What we do is distribute the bread. Jesus Christ is the creator. He is the one who takes the loaves and fish and will, by His supernatural ability, divide it so that everyone can be filled. BUT, He uses you and me to hand it out. What an opportunity to have a sermon in action. And yet, I think, the disciples saw, not opportunity, but obstacles. “Lord, it’s getting late. We don’t have any money. There isn’t a bakery nearby. And, even if we could come up with eight month’s salary, we couldn’t buy enough bread to feed this crowd. So, tell them to get lost.” I think, ladies and gentlemen, understanding what has gone on before in Mark, chapter 5, that what we find are disciples who are filled with thoughts of their own importance, their own greatness. And yet, Jesus Christ, the compassionate one, is filled with grace.
Turn to John, chapter 6, and I want to show you what happens next, that Mark leaves out of his story. John, chapter 6, and I want to show you two different responses that are classic. John, chapter 6, look at verse 6 with me. In fact, start with verse 5. “Jesus then lifted up His eyes, and saw a great company come unto Him, He saith” - specifically, John records for us - “unto Philip” - “Philip, where are we going to buy bread from” - “that these” - people - “may eat?” Now, I don’t know why but, it’s interesting that Philip was from this region. This was his hometown. And it’s as if Jesus was saying, “Philip, you know where all of the bakeries are. Where can we go to buy bread?” Notice what Christ says. “And this He said to prove Him: for He Himself knew what He would do.” In fact, you ought to underline that phrase. He knew Himself, what He would do. What a tremendous thought! As you serve Jesus Christ, as you are confronted with human need, hungry people, Jesus Christ knows already what He’s going to do in meeting that need through you.
I was reading a sermon by Charles Spurgeon on this great text and he quoted Mueller. George Mueller, who was a contemporary of him, in fact, he was much older than Spurgeon. But this, I understand from reading Spurgeon, was Mueller’s favorite text in the New Testament. This little phrase, “He Himself knew what He would do.” And, if you’ve ever read of George Mueller, you’ll understand that this man lived on the brink of disaster. He was always, it seemed, almost bankrupt. He ran orphanages for boys and girls and had thousands of orphans in England. And he would come to a time in his life, and in the life of the orphanage, where he would set all of his children down at the table, hundreds of them, and they’d have their little platter in front of them and their little cup, filled with water, and there wasn’t any food. And Mueller would stand and say to all of his boys, “Boys, let’s thank God for our meal.” You know, I can see those kids about to learn some tremendous blessings about the sovereignty of God. And he records, on one occasion, standing and thanking God for the meal and halfway through his prayer there is a knock on the door. (knock, knock) And a guy is standing there at the door, who Mueller knew well, he ran the bakery in town. And he said, “Look, George, my cart just lost a wheel and bread has spilled all over the street, packages are torn. I know that the people I’m selling it to won’t want it at all but there is nothing wrong with it. Could you use a few loaves?” I imagine Mueller said, “Well, I’ve got about a hundred or so kids who would be glad to unload that cart.” I like this phrase, “He Himself knew what He would do.” - even when He asked Philip.
Then, notice verse 7, “Philip answered Him, ‘Two hundred pennyworth of bread’” - which is about eight months of wages, in that day - “is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little.” Now, I like what happens next. “One of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother,” - which seems to be as impetuous - “saith unto Him,” - “Well, look, I’ve already scoped this audience and” - “there is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves”. Now, barley bread was the poorest of the poor. Barley bread was bread that was eaten by the poverty stricken. It was the course, rough, dry bread, not made of wheat but barley. And there was a little lad there that had five loaves. And the loaves would fit in the palm of a child’s hand. They were flat and round, something like a pancake today. And he had, “two small fishes”. They were actually two little trichai(?) or little sardines. The Sea of Galilee swarmed with these little sardine-like fish. And people would catch them and pickle them and you would eat them as relish. So what we have is a little boy with five little flat loaves of bread, or little pancakes of barley bread, and two little pickled fish to help that dry bread go down. And Andrew comes up to Jesus and he says, “Well, look, I know Philip just said it can’t be done but I think something might be done. Here are five loaves and two little sardines.” And I think all of the disciples start rolling on the ground in laughter. And Andrew probably starts kicking himself in the shin, “But” - Lord - “what are they among so many?” - “It was so foolish of me to even bring this up.” In fact, let’s read what he says, “There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes:” - and then they start laughing, I think -“ but what are they among so many?” “Excuse me, Lord, for even suggesting such a ludicrous thought. How ridiculous.” Andrew, foot in mouth.
But you notice what Jesus does, He says, “Okay,” - “Make the men sit down.” And, I think, all of the laughter, all of a sudden, stopped. I was reading in one commentary, and I’ve got to give it to you. I apologize for reading this but let me give you the differences in their responses. “Philip said, ‘The situation is hopeless.’ Andrew said, ‘A miracle is possible.’ Philip produced figures to show what could not be done. Andrew brought food, hoping something could be done. And to Philip, Jesus would reveal His superiority to statistical impossibilities. To Andrew, Jesus justified faith, even so small.”
“So the men sat down,” - in verse 10 of John, chapter 6. “And Jesus took the loaves; and when He had given thanks, He distributed to the disciples” - don’t miss that now. Jesus could have snapped His finger (snap fingers), and before each person, there on the grass, a table could have been spread. He could have clapped his hands (clap hands), and a banquet feast would have been prepared and his disciples, in their embarrassment would have just watched. But yet, Jesus still designed to use them, even though their faith was so small. I don’t know how it happened but the miracle occurred in the hands of Jesus Christ. And He had that little sardine, about the size of your thumb, and He just starts breaking it off. And He gets a handful and He hands it to one of the disciples. And perhaps, they took their “kophinos,” or their wicker baskets that all the Jews carried with them to keep food in that was supposedly clean. Perhaps the disciples had theirs with them. They filled their little “kophinos” up and began distributing those little pickled fish. And Jesus just keeps breaking. How long would it have taken to break for about 20,000 people? I imagine an hour or so. Maybe even longer.
Now, the response from the crowd. They understood exactly what was happening. They didn’t miss it. They knew that Jesus Christ had just performed a miracle. In fact, John will record for us that, at the end of this miracle, the crowd will come to Jesus to force a coronation. “You must be He that is promised.” Because in Deuteronomy, chapter 18, verse 15, Moses said to the people that, “The Lord thy God will raise up unto thee a Prophet from the midst of thee . . . like unto me”. Don’t miss this. You see, Moses, out in the wilderness, prayed and God sent manna to feed the nation. What you have is a sign here, a Messianic sign. Jesus, being the Messiah, prayed to God and then provided food for them in the wilderness. And they caught it. And they said, “He must be the Messiah. He, at least, is the Prophet that Moses declared would come.”
Now, Philip had no faith and Andrew had little faith and, I think, the miracle was designed to teach these men how to serve, even though their faith was so small, and yet, serve without selfishness. Let me give you two thoughts, if you are jotting into your notes, how to serve without selfishness. You are a disciple of Jesus Christ if you have accepted Him as your personal Savior. He has entrusted to you the ministry of distributing the food for people, the meeting of needs for those in need. How can you serve without getting caught up with your greatness? Two ways. First of all, by understanding that our priority in ministry is others, not ourselves. That’s the practical nature of grace. It is giving. Grace is unrecompensed kindness and favor, so defined by Chafer in his classic book, Grace. Do you think that Peter caught it? I think he did because in I Peter, chapter 5, he writes, “Feed the flock of God which is among you”. The priority of ministry is meeting the needs of those around you, in the body and outside, that know Christ. I think he caught it.
Second of all, the theological nature of grace is in this, our resource for ministry is Christ. Our resource for ministry is Christ and not ourselves. I want to make two thoughts. Remember now, ladies and gentlemen, that He will use what you give Him, just as He did there. He could have created fish and bread out of thin air. But He chose to use that which was surrendered to Him. And what a tremendous application to you and to me. And, also remember that He is the One that creates and we’re the one that distributes.
All right, I want you to look back, now, at John, chapter 6. Stay in John, if you’re there. John, chapter 6, look at verse 12, “When they were filled,” - the original word, literally, means “stuffed,” when they were so filled that they would be stuffed, I guess you could say - “He said unto His disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.’” It’s interesting, and we’re going to study next Sunday a lot more about this but, Jesus broke at least four traditional laws in these miracles. We’re going to take an in depth look next Sunday at hypocrisy, as represented by the Pharisees. Hypocrisy versus true holiness. Jesus Christ shattered at least four traditions in these miracles. The first, and in fact the only one I’m going to mention this morning, is the fact that He gathered all of the fragments. It was against the law to gather anything that was not eaten because it was ceremonially unclean. And yet, Jesus said, “Look, don’t waste this.” He didn’t go around, now, to each individual and say, “Oh, you didn’t finish that loaf of bread? Well, let me have it back.” What He did was collect that which was at His feet that He had broken off and had not passed out. And they filled twelve baskets full. “Therefore they gathered them together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments . . . which remained . . . Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did,” - verse 14 - “said, ‘This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world.’ When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take Him by force, to make Him a king, He departed again into a mountain Himself alone. And when even was now come, His disciples went down unto the sea. And entered into a ship, and went over the sea toward Capernaum.” - which, again, is about five hours - “And it was now dark, and Jesus was not come to them. And the sea arose by reason of a great wind that blew.” - sovereignly designed - “So when they had rowed about five and twenty or thirty furlongs,” - or at least three miles - “they see Jesus walking on the sea”. They had spent, now, nine hours rowing, their backs against the wind. They were rowing, at all cost, and the wind was being whipped about. And in nine hours they had gone less than three miles. And then they see Jesus walking on the water, coming near the ship. And the last phrase is almost inevitable, “and they were afraid.” Verse 20, “But He saith unto them, ‘It is I; be not afraid.’”
Now, Matthew fills in the gap here. So turn back to Matthew, chapter 14, and let’s find out what happens. Matthew, chapter 14, look at verse 28. Jesus says to them as He comes near the boat, “It is I; be not afraid.” Matthew, chapter 14, verse 28, “And Peter answered Him and said, ‘Lord, if it be thou,’” - if it’s really You - “bid me come unto Thee on the water.” I love it. Peter, fascinating guy, here’s an opportunity to do something that no other disciple has ever done. But, you know, what’s fascinating, ladies and gentlemen, and, I think, the reason that Peter was getting himself into hot water was because, you’ve got to go back into Mark, chapter 5. You see, they had just been sent out with all of the authority of Jesus Christ. If Jesus could do it, they could do it. If Jesus could heal, they could heal. If Jesus could raise somebody up from the dead, He says, “Now, YOU can raise somebody up from the dead.” If He could perform any kind of miracle, now THEY can do it. So Peter sees Jesus walking on the water and he says, scratching his head, “Well, if Jesus can do it, I can do it. So, Lord, if it’s really You, can I come to You?” And Jesus says, “Come.” And, I think, He chuckles to Himself. Now, notice what happens, “And when Peter was come down out of the ship”. Now, we can’t be too hard on him. He’s the only one that got out of the boat and the others were clinging onto the sides of that little craft. He got down out of the ship, down that little rope ladder, and he climbs out. And, “he walked on the water, to go to Jesus. But when he saw the wind . . . he was afraid”. He gets out, maybe takes a few steps, and he notices that his sandals are dry and he thinks, “This is fantastic.” And then he looks up and he notices this breaker coming toward him and the wind. And he realized, I think, for a split second, this is all in the text, between the lines, he realizes for just a moment, “Wait a second! What, in the world, am I doing out here on the water, walking on the water?” And he becomes afraid. And he begins to sink. Now, I want you to notice what he said in verse 30, “and beginning to sink, he cried, . . . “Lord, save me.”
That would never work in the twentieth century. What kind of prayer is that? “Lord, save me.” I mean, who does he think he’s serving? A merciful God? You don’t pray like that today. As a matter of fact, I leaned back in my chair, let my imagination run, and I created a twentieth century prayer. If Peter were sinking, this is what he would pray. It may be a little convicting so I’ll read it quick. “Oh, Lord, thank You for the many blessings of this day. I thank You that You are the creator and sustainer of all life. I believe that You created this ocean but I also believe my feet are getting wet. But, You know all about that, Lord. In fact, I thank You for hearing my prayer, even before I ask it. But, Lord, I think my waist is now wet. I want You to know, Lord, that I just apologize for coming to You today. I came yesterday and the day before and the day before that and the month before that. And I can understand if You’re a little upset but there’s water up to my neck. Now, I deserve to tread water for at least an hour, Lord, to do penance. But, Lord, You know that I’m not a good swimmer, so in Your infinite mercy, might You reach down from the portals of heaven and take my hand and lift me up? Amen and Amen.” Have you ever prayed like that? You know, we almost apologize to the Lord because we’ve failed. There we are, going under, and we go to the Lord and we start buttering Him up, “You’re the creator . . . and all of this. And, Lord, I apologize and I’m so frail.” He knows that. He can see you up to your neck. What a truth that Peter gives us. It’s very simple. When you’re going under just simply pray, “Lord, would You save me? I’m about to drown.”
And I’m going to give you several suggestions from Peter’s failure, in addition to this. First of all, you can jot into your notes, that he failed after training. You’re a disciple of Jesus Christ. You’ve been living with him, now, for two years. You’ve got it all together. “I know the score. I know exactly where I’m going.” Peter failed after, at least, two years of training. One writer said that, “The ministry of serving Jesus Christ is like a bicycle with training wheels. And you never take the training wheels off.” You never get to the point where you can say, “Okay, Lord, I’ve mastered the ministry. I’ve got the four laws down the Romans road and I can even lead a person to Christ in the book of Psalms. I’ve got it all mastered. Now I can do it myself.” Peter failed after training.
Second of all, he failed in obedience to the will of God. The Lord said, “Come.” Here you are, smack in the middle of doing what God wants you to do, and pride invades your heart. Here you are serving the Lord and you’re, all of the sudden, filled with covetous thoughts. And you think, “Well wait a second, Lord, here I am serving you. I thought I’d be impervious to that kind of stuff.” No. Peter failed while he was doing the will of God. Have you ever been there?
Thirdly, he failed until praying. He failed after training, in obedience, and until praying.
Now, in order for you and I to fail, as we will do, without falling, I want you to understand two things, many more but at least two. First of all, the practical nature of grace in this thought, obedience to Christ does not remove the obstacles. Obedience does not remove obstacles. The Lord Jesus sent them into the storm. He allowed them to row until their backs felt like they might break, until their arms were so sore. And that was part of His will. He sent them into it. And he called Peter out of it and said, “Okay, Peter, come to Me.” Just because you are obeying Jesus Christ does not mean that, all of a sudden, that rough water is going to be made smooth. Obedience does not remove obstacles.
And secondly, as to the theological nature of grace, deep waters are never intended to drown us but develop us. The grace of God is not intended to work in our lives in such a way that He sinks us. But He intends that we not be pampered disciples but strong disciples. And so He stirs up the water on occasion to develop us. Did Peter learn this truth? Yes. And in the later years of his life he wrote in I Peter, chapter 5, “God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble. Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time”. That’s another way of saying, “Humility before honor. Grace before greatness.”
Do you have aspirations of greatness this morning, my friend? Are you climbing to the top of the heap? Are you going to get there, no matter what? Perhaps, in ministry, you’re going to make sure that that individual hears you out. Do you have thoughts that now, within yourself, you have reached the point where you can take off the training wheels and, “God, what a blessing You got when you received me.” What is your impression of yourself this morning?
Marian Anderson, finally, was accepted, began voice lessons, and became a rather famous lady. One day a reporter asked her, “Marian, what is the greatest moment of your entire career?” as an older woman. And what a selection she could have had. Perhaps, it was receiving the award, from the President, for freedom. Perhaps, it was being a delegate to the United Nations, representing the United States. Maybe, it was performing privately for the Eisenhowers and the King and Queen of England. Perhaps, it was writing a book that would become a best seller. She had all of these things to choose from. And yet, as a very gracious lady who had learned grace, she responded to this reporter, “The greatest day, in my life, was when I went home to my mother and told her, ‘Ma Ma, you don’t have to take in washing anymore.’” She never forgot where she came from.
I believe for every disciple of Jesus Christ who will serve Him effectively, who will serve without selfishness, who will be able to fail graciously without falling, we must remember where we came from. And, by remembering, not to wallow in past sin, as Paul said to forgive, but just remember the flesh that we are made of. I think Jesus Christ can use us, as we learn grace comes before greatness.