After he fed the 5000, why did Jesus make the disciples leave the area so abruptly?
Why the Hasty Retreat?
Mark tells us, “immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd,” (Mk 6:45). Mark doesn’t tell us why, and neither does Matthew (14:22-23). However, John does give us some insight:
When the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!” (Jn 6:14).
At least some people connected the dots, and understood the significance of what had happened. Jesus is the true shepherd of Israel (Mk 6:34). Because the nominal Jewish political leader in this region had abdicated his responsibilities (cf. Mk 6:14-29), Jesus stepped in to fill the gap “and he began to teach them many things,” (Mk 6:34). He also “healed their sick,” (Mt 14:14) and “spoke to them of the kingdom of God,” (Lk 9:11). Likewise, their religious leaders were apostates who’d fenced the law so much they’d lost all sight of it, and had perverted the grace of the Old Covenant into a system of works righteousness (cf. Mk 7:1-13).
The “shepherd” imagery in the Old Covenant scriptures is more about political and ecclesiastical leadership than pastoral tenderness. Jesus assumed this responsibility, which fit perfectly with his own proclamation that He was the Messiah, the One promised from old times who would establish God’s Kingdom on the earth, in and through the nation of Israel (cf. Zech 8).
He is the “stronger man” who has bound Satan, is plundering his goods and is proclaiming release to the captives (Lk 4:18). As the prophet Isaiah said, Jesus is the one on whom the Spirit of Yahweh rests, who has been anointed by Yahweh (note all three Divine Persons are named) to preach this message to the Israelites and to the world (Isa 61:1ff).
Talk has always been cheap, and Jesus backs up His words with actions. Satan wouldn’t ever fight against himself, so there has to be another supernatural explanation for Jesus’ ability to cast out demons – something Jesus presses home relentlessly. “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you,” (Lk 11:20).
This is the content Jesus preached when he “spoke to them of the kingdom of God,” (Lk 9:11). After all, Jesus’ basic message is, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel,” (Mk 1:15). This “good news” is soaked in the Old Testament scriptures, and was much more “Jewish” in flavor than you’d find in most evangelical churches today. Christ’s entire preaching ministry was founded on the Old Testament scriptures, and all the promises of the Messiah they contain.
So, when the Gospel of John tells us, “when the people saw the sign which he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world!” (Jn 6:14), then we have to understand how they “connected the dots.”
Jesus as “the Prophet”
The “sign” was the miraculous way Jesus provided for this massive crowd in the wilderness, without any logistical resources whatsoever. Like Moses before Him, but in an infinitely more powerful way, Jesus just provided a banquet for the Israelites in the wilderness. The difference is that Moses had to wait on God for the manna, whereas Jesus is God, and provides the bread Himself.
People in the crowd know this, recognized this, connected the content of his preaching with their knowledge of the Old Covenant scriptures and made the logical connection – Jesus is the prophet Moses wrote about long ago (Deut 18:15-19). In that passage, Moses told the Israelites many things about this coming prophet, and the scriptures give us the fulfillment:1
Jesus has, in miniature, replicated Moses leadership role in the wilderness. Quantitatively, Moses has the edge – after all, Jesus didn’t supply them for 40 years! But, with regards to quality, Christ has done more than enough to establish his bona fides. Like Moses, He has led a large crowd of Israelites into the wilderness, spoken Yahweh’s word to them as Moses’ successor par excellence, proven His identity and deity by His miracles, and proclaimed Himself as the Messiah and the One who has come to inaugurate the Kingdom of God on earth. Belinda Carlisle may have sung about making heaven a place on earth, but Jesus came to actually do it.
Of course, these folks in the crowd weren’t the first to connect these dots and realize Jesus was the prophet Moses wrote about. Philip told Nathaniel, “We have found him of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph!” (Jn 1:45). Stephen told his murderers Jesus was this prophet (Acts 7:37). The Apostle Peter also explicitly identified Jesus as the one Moses wrote about (Acts 3:20-24), and identified this prophet as “the Christ” (i.e. Messiah). Likewise, Nathaniel confessed to Jesus, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (Jn 1:49). In one stroke, Nathaniel identified the prophet Moses wrote about as the divine, co-equal Son of God and the King of Israel.
Jesus knew He was this prophet; “it is Moses who accuses you, on whom you set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me,” (Jn 5:45-46). Later in His ministry, after “he had done so many signs before them, yet they did not believe in him,” (Jn 12:37), Jesus warned the Israelite leadership:
He who rejects me and does not receive my sayings has a judge; the word that I have spoken will be his judge on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own authority; the Father who sent me has himself given me commandment what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has bidden me (Jn 12:48-50).
Even the Samaritan woman seems to have grasped hold of this promise, and identified this coming prophet with the Messiah (Jn 4:25). And, as we will see, Yahweh’s command to the disciples at the transfiguration (“this is my beloved Son; listen to him,” Mk 9:7) is probably an allusion to Deuteronomy 18:15 (“him you shall heed”).
The crowd understood who Jesus was, all right. But, they were after a Messiah made in their own image, not the One who came in Yahweh’s name. True, the prophets spoke of a Messiah who would restore Israel. But, the scriptures always frame this coming Kingdom as one that restores God’s honor, glory, justice and righteousness to the world – a time when everything will be set right, and Yahweh is worshipped in spirit and in truth to the uttermost parts of the earth (cf. Micah 4). People from all nations will flow to Yahweh in Jerusalem, to learn from Him and obey His law (Micah 4:2):
Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
This isn’t what the crowd had in mind. Their interests were infinitely more crude and self-centered. This is pitiful, because Jesus had just spent the entire afternoon teaching them many things (Mk 6:34) about the kingdom of God (Lk 9:11). They discarded all of it, and only saw the Messiah as a convenient prop for their own purposes.
Moses said Yahweh would send a prophet. That prophet is Jesus, who is distinct from the Father. Yet, the crowd recognized Jesus was the prophet, acknowledged the miraculous “sign,” and realized He was the promised King, Messiah and Prophet. The Scriptures show us distinction and equality with the Father in this passage. And, fittingly, after Jesus hurriedly sends the disciples away, Mark tells us “after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray,” (Mk 6:46). Yet again, we see a distinction between Divine Persons.
And, lest we miss the point about who Jesus is, Mark has something extraordinary in store for us in the next passage …
1 This chart (and the discussion which follows) is pitifully inadequate, and only gives a taste of the fulfillment we see in the New Testament. See especially C.F. Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, 10 vols. (reprint; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011), 1:934-936.