Lessons From Failed Tests

One of the main purposes of a midterm exam is to chart student progress. After weeks of lessons, lectures, and assignments, the teacher wants to gauge how well the class is retaining, processing, and synthesizing the information.

Mark 6:33–56 is midterm exam week for Jesus’ disciples. At this point they’ve seen, heard, and experienced a great deal. It’s time to chart their progress. And, inspired by the Holy Spirit, Mark takes us through this midterm week so that you and I can also check our progress along with the twelve.

A couple of tests

Jesus provides his disciples with a couple of tests to gauge where they’re at in their understanding of what they’ve been called to do and the power they’ve been given to do it. The first of the two tests begins in verse 33 and we’ll call it “the test of divine provision.”

The test of divine provision

Jesus and his disciples are tired. They take to the sea to find seclusion but people saw them, recognized them, and ran the shoreline, collecting more as they go. By the time the boat reaches shore there’s a huge crowd waiting.

So much for rest!

But Jesus isn’t annoyed. Instead, he’s filled with compassion. Why? The text tells us: “Because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (v. 34). The crowds were without guidance, protection, nourishment. They were vulnerable, helpless, and lost. And, so, Jesus lovingly and compassionately begins to teach them “many things.”

After a seemingly lengthy lecture, his now-certainly exhausted disciples approach Jesus: It’s late. You’ve got to wrap this thing up. We’re hungry; they’re hungry. Jesus, send them away so they can go get food (vv. 35–36a).

Now, here comes the test of divine protection: “But he answered them, “You give them something to eat” (v. 37a). It’s a forceful command. “You yourselves feed the people!” Remember the scene that Mark has painted for us: Exhausted disciples, thousands of hungry people, desolate setting. And now, “You feed them.”

You may start the exam now.

How’re the twelve going to respond? Are they going to trust him to provide?

But there is a second test here found when we drop to verse 45. We’ll call this “the test of divine protection.

The test of divine protection

The crowds have been fed and the leftovers have been collected. Jesus now sends his disciples back onto the water while he stays, dismisses the masses, and then goes off to pray in the mountains by himself.

The twelve are on the sea, Jesus is on land. Day turns to night. And here comes the second test in: “Seeing them straining at the oars, for the wind was against them, at about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea; and he intended to pass by them” (v. 48).

So, between 3 and 6am, Jesus looks out and sees the disciples struggling, having been blown off course. Remember, they’ve been tired for a while and now this. Jesus sees them in trouble and decides to go to them.

When Mark writes that Jesus “intended to pass by them“ he’s employing language commonly used when the Bible talks about God graciously showing himself to his people.

(See, for example, Exodus 33:18–23 and 1 Kings 19:9–11. In both instances, God “passes by” his servants, showing himself to them to bring comfort in the midst of turmoil. To remind them of who it is that’s on their side. To lift their eyes from their hardships to the God who transcends those hardships.)

The disciples are in a literal storm. They’re tired and frustrated. And Jesus goes to them, walking on the water (another display of his power), with the intention of passing by as a reminder of who it is they’re with.

You may start your exam now.

How’re they going to respond? When the disciples see him, will they trust him to protect them?

And so, we have two tests: the test of divine provision, and the test of divine protection. Will the disciples trust God to provide in a time of insurmountable need? Will they trust in his protection when they are most vulnerable?

How would we do on those tests?

We’ve all had moments when we’re confronted with both a significant need and our inability to meet that need. Maybe you’ve sat with someone facing a financial emergency, a health crisis, or a relational disaster, and you feel that they’re looking to you for help! You’re the Christian, right? How do I respond? Do I trust in God’s ability to provide?

Or maybe you’ve experienced times yourself in which you’re made to see your own powerlessness. You’re tired, worn down by the storms of life, vulnerable, and ready to give up. In those moments, do we trust in God’s ability to protect us?

A couple of failures

How do the twelve disciples do on the couple of tests they’re given? Unfortunately, not well. The reports a couple of failures. They don’t perform well. Looking at them one at a time, the first we’ll call “a failure to act.” 

A failure to act

Jesus had told the twelve to feed the hungry crowd. That was their test. I don’t believe it was a hollow request. I think Jesus actually wanted his disciples to give food to the masses, leaning on the power of God.

Their response is unfortunate: “And they *said to Him, “Shall we go and spend two hundred denarii on bread and give them something to eat?” (v. 37b). There are too many people! It’s impossible! It’s impractical! It’s expensive!

Wrong answer.

And in case you think we’re being too harsh with these men who were, after all, given an impossible task, remember that these disciples have had a front-row seat to God miraculously meeting needs. They’d seen him give health to the sick (3:5, 10; 5:29; 6:5), forgiveness to the sinner (2:9), and cleansing to the leper (1:42).

They’d heard the explanations of the seed parables (4:14–25), where Jesus taught the farmer’s role is simply to cast seed (4:26–27); God will provide everything else for growth.

On top of that, they’d just come back from being sent out by Jesus where they’d experienced all their needs being met and they’d experienced God working through them in miraculous ways to meet the needs of people around them (6:7–13, 30).

And yet, with all of that classroom work in their collective recent memories, when Jesus tested them saying, “Feed these people,” the disciples said, “that’s impossible.” That’s a failure to act.

A failure to trust

The second failure, we’ll call “a failure to trust.” The twelve were on the sea without Jesus and were struggling against the waves when he comes to them, offering the reassurance and the reminder of his power and presence.

We find their failure described in 6:49–50a: “But when they saw him walking on the sea, they supposed that it was a ghost, and cried out for they all saw him and were terrified.”

Fail.

Too harsh? These are the same men who had seen demons flee from presence of Jesus (1:23, 32; 3:11; 5:6–13). They’d witnessed a paralytic made to dance (2:12) and a dead girl made to live (5:42). They’ve heard him teach about the power of faith and the unstoppability of the kingdom of God.

More relevantly, they had, not long ago, watched as the weather submitted to his words (4:39) and, just hours before, they’d seen him protect thousands from starvation with a single prayer (6:41–42).

Like nobody else on earth, these twelve men had witnessed time and time again the power of God to provide and protect and yet, when tested—when pushed in their trust of these truths, they collectively failed. Two tests. Two “F’s”.

Even Mark has to take an inspired jab at their test results. After Jesus gets into the boat and calms the storm, Mark writes:

Then he got into the boat with them, and the wind stopped; and they were utterly astonished, for they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, but their heart was hardened (vv. 51–52).

And then, as if to drive home the point, Mark contrasts the failures of the twelve with the faith of the crowds. Verse 54 reports that the crowds immediately recognize who he is and run to him, carrying their sick, to experience his provision and protection.

We want to trust

We want to respond more like the crowds than the twelve.

When faced with impossible situations, deep hurts, significant stresses—all caused by sin in this world—we want our knee-jerk reaction to be confident faith in the power of God and his ability to provide and to protect. How do we move toward that? 

A couple of lessons

Mark has presented us with a couple of tests and a couple of failures. Let’s close our time in Mark 6 with a couple of lessons that, with God’s help and by his grace, we can apply to our lives and, Lord willing, pass tests like those the disciples experienced.

Look back and remember

Lesson #1: Look back and remember. Throughout Scripture, God’s people are called to remember. Look back at what God has done. Don’t forget!

In the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath was in place to help the people remember: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there … therefore the Lord your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15).

The feasts of Israel were nemonic devices to help the people remember God’s goodness and provision in the past. As a church, Jesus commands us to continue to observe the Lord’s Supper and believer’s baptism. Why? Partly as acts of remembrance of what God has done.

In Joshua 4, the Hebrews had just crossed the Jordan toward the promised land and God tells them to make a pile of twelve big stones as a monument to God’s faithfulness. He did what he said he would do.

In 1 Samuel, God gives victory to his people, as he promised he would, “Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen, and named it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us’” (7:12). The Ebenezer was a monument to God’s faithfulness. 

It’s what we sing about in the second stanza of the popular hymn Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing: “Here I raise my Ebenezer: hither by thy help I’m come, and I trust by thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.”

The twelve disciples are a good illustration of how quickly we can forget God’s power to provide and protect. We don’t want that. Instead, we want to look back and remember. And we should. Each of us should examine the history of our lives and identify the times God has shown himself faithful. We should store those memories, share them, celebrate them, never forgetting.

That may be a good exercise for us this week. At some point, maybe in the margin of your Bible next to Mark 6, jot down two or three Ebenezers that you can raise in remembrance of God’s faithfulness. Look back and remember.

Look around and serve

Lesson #2: Look around and serve. Mark showed us in chapter 1 that one of the characteristics of faithful disciples is that they seek not to be served, but to serve. In our passage this morning, we’re being shown that it’s God that actually provides us the power to serve those in need around us.

You and I know there are many needs around us—in our church and outside. We’re to be need-meeters. And some of those needs may seem too drastic, too intense, to meet. Is it possible those are exactly the needs God wants to meet, by his power, through his willing and trusting people? We may think, I don’t have enough to meet that need. I don’t know enough to meet that need. I haven't experienced what they’re experiencing. 

How quickly we forget the power we have access to: We, the people of God, following in the footsteps of the Son of God, indwelled and gifted and filled with the Spirit of God, carrying with us the very Word of God, are well-equipped to meet the needs around us. Often, we just need to be willing, and with one eye looking back and remembering his faithfulness, the other eye is to be looking around and serving—meeting needs confident in God’s power to provide and protect.