Taking Hold of Life

As Jesus’ popularity grew, crowds clamored to see or touch Him. They looked to Him to provide for their physical needs, but He wanted to give them much more.

Jesus had spent the day, as He often did, before a crowd of people who had gathered to hear His unusually authoritative words.

At the end of the day, He and His disciples set out to cross over the Sea of Galilee to escape the crowds, and Jesus quickly fell asleep in the small boat.

When a sudden storm came on them, the disciples began to panic, fearful of drowning. They awakened Jesus, who, surprised by their lack of faith, calmed the winds and the waves.

It was an impressive miracle to convince the disciples of His power over the elements. Despite a long day of learning about the kingdom of God, they still weren’t sure enough of their leader to trust Him in a storm at sea. The miraculous calming of the storm perhaps helped them confirm their belief.

Once across the stormy sea, they arrived at Gerasa on the eastern shore, nine miles south of Capernaum. Gerasa was home to two men who were possessed by a multitude of demons. The men came out of the tombs where they apparently lived. Like many under the influence of evil spirits, one of them was strong enough to tear restraining chains off himself. Jesus’ arrival obviously upset the two men. But He simply commanded the evil spirits to leave them. The spirits asked to enter a herd of 2,000 pigs feeding on the nearby hillside. When the demons came into contact with the herd, the pigs ran over the cliff into the sea and drowned.

Understandably, their herdsmen were angry and went into town to report what had happened. The townspeople came to see for themselves and found Jesus with one of the formerly demon-possessed men, now in his right mind (Matthew 8:28–34; Mark 5:1–17; Luke 8:26–37).

Because of the loss of the pigs, the local people asked Jesus to leave. Getting into a boat, Jesus refused passage to the now sane man. Rather, Jesus said, go and tell your family what has happened (Mark 5:18–20; Luke 8:38–39).

The men from whom the bad spirits had disappeared went home and explained what had happened to them. As a result, Jesus’ fame spread throughout the 10-city region of Decapolis, east of the Jordan River.

Faith Found and Faith Failed

When Jesus arrived back at the western side of the Sea of Galilee, a large crowd met Him. Among them was a synagogue ruler named Jairus, probably a leader of the Capernaum congregation. His daughter was very ill, and he asked Jesus for help.

On His way to help the young girl, Jesus was surrounded by a crowd so dense that it was impossible to move without brushing up against others. When Jesus suddenly asked who had touched Him, it seemed a strange question to His disciples, and an impossible one to answer. But Jesus’ reason for asking was that He had felt power leave Him, as He said.

At that moment, a woman came forward to admit she had touched Him trusting that she would be healed of a 12-year illness. The remarkable part of her admission was that she had indeed been healed instantly. Jesus said that her faith had saved her (Mark 5:21–34).

This incident on the way to help Jairus’s daughter was strong evidence to the synagogue ruler. But the noisy crowd at Jairus’s house was in a different mood. They laughed out loud when Jesus said the now dead girl was only sleeping. Their scornful laughter turned to amazement when Jesus simply said, “Little girl, get up,” and she did. Unlike His earlier instruction to the men who had been demon possessed, Jesus charged the girl and her parents to say nothing about the miracle—now that He was back in Galilee (verses 35–43).

After helping Jairus and his daughter, Jesus next healed two blind men who came to Him. He warned them, too, against publicizing the miracle of their newly restored sight. But their exuberance overcame them, and they told everyone in the region.

At the same time, Jesus also healed a demon-possessed man who was unable to speak. The crowds were astonished. “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel,” they said (Matthew 9:27–33). But the Pharisees said it was sorcery.

Shortly after this incident, Jesus returned to His hometown of Nazareth for one final visit. He had already been rejected by His fellow townspeople as He began His work. Now He taught once again in the same synagogue. But in contrast to recent events, He could perform no miracles there, because His former neighbors and acquaintances lacked faith in the familiar son of Joseph. “‘Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? . . . Where then did this man get all these things?’ And they took offense at him” (Matthew 13:55–57).

Did miracles convince anyone to adopt Jesus’ teachings? 

Special Calling

As we are seeing, Jesus’ work brought one of two responses: either outright rejection or amazement. Did miracles convince anyone to adopt Jesus’ teachings? The Gospel accounts don’t tell us directly. But it’s apparent that discipleship was a calling, not a decision based on witnessing miracles. Miracles may have been an adjunct to belief, but they were not the cause of discipleship. Even Jesus’ own family had difficulty accepting His unique powers and authority. But His 12 disciples demonstrated an unusual willingness to give up all and follow their leader. They would come to understand later that this was a special calling that came only through the intervention of the Holy Spirit—a gift that God ultimately gives to those who change their mindset and follow His way. The disciples’ conviction was something that allowed them to serve Jesus effectively.

Sensing that His mission could now be expanded, Jesus called the 12 together and commissioned them to go out in parties of two to preach and heal as He had been doing. But He warned them of the opposition they would face immediately and in the long term. “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16).

I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

Matthew 10:16

The price of discipleship was high. The 12 would teach as Jesus had done and receive both enthusiastic support and bitter opposition. Jesus, quoting the prophet Micah, said of His own mission, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household’” (verses 34–36).

These were strong words indeed, and not what we normally associate with the Teacher from Nazareth. What exactly did He mean?

As Jesus explained in detail, it is a matter of profound commitment. He said: “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (verses 37–39). It was a difficult but fair exchange.

A Queen Gets Revenge

While the 12 disciples went on their Galilean journey, Jesus, too, continued to teach and travel. Needless to say, such widespread public activities brought the attention of King Herod Antipas himself.

It’s at this point that the Gospel narrative relates how Herod was forced to resolve his impasse with John the Baptist. The story is perhaps familiar, but the details provide a fascinating look at the corrupt king’s lifestyle and the reality of conducting any publicly acclaimed work in his territory.

According to the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, it was at Machaerus, Herod’s hilltop fortress in present-day Jordan, that John the Baptist was imprisoned by the king. But the scene we’re about to recount probably occurred in Tiberias, by the Sea of Galilee. It was there that Herod Antipas had built his new palace.

To recap the story a little, Herod had taken his brother’s wife in an adulterous relationship. John had criticized him publicly for this as well as various other corrupt activities. Herod was unwilling to kill John because he was fascinated with the man’s message. He simply liked to listen to him.

Herod’s wife, Herodias, had a daughter who danced for the king. Josephus tells us that her name was Salome, though the Bible is silent on this. Her dancing was apparently sexually pleasing to Herod. At his birthday celebration with various officials, military commanders and Galilean leaders, he promised up to half his kingdom to the girl if she would dance for them. In fact, she could ask for anything she wanted up to that value. The girl danced, and Herod asked what she wanted in return. She consulted her mother for advice. Her mother’s anger at John the Baptist’s moral condemnation of her marriage led her to request John’s head on a platter.

So it was that John was beheaded at the whim of a vicious queen and through the weakness of a compromised king.

The girl told Herod and, unwilling to face humiliation before his guests, Herod agreed. So it was that John was beheaded at the whim of a vicious queen and through the weakness of a compromised king. John’s head was delivered on a plate as requested (Mark 6:17–28).

His disciples soon came to remove his body for burial—an indication that the murder probably took place in Tiberias.

No sooner had Herod killed John than he began to hear of Jesus’ growing work and popularity. The Gospel writers record Herod’s reaction as mistaking Jesus for John—thinking John the Baptist had returned from the dead. Herod was also hearing reports that John was Elijah or one of the ancient prophets come back to life (verses 14–16). Herod’s perplexity caused him to try to see Jesus. From this point Jesus’ contact with the public would become less frequent.

Less Is More

Careful to preserve His safety for a while longer, Jesus and His disciples went by boat to Bethsaida-Julias, a small town at the northern end of the lake. Today it’s the site of a beautiful nature reserve shaded by eucalyptus trees and intersected by several streams, all part of the Jordan as it flows into the Sea of Galilee.

In this area the 12 and their Master sought some rest. It was not to be.

As they got out of the boat, a crowd that had gone ahead met them. Jesus, feeling great compassion for these sheep without a shepherd, taught them about the kingdom of God and healed those who needed help. It was typical of Jesus that He would often set aside His own needs and serve others freely.

The day wore on, and by evening the crowds, now numbering about 5,000 men plus women and children, were hungry. The disciples asked Jesus to send the people away so that they could buy something to eat in the surrounding villages. Jesus’ reply was a test of a kind. He said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” As the Gospel of John says, “He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do” (John 6:5–6). Philip’s response was that it would take more than eight months’ wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite.

What Jesus had in mind, of course, was one of the most well known miracles—the feeding of up to 15,000 people with only five small barley loaves and two small fish provided by a boy in the crowd. Looking up, Jesus gave thanks over the small amount of food. He then simply distributed as much as anyone wanted. At the end of the meal the disciples collected 12 baskets of leftover food (Mark 6:35–44).

Perhaps this miracle was as much for the disciples as for the hungry crowds. The disciples really needed to develop unshakable confidence in their Master. Though they would go through a crisis of faith in the near future, these experiences would form the basis of their later work as apostles.

Another Lesson in Faith

Once the people were fed, Jesus sent the disciples back by boat to another village named Bethsaida, on the western shore near Capernaum. He then dismissed the crowd, which was ready to make Him a king or political messiah by force, and went to the mountain alone to pray.

Several hours later, in the midst of a windstorm on the lake, Jesus came to His disciples’ boat in a miraculous way. They had been fighting the storm for some hours. Remember that several of them were fishermen who knew the Sea of Galilee well. They had been rowing, straining at the oars. In the middle of the night they saw a figure coming toward them across the water. Terrified, they shouted out, “It’s a ghost!”

Jesus, walking on the water, said, “Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

The impetuous Peter wanted to get out of the boat and walk to Jesus. When Jesus told him, “Come,” he did. But after a few brave steps Peter began to sink, afraid of the storm. Jesus grasped his hand and saved him, taking him safely back to the boat (Matthew 14:22–31). Once again the wind died down, as it had in a previous storm on the lake when the disciples were afraid. All of this was more stunning evidence of why the disciples should have faith in their Master. Mark’s Gospel points out that the disciples were amazed because they had failed to grasp the significance of the feeding of the great crowd (Mark 6:51).

Soon they were back on shore near Capernaum. As they landed, the people recognized Jesus and spread the word that the man who could heal was back. Now just touching the edge of His garment would be enough to be made well.

The Bread of Life

The next day, while the feeding of the thousands was still fresh in people’s minds, Jesus took the opportunity to explain the importance of finding bread that truly satisfies.

He said to the crowd, “I tell you the truth, you are looking for me, not because you saw miraculous signs but because you ate the loaves and had your fill” (John 6:26). It was, in fact, nothing to do with the spiritual aspects of Jesus’ work that they were seeking Him, but because of something as physical as food in the stomach.

He said they should be searching for food that would feed them spiritually and bring them closer to eternal life. The crowds immediately wanted to know what it was that would bring God’s favor. Jesus told them they should believe the One God had sent.

Part of the problem is that we humans so often do not believe what God says and does. We would rather express confidence in man than in what God does. Yet God says in one place in the Bible, “Cursed is the man who trusts in man, and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:5).

Jesus’ listeners asked next for a miraculous sign so that they could believe in Him—an amazing request, when evidently some of them had been present the day before when He had fed the huge crowd. They said that Moses had given their forefathers bread, or manna, from heaven, the implication being that He should now do the same.

Jesus told them that it was not Moses but God Himself who had given the true bread from heaven. That bread He was about to reveal (John 6:30–33).

Like the Samaritan woman at the well who wanted the water of life (John 4:15), these people now wanted the bread of life. They said in response, “From now on give us this bread.”

It was then that Jesus announced to them that He was “the bread of life” (John 6:48). The implications of the statement are profound. Perhaps that’s why at the end of the discussion many of His own followers said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

Joseph’s Son or Son of God?

What was Jesus’ point? Simply this: Without making His way an integral part of our lives, we will never be like the Father or the Son. Our ultimate destiny as human beings is to become the resurrected children of God living life eternally in a renewed world. That means we must take on the nature and moral character of the family of God. The only way that can be done is as Jesus said in His analogy: We must partake of the nature of God.

It is an act on the part of the Father that brings a person to a willingness to follow Jesus Christ. 

Jesus made it clear that only some are called now. He said plainly that no one can come to Him—to accept Him as the Son of God—unless the Father actually draws that person (verse 44). It is an act on the part of the Father that brings a person to a willingness to follow Jesus Christ. This action by the Father is not something that is generally understood.

Some of Jesus’ listeners began to grumble because He said that He had come down from heaven as the bread of heaven. They could see Him only as Joseph’s son. He was the young man whose parents they knew. In this case their familiarity with Him led to disbelief.

Jesus simply repeated the same idea that those whom God is calling will understand; others will not. He said that He was the bread of life. Connecting this with His coming sacrificial death, He said, “This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (verse 51). He explained that we must partake of Him. Christ has to become a part of every true follower, and the resulting transformation of human nature will lead to eternal life.

It was difficult and profound teaching, and many disciples left Jesus that day. The 12 did not (verses 66–69). They had come to believe that, as Peter said, “you are the Holy One of God.”