Mark 8:1-10 — Table Ministry Among the Gentiles

Jesus resumed his kingdom ministry when he returned to the sea of Galilee from the regions of Tyre and Sidon. After some time (“in those days”) Jesus was followed by a large crowd (4,000 people) into a remote place where food was not easily accessible. Mark describes this area as a “wilderness” (8:4) and uses a cognate of the term he has previously employed to describe Jesus’ time in the Judean desert (1:12-13), his moments of solitude (1:35, 45) and the previous feeding of the 5,000 (6:31-32, 35).Israel, following Jesus, once again finds themselves in the wilderness.

It is uncertain where this “wilderness” is. Jesus is probably ministering in the Decapolis on the eastern or northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. Whatever the region, at the close of the story Jesus gets into a boat and crosses over to “Dalmanutha.” But this  place name is unknown in any other source. The parallel in Matthew (15:39) names it Magadan (which may be another name for Magdala located on the west side of the sea). Presumably, then, Jesus is still on the eastern/northeastern side of the lake in the Decapolis.

As with the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:30-44), the remote location creates a problem. No food is readily accessible for such a large crowd. Many had come from a “long distance” to be with Jesus and they had been there for “three days” without food. These notes may be purely situational in order to describe the desperate situation of the people, but they may also have theological significance about the Gentile mission (“far off”) and typify “three days” in the wilderness just as Jesus was three days in the tomb (cf. Mark 8:31; 14:58; 15:29).

Jesus shares his feelings about the situation with his disciples: “I have compassion on these people.” Loving people entails feeding people as well as teaching them. Compassion moved Jesus to postpone his rest in order to teach the 5,000 (Mark 6:34), but here it moves him to feed them. The missional nature of this event is evident: compassion is part of the motivation for kingdom ministry. We teach and feed people because we love them. To love our neighbor is not only to teach them but to feed them as well.

The disciples, however, are confused by Jesus’ statement. How are they going to feed 4,000 people? Well….duh. One would think that they might remember the previous occasion and trust Jesus. But the disciples can only look at their own resources—they are in the “wilderness.” Food is not available. They only have seven loaves and a “few fish.” But was that not enough previously? And it is enough this time.

The people are asked to “recline”—“sit down” does not give the full impact of this language. This is a festive meal that is characterized by reclining. It is celebratory, relaxed–a meal among friends. Jesus is hosting a banquet for hungry people in the wilderness. Like at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22), as well as the previous feeding of thousands (Mark 6:41), Jesus eucharistically breaks bread at the table with his disciples.

The abundance of the meal is signaled not only by the fact that everyone was satisfied (“filled”) but by the huge amount of leftovers. Seven basketfuls of food remained. But is that not less than in the previous feeding which had twelve basketfuls? Actually, it isn’t. The word for basket in Mark 6:43 refers to something like the size of a lunch box but the word in Mark 8:9 refers to a basket large enough to lift a person over a wall (cf. Acts 9:25). The leftovers could have fed hundreds more. God’s provision is overflowing.

The parallels between the feeding of the 4,000 and the 5,000 raise the question about why the different numbers: twelve “baskets” in Mark 6 and seven “baskets” in Mark 8. Why the difference? It may simply be a factual report, but even then why these “facts”? Are we to suppose the twelve in Mark 6 is a significant symbol for Israel but the number seven has no symbolic meaning? It may be that “seven” symbolizes “wholeness” and inclusiveness and thus symbolizing the Gentile inclusion in this meal.

Some have suggested that the 4,000 included both Jew and Gentile. This is partly based on the fact that this happened in the Decapolis (a Gentile region but where many Jews lived) and the statement many “came from far” may allude to Joshua 9:6, 9 and Isaiah 60:4. This was a typical way of referring to Gentiles (cf. Acts 2:39). Others also note that Mark substituted “giving thanks” (8:6) for “blessing” (6:41) which is more typical of Gentile audiences than Jewish, and that the number seven rather than twelve may represent an inclusive number in contrast with a typically Jewish numeral. Perhaps Mark intends to paint an inclusive picture here that prefigures the Gentile mission though one wonders if he might not been more explicit about it as he was with the Syro-Phoenician woman (7:26). Allusions to Gentile inclusion seem present and it is difficult to imagine that no Gentiles would be present among the 4,000 on the eastern or northeastern side of the lake.

If this is the case, the meal setting points us toward the inclusive nature of the Lord’s table. Jesus takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it and gives it, just as he does at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22). Mark’s first readers would not miss the literary and linguistic links as well as the theological linkage. After three days, Jesus rose from the dead to host his table in the kingdom of God. Those who are “afar off” are invited to this table as well as the people of Israel. In his compassion Jesus feeds those who have followed him into the wilderness, and he continues to feed disciples today through the Eucharist. Disciples still sit with Jesus at the table.

Parallels between Mark 6 and Mark 8*


Feeding 5,000 Males

Feeding 4,000 people







“How many loaves do you have?”






Command to Recline



Last Supper Formula









Dismissed Crowd



Disciples in a Boat



*Based on William Lane’s NIC commentary on Mark, p. 271, n. 8.

One Response to “Mark 8:1-10 — Table Ministry Among the Gentiles”

  1.   youngman44 Says:

    This was great analysis, John, thanks. It is also interesting to note other uses of the “far off” (“great distance” NASB) in Scripture along with Mark 8:3. As you note, Acts 2:39, “far off” is a reference to the nations (“Gentiles”). In Acts 22:21, The Lord tells Paul he will be sent “far off” to the Gentiles. The Greek term, makrothen, generally refers to a great distance. Directly related to this is makran, used in Eph. 2:13 of Gentiles again who were “far off.” The tax collector in Luke 18, “stood at a great distance (far off)” from the center of the temple in humility.

    It is powerful to see that God is deeply concerned about those who are disenfranchised, on the margin, locked out and poor or underprivileged. James tells us God has “chosen the poor.” Countless texts speak to this in the prophets & gospels as well as played out in Acts. God is with the broken and he is with us when we are with them (in compassion). We are never closer to God than when we are caring for those in need – feeding them; healing them of their wounds; etc. Feeding and eating together (not just writing a check to feed) is vital to breaking down human barriers of the heart (racial, cultural, social, etc).

    It is equally stunning that the importance and depth of this narrative thread in the NT has been overlooked or cast aside as unimportant for such a long time in broad circles within the evangelical world (though there is a resurgence in this in the past decade+, a very positive step).


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