The Riddle of the Baskets

basketsBy Stephen Green

(First Published in Christian Voice: May 2003)

Mark 8:19 When I brake the five loaves among five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? They say unto him, Twelve. 20 And when the seven among four thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? And they said, Seven. 21 And he said unto them, How is it that ye do not understand?

In chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel, there is a curious riddle concerning baskets of fragments. It comes after the sending out of the Twelve (Mark 6:7-13) the feeding of the five thousand (Mark 6:30-44), the Lord’s meeting with the Syrophoenecian (or Canaanite) woman in Tyre and Sidon (Mark 7:24-30) and the feeding of the four thousand (Mark 8:1-10), but before Peter’s declaration (Mark 8:27-30) and the Transfiguration (Mark (9:2-13).

In Luke chapters 9 and 10, which run parallel, we read of the sending out of the Twelve, (Luke 9:1-6), the feeding of the five thousand, (Luke 9:10-17), Peter’s declaration (Luke 9:18-20), the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), the Samaritan village (Luke 9:51-56) and the sending out of the Seventy (Luke 10:1-12). Only Luke records the sending out of the Seventy, and their importance is often overlooked. Equally, only Mark records the riddle of the baskets.

I have a picture of the Lord exasperated at the puzzled expressions on the faces of the uncomprehending disciples. Can we do any better than they in understanding the riddle which the Lord poses? There are six sets of numbers in the passage. Five thousand, four thousand, five loaves, seven loaves, twelve baskets, seven baskets. To the Hebrew mind, numbers often have a spiritual significance. Forty speaks of testing, for instance. Seven, ten (a congregation) seventy (ten sevens) and forty-nine (seven sevens) refer to completion, while eight (which can, as in the days of the week, revert to one again) and fifty signify a new beginning. Some of the numbers in the passage will be spiritually significant, others perhaps less so. Without entering the doubtful realms of numerology, we may be able to solve the riddle through looking at any obvious use of numerical symbolism. It may point us towards the mission of the Seventy as a bonus.

GOSPEL CHRONOLOGIES AGREE

Right at the start, I would say that I cannot see any importance in five thousand and four thousand, the numbers of men fed on the respective occasions. Nor do five loaves and two fishes, or seven loaves and a few fishes, seem to me to be carrying the message, although the seven loaves would tie in at a push. The Lord seems to be saying that the answer lies rather in the numbers of baskets left over, and that may be related to the time-frame in which it all occurred.

Luke, as we saw, was not inspired to record the feeding of the four thousand or the riddle of the baskets, nor Mark the sending out of the Seventy. It is also well known that the so-called ‘synoptic’ Gospels, (Matthew, Mark and Luke – the word ‘synoptic’ means ‘similar view’) often group material by subject rather than by time-scale. For instance, there are eight chapters of Luke between 10 and 18 the events of which Mark has little to say. Clearly, the Holy Spirit inspired the two men to record different events for the benefit of their different audiences; Luke emphasises the teachings of Jesus for his Gentile readers, while Mark stresses the miracles of the Lord, as seen from the perspective of the Disciples.

However, in these chapters (Mark 6-9, Luke 9-10), the chronology between Luke’s account and Mark’s agrees very well (as does Matthew’s), taking into account the events missing from one or the other. As confirmation, when Jesus sent out the Seventy in Luke, He mentioned Tyre and Sidon in their ordination, clear indication that He had already been in those cities. (Luke 10:13). A comparison between the two Gospels yields the time-frame in the box.

How, then, do the Seventy relate to the Twelve, what is the significance of the feeding of the four thousand and the baskets of fragments, and why do all these events happen as the Lord Jesus begins to set His path toward Jerusalem?

THE LOST SHEEP OF ISRAEL

I believe what is going on here is that the Lord is showing the expansion of His ministry from the Jews to the Gentiles. When the Lord sent out the Twelve, Matthew says He told them not to go to the Gentiles nor to the Samaritans, but “go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:5-7). Matthew again records the Lord using the same phrase to the Syrophoenecian woman in the coasts of Tyre and Sidon (Matt 15:24).

After the sending out of the Twelve but before the Lord’s journey to Tyre and Sidon, both Matthew and Mark write of the feeding of the five thousand, in Galilee as it appears, and of the twelve baskets of fragments. The traditional teaching on the baskets of fragments holds that God in His grace and generosity will provide more than we need to overflowing. That is obviously true, but the riddle in Mark suggests there is more to it than that.

Immediately after the incident in Tyre and Sidon, Jesus returned to Galilee and fed the four thousand, with seven baskets of fragments left over. If Jesus was using the riddle to point to a spiritual difference between the feeding of the five and the four thousand, then something must have happened in Tyre and Sidon which was important. To begin with, these Gentile towns plainly had a heart to accept the Gospel (Luke 10:13) whilst the woman of Canaan was used by God to show that Gentiles can exhibit faith and need to hear and believe the Gospel.

JUDGMENT TO THE GENTILES

Some have seen Jesus’ words to the woman as either harsh or as indicating that He did not know about His mission to the Gentiles until she pointed it out. I believe the apparent ‘harshness’ is to emphasise the place of Israel, and to lead the disciples gently into the truth. As to Him not knowing about His ministry, this event happened not in Judea, not even in Galilee, but in Gentile Phoenicia. What was the Lord doing there in the first place, if it were not demonstrating to His disciples that the Gentiles must also hear the Good News and could inherit the Kingdom of God?

From a point between Mark 7 and 8 and Luke 9 and 10, the Disciples were told that the message which Israel alone had expected to hear was destined for the whole world. This was to the undoubted irritation of some of the Pharisees, and to the amazement of the Apostles for some time after (Acts 10:44-47).

GALILEE SIGNIFICANT

After the feeding of the four thousand, Peter made his declaration that Jesus was Christ, or Messiah, the son of the living God, in contrast with the paganism and death epitomised by Caesarea Philippi, and then the Lord Jesus was transfigured in glory in the mountain.

After these wonders, the narrative returned to Galilee and Capernaum. Galilee and Capernaum are also significant here. Galilee was the home of Jonah, which the Judean Pharisees in John 7:52 conveniently forgot. Jonah was a prophet sent to Nineveh, a gentile nation. Capernaum is thought to mean ‘city of Nahum’, and Nahum was also sent to the gentile Ninevites. In these chapters of Mark and Luke, Jesus has declared that His ministry is not just to “the lost sheep of Israel,” but also to the Gentiles.

HOUSE OF PRAYER FOR ALL PEOPLE

The prophet Isaiah is the most explicit that the Messiah brings salvation and judgment to the Gentiles, in the first ‘Servant Song’ and elsewhere (see Isa 11:10, 49:6&22, 60:3):

Behold my servant, whom I uphold; mine elect, in whom my soul delighteth; I have put my spirit upon him: he shall bring forth judgment to the Gentiles. Isa. 42:1

He shall not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set judgment in the earth: and the isles shall wait for his law. Isa. 42:4

I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles; Isa. 42:6

For Isaiah, the temple would no longer belong exclusively to Israel, but be “an house of prayer for all people” (Isa 56:7).

REPENTANCE UNTO LIFE

Some of the Rabbis had shut their eyes to that and wanted to keep the blessing of God for Israel alone. They would say about Prov 14:34 that “Righteousness exalteth a nation” applied to Israel, but “sin is a reproach to any people” refered to the Gentiles, doing violence in the process to the whole idea of the parallelism of Hebrew poetry. For some of them, it was sin for a gentile to want to keep the Law. They wanted the people of Israel to keep God all for themselves.

In contrast to that, Simeon (Luke 2:29-32), Paul, and the Apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 11:18) were all delighted that God’s purpose was to extend to the Gentiles “repentance unto life”. They were in a more universalistic school, which by the word of the prophet Isaiah had the blessing of God. Israel was not cast off and would still have a function, or Jesus would not have bothered sending out the Twelve, but Israel would no longer be the only place where the Gospel could dwell.

If we add up the number of Gentile nations in Genesis 10, (the Sons of Noah) we come to the number 70. To the Hebrew mind, there were 70 nations and the number 70 meant ‘all the Gentiles.’

THE RIDDLE SOLVED

Now, unlike the bemused disciples confronted by the riddle, we can say, ‘Yes, we do understand’. The twelve baskets, after the feeding of the five thousand, showed God’s generosity to Israel, whilst the seven baskets after the feeding of the four thousand were to demonstrate the same generosity to the Gentiles. As seven speaks, as we saw, of completeness, and as seventy baskets would have been somewhat impractical, so for ‘seven’ read ‘the Gentiles’.

Equally, the sending out of the Twelve symbolised the Lord’s ministry to the twelve tribes of Israel, whilst sending out the Seventy fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecies and showed His ministry to the rest of the world in the seventy Gentile nations.

Only after this point had been made was the Lord Jesus ready to go the way of the cross. The Lord was to go up to Jerusalem, and to handed over to be crucified, by Jews and Gentiles in collusion, not just for the sins of Israel, but for the sins of Jew and Gentile alike.

WHOLE DUTY OF MAN

As Paul puts it, the Gospel of Christ “is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16) In the Lord’s sending out of the Seventy, the whole purpose of God for the Gentiles was finally revealed. The Gentiles had been in ignorance, but were now in the light. The law and the grace of God could from now on be seen as universal. Solomon wrote for us all:

Eccl. 12:13b-14 Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil. 

As Paul said in Athens (and it was difficult to be more Gentile than the pagan Athenians), no-one now has any excuse:

Acts 17:30 And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: 31 Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.

If all this is true, and it is, that the gentiles are brought into the sheepfold by the ministry of Jesus, then men in nations other than Israel are not just given the grace of God, but are also charged to keep the law of God, even as nations and even at a judicial level. Individual, family and nation alike are to repent and believe the Gospel, for God judges people as individuals and collectively. It will be useless for any statesman to say “the realm of Caesar is separate from the realm of God” for:

Psalm 24:1 The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the world, and they that dwell therein.

Or to put it another way, as Archbishop Fisher told the Queen, almost fifty years ago: “Receive this Orb set under the Cross, and remember that the whole earth is subject to the reign of Christ our Redeemer.”

THE TIMETABLE

A comparison of events in the middle of Mark’s and Luke’s Gospels

Sending out of the Twelve                (Mark 6:7-14)    (Luke 9:1-6)
Herod disturbed                                 (Mark 6:14-16)  (Luke 9:7-9)
Feeding of the five thousand           (Mark 6:30-44)  (Luke 9:10-17)
Syrophoenician woman in Tyre      (Mark 7:24-30)
Feeding of the four thousand          (Mark 8:1-10)
Baskets of fragments                       (Mark 8:19-21)
Peter’s declaration                            (Mark 8:27-30)  (Luke 9:18-20)
The Transfiguration                          (Mark 9:2-13)     (Luke 9:28-36)
A boy with an unclean spirit             (Mark 9:14-29)  (Luke 9:37-42)
In Galilee & Capernaum                  (Mark 9:30-41)  (Luke 9:43-50)
Preparing to go to Jerusalem                                      (Luke 9:51)
The Samaritan village                                                   (Luke 9:52-56)
Sending out of the Seventy                                           (Luke 10:1-12)
Coming into Judea                            (Mark 10:1)
Teaching about divorce                    (Mark 10:2-12)   (Luke 16:18)
Blessing the Children                       (Mark 10:13-16) (Luke 18:15-17)
To inherit eternal life                         (Mark 10:17-31)  (Luke 18:18-30)

 

 

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