I remember when I hit a wall on a short-term missions trip.
I think it was the lettuce that did it. I’m not sure, but they probably washed the lettuce in the tap water I had been so diligently avoiding. The result? A sleepless night spent traipsing back and forth between the poorly ventilated room I was sharing with six other guys and the only available bathroom three floors below.
As the sun was coming up, in my jet-lag exhaustion, I remember thinking, “This is not what I signed up for. I didn’t raise all this money and come all this way to be exhausted, sick, and stuck with a bunch of smelly guys.”
It’s not always as grim as that, but no mission trip ever goes as planned.
There are so many opportunities for things to go wrong. There is lost luggage and missed connections. The supplies you need for your project didn’t arrive or aren’t quite what you need. Folks that you like a lot back home end up getting on your nerves. Or you are simply overwhelmed by the deep needs of the people you came to serve.
You may be working at a mobile medical clinic, bringing healthcare to those who can’t get to the nearest town, and you’re overwhelmed by the poverty and disease you see.
You’re there to make a difference, to get things done, to be useful. But instead, you feel overwhelmed, stretched, and taxed. Things are not turning out the way expected.
What should you do? What can you do?
It’s okay. Jesus has plenty of experience dealing with frustrated and anxious hearts. Whenever we are called to do God’s work, Jesus will always show up to provide exactly what we need to do it.
Leading up to the events when Jesus fed the 5,000 (as told in John 6:1-16), Jesus and the disciples had been in a pretty intensive season of ministry. Jesus had sent them out in pairs on a short-term missions trip to preach and heal (Mark 6:1-13).
After reuniting, word of John the Baptist’s execution reached them (Matthew 14:12-13). But despite their sorrow, the ministry didn’t slow down at all. In fact, there were so many demands on their time that the disciples didn’t even have much time to eat!
So Jesus invites them to get away with Him for some much-needed rest (Mark 6:30-31). And that’s when things really start to get out of hand.
A crowd of 5,000 men, plus their families, track Jesus down and is quickly approaching. Jesus doesn’t seem fazed at all. He already knew what the crowd needed and what His disciples needed. The crowd needed bread; the disciples needed faith.
So instead of jumping into action, He turns to Philip and asks, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” As John points out, there is more to Jesus’s question than meets the eye.
In a sense, Jesus is offering Philip a very clear choice: “Philip, in light of the overwhelming situation we are facing, what are you going to do to meet everyone’s needs?” The text doesn’t tell us how Jesus asked the question, but it’s not hard to imagine Him having a bit of a twinkle in His eye. After all, the Creator of the sun, moon, and stars is standing right there. Surely coming up with a little bread isn’t going to be a problem.
But Philip’s response, much like my own, doesn’t offer a solution. It only highlights the impossibility of the situation.
That’s because Philip, much like me, looks to himself instead of looking to Jesus to provide.
Jesus knows that the crowd’s hunger, Philip’s finances, and Andrew’s offer of some tiny barely loaves and a dab of fish aren’t the issue. The issue is faith. Who are the disciples going to look to when the needs are real and the provisions are woefully inadequate?
Jesus is the only one who can see clearly that, more than bread, fish, money, solitude, or rest, what the disciples need most is Him.
He is their sustainer and provider. He alone can meet the needs of the crowd. He is their sustainer and provider. He alone can meet the needs of the crowd. He is their comfort and rest. In order to help them see what they had been missing, Jesus calmly tells His disciples to have everyone sit down. (I wish I could have seen the look on Philip’s face when Jesus said that!)
Then something quite miraculous happens.
Bread and fish start being given out—to everyone. What was completely impossible for the disciples—feeding the entire crowd—is no problem at all for Jesus. God’s provision for the things He calls us to do is always abundant when we look to Him in faith when we trust Him instead of relying on our own strengths, plans, abilities, provisions. There is so much food that, when it’s all said and done, there are 12 baskets of bread leftover. Jesus’s provision is lavish and generous. It’s never skimpy or barely enough.
And where does this leave the disciples?
Once they start to rely on Jesus’s provision instead of their own strength to meet people’s needs, they are given a high privilege indeed.
They get to see God at work up close. They get to be a conduit of God’s grace as they pass out the bread. They get to see people fed and transformed.
They get to see the difference between knowing that Jesus could provide, and experiencing His grace as does provide.
I’m not sure what Philip thought he was signing up for that day, but I’ll bet he got more than he bargained for.
This post is an excerpt from On Mission by Patric Knaak.
This daily devotional guide is designed to help you make the most of your trip through: spiritual preparation, Christ-centered reflections during the trip, and help for staying missionally-engaged when you return home. It’s suitable for audiences from high school students to adults.