In Matthew 14.13, after the death of John the Baptist “Jesus withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place.” Matthew 14-16 can be appropriately titled, “The Withdrawal of the King.”
The change has been coming ever since Jesus spoke His warning to the cities of Galilee in chapter 11, denouncing them for their failure to repent and turn to Him; He warned that it would be more bearable for the notoriously wicked cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom on the day of judgment than for them. Chapter 12 is almost entirely about the Pharisees and teachers of the law, with similarly strong words. Jesus called them a “brood of vipers” (v.34), the chief representatives of that “wicked and adulterous generation” that asks for a sign but will not come to faith (v.39). After this, Jesus began to teach in parables, saying that “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” must be kept from those whose hearts are calloused (Mt.13.11-15). At the end of that chapter He is rejected by the people of His own home city of Nazareth (vv.54-57). At the start of chapter 14 we read of Herod’s murder of John the Baptist and that John’s disciples reported John’s death to Jesus. It is at this point that we are told, “When Jesus heard this [what had happened], he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself.”
We might suppose at this point that Jesus would have no more dealings with the masses. But surprisingly, instead of rejecting the crowds, Jesus continues to teach those who want to be taught—and heal and feed them too!
Jesus had withdrawn to a remote area on the northeast corner of the Sea of Galilee, not far from Bethsaida, crossing to it from the western side by boat. He wanted to be alone with His disciples. But the people saw where He was heading, and many walked around the lake so that they were waiting for Him when He and His disciples landed. We are told that “he had compassion on them and healed their sick” (v. 14). In this way Matthew sets the stage for the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand that follows.
The feeding of this great crowd is the only miracle found in each of the four, so it must have made a tremendous impact on those who were present.
But we are studying Matthew, not one of the other Gospels, and we want to learn what Matthew is teaching through this incident. The first lesson is stated clearly: Jesus cares about people, especially those who are poor or suffering. Verse 14 says, “When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.”
There is probably more to it than this, however, important as the mere fact of Jesus’ compassion is. We should remember that Matthew makes some of his best points by the way he links incidents together, and if he is doing that here, we can hardly overlook the contrast between the party King Herod threw on his birthday for his friends and the party Jesus throws in the wilderness for the crowds. The first party is given by a king in his palace, the second by a Galilean preacher in the desert. The first was for the important people of this world, the second for the masses. The first was for Herod; it was his birthday. The second was centered on the crowds. The first was a drunken orgy, the second a pleasant country meal. The first was immoral; the high point was Salome’s provocative dance. The second followed holy, edifying teaching by the Lord. The first ended with the murder of John the Baptist, the second by the feeding of those who had no food. The first was for this world only; the second anticipated the heavenly marriage supper to which people from every tribe and nation are invited and to which the poor of many nations will come.
What explains this contrast? The answer is this: Herod cared for no one but himself – his actions were determined by his lust for power and a desire to save face before his friends – while Jesus cared for other people. Jesus took time to heal, teach, and feed them, even though His first desire was to be alone with His disciples and teach them. Jesus’ compassion for the masses is a reiterated theme in Matthew.
The first clear lesson of this story, therefore, is that Jesus cares for you, even though most of the other people in the world, especially the great and powerful people, do not. Most people who have power, prestige, or money do not care about others at all, even though they may pretend to, unless they have been saved and changed by Jesus Himself. Your coworkers probably do not care a great deal about you. Even your friends are more interested in themselves and their problems than about you and your problems. So why do you spend so much time worrying about what others think and so little time bringing your cares to Jesus?
Joseph Scriven’s poem of 1855 asks a good question and provides the correct answer:
Are we weak and heavy-laden,
Cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge –
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
Do thy friends despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In his arms he’ll take and shield thee;
Thou wilt find a solace there.
When we bring our problems to Jesus, we bring them to one who not only cares about us and is compassionate but who understands us and is able to help us in our need. Peter wrote, “…casting all your anxieties on him because he cares for you” (I Peter 5.7).