After an interlude describing the death of John the Baptist, Mark picks up his account of Jesus’ ministry and records an encounter involving our Lord and the Twelve that occurred after the disciples had completed their preaching and healing ministry in Galilee (Mark 6:30–34; see vv. 7–13). In this record, we get a remarkable illustration of our Savior’s compassion. The narrative begins with Jesus’ being compassionate toward His disciples, calling them to rest because they have been so busy ministering that they have not had time to eat (vv. 30–31). Jesus does not call His servants to be superhuman and regularly forsake physical rest. He knows our need for recuperation and calls us to rest when necessary.
Mark’s account also shows Jesus’ tender care for men and women who were not part of His normal band of followers. Heeding Christ’s call to get away and rest, the disciples try to find a place to recuperate, but the renown of their and Jesus’ ministry makes it impossible. There are too many people, and there is no refuge from the crowds (vv. 32–34). Seeing this, Jesus has compassion on the crowds, for the people are “like sheep without a shepherd,” and so He begins to tend the flock of men, women, and children by teaching them.
Those who have seen sheep in person know that without a shepherd, sheep move about aimlessly, wandering here and there, getting lost, and generally paying little heed to the dangers around them. This is the spiritual state of the people in today’s passage, and we see that in Jesus’ actions to teach the people. The care they need is first and foremost guidance in truth by the Son of God.
Matthew Henry comments that the people in today’s passage have “none to lead and guide them in the right way, none to feed them with good doctrine.” A basic understanding of first-century Judaism bears this out. The leading council of the Jewish people, the Sanhedrin, consisted of men from two leading Jewish parties who were not sheltering the people from error or feeding them healthy food. One party, the Sadducees, advocated compromise with the Roman Empire, not encouraging the biblical hope for God’s deliverance that the prophets taught. The other party, the Pharisees, added to Scripture, focusing on unhealthy, man-made traditions over the life-giving food of the Word of God. Without proper guidance and care, the sheep were malnourished and lost, and the only solution was for Jesus to lead them and feed them.