He [Herod] sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick. ~Matthew 14:10-14
If you ever want to see the combination of Jesus’ deity and humanity, it is in this account.
His cousin, his partner in ministry, no doubt one of his dearest friends, had been beheaded. The voice that made straight the way in the wilderness had been silenced by a drunk, prideful man. It makes sense that Jesus would want to withdraw, be alone and grieve.
Yet, in the midst of his human grief, His divine compassion overruled and He healed their sick and eventually fed the 5,000.
The last couple of years I have experienced some things that made me want to withdraw and go to a desolate place, and I have looked at this passage several times to try to understand how Jesus dealt with hurt and exhaustion and grief in ministry.
But to really see that Jesus was dealing with more than just the loss of His cousin in this passage, take a moment and put this event in the context of the previous chapters in Matthew.
In Chapter 12, while Jesus was healing and teaching, he was repeatedly challenged and attacked by the Pharisees. He was helping people, and the “religious people” were working against him. I counsel people who deal with sexual brokenness, so I’ve been attacked by people who claim to speak for God. It’s painful, and it’s exhausting.
In Chapter 13, Jesus had been teaching some pretty intense things to his disciples. And they didn’t get it. Seven times he puts a parable before them in an attempt to explain the Kingdom of Heaven to them and, more times than not, He has to explain His explanation to them. And at the end of it all, they never got it. As a teacher, I know how frustrating and exhausting it can be to try to find a way to make something “click” with your students and nothing seems to work.
After all of this, He went home, to Nazareth. Surely, in His hometown, He would find rest and love and acceptance. Instead, it says his hometown folks were “astonished” and “offended” by His presence and teaching. Their unbelief literally drained him of his power and He could do no works in their presence.
This is the state of Jesus’ heart and mind when his disciples bring him the news about John. He experiences loss. In the last two years, I’ve witnessed and experienced loss. Literal, physical loss in the death of a student and, most recently, in the death of a dear friend and encourager in the ministry. I’ve watched families grieve loved ones and loss of homes after two series of devastating tornadoes. I’ve experienced the loss of relationships that have been near and dear to my heart that, from my current perspective, seem irreconcilably broken.
He is weary. And He wants to be alone. And so He withdraws to a desolate place.
I have been weary. I want to be alone, to withdraw to a desolate place.
But the needs follow Him.
And I feel like they follow me.
Don’t they always?
I think this is why those of us in ministry have such a hard time getting away and really resting in the Father. In the backs of our minds, we know there are always needs.
In my case, this is where the similarities with Jesus end. Same circumstances, different reactions.
When I am weary and I need to withdraw to be with the Father, I tell myself to get it together.
I keep my nose to the grindstone. And instead of having compassion on those who have needs, I begin to resent them. So now I am weary, frustrated, exhausted, hurt, grieving, and bitter.
What a servant.
I have read this passage so many times in the last three years and I’ve thought, “See, Jesus was tired, but He pressed through and He kept serving. Servants set aside their needs and help others.”
Oh, how the enemy deceived me with a sweet piece of Scripture, taken out of context and twisted to fit my prideful little Messiah complex.
Read the story in context with me. After Jesus feeds the 5,000, this is what comes next:
Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone… ~Mt 14:22-23
And notice that it doesn’t say “immediately the people realized how spent Jesus was, so they departed to let Him rest.”
He made them leave. He made His disciples leave first. Those with whom He worked.
Probably because they wanted Him to keep working.
Then He dismissed the people.
Then He went alone to be with the Father.
This is the lesson that the Father has been so patiently trying to teach me the last couple of years.
1. There are always going to be needs to meet.
2. As long as we say yes, people will continue to ask you to meet them.
3. If Jesus was weary, hurt and grieved to the point of withdrawing, why should I think I would be any different?
4. Only when we withdraw and allow the Father to heal us are we able to see His miracles in our lives. He cannot use a servant incapable of working.
Where do I see that fourth lesson? Check out what happens after Jesus spends that day alone with the Father.
And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” and they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” ~Mt 14:25-33
While it was undoubtedly cool to see their buddy Peter walking on water, and I can’t imagine what it was like to see the wind obey Jesus, I have to think that it was the culmination of all they had seen the previous few days that led to their declaration of Him being the Son of God.
To see Him respond with genuine human emotion to confusion, rejection, grief, and unceasing demands.
To watch Him display divine power in multiple miracles.
To witness His sovereign wisdom in saying “no” for a time in order to go be with the Father.
And then to see Him come to them, in a time of need, and begin serving again.
That is the example of our Savior.
That is an example that I have failed to see so often, and God has very recently and very literally reminded me that rest is necessary; for our hearts, our bodies, our minds.
And just like God did in the Old Testament, when He gave the land the 70 years of sabbath the Israelites had taken from it, when we don’t take that rest as He commands, He will often give it to us in humbling ways.
Learning to rest.
Learning to withdraw to desolate places.
Learning that it’s ok to take the time to grieve and to heal, just like Jesus did.
That’s what the Father is teaching me right now.
What is He teaching you?