Review of the Present Section
[July 25, 2010] The Gospel according to Mark was originally narrated by the apostle Peter as he retold the Gospel to a Christian audience in Rome during the time of Nero’s persecution by weaving together the gospels of Matthew and Luke as a way of validating the newer Gospel according to Luke as another account of the Gospel in addition to the established Gospel according to Matthew. His speaking was recorded by scribes. Mark took this transcription and gave them their final published form after Peter’s death.
The stories in the Gospel according to Mark relate eyewitness testimonies of events—at many of which Peter himself was present—though the accounts themselves have almost always been adapted from Matthew and Luke, representing a blending of the two. Nevertheless, they have also been organized according to their typological and symbolic meanings to represent larger and more universal issues that were of interest to the original auditors (and thus to us). Because the ancient mind was far more associative than our modern literalist one, the immediate connections of these stories (as such) was more obvious to the first hearers than to us. Nevertheless, in these expositions we have been attempting to reconstruct these connections with the hope that in them we can hear more accurately the revelation of Christ conveyed through them.
We come now to the end of this section of the Gospel according to Mark (6:6b—8:26). In the first episode the Twelve were sent out, depicting the apostolic setting of the early church (6:6b-13). At the same time we are told of how Herod beheaded John the Baptist, representing the trivializing and hostile attitudes of the powers of the world that persecute the church (6:14-29). It is in this setting that the apostolic work—the mission of the church—takes place. The church in its mission in the world is thus like a boat caught in a threatening windstorm in the midst of the sea while Jesus is in the heavens interceding for it (6:45-52).
While the church seems to be in a precarious situation, Jesus is in the midst of it, being everything it needs (6:30-44, 53-56). Jesus manifests Himself as the great Provider, but more than that, He manifests Himself as the plenitude of God Himself. His own Person is this plenitude. He is the abundance of the Promised Land and—as such—He is the believers’ daily manna on their wilderness journey and their Sabbath rest. Believers celebrate His fullness to them in the weekly feast of the Lord’s Table. He Himself is all they need.
Not only does He satisfy them but He is more than enough. There are “leftovers” for the pagan Gentiles, i.e., for Gentiles unconverted to Judaism. Indeed, the surplus of Jesus is so great that the blessing for the Gentiles is no less than the blessing for Israel (6:43; 7:24—8:10).
Yet while this abundance is manifested in the midst of Israel, the Pharisees in their zeal for protecting the holiness of God are blind to it, and, more astonishingly, so are the disciples (7:1-23). In the mission of the church, the “zealous” among the Jews will attempt to protect God from the Gentiles enjoying the plenitude of God manifested in Jesus. And the disciples will continually be in doubt that the Person of Jesus really is present and is enough for their needs (see 6:52; 8:4).
Our Present Passage
With these themes in mind we approach the end of this section (8:11-26). The kingdom of God has not yet come except in the Person of Jesus. Yet Israel is deaf and blind to the Messiah in its midst. The church too, having embarked on the Gentile mission and being opposed by the powers of the world (represented by Herod) and by the zealous among the Jews (here the Pharisees), feels that it does not have enough to “get through.” It too does not seem to be aware of just Who it is that is in its midst. It sees (a little), yet while it sees, it only sees partially. There is hardness of heart in Israel, but also in the church.
Three stories—the manifestation of the Jesus as the abundance of God and as the overflowing of abundance in the feeding of the four thousand Gentiles, the deafness and blindness of the Pharisees to the signs of Jesus, and the deafness and blindness of the disciples on the boat trip to the other side—are framed by the healing of the deaf man and the healing of the blind man, making it clear that the theme is our inability to understand just who Jesus is in spite of His manifestations.
Preview of What the Next Section Discloses
The following section (8:27—10:52) discloses the cause of our inability and its cure. The cause is that the Person of Jesus cannot be understood apart from the cross and His taking the way of the cross. The cure is the “spit” (i.e., the Word) and the “laying on of hands” (i.e., identification). We cannot understand Jesus unless we hear the Word of the cross and ourselves take up the cross and follow Him on the way of the cross. What blinds us to the Person of Jesus is our hardness of heart, which is rooted in the assertion of the false life of the soul. Only the death of the soul will heal us of our hard-heartedness.
Within the Context of Apostolic Teaching
Jesus denied His soul—sinless though it was—by choosing for His own way the way that we need to travel, the way of the cross. By faithfulness to God under the entire weight of the judgment of God that falls on us—something which He chose to bear as His intercession to the Father on our behalf out of love for the Father—He bore our judgment unto the forgiveness of our sins, if we believe into Him. By believing into Him (and thus entering into union with Him), His life of faithfulness becomes our life and the way of the cross our way.
This—explicated by Paul—is only hinted at in the gospels until we get to the Gospel according to John. There Jesus breathes Himself (all that He is: His divine and human natures; His eternity and heavenliness, His time and earthiness; His virtues and perfections, and His acts and history, and attainments and obtainments) into us as the Holy Spirit that we receive when we believe into Him.
We digress; let us return to the Gospel according to Mark.
A Generation Incapable of Receiving a Sign (Mark 8:11-13)
As soon as Jesus performed the amazing sign of feeding the four thousand in the midst of the long established Gentile communities of the Decapolis, the Pharisees demand from Him a sign from heaven. In Matthew, Jesus promises them the sign of Jonah, which is the conversion of the Gentiles (after the prophet spent three days and nights in the belly of the great fish). But the “sign” is an offense to “this generation” (that is, the “zealous” among the Jews, represented by these Pharisees), those who would protect the holiness of God in Israel from being tainted by the presence of Gentiles. Jesus sighs with frustration, for the sign becomes a “no sign” to them.
They demand a sign from heaven. In John 6:30-31, after seeing the miracle of the loaves, they demand another sign before they would “see and believe” Him. Moses, they say, gave them bread out of heaven. Is this what the Pharisees mean by a “sign from heaven”? Jesus told them in John 6:32-36 that Moses did not give them the true bread out of heaven. He is the bread out of heaven that they seek, the Bread of Life that satisfies both hunger and thirst.
It seems that in Mark when Jesus said that “no sign shall be given to this generation” He does not mean that no objective sign would be given to the Jews but that subjectively there was no sign that “this generation” would be willing to receive as such. A “generation” refers not to a period of time or to a race of people but rather to people who share a particular mindset. In this case, the generation refers to those Jews who share the belief in “zeal,” that is, the ideal that they believed was embodied alike in the violent actions of Simeon and Levi in Genesis 34, of the Levites in Exodus 34, of Phinehas in Numbers 25, of Elijah in 1 Kings 18, of Judith and of the Maccabees. According to this ideal, the holiness of God—understood by them as the ritual purity of the Halakah—must be protected from being tainted, even by force if necessary.
Not Even the Disciples Yet Understand (8:14-21)
Jesus and the disciples set out across the sea again (representing the mission). But the disciples forgot to take more than one loaf. Jesus warns them to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod and they think that He is speaking of actual bread. He reprimands them for missing the point. Like the seed that fell among the thorns, they cannot hear the Word because they are preoccupied with the anxieties of the age. Their thoughts choke the Word before its meaning can get through to them. (Mark 4:18-19).
In Mark Jesus does not explain what the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod is. Leaven is the corruption that enables a loaf to grow—hypocrisy in Luke 12:1. While Matthew speaks of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees, Mark—who never mentions the Sadducees except in 12:18—instead speaks of the Pharisees and Herod. Herod forms part of the background here (in 6:14-29), and in Acts 12 Agrippa I (of the family of Herod) joins forces with the zealous Pharisees in opposing the Gentile mission. Thus both the Pharisees and Herod referred to in Mark 8:15 represent the “generation” mentioned in 8:12. They appear together in 3:6 and 12:13.
In Mark however the emphasis is on the fact that the disciples do not understand concerning the loaves that were multiplied for the five thousand and the four thousand and the twelve and seven baskets of leftover pieces. These are the central signs in this section, incomprehensible to the “generation” of Pharisees and Herodians and their followers. These signs manifest that Jesus is enough and more than enough—He is the plenitude and abundance of God of which there can be no limit. He is all they need. Yet they are worried that they do not have the resources they need to get to the “other side.” “Why are you reasoning because you have no bread?” Jesus asks.
Jesus expresses His frustration with them: “Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Do you have your heart hardened? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear?” We are reminded of the words in Isaiah 12 and Jesus’ application of them in Mark 4:11-12. The mystery of the kingdom of God (singular in Mark, referring to Jesus Himself as the drawing near of the kingdom; see 1:15) is given to the disciples. It is hidden from “those outside.” Yet here it is the disciples who do not see and hear, and whose heart is still hardened. They too do not understand the parables. The mystery can only be understood spiritually. If our understanding is only on the level of the soul, then we cannot perceive who Jesus is. We have physical ears, and our mind understands on various levels, but we still miss the reality. Only God can reveal it, and God reveals it to the spirit, not the mind. The mind can only interpret what the spirit receives indirectly, using the metaphors and figures of the physical senses and of language and ideas. Without the direct knowledge of the spirit, discursion concerning what is revealed cannot be understood.
“And do you not remember?” Jesus asks. Literally He is speaking of the loaves and the baskets of leftovers. The word “remember” however also reminds us of the Lord’s Supper in which we too “remember” our Lord Jesus. The recognition (epignosis) of Jesus that the “remembering” evokes is the same. It is not just the literal events that the disciples are asked to remember but their significance which continues into the present, whether the present moment in the story (when the disciples were in boat) or the present moment for the hearer (such as the present moment in our lives). The numbers of the multitudes have symbolic value— five and four thousand representing Israel and the Gentiles—as do the numbers of the surplus—twelve and seven representing completion and fullness. In the Lord’s Supper the church (of Jews and Gentiles) receives the fullness of Jesus fed to us in our hearing of the Gospel and our remembering Him in it. Every time we gather and remember Him we are reminded of how abundant He is. In His Person we receive the fullness of God through His humanity, that is, bodily (Colossians 2:9).
“Do you not yet understand?” Jesus asks. He asked His disciples, but He also asks us. The perception of His Person is spiritual. If we are still trying to see it only with our soul, we continue to be blind to it. This is always the struggle of the church—it was in Peter’s day and it is in our own. Our heart is hardened because our soul wants to survive. Our soul does not want to let go of its identity, to give itself up to death. Our soul attaches to things in a desperate attempt to sustain and secure its continuance. We harden our heart against the reality of Jesus because the reality of who He is will be the end of us.
Of course, the truth that we doubt is that this liberation from ourselves will really be the fullness of joy and the fulfillment that we sought in all that we have ever sought for. As Isaiah foretold, He is the hope of the Gentiles.
Enlightenment in Two Steps (8:22-26)
We come at last to the healing of our blindness in this unique story of the healing of the blind man. It is unique in that it is the only time in the four gospels in which Jesus’ healing of a person required that He touch the person twice, that the first touch did not complete the healing. This story, like the healing of the deaf man in 7:32-37, is not found in Matthew and Luke, making it special for the purposes of this gospel, and its placement is significant in coming after the foregoing frustration of Jesus with Israel and His disciples and before the confession of Peter.
The confession of Peter seems marvelous, at first, because it would seem as though Peter (and the other disciples) are finally “getting it” after all this time. The conclusion Peter draws is the right one, for it is announced in the first verse of the gospel. But we are disappointed in his understanding because immediately we see how incomplete it is when he takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke Him. Jesus cannot be known apart from the cross yet as soon as Jesus reveals the cross to His disciples in verse 31 Peter will not allow it. Peter sees—or so it seems from his confession—but very imperfectly. Like the blind man, his vision is pretty blurry. “I see men, for I see them as trees walking.”
Like Peter, we might understand a little. The spit of Jesus, associated as it is with Jesus’ tongue, represents His Word (or so it would seem to me). His Word opens our eyes and we see. And that gift of sight is genuine. We really do see, and therefore we can acknowledge that Jesus is the Christ—the unique One sent by God to fulfill all the promises of God. This is the condition of most believers.
After Jesus spat in the man’s eyes, He lays His hands on the man. This first laying on of hands—which represents Jesus’ identification with us (see how the laying on of hands functions in Leviticus)—gives us this first gift of sight. He bears our judgment on Himself and is faithful to God under the weight of our judgment, thus effecting the repentance that we owe to God, the repentance that would forgive our sins if we could render it. Being forgiven means that our spirit is cleansed and God can touch us there with the gift of sight.
But our vision is only partial. Without a further laying on of hands we misunderstand a great deal. To mistake a man for a walking tree is to be rather wide of the mark, yet this is what happens when we believe in Jesus. We should testify, and do so at once, but when we begin to speak on things that we do not understand we make fools of ourselves. The church is full of teachers who see a little of Jesus but who have no clarity of vision. They mistake trees and people. They make statements about Jesus that are way off the mark.
Jesus cannot be known apart from the death of the soul. He cannot be known apart from His own cross and His taking the way of the cross to His death and our own taking the way of the cross to the death of our soul. The loss of our soul through the denial of the self is the salvation of our soul (Mark 8:34-37; see James 1:21; 5:20; Hebrews 10:39; 1 Peter 1:9, 22; etc.). It is only on “the way” of the cross that we can see Jesus clearly. This is the meaning of the second “laying on of hands.” It is our identification with Him—on the way—through His union with us.
Discipleship is attaching ourselves to the Person of Jesus in relationship to Him. It is giving Him our loyalty and fidelity, that is, our faithfulness (our faith). We enter the sphere of His Person. More than that, we believe into Him so that the Scriptures then speak of us henceforth as “in Him.” Belief can only happen as a result of God’s grace acting on us through the Word. But for us who live after Easter, Christ Himself enters us as the Holy Spirit (the Persons of the Trinity, though face to face as Persons, completely indwell each other). This can happen because He enters us as One who bears our judgment as the medicine of our spirits, healing our relationship to God. The faith that results is the first laying on of hands.
Discipleship also needs to germinate and grow. This requires the second laying on of hands. As disciples we need to follow and enter the way of the cross. First, by faith we are found in Christ with a righteousness that is by the faithfulness of Christ. Being found in Him, we find Him in us. Then by entering into the fellowship of His suffering and thus becoming increasingly conformed to His death, we come to know more and more the power of His resurrection (His indwelling life). It is, moreover, only by this indwelling life that we can enter into the fellowship of His sufferings and become conformed to His death. (See Philippians 3:12.) In the end is the prize, the salvation of our souls and the inheritance of eternal life (of that indwelling life that has already been in our possession, in our spirits, since we first believed).
This story together with the healing of Bar Timaeus frames the section that follows.