The Prerogatives of the Servant, Part 2
Topic: Gospels Passage: Mark 6:30–7:37
In last Sunday’s message, I pointed out that we are in a section of the Gospel of Mark where Jesus is taking His twelve disciples through a course of study designed to prepare them to carry on His ministry once He would be taken from them. The writer devotes the better part of four full chapters to this period of training, dividing them into three sections which might be likened to the three years of a seminary theological education. Although He obviously had many means at His disposal, it was Jesus’ prerogative to prepare His students in the manner in which He did. I trust that we will understand why.
As we have noted, there were three basic forms to Jesus’ pedagogical methodology: instruction, demonstration, and “on the job” training. Much—but not all—of His teaching was by way of story-telling, often in the form of parables which were meant to reveal truth to those ready to hear it while concealing it from those who were not. The validity of His message was then authenticated by the miracles that He performed in the presence of His students. And then, after having heard and observed their Mentor, these men-in-training were sent out on their own—two-by-two, actually—and vested with His authority to preach and to do what they had seen Him do.
And while their ministries might have been evaluated as “successful” in terms of measurable standards, it was clear that the formal education of the disciples was still not complete. There remained much for them to learn. They had given up a great deal in order to follow Jesus, but they had not yet fully counted the cost. Second-year students are traditionally known as “sophomores.” As you may know that word comes from two Greek terms which might be translated “wise fool.” It speaks of one who has accumulated a great deal of knowledge but has yet begun to discover its practical value. As we shall soon discover, that would be an appropriate designation for the disciples at this stage in their training.
The text we will be looking at this morning begins in verse 30 of Mark, chapter 6, and will take us through the end of chapter 7. Once again, this is a lengthy section, so we will be pausing along the way to highlight some of its more noteworthy features.
There are three major sections in this passage. The first includes a series of miracles in which Jesus continues to reveal His true identity to His disciples. Although they had been with Him for some time now, they remained slow to comprehend just who this Man was they had committed themselves to follow. Next we find a teaching section in which Jesus first engages in conflict with a group of religious scribes and then provides personal instruction for the disciples. And then in the final section we see two additional healing miracles which place something of an exclamation point on the entire passage.
In the first of these sections we again witness...
The demonstration of Divine authority (6:30-56)
We begin at verse 30 of chapter 6. Here we are told that Jesus’ twelve “apostles” have returned from their preaching tour, which began in verse 7, and they file a report with Him of what they had accomplished. No doubt they were excited in sharing their experiences with their Teacher. In fact, human nature being what it is, they may have been quite proud of themselves. After patiently listening to their accounts, Jesus says to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” We cannot say for certain how long they had been “on the road,” but when the text adds that “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat,” we can be quite sure that a little “R&R” would have been well received.
The “place” that is called “desolate” may be better described as “desert” or “wilderness” because that is what the word (“ερημοs”) means. I mention that because throughout Mark we find parallels with the Exodus story in the Old Testament. Jesus is presented as the “second Moses” who has come to deliver the people of God out5 of the “wilderness” and into the true “promised land.” If we miss that, then I believe we miss an important part of the story. As His Church, we have become the “new Israel.” Therefore, these stories are not irrelevant to us.
Nearly as soon as the disciples depart for their brief vacation, they are greeted by a crowd that had gathered from the surrounding area. We are not told the disciples’ reaction, but one can only imagine they were disappointed and there may have been more than a little grumbling. In contrast, we are told that Jesus “had compassion” on the multitude because, as verse 34 adds, “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” This familiar statement was an allusion to Numbers 27:17, a passage in which the Lord instructs Moses to appoint a new leader of the people in his place so that (and I quote) “the congregation of the LORD may not be as sheep that have no shepherd.” The leader in that day would be Joshua, but here Jesus is making the subtle claim that He is the ultimate fulfillment of that Scripture. He is the One who is the Great Shepherd of the sheep (cf. Hebrews 13:20). And He was about to show them His tender mercy by providing for them in the wilderness.
The story that Mark tells is a familiar one. We know it as “the feeding of the five thousand,” although there were obviously more than that there that day. Jesus had been teaching those who had come to hear Him and the day was getting late. The disciples urged Him to break up the gathering so that the people could find something to eat before nightfall. In verse 37, Jesus responds, “You give them something to eat.” The emphasis is on the pronoun “You,” and the implication is that they should have known by now how to minister to the needs of these hungry people. After all, hadn’t they just told Him of all that they had accomplished on their preaching tour?
Instead, they reason that they did not money enough to purchase food for a gathering of “five thousand men” and who knows how many women and children. Why, that would take a good eight month’s wages! Their knee-jerk response revealed that they had missed the point. So, it was time for another demonstration of divine authority. Asking what food supplies they had available, they reply that they had just five small loaves and two dried fish were available. For Jesus, of course, that was more than enough.
Commanding the large gathering to recline in groups on the grass, Jesus blessed the loaves and the fish and had the disciples distribute them among the people. And verse 42 adds, “They all ate and were satisfied.” And then we read that “They took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish.” Leftovers! These “baskets” would have been small lunch-sized containers such as one might carry on a journey. It is quitre likely that every disciple had his own, which would explain why “twelve” are mentioned. In other words, by the time this miraculous feeding occurred, each of the disciples’ “lunch pails” would have been filled with Jesus’ miraculous supply.
The question is sometimes asked whether the crowd would have noticed that a miracle had taken place. Perhaps they did, but that is not the point. This was another lesson in the training program of the apostles. Would they “get it” this time? We soon find out for “Immediately,” verse 45 says, Jesus “made them get into the boat and go before him to the other side to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd.”
Notice the wording, Jesus “made them get into the boat” while He stayed behind. In other words, He ordained and orchestrated the scene that was about to unfold. Again, we know the story, don’t we? It was late at night, the wind was against them, and the disciples struggled to row. We pick up the reading midway through verse 48: “And about the fourth watch of the night (which would have been after 3 a.m.) he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by (or beside) them, but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”
There is a reason the disciples didn’t recognize Jesus, and that is, they didn’t expect to see Him! But before we indict them, could the same not be said of us? Do we look for Jesus in unexpected places even when we call on Him? Take this morning, for example. We have invoked His presence among us, but do we really believe that He is here with us? Right now? This was another demonstration of Jesus’ power in the realm of nature. And yes, this was a real miracle. Jesus walked upon (“επι”) the water! The disciples were “terrified” to be sure, but they were also “utterly astounded.” Are we any different? Do we recognize His presence, or are the answers to our prayers mere “coincidence?”
The brief statement, “It is I,” translates the Greek phrase “εγω ειμι,” which is rendered throughout the Gospel of John and elsewhere as “I AM.” It conveys the name by which God revealed Himself to Moses at the burning bush (cf. Exodus 3:14), and here Jesus is applying that name to Himself. Jesus Christ is “the great I AM.”
Surely, in light of the feeding of the multitude and Jesus’ walking on the water, the disciples were beginning to comprehend everything more clearly, right? We would think so, but when we read verse 52, we realize that they were still pretty far away from completing their course of study. We are told, “They did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” In other words, they remained spiritually imperceptive. Once again, are we are more like the disciples than we imagine ourselves to be?
Chapter 6 concludes in verses 53 through 56 with a paragraph summarizing Jesus’ healing ministry in Galilee before advancing into other areas where His conflict with the religious leaders will resurface and intensify. So as we move into chapter 7, it should not surprise us that we find the Pharisees waiting for Him. And right away, they enter into...
The debate over religious defilement (7:1-23)
Back in chapter 2 we were informed of Jesus’ conflict with the scribes regarding the matters of religious fasting (cf. Mark 2:18-22) and Sabbath-observance (cf. Mark 2:23-3:6). Those prove to have been only the opening salvos in what would be an ongoing series of clashes. Of course, even back then we noted that they sought to rid themselves of Him. Here the debate is over “ritual cleansing.” In verses 1 through 13 of chapter 7 we find the repeated contrast between the “tradition of the elders” and the “commandment (or word) of God.”
A bit of background explanation is in order. While espousing themselves as caretakers to the Mosaic law, the scribes had actually circumvented God’s commandments by adding precepts and prohibitions that further burdened those to whom the law was intended to point to the Savior. And while their initial intentions may have been well conceived, many of these additions had morphed into absurdities. Take for example the matter of ritual washings, which was the issue being debated that day. Drawing from Alfred Edersheim’s Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Philip Hughes gives us this account, based on verses 3 and 4:
“They were washing all the time! Before meals they would pour a little water over their hands, elevating them slightly so the water would run down the wrist, and then rub their hands together. Next they would lower their hands and rinse them, allowing the water to run off their fingertips. This was just for meals. If they were returning from a place where they could be defiled, such as the marketplace, they went to greater extremes...(perhaps) they took a bath! When it came to washing the dishes, they really got carried away. The later Mishnah (which was a later rabbinic commentary) indicated something of the extremeness of their bent during Jesus’ time, for it devoted thirty-five pages to washing ‘vessels’ and other daily implements.”
Hughes goes on to relate the story of a rabbi who was excommunicated because he dared to eat bread before washing his hands, and of another who, while suffering imprisonment at the hands of the Romans, nearly died because he used his daily ration of drinking water to ritually wash!
In Jesus’ time, the matter of inner purity had taken a backseat to these external washings. Therefore, an earth-shaking collision was inevitable as Jesus—the Preacher of true righteousness—encountered the ceremonial theology of these religious leaders. Instead He taught the need for radical inner purity that could only be supplied by His life. No amount of ritual cleansing or other external religious acts are able to cleanse a person before God. To this day the need for us all is to forsake sin and to entrust ourselves to the merits of the perfect Savior, Jesus Himself. No degree of “religious” performance is able to cleanse us.
In citing the error of the scribes in verses 6 and 7, Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” And then in applying those words directly to His adversaries, Jesus adds, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men...You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to establish your tradition,” concluding in verse 13 with these words, “Thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.” Even the way they dishonored their father and mother in the name of God demonstrated their misunderstanding and mischaracterization of God’s Word. In this they were being two-faced, and Jesus does not hesitate to tell them so by labeling them “hypocrites.”
You an imagine, this would not have gone over well. Interestingly enough—at least on this occasion—the Pharisees are left speechless. In verse 15 Jesus turns to the crowd that had gathered to hear the debate and tells them, “There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” The crowd probably would have understood that statement in the same way that you did when you first heard it. So for clarity’s sake, He would later privately offer the explanation to His disciples that we find in verses 20 through 23. It was another of those private teaching sessions that in time would serve them well. He explained, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a person.”
What we find here are thirteen repulsive descriptors here which expose the darkened nature of the human heart. No wonder Jeremiah (17:9) had to admit, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” The list is thorough enough to include us all. None of us is able to escape its probing scrutiny. Somewhere within that register—perhaps multiple times—we see ourselves. Defilement is a matter of the heart, and no matter how hard we may try by “clean up our act” all we will ever do is “fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
The Pharisees’ problem was that though they had the Scriptures, they had a defective theology of man and sin. Because of that, they treated “symptoms” with their legalism rather than dealing with the root cause. To borrow from Matthew (23:25-26) and Luke (11:39-41), they made the outside of the cup clean but neglected the filthiness within. To state it plainly, external observance is no substitute for inward purity. Sad to say, there remain those among us who focus on outward conduct to the neglect of the heart. Is it any wonder that our spiritual lives are in the state they are?
A radical change in the human heart is what is needed. Repeated external washings or other religious exercises will not do it. Education will not do it. Resolutions will not do it. There is no power in the world that can make a bad heart good. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ can do that. Regeneration—a new life, what the Bible refers to as being “born again” (cf. John 3:3 and 7)—is the only answer to our most pressing need. David was right to pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10). And when we pray that prayer, the Lord is quick to respond as He did to Ezekiel (36:25-26), “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.”
Have you discovered that the Gospel Jesus proclaimed is radical to its core? A new birth, a new heart, a new creation...the Bible describes it in any number of ways. But it comes down to this essential truth, the world is desperately lost and it can only be redeemed by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. There is no other way. We may be able to do good things, but none of those things will change us in the way that we need to be changed. Only Jesus can do that.
As we move into the third and final section of this passage, we read of two incidents which further provide for us...
The display of Messianic credential (7:24-37)
These section places the exclamation point on what has gone before. Verse 24 tells us that the location has shifted. Jesus is now in “the region of Tyre and Sidon,” some forty miles northwest of Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee. Although He attempted to remain inconspicuous, we are told that “he could not be hidden.” While there He is approached by a woman, who implores Him to cast an “unclean spirit” from her daughter. The fact that she was a woman was noteworthy enough, since rarely did Jewish males speak publicly with women, but her being identified as a “Gentile” is even more significant, especially given the dialogue that follows.
Gentiles were considered “unclean” by the Jews, who frequently referred to them as “dogs.” In other words, she was despised by the Jewish religious establishment. No respectable rabbi would even think of carrying on a conversation with such a person. Even though the barrier between her and Jesus was great, she came to Him interceding on behalf of her daughter who was possessed with a demon.
His response to her in verse 27, at first glance, seems harsh—even cold and calloused: “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” What is not immediately recognized is that the word that Jesus uses for “dogs” is not the typical one the Jewish leaders would have used in describing Gentiles. The term here (“κυναριον”) refers to a domesticated house pet rather than a wild animal. In other words, it was kinder and gentler than what she was accustomed to hearing from a Jew.
This woman’s response reveals a degree of extraordinary faith. Unlike the disciples who, in spite of their closeness to Jesus often struggled to comprehend His figurative speech, she “got it” right away. “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Here was a Gentile woman whose knowledge of Jesus was far inferior to that of the disciples and many others, but her faith was strong enough to believe that He could respond to her most pressing request. Why, she even called Him “Lord.”
And Jesus did respond. We are told that without a word and at a distance, Jesus promised the woman that the child would be healed. And she was. In verse 30, we read that the woman “went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.”
In classic Markan style, the shift suddenly shifts again. Several months may now have passed. Jesus is back in the region near the Sea of Galilee. While there a group brought to Him “a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment,” and they requested that Jesus “lay his hand on him.” Interestingly, Jesus takes the afflicted man aside—away from the crowd—and heals him in a most unusual way. Thrusting His fingers into the man’s ears and touching his tongue with His own saliva, He spoke a single Aramaic word: “Ephphatha,” which means “Be opened.” It was the first sound this man had heard in years...perhaps ever. And at once the man was healed. The text says, “His ears were opened, (and) his tongue was released, and he spoke freely.”
The emphasis here, in contrast with the miracle we just saw, seems to be on Jesus’ touch. Have you noticed that our Savior never recoils from laying His hand on sinful humanity? He could have simply spoken a word or even just willed the man to be healed and it would have happened instantly. We just saw that. But remember, He is still teaching His disciples. They needed to understand—as do we—that there is little positive effect from Christian ministry that shies away from contact with sin and pain. Jesus is teaching His followers, then and now, that in order to be authentic our service for Him must be “hands on.” Our Lord could have ministered “by proxy” that day, asking Peter or James or John or one of the others to be His “surrogate hands.” But He didn’t. Neither did He offer to pay for the man go and see a physician. Instead He took time to reach out with a compassionate touch. And that is what we must be willing to do as well.
Once again “Jesus charged them to tell no one. But (as verse 36 reveals) the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.” Although we can understand the enthusiasm which the onlookers would have had, as well as the desire to tell others what had taken place, the more acclaim Jesus received the greater the opposition that mounted against Him.
The chapter concludes with the statement of the crowd, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf here and the mute speak.” This is actually an allusion to a passage in Isaiah (35:5-6) in which that prophet is providing a description of the Messianic age. By positioning it here, Mark is alerting us to the fact that the age has drawn near in the ministry of Jesus. “The kingdom of God is at hand.” The time has come to “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).
Our Lord is now but a year or so away from the cross and, as we shall see, the sides will become more and more polarized. In the process, the disciples will need to be taken through one more intense course. It will be the equivalent of their final year of training, and it will be for them a “make it or break it” time. They will be forced to decide...are they truly willing to follow Jesus or will what He requires of them be too demanding?
His “course requirements” are the same for us today. What’s more, He is pressing us for a decision that will alter the course of our lives. What’s more, it is the kind of commitment that a pagan, secular world must be able to see in us and not just hear about. We all know that the scent of hypocrisy can be smelled a mile away. If we are to accurately represent Jesus, then our witness of Him must be authentic and clear. Others have be able to see that we have been “with” Jesus (cf. Mark 3:13). Listening to sermons is good, but it is not enough. Reading the Bible and prayer are indispensable, but we must remember that the Lord calls us to live among the masses of people who need to know what we know...and, more importantly, to know the One we know.
Our training isn’t yet over, nor will it be until we surrender of “diploma” for a crown. Until then, we must continue to listen to His instruction, observe His demonstration, and follow His example. Nothing else will do.