The Prerogatives of the Servant, Part 3
Topic: Gospels Passage: Mark 8:1–9:1
Although Jesus never said the words, He may have very well thought of telling His disciples repeatedly, “It’s what you learn after you think you know it all that counts.”
As we have progressed through our recent study of Mark’s Gospel, we have observed that Jesus is taking His disciples through an extended training course in order to prepare them to carry on His ministry after He would be taken from them. As with many seminarians who have completed their first year or two of school, the Twelve were much more confident of the progress they believed they had made than their Teacher knew them to be.
Jesus is, of course, the Master Teacher. He is able to take the most unlikely pupils and transform them into those who are capable of carrying His message of salvation to the ends of the earth (cf. Acts 1:8). In words that His first disciples would later recall, Jesus told them, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).
The most important lessons that we learn in life have to be taught to us again and again before we can be said to have “mastered” them. And even then, we must keep reviewing lest we forget them. That is especially true for Christian disciples. “Following Christ” is not a one-time decision. It is rather a walk of faith that compels us (as Peter would later state it) to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 5:18).
As we enter into Mark, chapter 8 this morning several of the events we encounter bear a striking similarity to what we have already read in chapters 6 and 7. Consider for just a moment the following parallels:
|6:31-44||Feeding the Multitude||8:1-9|
|6:45-56||Crossing the Sea and Landing||8:10|
|7:1-23||Conflict with the Pharisees||8:11-13|
|7:24-30||Conversation about Bread||8:14-21|
|7:37||Confession of Faith||8:27-30|
These similarities have led some to presume that Mark was simply reporting two versions of the same stories. Based upon the equal number of differences between these two events, we know that is not the case. It is better to understand these parallels to reflect the disciples’ slowness to learn...as well as Jesus’ pattern of instruction and patience to teach.
Throughout His ministry Jesus encountered dullness of spiritual perceptiveness from many who heard Him. That was to some degree understandable on the part of the masses, but His disciples—those who had left all in order to follow Him—should have been better able to comprehend His message. To some degree they did, but in the first part of chapter 8 we find their...
Spiritual insensitivity exposed (8:1-26)
Let’s read verses 1 through 10 of chapter 8:
1 In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, 2 “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. 3 And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” 4 And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” 5 And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” 6 And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. 7 And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. 8 And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over seven baskets full. 9 And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. 10 And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.
As mentioned, there is enough dissimilarity between the two miraculous feeding accounts to demonstrate that this is a separate event. One of the most striking differences is the size of the crowd...five thousand in chapter 6, and four thousand here. Then there is the duration of their stay in the wilderness...one day there, and three days here. The amount of available bread and fish also differ in the two accounts, as well as the “leftover” totals. Furthermore, the verbal exchange between Jesus and His disciples as to how the crowd would be provided for is not the same. In the Mark 6 feeding the disciples raise the question of what is to be done, but in Mark 8 the initiative is taken by Jesus. Those differences aside, this event would seem to reprise the earlier one.
We cannot say how much time may have elapsed between the two feedings, but it certainly appears that the disciples were not anticipating a “repeat performance.” And there may have been a good reason for that. Given the location of the two events and the description of the “leftovers” that were collected, it is widely believed that the crowds were represented by two separate groups of individuals...namely Jews in chapter 7 and Gentiles here in chapter 8. The phrase that “some of them have come from far away” in verse 3 of chapter 8 would appear to support the interpretation that a non-Jewish crowd is in view.
It has been further pointed out that in the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus “commanded them all to sit down in groups...by hundreds and by fifties” (Mark 7:39-40), but here there is no such ordering. They are simply told to “sit on the ground.” Some have suggested that the earlier instructions would have reminded the gathering of Jews of how God had organized the Israelites by tribe in the days of their wilderness wandering under Moses. Similar symbolism would have been meaningless to a Gentile crowd.
What’s more, the twelve small baskets (“κοφινοs”) of leftover fragments in the first miracle would have been further symbolic of the twelve tribes of Israel, not to mention the twelve disciples. The seven larger baskets (“σπυριδοs”) in the latter account—and the author does use a different word—of “leftovers” may have symbolically suggested that Jesus was able to also meet the needs of those who were not a part of the Jewish family.
If it is indeed true that Gentiles are in view here in chapter 8, then the lesson the disciples needed to learn that day—even though there had been glimpses of it earlier, namely in Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman (cf. Mark 7:24-30)—was that His call to “Repent and believe...the gospel” was for all people...Jew and Gentile alike. What is necessary to see is that He was their Provider—just as He had been the Provider for the Jews in the earlier episode. It is noteworthy that both group are said to have been “satisfied” with Jesus’ provision. Jesus is the indiscriminate Provider of both the Jews and the Gentiles. Indeed, as the Apostle John would later write in both his Gospel and his first epistle, He is “the Savior of the world” (cf. John 4:42 and 1 John 4:14).
When we look at these two miracles together, I believe there are at least three things that Christ wanted His disciples (and us) to learn. First, He wanted them to see that He is the Bread of Life (cf. John 6), a meal far superior than the manna Moses gave their ancestors in their wilderness experience. Second, He wanted His disciples to understand that He was not just Bread for the Jews, but for all people. And third, He wanted them to recognize that His supply always meets and exceeds the demand. You and I would do well to reflect upon those same lessons when we come of the Lord’s Table in a short while.
No good deed of Jesus ever seems to go unchallenged by those whose hearts are hardened toward Him. No sooner had He and the disciples journeyed to the other side of the lake that He is once again confronted by the Pharisees. We read in verses 11 through 13:
11 The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. 12 And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” 13 And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.
The text says that they wanted to “test” Him, so they engaged Him in debate. But Jesus would not take the bait. “Show us a verifiable sign that you are who you say are. We need unmistakable proof.” Numerous “signs” has already been given, but such “signs” could never lead to faith. That was never their intent. Their purpose was to point to the words He spoke. Jesus never came to be a “miracle worker,” He came to bring the message of salvation. Paul would later write, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). And Jesus Himself would one day say that those who refuse to hear will not be convinced even “if someone should rise from the dead” (cf. Luke 16:31).
The Lord’s “deep sigh” was an expression of “great disappointment” and possibly “frustration” at the repeated disbelief on the part of those who knew the content of the Scriptures better than anyone. Not only did Jesus refuse their demand, but the text says that “he left them.” Those words bear a tragic note. I can think of nothing sadder than Jesus leaving anyone in their state of hardness, unable to believe and to receive the gift of life He came to give. Perhaps some of us need to heed that warning this morning.
Once again traversing the Sea of Galilee, the subject of bread again comes up. We are told in verse 14 that the disciples “had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them.” Perhaps they even pointed fingers and blamed one another for the oversight. I wonder if any of them even thought that one loaf among their small group was more than enough for the One who could feed thousands from seven loaves. So Jesus uses the occasion for another round of verbal instruction. We pick up the reading at verse 15:
15 And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out: beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” 16 And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. 17 And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?”
No doubt the disciples would have hung their heads like rebuked children, just as we would were our Savior to say those same words to us. Their spiritual insensitivity yet remained. He was not talking about “bread” at all! It was time for a review. Verse 18:
18 “Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
There is only One who can feed people in the wilderness, tread the waters into submission, deliver people from their brokenness. The Old Testament prophets foretold that these “signs” would accompany the promised Messiah. “Do you not yet understand?” “Do you still not realize that I am that One?” Despite having been “with” Jesus (cf. Mark 3:14) and studied at His feet for many months, they were still not ready to receive their diplomas. Their training was not yet complete. Perhaps one more demonstration of His Messianic authority would get them to where they needed to be. We resume our reading in verse 22:
22 And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. 23 And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” 24 And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees walking.” 25 Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”
This is the only “two-stage” miracle of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, and Mark is the only one of the Gospel-writers to include it. Our Lord’s miracles were more than events of healing. They were parables of spiritual reality. The progressive healing of this “blind man” is linked with Jesus’ immediately preceding conversation with the disciples. Just as the man’s physical sight is granted in stages, so the spiritual sight of the disciples would come gradually. Philip Hughes has provided a helpful explanation, when he writes,
“Regarding the salvation of souls, there no doubt is a millisecond when one crosses from unbelief to belief and into the kingdom of Heaven. But God does not always do things in a perceptible moment we can observe. At times we can see it, as with Paul on the Damascus Road, in a flash of light. But others receive a little light and then more until they see everything clearly.”
There is something else that should be pointed out in this story. The “blind man” did not come to Jesus on his own. He had friends who brought him to Jesus, believing that He could heal him. Who in your family or circle of friends and acquaintances is still “blind” to who Jesus is? Are you concerned enough about them to bring them to Jesus?
Our initial reaction to the disciples’ spiritual insensitivity is to “sigh deeply” as Jesus did with the Pharisees. But before we are too critical of them, let’s examine ourselves. We would like to think we are different, but are we? I don’t think so. We, too, must learn not to rely on “signs,” but rather walk by faith in Jesus’ words. We, too, must learn to look to Him to meet our every need. We, too, must avoid the leaven of false teaching that so permeates many churches today. And we, too, must allow Jesus to work as He wills and not according to our expectations. By His grace, may He overcome our slowness to learn and the hardness of our hearts.
But there is a bright side to their story...Jesus never gave up on them. It wasn’t that He saw “potential” in their natural abilities, but He did see what they would become when their course of study was complete and His Spirit took up residence within them. In time these Twelve (minus one) would lead a movement that “turned the world upside down” (cf. Acts 17:6). Clearly there was a turning point in their understanding, and that is what we begin to see in the remainder of chapter 8. Starting at verse 27, we find the disciples’...
Spiritual insight explored (8:27-9:1)
This section is introduced by the clearest expression of faith found to date in Mark’s Gospel. As we read verses 27 through 30, notice how our Lord draws out the confession of His followers:
27 And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” 30 And he strictly charged them to tell no one about them.
Whenever Jesus directly asked a question of His disciples it served as a springboard to a new level of learning. These men were now in the highest level of their personal apprenticeship with Jesus and it was critical for their spiritual perceptiveness to identify who He truly was. He could not explain to them the mission to which they were being called until they understood Him to be “the Christ.” They would need to know more, but they couldn’t proceed another step in their journey with Him until they got that straight.
Others may have been willing to attribute greatness to Jesus, but it is Peter who steps forward on behalf of the entire group of twelve with the clearest and boldest declaration of His identity. Mark’s record provides the condensed version...it is Matthew who records it in full: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
There it was! As with the man whose vision had been gradually restored, this was the flash of divine insight toward which all of the personalized instruction and miraculous demonstration over the past couple of years had been leading. He is the Christ, the fulfillment of the plan of redemption to which all of the Old Testament Scriptures pointed.
The term “Christ” is actually the Greek version of the Hebrew word, “Messiah.” The disciples’ confession that Jesus is the promised Messiah is point-on, but even with His identity established, His role remained a mystery to them. What kind of Messiah was He? Jesus begins to answer in verse 31:
31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.
By using the title “Son of Man,” Jesus is hearkening back to Daniel’s prophecy of the coming One who would establish an everlasting kingdom (cf. Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus was claiming to be that One, and the statement of faith on the part of the disciples recognized Him to be so. Mark would use that title in referring to Jesus a dozen more times in the second half of His Gospel. Could Jesus possibly be that “warrior-king” for whom the nation longed...the One who would cast off foreign rule and restore Israel’s long-anticipated “Golden Age”? If so, then what was all this talk about being “killed” and “rising again”? According to verse 32, He had “said this plainly” enough, but perhaps He had gone too far. So we read in that same verse that “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.” Never at a loss for words, Peter suggested that this was no way to gain a following. Who in their right mind would want to commit to following a man who believed His mission would lead to His death?
In response the Lord turns the tables on Peter, rebuking him in front of the entire group and saying with a forceful tone, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Two things need to be pointed out in Jesus’ rebuke. First, Jesus is not saying that Peter is the embodiment of the devil. The word “Satan” means “adversary,” or “one who stands as an opponent. According to Scripture, it was the will of God for Christ to die and be raised again. Anyone or anything that stood in the way of that happening was clearly acting in an adversarial role. And secondly, we know from the opening chapter of this book (Mark 1:12-13) that “Satan” himself approached Jesus in the wilderness with repeated inducements to sin, which would have disqualified Him from accomplishing His mission of going to the cross. At this moment in time, Peter—Jesus’ most trusted lieutenant—was unwittingly aligning himself with the archenemy’s purposes. Thus the necessity for Jesus’ harsh rebuke.
“I must suffer and die, Peter, for that is why I came. You cannot see that clearly now, but when I rise from the grave, you will.” But there was more that the disciples needed to see, and it was this: suffering was not only His destiny, but it would be theirs as well. They must hear and heed the words that close this chapter, and so must we. Pay careful attention to verses 34 and following, where we read these alarming words:
34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
We have reached the pivotal point of the book. Jesus is now leading His disciples to Jerusalem, where shortly He will be laying down His life. He has stated that clearly, and in the process of doing so has upped the cost of what it means to “follow” Him. It would be the most difficult lesson that they would be called upon to learn. But learn it they must.
“Discipleship” would mean “cross-bearing,” but not in the simple sense that we tend to use that term today. Jesus is not speaking of denying ourselves something. Instead, He is saying that we are to renounce ourselves by ceasing to make “self” the center of our being. “Cross-bearing” does not refer to some irritation or frustration in life. Rather, it involves “the way of the cross.” The picture is of a man, already condemned, required to carry his cross to the place of execution, just as Jesus would soon be required to do. It is a scene that those living in that day well understood. There was no confusion...it meant suffering and death.
Jesus was calling His disciples to the realization that suffering was not only His destiny, but theirs as well. You will notice that verses 35 through 38 are each introduced with the word “for” (“γαρ”). Together they state the personal consequences for following Jesus. It was His intention that those who “follow” Him should not be detached observers of His Passion, but that they grow in faith and understanding by participating in His sufferings.
It is only by way of the cross that we are able to fully understand why Jesus came miraculously as He did, lived sinlessly as He did, and suffered humiliatingly as He did. But suffering would lead to glory...His as well as ours. In Romans 8:17, Paul writes that we are “fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:17).
Soon Jesus would grant them a glimpse of His glory, for that is what He promises them in the first verse of chapter 9. It would be the greatest demonstration of Jesus’ Messianic authority to date. But before we ascend that mountain with Him, we need to pause for a moment and reflect on how this passage relates to us.
The theme of this entire passage has been upon spiritual understanding or the lack of it. It has been Jesus’ prerogative to take His disciples through an intense time of training in preparing them for the ministry that awaited them. Along the way, we have noted their slowness to learn and their hardness of heart. As you and I have traveled with them, it is quite likely that our own spiritual insensitivity has been and is being exposed. So far as we are willing to admit that and humble ourselves before Jesus, we are placed in the position of having our spiritual insight explored.
In this last section of Mark 8, our Lord laid down three marks of genuine discipleship. In the first place, the true disciple is the one who has surrendered himself completely to Christ. That implies much more than a “one time decision” that was made when you raised your hand, walked a church aisle, or prayed a prayer in the past. It speaks of a life that is committed to knowing Him and making Him known.
Second, the true disciple is the one who does not shy away from identifying with Christ in His suffering and death. That means being willing to endure hardship, affliction, persecution in every conceivable way for the sake of Jesus and His Gospel.
And third, the true disciple is the one who is willing to follow Christ wherever He leads. That means being willing to deny ourselves and take up our cross with each new day.
So, what are our crosses? I’m not talking about the ordinary trials or hardships that we face. We may be tempted to think of an irrational boss or an unfair teacher or a noisy neighbor as a “cross.” But they are not. Neither can we properly call an illness or even a disability as a “cross.” The “cross” of which Jesus speaks comes specifically from walking in His steps, embracing His life, and not shunning His death. It comes from bearing reproach on account of Him because we are on the path leading to where Jesus’ cross stands. It comes from living out the business and sexual ethic of Christ in our home, school, and workplace. It comes from embracing weakness instead of power. It comes from extending ourselves in difficult circumstances for the sake of the Gospel.
Our crosses come from and are proportionate to our dedication to Christ. Difficulties in life are not an indication of cross-bearing. Difficulties for the sake of Christ are! As we examine ourselves in light of this description, do we look like disciples of Jesus? Can others tell that we have been “with” Jesus, listening, observing, and serving. When all has been said and done, Jesus’ question remains, “Who do you say that I am?”