Tuesday, November 27, 2007

From Blindness to Sight: Mark 8:22-26

Audio available here.

There are two miracles in Mark’s Gospel which are not recorded in any other Gospel. This is one of them, and the other is the healing we read about in Chapter 7, verses 31-37. Why the other Gospel writers did not tell these two stories is beyond our knowledge, but there are some interesting parallels between the two. In both stories, we have the perhaps surprising usage of saliva by Jesus; in both, Jesus interacts with a person who has completely lost one of their senses; in both stories, He leads the afflicted individual away from the crowd; in both, Jesus orders silence following the healing miracle. But one unique feature of the miracle here in Chapter 8 is that it occurs in progressive stages. In fact, it is the only miracle in the gospels to occur in stages. It is somewhat surprising that Mark would be the only one to give us this story, considering his frequent usage of the word immediately. Here a miracle is performed which is not effected immediately, but progressively.

Now, one may wonder, what is it about this case that necessitates healing in stages, rather than instantly as with every other healing miracle. This is the first case of blindness Jesus has encountered in Mark’s Gospel. Is blindness so difficult to cure that it takes two touches of Jesus to accomplish? That cannot be, for in the only other instance of blindness that Jesus heals in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus heals Bartimaeus without any touch, only a spoken word. So we are left to ask why Mark, and no other Gospel writer, has given us this story of this healing in two stages.
One obvious purpose of including this story is its messianic significance. Luke records for us a moment in time when John the Baptist sent two of his disciples to Jesus asking, “Are you the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?” Apparently, like everyone else, even John was becoming disillusioned about the fact that Jesus was not the kind of Messiah everyone was expecting. Jesus sent word back to John saying, “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the BLIND RECEIVE SIGHT, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the POOR HAVE THE GOSPEL PREACHED TO THEM. Blessed is he who does not take offense at Me." In stating these six signs, Jesus was referring to the explicit prophecies of the Old Testament that stated what would happen when Messiah came. Thus far in Mark’s Gospel, we have seen the lame walk (2:12; Isa 35:6); we have seen lepers cleansed (1:40; Isa 29:19); we have seen the deaf hear (7:37; Isa 35:5); the dead have been raised (5:42; Isa 61:3); the poor have been hearing the good news at every turn, and here finally we have seen the blind receive sight. And so we have a messianic purpose for including this story here. If Jesus is going to be shown to be the Messiah, then the stories of his healing the blind must be told.
But another, less apparent purpose of including this story is found by examining the context. Just prior to Jesus’ encounter with this blind man, we read a series of questions Jesus asks of his disciples. One of those questions is, “Having eyes, do you not see?” And of course, by this question, Jesus was not asking about their physical ability to see, but rather their ability to understand spiritual truth. A person who hears the teachings of Jesus but does not understand them is like a person who has eyes but cannot see. And the disciples have shown themselves to be spiritually dense on occasion, such as when Jesus was warning them against the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod, and they thought he was talking about bread. So they heard Him, but they didn’t understand Him. And Jesus asked if they had eyes but couldn’t see.

So in the providence of God, the next encounter that Jesus and the disciples had was with a man whose physical condition matched their spiritual condition. He had eyes, but could not see. And the two-stage process of healing this man physically parallels what Jesus will do spiritually for the disciples and for all of us in a spiritual way as He rids us of our spiritual blindness and makes us to see.

We begin by examining the initial condition …

I. The condition of blindness

Unlike the blind man whom Jesus healed in John 9, this one was not born blind. We know that because as his sight returns, he recognizes the shape of men, and compares them to the shape of trees. If he had been born blind, these would not be familiar to him – he would be seeing men and trees for the first time. At some point in his life, because of disease or injury or accident, this man had become blind. We can safely assume from the description of him that his condition was total blindness, the complete inability to perceive forms or light. He would be totally dependent on others to lead him from one place to another, unable to discern by his sight what is good and bad, safe and dangerous, clean and unclean, light and dark. His entire world was dark.

As it is for this man physically, so it is for humanity spiritually. We are spiritually blind in our natural state, and we are born that way. But humanity was not created that way. Just as this man became blind at some point in his lifetime, so humanity plunged from the abundant life of unimpeded fellowship with God to the darkness of spiritual death when sin entered at the fall. Now, because of spiritual blindness, we are unable to rightly perceive good and evil, sin and righteousness, truth and error. We are totally incapable of perceiving spiritual truth. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:4 that the minds of the unbelieving have been blinded so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. And as a blind man is dependent on the aid of another to get him from one place to another, so we are dependent on someone else to move us from our state of spiritual blindness into a state of seeing and perceiving spiritual truth. And like this man in our passage today, the only one who can help us is Jesus.

And so we move from the condition of blindness to …

II. The Entrance of Light

As Jesus confronts the blind man, we see that He takes him aside from the crowd. And so it is that each of us must personally interact with Christ. We cannot personally benefit from the faith of others. This man’s friends brought him to Jesus, but their faith was incapable of healing him. And so it is that we were brought by our Christian friends and family members to that place where we could deal with Him personally, but their faith could not save us. We each have to make an individual decision.

The next thing we notice is that Jesus spit on his eyes. Now, aside from the grossness of this, it is a really interesting feature of the story. For one thing, I believe it does much to affirm the authenticity of the story, for if this were written much later by people who wanted to concoct a believable story, I think this is probably not a detail they would have invented. And if the Gospels we have in our Bibles today were the product of centuries of redaction and editing, one would assume that this detail would have been omitted at some point along the journey. But the presence of this somewhat embarrassing detail of Jesus spitting on the man’s eyes goes along way in validating the historicity Gospel of Mark.

We have to plead ignorance here as to why Jesus used saliva. Ancient literature includes stories involving superstition and magic “where saliva was used as a curative agent,” as well as “mentions of its use in more normal medical practice.” The use of saliva by Jesus in Chapter 7, we saw, had more to do with sign-value, as Jesus spit to indicate the removal of the barrier to the man’s speech. We don’t know if it is used here for medicinal or symbolic reasons, but it is applied to the blind man’s eyes. Now as we draw parallels between the physical healing of this man’s blindness and the healing of our spiritual blindness, we can say that the saliva signifies that which comes from the mouth of Christ – His Word. And as His word is applied to our condition, light begins to enter. In Psalm 119:130, the Psalmist said, “The unfolding of Your words gives light,” and the imagery is that as the scroll of God’s word is unrolled, light breaks into the darkness. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 4:6, “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.”

After Jesus spit on the man’s eyes and touched him, He asked, “Do you see anything?” And the man said, “I see men.” Function has returned to his eyes and now he can see again. But his sight is not perfect yet. It is still a little fuzzy for he says that they look like trees walking around. And so it is for us and for the disciples, that when at first we are touched by Christ, light enters and we begin to see, but we are not yet seeing perfectly clear. Again the context will show this to be the case.

Just as Jesus asked the man, “Do you see anything?”, so He will soon ask the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And like a man whose eyes have been opened to spiritual truth for the first time, Peter will say, “You are the Christ.” But just as the men looked fuzzy like trees, so too Peter is able to see, but not clearly enough just yet. Immediately following his landmark confession of Jesus as the Christ, Jesus begins to tell the disciples about the suffering He will soon endure, and His death, and His resurrection. And the one who so boldly asserted Jesus to be the Christ is next seen taking Jesus aside and rebuking Him, causing Jesus to say, “Get behind me Satan, for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” So, Peter and the other disciples are starting to get it, but it isn’t perfectly clear yet. Their spiritual perception is still a little fuzzy.

And so it is for us as well. When the Word of God begins to dawn on blinded eyes, light begins to enter and things begin to take shape, but they aren’t yet clear. At some point, the eyes open enough to perceive Christ for who He is and the heart will trust Him for salvation. But there is still a clearer picture not seen. Still we must grow in our perception of Him and His Kingdom and His Word.
I can remember some conversations I had immediately following my conversion to Christ that I just thank God were not recorded! And unfortunately, there are about ten years of preaching that has been recorded, and let me tell you, some of it, you don’t want to hear. There are still plenty of days that I don’t see like I want to see. And the same is true for you as well. You are growing in your spiritual perception. Along the way, there have been plenty of times that the men looked like trees walking. But God is faithful in bringing us to a place of spiritual maturity, beyond the condition of blindness, beyond the entrance of light, to that place of …

III. The Clarity of Vision

In verse 25, this man who formerly could not see at all, and who recently saw men as if they were trees is now able to see everything clearly. And to what does He owe the transformation? He was brought from blindness to imperfect sight by the touch of Jesus. And he was brought from imperfect sight to clear vision also by the touch of Jesus. And like him, if the disciples are going to grow beyond their imperfect understanding of the Messiah and His kingdom, it is going to be by remaining close to Him and allowing His continual touch to transform their lives. With each parable and sermon they will hear, with each miracle they see, their spiritual perception will progress further. But it will still be imperfect. They will continue to buck the notion that Christ must die, and when the pressure is put on each of them, they will resort to treason, flight, and denial. But with the crucifixion and the resurrection, their focus is sharpened even more, and with the arrival of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, even more yet. And each day that they live in faithfulness and obedience to Christ, their spiritual vision is made clearer still, a process that will never end in this life.

But it continues just as it starts. It is by grace through faith. It is Christ alone working in us, transforming us, making us more and more like Himself as we abide in Him and walk faithfully with Him. Only He can shape us and open our eyes to see and perceive. Only He can lead us to spiritual maturity. And He will continue to do it throughout our lives. And the day of clear vision is coming. John tells us in 1 John 3 that when we see Him, we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is. This says to us two things. First, one day we will be able to have perfect spiritual perception. But that day will be when finally stand face to face with Christ. And second, not only our vision but our entire being will be transformed in that instant.

And so, we have gone a long way to answer a question – why, when all power and authority is at His disposal, does the Messiah Jesus heal this one man’s blindness in a different way than every other miracle He performs? Why does He heal this man in progressive stages rather than immediately? And it seems appropriate to say that He did so to illustrate physically with this man what He will do spiritually for the twelve and for us as well. We are blind. Our spiritual perception is utterly darkened. But His word goes forth from His mouth and light begins to enter. Sight comes to our eyes, imperfect at first, but ever moving toward sharper focus as we maintain contact with Christ.

C. S. Lewis once said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.” The blind man in our passage today might agree, and say that He believes in Jesus, not because he sees him, but because of Jesus, he sees everything else. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see.

An Interrogation of the Soul: Mark 8:14-21

Audio available here.

Surely all of us can that we know what it is like to have “one of those days.” On those days, it seems like nothing goes right, and we are met with one calamity after another. And on those days, our emotions are overloaded and molehills begin to look like mountains. Things that would ordinarily be no big deal compound the frustrations of the day and we tend to overreact in spite of the insignificance of the matter. Maybe I’m the only one, but I suspect we’ve all had those kinds of days.

I think the disciples of Jesus were having one of those days in the story we read here in these eight verses. They had a busy day just before this, with the feeding of the four thousand. Jesus miraculously multiplied the fish and loaves, but it still had to be served, and that was an arduous task for the disciples. And they had to clean it all up as well. Then they had sailed across the Sea of Galilee to the region of Dalmanutha, where they met up with some antagonistic Pharisees who demanded to see a sign from heaven to authenticate the ministry of Jesus. Perhaps they had hoped that He would show them one and vindicate Himself and silence the critics in one divine act. But He didn’t. Instead, now its back in the boat to go back again to the other side. They had just got out of the boat, and now they are headed right back to where they came from. And in the haste of it all, they forgot to pack food. They had no more than one loaf of bread with them. Now, we tend to think that a loaf of bread ought to be sufficient for 13 people, but these were not loaves of bread like we use (no sliced Merita bread; no big long loaf of French bread; nothing like that). The loaves which were commonly used by Jewish people in those days were flattened cakes of unleavened bread – if you’ve ever seen a matzah, you get the idea. If not, think in terms of a cracker about the size of a small pizza crust. One of these would not suffice to satisfy the appetites of 13 hungry men. And besides that, Mark doesn’t say that they had one loaf, he says that they had no more than one loaf. They might have had a portion of a loaf, or none at all, but whatever they had, it was no more than a loaf.

Apparently Jesus knew that some of them were thinking about this. In Mark 2:18, we read that Jesus was aware in His spirit of the reasonings of others, and so it may have been here that He knew what they were thinking about. And seizing on a teachable moment, Jesus says to them, “Watch out! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” This was a parabolic saying. The point is really not about bread at all. Leaven is a common symbol in Scripture of corruption. A little pinch of leaven works its way through an entire batch of dough making the whole loaf rise. Similarly, corruption spreads rapidly and can ferment everything it contacts. So the point of the saying here is that the disciples need to be on their guard against the corruption of the Pharisees and of Herod.

What is this corruption of which Jesus speaks? There are very few common denominators between the Pharisees and Herod, but one point of commonality which they share is opposition to Jesus. Now the disciples are not opposed to Jesus, so why is this warning necessary? It is in order because the opposition to Jesus in the Pharisees and in Herod was not born fully grown. It rises out of unbelief. They are opposed to Jesus because they don’t believe in Him. And their unbelief stems from different sources.

The Pharisees unbelief comes from their religious legalism. Religion for them is no longer about knowing God and living in a personal relationship with Him. It is about meticulous rule-keeping. So meticulous are there regulations that there is no area of life which is left untouched. And in place of an internal spirituality that produces joy and love in fellowship with God and the community of faith, the Pharisees are shackled with the minutia of external traditions, many of which have no basis whatsoever in the Word of God. And Jesus has come along challenging those traditions, and violating many of them. In their eyes, no true servant of God could do such things and say such things as He has. And so rather than examining Him in light of the Word of God and seeing that He is the promised Messiah, they have scrutinized Him under the lens of their legalistic traditions, and rejected Him as a fraud. He doesn’t meet their expectations; He isn’t the kind of Messiah they are looking for, and therefore, He must be no Messiah at all. The leaven of the Pharisees is unbelief that stems from legalism.

The leaven of Herod also has to do with unbelief, but no one would ever accuse Herod of being legalistic in matters of religion. His unbelief comes from a different source. His unbelief is rooted in his worldliness. You may recall from our discussion on Mark 6:14-29 that Herod had stolen his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. John the Baptist had been preaching against Herod’s sins, saying often and to his face that this was not right for him to have his brother’s wife. And then there came that night which the Bible says was a strategic opportunity for Herodias to silence the voice of the preacher for good. It was in the midst of the drunken debaucheries of Herod’s birthday party that Herodias sent her daughter in to dance for the men, and so inflamed with lust was Herod that he granted the young dancer whatever she wished. And her mother conspired with her to ask for the head of John the Baptist, and so it was done. These glimpses into the life of Herod Antipas are enough to demonstrate to us that this was a man who did not live by principle, except for the principle of his own pleasure. His near absolute power as an appointee of Rome afforded him much luxury and many opportunities to satisfy his own desires. And anyone or anything that posed a threat to his pleasure and power was a threat that needed to be eliminated. So when Jesus’ popularity began increasing in Herod’s territory, his loyal followers, the Herodians, were quick to join in league with the Pharisees to squash the threat.

Because the disciples were perhaps growing disillusioned with Jesus – He refused to overthrow the government and refused to perform signs on demand to prove Himself—Jesus gave them this warning. Watch out! Don’t let unbelief creep into your hearts that will lead to your rejection of Me, like it has for Herod and the Pharisees. But the disciples cannot hear the point of this saying over the sound of their growling stomachs. And so a discussion erupts among them about their lack of bread. Jesus is talking about leaven, or yeast, and hey, speaking of yeast, we don’t have any bread! Now, ordinarily, this is no big deal. The trip across the lake isn’t that far, and they are not near the point of fatal starvation. But this has been “one of those days,” and now the lack of bread becomes a major point of contention among the disciples. You can hear them now, can’t you? “OK, who’s the wise guy who forgot to pack the food? Who ate all the bread? What are we going to do? We can’t get bread out here in the middle of the lake.” Never mind that many of these guys are experienced fishermen; that doesn’t even enter their minds. They totally missed the point of what Jesus was saying.

And so, aware that this little squabble is erupting, Jesus speaks again in verse 17. And from verses 17 to 21, He asks a total of nine probing questions. And this barrage of questions becomes an interrogation of the soul. Now I would like for us to consider these questions and apply them to our own lives, for like these disciples, we are prone to grumble and complain when things don’t go to suit us. We are inclined to overreact to insignificant matters as well, to become frustrated when the providence of God places us in less than perfect circumstances. And so with these same questions, the Word of God will interrogate our own souls as well. Let us consider these questions under three headings.

I. Where is your focus? (v17 – Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread?)

With this single question, Jesus ends discussion on the lunch menu and points to the deeper issue of priority for the disciples. They are so preoccupied with temporal concerns that they cannot for a moment contemplate eternal matters and consider the teaching that Jesus has just set before them. So driven are they by their physical appetites that the mere mention of leaven signals a Pavlovian response in their bellies to consider what’s for lunch. In just a short time, they will be on the other shore, and there they can go to the Golden Corral or McDonalds or whatever suits their fancy, but here they have the benefit of a private audience with Jesus and they take it for granted. They could be learning lessons of eternal spiritual value, but instead, they are grumbling about the situation with the bread.

So it often is in our lives. We find ourselves in undesirable circumstances, and like a reflex, we grumble and complain. Where is our focus? It is on comfort, pleasure, physical desires? Can these matters not be delayed temporarily so that our focus might be redirected to Christ and His Kingdom agenda? If we can only redirect that focus, then we might realize that in the midst of these circumstances, He is trying to teach us something. Is He warning of us of some danger to our spiritual well-being, is He edifying us by teaching us to depend upon Him more, is He reminding us of His sufficiency for our needs? As long as our focus is earth-bound, we won’t hear it – we will just continue to wallow in our own discomfort and displeasure, looking for someone to blame and somehow finding a way to blame it all on God.

So, the next time things aren’t going just as you wish they would, let this question pierce your heart – Where is your focus? Why are you discussing bread? Is there a lesson God is trying to teach you in the midst of your hunger, your exhaustion, your frustration, your poverty, whatever the circumstances may be? Unless Christ is the sole object of our focus, we will miss those lessons every time.

Second question …

II. How are your spiritual faculties? (vv17-18)

With a battery of questions concerning their ability to perceive spiritual truth, the interrogation continues:

· Do you not yet see or understand?

· Do you have a hardened heart?

· Having eyes do you not see?

· Having ears do you not hear?

After all they have seen and heard in the time they have spent with Jesus, these guys still don’t get it. These questions echo statements that have already been made by Jesus concerning those on the outside – the Pharisees, the scribes, the Herodians, and others who have not comprehended who Jesus is or what He’s come to do. Earlier, Jesus told the disciples that they had been given understanding into the mystery of the kingdom of God, while everyone else would only receive parables, “so that while seeing, they may see and not perceive, and while hearing, they may hear and not understand.” The Pharisees grieved Jesus at the synagogue in Chapter 3 because of their hard hearts. The disciples also demonstrated hardness of heart after the feeding of the 5,000 when Jesus came walking to them across the surface of the water, and they could not perceive it was Him; they thought it was a ghost.

These are the ones who should be able to see, to understand, to hear. These are the ones whose hearts ought to have been plowed most deeply and softened to receive the spiritual truth that Jesus desires to convey. But, alas, their focus on their own appetites over the matters of the Kingdom reveal that their faculties are just as disabled as those who are opposing Jesus at every turn. If this remains unchecked, then they will succumb to the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod, and will be contaminated by their unbelief before their faith becomes full-grown.

This problem is not isolated among the disciples. The Apostle Paul will confront the same conditions among the Corinthians. Turn over to 1 Corinthians 3. Notice that he says to them in verses 1 and 2 that when he first came to introduce them to the gospel, and to begin to instruct them in the basics of the Christian faith, “I could not speak to you as spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it.” That is understandable. They were coming to faith from a pagan background, they had no knowledge of the things of God, and so Paul had to spoon feed them, as it were, giving them milk (basic, simple instruction) rather than the solid food of the deep things of God. But the tragedy is that he goes on to say, “Even now you are not yet able.” Several years after they had first come to faith in Christ, they were still unable to move past the milk to the solid food. Why? Paul says in v3, “for you are still fleshly.” That is another way of saying that they are carnal, they are focused on their own desires moreso than Christ. And therefore, they are unable to see, to hear, to understand, the spiritual truth that they so desperately need to move into Christian maturity.

The writer of Hebrews also confronted this problem in that letter. Turn to Hebrews 5. In verse 11, the writer says, “Concerning Him [that is, concerning Christ], we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.” See, their spiritual faculties are hindering their ability to receive spiritual truth. But these are not new Christians or non-Christians, for he says in v12-14, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.”

And the fact remains that churches in our own day are hindered by the self-centered attitudes of many who have been Christians for a long time, but have never matured in their faith, never moved past the milk to the solid meat of God’s word. And therefore, their ability to perceive, to see and hear, to understand the things of God is warped because it has not been developed. And in some cases, rather than acknowledging this and pursuing growth and maturity, their hearts harden and they become anchored in their immature faith unwilling to progress an inch in their understanding of the ways of God.

And so we have two questions set before us: (1) Where is your focus? and (2) How are your spiritual faculties? But as we return to Mark 8:18-21, we find one more question in this interrogation of the soul.

III. Have you forgotten? (vv18-21)

Jesus here gives the disciples a brief reminder of two previous experiences they have had with Him. “Do you not remember when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand?” Do you not remember when four thousand were fed with seven loaves? How many loaves were left over? They are able to recall that it was twelve in the first instance, and seven in the second. And Jesus asks them, “Do you not yet understand?”

Here are the disciples grumbling about bread, all the while in the boat with the One who has fed more than 9,000 people (remember that those numbers only included the men, not counting women and children, so a total probably near 35-40,000) with only twelve loaves, and having nineteen baskets full of leftovers. If they were not so concerned with their own comfort and their own appetite, then they would recognize that Christ is sufficient for all their life’s needs. What is the big deal with twelve people hungry and not much bread to feed them all with? Here in the boat sits one who has fed many more, can He not feed these as well? Will they not trust Him to? How soon they have forgotten the wonders He has wrought.

I don’t mean to minimize the problems that any person here may be going through. But neither do I want the magnitude of those problems to minimize the sufficiency of Christ to meet your needs. So here’s what you do. The next time you are concerned with an uncomfortable circumstance in your life, maybe it’s even today, here’s what you do. Go and stand in front of a mirror. And then watch yourself as you say these words, “Poor me. My problems are so great! So terrible are my problems that even Jesus Christ cannot remedy them.” And then just laugh. What problem do you have that He cannot change? He does not always promise that we will have it easy, but He promises to always be with us, and if He is with us, then nothing is too difficult to overcome. Remember the blessings He has provided in the past for you, and for others. Remember the miracles He has performed in His word. Remember His promises of presence, protection, and provision. And trust Him as the all-sufficient God He is to meet your needs.

Does this mean that if you are poor, He will make you rich? Does it mean that if you are hungry, He will make you full? Does it mean that if you are sick, He will make you healthy? While nothing is impossible with God, certainly He does not always act in this way. Sometimes He may change your circumstances, but more often, if you are willing, He will change you in the midst of the circumstance, so that your focus is redirected, your spiritual faculties are redeveloped, and you are able to rejoice in Him in the midst of whatever circumstance you find yourself in. In Philippians 4:13, Paul says, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” And the “all things” means even enduring unpleasant circumstances for a season knowing His presence is with you, and His power is at work through you. In the preceding verses, Paul said, “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.” And what is the secret? “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

Christ is sufficient for the needs of your life. But how quickly we forget that! How dull are our spiritual senses that we often do not perceive it! How misdirected is our focus that all we see is the problem, without seeing Him as the ultimate provision. So there comes a need from time to time for an interrogation of the soul. And as the questions are asked, we are refocused, redirected, redeveloped and rededicated in our personal walk with Him.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Mark 8:10-13 > Seeking a Sign From Heaven

Audio available by right-clicking here, or on the podcast on iTunes.

Following the miraculous feeding of the four thousand in the preceding passage, Jesus and His disciples set out across the sea of Galilee to the district of Dalmanutha. This is the only mention of Dalmanutha in the Bible, and in fact, the only occurrence of this place in all extant ancient literature. The precise location of this place is therefore unknown, but we are helped by comparing Mark’s account with Matthew’s for Matthew says that they came to the “region of Magadan.” We can infer from this that Dalmanutha was either very near to Magadan, or else was another name for the same place. The underlying Hebrew root of Dalmanutha means “wall,” and Magadan was located directly below the cliff of Arbel, which formed a natural wall overlooking the western shore of the lake.

We don’t know how long Jesus had been there before the confrontation that unfolds in this passage takes place. It may be that He had moved on from Dalmanutha by this time. But at some point the Pharisees came out to confront Jesus once again. And in the brief narrative of this confrontation we see an inappropriate request and an intriguing refusal.

I. The Inappropriate Request to See a Sign (v11)

It is really not so much a request as it is a demand. Nearly every word or phrase in this verse is packed with meaning as to the inappropriateness of their sign-seeking. We begin by noticing …

A. The Makers of the Request – The Pharisees

The Pharisees have been mentioned several times already in Mark’s Gospel, and the picture we see of them is not a flattering one. The party of the Pharisees came into being during what we call “the intertestamental period” of Israel’s history, that 400 year period between the end of the Old Testament record and the birth of Jesus. They were a group of religious and political separatists who strove for purity and uniformity of doctrine by imposing upon the nation the tedious rules and regulations handed down by generations of scribes. The Pharisees considered these rules and traditions as authoritative as the Word of God and were so meticulous that there was no room for differences in interpretation. Whatever the scribes said a text meant was what it meant in their eyes, and there was no debating it. And so, under their influence, Jewish religion ceased to be an internal matter of faith and repentance, and became more of a system of external rituals and regulations.

They first surface in Mark’s Gospel in Chapter 2 where they questioned Jesus’ practice of hanging out with people they considered to be reprobate sinners. Their regulations demanded strict separation from the types of people Jesus with whom Jesus was in regular contact. Then they began to interrogate Him about why His disciples did not fast the way they did, and why He did not observe their meticulous Sabbath regulations. In Chapter 3, they planted a man in the synagogue in order to see if Jesus would heal the man on the Sabbath, and Mark tells us it was “so that they might accuse Him.” After Jesus healed the man, Mark tells us that the Pharisees began to conspire with the Herodians (who would not normally be their allies) about how they might destroy Jesus. We next see them in Chapter 7 when they took issue with Jesus over the issue of ritual cleanness. It was there that Jesus applied to them the Word of God found in Isaiah, saying, “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me. But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.” Jesus says of the Pharisees that they set aside the commandment of God in order to keep their own traditions. He says that they invalidate the Word of God by their traditions which they hand down.

Probably still seething from that railing indictment, they now come out to Jesus seeking a sign from heaven. Matthew tells us in his account of this episode that some Sadducees came with them. The Pharisees and Sadducees are not friends. There are deep political and religious differences between them. But, as we saw with the Herodians in Chapter 3, a common enemy can make rivals into cobelligerents for the purpose of eliminating the threat. Now, Jesus has already demonstrated that He does not have to answer to these guys. They think they are the spiritual supervisors of Israel, but Jesus has said that their hearts are far from God and they have discarded the Word of God. So, one wonders, if He granted them a sign, how would they know? They have no internal relationship with God whereby they can discern a sign, and no grasp of the Word of God whereby they might understand the sign.

Then notice …

B. The Method of the Request – The Pharisees came out and began to argue with Him

This was no casual or chance encounter. There is intentionality and deliberateness in their coming. And they came for a purpose – to argue with Him. These were not curious inquirers seeking to have a rational discourse. They came for a fight. There is animosity in their approach to Jesus.

C. The Manner of the Request – Seeking a sign from heaven

What sign would be sufficient to convince such men? Jesus has restored the disabled, healed the sick, cleansed lepers, cast out demons, stilled a storm, miraculously fed the hungry masses, and even raised the dead. He has fulfilled the biblical prophecies of the mission of the Messiah. In Isaiah 61, the Messianic servant announces, “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners.” God the Father speaks to the Messianic servant in Isaiah 42, saying, “"I am the LORD, I have called You in righteousness, I will also hold You by the hand and watch over You, And I will appoint You as a covenant to the people, As a light to the nations, To open blind eyes, To bring out prisoners from the dungeon And those who dwell in darkness from the prison.” In Isaiah 35, we read that when He comes, “Then the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped. Then the lame will leap like a deer, And the tongue of the mute will shout for joy.” All of this, Jesus has done, and He has clearly demonstrated Himself to be this promised Messiah. But for the Pharisees, this is not enough. They come as if to say, “What else have you got?”

A sign from heaven implies that they want to see something more spectacular. After all, the miracles He has done have been rather earth-bound. They have involved natural processes. He has made the lame to walk by making their crippled legs functional again, sure, but He has never caused new legs to grow where before there were none. He has multiplied bread, but He hasn’t caused manna to form on the ground. He has not caused the sun to stand still. Lightning doesn’t flash forth from his finger tips. Thunder has not clapped in response to His command. They want to see or hear some apocalyptic celestial phenomenon that would be proof-positive that God’s favor rests upon Jesus.

By this request, the Pharisees have rejected all His previous miracles as spurious and unconvincing. Their hearts are hard and their eyes are blind to the truth.

Now notice …

D. The Motive of the Request – to test Him

They are not looking to be persuaded into belief, but rather to persuade others out of belief. Their motive is to catch Jesus in a dilemma. They hoped that He might attempt some mighty deed. If he did, they were confident He would fail, and be exposed publicly as an imposter in the eyes of all those who were putting their hope and trust in Him. If He refused to perform some sign, then it would be regarded as a cowardly admission that He was not the Messiah. Either way, in the minds of the Pharisees, they would win the argument and cause Jesus to lose popular support.

It is interesting that this word translated test is the same Greek word that is used to describe Satan’s temptations of Jesus in the wilderness in Mark 1:13. Mark will go on to use the word three times to describe the opposition of the Pharisees to Jesus (here in 8:11; 10:2; and 12:15). By using this term to describe their motive Mark is clearly trying to show that these who claim to be such faithful servants of God are actually in league with Satan, seeking to thwart to the mission of the Messiah and prevent the salvation of God from coming to those who would receive it.

Now we have gone into such detail to unpack this verse because the Pharisees who approach Jesus here (together with the Sadducees that Matthew mentions) are not unlike many who we encounter today. There are those whose hearts are hard and distant from God, whose eyes are blind to spiritual truth, and yet who believe that they can demand of God their own terms by which they might come to Him. Believing that they have a bird’s eye view of reality, they think they can objectively process the information presented to them and make a sound decision based on evidences alone. They don’t approach Christians to have intelligent dialogue about our beliefs and practices. They come to argue, they come to tempt, to persuade us to their viewpoint. They may say that they want proof, but what they really want is to show that we have no proof for our beliefs.

I was there at one point in my life. I remember one occasion when a Christian girl was trying to witness to me on a high school field trip, and I said to her, “If you really want me to believe, then why don’t you ask God to knock over a tree right now or write me a message in the clouds to prove Himself to me?” Now, I don’t know what I would have said if a tree had fallen at that moment or if words appeared suddenly in the clouds, but I do know this, I would not have believed. I would have come up with another explanation for the sign, because I did not want to believe. I had made a volitional decision that I would not be convinced of God’s existence no matter what arguments or evidence I was presented with. And I remember like it was yesterday that girl’s words to me. She said, “Who do you think you are that you deserve for God to give you a special sign? Do you think you are more important than the rest of the world? Do you think you are so special that God would do all that just for you?” And then she said, “God has given you the opportunity to believe because He loves you. If you reject Him, it is your loss, not His.” And I just laughed and told her that she was copping-out, but the reason that conversation stands out so vividly in my mind is that for the next few years, her words nagged at my conscience. And shortly after I came to faith in Christ, I ran into her at a restaurant and told her that I was a Christian now, and I wish you could have seen the look on her face.

At seminary, I chose Christian Apologetics as my concentration for my Master of Divinity degree. I love studying evidences and arguments for the Christian faith. I love to talk about it and debate with others about it. But I can tell you that Apologetics is not a sledgehammer that we can beat someone over the head with and drag them into the Kingdom of God. Unbelief is a volitional commitment that people make on the basis of their own presuppositions. Apologetics can demonstrate the holes in their presuppositions and give intellectual credibility to our beliefs, and therefore we need to know how to have those conversations with unbelievers. But God has not called us to win arguments but to win souls. And it is the gospel message which converts sinners as the Holy Spirit regenerates their hearts, and until He does that divine work in their hearts, no proof or argument we give them will convince them. We must pray for them, live out our faith before them, love them unconditionally, and present a consistent witness for Christ in word and deed and trust God to do the rest.

The Pharisees’ request to see a sign from heaven was inappropriate on many levels, and therefore we are not surprised to see that request was met by …

II. The Intriguing Refusal to Show a Sign (vv12-13)

In the 2003 film Bruce Almighty, Jim Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a TV news reporter who meets up with a seemingly ordinary janitor played by Morgan Freeman, a janitor who turns out to be God. Because Bruce has so adamantly complained about God and the events of his own life, God offers him the opportunity to try his hand at being God to see if he can do any better. Now, the merits or lack thereof of that film notwithstanding, I am sure that we’ve all had those moments where we thought, “If I was God, this is what I would do.” And I have to confess, if I were Jesus faced with these Pharisees demanding a sign from heaven, I might just have fire fall down and consume about half of them and say to the rest, “Now do you believe?” And because of that, I think we’ll all sleep a little better knowing that God won’t make me the offer He made to Bruce Nolan in that movie.

In Luke 9:51-56, we read that some Samaritans did not receive Jesus into their village. When James and John heard about this rejection, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Now, see you and I would have probably said, “Yeah, go for it,” even if just to show James and John that they couldn’t do it. But Jesus did not do that. Instead, the Bible tells us that He rebuked them, saying, “The Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them.” Episodes like that one, and the one before us illustrate clearly that characteristic of Christ which we call meekness. Meekness does not mean “weakness”, but rather strength or power under control. He could have called down fire, He could have shown signs from heaven, but He didn’t. How did He respond to these Pharisees? Three ways.

A. He responded with a sigh.

Mark tells us that Jesus was sighing deeply within His spirit. That wording in the NASB is a very literal translation of the Greek. Other translations use the word groaning to convey the intensity of this sigh. We have here a rare Greek word, used only here in the NT, and fewer than 30 times in all extant Greek literature. The rarity of the word may indicate the severity of the emotion behind this sigh. It is a sigh of anguish from the very depth of being in the Son of God – from deeply within His spirit. The root of the word is used elsewhere, like in 7:34, where Jesus sighs in compassion as He heals the deaf man with the speech impediment. But here it has a prefix attached to it that indicates great intensity provoked by the obstinate unbelief of the Pharisees. This is not a sigh of anger per say, but of dismay, as if to say without words, “I cannot believe, after all I have done, that you would come and ask for another sign!” Though no words are uttered, volumes are spoken by this deep sigh.

B. He responded by speaking.

1. He asks a rhetorical question

“Why does this generation seek for a sign?” This generation, of all generations in human history, have seen enough in Jesus to convince the most devout unbeliever of who He is and His divine authority. If that is not sufficient, what more can He say or do? The words “this generation” remind us of the Exodus generation, who had experienced the miraculous signs of plagues in Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, the miraculous provision of water from the rock, manna in the morning, and quail to satisfy their hunger. Yet they continued to grumble against Moses and against God and run headlong into idolatry and rebellion. In Deuteronomy 32:5, Moses said of them, “They have acted corruptly toward Him, They are not His children, because of their defect; But are a perverse and crooked generation.” He goes on to say in verses 19-20, “The LORD saw this, and spurned them Because of the provocation of His sons and daughters. Then He said, ‘I will hide My face from them, I will see what their end shall be; For they are a perverse generation, Sons in whom is no faithfulness.’” This was the generation spoken of by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:5, saying that in spite of all their spiritual privilege, “with most of them God was not well-pleased; for they were laid low in the wilderness.” The Pharisees demonstrate that they are cut from the same cloth as that generation, claiming to be highly favored by God and receiving many blessings from Him, but never enough.

2. He pronounces a categorical denial

“Truly I say to you, no sign will be given this generation.” You recall, we just said that their “test” of Jesus in asking for this sign is like the “temptations” Jesus faced from Satan in the wilderness. There, you recall that one of the temptations Satan attempted to use with Jesus was for Him to throw Himself down from the pinnacle of the temple and let angels prevent Him from falling, in order that the masses might be convinced of His divine power through this spectacular display. Jesus’ response was “It is written, you shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” In this denial to give a sign to the Pharisees, Jesus firmly refused to take a line of action that He had already decisively rejected before at the temptation—that of compelling men’s allegiance by a spectacular sign. Jesus acts in compassion, not compulsion. He draws men to Himself, He doesn’t drag them. The call of Christ in Mark 1:15 still goes forth – “Repent and believe in the gospel.” But to show them incontrovertible proof is to do away with the necessity of faith. Men would be forced to believe based on such a demonstration, and He will not force men to believe. Salvation is offered by grace, and received by faith. This is not a blind faith with no evidence to undergird it, but neither is it a matter of science or mathematics. Enough evidence is given to convince, but Christ stops short of giving so much to compel. He longs that we would make an informed decision of faith to trust in Him. As the writer of Hebrews says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.”

Jesus statement here is an incomplete sentence in Greek. Literally, it would read, “Amen I say to you if a sign will be given ….” And then the statement is left unfinished. This would be recognized as an oath by those who heard Him, and they would understand that what is not supplied is some sort of personal consequence, like “If a sign will be given to you, may I die,” or “may God punish Me.” Kind of like we might say, “Over my dead body.”

But in fact, more was said on this occasion which Mark does not include but Matthew does. Mark, writing for Roman Christians who were largely Gentile in population, knows that his audience is unfamiliar with much of the Old Testament at this point, and so he omits the reference that Matthew includes to the sign of Jonah the prophet. Matthew tells us in Matt 16:4 that Jesus says, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given it, except the sign of Jonah.” Previously in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus had explained that sign, saying in Matt 12:40, “just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” By this, Jesus pointed to the greatest sign of all: His death, burial and resurrection. David Garland writes, “Jesus will offer this generation no noisy sign from heaven, only the wind whistling through an empty tomb after His crucifixion.” It is an undeniable fact of history that this Jesus died on a cross at Calvary and that He was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and that on the third day, that tomb was found to be empty. Those are the facts of history. Now the task of the unbeliever is to explain how that tomb became empty. And no one has ever offered a more satisfactory explanation of it than this: He rose from the dead. His resurrection is the supreme sign that God has sent Him into the world to save sinners, and this task has been accomplished fully in His death and resurrection.

C. He responded by sailing away.

Verse 13 is no mere travelogue. It is not here for us to track Jesus’ geographical progress. His departure is a statement to the sign-seekers. He responded to them by saturating them with His absence. He does not cast pearls to swine, and He will not spend another moment trying to convince the inconvincible that He is who He says He is. Perhaps that great poet of our own generation, Kenny Rogers, said it best: “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run.” The omniscient God of the universe will not waste time. He knows that there is no sign which could be given that would convince these unbelievers to turn their hard hearts back to Him, and so the Messiah sails away. And there is no more tragic testimony ever given than the rippling of the waters coming ashore from the wake of this boat as Jesus, and the offer of salvation, sails away into the sunset.

In 1 Corinthians 1:22, Paul says, “For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom.” The verbs used there indicate that it is their perpetual habit: Always asking for signs; always searching for wisdom. The world of unbelievers around us can be similarly classified – there are those who claim that they want to see a sign to compel them to belief, and others say they want to hear a fine sounding argument that will convince them. But to these, Paul says, “but we preach (again, a verb tense indicating perpetual habit – we are always preaching) Christ crucified.” And to those seeking signs, this is a stumbling block and to those seeking wisdom it is foolishness, but it is our message, and we proclaim it without shame. To believe it or not is up to you, but the offer is there, and one day it will be too late. Hebrews 9:27 says it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment. Will you stand before God on that day and say, “Lord, if only you could have shown me one more sign, if only I could have heard one more argument, then I might have believed”? And you will be pointed to the cross where Jesus died, and the empty tomb from which He arose. What more can He say than to you He has said?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Coddling Self-Indulgent Fantasies

In doing some reading and research for this week's message from Mark 8:10-13, I ran across this timely quote in David Garland's NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 315.

"Outsiders and insiders can exert enormous pressure on ministers and churches to conform to their false expectations and to coddle their self-indulgent fantasies. To resist this pressure and remain obedient to God requires a clear vision of God’s will, unwavering dedication, and constant prayer."

Mark 8:1-9 -- Pictures of Devotion and Compassion

When we first read this passage, we might think we are experiencing déjà vu. It reads very much like a passage we have come across already in Mark 6:33-44. Indeed, these two stories are more alike than any other stories in the gospels. They both occur in deserted settings, both involve a massive number of people who are fed and satisfied by a miraculous multiplication of food out of the compassion of Jesus. Both stories have Jesus asking the disciples, “How many loaves do you have?” Both feature a prayer of thanksgiving and blessing. In both stories, leftovers are gathered and the crowd is dismissed, followed by the disciples boarding a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee.

Because of these similarities, some scholars believe that there was only one such feeding, and the two accounts we have in the Gospel of Mark reflect different oral traditions of that singular event. Including both versions of the story is either an error on the part of the gospel writer (because he could not discern the similarities and mistakenly thought they referred to separate events) or else the gospel writer has intentionally included both for rhetorical reasons to further his point, even though he knew that only one feeding miracle had occurred. And if we follow these scholars in this way of thinking, then we have allowed for an erroneous Bible, and granted ignorance or willful deception on the part of the human writer, who on the traditional understanding of Christian doctrine is believed to have been inspired by the Holy Spirit. Additionally, we are left to wonder which of the two is correct, if either of them is. So, there are serious consequences at stake if we choose to believe that this is a “doublet,” or an altered version of the same story already told. However, this is not an obvious conclusion, and in fact is a conclusion that is not supported by the text.

While we readily recognize numerous similarities between the two passages, there are also a number of specific differences. Most obvious is the number of people involved. In the account in Chapter 6 Mark mentions 5,000 men who were fed. In Chapter 8, he numbers the crowd at about 4,000. In Matthew’s Gospel, it is specified that these were the numbers of men, in addition to women and children. So conservative estimates of that first crowd are somewhere around 20,000, and using the same equation, we would come up with about 16,000 for the second. While one might have a hard time distinguishing a crowd of 4,000 from a crowd of 5,000, it is not hard to tell the difference between 16,000 and 20,000. In addition to the differences in the number of people, there is also a difference in the amount of food Jesus had to work with. In the first story, there were five loaves and two fish. Here in Chapter 8, there are seven loaves and a few small fish. In fact, even the word for fish used in both stories is different, with the word in Chapter 8 being diminutive in form, indicating “little fish” or “scraps of fish.” The story in Chapter 6 occurs over a time period of one day. The one in Chapter 8 comes at the end of a three day period. The number of baskets of leftovers is different in each story – 12 baskets in the first, seven in the second, and here in Chapter 8 a different word for “basket” is used. In the first story, the disciples enter the boat and depart without Jesus, and here in verse 10, Jesus enters the boat and departs with them.

Added to all of these differences, you notice in Mark 8:18-20, Jesus makes explicit reference to both of these occasions. So, if the Gospel writer is confused about the matter, then so is Jesus, or else, His words have been altered to reflect the writer’s misunderstanding. That would be a highly unlikely scenario given the writer’s obvious concern for presenting Jesus and His words accurately. So, given the specific differences between the two stories, and the subsequent comment on the events stated by Jesus Himself, we stand on a firm footing stating with confidence that these are in fact two separate miraculous events that took place, referred to generally as the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand.

It is the latter of these which demands our attention today: the feeding of the four thousand as recorded in Mark 8:1-9. As we look at these verses we will see two great pictures: one of personal devotion to Christ, and one of a powerful demonstration of compassion.

I. A Picture of Devotion to Christ (v1-3)

Nearly everywhere Jesus went He drew a crowd. They had various motives for coming, some more noble than others. Typically, there would be some who came for personal interests, that He might heal some malady in their own life. Also, there were often some who came that He might heal the affliction of a loved one. Then there were those who came to be entertained by seeing what miracle He might perform. Of course, some came out of curiosity to see and hear for themselves about this one they had heard others talking about. And then there were those who came to critique Jesus. And then whenever all those folks came together in a crowd, others would come simply because a crowd will draw a bigger crowd. And many times, when a crowd gathered around Jesus, He would begin to teach them, and those who were not interested in listening and understanding what He said would begin to drift away. Only those who were committed to hearing the Word of God explained and applied, those who “had ears to hear,” would hang around to listen.

Now the interesting thing here in this text is that there has been a gap of some number of days between 7:37 and 8:1. We don’t know how many days, but we know from verse 2 that at least three days have elapsed. And we don’t know what all was taking place on these days, but we can be fairly sure that Jesus was teaching, as this was His characteristic activity. And surely some came and went during this time, but many remained with him the whole time, and three statements about this crowd of hearers speak of their personal devotion to Christ.

A. They Valued Being With Jesus More Than Time

So devoted were these people to Jesus, that they put the demands of life on hold for three entire days to stay in the presence of Jesus to hear Him proclaim God’s truth to them. Surely there was work to be done, appointments to keep, deadlines to meet for some of those present. After all, we are talking about 4,000 people, and Matthew tells us that was just the men, not counting women and children. So surely, in a crowd some 16,000 people, not everyone was on holiday with nothing pressing on their schedule. Yet, this multitude understood the privilege they had been given to hear the Messiah speak truth into their lives, and therefore everything else paled in comparison.

There is no debating the fact that we live in a busy world which makes many demands on our time. All the technology that has come about claiming to make our lives easier, like email and cell phones and such, have really only served to make us busier. They have effectually blurred the lines between time on the clock and time off. Work schedules are more demanding than ever, and when coupled with other structured activities, we have become slaves to our calendars. But have we left time available to spend with God, taking in His word? Is a thirty minute sermon on Sunday morning sufficient to feed your soul for a week’s worth of demands? There must be more time spent in the Word than this.

Have you ever spent time with someone when you knew that their mind was fixed on “the next thing” they had to do. Maybe their body language, looking at their watch, nervous antics, etc., gave away the fact that you did not have their full attention. Rather the shadow of something else on their schedule was looming large over them, and all they could think of was checking off another item on the agenda. We’ve all been there, on both sides of that situation I am sure. If so, then you know that it is an awkward feeling when you know this other person is more interested in what he or she has to next. You know they really aren’t concentrating on your words. You feel very insignificant in their eyes. Well, do you ever stop to wonder how God must feel when we finally get alone with Him, or come together in worship with other Christians, and our minds immediately fixate on what’s next. We’re trying to read our Bibles or pray, and we’re thinking, “I wonder what’s on TV? I think I need to check my email. I guess I should answer that phonecall.” Or we’re sitting in church wondering, “What’s for lunch? What time’s kick-off? What do I need to do before I go to this other thing?” And our restless squirming and clock-watching and mind-wandering indicates to God that our real interest lies not here with Him but in what is coming next. Yet, here we see a crowd that is satisfied in the presence of Jesus, not after a half-hour, or half-day, but after three full days. And there is no mention on their part about what is next on their schedules.

So, when was the last time you spent a solid block of uninterrupted and unhurried time with Jesus, alone or together with other believers? When was the last time that your spiritual life took priority over other areas of life? If a person were to examine your calendar, would they be able to determine that Christ was more important to you than other items on your agenda? Do you value being with Jesus more than other demands on your time? This was a mark of the personal devotion to Christ we see in this crowd of people in our text. But we also see …

B. They Valued Being With Jesus More Than Distance

In verse 3 Jesus tells us that some of these have come from a great distance. How far? No geographical specifics are given here, but the Greek wording used here is the same that is used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT) to describe the Gentile lands to which Israel had been exiled. We cannot thereby assume that Jesus is saying that this multitude has come literally from the ends of the earth, but we can infer from this word usage that they have come from very far off to be with Him. And Jesus says they have traveled too far to return without a meal. And we should remember that in those days, Delta was not ready when you are – they traveled either by foot or on the back of an animal, often through difficult and dangerous territories facing the risk of wild beasts, robbers, or other potential pitfalls. But when presented with the opportunity to be in the presence of Jesus and hear Him speak words of life to your soul, what distance is too great?

I realize that some of you drive a good distance to get here every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening. You pass numerous churches along the way that you could otherwise attend more conveniently. I can sympathize with the sacrifice of such a journey. When Donia and I were first married, we traveled 45 minutes one-way to our church because we knew that was a place where we could be in God’s presence with God’s people and hear God’s word proclaimed. And yet there are many who live within a short walk from this church who do not bother to attend. And there are some who are members of this church who live closer than many of you do, but who do not attend this or any other church, and claim it is because of the distance. Others have moved far away, and not united themselves with a church family near to them. They will say that it is because there are (and I quote), “no good churches near where they live.” Now let’s assume for a moment that this is true, though I find it highly suspicious. How far is a person willing to go to be in a solid Bible teaching church? Ten minutes, twenty minutes, an hour? How far is too far? I would suggest that if you are considering a move to a place where there are no churches proclaiming God’s word within a reasonable distance, that you seriously reconsider whether or not to make that move. So important is the regular intake of God’s word, the regular fellowship with God’s people, and frequent activity of corporate worship, that if your location prohibits you from doing these things, you should relocate. Distance should never stand in the way of your personal devotion to Christ. And it did not with the crowd we see in this passage.

Now notice also …

C. They Valued Being With Jesus More Than Food

At some point during the three days, the crowd had exhausted their supply of food. They now have, as Jesus says in v2, “nothing to eat.” We are told in v4 that they were in a desolate place. They were out of delivery range for Papa Johns and there was no McDonalds nearby. Hard for us to imagine, but true. Yet, it is interesting to me that it is not the crowd who makes mention of the lack of food, but Jesus. They seem content to remain in His presence without food, but His compassion for them will not let it happen.

Do you believe that the word of God is more important to your well being than the food you eat? If not, then you have not rightly understood the teachings of Jesus. What does He say when He was tempted to turn a stone into bread? He didn’t say He couldn’t do it; He said, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” In other words, the hearing, understanding and obeying of the Word of God is more important than having a full stomach. After all, if you eat a meal to satisfy your body’s hunger, what will happen again in another four or five hours, if not before? You will get hungry again. But only God’s Word has lasting satisfaction for our souls. Therefore, Jesus said to the woman at the well in John 4, "Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst.” So over every source that promises satisfaction to the desires of our physical bodies, we must emblazon these words: “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again.” But when we imbibe deeply with the living water that Christ alone can give, we will find lasting satisfaction. You have probably heard a spiritually immature person referred to as carnal—this is the term Paul uses in 1 Corinthians. And the meaning of the word “carnal” is one who lets the physical desires of his or her body override the voice of the Holy Spirit in their life. We must give more attention to our spiritual lives if we are to grow into maturity.

Now, I am well aware that there are those who have health issues that demand more careful attention to their diets than others, but surely there are many of us who could afford to miss, or at least delay, a few meals. And when our souls are so enraptured in personal devotion to Christ, we will hardly notice the hunger of our bodies. This is what we see as we look at this crowd of folks who have hung on Jesus’ every word for three entire days, and endured in spite of having food to eat.

In at least three ways we see this picture of their devotion to Christ. And I wonder, if someone looked on our lives, would they be able to observe from our habits, our schedules, our agendas, that we were equally as devoted to Him? Would they see our devotion to Christ as more important than our time, more important than distance, more important than the food we eat?

We come next to examine another picture in this passage. This time it is …

II. A Picture of a Demonstration of Compassion (2-9)

One difference between this story and the one of the feeding of the 5,000 in Mark 6 is that here the story is told in first person—that is, we are reading the words of Jesus Himself. There in Chapter 6 the story is told largely in the third person. And so it is told to us by Mark that Jesus felt compassion for the crowd in Chapter 6. Here Jesus Himself says that He has compassion on the multitude.

The word compassion translates an interesting Greek word that refers to one’s vital organs. It is a word used in reference to the heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, or bowels. These inner organs were considered to be the seat of emotions, so the word took on a metaphorical meaning of being deeply and emotionally moved. This word is used very much like we use the word heart to speak of emotions. We don’t necessarily mean our literal blood-pumping organ, but we use the word metaphorically to refer to our emotions. It is the same with this word in the Greek language.

Compassion can be demonstrated many ways. We see Jesus showing compassion toward individuals and toward crowds of people. We see Him demonstrate compassion by teaching, by healing, by casting out demons, and by raising the dead. Compassion is featured in two of Christ’s most well-known parables: the prodigal son and the good Samaritan. Those two stories typify the compassion of Christ, as we usually see Him acting compassionately toward those who would not ordinarily be the objects of such emotional concern. It was compassion that led Jesus to touch a leper in Mark 1:41; to teach the things of God to a group of eager revolutionaries in Mark 6:34 (John 6:5ff speaks of their political intentions); in Mark 9:22, compassion will prompt Him to deliver a young boy from the grips of demonic possession. Here, in Chapter 8, Jesus has compassion on a group of people that is largely, if not entirely, Gentile. These are not exactly the most socially elite groups of people in the eyes of most in that day. Yet Jesus shows tremendous compassion on them anyway. His love knows no boundaries.

Specifically in this passage, we see two demonstrations of compassion. First, and less obviously …

A. He shows patient compassion toward His men (vv5-6)

It is amazing how soon we forget the blessings of God. We don’t know how much time elapsed between chapters six and eight of Mark’s Gospel, but one does not think that such a tremendous miracle as the feeding of 20,000 people with five loaves and two fish would be soon forgotten. However, when Jesus speaks of His desire to feed these people, the disciples start to panic. All they can think about is where they will find enough food to this multitude. Before, the question was whether or not they could afford to feed the crowd, but here, even if they could afford it, there was nowhere to gather this much food. They seem to have forgotten that Jesus is able to make a lot out of a little when it is given to Him.

But notice that Jesus does not rebuke their lack of faith or their forgetfulness. Rather, He simply asks a question: “How many loaves do you have?” This is the same question He asked them in Mark 6:38. Maybe this question served as a reminder to them of what had taken place before. And so they answered, “Seven,” indicating that they had more bread available to them now to feed a smaller crowd than they had fed before. Jesus was trying to bolster their faith and awareness of who He is and what He was capable of. Involving them directly in the distribution of the food, it may very well be that this miracle was done especially for them. There is no indication that the crowd even realizes what had been done. The story that Mark is telling is moving rapidly toward the climax, in 8:27-30, where Peter will confess that Jesus is the Christ. But until then, He must continue to patiently remind the disciples of His identity, His nature, and His power.

Thank God for His patience that allows us learn our lessons slowly and gives us chance after chance to mature in our walk with Him. We mess up time and time again, but He is there to gently remind us that we can trust Him to accomplish His purposes and that nothing in our lives or in the world around us is ever outside of His control. But this compassionate patience is not just directed toward the twelve or toward believers in the church today—He also shows this to unbelievers. Second Peter 3:9 says that the Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. And so if you have never given your life to Jesus, realize that He has at various times and in numerous ways in your life, sought to turn your attention to Himself, not forcing Himself upon you, but wooing you, drawing you to make an informed commitment of faith. And patiently He waits for you to repent and turn to Him. In His compassion He does not want you to perish, but has done all things so that you could have eternal life, including dying on the cross for your sins, and rising from the dead.

Jesus demonstrates His compassion in His patience, but also notice …

B. He shows powerful compassion toward the multitude (vv6-9)

Just like in the time before, Jesus has the people to sit on the ground and He takes the sparse provisions and prayerfully and powerfully transforms them into a satisfying feast. Seven loaves of bread and a few small fish, or it might be translated a few pieces of fish became for these people a full meal. Their hunger was satisfied, and there were even leftovers! The word used for large baskets is the same word used in Acts 9:25 to describe the basket that Paul was put into and lowered over a wall to escape persecution. So, if it is a technically precise term, these baskets were large enough to hold a grown man. And seven of them were left over.

Again, there is no indication that the crowd even knew what Jesus had done here. The miracle wasn’t done to impress them; it was done to feed them because Jesus had compassion on them. And so when we find ourselves in need, if we will consecrate ourselves to Christ in spite of the need (rather than letting our personal needs separate us from God), we will find Him sufficient to grant us satisfaction as well. We may be few in number, and may be small in resources, but our Lord Jesus Christ is unlimited in power. He is still able to take the inadequate resources we bring to Him, bless them, provide for us, and use us as the instruments to take those blessings to the world around us. The psalmist said, “I have been young, and now I am old, Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his descendants begging bread.” (Psalm 37:25). God is aware of the needs in your life, and is sufficient in Himself to meet those needs and grant lasting satisfaction to your souls.

And so two things stand out as we look at this passage. We see a picture of a group of people who were deeply devoted to Christ, and valued being His presence more than time, distance or food. And we see a picture of a Savior so compassionate that He patiently teaches His disciples repeatedly of His sufficiency, and powerfully meets the needs of a hungry crowd around Him. Do you have a personal relationship with this compassionate Savior? If so, is it evident in the priorities of your life that He is more precious to you than other matters that clamor for our attention? If a person followed you around for a week, examining everything you said and did, would they be able to say at the end of that week that they are convinced that you are deeply and personally devoted to Christ? If you think not, then what changes need to be made? Are there sacrifices you need to make, major or minor life adjustments in order to prioritize your personal devotion to Christ in your life? If the Holy Spirit is speaking to your heart about this, then respond prayerfully to Him today about this matter and ask Him to direct you into deeper devotion.

But if you have never met this Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, then we invite you to Him today. He can satisfy your soul’s deepest hunger through the broken bread of His very life, which He laid down on the Cross of Calvary so that your sins could be punished in Him, and you could be forgiven and granted His righteousness in exchange. And so come by faith to Him as your Lord and Savior and He will satisfy the deepest and most private longings of you life and transform you according to His grand design. Trust in Him today.