Jesus is the Christ, but there’s more to the story (Mark 8:22–33)

Today we’re going to reach what commentator James Edwards calls the “continental divide” in the book of Mark. For the first time, a human being identifies Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah. And shortly thereafter, Jesus chews him out.

What’s interesting is that Mark introduces this story with another healing account. Jesus shows up at the town of Bethsaida, where a blind man is brought to him. He leads the blind man out of the village, spits in his eyes (!), and lays his hands on him. Then, instead of pronouncing a word of healing, Jesus asks him a question: “Do you see anything?”

Now, coming where it does in Mark’s account of Jesus’ life, this question is not just posed to the blind man. Jesus has rebuked his disciples for their spiritual dullness, asking them, “Having eyes do you not see?…Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:18, 21). This time, he’s questioning a physically blind man about his sight.

The man looks around and replies, “I see men, but they look like trees, walking.” His sight has only been partially restored. Now, this is a surprise! Jesus has cast out demons, calmed a windstorm, walked on water, and raised a girl from the dead; yet here, the blind man’s sight hasn’t been fully restored. Why not? Why does Jesus choose to give the man partial, distorted eyesight before he finishes healing him?

Our answers come at once. The scene shifts to the road leading to the Roman colony of Caesarea Philippi. Jesus has begun quizzing his disciples. “Who do people say that I am?” he asks. They report the speculation that has been swirling around Galilee: “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” In the popular opinion, Jesus is a great man, perhaps even one of the great prophets. He could even be the second coming of Elijah, a forerunner to the Messiah, God’s anointed king who is to reign over Israel.

Even today, people from all religions and ethnic backgrounds seem to respect Jesus. They agree that he’s a great teacher, a righteous man, possibly even a prophet. But is Jesus satisfied with this response?

The next question Jesus asks his disciples is a lot more personal. He isn’t interested so much in what other people think of him. He wants to know what each of his disciples is thinking. Jesus demands a response from each and every person. “But who do you say that I am?” he asks them, and you and I must consider this question as well and give him our answer.

In his customary manner, Peter blurts out, “You are the Christ!” And at once, everything changes. Now the veil has been removed. Peter and the other disciples have been observing Jesus’ divine and exclusive authority, and they’ve followed the bread crumbs to the only reasonable conclusion: this man is the long-awaited Messiah, sent from God. Like the blind man from Bethsaida, they’re finally able to see the truth. Jesus is more than just a great man, and he won’t settle for that label.

What’s funny is that Jesus strictly orders his disciples to keep his identity a secret. Remember that he asked the blind man to stay out of the village as well, rather than reporting the news of his healing. This has been a consistent pattern throughout the gospel of Mark. Why doesn’t Jesus want the general public to know he is the Christ? Well, again our answers come at once.

In a shocking turn of events, Jesus finally reveals to his disciples what he, the Messiah, has come to do. He hasn’t come to overthrow the Roman government and set up an independent Jewish state. He hasn’t come to reestablish the law of Moses or to bring social justice to the beleaguered people of Israel. Instead, he has come to suffer, to be rejected by the Jewish leaders, and then to be killed. And though Jesus also predicts that he will be raised to life again, Peter is so shocked by the idea of a suffering and dying Messiah that he doesn’t seem to notice this final prophecy. He takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. Jesus has it all wrong! The Messiah is a conquering hero, not a suffering wretch! How are they supposed to follow a man who offers only these gloomy delusions? What about the victorious life all the televangelists are promising? (Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one.)

Jesus looks over at the rest of his disciples. They’re watching to see what he will say; no doubt Peter is speaking for all of them. So when Jesus chews out Peter, he’s speaking to them as well. “Get behind me, Satan!” he orders him. “For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” In trying to derail Jesus’ mission, Peter is sounding an awful lot like Satan. He has his own plan for how Jesus should be glorified, but it isn’t God’s plan.

Like the blind man at Bethsaida, Peter and his fellow disciples aren’t seeing clearly. They do at least recognize that Jesus is the Christ, but they are confused about what that means. They don’t understand that he is to be a suffering Messiah, who will give his life “as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). As Edwards puts it, they’ve moved from non-understanding to misunderstanding. That’s why Jesus wants them to keep quiet about who he is. Lies circulating about him are bad enough; half-truths are even worse.

The story of the blind man helps us understand what the Holy Spirit is teaching us through this passage. Jesus doesn’t want us to misunderstand who he is. Yes, he is the Christ, and you and I can’t really know him unless we believe that. But neither can we know Jesus unless we understand what his mission is. And that’s what Mark will be explaining as he continues his story.

Jesus exposes our hard hearts (Mark 8:1–21)

Just yesterday, I had a brain-dead moment, commonly known as a “senior moment”—except that I’m not a senior. I was having lunch with a family from church, and I’d brought with me a glass plate which I had borrowed a few months back. However, after entering the house and being warmly welcomed, I suddenly realized that the plate wasn’t with me. I had left it out in the car, I announced to my hosts. And then they told me that I’d actually brought it into the house and given it to them not a minute before—none of which registered in my memory.

Major brain farts are a part of life. Unfortunately, in today’s passage from Mark, Jesus’ disciples are going to experience something more than a brain fart. They’re going to get called out on the carpet for being spiritually dull—by Jesus himself.

Our adventure begins with a moment of déjà vu. Once again, a great crowd gathers, they get hungry, Jesus feels compassion for them and asks his disciples to feed them, they bristle at this unreasonable request, and then Jesus supernaturally feeds the entire crowd with several loaves of bread and a few fish. It’s just like his feeding of 5,000 men, except now it’s a smaller crowd of 4,000 people. However, the context of this story tells us a couple of interesting things. First, Jesus is still in Gentile territory; this is a Gentile crowd! He’s doing the same thing for the Gentiles as he did for his fellow Jews, showing compassion on them and caring for their needs. Second, his disciples haven’t caught on after the first feeding—their response to him is nearly identical to their response the first time around. They still think this is a problem too big for Jesus to handle. They haven’t learned their lesson.

Well, right after this story, Jesus shows up in Galilee again, and he’s confronted by the local Jewish leaders in yet another showdown. Their attitude is unmistakable—they want to discredit Jesus and shut down his teaching ministry. Mark says that they’re “seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him.” Now, this isn’t an open-minded search for the truth. After all, Jesus has just fed 4,000 people with seven loaves of bread! The truth is obvious. No, these Pharisees have already decided that they don’t believe Jesus is from God. They’re just looking for an excuse, any excuse at all, to disparage him.

Jesus is exasperated with these hard-hearted opponents. He knows that no amount of evidence will convince them. “Why does this generation seek a sign?” he asks. “Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” He is adamant that they will not get what they’re demanding. Jesus won’t play their stupid game. Instead, he turns and walks away. He gets in a boat with his disciples and heads to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Jesus’ disciples apparently aren’t very good at planning ahead, because once again they didn’t pack enough food. They forgot to get more bread, and they only have one loaf with them! They’re pretty hungry, and you can guess what their thoughts go when Jesus mentions in his teaching, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” His disciples have bread on the brain, so they completely misunderstand this obvious parable. They hold a little pow-wow afterward to figure out what Jesus meant by this cryptic statement. Is he giving them baking advice? Should they change their brand of yeast? Have they been buying bread that has been contaminated by the Pharisees and Herod? But that makes no sense! They only have one loaf with them; why is Jesus bringing this up? Maybe it’s a veiled rebuke for neglecting to bring bread! Man, we really should have remembered to bring bread. I’m starved.

Jesus gets fed up (haha) and breaks into their conversation: “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet understand?” He is incredulous. Remember that he’d told them that his parables keep spiritually dull people from understanding the truth he wants to teach (Mark 4:10–12). And as he did then, he refers to Isaiah 6:9–10. “Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?” His disciples just aren’t getting it!

So Jesus conducts a memory drill. “When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?”
“Twelve.”
“And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?”
“Seven.”
“Do you not yet understand?”

Jesus wasn’t worrying about bread, and his disciples should have realized that. Why? Because he could make as much bread as he wanted, whenever he wanted, with plenty left over. Bread wasn’t a big issue to him. So they should have realized it was a parable at once. Jesus is warning them about the Pharisees and about Herod—both of whom feel threatened by his authority and therefore oppose him. He’s worried that their “yeast” of unbelief may work its way into the disciple’s hearts and corrupt them. He knows that his disciples are in danger of developing hardened hearts that won’t comprehend what he’s saying to them. The awful irony is that even when he’s warning them, they miss the point of the warning because their hearts are already hard! It’s a catch-22: they can’t understand because their hearts are hard, and their hearts are hard because they can’t understand.

What this means is that the most ignorant, hard-hearted people are often the people who have been with Jesus the longest, who have been “Christians” their whole lives and have heard sound preaching for 50 years. It could be you or me. A skilled surgeon, only Jesus exposes our hard hearts. Only he can rescue us from them.