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.

Jesus rejects his hometown (Mark 6:1–6)

Over the last few years, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to spend time with college students, challenging them and encouraging them to follow Jesus Christ with their whole heart and become an active part of a local church. It’s exciting to see students with a teachable spirit begin to grow and bear fruit for the Lord, often for the first time in their lives. One of the challenges, though, is when a growing freshman returns home for the first summer. There, she finds out that “you can’t go home again,” as the proverb says. The student discovers that she has been transformed over the last eight months, while her family and friends back home have stayed the same. Her hometown church, if she has one, is the same as it always was. Before leaving, she fit in well; this was her home. Now, she doesn’t fit in anymore, and she knows that this place can never again be her home.

When Jesus returns to his hometown after a spectacular ministry of preaching and performing miracles, he encounters a similar problem. His homecoming is a letdown for anyone who expects the townspeople to welcome him as their favorite son.

With his disciples in tow, Jesus arrives at his hometown (Nazareth, though Mark tellingly refuses to name it). On the Sabbath, he preaches at the local synagogue, a place that must have seemed familiar to him; this synagogue was basically the small-town church he grew up in. When he preaches, the people of his hometown gather to listen to the boy from their town who has “made it big.” Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus says to them (for that story, read Luke’s account). Whatever it is, the people are “astonished.” They mutter to one another, “Where did this man get these things?” It certainly wasn’t from them! His “wisdom” and “mighty works” are unfamiliar to them. He was one of them when he was growing up as a little boy, but now he has outgrown their traditional, legalistic Judaism.

This doesn’t sit well with the people of Jesus’ hometown. “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” The rest of Jesus’ family is still stuck in the old mindset, the old legalism of the Pharisees. Like the rest of the town, they think Jesus is out of his mind (Mark 3:21)! They still fit in, but Jesus doesn’t anymore. The truth is, he never did; it’s only now that the townspeople are realizing it. As far as they’re concerned, Jesus has betrayed the small-town values which make them who they are. In their minds, he has turned his back on them. They are deeply offended.

Jesus responds to their attitude with a proverb of sorts: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” The irony is obvious. Like the proverbial prophet, Jesus is popular wherever he goes, but when he returns to the people who should honor him the most, he is rejected. You’d think his hometown and his family would be proud of him. They should be shoe-ins for “insider” status. Instead, they are upset at him because, instead of preserving their tradition, he has been announcing that it will be swept away with the coming of God’s kingdom.

Over the last two chapters, Jesus has shut down a raging storm, driven an army of demons out of a man, healed a diseased and hopeless woman, and raised a little girl from the dead. He certainly isn’t lacking for power. Yet Mark writes that he can’t do any mighty work in his hometown, other than healing a handful of sick people. Instead, he marvels “because of their unbelief.” Mark has been recording how people have “marveled” or been “amazed” because of his miracles. Even the people of his hometown were “astonished” at his teaching. Now it is Jesus who marvels, because their unbelief is so irrational. It is a supernatural unbelief. Jesus knows that it would be pointless to perform a great miracle here; the people’s hearts are too hard. They will only harden their hearts further, in denial of the fact that he is greater than they think he is. They are too intent on clinging to their old way of life, the old kingdom that will soon pass away.

What’s really sad is that people haven’t changed too much in the last 2,000 years. Jesus still confronts us today, offering a new way of life, a new kingdom. But most people reject him because they don’t want to change. They’re comfortable with the way they’ve been living. And you know what the scary part is? The people who are the most resistant to Jesus, who have built up a supernatural resistance, are the ones sitting in church pews on Sunday morning. It’s people who think they have known Jesus their whole lives and are familiar with all the stories. But they’re stuck in a legalistic way of thinking, clinging to human tradition rather than the Word of God. It is no surprise that Jesus is doing no mighty work there. Please, if you’ve never considered this before, do it now. Are you and your church clinging to human tradition? Are you clinging to the mindset of the culture around you—whether the culture as it is now or the culture as it was fifty years ago? That kingdom will not last for long; it cannot be your home.

Jesus departs from his hometown, teaching among other villages in Galilee, where people will listen to him. His mission must go on; the good news of God’s kingdom must be preached. Nazareth is left behind.

Jesus grows his followers (Mark 4:21–34)

There are two ways in which a farmer can increase the size of the crop he is able to produce. The first way is to acquire new land and expand the area of his crop onto it. The second way is to increase the yield of the same land by introducing new methods of agriculture. In short, he can increase the quantity of his farmland or he can improve the quality of it.

Of course, an ambitious farmer will do both. Last week, we looked at the fact that Jesus rejects those who are outsiders, who aren’t truly his disciples. This week, we’ll see how ambitious Jesus really is when it comes to growing his followers and expanding his kingdom. Jesus goes for both quality of disciples and quantity.

Jesus picks up right where he left off with the parable of the four soils. He had been talking about how outsiders are ignorant when it comes to God’s kingdom—this is God’s judgment on them. Insiders, on the other hand, are characterized by “fruit-bearing,” or the marks of a disciple. In Mark’s gospel, so far, disciples are identified as people who are with Jesus and who imitate Jesus. He explains why disciples are guaranteed to grow, using two illustrations.

First, Jesus asks what the purpose of lighting a lamp is. Is it lit so that its light may be hidden, or is it lit so that its light may reveal what is hidden? Obviously, it’s the latter. In the same way, the gospel message that Jesus brings is intended to reveal the truth about God and his work in the world. While it may be hidden from the blind and deaf outsiders (verse 12), it will certainly reveal truth to attentive insiders, who have “ears to hear.” That is its purpose.

Second, Jesus shows that his disciples will be given more and more understanding. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you,” he promises. “For to the one who has, more will be given.” He will reward his followers, who are eager to know him and to understand his message. Jesus will give them exactly what they are looking for and more! He will overwhelm them with blessing. But he also warns, “From the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” There will be fake disciples who have a loose grasp on who Jesus is and what he is doing. These outsiders will not be blessed with insight but will become even more spiritually dull than they were before.

Now that Jesus has established the fact that his individual followers will grow in knowledge, he launches into two parables describing how his kingdom will grow in general. The first parable tells the story of a farmer who sows seed and watches as it grows over time by itself. He does nothing to make it grow; he is mystified by how it can produce a crop. All he does is sit back and wait for the harvest. So we see that when Jesus’ gospel message is spoken and believed, it produces growth in the lives of many people. This growth comes from God; it’s not something that the speaker can produce. In other words, you and I can’t change other people’s hearts! All we can do is tell them the good news and let the Holy Spirit do his work in his timing. The kingdom grows gradually and mysteriously. With each passing day and month and year, Jesus’ disciples begin to recognize his reign over them and respond to him as their King. They produce fruit that identifies them as insiders.

The second parable describes the kingdom as a tiny mustard seed that grows into an enormous, tree-like mustard plant which towers over all the other garden plants. In other words, the kingdom may start small, but it gets big, like a snowball rolling down a hill. It may seem unimpressive now, but it won’t stay that way for long. Jesus may only have a few followers now, but they will grow in number, until his kingdom has expanded to fill the whole earth with the glory of the Lord. With the seed of his gospel message, Jesus will grow God’s kingdom into a powerful worldwide movement.

Let’s stop to consider the implications for you and me. What this means is that real disciples will always bear the marks of insiders. They will produce fruit, being with Jesus and imitating him. They will be growing continually. The gospel message, to them, is not a one-time decision that they leave in the past. They do not simply “pray a prayer” and move on. No! The gospel is the source of their growth, and they return to it day by day so they will not become stagnant. They grow through the power of the Holy Spirit. They grow in godliness and influence, extending Jesus’ gospel message to a world that needs to hear it.

Mark wraps up his account of Jesus’ parables by telling us that Jesus is only speaking to the crowd in parables now. He is hiding his gospel message from outsiders. He is only explaining the parables to insiders. So which group do you belong to? Are you an outsider, either consciously or unconsciously opposing Jesus? Perhaps you call yourself a Christian, but you’ve deceived yourself for many years; you’ve never understood the gospel and never been a part of God’s kingdom. Or are you an insider, slowly learning and growing as the Lord mysteriously transforms your heart? If you truly are a disciple of Jesus, you will learn and change and grow, because Jesus loves his followers, and he always makes sure that they will grow.

Jesus changes everyone (Mark 4:1–20)

As every preacher knows, there isn’t a person alive who doesn’t like a good story. Being able to tell an anecdote or a personal experience is a great way to illustrate God’s truth in a way that everyone can understand. Of course, you’ll have the occasional speaker who will get so caught up in telling a story that he becomes lost in the wilderness of his own imagination. But any preacher worth his salt will do his best to avoid that mistake; he wants his stories to reveal truth, not hinder it.

Once again, Jesus isn’t just any preacher. We typically think that he tells parables so that people will understand truth. That’s not the reason that he gives, though.

We saw a “sandwich story” the last time we looked at Mark, and now we’re seeing one again. We find Jesus beside the sea again, and this time he hops in a boat right away so the crowds don’t crush him. Then he tells them a bunch of parables, which are short fictional stories that illustrate a truth about God and his kingdom. One parable in particular stands out: a farmer sows seed on four different kinds of soil—a footpath, rocky ground, a thorn patch, and rich soil. The seed only produces grain in the rich soil, but this soil is so good that it yields an absurd amount of grain. So all of that is the upper slice of bread in the “sandwich.”

Then comes the meat between the bread. Jesus’ followers approach him, asking him to explain why he’s teaching in parables, and he gives a rather surprising reason. “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God,” he says, “but for those outside everything is in parables.” In other words, Jesus knows something very important about the kingdom which God is going to set up, but he won’t tell it to just anyone. It’s only for his disciples to know. The reason Jesus speaks in parables isn’t to reveal the truth about the kingdom to “those outside”—it’s to hide the truth about the kingdom from them. Jesus’ disciples are the insiders, and he will explain the truth to them, but he won’t tell it to anyone else.

Why not? What reason could Jesus possibly have for keeping God’s kingdom a secret? He reaches back to the Old Testament and adapts a famous stanza from Isaiah 6:9–10. He is hiding this knowledge from outsiders so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.”

Does that bother you? It bothers me. But I suppose I should ask a more important question: is this the Jesus you think you know? Does he have the right to say, “There is a certain group of people whom I will hide the truth from so that they won’t repent and be forgiven”? That’s the Jesus whom you and I are facing in this story. That’s what Jesus is like in real life.

So now we are left to ask, “Who are these ‘outsiders’? Why is Jesus holding back the truth that would cause them to repent?” So far in Mark’s gospel, we’ve seen Jesus reject the religious leaders because they have hardened their hearts against him. We’ve seen him reject his own family because they refuse to be with him and imitate him, which is what his disciples do. And now, he’s going to add new groups to the ever-expanding circle of “outsiders.”

The meat of Mark’s “sandwich” has given us the clue we need to understand what comes next. And what comes next (the lower slice of bread) is Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the four soils. Jesus says to his followers, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” In other words, this is a special parable because it’s actually a parable about parables—a metaparable, if you will. The seed represents “the word”—Jesus’ good news about the coming kingdom, which he tells in the form of parables. The first soil, the hardened footpath, represents those who are hard-hearted, like the religious leaders. The word doesn’t get in at all but lies dead on the surface, where Satan plucks it away. These outsiders won’t even consider what Jesus has to say. The second soil, the rocky ground, represents those who respond to the word with joy, but have only a shallow commitment. When tough times come, these outsiders fall away, because deep down they don’t really get it. The third soil, the thorn patch, represents those who have other dreams and desires besides the kingdom. These outsiders are distracted by a love of money or possessions or entertainment or anything else the world can offer. All these desires choke out their supposed love for God because they don’t really understand Jesus’ message, either.

Finally, Jesus tells us about the good, rich soil. When the seed falls here, it produces  a ridiculous bumper crop. A hundredfold yield was unheard of in Jesus’ day; this soil is unbelievably rich. This soil represents the insiders, Jesus’ true disciples. You can tell them apart from the outsiders because they “bear fruit.” This is because they have been given “the secret of the kingdom of God.”

What we’ve just read is a sobering message with so many implications that you and I couldn’t possibly sort through them all in the space of a single blog post. We know now that many people in the church will look like insiders but are actually outsiders who don’t understand the gospel. We know now that it’s an enduring faith, not a flash-in-the-pan spiritual experience, that marks a true disciple. We know now that many professing Christians are under the judgment of God, who blinds idol worshipers who turn to something or someone other than God for ultimate security (see Psalm 115:8).

Above all, we see that Jesus’ message changes everyone, because Jesus is a polarizing figure. Some people he transforms into his disciples. Other people he hardens into his opponents. His message has already changed you. Are you an insider or an outsider?

Jesus rejects those who reject him (Mark 3:20–35)

Have you ever seen a friend or family member turn an awkward situation into a train wreck? You know, the sort of situation where you just want to get out of the room, hop in a car, and drive about 500 miles away just to escape the tension? Entire TV shows have been written around this sort of premise.

Usually, I’m the one who causes situations like that. But today, it’s Jesus. Or at least, that’s how his family feels about him.

Mark doesn’t talk a lot about Jesus’ family. In fact, this is the only passage where they are mentioned. But we do get to see their attitude toward him at this point in his ministry: “He is out of his mind.” They are so embarrassed by Jesus’ teaching and behavior that they’ve come to take him home and lock him away until they can nurse him back to reality.

Now, here’s where Mark launches into one of his “sandwich” stories. If you read his gospel carefully, you’ll see that Mark likes to begin a story, interrupt it with another story, and then return to finish his first story. So it’s kind of like a story sandwich. The inner story helps you to understand what’s going on in the outer story. In this case, the outer story (the sandwich bread) is Jesus’ response to his family; the inner story (the delicious sandwich innards) is Jesus’ response to the religious teachers from Jerusalem who have come to slander him. Mark interrupts the first story so that we can understand why Jesus responds to his family the way he does.

So let’s take a look at the interrupting story. Jesus has become so popular that religious leaders have traveled from the capital city of Jerusalem to backwater Galilee in order to see what’s going on. They see him heal people and they see him cast out demons, but they don’t like his teaching, because he’s attacking their legalism. So how do they convince people to reject Jesus? Well, they can’t deny that miracles are taking place, so they announce that “he is possessed by Beelzebul…by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” And the fact is, they truly believe it. They have convinced themselves that Jesus is a demon-possessed, Satan-worshiping deceiver.

Of course, Jesus makes short work of their claims. He points out the obvious: a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand, and neither can a household divided against itself. So why in the world would Satan launch a civil war against his own forces? He’s a little bit too bright for that.

Not content to shoot down these accusations, Jesus offers a better interpretation of what’s going on. “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods,” he says, “unless he first binds the strong man.” He likens Satan to a strong man who maintains a grip on the people of Israel through demon possession. Jesus is the stronger man who ties up Satan so that “he may plunder his house.” Jesus is setting people free from Satan’s oppression. That’s what these exorcisms are all about.

At this point, Jesus turns to these religious teachers and utters one of the most harrowing condemnations in scripture. “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” This is “the unpardonable sin”—blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. These teachers have seen the Holy Spirit at work, and they have called him the devil. They have resisted the gospel to the point that they are witnessing the life-saving power of the Spirit and convincing themselves that he is utterly wicked. So Jesus tells them, “There is no hope for you. Forgiveness is available to anyone who repents of any sin, no matter how severe. But you will never repent.” Like Pharaoh, they have completely hardened their hearts against the Holy Spirit, so in an act of judgment, God will harden their hearts further so that they may never believe in Jesus Christ and be forgiven.

The awful irony is that these teachers accuse Jesus of being “possessed by Beelzebul,” yet it is they who have aligned themselves with the devil. To reject Jesus is to choose a side—you must be in league with Satan and his demonic forces. Oh, how you and I need to pray to God, “Keep our hearts soft and teachable so that we can remain faithful to our Savior!”

On this tragic note, Mark returns to his first story. Jesus’ family has arrived outside the house where he is teaching. They send word for him, but he refuses to come. “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asks. He looks around at those who are listening to him and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

If we hadn’t read the interrupting story first, we might think that Jesus is being rather harsh toward his family. But now we understand: they rejected him first. They’ve chosen a side, and it is the side of Satan. They haven’t committed the unforgivable sin—they do repent and believe in him later. For now, though, we leave them standing outside, while Jesus has chosen to be with his new, adopted family instead.

This should be a clear lesson for us. Jesus doesn’t play favorites. If you grew up in a Christian home, or in a Christian culture, that’s no guarantee that Jesus won’t reject you. You must “be with him” (v 14) and do the will of God, proving that you really have believed in him. Jesus is a polarizing figure, separating insiders from outsiders. Will you be on his side or on the devil’s side?