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 is in command over the spiritual realm (Mark 5:1–20)

In any good summer blockbuster movie, our intrepid hero stares down overwhelming opposition in a final showdown. Vastly outnumbered, he relies on his wits and skill to emerge victorious from the battle. We cheer him on because we love to see the good guy win, especially if he’s the underdog.

It’s a little different in Jesus’ case. He’s about to be vastly outnumbered by the enemy, but it doesn’t even faze him. Jesus is not the underdog; he is never the underdog. But he likes to help people who are underdogs.

Immediately following the terrific windstorm from the night before, Jesus and his followers reach land on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. This region is inhabited by the Gerasenes, who were Gentiles. It’s the first time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus ventures into Gentile territory. As soon as he steps onto the land, he is confronted by a powerful foe.

A man rushes down the beach to meet him, and he isn’t coming with friendly intent. He is a wild beast of a man, an unclean Gentile, controlled by an unclean spirit, living among unclean tombs. No one can tame him and chain him down; the unclean spirit gives him phenomenal strength to break his bonds. But now we see this monster falling down on the beach before Jesus, shrieking, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” In other words, he is pleading with Jesus, “Leave me alone!” Why? Because Jesus had begun to confront the spirit controlling the man, saying, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” It’s a showdown between spiritual forces, and there’s no question who is going to win.

Then the big reveal takes place. Jesus ignores the man and confronts the unclean spirit inside him, demanding, “What is your name?” And the spirit replies, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” A legion was a roman army unit comprised of 6,000 men; it represented a force of astounding size. There were innumerable demons oppressing this man—but they are reduced to begging Jesus for mercy. They beg him to let them stay in the country and enter a herd of (unclean) pigs; Jesus gives them permission. This is an act of defiance on the part of these spirits; they have been embarrassed and want to save face by demonstrating their power. They represent such an overwhelming force that, in their fury, they are able to drown the entire herd of 2,000 pigs into the lake like so many lemmings.

When the pig herdsmen witness this incredible show of force, they run to tell the news to whomever will listen. Those who hear it run to see it for themselves, and there they find Jesus—and the demon-possessed man, sitting there calmly, “clothed and in his right mind.” And then, Mark tells us, “They were afraid.” They know that these spirits have tremendous power; the spirits had turned this man into an untamable beast, and they had just driven a massive herd of pigs to their death. Yet Jesus had dismissed them all with a simple command. These spirits were frightening enough—how much more so the man who mastered them!

But here’s the thing about fear: it doesn’t guarantee faith. As the legion of spirits begged Jesus, so now the people beg him for a favor as well—“to depart from their region.” Why? Because Jesus is a threat to them. When someone with this power shows up, he changes the status quo. That’s great news to people who are outcast or oppressed, like the demon-possessed man. But it’s bad news for people like the herdsmen, who have nothing to gain when the King comes to exercise his authority. If Jesus is in command over the spiritual realm, there is no stopping him. So they plead with him to leave, and Jesus obliges them.

As for the demon-possessed man, he too begs Jesus for a favor. He asks “that he might be with him.” This is what Jesus had asked his disciples to do (3:14). So will he grant the man’s request, just as he had granted the request of the unclean spirits and the request of the man’s Gerasene countrymen? Strangely, he does not. He has a better plan for his new recruit: “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.”

If you’ve been following along for the first four chapters of Mark, this order should surprise you. Jesus has repeatedly tried to hide himself and his message, ordering unclean spirits and a cleansed leper to keep quiet about him, and speaking in parables to conceal the good news of God’s kingdom. As we keep reading in Mark, we will find that he continues to value secrecy. But here, he orders the man to tell everyone about what had happened. Why?

Take a look at what Jesus asks the man to say. “Tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” That’s all. The message the man is to deliver is simply this: the Most High God of the Jews has come to deal kindly with the Gentiles. This demoniac was an unclean man among unclean men. If Jesus feels compassion for him and rescues him, how much more will he do so for his countrymen! The man travels throughout the region, telling how much Jesus has done for him, and everyone marvels over the news.

We saw last week that Jesus had authority over the natural world, and now we see that he has command over the spiritual realm. And once again, he uses that authority with a meekness, a gentleness, a pity for the outcast and the oppressed. A madman in agony, loneliness, and despair—now clothed and in his right mind and jubilant with news of a great Savior.

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?