11 The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. 12 And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” 13 And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.
14 Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15 And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” 16 And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. 17 And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” – Mark 8:11-21 ESV
After dismissing the crowds who had benefited from His miraculous transformation of the bread and fish, Jesus and His disciples sailed across the Sea of Galilee to Dalmanutha, in the region of Magadan (Matthew 15:39). It seems likely that the disciples had stashed in the bow of the boat the 7 baskets of leftover bread and fish they had gathered. Mark provides no insights into the conversations these men may have had as they sailed to their next destination, but it only makes sense that they would have discussed the events of that day, including the miracle Jesus had just performed.
As soon as their boat touched the shore, they were met by another contingent of Jewish religious leaders. Matthew records that, on this occasion, the Pharisees were accompanied by a group of Sadducees.
“. . . the Sadducees were a wealthy, conservative party concentrated in Jerusalem. Their members were from aristocratic families of patrician and priestly stock. They refused adherence to the tradition of the elders and advocated a rigorous application of the law of Moses to the life of the nation. In general, they espoused a political and religious policy, including cooperation with Rome, aimed at preserving the status quo.” – Kingsbury, J. D., Conflict in Mark: Jesus, Authorities, Disciples. Minneapolis: Fortress
The Pharisees and Sadducees both had representatives who sat on the 70-member Sanhedrin, the high council of the Jews. But these two powerful and highly influential religious sects were not on friendly terms with one another. While they shared a common belief in God and held the Hebrew Scriptures in high regard, they held differing views on a wide range of topics, including the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees rejected the idea of an afterlife, arguing instead that the soul simply perished at death. So, the whole concept of a resurrection and a system of rewards and punishments after death was unacceptable to them. In fact, they rejected any notion of a spiritual dimension populated by demons and angels. And all of these beliefs put them at odds with the Pharisees.
Yet, oddly enough, these two opposing parties were willing to set aside their differences in order to take on their common enemy: Jesus.
Mark indicates that these men confronted Jesus, “seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him” (Mark 8:11 ESV). They were not asking Jesus to perform a miracle. They had already been eye-witnesses to many of Jesus’ more spectacular displays of power. What they were demanding was a “sign from heaven” – some kind of celestial proof that would verify His claims once and for all time. They had refused to accept any of His many miracles as being evidence of His divine calling. Instead, they had accused Him of casting out demons by the power of Satan (Mark 3:22). As Mark states, this was all nothing more than a test, an attempt to force Jesus’ hand and expose Him as the fraud they believed Him to be.
And Jesus, exasperated by their stubborn refusal to receive Him as their Messiah, “sighed deeply in his spirit” and responded, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation” (Mark 8:12 ESV).
Jesus exposes their true intentions. There was nothing He could have done that would have satisfied their demand. They were already convinced that He was a charlatan and no sign or celestial manifestation was going to change their minds. Mark indicates that Jesus simply walked away, leaving these men with neither a sign from heaven nor the definitive proof that He was a fraud. But, Matthew adds an important detail in his account of this same scene. He reports that Jesus confronted these men about their inability to recognize the obvious.
“You know the saying, ‘Red sky at night means fair weather tomorrow; red sky in the morning means foul weather all day.’ You know how to interpret the weather signs in the sky, but you don’t know how to interpret the signs of the times!” – Matthew 16:2-3 NLT
They could predict the weather based on “the signs” in the sky, but they were unable to recognize the Messiah based on the preponderance of evidence taking place around them. According to Jesus, everything He had said and done had been more than enough proof to support His claim to be the Son of God and the long-awaited Messiah. He was not going to provide them with any other “signs” other than “the sign of Jonah.”
“Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign, but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah.” – Matthew 16:4 NLT
This was not the first time Jesus had used this kind of language with the religious leaders. Matthew records an earlier encounter in which Jesus said the very same words and added, “For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights” (Matthew 12:40 NLT). Jesus used the well-known story of the Old Testament prophet, Jonah, in order to predict His own pending death, burial, and resurrection. The Jewish religious leaders would have been familiar with the story of Jonah but would not have understood the connection Jesus was making.
And Jesus condemned these men for their stubborn refusal to believe in Him. Jonah had been “resurrected” from the belly of the great fish and taken the message of God to the people of Ninevah. As a result, they had believed and repented. But even the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus would not be enough to make these stubborn religious leaders believe. And Jesus predicts the outcome they will face for their unbelief.
“The people of Nineveh will stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for they repented of their sins at the preaching of Jonah. Now someone greater than Jonah is here—but you refuse to repent.” – Matthew 12:42 NLT
The Ninevites to whom Jonah ended up preaching had been Gentile pagans. And yet, when they heard the message of God from the lips of the prophet of God, they had repented and been saved. And yet, the religious leaders of the Jewish people were refusing to hear the message of God from the lips of the very Son of God, choosing instead to remain unconvinced and unrepentant. And Jesus, unwilling to debate with them any further, got back in the boat with His disciples and sailed away.
What happens next reveals a great deal about the men whom Jesus had chosen to be His disciples. Mark records that they got back in the boat and then adds, “they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat” (Mark 8:14 ESV). So, they had not brought along the seven baskets of leftovers after all. We’re not told what they did with all that food, but only that they brought a single loaf of bread to share among 13 hungry men. Perhaps they thought that Jesus could multiply that loaf as well, so they decided to travel light and left the rest of the food behind.
But whatever the thought process behind their decision, Jesus took advantage of the moment to teach a valuable lesson.
“Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” – Mark 8:15 ESV
The disciples, confused by Jesus’ words, immediately assumed that He was upset with them for their failure to bring enough bread. It’s likely that they began casting blame, each accusing the other for this obvious lapse in judgment. And Jesus had to remind them that the quantity of bread was not the issue. He was not talking about literal bread at all.
“Why are you arguing about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Have your hearts been hardened? Though you have eyes, don’t you see? And though you have ears, can’t you hear? Don’t you remember?” – Mark 8:18-19 NLT
Had they already forgotten what He had done? Were they so hard-hearted that they couldn’t recall how, on two separate occasions, He had miraculously fed thousands of people with nothing more than a few loaves and fishes?
Their problem was not a lack of bread, but a lack of belief. In fact, Matthew adds that Jesus confronted them for their lack of faith.
“O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread?” – Matthew 16:8 ESV
While they were busy arguing about their paucity of bread, Jesus was trying to warn them about the teachings of the religious leaders. These men posed a serious threat because their prominent positions allowed them to propagate dangerous doctrines that could keep others from hearing and accepting Jesus as their Messiah. And Jesus would later condemn these men for the infectious and deadly nature of their influence.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven in people’s faces. You won’t go in yourselves, and you don’t let others enter either.
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” – Matthew 23:13-16 NLT
Jesus posed a rhetorical question to His disciples: “Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:21 ESV). He knew the answer and was well aware that it would only be after the coming of the Holy Spirit that the disciples would be able to comprehend all that He had said to them while He had been with them. But He would continue to use His confrontations with the religious leaders as prime teaching opportunities to instruct His 12 disciples. He wanted them to continue to believe, regardless of what the Pharisees and Sadducees might say. Their greatest need was not bread, but to continue to place their hope and trust in the Bread of Life.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.