Take Sin Seriously

42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. 43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ 49 For everyone will be salted with fire. 50 Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Mark 9:42-50 ESV

John had chosen to ignore the young boy Jesus was holding in His arms and, instead, had attempted to change the subject of conversation. He had wanted to divert attention away from Jesus’ object lesson on leadership and raise the issue of an unexpected and uninvited competitor, who was casting out demons without permission. This entire conversation had begun with an argument among the disciples about which of them was the greatest. And Jesus had picked up the little boy to use him as an object lesson for His ego-driven disciples.

“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. – Matthew 18:3-4 ESV

Now, after John’s attempted diversion, Jesus refocuses their attention back on the boy. Jesus expected His followers to reflect the humility of a helpless and powerless child. Their lives were to be marked by innocence and trustworthiness. They were to exhibit a child-like faith, a willingness to be led and cared for by others. But at the same time, the disciples were to understand their role as caretakers. They were going to be given the sobering responsibility of caring for the sheep of God. So, Jesus provides them with a stern warning.

“But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone hung around your neck.” – Mark 9:42 NLT

What the disciples failed to understand was that their role as leaders came with serious responsibilities. They coveted the authority and notoriety that came with a position of prominence but were oblivious to the risk involved. Little did they know that their quest for power could have a devastating impact on those under their care. Years later, the apostle Paul would later warn the believers in Philippi:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. – Philippians 2:3 ESV

And Paul would give an even more stark warning to the believers in Rome.

…but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. – Romans 2:8 ESV

The believers in Galatia would receive a similar word from Paul.

Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. – Galatians 5:26 ESV

And Jesus warned His disciples that an agonizing death would be preferable to a life of leading the innocent astray. God would hold His shepherds accountable for the care and feeding of His sheep. The disciples, driven by envy and jealousy, were upset that some unknown individual was stealing their thunder by casting out demons in the name of Jesus. But Jesus viewed him as an ally. What faith it must have taken for this man to perform miracles in Jesus’ name? He had not been chosen or trained by Jesus. He had not received any kind of commission from Jesus. But He was faithfully following the example of Jesus and setting free all those who were being held captive by the power of Satan.

But the disciples had tried to prevent this man from doing the very thing Jesus had commissioned them to do. And Jesus wants them to know that their jealousy-induced actions could have easily led this man into sin. He could have taken their words as a rebuke from Jesus Himself and chosen to stop following Him. What he needed was encouragement and a willingness on the part of the disciples to guide and instruct him.

And to make sure His disciples don’t miss the seriousness of what He is trying to tell them, Jesus provides them with some shocking illustrations involving self-mutilation. This little section was meant to get their attention. He wanted them to recognize the danger of indwelling sin and the deadly consequences it could have. Their jealousy could have caused this man to stumble. Their greed for greatness could easily create division among them and hamper their future mission. Personal sin had a way of infecting others. So, Jesus provided them with three graphic illustrations designed to encourage the self-purging of sin.

“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand than to go into the unquenchable fires of hell with two hands.  If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one foot than to be thrown into hell with two feet. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out. It’s better to enter the Kingdom of God with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell…” – Mark 9:43-47 NLT

Hand. Foot. Eye. Jesus chose three body parts that were essential to living a normal life. The loss of any one of them could greatly diminish the capacity to perform the everyday functions of life. To lose a hand, a foot, or an eye would render someone lame and partially blind, and reduce them to the lowly role of a beggar. Just consider the miracles Jesus has performed. He healed the man with the withered hand. He restored the ability to walk to a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years. He gave sight to a man who was born blind.

And yet, Jesus was telling His disciples that it would be better to lose a body part if doing so could prevent further sin. This hyperbolic language by Jesus was meant to shock and to drive home to His disciples the devastating nature of sin. Of course, it is not one’s hands, feet, or eyes that cause him to sin. It is his heart. This is exactly what Jesus had taught the disciples earlier.

“It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.” – Mark 7:20-23 NLT

But Jesus is using these extreme illustrations of physical dismemberment to make sure His disciples get the point. They were not to tolerate sin in their lives and were expected to take whatever measures necessary to eradicate its influence. Because it was deadly. And three different times, Jesus refers to the ultimate destination of all those who allow sin to control their lives.

the unquenchable fires of hell… – vs 44 (NLT)

thrown into hell – vs 46 (NLT)

thrown into hell – vs 47 (NLT)

And then, Jesus provides a graphic depiction of this final abode of the wicked.

where the maggots never die and the fire never goes out – vs 48 (NLT)

The Greek word that is translated as “hell” is gehenna, and it is the transliteration of the Hebrew word, hinnom. The Valley of Hinnom was just south of Jerusalem and it had a sordid reputation. Jeremiah records that the apostate people of Israel had used this valley as a sacred location where they worshiped their false gods.

They have also built places of worship in a place called Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom so that they can sacrifice their sons and daughters by fire. – Jeremiah 7:31 NLT

In Jesus’ day, the valley had been relegated as a landfill where all the refuse from the city was dumped. It was said that the fires never stopped burning in gehenna. The stench was horrific and the maggots were ever-present. It became the visual representation of the place of eternal punishment. The average Jew avoided gehenna at all costs. And Jesus wanted His disciples to know that hell was real and far more repulsive than a human landfill. And a life of sin would render someone fit for the fires of hell.

Jesus was not teaching His disciples that they could lose their salvation. He was warning them to consider the seriousness of sin. There was no place for sin in the heart of a Christ-follower, because sin leads to death and Jesus had come to set them free from sin and death. As His disciples, John and the others were to develop a growing distaste for sin. And much later, long after Jesus had died and resurrected, John would write to Christians, providing them with a warning about allowing sin to influence their lives.

For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. – 1 John 2:16 NLT

Notice the role the hands, the feet, and the eyes play in our pursuit of pleasure, achievement, and possessions. It begins with our eyes. With them, we lust and covet. We see things we desire and then begin to long for them. That’s where our feet come in. We pursue these things, chasing after them in a sad attempt to fulfill our heart’s desire. Then we use our hands to take hold of them. We make them our own. But in doing so, we replace the will of the Father with the desires of the heart. We make worldliness our goal, rather than godliness.

The last few sentences of Jesus’ teaching are difficult to understand. He moves from discussing amputation and disfigurement to talking about saltiness.

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good, but if the salt has lost its saltiness, how will you make it salty again? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” – Mark 9:49-50 ESV

It seems that Jesus had shifted from talking about the unquenchable fires of hell to a different kind of fire that is present in this life. Rather than a fire of everlasting punishment for sin, it is a purifying kind of fire. He compares it to salt, which was used as a natural preservative in that day. Jesus describes a kind of purging, purifying fire that is meant to expose and remove the dross of sin in our lives. It is to be cut out and eliminated. This process is to be expected and appreciated by the Christ-follower. Jesus even encourages His disciples to “have salt in yourselves.”

They were to welcome the preserving and purifying nature of God’s work in their lives. Peter would later refer to the “fiery trials” that every believer would encounter during their time on this earth.

Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. Instead, be very glad—for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world. – 1 Peter 4:12-13 NLT

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Lesson in Least-ness

30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, 31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” 32 But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him.

33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” Mark 9:30-37 ESV

For a brief period of time, Jesus tried to maintain some sense of secrecy concerning His whereabouts so that He might spend more time instructing His disciples. This would not have been easy because Jesus attracted large crowds wherever He went. But Jesus did what He could to remain incognito as He passed through the region of Galilee. It was essential that He prepare His disciples for what was to come, and the information He was going to share with them was for their ears only. It was not intended for mass distribution.

These men, who had confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God, needed to come to grips with the reality of His earthly mission. Jesus was fully aware that they had drawn wrong conclusions about His role as the Messiah and were still expecting Him to set up His earthly Kingdom. To them, all the miracles and messages were simply the opening acts of what was supposed to be the main event: Jesus establishing Himself as the next king of Israel. And because they were His faithful followers, they believed they were destined to play significant roles in His royal administration.

So, for the second time, Jesus attempted to realign their expectations by revealing the facts concerning His coming death in Jerusalem. The first time Jesus had broached this uncomfortable subject, it had earned Him a stern rebuke from Peter. This outspoken and overly impulsive member of Jesus’ inner circle had found the news disconcerting and unacceptable and had told Jesus so. And a closer look at what Jesus told them makes Peter’s reaction somewhat understandable.

Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and after three days rise again. – Mark 8:31 NLT

For Peter and his companions, this information seemed outside the realm of possibility. If Jesus was the Son of God and the Messiah for whom they had long been waiting, how could His life end in death? What possible good could come from a dead Messiah? How was He supposed to rescue His people from their enslavement to Rome if He was dead?

Jesus had spoken plainly and quite bluntly. He had not sugarcoated the news or presented it in terms the disciples might find more palatable. But at the same time, He did not provide much in the way of further explanation. Yes, He mentioned His resurrection, but in such a cursory way that the disciples failed to grasp what He was talking about.

So, Jesus revisits the topic one more time. Bit it’s important to recall the event that is sandwiched in between these two disclosures. The transfiguration of Jesus was intended to give the three disciples who witnessed it a glimpse into the future. They were given the privilege of seeing Jesus in His glorified state, discussing His coming departure from this earth with Elijah and Moses.

That remarkable experience must have sealed the deal for Peter, James, and John. The vision of Jesus in His glory, the presence of the two prophets of Israel, and the audible voice of God declaring Jesus to be His Son, all provided incontrovertible evidence that Jesus was the Messiah.  And yet, as they came down the mountain, they could only think about one thing: What Jesus had meant by “rising from the dead” (Mark 9:10).

It’s likely that the transfiguration had only made Jesus’ comments about His death and rising again all the more confusing to the disciples. They were having a difficult time reconciling what they had seen on the mountain top with what Jesus had described as His future fate. And Jesus, fully aware of their lingering inability to process His words, simply repeated them.

“The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” – Mark 9:31 ESV

And Mark indicates that they remained just as confused as before.

…they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him. – Mark 9:32 ESV

These men weren’t afraid to ask Jesus questions. They did so all the time. But they were afraid of knowing the truth, so they kept their mouths shut. As the old saying goes, “Ignorance is bliss.” Little did they know that they were on their way to Jerusalem, where everything was going to take place, just as Jesus had predicted. They could ignore the topic, but it was not going away.

When they arrived back in Capernaum, their unofficial headquarters, Jesus asked the disciples what they had been discussing along the way. But, once again, they chose to remain silent. And rightfully so, because to admit the topic of their conversation would have been embarrassing. But Mark spills the beans, revealing that “they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest” (Mark 9:34 NLT).

Now, before we paint the disciples as egotistical and self-centered powermongers, let’s look at the facts. They had been handpicked by Jesus. They were His chosen followers and had been given authority by Jesus to cast out demons. When Peter had confessed that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus had said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:19 ESV). And Peter, James, and John had been chosen by Jesus to witness His transfiguration. So, these men were somewhat justified in thinking that they would play important roles in Jesus’ coming kingdom.

The problem was that they were arguing over which one of them was the greatest. They had taken their eyes off of Jesus and had begun to focus on their own self-worth. And there is little doubt that Peter, James, and John were justifying their superiority with tales of their experience at the transfiguration. Rather than discussing the death of Jesus and what His reference to rising again might mean, they were busy debating their own value to the kingdom. This jockeying for position will continue on into the next chapter, where Mark reveals that James and John come to Jesus and make a bold request: “When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left” (Mark 10:37 NLT).

These men were operating from a purely secular and temporal perspective. They saw Jesus as the coming King of Israel and they were hoping to garner key posts in His administration. While Jesus was talking about self-sacrifice, they were busy arguing over their own self-worth and qualifications for leadership roles in the new kingdom.

But Jesus gathered the 12 together and gave them a much-needed lesson on spiritual leadership.

“Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else.” – Mark 9:35 NLT

This comment must have caught the disciples by surprise. First of all, it revealed that Jesus knew the topic of their conversation, and that must have been embarrassing for them. But secondly, His words were incongruent. They didn’t add up. In their culture, servants were considered the least of the least. And last place was no place for a leader. The thought of willingly subjugating yourself in order to serve someone else would have made no sense to these men.

So, to drive home His point, Jesus gave them an object lesson. Picking up a small child in His arms, He said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (Mark 9:37 ESV).

In their culture, children were considered the least of the least. They had no rights or privileges. They were powerless and helpless. And yet, Jesus stood before the disciples, holding one of these seemingly insignificant and unimportant children in His arms. And four different times, Jesus used the word dechomai, which can be translated as “receives” but carries a much fuller meaning: “to embrace, make one’s own, approve, not to reject.” In their society, children tended to be ignored. But by holding this child in His arms, Jesus was placing the least in a position of highest honor.

Jesus’ words should have had an air of familiarity to them. The disciples had heard Him say something similar. Just prior to Him sending out the 12 on their first missionary journey, He had told them:

“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. – Matthew 10:40 ESV

He used the very same formula:

To receive the least ——- is to receive Jesus ——–is to receive God

The disciples were to be the least. They were to be the servants of all. In other words, their role was going to be that of the lowest, not the highest. Their status was to be measured by humility, not glory. The child Jesus held in His arms had no inherent worth or value – from a worldly perspective. He had yet to accomplish anything with his life. He could not boast about his education or business accomplishments. But Jesus had chosen to use this insignificant child to convey a deep spiritual truth. And Jesus was going to use the insignificant disciples to take the message of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Not because they were great, but because they were the least. And all those who received the disciples and their message would receive Christ. And to receive Christ would be to receive a restored relationship with God.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

All Things Are Possible

14 And when they came to the disciples, they saw a great crowd around them, and scribes arguing with them. 15 And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him. 16 And he asked them, “What are you arguing about with them?” 17 And someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought my son to you, for he has a spirit that makes him mute. 18 And whenever it seizes him, it throws him down, and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. So I asked your disciples to cast it out, and they were not able.” 19 And he answered them, “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” 20 And they brought the boy to him. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. 21 And Jesus asked his father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. 22 And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” 23 And Jesus said to him, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” 24 Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” 25 And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” 26 And after crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” 27 But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose. 28 And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” 29 And he said to them, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” Mark 9:14-29 ESV

The next day (Luke 9:37), when Jesus, Peter, James, and John rejoined the other disciples, they were greeted by a scene of chaos and confusion. There was a large crowd encircling the other nine disciples, who were in a heated argument with the scribes. But as soon as Jesus arrived on the scene, He became the focus of attention, drawing the crowds like moths to a flame.

Like a father who arrives home to find his children in an unexpected predicament, Jesus attempts to discern the cause of the trouble. And it doesn’t take Him long to discover that the conflict involves His disciples and one other man in the crowd. The rest of the crowd were like rubberneckers at an accident, drawn by the spectacle of it all and curious to see what was going to happen next.

When Jesus demanded to know the cause of the argument taking place, a father in the crowd spoke up.

“Teacher, I brought my son so you could heal him. He is possessed by an evil spirit that won’t let him talk. And whenever this spirit seizes him, it throws him violently to the ground. Then he foams at the mouth and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid.” – Mark 9:17-18 NLT

This man had come expecting to find Jesus but instead, he had encountered the nine disciples whom Jesus had left behind. In his account of this event, Matthew describes the man as kneeling at the feet of Jesus. His actions reveal his high regard for Jesus and his belief that Jesus was capable of assisting him with his need. He had brought his son to Jesus for healing but when he had discovered Jesus to be gone, he had turned to the disciples for help.

“So I asked your disciples to cast out the evil spirit, but they couldn’t do it.” – Mark 9:18 NLT

Disappointed by his failure to find Jesus, the anxious father had turned to the disciples for help. And it seems clear from the text that these men had made a valiant effort to cast the demon from the man’s son but with no success. What makes their failure so significant is that Jesus had given all of the disciples the authority to cast out demons (Mark 3:15). And they had successfully proven their possession of that authority when Jesus had sent them out in pairs to preach, teach, and heal. Mark reports that “they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them” (Mark 6:13 ESV).

And yet, on this occasion, their efforts had come up short. The argument that had ensued must have begun when the disciples started making excuses for their failed attempts at exorcising the demon. Perhaps they began to question whether this man or his son had broken a particular Mosaic law and this violation had resulted in the boy’s condition. They were obviously frustrated at their inability to exercise their authority over the demon, and were trying to figure out what was standing in their way. When all the dust had settled, they even asked Jesus, “Why couldn’t we cast out that evil spirit?” (Mark 9:28 NLT).

The scribes may have been dragged into the argument in order to explain the Mosaic Law and to give their opinions on the boy’s condition and the demon’s persistent power over him. The whole scene had quickly devolved into a shouting match, with each side pointing fingers at the other. And all the while, the boy remained demon possessed.

Into this storm of confusion and chaos, entered the only one who could bring peace and calm. Jesus, disappointed at the sordid scene taking place in front of Him, declared His frustration.

“O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him to me.” – Mark 9:19 ESV

To fully appreciate Jesus’ words, one must recall the transfiguration that Jesus had just experienced on the mountain top. For a brief moment in time, Jesus had been transformed into His future, glorified state. He had been joined by Moses and Elijah, two of the great patriarchs of the Hebrew people, and the three of them had discussed His coming “exodus” or departure from this life. It had all been a much-needed reminder that His days on this earth were coming to a close and He would soon be returning to His Father’s side. But upon His descent from the mountain, Jesus had encountered a scene of faithlessness and spiritual apostasy.

This recalls a similar scene that took place hundreds of years earlier. Moses, the great deliverer of the Hebrew people, had just spent 40 days and nights on the top of Mount Sinai. He had enjoyed an intimate communion with God and had received the Ten Commandments from the hand of God. But when He descended from the mountain, he had found the people of Israel worshiping before a false god. He had returned to a scene of chaos and confusion prompted by the faithlessness of the people of God.

Jesus, having descended from the mountain of transfiguration, was being forced to look upon a scene where faith was in short supply and the enemy was having his way among the people of God. The disciples’ inability to cast out the demon had left the boy still possessed and persecuted. But even more important, their failure of faith had left the people in a state of doubt and uncertainty.

But Jesus stepped into the darkness of the moment and focused His full attention of the state of the boy. The father provided Jesus with a blow-by-blow description of his son’s condition, explaining in great detail how relentlessly the demon had tormented his child. And you can sense his growing state of desperation as he begs Jesus for help.

“But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” – Mark 9:22 ESV

At this point, he is not even sure if Jesus can do anything about his son’s condition. He is losing hope. But Jesus gently rebukes the man’s timid and half-hearted expression of faith, stating, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes” (MRK 9:23 ESV). Jesus seems to be telling the man that it is not so much a matter of if He can heal the boy, but if He will. This was less an indictment of the man’s faith, so much as it was an exposure of his lack of understanding of who Jesus was.

The father, anxious to see his son healed, cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24 ESV). He desperately wanted to believe that Jesus could heal his son, but he had seen the disciples try and fail. He still harbored doubts and asked Jesus to remove any and all doubts by casting the demon from his son. And Jesus did just as the man wished. He addressed the demon directly, commanding it to leave the boy and to never return.

“You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” – Mark 9:25 ESV

And the demon obeyed, convulsing the boy one last time and leaving him in a catatonic state that made it appear as if he was dead. But Jesus raised the boy up, revealing him to be fully restored to health.

This entire scene had been a demonstration of faith. But the focus was not on the faith of the father. Jesus was exposing the faithlessness of His disciples. Matthew records that after Jesus had exorcised the demon and the disciples had asked why they had been unsuccessful, He had responded, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20 ESV).

Remember, Jesus had told the man, “All things are possible for one who believes.” The emphasis was on His own faith, not that of the father. Jesus fully believed He had the power and authority to cast out the demon, and He proved it by doing so. He knew who He was and what He was capable of accomplishing with the power He had been given by God. But the disciples were another matter. Their belief had proven insufficient. But it was not the amount of their faith that was the problem. It was their inability to understand the true source of their power. According to Jesus, all they needed was the smallest portion of faith but in the full power of God, and they could literally “move mountains.”

Their ability to cast out demons did not reside in themselves. It was not some inherent power they possessed but it was meted out to them by God. That is why Jesus told them that “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29 ESV). They had failed to understand that their earlier experience of casting out demons had been authorized by Jesus and made possible by God’s power, not their own. But they had somehow believed that they were in personal possession of that power. They had wrongly assumed that it had become permanently resident within them.

In trying to cast out the demon, they had put their faith in themselves. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, the disciples had ended up worshiping a false god: Themselves. They thought they were the possessors of power, but Jesus reminded them that even the smallest of faith placed in the power of God could produce the greatest of miracles. Jesus believed He had authority over the demon because He believed He had the power and authority of God at His disposal. His life was living proof that “All things are possible for one who believes.”

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

All In God’s Timing

And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. 10 So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. 11 And they asked him, “Why do the scribes say that first Elijah must come?” 12 And he said to them, “Elijah does come first to restore all things. And how is it written of the Son of Man that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt? 13 But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him.” Mark 9:9-13 ESV

Being a disciple of Jesus must have been a roller-coaster ride of emotions and experiences. Every day for three years, these 12 men had been exposed to mind-blowing displays of never-before-seen miracles. And these relatively uneducated men had received a daily dose of profound and difficult-to-understand teaching that left even the scribes and Pharisees dumbfounded. Their time with Jesus had been an adventure but also a head-spinning whirlwind of cryptic sayings and confounding experiences.

As Peter, James, and John made their way down the mountain, their minds must have been reeling from what they had just witnessed. Just minutes earlier, they had watched as Jesus was transformed right before their eyes. Suddenly, without warning or explanation, Jesus began to emanate a brilliant light. Mark described it this way: “his clothes became dazzling white, far whiter than any earthly bleach could ever make them” (Mark 9:3 NLT). These three men had seen Jesus do a lot of inexplicable and unprecedented things over the last three years, but nothing quite like this. When they had witnessed Jesus walking on the water in the midst of a storm, it had made a distinct impression. In fact, they had initially thought He was some kind of ghostly apparition. So, what must have been going through their minds as they took in the transfiguration of Jesus?

But when the long-departed prophets, Moses and Elijah, had suddenly appeared on the scene, it seems that the disciples began to put two and two together. They knew that something spectacular was happening. And as they took in the scene transpiring before them, they must have wondered if this was it – was Jesus getting ready to usher in His Kingdom? Had Moses, the great deliverer come to assist Jesus in His quest to release the people of Israel from their captivity to the Romans? And was the appearance of Elijah proof that the time had come? Was this the fulfillment of the long-awaited prophecy?

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6 ESV

But the miracle on the mountain had ended just as fast as it had started. Suddenly, Elijah and Moses were gone and Jesus stood before them just as He had been before. The glory was gone but the impact of the moment lingered with the disciples. And they must have been bursting at the seams, eager to tell the other nine disciples all that they had seen. But Jesus threw cold water on their plans, commanding them to keep it all to themselves until the proper time.

he told them not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. – Mark 9:9 NLT

Now stop and think about this statement for a second. The disciples had just witnessed Jesus speaking to Moses and Elijah. Their minds must have been filled with thoughts of the coming Kingdom. Their hopes and dreams of Jesus being the long-awaited Messiah were about to come true. And yet, He brings up the subject of death again. This was the same topic He had raised before the transfiguration.

Then Jesus began to tell them that the Son of Man must suffer many terrible things and be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but three days later he would rise from the dead. – Mark 8:31 NLT

Peter had found this news unacceptable and had told Jesus so. But his verbal dismissal of Jesus’ words had earned him a stern rebuke. Now Peter, James, and John were hearing Jesus bring up the same incomprehensible and objectionable subject again. And Mark makes it clear that they had no idea what Jesus was talking about.

…they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean. – Mark 9:10 ESV

It wasn’t that the disciples had no concept of the resurrection. As Jews, they believed in a future resurrection of the dead. They would have been familiar with the writings of Isaiah and Daniel.

Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise.
    You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!
For your dew is a dew of light,
    and the earth will give birth to the dead. – Isaiah 26:19 ESV

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. – Daniel 12:2-3 ESV

In a later scene from Jesus’ life, He would tell Martha that her dead brother Lazarus would “rise again” (John 11:23 ESV). And her response would be: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24 ESV). She believed in a future resurrection of the dead at the end of the age. So did the disciples. But they were having difficulty understanding what any of this had to do with Jesus establishing His Kingdom.

Confused by Jesus’ words, the disciples simply ignore them and turn their attention back to the scene they had witnessed on the mountain top. They had seen Elijah with their own eyes and this most likely had led them to believe that the prophecy of Malachi was being fulfilled. So, they asked Jesus for clarification.

“Why do the teachers of religious law insist that Elijah must return before the Messiah comes?” – Mark 9:11 NLT

Their question has a purpose behind it. They had just seen Elijah, so they were asking Jesus to confirm that His messiahship was about to begin. One thing was meant to follow the other. Elijah had appeared, now it was time for Jesus to do His part. The disciples had to have been thinking about another familiar Messianic passage from the pen of Malachi.

“Look! I am sending my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. Then the Lord you are seeking will suddenly come to his Temple. The messenger of the covenant, whom you look for so eagerly, is surely coming,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.

“But who will be able to endure it when he comes? Who will be able to stand and face him when he appears? For he will be like a blazing fire that refines metal, or like a strong soap that bleaches clothes. He will sit like a refiner of silver, burning away the dross. He will purify the Levites, refining them like gold and silver, so that they may once again offer acceptable sacrifices to the Lord. Then once more the Lord will accept the offerings brought to him by the people of Judah and Jerusalem, as he did in the past.” – Malachi 3:1-4 NLT

You can see the imagery used by Malachi that supported what the disciples had seen on the mountain top. The blazing Messiah, reigning from His temple and restoring the nation of Israel to its former glory.

It seems that the disciples had linked their siting of Elijah with the timing of the Messiah’s appearance. They had just seen Elijah, so it must be time for Jesus to drop the charade and reveal Himself for who He really was: The Messiah of Israel. It was time for Him to get down to the serious business of ruling and reigning from the throne of David. The time for miracles and difficult-to-understand messages was over.

But Jesus revealed that the scribes had interpreted Malachi correctly. Elijah would precede the Messiah.

“Elijah is indeed coming first to get everything ready. – Mark 9:12 NLT

But the scribes and the disciples had left out a very important part of the prophecy. Not only was Elijah to come first, but the Messiah was going to endure great suffering. The people of Israel had conveniently ignored the many Old Testament passages that alluded to the Messiah’s death. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, King David had written about the Messiah’s treatment at the hands of men.

But I am a worm and not a man,
    scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
    they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
    let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” – Psalm 22:6-8 ESV

And Matthew records the fulfillment of this prophecy.

So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” – Matthew 27:41-43 ESV

The prophet Isaiah predicted the tremendous suffering and agony that the Messiah would have to endure at the hands of sinful men.

See, my servant will prosper;
    he will be highly exalted.
But many were amazed when they saw him.
    His face was so disfigured he seemed hardly human,
    and from his appearance, one would scarcely know he was a man. – Isaiah 52:13-14 NLT

He was despised and rejected—
    a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
We turned our backs on him and looked the other way.
    He was despised, and we did not care. – Isaiah 53:3 NLT

But he was pierced for our rebellion,
    crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
    He was whipped so we could be healed. – Isaiah 53:5 NLT

He was oppressed and treated harshly,
    yet he never said a word.
He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. – Isaiah 53:7 NLT

Jesus wants His disciples to know that the very same Scriptures that predict the coming of Elijah also predict the suffering of the Son of Man. So, He asks them, “why do the Scriptures say that the Son of Man must suffer greatly and be treated with utter contempt?” (Mark 9:12 NLT). There is a divine order to things. God has a plan and every detail of that plan must take place in order, including the suffering of the Savior.

Then Jesus dropped the real news that must have exploded like a bombshell on the unsuspecting disciples.

“But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they chose to abuse him, just as the Scriptures predicted.” – Mark 9:13 NLT

And Jesus wasn’t referring to the same Elijah they saw on the mountain top. He was speaking of John the Baptist. This was confirmed by the angel who visited Zechariah and informed him that his wife would give birth to a son.

Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.” – Luke 1:13-17 NLT

At the time when Jesus and His disciples were descending the mountain, John the Baptist was dead, a victim of the wrath of Herod. And Jesus let the disciples know that the death of John would precede His own death.

“…they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man will certainly suffer at their hands.” – Matthew 17:12 ESV

The disciples’ experience on the mountain had left them eagerly anticipating that Jesus was about to establish His Kingdom. But something else had to happen first. The Son of Man must suffer.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Missing the Signs

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
Press, 1989

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Case of Déjà Vu

1 In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. 10 And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha Mark 8:1-10 ESV

There is the School of Hard Knocks and then there is the lesser-known but equally popular School of Repetitive Lessons. The first provides unsolicited educational opportunities through the means of difficult and often unexpected life experiences. These painful and oftentimes self-inflicted life lessons are a vital part of the human growth process. It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said, “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

But many of us have spent more time in the second educational venue without even realizing it. Like the main character in the movie, Groundhog Day, we wake up each morning with the eery sensation that we’ve been here before. But we can’t quite put our finger on it. Everything feels a bit repetitive, almost as if someone has rewound the video of our life and hit replay. Like a child who has to repeat second grade, we find ourselves reliving and relearning certain life experiences because we failed to grasp their significance the first time around. It’s what I affectionately call it God’s School for Remedial Slow Learners.

Today’s passage has an air of familiarity to it. In reading it, it’s difficult to ignore the impression that we’ve been here before – because we have. In a sense, Mark is allowing us to look on as the 12 disciples re-enter the School of Repetitive Learning where they will get a second opportunity to learn what they missed the first time around.

Chapter six contains Mark’s account of the feeding of the 5,000. On that occasion, Jesus had feed a large crowd, probably in excess of 10,000 people, with nothing more than fives loaves of bread and two fishes. He had miraculously multiplied those meager resources so that everyone in the crowd was able to eat as much as they wanted. And when the people had walked away full and satisfied, the disciples were able to fill up 12 baskets with the uneaten bread and fish. Those 12 baskets were to be a visual answer to the question that Andrew had asked: “what are they for so many?” (John 6:9 ESV). Andrew had deemed the fives loaves and two fish as insufficient to meet the need they faced. But in doing so, he failed to understand the sufficiency of Jesus. And even after Jesus had proven His power to provide, the disciples had failed to learn the lesson. Mark went on to comment, “they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:52 ESV).

So, here we are again, watching the disciples as they reenter Jesus’ School of Repetitive Learning. And Mark makes sure we don’t miss the recurrent nature of this scene.

…again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat… – Mark 8:1 ESV

It was déjà vu all over again, but the disciples fail to recognize the repetitive nature of what is happening. So, Jesus sets up the scene for them.

“I feel sorry for these people. They have been here with me for three days, and they have nothing left to eat. If I send them home hungry, they will faint along the way. For some of them have come a long distance.” – Mark 8:2-3 NLT

Jesus lobs them a softball. He graciously offers them an opportunity to prove that they had learned the lesson from the previous experience. But they swing and miss.

“How are we supposed to find enough food to feed them out here in the wilderness?” – Mark 8:4 NLT

The quiz had one simple question and, sadly, they reveal that they had no idea what the answer was. And they show no signs that they recognize anything familiar about this scene. So, once again, Jesus asks them to assess their available resources.

“How many loaves do you have?” – Mark 8:5 ESV

And all they can muster up is a scant seven loaves of bread and a few small fish. By this time, you would have expected at least one of the disciples to have recalled the earlier episode and made the connection. Surely, Peter and Andrew were capable of remembering what Jesus had done with the five loaves and two fish. Wasn’t John smart enough to recognize what was happening and to express his confidence in Jesus’ ability to meet the need of the moment? Evidently not.

So Jesus told all the people to sit down on the ground. Then he took the seven loaves, thanked God for them, and broke them into pieces. He gave them to his disciples, who distributed the bread to the crowd. – Mark 8:6 NLT

Jesus performed yet another miracle and allowed His hard-hearted disciples to participate in the process. They became the means of distribution. The bread, broken and blessed by Jesus, passed from His hands through theirs. They took what Jesus provided and made it available to those in need. These slow-to-learn and quick-to-doubt men were being given a glimpse of the future role they would play as Jesus’ ambassadors. The day was coming when He would allow His body to be broken on behalf of sinful men and women, the Bread of Life offering Himself so that the spiritually hungry might be satisfied. And the disciples would be given the task of distributing the Bread to all those who would receive it.

“…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” – Acts 1:8 ESV

Little did they know that these lessons were intended to prepare them for something far more significant and life-changing. They remained oblivious to the lesson that Jesus was trying to teach them. And it would not be the last time that Jesus used the metaphor of broken bread to convey the reality of His life’s mission. One night, in the room where Jesus celebrated His last Passover meal with His disciples, He would revisit those two earlier experiences, connecting the dots for them.

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” – Luke 22:19 ESV

It had never been about loaves and fishes. It had never been about satisfying temporal needs or filling empty stomachs. Jesus had come to offer His life as a sacrifice for the sins of fallen mankind. And one day, these very same men would find themselves distributing the good news of Jesus’ sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection to the spiritually hungry. Jesus would offer His life to be broken and they would have the joy and privilege of distributing the news of His gift to all those who would accept it.

Jesus had declared Himself to be the bread that had been sent from heaven by God the Father.

For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” – John 6:33 ESV

And He offered Himself as the means by which the hungry and thirsty might find satisfaction.

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger…” – John 6:35 ESV

So, as the disciples once again distributed the broken bread and fish, they probably had the nagging sense that they had been here before. It all had an eery familiarity to it. The people ate and were satisfied. And the disciples picked up seven baskets of leftovers. But they remained just as oblivious as before. They failed to learn the lesson Jesus was trying to teach them. But He would lovingly and patiently repeat the message because He knew the day was coming when the light would go on and all the lessons would finally make sense. These men who had been so slow to learn would become His primary means of distributing the Bread of Life to a spiritually famished world.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Mercy for the Defiled

24 And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. 25 But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. 26 Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. 27 And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 28 But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” 29 And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” 30 And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre and went through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. 32 And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. 33 And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. 34 And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” 35 And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. 36 And Jesus charged them to tell no one. But the more he charged them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. 37 And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, “He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” Mark 7:24-37 ESV

After His rather lengthy and heated debate with the religious leaders over the topic of ritual cleansing and defilement, Jesus took His disciples on an unexpected journey outside the confines of Israel. The Jewish Messiah, who had come “to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11),  took His message to the Gentiles. In a sense, Jesus was leaving behind the legalistic, self-righteous law-keepers and choosing to align Himself with the unclean and lawless pagans living in the land of Phoenicia.

The scribes and Pharisees had been appalled that Jesus and His disciples did not practice the traditional rite of hand-cleansing before eating bread. What would they think when they heard that Jesus had defiled Himself by traveling outside Galilee and associating with non-Jews?

But that seemed to be the point of Jesus’ excursion outside the land of Israel. God had promised Abraham, “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 22:18 ESV). And the apostle Paul picked up on that theme in his letter to the churches in Galatia. These congregations would have been made up mostly of Gentiles who had become followers of Christ.

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” – Galatians 3:7-8 ESV

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:16 ESV

In traveling to the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon, Jesus was demonstrating the truth of the Father’s promise to Abraham. The “offspring” of Abraham was about to “bless” the nations.

Mark indicates that Jesus “entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden” (Mark 7:24 ESV). This statement was meant to carry a lot of weight. According to Jewish law, by entering the house of a Gentile, Jesus defiled Himself and rendered Himself ceremonially unclean.

The strict Jew would not enter a Gentile’s house, nor sit on the same couch, nor eat or drink out of the same vessel. The very dust of a heathen city was defiling. – Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers

A second-century text called The Book of Julilees contains the following warning against any association with Gentiles.

And you also, my son, Jacob, remember my words, and keep the commandments of Abraham, your father. Separate yourself from the Gentiles, and do not eat with them, and do not perform deeds like theirs. And do not become associates of theirs. Because their deeds are defiled, and all their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable. – Jubilees 22:16

So, Mark’s reference to Jesus entering a Gentile home was meant to shock and surprise his readers. Yet, the rumors concerning Jesus and His miraculous powers had made their way all the way to Phoenicia. And Mark indicates that “immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet” (Mark 7:25 ESV). Matthew refers to her as “a Canaanite woman” (Matthew 15:22 ESV). The term “Canaanite” was an all-inclusive term used to refer to any and all Gentiles who lived in the land that had originally been known as Canaan. This woman was a Gentile and yet she was willing to seek out the Jewish Messiah in the hopes that He could help her with a pressing problem. And it seems clear that Mark wants his readers to grasp the shocking nature of this encounter.

Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. – Mark 7:26 ESV

The woman was a non-Jew, so she was unclean and unholy. And to make matters worse, her daughter was possessed by a demon. Everything about this scenario is meant to stress her defilement and to place Jesus in a potentially compromising position. But in his account of this story, Matthew adds a very interesting and important detail. In begging Jesus to help her daughter, the woman reveals an uncharacteristic understanding of who Jesus really was.

“Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” – Matthew 15:22 ESV

By addressing Jesus as “Son of David,” she acknowledged her belief that He was the Jew’s long-awaited Messiah, the promised descendant of King David. This was not necessarily an expression of saving faith, but a confession that she believed Jesus to be someone of great power and significance. And because she had heard of His many miracles, she begged this powerful man to show her mercy by helping her daughter.

Only Matthew provides any indication as to the reaction of the disciples to all of this. He reveals that these good Jews were appalled at the woman’s unmitigated gall and begged Jesus to get rid of her.

“Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” – Matthew 15:23 ESV

Everything about this trip must have had them shaking their heads in wonder. Why would Jesus drag them on a 30-mile journey to a place like Tyre. It’s likely that none of these men had ever ventured outside the borders of Israel, so they might have seen this trip as an adventure. But when Jesus began to interface with the local inhabitants, they must have been surprised and confused. And what Jesus says to the woman echoes the disciples’ sentiments.

“Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” – Mark 7:27 ESV

Dogs were considered unclean to the Jews. Rarely kept as pets, they were typically used as guard dogs, and the streets of most Israelite towns and villages were filled with strays that scavenged for food and could prove to be a threat to public safety. So, when Jesus referred to this woman as a “dog,” He was expressing the commonly held view of most Jews concerning Gentiles.

According to Matthew, Jesus had told the woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24 ESV). He had made it clear to her that His original mission had been to His own people. But she was not willing to give up that easily. Her need was great and Jesus was the only hope she had.

Unphased by Jesus’ comments, she simply responded, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs” (Mark 7:28 ESV). She didn’t debate His assessment of her social standing. She wasn’t offended by His seeming slight. She acknowledged her unworthiness and humbly begged for a “crumb” of His goodness and mercy. She knew she was undeserving of His mercy and she was willing to take anything He was willing to give her. And Jesus gladly obliged her request.

“For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” – Mark 7:29 ESV

And Matthew reveals that it was not the statement itself that produced her daughter’s miraculous healing, but it was the faith that had motivated it.

“O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. – Matthew 15:28 ESV

She had believed in the power and authority of Jesus, and she was rewarded for that belief.

And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone. – Mark 7:30 ESV

She went home to find her daughter completely whole and in her right mind. But Jesus and His disciples left Tyre and headed north to the city of Sidon, then back through Galilee and all the way to Decapolis, on the southeastern side of the Sea of Galilee. This would have been a long and arduous trip that lasted anywhere from a few weeks to a month. And when they arrived in this predominantly Gentile region, Jesus once again found Himself confronted by a request for healing.

…they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. – Mark 7:32 ESV

Mark doesn’t reveal whether this man was a Jew or a Gentile, but like the Canaanite woman, he had a pressing problem that required the power of Jesus. And Mark’s description of the man’s condition is critical to understanding the meaning behind this miracle. This man suffered from a “speech impediment” and Mark uses a rare Greek word, mogilalos, to describe it. The only other time this word appears is the Greek Septuagint rendering of Isaiah 35:4-6.

Say to those who have an anxious heart,
    “Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
    will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
    He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the mute [mogilalos] sing for joy.

This Messianic passage prophecies the coming of the Messiah and portrays the amazing miracles He would perform on His arrival. And here was Jesus being provided with yet another opportunity to reveal His true identity through another supernatural display of His power.

The means by which this miracle was enacted is truly unique. Jesus took the man aside, “put his fingers into the man’s ears. Then, spitting on his own fingers, he touched the man’s tongue” (Mark 7:33 NLT). None of this was necessary. Mark had just described Jesus healing the Canaanite woman’s daughter from a distance and with nothing more than a spoken word. But in this case, Jesus went out of His way to touch the man, and in doing so, He would have become ceremonially defiled. This man’s very condition made him unclean because it was a common belief among the Jews that disease and disabilities were the end result of sin. Yet, Jesus touched the man’s ears and even his tongue, then declared, “Be opened” (Mark 7:35 ESV). And they were. The man’s hearing and speech were immediately and fully restored, and the onlookers “were astonished beyond measure” (Mark 7:37 ESV). They couldn’t believe what they had just witnessed.

“Everything he does is wonderful. He even makes the deaf to hear and gives speech to those who cannot speak.” – Mark 7:37 NLT

And while Jesus warned them to tell no one what they had seen, they couldn’t help themselves. The news of this miracle spread throughout the region. And these two miracles, the healing of the girl in Tyre and the healing of the man in Decapolis, created an interest in and a hunger for the Messiah among the Gentiles. And this is important, because after His resurrection, Jesus commissioned His disciples to be His witnesses “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 ESV). And when they arrived in those places like Phoenicia and Decapolis, they would find an audience ready to hear about the good news of Jesus, the Messiah.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Serious Heart Condition

14 And he called the people to him again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand: 15 There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” 17 And when he had entered the house and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. 18 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” Mark 7:14-23 ESV

A small contingent of scribes and Pharisees had confronted Jesus with an accusation presented in the form of a question. They were demanding that Jesus explain the “shocking” behavior of His disciples.

“Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” – Mark 7:5 ESV

What shocked these pious religious leaders was the sight of Jesus’ disciples consuming food without having first cleansed their hands properly.  The word “defiled” is a translation of the Greek word, aniptos which means “unwashed.”  Mark provides a clue as to what was motivating the religious leaders.

For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders… – Mark 7:3 ESV

According to these men, the disciples had violated established protocol. The “tradition of the elders” or oral law, required that all Jews go through a ceremonial cleansing of the hands before eating. Jews were required to wash their hands and say a blessing before eating any meal that included bread. The ritual was known as netilat yadayim, and involved the use of a cup that was used to pour water onto the hands and allowing it to flow down to the elbows. The ritual had nothing to do with personal hygiene but was done for ritualistic purposes.

According to the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, this was nothing more than a ceremony that had little pragmatic value.

When, therefore, some of the Pharisees remarked that our Lord’s disciples ate with “unwashen hands,” it is not to be understood literally that they did not at all wash their hands, but that they did not wash them ceremonially according to their own practice. And this was expected of them only as the disciples of a religious teacher; for these refinements were not practised by the class of people from which the disciples were chiefly drawn. – Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges

And Jesus was well aware of the intentions of His accusers. These men were trying to label He and His disciples as law-breakers. But Jesus took the opportunity to teach His followers a valuable lesson on hygiene and holiness.

While the Pharisees had focused all their attention on the outward practice of hand-washing, Jesus took the conversation deeper. To put it another way, He went to the “heart” of the matter. Gathering the people around Him, Jesus said, “All of you listen…and try to understand. It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart” (Mark 7:14-15 NLT).

And that was all He said. As usual, Jesus’ reply was short and succinct, but not exactly clear. And Mark indicates that even the 12 disciples had a difficult time understanding the meaning behind Jesus’ abbreviated lesson. When they were able to be alone with Jesus, they asked Him to explain the meaning behind what they understood to be another one of His parables. But this was less a parable than it was a moral object lesson. What had precipitated Jesus’ comment was the emphasis of the scribes and Pharisees on ritualistic cleansing. These men were all about appearances and used their lengthy list of man-made rules as a way to promote and prove their own righteousness. Their behavior became their badge of honor. Rule-keeping became their primary means for measuring righteousness. But Jesus was much more interested in the inside than the outside. On another occasion, He would level a stinging accusation against the Pharisees, exposing the farcical nature of all their religious rule-keeping.

“you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence!” – Matthew 23:25 NLT

These attacks on the well-respected religious leaders always left the disciples scratching their heads in confusion. Weren’t the scribes and Pharisees to be revered for their obvious displays of righteousness? How could Jesus get away with calling them hypocrites and blind guides? Why did He feel the constant need to anger them?

But Jesus was attempting to teach His disciples that the problem mankind faced was not of a physical nature but of a spiritual one. It all had to do with the condition of the heart. And no amount of outward cleansing or ritual purification could result in a holy heart. So, He reiterated His original statement one more time, but with further clarification.

“Can’t you see that the food you put into your body cannot defile you? Food doesn’t go into your heart, but only passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer.” – Mark 7:18 NLT

Food was little more than fuel, taken into the body as a source of energy, then passed out as human waste. The washing of hands, pots, pans, and the food itself, while beneficial from a personal hygiene perspective, had no value when it came to a person’s spiritual condition. Food may help power the human heart, but it can do nothing to influence the moral state of the human soul, either positively or negatively. Drinking from a ritualistically cleansed cup may make one feel purer, but it was nothing more than a  facade, an exercise in self-deception.

Mark adds another important parenthetical statement intended to provide further clarification for the readers of his gospel.

By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes. – Mark 7:19 NLT

This expanded explanation most likely escaped the disciples. But it would become clearer to them when Jesus had ascended back into heaven after His resurrection. In the days after Jesus departed and the Holy Spirit ascended, the disciples would obey His commission and take the gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). And, before long, there would be Gentiles accepting the free gift of God’s grace made possible through faith in Jesus Christ and receiving the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. The addition of Gentile converts to the early church would produce an important debate among the disciples about the role of the Mosaic law in the lives of these former pagans. There were those, like Peter, who believed that any Gentiles who came to faith should be required to keep the Jewish religious laws, just as they did. But Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, would push back strongly against this unnecessary requirement. In doing so, he was not denigrating God’s law, but simply denying that salvation was by faith alone in Christ alone, with no other requirements necessary. Paul would argue vehemently that the law had no place in the lives of these Gentile converts. The Jewish dietary laws no longer applied. And even the Jewish rite of circumcision was to be set aside.

For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God. – Romans 2:28-29 NLT

It was all about the heart. And that was the very point Jesus was trying to make with His disciples. And knowing that their hearts were hardened (Mark 6:52), making it difficult for them to grasp the meaning behind His teaching, Jesus made it plain and simple.

“It is what comes from inside that defiles you. For from within, out of a person’s heart, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, envy, slander, pride, and foolishness. All these vile things come from within; they are what defile you.” – Mark 7:20-23 NLT

This less-than-flattering list is similar to one found in Paul’s letter to the believers in Galatia.

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God. – Galatians 5:19-21 NLT

These ungodly, unholy, and unrighteous actions are not the result of unwashed hands but an unregenerate heart. Man’s heart is wicked and controlled by his sinful nature. It is not the byproduct of poor living conditions, improper hygiene, insufficient education, or the failure to keep a set of religious rules.

James reminds us that “Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death” (James 1:14-16 NLT). The prophet Jeremiah adds, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NLT).

So, Jesus was trying to communicate a deep and abiding truth regarding the nature of man’s sinful state. No amount of ritual cleansing was going to solve the problem. The Pharisees could cleanse the outside of “the cup,” but they would be missing the real problem. Like all men, they were suffering from a serious heart condition that was untreatable by human means. Even their strict adherence to the laws of Moses and their faithful keeping of the traditions of the fathers could do nothing to render their hearts holy and acceptable to God.

And as Paul would later tell the Galatian believers, “it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, ‘It is through faith that a righteous person has life’” (Galatians 3:11 NLT).

This was news to the disciples and it went against everything they had been taught as young boys receiving training in the local synagogue. Jesus was letting them know that the problem of sin was far greater and more pervasive than they realized. Man’s defilement and condemnation before God was an internal problem, not an external one, and there would be only one solution. And He was standing right in front of them.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Hardened Hearts

45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46 And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray. 47 And when evening came, the boat was out on the sea, and he was alone on the land. 48 And he saw that they were making headway painfully, for the wind was against them. And about the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, 49 but when they saw him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, 50 for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” 51 And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, 52 for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. Mark 6:45-52 ESV

Three of the four gospels include this story and all three indicate that it happened immediately after the miracle of the bread and the fish. The context is essential to understanding what takes place and helps provide much-needed insight into Mark’s rather condemning conclusion: “they still didn’t understand the significance of the miracle of the loaves. Their hearts were too hard to take it in.” (Mark 6:52 NLT).

Mark’s harsh-sounding critique seems to paint the disciples in an unflattering light but, when taken in context, it provides the reader with a fair and honest assessment of their ongoing spiritual transformation. They were works in process. Their comprehension of Jesus’ true identity was in a constant state of flux and it was complicated by their own personal agendas and expectations. Their concepts of the Messiah had been formed by their Hebrew roots and highly influenced by the religious indoctrination they had received as young boys at the local synagogue in their hometowns. Their unique experiences with Jesus were informative and instructive but were also confusing and contradictory to their preconceived notions about the coming Messiah.

Jesus was not operating according to their expectations. His miracles, while powerful and impressive, didn’t seem to be ushering in the Kingdom the disciples, as Jews, had long anticipated. His words, while spoken with authority and filled with interesting stories and fascinating parables, didn’t always make sense. He spoke cryptically and about subjects that seemed out of keeping with someone who had come to be King of Israel.

So, this particular story must be viewed within the immediate context of the surrounding events. Mark indicates that as soon as the disciples had finished gathering the 12 baskets of leftover loaves and fish, Jesus instructed them to head by boat to the village of Bethsaida. Jesus then dismissed the crowd and headed to a secluded spot for some alone time with God the Father. Mark provides no details concerning this divine conversation between Father and Son, but it is safe to assume that it mirrored the other prayers of Jesus recorded in the gospels. These moments of isolation and intimate communion with His Heavenly Father were important to Jesus. It was during these occasions that Jesus shared His heart and received instructions. Perhaps Jesus prayed for the disciples, sharing with God the Father His frustration with their inability to grasp the meaning of His messages and miracles. Jesus knew these men had been given to Him by God, but He also knew that they were having difficulty understanding who He truly was and the real purpose behind His incarnation.

When Jesus had completed His time in prayer, He made His way back to the shoreline, where He spotted the disciples “making headway painfully, for the wind was against them” (Mark 6:48 ESV). John indicates that “they had rowed about three or four miles” (John 6:29 ESV). 

Don’t minimize the circumstances surrounding this scene. It is somewhere around 3:00 a.m. The sky is pitch black, the wind is howling furiously, and the white-capped waves are pounding against the sides of the small fishing boat. The disciples, four of whom were professional fishermen, were struggling to keep the boat afloat and headed to their final destination. And Jesus witnessed all of this from the safety of the shoreline.

But then He did something extraordinary and unexpected. He stepped out into the sea and began to walk on the top of the water. And Mark adds a very important detail to his narrative.

Jesus came toward them, walking on the water. He intended to go past them – Mark 6:48 NLT

Jesus walked toward the disciples but was fully intending to walk right past them and on to Bethsaida. He wanted them to see Him and take hope and confidence in Him. If He could walk on the waves in the midst of the storm, they had no reason to fear. Just the sight of Jesus, walking calmly and confidently on the tops of the waves, should have instilled a sense of peace in the hearts of the disciples. But instead, they reacted in fear.

but when they saw him walking on the water, they cried out in terror, thinking he was a ghost. They were all terrified when they saw him. – Mark 6:49-50 NLT

They had not been looking for Jesus. And when He suddenly appeared. they didn’t recognize Him because they were not expecting Him to show up in that inhospitable context. It’s interesting to note that the disciples had shown no fear until Jesus appeared unexpectedly. There’s no indication that the disciples had feared the storm. They were simply struggling against the wind and waves, attempting to make their way to Bethsaida as Jesus had instructed them. But their demeanor quickly shifted from focused determination to abject fear when they spotted this strange figure walking toward them in the midst of the darkness and violence of the storm.

Sensing their terror, Jesus quickly identified Himself to the frightened men.

“Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” – Mark 6:50 ESV

They had not recognized Him because they had not expected Him. No one in the boat had been calling out to Him. In the midst of their difficulty, they had forgotten all about Jesus. They had become so consumed with the task at hand that they had neglected to think about the very one who had sent them on this storm-tossed and ill-fated excursion. Seeing Jesus walking on the water in the midst of the storm should have been enough to remind them of the power and authority of the one they served. They had just witnessed Him feed more than 10,000 men, women, and children; using nothing more than five small loaves and two fish. They had just recently returned from their own missionary journey where they had cast out demons and performed other miracles of healing. But in the wee hours of the morning and in the middle of a storm-tossed sea, any thoughts of miracles or the Messiah were nowhere to be found.

And in a characteristic act of mercy and grace, Jesus altered His plans and joined the disciples in midst of their struggle. Rather than walk by, He entered into. And as soon as His foot touched the deck of the boat, “the wind ceased” (Mark 6:51 ESV). His presence brought peace. And the disciples “were utterly astounded” (Mark 6:51 ESV). They were blown away. The Greek word Mark used is existēmi and it literally means they were beside themselves. And one has to ask why this particular miracle made such an impact on them. Had they not seen Jesus do other incredible, mind-blowing miracles? What was it about this one that left them beside themselves in wonder?

And Mark provides the answer:  “for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (Mark 6:51 ESV). They had not connected the dots. It is likely that the bow of the boat contained the 12 baskets full of leftovers they had gathered. But they were not yet able to understand the significance of the miracle that Jesus had performed. By transforming five loaves and two fish into enough food to feed an army, Jesus had clearly demonstrated His divine power and authority over the creation. He had done the impossible. And yet, the disciples did not understand. Oh, they fully grasped the reality of the miracle because they had seen it happen. But they were blind to the message it was intended to send: Jesus was God.

And Mark notes that their hearts were calloused and hardened. In their fallen human state, they were incapable of discerning the message contained within the miracles of Jesus. They were unable to connect all the dots and complete the picture that was being revealed right before their eyes. But step by step, miracle by miracle, Jesus would continue to disclose Himself to these men. He would patiently and persistently display His power and authority so that, eventually, their beliefs about Him would line up with God’s will and not their own.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

From Empty Pockets to Full Baskets

30 The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught. 31 And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. 32 And they went away in the boat to a desolate place by themselves. 33 Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them. 34 When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. 35 And when it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This is a desolate place, and the hour is now late. 36 Send them away to go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.” 37 But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” 38 And he said to them, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” And when they had found out, they said, “Five, and two fish.” 39 Then he commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass. 40 So they sat down in groups, by hundreds and by fifties. 41 And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And they all ate and were satisfied. 43 And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. 44 And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men. Mark 6:30-44 ESV

After a brief diversion to inform his readers about the fate of John the Baptist, Mark brings the focus of his narrative back to the 12 disciples. Jesus had sent them in pairs to preach the gospel of the Kingdom and call the people to repentance. And to validate their message, He had given them the power to perform miracles. Mark provides no hints as to the length of this missionary journey, but simply states, “The apostles returned to Jesus and told him all that they had done and taught” (Mark 6:30 ESV). 

This rather anticlimactic description of their return leaves a lot to the imagination. There is no sense of excitement. We are told nothing about their exploits. But we can assume that these men must have had stories to tell and were anxious to regale one another with their exploits. Luke provides an idea of the kinds of reports these men would have given to Jesus upon their return. He recalls another occasion when Jesus sent out 72 additional disciples, providing them with the same instructions He had given the 12.

“Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” – Luke 10:9 ESV

When these disciples returned from their mission, their eagerly shared with Jesus what had happened. And the focus of their report reveals much about their takeaway from their experience:

The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” – Luke 10:17 ESV

Notice that they mentioned nothing about the message of the Kingdom or the peoples’ to it. They were blown away by their ability to cast out demons – just like Jesus had done. Their focus was on the more sensational aspect of their mission. But, as if to bring their egos back to earth and to refocus their attention on what was truly important, Jesus responded, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20 ESV).

So, when the 12 disciples returned from their missionary journey, it is likely that they shared similar stories about casting out demons and healing the sick and the lame. Recognizing that these men were excited yet worn out from their journey, Jesus led them to a remote place where they might get some much-needed rest. But isolation and alone time were difficult commodities to come by for Jesus and His disciples. Everywhere they went, they found themselves encountering and accosted by large crowds. And this time would be no different.

Mark indicates that they crossed the Sea of Galilee by boat and headed to a desolate area near the town of Bethsaida (Luke 9:10). But their every move was under constant observation by the crowds. So, as Jesus and His disciples made their way by boat, the people ran along the shoreline, trying to guess where they were headed. And when the boat made its way to shore, Jesus and the disciples found themselves surrounded yet again. The weary disciples were probably frustrated by this turn of events. They had just returned from a long and arduous trip and were looking forward to some much-need R&R. But it was not to be. And Mark indicates that Jesus saw the crowd and “had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34 ESV).

This statement sets up a subtle contrast between Jesus and His disciples that will become more obvious as the story unfolds. Jesus was moved by the helpless and hopeless state of the people. The very fact that they kept following Him revealed their desperate desire for leadership and direction. There were people in the crowd who were hurting emotionally and physically. Others were poor and needy, lacking the resources to meet the basic necessities of life. Luke indicates that Jesus “taught them about the Kingdom of God, and he healed those who were sick” (Luke 9:11 NLT). 

It’s interesting to note that Jesus did for these people exactly what He had commanded the disciples to do on their recent missionary excursion. And yet, there is no mention that the disciples participated in the teaching of the people or in doing any acts of healing. It is almost as if they were taking the day off. They had done their part and now it was time to relax. And one can almost sense their eagerness to bring this long day to a close by what they said to Jesus.

“This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go to the nearby farms and villages and buy something to eat.” – Mark 6:35-36 NLT

There is not much compassion in those words. The disciples were ready for the crowds to disperse so they could finally get the rest they so richly deserved. Their feigned concern for the well-being of the people was nothing more than a way of getting rid of them. Yet Jesus, always aware of what was going on in the hearts and minds of those around Him, simply stated, “You give them something to eat” (Mark 6:37 ESV).

The ludicrous nature of this command is easy to miss because we have no idea how many people Jesus is actually referring to. It is not until later in the story that Mark reveals the actually size of the crowd. But the disciples could see the problem with their own eyes. As they heard Jesus speak those words, the disciples were staring at literally thousands of men, women, and children. And don’t forget that when Jesus had sent these men on their missionary journey, He had told them “to take nothing for their journey except a walking stick—no food, no traveler’s bag, no money” (Mark 6:8 NLT).

They had just returned and would have had no resources with which to fulfill the command of Jesus. And you can sense their confusion and frustration in their somewhat sarcastic response.

“With what?” they asked. “We’d have to work for months to earn enough money to buy food for all these people!” – Mark 6:37 NLT

They estimate that it would take at least two hundred denarii to buy enough bread to feed a crowd that size. A denarius was the equivalent of a day’s wage for a common laborer. Their quick calculation was meant to emphasize the sheer impossibility of what Jesus was asking them to do. They didn’t have those kinds of resources. In fact, they were broke. And just to expose the true nature of their insufficiency, Jesus has them take an inventory of what food was on hand.

“How much bread do you have?” he asked. “Go and find out.” – Mark 6:38 NLT

Don’t miss what happened next. Jesus sent the men among the crowd, just as He had sent them into the towns and villages of Galilee. But this time, they came back with a less-than-thrilling report. After they had canvassed the crowd, the disciples could only return with a miserly five loaves of bread and two fish. It was not good news.

But Jesus was nonplused. As the disciples watched, Jesus simply instructed the people to sit down in groups of 100 or less. This would have taken a bit of organizational planning on the part of the disciples. And when their work was complete, Jesus “took the five loaves and two fish, looked up toward heaven, and blessed them. Then, breaking the loaves into pieces, he kept giving the bread to the disciples so they could distribute it to the people. He also divided the fish for everyone to share” (Mark 6:41 NLT).

It seems that the disciples played the roles of waiters, distributing the food to the various groups of people. And as Jesus broke the bread and the fish, the disciples kept returning to find yet more food to hand out. They would bring back an empty basket, only to be handed another one full of bread and fish. And, as if to stress the truly miraculous nature of this scene, Mark holds off the most important detail until the end.

A total of 5,000 men and their families were fed. – Mark 6:44 NLT

And even that large number is a bit misleading. It is safe to assume that many of those men were married and their families were made up of at least one or two children. So, it would be safe to assume that the actual number of people fed that day was likely twice what Mark reported. It could have easily been as many as 10,000. And yet, as Mark makes clear, “They all ate as much as they wanted” (Mark 6:42 NLT). No one went hungry. Not a single person went without or failed to receive as much as they wanted. And that includes the disciples.

But the truly amazing fact is that when the crowd had dispersed, the disciples picked up 12 baskets of leftovers. They had shown up that day with no food, but each man walked away with a basket filled to the brim with bread and fish.

These men, who had lacked compassion for the people, had been given a once-in-a-lifetime lesson on God’s power to provide for the needs of the helpless and hopeless. When Jesus had looked on the crowd, He had seen sheep without a shepherd. But the disciples had simply seen a problem for which they had no solution. And sadly, they lacked any desire to come up with one. In spite of their success at casting out demons, healing the sick, and preaching the gospel of the Kingdom, these men had failed to learn the most important lesson of all: That with God, all things are possible. And the man with whom they had linked their lives was God in human flesh and fully capable of meeting the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of mankind. Yes, He could provide bread, but He had come to be the bread of life. He could fill stomachs, but He had come to satisfy mankind’s hunger and thirst for righteousness. And as these men walked away with the baskets brimming with bread and fish, their hearts and minds were still lacking a full assurance of who Jesus was and what He had come to do.

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.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson