Jesus and Blindness (Mark 8:11-33)
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?”
22 And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. 23 And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” 24 And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” 25 Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. 26 And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”
27 And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” 29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” 30 And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.
31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” – Mark 8:11-33
Draw three three circles on a piece of paper, with a dot in the center. These three circles represent three different types of “knowledge.” The dot at the center represents Truth, and the circle represents our distance from the truth. On the first circle, draw a line from the edge of the circle directly towards the dot at the center. This could be what we call “simple knowledge.” It is knowledge that comes about by a direct exposure to evidence. So, if you had never known that a kiwi was fuzzy because you had never seen a kiwi and then one day found a kiwi, you now know that a kiwi is fuzzy.
On the next circle, draw a line that traces the outside edge of the circle. This could be called “relativistic knowledge.” This is the belief that it is impossible to ever arrive at the truth and that our own previous experiences, commitments, worldviews permanently blind us from ever arriving at Truth—all we have is our own relative perspectives. So maybe you have one perspective on systemic racism and police brutality and someone else has a perspective on Covid-19 and someone else has a perspective on how to vote this November, but because Truth is relative, all you can do is yell and intimidate one another because there is no concrete Truth that has sway over all of us, regardless of our perspectives and worldviews.
On the last circle, draw a line from the edge of the circle that spirals in around and towards the center of the dot. We could call this “tempered knowledge.” This is the belief that acknowledges that we all are powerfully affected by our previously held commitments, worldviews, experiences, and those often create roadblocks that prevent us from having a direct access to knowledge (at least in the way “simple knowledge” does). But, this disagrees with “relativistic knowledge” in that it admits that there is such a thing as Truth, and we, from one degree to another, can move closer and closer to the Truth. And with each step closer, we realize what some of our baggage is that is limiting us from accepting the Truth, choose to set it aside, and move even closer, which reveals more limitations we were previously blind to, and can choose to set those aside, and so on and so forth.
As we look at our text today, we are going to get to interact with all three of these different perspectives as we ask the question: How can I arrive at the Truth of knowing and embracing Jesus Christ?
Mark opens up with Jesus being accosted by the Pharisees: “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.” (Mark 8:11-13).
In Mark’s gospel the word “to test” is not a positive word. It can also mean “to tempt” and it is only used of the Pharisees accusations and of Satan’s temptations of Christ. It is not an impartial, unbiased evaluation of the evidence. It is motivated reasoning. It is an intentional effort to interpret Jesus in as negative of a light as possible. They are looking for ways to discredit Jesus as a false Messiah (cf. John 8:6). Like spiders weaving webs to catch their prey, the Pharisees are engaging in questions with Jesus only to entrap Him.
Jesus asks why the Pharisees are even seeking a sign before curtly telling them that He will not give them any signs, and then promptly leaves. Why doesn’t Jesus perform a sign for them? The simple answer, of course, is that Jesus has given them signs. Repeatedly, throughout Mark’s gospel account the Pharisees have witnessed Jesus’ miracles, healings, and exorcisms. And what is the conclusion they have reached? In Mark 3, they are convinced that Jesus performs all these wonders because He is in league with Satan! They have already begun to plot out His death (Mark 3:6). Any other signs Jesus would have performed would have done nothing to allay their doubts. Even after Jesus is put to death and resurrects from the dead, what do they do? We are told that they pay off the Roman guards to tell everyone that the disciples stole Jesus’ body while they were asleep (Matt 28:11-15). That is a remarkable, willful resistance to accept the truth.
While I was in seminary, a certain professor was giving a lecture that a friend of mine and myself attended. I had read a book by this professor ahead of time that I disagreed with and I walked away from the lecture fairly unimpressed. But my friend, who is far smarter and far godlier than I am, went away raving about how enlightening the lecture was. Why didn’t I get the same experience? Well, likely because I went into the lecture predisposed to look for something to disagree with, and so I was blind to be able to receive anything profitable from him. My friend didn’t have that predisposition, and simply had a heart and mind that was prepared to receive, and this enabled him to glean fruit that I couldn’t. This is what the Pharisees are like—they do not lack evidence, they lack hearts that are willing to accept that evidence and all of its implications. They lack the ability to admit that they were wrong. And so they persist in their unbelief.
This is a sobering reminder for us: our commitments radically affect how we interpret reality. The woman who is in an unhealthy relationship which everyone can see but her; those on the extreme edges of the political spectrum who can see no wrong with their candidates; the self-righteous man who angrily denies he has done anything wrong. We all can be blinded by previously held commitments and can warp and twist any evidence, any information to the contrary so that the arrows of conviction that should wound us, should tell us we might be wrong, are blunted and bounce off of us. How do we guard our hearts from this? What should you do when confronted with a claim that seems to contradict a previously held belief?
This could turn into a lengthy rabbit trail, but it basically boils down to humility. Are you willing to admit you might be wrong? Are you willing to acknowledge that your understanding, the narrative you have been telling yourself may be incorrect? Perhaps you are a skeptic listening today, and I wonder if you are, in your heart of hearts, willing to admit that your previously held commitments might be wrong? Are you willing to extend the same skepticism towards your own worldview that you extend towards the Christian faith? Maybe there is a worldview with more explanatory power, more satisfying answers for the problems of this world that you have been cut off from because you have dismissed it out of hand. Can you be consistent with your skepticism and apply it just as much to your own previously held commitments?
The Pharisees could not, and so were left utterly blind to who Jesus was. But what of Jesus’ disciples? Surely, here there must be a deeper understanding, more accuracy of who Jesus is, right? Well, sort of.
Jesus speaks a parable of warning to the disciples: “Watch out: Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod,” (8:15). Jesus is speaking, as He usually does, in the form of a parable—there is a spiritual truth cloaked behind the literal meaning of the words that requires spiritual eyes to discern its meaning. Jesus is not concerned about bread products that come from the Pharisees or King Herod. “Leaven” was a metaphor for the teaching, the lifestyle, the worldviews of the two: the leaven of rigid, cold hearted self-righteousness (Pharisees) and the leaven of a lawless, sensual worldliness (Herod). There are two extremes by which one can run away from God—religion or sensuality, the prodigal son or the elder brother, self-righteousness or self-indulgence.
But the disciples completely miss this and think instead that Jesus is making a comment about their lack of literal bread. Jesus then launches into a barrage of critiques, piling up question after question: “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? 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.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” (Mark 8:17-21). The two words that Jesus begins his warning in verse 15 with are verbs for “see”—Jesus in effect says, “See, see!” only to discover that his disciples “having eyes do…not see.”
Jesus abandons his lesson of the parable and turns towards the profound unbelief of his disciples by asking them about the two feeding miracles. The disciples are worried about not having enough bread; they are consumed with their immediate needs and this has blinded them from being able to see the real meaning of Jesus’ teaching. So their unbelief is twofold—(1) their worried about running out of food, when they have just witnessed Jesus miraculously multiply bread and fish (twice!). Jesus is a walking grocery store, but they are still worried. And (2) this worry—setting their minds on the things of man—has led them to totally misunderstand Jesus’ teaching. Jesus is astounded at their unbelief.
Jesus disciples are not made up of sage gurus, mystical gnostics, or brilliant philosophers who have peered into the mysteries of the universe and discerned the beginning from the end. Mark has written his gospel account so that the reader is left somewhat shocked by the unbelief of the disciples—I mean, if you witnessed the feeding miracles, don’t you think you wouldn’t be worried about not having enough bread? Right?
Well, maybe. It is easy while reading to laugh at how dense the disciples appear to be, but I wonder if we were in their shoes if we would be any different. How many times has God answered prayer, come through, revealed His goodness to you, and yet we still doubt? I know God has gotten me through hard times before, but I don’t know about this, our hearts often tell us. Friends, we are very much like the disciples.
Sight in Stages
Mark expertly places Jesus’ next healing account in his story for a very specific purpose. After marveling at his disciples’ unbelief, Jesus travels to Bethsaida where he is immediately met by a group of people bringing a blind man to him, begging Jesus to heal him. Jesus pulls the blind man aside and (just as we saw last week with the deaf man) uses his spittle to heal him. As odd as this is to us, saliva was often used in healings of the first century. But what is more intriguing about this healing is that it is the only healing recorded in all of the gospels that happens in stages. After Jesus spits and lays his hands on the man, he asks him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking,” (Mark 8:23-24). So, the man’s sight is restored—but only partially. “Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly,” (Mark 8:25).
What is happening here? Jesus is showing us, and his disciples, a physical picture of what is happening to them spiritually. Remember, Jesus tells his disciples to “look, look!” back in verse 15, and then lamented, “you have eyes, but you do not see, you do not perceive” in verse 18. Blindness is repeatedly used by Jesus and the Bible as a metaphor for the spiritual state of those alienated from God. The disciples are like this man has had his sight partially restored. They are not like the Pharisees, who are totally blind. But they also do not see everything clearly. They see dimly. This is illustrated again by the immediately following story (which we will look at much more closely next week).
Jesus asks His disciples who He is, and Peter gives the correct answer: “You are the Messiah.” In Matthew’s account of this, Jesus praises Peter, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven,” (Matt 16:17). God is at work in Peter’s heart, revealing truth to Him. “Flesh and blood” is a biblical idiom that just means what is natural and normal to mankind, apart from God. In other words, Peter could not have come to that conclusion on His own—God revealed it to him. If that isn’t a description of “seeing clearly” than I’m not sure what is!
Nevertheless, the great confession of Peter, is ironically almost immediately met by the great rebuke from Jesus. Jesus begins to teach his disciples that he will be killed and three days later, rise again. Mark tells us, “And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man,” (Mark 8:33).
Isn’t this astonishing? In one breath, Jesus is praising Peter and acknowledging that God has revealed truth to him, then in the next he acknowledges that Peter is thinking like Satan! Peter is somehow filled with God’s insight, and Satan’s thinking, simultaneously. This is Peter, the leader of the disciples, representing what all of Jesus’ disciples are like—seeing partially, but still blind; understanding in a way, but still confused; believing, but still filled with unbelief.
So, how should we apply this truth to ourselves today? What should we do when we come face to face with our own unbelief?
Do Not Despair
Jesus’ own disciples, the core team of the Jesus movement, the foundation on which the church is built, were filled with doubts, ignorance, and unbelief. And yet, Jesus still chooses them, still uses them, still calls them “friends” and “brothers,” still loves them. If you find within yourself unsettling depths of doubt, seasons of skepticism, or even the lingering thought do I really believe this? while walking the Christian life, do not despair. God rescues us from our blindness, but we only see partially. While in Jesus we are saved from the penalty of sin, and the power of sin, we are not yet delivered from the presence of sin, and won’t be till the day we die. So, we ought not despair when our sin still taints even the best of our good works with lingering doubts, unbelief, misunderstandings, or total misapprehensions about God.
Two friends are skating on a frozen pond. One is under the impression that the I ce will become thinner the further out you go, so he is anxious and timid as he skates towards the center. The other knows that when a pond freezes, the ice is actually the thickest in the center, so he skates at the center of the lake with a peace of mind. One of the skaters is filled with fear, the other with serenity, both have very different levels of faith, and yet both remain safe as they skate, because it is not their confidence in the ice that keeps them from breaking through, it is the strength of the ice itself that holds them up.
You are not saved by the strength of your faith, but the object of your faith. Jesus is willing to take you, forgive you, embrace you—even if you are still filled with some measure of unbelief. He is not scared by your doubt. I think that is hard for us to really come to grips with because we often think, Well, if I was in God’s shoes, I wouldn’t put up with this, I wouldn’t stand for this flighty, mixture of doubt and faith, and so we assume that, in our darker moments when we realize just how much unbelief lies under the hood, we assume: Surely, God couldn’t want me! But friends, praise God, God isn’t like you! Hear this good news from Isaiah 55:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa 55:8-9). Perhaps you are familiar with that verse; I’m guessing that you have heard it used at times to describe when God does something that just doesn’t make sense to us, whether that be not answering a prayer the way we would like or sending some strange season of suffering into our life. Why would God do this? we think, and we often hear, “Well, God’s ways are not your ways.” And that is, of course, true. But have you ever read the verses right before that passage? Let’s read it all:
“Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD,” (Isa 55:6-8). What is the most baffling, confounding heavenly mystery that makes God’s ways so unlike our ways? God’s compassion for the wicked; his abundant mercy towards the unrighteous. So, friends, do not project your own human limitations of forgiveness onto your heavenly Father. He is not like you. You may wrestle with how you could love and forgive someone who is as inconsistent and disingenuous as you are—but God doesn’t. He has an abundance of forgiveness that He is eager to dole out upon his stumbling, wayward children, even as they harbor suspicions that maybe He doesn’t really care for them. Rest in the sweet thought that your God is not like you. Paul reminds us, “If we are faithless, he remains faithful,” 2 Tim 2:13. Do not despair.
Jesus rebukes his disciples for their lack of faith, and gives Peter one of the most stinging rebukes in all of history. But this is precisely what can happen when you realized just how radically God loves you. When you know that you are not accepted on the basis of your performance, by the strength of your faith, then you become far less protective and sensitive, you become far more open to accepting correction, even criticism. You will even see brothers and sisters who bring correction to you as an act of love. If we are to love one another as Jesus loves us, then we must speak the truth to one another as Jesus does to us.
While Jesus accepts us and loves us as we are, He has no intention whatsoever to leave us as we are. Unbelief is a terrible plague on our joy, on our faithfulness, on our consistency. We no more want to maintain our unbelief than we would want to keep poison in our system. So, friends, lean into the rebukes from the Lord. Remind yourself that you are not justified by your performance, so when your performance is exposed to be lacking, your salvation is not in danger! This means that when a brother or sister points out areas in our life that seem to reflect a lack of faith, don’t become defensive! Don’t ignore it and tell yourselves a bunch of lies about how awesome you are (so they must be wrong), or how abysmal you are and don’t deserve to be called a Christian (so there is no hope for you ever changing). Both of those responses show that you do not really believe that you are saved apart from your works. Both of those responses say: I am saved by how good of a person I am, therefore I will either defend my righteousness intensely against any assaults, or I will admit that my righteousness is insufficient and will collapse into a pit of despair. Both are a rejection of the gospel, and both will keep you from ever actually changing.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend (Prov 27:6), so let yourself be wounded so that you may recognize your persisting unbelief, repent, ask the Lord for help, and grow.
Long for Heaven
There will be a day when you will be freed from all unbelief. Paul explains, “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known,” 1 Cor 13:9-12. When Jesus returns, He will remove all of the scales on your eyes. He will pull all of the venom of sin from your heart, all of your cravings for the flesh, all the worldliness that has polluted your mind. And your knowledge, your faith will flower into full maturity, the way a child grows into a man.
So, as we labor on the way, beset with sins, temptations, and unbelief, as we mourn our lack of faith, remember—a day is coming when it will not be so. We will behold our God with our eyes, and He will dwell with us, forever. Long for that day, hope for that day, rest knowing that day will soon come.