“Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).
Chapter eight of Mark’s gospel is the hinge of his book and features a turning point. There, Jesus reveals to the disciples for the first time his impending death. Mark says Jesus spoke “plainly” about it and Mark himself is equally “plain” that the disciples didn’t get it – underscoring their denseness three times between 8:31 and 9:32.
Interestingly, while they focus on the “rising from the dead” part, Jesus focuses on the “dying” part. Nearly seventy years ago one writer penned these words: “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (Dietrich Bonhoffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 99).
But the call is not just to die. It is also a call to live anew. We die to who we are, that we might become the likeness of our resurrected Lord. Yet, there can be no rising without the dying.
He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?” He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.” (Mark 8:23-24)
Blindness plays an important role in the gospel accounts.
Matthew has three ‘healing of the blind’ stories, Mark two, Luke and John one each.
In Mark, this story comes hot on the heels of Jesus’ frustration with his disciples after a second ‘feeding of the multitude’ story which, except for the number of people fed, sounds much like the first story. The second story underscores the disciples’ amazing spiritual blindness.
John has a similar story, but there are subtle differences – one of which is that John’s account highlights the spiritual blindness of Israel’s religious leaders. Mark’s account highlights the blindness of the disciples. That this healing story happens in stages makes it different from not only John, but every other miracle Jesus performs.
Mark’s account helps to explain why Jesus, though disappointed with his disciples, doesn’t just leave them in disgust. Some blindness doesn’t go away immediately – even by the power of God. It takes time, and the patient persistent ministry of the sighted. Lives aren’t changed just because they are taught better. It’s a point we all should remember as we serve.
Eventually, of course, with proper treatment, the spiritually blind are expected to see; willful blindness is not an option for the child of God. It’s all a part of the required ever changing, ever growing Christian life.
Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? . . . Do you still not understand? (Mark 8:17-21)
It may well be the closest Jesus gets to losing his cool. The words are not addressed to his enemies, but to his disciples, and few early readers would be surprised by Jesus’ frustration.
Mark 1:16 – 8:21 is marked by three callings of Jesus: a call to follow him, a call to be with him, and a call to imitate him. At the beginning of the last call, Jesus feeds 5000 people from 5 loaves of bread and two fish. At the end of the last call, he feeds four thousand from a sack lunch.
* begin with a need to feed the crowd.
* continue with Jesus delegating the task to the disciples
* have the disciples insisting it cannot be done.
* have Jesus asking “how many loaves do you have?”
* mention Jesus telling the crowd to sit on the ground.
* mention Jesus praying
* have Jesus feeding the crowd.
And then, scant hours later, the disciples are arguing with one another because they have no food.
Hopefully, you can understand why Jesus comes a bit unhinged.
When we’re too busy bemoaning our challenges, worrying about them, or even hoping they never come our way, we become willingly blind to the matchless power of God to provide – and eyes that won’t see are the blindest of all.
Chapter eight is a turning point in this gospel account. It is here, and only here, that you will find such a severe rebuke of his disciples by Jesus. It is also here in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus begins to tell his disciples about his impending crucifixion (8:31).
For all the emphasis on faith in this book, the disciples fail to get it. They just don’t understand. When Jesus hears them sniping at one another over the fact that they have no food, the Lord is seemingly infuriated. He has fed 9000 people from few resources with nineteen basket-fulls of food left over – and they are whining about having no food. Why didn’t they simply come to him?
We have much to learn from this text. The problems that pervade our lives and frighten us the most are problems Jesus can handle – if we will just take the matters to him, and resolve to be satisfied with his answer. That is the essence of faith, and the one thing God requires of His people.