The End & Back Again: to the beginning
Returning to the Journey with Jesus in Mark’s Gospel: Part 4
Week 1. READ: Mark 8:1-38
Feeding of the Four Thousand 8:1-10
Welcome to the heart of the gospel found in chapter 8. Mark uses reoccurring stories to tie his gospel together. This pattern is used by Mark in knitting together the stories of John the baptizer (1:2-9, 14 & 6:14-29); selection and sending of the twelve disciples (3:13-19a & 6:7-13, 30); feeding the crowds (5000 fed 6:34-44 & 4000 fed 8:1-10); healing of the blind man (in Bethsaida 8:22-26 & in Jericho 10:46-52) and Jesus predicting his suffering and death (1st time: 8:31-33; 2nd time: 9:30-32; & 3rd time: 10:32-34). This pattern foreshadows and connects the story for the listening audience. The clues build anticipation, interest and makes for an ease of following the framework of the gospel and the individual stories by the congregation.
What makes it easier to recall what you heard? “The culture in which he (Jesus) lived was given mainly to oral transmission, that is, to conveying information by word of mouth. Accordingly, historians think it more likely that people would have remembered short sayings, such as proverbs (‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown,’ Mark 6:4)…Because stories are intrinsically memorable, parables tend to score high by this criterion also. Other factors that make material memorable include the use of humor, exaggeration, or paradox,” (Mark Allan Powell, Jesus as a Figure in History, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013 (Second Edition), p. 60).
Stories that are out of the norm grab our attention as well. One such story is feeding a large crowd of people with just a few fish and bread. Who among us has not had company stop by near dinner time when you only had a small amount of left overs ready to eat? This always seems to happen when the refrigerator is empty and a trip to the grocery store for the week was on your list to do right after dinner. 4000 drop-in dinner guests would be memorable!
The story of the feeding of the 4000 has many similarities to the feeding of the 5000 (6:30-44): large crowd of hungry people in a remote place, the disciples, Jesus, and a small supply of fish and bread. What is unique to the story of the 4000 who were fed is that it lacks connection to what has gone on prior saying: “In those days” (the other places where this phrase is used in Mark is the story of the baptism of Jesus (1:9) and in the apocalyptic (end time) teachings in chapter 13 (vv. 17, 19 & 24). Whereas Jesus is described in the 3rd person as having compassion on the crowd in Mark 6, he tells the disciples of his compassion for crowd 8:2. Additionally, while the crowd had a one day hunger after listening to Jesus teach all day in Mark 6, the crowd had a three day hunger in 8:2 (it is also interesting to note that nowhere does it tell us what Jesus did or taught during these three days).
The feeding of the 4000 story can be pressed to possess communion style roots because Jesus blessed the fish, gives thanks (the Greek word for gave thanks is eucharist, another word used for communion) for the bread (compare with 1 Corinthians 11:23-24). Everyone who was hungry was fed abundantly to the point of significant leftovers. Matthew’s account of the story adds that it was 4000 men plus women and children who ate (15:38). From the very oldest to the very youngest, all who were hungry were fed. This is an expression of God’s hospitality.
When I was confirmed, I received my First Communion. It was thought that was the point of knowing enough about communion to be properly prepared to receive the sacrament. Later, the age for communion was dropped to fifth grade, then to second grade. In the Western Catholic Church, the emphasis has been upon knowledge and preparation to eat and drink. On the other side, the Eastern Orthodox Church has always served communion to infants immediately after baptism. The emphasis has been upon the gift of God for all the baptized, men, women and children.
Jesus did not turn anyone who was hungry away from the table. Even though Judas knew in his heart that he would betray Jesus before the Last Supper (John 13:2), and Jesus knew who would betray him (John 13:21, 26-27), he still dipped the bread and served Judas. The forgiveness and love of God is the gift that God gives us in this meal. Who among us understands how the bread we eat and the wine we drink is at the same time the body and blood of Christ? Martin Luther called it a mystery. Should we not practice the same hospitality at the Lord’s table welcoming all people to eat and drink in the same way that we do at our own tables at home? This meal is the amazing grace of God for all who are hurting and hungry and looking for the love and hope that only God can give.
If we baptize children who do not “know” what baptism means and believe that God is the source of action in this sacrament, is it not also true that it is God who is acting in the meal? This is the nature of these sacraments. God acts and we receive. All are welcome.
Conflict with the Religious Leaders 8:11-13
The religious leaders showed up to conflict with Jesus and demanded a sign from him. Either Jesus responds by granting them a sign or refuses their demand. When a physical sign is required to visually demonstrate the validity of faith, then it is no longer faith. When we see a miracle be it small or large, it is a blessing. However, Scripture reminds us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” (Hebrews 11:1). For we are to “walk by faith and not by sight,” (2 Corinthians 5:7). Our Christian faith is built upon the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as revealed in Scripture. The story of Jesus life is the sign of God’s love and mercy for us as we grab hold of this narrative by faith.
There is a major difference between experiencing a sign from God verses demanding or seeking a sign. Faith recognizes that God is with us in hard as well as good times. Faith emerges from a relationship of trust that is at work within us. As we worship, study Scripture and pray our faith muscle is exercised and grows stronger. Faith that demands or needs a sign is testing God. This need to test God did not go well for the Jews in the Wilderness (see Exodus 17:2; also Deuteronomy 32:20). While we can “see” God at work in the world, our neighborhood or our life with the eyes of faith, we cannot “prove” this is the work of the Holy Spirit. No, it is as we step out and follow the nudge of the Spirit, we often receive confirmation by the blessing of the experience.
The “sighed deeply in his spirit (v.12)” coupled together with “he (Jesus) looked up to heaven and sighed (7:34) are the actions of a healer or miracle worker. “…Jesus’ deep sighing or groaning in v. 12 would signify to the ancient audience the typical deep inhalation of the wonder-worker or prophet performing a mighty deed or making an authoritative utterance. The sound produced would have been taken as an indication of possession by a spirit,” (Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark, A Commentary, Hermeneia Series, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007, p. 384). In the story of the healing of the man who was hearing and speech impaired, Jesus sighed in prayer and healed him. Meanwhile, in the Mark 8 story when the religious leaders demanded a sign from Jesus, he sighed in frustration. Who were the people truly deaf and blind to what Jesus was sent to do?
Blindness of the Disciples 8:14-21
The Holy Spirit and yeast are two sources of action. The Holy Spirit calls, invites and beckons us to faith in Jesus Christ. The same Spirit guides and directs us to other Christians, a community of faith (church) in which we are formed into a community to worship God, encourage faith and action in the name of the Lord. The Holy Spirit also forms and shapes us into the image of Christ.
The ancient baker’s element of yeast is used in Scripture for examples of both good and evil. Matthew and Luke picked up the parable of yeast as a symbol of the ever expanding nature of the kingdom of God (Matthew 13:33; Luke 13:20-21). Yeast is used as a negative example of how evil can grow in our heart (see Galatians 5:7-12; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8). Similarly, yeast makes septic tanks work well, but pee-yew!
Jesus refers to the ideas and agenda of both the Pharisees and King Herod as yeast that can grow counter to the message and purpose God had sent Jesus to accomplish. Beware of all of the messages and purposes that draw us away from Christ and his will. This could include money, success and even patriotism – putting the United States or even a political parties’ agenda ahead of God’s agenda. When we care more about our self or our country than God, other people and creation, we may be ingesting the yeast of the world. Beware!
Jesus calls his disciples out for their blindness to his purposes 8:17-21). 8:17 has parallels to what Jesus said in 7:18. Do you still lack understanding? This is the closing word again in 8:21 and 6:52. Jesus came to plant the kingdom of God in the hearts of people. He opposed power and people who abused power. In fact, he came to lift up the low and forgotten ones. He put children in his lap so he could listen to and bless them. Jesus came to empower the powerless so they could be set free and live in the gift of life God intended. A sign of his open resistance to power was his healing on the Sabbath when he saw a person in need (3:1-6). Jesus broke rules for the sake of the kingdom.
Healing of a Blind Man 8:22-26
While the location of the feeding of the 4000 is absent from the story, Jesus and his disciples now come a second time to Bethsaida, which John’s Gospel identifies as the hometown of Peter, Andrew and Philip. It is located on the north side of the Sea of Galilee, only a couple of miles to the northeast of Capernaum. This is the first and only time we have what could be called a healing by degree. It is gradual healing that requires Jesus to pray for the blind man several times until his vision is clear. Because the man was able to identify the appearance of people like walking trees, he must have been a sighted person prior who lost his ability to see. This is a private healing like the deaf man in the Decapolis (7:31-35) as Jesus leads him out of public view out of the city (8:23). He uses natural elements to anoint (saliva) and lays hands on his eyes and prays.
Like the deaf man in the Decapolis, Jesus tells him to tell no one about this healing. In fact, he is not to reenter the city. Instead, go home. This is the first of two eye healing stories, one at the front end and one at the back end, of the three times that he announces his upcoming death and resurrection. Placing these stories where they are set in this narrative says: Open your eyes and notice the message – Jesus is going to die and rise again! This is his greatest work. This is God’s given purpose for Jesus to fulfill for the sake of the world.
Peter Confesses Jesus as Messiah 8:27-30
At the center point of the gospel of Mark is Peter’s confession of faith. The question Jesus asks sets it all in motion: Who do people say I am (8:27)? Some people identified Jesus with John the Baptist, others the great Old Testament prophet Elijah and still others named Jesus as another prophet. It was Peter who spoke up and identified Jesus as the long awaited Messiah.
Now a word about Caesarea Philippi, located twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee in a primarily gentile area near Mount Herman. Why does Mark place this story of revelation in this city built by Tetrarch Philip in 2-1 BCE, son of Herod the Great, and built to honor Caesar Augustus? One reason may be that “…in the Greco-Roman period the god of Mount Herman (Baal identified with Zeus) was considered to be an oracular deity. Peter’s unexplained insight that Jesus is the messiah and Jesus’ revelation of the necessity that the Son of Man must suffer take on the connotations of oracular utterances for those familiar with the oracular character of the region,” (Collins, p. 400).
While it is not surprising that the Holy Spirit spoke and worked through Jesus, Peter and the disciples on the other hand have proven to be hard hearted and lacking understanding (6:52, 7:18, 8:17-18, 21). Perhaps the redeeming quality of the bumbling and ignorant disciples is that despite all of that, the story of Jesus as told by his followers still changed lives and created Christian community from village to village. Who are we to doubt that God can use us despite our shortcomings?
Jesus Predicts his Death (1st time) 8:31-33
Immediately on the heels of Peter’s confession of faith, Jesus says that he will suffer greatly, experience rejections at the hands of the religious leaders, be killed and rise again in three days. Right in the middle of the drama, the first clue is given on what is going to happen to the hero of the story. The conflict has been building throughout the story between Jesus and the religious community so it does not come as a complete surprise. What is new is what is going to happen as a result of this ongoing conflict between temple leadership and Jesus.
It is true that Jesus did not wasted any breath on praising the existing religious leadership. Quite to the contrary, Jesus challenged existing religious rules consistently with no apology. In fact, he justified what he thought and dared the leaders to defy him.
Driven by his God-given purpose to extend the kingdom of God to all people, Jesus works hard to reach out to the women, children, the sick and possessed. He lifts up suffering people and challenges the system. In many respects, Jesus is revolutionary. The religious leaders (elders, chief priests, and the scribes) are the establishment.
Now just a few verses after Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, he now rebukes Jesus for saying he is going soon be killed. Jesus addresses Peter and says: “Get behind me Satan,” (v. 33). Peter was speaking out of his love for Jesus and not in the power of the Holy Spirit. Peter was listening to his natural care for Jesus, not wanting his teacher and friend to suffer and die instead of listening to the words of truth his teacher was speaking.
The Cost of Following 8:34-9:1
It is noteworthy that Jesus “called the crowd” (v.34) to join his disciples as he began to teach about what it means to be his follower. To any who wish, want, or have the will to be a follower of Jesus, we must deny ourselves as the ultimate in our life, to let nothing hold us back in fully following him, and/or we are to let go, and let God. The cross which will later be the instrument on which Jesus will die, may in fact be our future too. Throughout history, many Christians have died for their faith. This is the potential cost and risk of the Christian faith.
You cannot wade into the faith and experience the fullness of the new life – where the old life is gone and all things have become new (2 Corinthians 5:17). “For whoever wants to save his (physical) life will lose (eternal life); but whoever loses his (physical) life because of me will save it (that is, will save his soul or gain eternal life),” (Collins, p. 409). This is a call to be all in or go home. As we die to ourselves, we rise to new life in Christ Jesus.
The vision statement for Grace Church in Loves Park is “By the power of the Holy Spirit, we will form dynamic disciples of Jesus Christ.” Bob Logan is a Christian who trains Christian leaders in coaching skills, is part of the house church movement and co-authored and published a book on discipleship entitled: The Discipleship Difference: Making Disciples While Growing as Disciples, Logan Leadership, 2015. Together with Chuck Ridley, they identify eight dimensions of a disciple, one of which is “spiritual responsiveness.” What they describe is that a Christian disciple “actively listens to the Holy Spirit and takes action according to what you are hearing.” As a result of attentiveness to the Holy Spirit, a follower of Jesus responds.
Donna responds to the promptings of the Spirit. The love of the Lord is evident in her life. She is firm in her convictions. For those who know her best, Donna is an encouragement to trust and follow the Lord. Her strong faith inspires faith in others.
When Jesus was rebuked by Peter about his impending death, Jesus confronted him that he was “setting his mind” on the things of humans and not on God (8:33). The Apostle Paul taught that if we want be hear the voice of the Spirit, we must set our “set our mind” on the Spirit (Romans 8:5). Paul describes an openness and eager anticipation to be responsive to the Holy Spirit. This is the way of God. God communicates with us through the Spirit. We cannot know nor hear the Spirit’s voice unless we pay attention and respond. This is what Paul means when he says we are to “set our minds” on the Spirit.
The movement of the Spirit has directed Donna to seek training to be a volunteer chaplain at a local hospital. Through her responsiveness, she has been an encouragement, a woman of prayer, offered comfort and prayed for healing. Donna has been a source for God to work in special ways she will never know and a bold witness for Jesus.
In her wintering in Florida, Donna has used her chaplaincy training to be an encouragement and witness to people behind bars. Each of these experiences has stretched Donna and shown her how God works in amazing ways when we say “yes.” Bit by bit, she has learned to know and trust the voice of the Spirit. Her faith has grown by seeing God at work first-hand. Donna knows it is not her, but God who accomplishes great things through her.
The same Holy Spirit wants to work through anyone who is willing to listen and respond. We learn as we listen and do. God wants to accomplish big things in this world. God wants everyone to know the Lord’s love and presence. We plants seeds of faith but God gives the growth. Pay attention. Be willing to step into the calling of God. Let the adventure begin or continue as you “set your mind” on the Spirit!
Questions to Consider:
- What are some of the major points of chapter 8 that speak to you? What is important about this for you at this time of your life?
- What did you notice that you had not seen before?
- Is there anything holding you back from being all in with Christ? What are you afraid of? Are you ready to “let go, and let God?” If not, is this something you are hoping to do in the next month?
- Do you believe that the Holy Spirit still speaks to people in a hunch, an idea, a voice, a new thought? Have you sensed God speaking to you? If not, try paying attention throughout your day and say like Joshua – “Speak Lord, I am listening.” If you have heard God, what did God say and did you act on it?