Tuesday, August 13, 2019

According to Mark: Progressing in Faith

If you have been following along in our study of the gospel of Mark, then you know about his penchant for unifying themes. The overarching one in every passage is to present Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Our target text for today, Mark 8:22–9:50, is no exception. Of course, it also has an undercurrent of its own. Mark, inspired by the Holy Spirit, wanted to send a message about the progression of faith. Personally, I find it to be the most impactful lesson of this book, and I hope it will make that same impression on others.

Healing In Stages

The evangelist begins by illustrating this principle before explaining it. In Mark 8:22–26, Jesus performs one of the strangest miracles of His ministry. It is strange not only because of the method He used (similar to the one we saw in Mark 7:31–37), but also because His efforts were not immediately successful. He attempts to restore a blind man’s sight, but at first, the man can only see shadows. Something has come back, but it is too blurry to make out anything distinctly. It is only after Jesus tries again that the man is able to see clearly.

This is where we have to remember something that I said at the very start of the “According to Mark” series. Mark’s goal is to present Jesus as the almighty Son of God. That is the lens through which we must view everything He does. If we perceive something He does as a failure, then the failure is in our perception. Jesus could have as easily and immediately healed this man as He did the woman with the bleeding condition (Mark 5:25–34) or the demon-possessed daughter of the Syrophoenician woman (Mark 7:24–30). There is purpose behind this two-stage healing. It is meant to make a point about spiritual sight.

Recognizing the Messiah

We begin to understand that by looking at what immediately follows. In Mark 8:27–30, Jesus asks His disciples the question that has followed Him during His entire ministry: who is He to do the things He does (Mark 1:27–28; 4:41; 6:2; 6:14–16)? The disciples initially respond with the popular answers, those spread about Him by people who didn’t know Him. Maybe He was John the Baptist somehow returned to life; perhaps He was Elijah back from heaven; or it could be that He was one of the other prophets. Those guesses were all mistaken, having been made in ignorance. Jesus wants to know what His own closest friends thought, though. They have the most access, so they should have the best answer.

Indeed, they do. For the first time in Mark, a human being acknowledges the true identity of Jesus when Peter announces, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29b). They have figured it out. They have begun to see.

Here, however, is where the earlier healing ties back in. They see, but they do not see clearly. Now that Jesus has gotten them to know who He is, He begins to tell them what He must do. His mission is not merely to identify Himself. It is to give His life as the price for humanity’s atonement. Jesus predicts His death for the first of three times in Mark, and Peter, who has just had such a keen insight, is now unable to recognize what must come next.

We have to remember why that is. There was not really a standard view in 1st Century Palestine of what the coming of the Messiah would mean. However, speaking broadly, the most common interpretation was that the Messiah would be a kingly figure who would overthrow the Roman occupation and usher in a golden age for the Jewish people. Peter must have had this culturally-conditioned view of a conquering hero. He simply could not accept the idea that Jesus could “lose,” which was the only thing he could understand the Lord’s death to mean. He took Jesus’ talk as a defeatist attitude and attempted to snap Him out of it.

In response, Jesus snaps back. It is strong language to call one of His dearest followers “Satan,” but a clear rebuke is needed. By attempting to dissuade Christ from the cross, Peter is unknowingly engaged in the demonic. Only the powers of darkness could desire to keep Jesus from bringing about the salvation of mankind. And only a man could put short-term goals ahead of eternal gains. Jesus tells Peter in no uncertain terms that this is happening with him or without him. He can either be an enemy or a follower. This is not the place for him to take control.

Seeing the Goal

Difficulty in seeing the heavenly perspective is also at the heart of Mark 8:24–38. Christians are human, and it is normal for us to want human goods. We don’t want to suffer, and we don’t want to die. However, following Christ always incurs the former and can incur the latter. From a human point of view, it does not seem worthwhile. Why go through all that?

Answering requires that we see further than this life. Jesus explains that nothing we can gain here is of equal value to our eternal souls. And if we sell our souls for fleeting comforts, there is no price by which we can buy them back. Whatever the cost now, belonging to Jesus gives us the guarantee that we will have life forever. That is the most valuable thing of all. It is not always easy to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. They lead to the cross. But they also lead to resurrection. That is the prize on which we must fix our eyes.

In view of all this, Jesus gives a handful of His friends a brief foretaste of the glory waiting beyond the struggles of this world. Peter, James, and John are taken to a high place and granted a vision of the Lord as He truly is. This transfiguration (the word in the original Greek is where we get “metamorphosis” from) was a peeling back of the earthly veil so that the heavenly truth could be recognized.

The disciples are confused again, of course, which is why Peter offers to build shelters for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. It is an absurd suggestion, but of all the times they miss the point in Mark, this is the one where I am most in agreement with them. I wouldn’t have had a clue what to say there, either. Jesus doesn’t explain it, except in His earlier prediction of it being a chance for them to see “the kingdom of God come in power” (Mark 9:1). Why else did it happen, or in other words, why did it happen this way in particular?

I really don’t know, but I’ll venture to guess that it has to do with continuity. We have seen that a few other times in this study. Jesus has been presented as being like Moses or Elijah in a few ways, serving as their successor. But He has also been portrayed as exceeding them, creating something new and better. The transfiguration is like the capstone to that process. They are literally there to figuratively pass the baton.

That does also seem to be the meaning behind the Father’s words. He begins by repeating what (in Mark’s account) was only meant for Jesus at His baptism, identifying Him as His beloved Son. But this time, He says nothing about His pleasure in Jesus. The disciples don’t need to be told about that. Instead, they need to be told to listen. It is something with which they have been struggling, so God’s voice from heaven is really bringing it home to them.

Something else worth noting is the possibility –– in fact, the likelihood –– that the Father’s words are an OT allusion. In Deuteronomy, Moses gives his final instructions to the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land without him. At one point, he promises them that they will not lack for leadership. God would provide new prophets to show them the way they should go. This general promise was fulfilled many times throughout the centuries, but it also came to be understood as a more particular prophecy. It was believed that a time would come when a prophet even greater than Moses would arrive to take God’s people to greater glory than they had ever experienced. When the Father tells the disciples to “listen to Him” here in Mark, He is basically quoting the prophecy in Deut. 18:15. It is further confirmation of Jesus’ identity, this time from the highest source possible.

Those are pretty lofty concepts, and it would not have been easy to grasp them in the moment, so we get why the disciples missed the point. But we still have to focus on that, since it goes along with the rest of these passages. They are progressing in their faith. They have been given this marvelous revelation, and they truly do value it. However, they do not truly comprehend it. They see without seeing. They do listen, though. They are growing.

Growing in Faith

In my opinion, this concept finds its best expression in the story in Mark 9:14–29. What makes it so powerful is the conversation that Jesus has with the possessed boy’s father. The man’s desperation is sensible to any feeling heart. He just wants his son to be free. He has done everything he can for him, protecting him from the spirit that has consistently attempted to destroy him, and seeking out someone to drive it away. When even the disciples fail, he reaches his lowest point. He can barely believe any longer that anything can be done. Still, he asks Jesus to have compassion and help his boy.

Jesus’ words read as a rebuke of the man, depending on the translation you use. It is a mild one, at least. It is not a question of “if He can” do it. It’s one of if the man can truly trust Jesus in this moment. “Everything is possible for the one who believes” is a powerful encouragement for Christians. But I have always been even more struck by the response of the father:

I do believe; help my unbelief!

The whole of our target text in Mark is summarized in that phrase. This man’s faith is like the blind man’s sight. He has the beginnings of it, but it is not complete. He knows this, he admits it, and he turns to the only source that can strengthen it.

All Christians are this way, and we should embrace it. So often, we fret over our lack of faith. It is clearly not a good thing, but guilt over it is hardly a healthy response. Instead, we need to acknowledge where we stand. We do not know everything. We have, however, learned enough to know that God loves us. When the world obscures our view of that fact and causes us to fear its darkness, we need to look to Jesus. At the times when we are weak, we have to say to Him, “I do believe; help my unbelief!” We are not perfect, but we can be better. This is how we move in that direction.

Overcoming Spiritual Blindness

What follows in Mark 9 continues with the trend that has sadly become the norm, and it provides yet another warning for us not to get too comfortable with what we think we know. First, the disciples once again misunderstand Jesus’ comments about His death and they are too afraid to even ask Him what He means. Then, they get into an argument over who is going to have what office in His coming kingdom (a fight probably inspired by the failure of 9 disciples to cast out the demon while the other 3 had a special audience with the Lord). And finally, John in his overzealousness condemns a fellow believer for not “getting with the program.”

In spite of their failings, however, Jesus continues to provide compassion and teaching rather than abandonment. Their argument becomes an opportunity to recommend humility. Plenty of people will be too good for God’s kingdom because that is the way they see themselves. But no one is too poor, small, or bad for it. Those inside must remember what they once were and offer the same compassion they were shown, even to the very least person in the world. Doing that can make us feel unimportant. In truth, though, that is how heaven turns the world upside down.

As for the unnamed exorcist, Jesus reminds His disciples of a principle that Christians through the ages have been very poor at remembering. Fellow believers do not do everything the same. They do not have to. We can argue over tastes, politics, even doctrine, but the doctrine that ultimately matters most is the person and work of Christ. If someone believes that Jesus is the unique Son of God who lived, died, and rose again, and that salvation comes through Him alone, then that person is also a member of God’s family. And if our arguments turn into an attempt to tear each other down, then we are being self-destructive. We are also being self-defeating, doing Satan’s work for him. Instead, we have to love one another. In spite of our differences, if we are Christ’s, then we are all on the same side.

Real and Lasting Consequences 

The final portion of this passage, Mark 9:42–50, goes into a bit of a different direction. It is not really possible to tie it directly into the idea of a progressing faith that we have been looking at through what preceded it. I still want to mention Jesus’ teaching here, however, because it makes a point that our culture wants to avoid. Put simply, it is moral instruction. Hell is presented as the punishment for failure, and the punishment is eternal. That is why it is better to give up parts of your life than to risk it.

This is not an argument for perfectionism and works-righteousness, and it is not an argument for self-mutilation. True righteousness only comes through Christ. But it is an instruction to do God’s will (faith in Christ being the most important way to fulfill it). And it is also a repudiation of universalism in all its forms. People like to think of Jesus as a kindly teacher who offered nice thoughts but didn’t demand very much. These verses show that could not be further from the truth. Sin has consequences. Not everyone is going to be saved because not everyone is going to admit that. When they face those consequences, they will not be able to blame God for failing to warn them. The warning is right here in His own words. The role of Christians is not to offer judgment, then. It is to continue to offer this warning. Those who do not accept the purification offered in Christ will suffer forever. That is horrible to imagine, and we must make it known. God’s love means little if we do not understand the justice from which it preserves us.

I could have said at the beginning of this entry that spiritual blindness was the theme of the passage. I didn't because I think it is better to focus on the more hopeful note being struck here. The disciples are often blind, but they are beginning to see. A man, like all of us, struggles with faith; but he has enough to ask for more. These are signs of progress, and we should want them in our own lives today. We all have room for improvement. That’s a good thing, if we’re willing to see it that way.

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