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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Mark 8

 

 

Verses 1-38

Chapter 8

COMPASSION AND CHALLENGE (Mark 8:1-10)

8:1-10 In those days, when there was again a great crowd, and when they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said, "My heart is moved with pity for the crowd, because they have stayed with me now for three days, and they have nothing to eat. If I send them away to their homes still fasting, they will faint on the road; and some of them have come from a long distance." His disciples answered him, "Where could anyone get bread to satisfy them in a desert place like this?" He asked them, "How many loaves have you?" They said, "Seven." He ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground. He took the seven loaves and gave thanks for them and broke them, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people. So they set them before the crowd, and they had a few small fishes. So he blessed them and told them to set them before them too. So they ate until they were completely satisfied. They gathered up what remained over of the broken pieces--seven baskets. There were about four thousand people there. So he sent them away, and immediately he embarked on the boat with his disciples and came to the district of Dalmanutha.

There are two things closely intertwined in this incident.

(i) There is the compassion of Jesus. Over and over again we see Jesus moved with compassion for men. The most amazing thing about him is his sheer considerateness. Now considerateness is a virtue which never forgets the details of life. Jesus looked at the crowd; they had been with him for three days; and he remembered that they had a long walk home. He whose task it was to bring the splendour and the majesty of the truth and love of God to men might have had a mind above thinking of what was going to happen to his congregation on their walk home. But Jesus was not like that. Confront Jesus with a lost soul or a tired body and his first instinct was to help.

It is all too true that the first instinct of too many people is not to help. I met a man once at a conference and was discussing with him the dangers of a certain stretch of road on the way to the town where we were. "Yes," he said. "It's a right bad bit of road. I saw a crash on it as I drove here today." "Did you stop and help?" I asked. "Not me," he said, "I wasn't going to be held up by getting mixed up in a thing like that." It is human to want to avoid the trouble of giving help; it is divine to be moved with such compassion and pity that we are compelled to help.

(ii) There is the challenge of Jesus. When Jesus had pity on the crowd and wished to give them something to eat, the disciples immediately pointed out the practical difficulty that they were in a desert place and that there was nowhere within miles where any food could be got. At once Jesus flashed the question back at them, "What have you got wherewith you may help?" Compassion became a challenge. In effect Jesus was saying, "Don't try to push the responsibility for helping on to someone else. Don't say that you would help if you had only something to give. Don't say that in these circumstances to help is impossible. Take what you have and give it and see what happens."

One of the most joyous of all Jewish feasts is the Feast of Purim. It falls on the 14th March and commemorates the deliverance of which the Book of Esther tells. Above all it is a time of giving gifts; and one of its regulations is that, no matter how poor a man is, he must seek out someone poorer than himself and give him a gift. Jesus has no time for the spirit which waits until all the circumstances are perfect before it thinks of helping. Jesus says, "If you see someone in trouble, help him with what you have. You never know what you may do."

There are two interesting things in the background of this story.

The first is this. This incident happened on the far side of the Sea of Galilee in the district called the Decapolis. Why did this tremendous 4,000 crowd assemble? There is no doubt that the healing of the deaf man with the impediment in his speech would help to arouse interest and to collect the crowd.

But one commentator has made a most interesting suggestion. In Mark 5:1-20, we have already read how Jesus cured the Gerasene demoniac. That incident also happened in the Decapolis. Its result was that they urged Jesus to go away. But the cured demoniac wished to follow Jesus, and Jesus sent him back to his own people to tell them what great things the Lord had done for him. Is it just possible that part of this great crowd was due to the missionary activity of the healed demoniac? Have we got here a glimpse of what the witness of one man can do for Christ? Were there people in the crowd that day who came to Christ and found their souls because a man had told them what Christ had done for him? John Bunyan tells how he owed his conversion to the fact that he heard three or four old women talking, as they sat in the sun, "about a new birth, the work of God in their hearts." They were talking of what God had done for them. It may well be that there were many that day in that crowd in Decapolis who were there because they had heard a man telling what Jesus Christ had done for him.

The second thing is this. It is odd that the word for basket is different in this story from the word used in the similar story in Mark 6:1-56 . In Mark 6:44, the word for basket is kophinos (Greek #2894), which describes the basket in which the Jew carried his food, a basket narrow at the top and wider at the foot, and rather like a water pot. The word used here is sphuris (Greek #4711), which describes a basket like a hamper, a frail is the technical term; it was in that kind of basket that Paul was let down over the wall of Damascus (Acts 9:25); and it describes the basket which the Gentiles used. This incident happened in the Decapolis, which was on the far side of the lake and had a large Gentile population. Is it possible that we are to see in the feeding of the multitude in Mark 6:1-56 the coming of the bread of God to the Jews, and in this incident the coming of the bread of God to the Gentiles? When we put these two stories together, is there somewhere at the back of them the suggestion and the forecast and the symbol that Jesus came to satisfy the hunger of Jew and Gentile alike, that in him, in truth, was the God who opens his hand and satisfies the desire of every living thing?

THE BLINDNESS WHICH DESIRES A SIGN (Mark 8:11-13)

8:11-13 The Pharisees came out and began to ask him questions. They were looking for a sign from heaven, and they were trying to test him. He sighed in his spirit and said to them, "Why does this generation look for a sign? This is the truth I tell you--no sign will be given to this generation." He sent them away and he again embarked on the boat, and went away to the other side.

The whole tendency of the age in which Jesus lived was to look for God in the abnormal. It was believed that when the Messiah came the most startling things would happen. Before we reach the end of this chapter we shall examine more closely, and in detail, the kind of signs which were expected. We may note just now that when false Messiahs arose, as they frequently did, they lured the people to follow them by promising astonishing signs. They would promise, for instance, to cleave the waters of the Jordan in two and leave a pathway through it, or they would promise, with a word, to make the city watts fall down.

It was a sign like that that the Pharisees were demanding. They wished to see some shattering event blazing across the horizon, defying the laws of nature and astonishing men. To Jesus such a demand was not due to the desire to see the hand of God; it was due to the fact that they were blind to his hand. To Jesus the whole world was full of signs; the corn in the field, the leaven in the loaf, the scarlet anemones on the hillside all spoke to him of God. He did not think that God had to break in from outside the world; he knew that God was already in the world for anyone who had eyes to see. The sign of the truly religious man is not that he comes to Church to find God but that he finds God everywhere, not that he makes a great deal of sacred places but that he sanctifies common places.

That is what the poets knew and felt, and that is why they were poets. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:

"Earth's crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries."

Thomas Edward Brown wrote:

"A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!

Rose plot,

Fringed pool,

Fern's grot--

The veriest school

Of peace; and yet the fool

Contends that God is not--

Not God! In gardens! when the eve is cool?

Nay, but I have a sign;

'Tis very sure God walks in mine."

And still another poet wrote:

"One asked a sign from God; and day by day

The sun arose in pearl; in scarlet set;

Each night the stars appeared in bright array;

Each morn the thirsty grass with dew was wet;

The corn failed not its harvest, nor the vine

And yet he saw no sign!"

From him who has eyes to see and a heart to understand, the daily miracle of night and day and the daily splendour of all common things are sign enough from God.

THE FAILURE TO LEARN FROM EXPERIENCE (Mark 8:14-21)

8:14-21 They had forgotten to bring loaves, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. Jesus enjoined them, "Look to it! Beware of the evil influence of the Pharisees and of the evil influence of Herod!" They kept discussing the situation among themselves, and saying, "We have no loaves." Jesus knew what they were saying. "Why," he said, "do you keep talking about the fact that you have no loaves? Do you not yet see and understand? Is your mind completely obtuse? Do you not see although you have eyes? Do you not hear although you have ears? Do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves and gave them to the five thousand how many basketsful of broken pieces did you take up?" "Twelve," they said to him. "When I broke the seven loaves among the four thousand how many basketsful of broken pieces did you take up?" "Seven," they said to him. So he said to them, "Do you still not understand?"

This passage sheds a very vivid light on the minds of the disciples. They were crossing over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, and they had forgotten to bring bread with them. We will best get the meaning of this passage if we connect it closely with what goes before. Jesus was thinking of the demand of Pharisees for a sign and also thinking of Herod's terrified reaction to himself. "Beware," he said, to translate it literally, "of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod." To the Jew leaven was the symbol of evil. Leaven was a piece of dough kept over from a previous baking and fermented. To the Jew fermentation was identified with putrefaction and therefore leaven stood for evil.

Sometimes the Jew used the word leaven much as we would use the term original sin, or the natural evil of human nature. Rabbi Alexander said, "It is revealed before thee that our will is to do thy will. And what hinders? The leaven that is in the dough and slavery to the kingdoms of the world. May it be thy will to deliver us from their hand." it was, so to speak, the taint of human nature, original sin, the corrupting leaven which kept man from doing the will of God. So when Jesus said this, he was saying, "Be on your guard against the evil influence of the Pharisees and of Herod. Don't you go the same way that the Pharisees and Herod have already gone."

What is the point? What possible connection is there between the Pharisees and Herod? The Pharisees had just asked for a sign. For a Jew--we shall see this more fully shortly--nothing was easier than to think of the Messiah in terms of wonders and conquests and miraculous happenings and nationalistic triumphs and political supremacy. Herod had tried to build up happiness through the gaining of power and wealth and influence and prestige. In one sense, for both the Pharisees and Herod the Kingdom of God was an earthly Kingdom; it was based on earthly power and greatness, and on the victories that force could win. It was as if Jesus by this detached hint was already preparing the disciples for something very soon to come. It was as if he was saying, "Maybe soon it will dawn on you that I am God's Anointed One, the Messiah. When that thought does come don't think in terms of earthly power and glory as the Pharisees and Herod do." Of the true meaning at the moment he said nothing. That grim revelation was still to come.

In point of fact this hint of Jesus passed clean over the disciples' heads. They could think of nothing but the fact that they had forgotten to bring loaves, and that, unless something happened, they would go hungry. Jesus saw their preoccupation with bread. It may well be that he asked his questions, not with anger, but with a smile, like one who tries to lead a slow child to see a self-evident truth. He reminded them that twice he had satisfied the hunger of huge crowds with food enough and to spare. It is as if he said, "Why all the worry? Don't you remember what happened before? Hasn't experience taught you that you don't need to worry about things like that if you are with me?"

The odd fact is that we learn only half the lessons of experience. Too often experience fills us with pessimism, teaches us what we cannot do, teaches us to view life with a kind of resigned hopelessness. But there are other experiences. Sorrow came--and we came through it still erect. Temptation came--and somehow we did not fall. Illness took us--and somehow we recovered. A problem seemed insoluble--and somehow it was solved. We were at our wits' end--and somehow we went on. We reached the breaking point--and somehow we did not break. We, too, are blind. If we would only read the lessons of experience aright, it would teach us not the pessimism of the things that cannot be, but the hope which stands amazed that God has brought us thus far in safety and in certainty and the confidence that God can bring us through anything that may happen.

A BLIND MAN LEARNS TO SEE (Mark 8:22-26)

8:22-26 They came to Bethsaida; and they brought a blind man to him and asked him to touch him. He took the blind man's hand and took him outside the village. He spat into his eyes and laid his hands on him, and asked him, "Do you see anything?" He looked up and said, "I see men, but I see them walking looking like trees." Again he laid his hands on his eyes. He gazed intently, and his sight was restored and he saw everything clearly. He sent him away to his home. "Do not," he said, "even enter into the village."

Blindness was, and still is, one of the great curses of the East. It was caused partly by ophthalmia and partly by the pitiless glare of the sun. It was greatly aggravated by the fact that people knew nothing of hygiene and of cleanliness. It was common to see a person with matter-encrusted eyes on which the flies persistently settled. Naturally this carried the infection far and wide, and blindness was a scourge.

Only Mark tells us this story, and yet there are certain extremely interesting things in it.

(i) Again we see the unique considerateness of Jesus. He took the blind man out of the crowd and out of the village that he might be alone with him. Why? Think about it. This man was blind and apparently had been born blind. If he had been suddenly given back his sight amidst a crowd, there would have flashed upon his newly-seeing eyes hundreds of people and things, and dazzling colours, so that he would have been completely bewildered. Jesus knew it would be far better if he could be taken to a place where the thrill of seeing would break less suddenly upon him.

Every great doctor and every great teacher has one outstanding characteristic. The great doctor is able to enter into the very mind and heart of his patient; he understands his fears and his hopes; he literally sympathises--suffers--with him. The great teacher enters into the very mind of his scholar. He sees his problems, his difficulties, his stumbling-blocks. That is why Jesus was so supremely great. He could enter into the mind and heart of the people whom he sought to help. He had the gift of considerateness, because he could think with their thoughts and feel with their feelings. God grant to us this Christlike gift.

(ii) Jesus used methods that the man could understand. The ancient world believed in the healing power of spittle. The belief is not so strange when we remember that it is a first instinct to put a cut or burned finger into our mouth to ease the pain. Of course the blind man knew of this and Jesus used a method of curing him which he could understand. Jesus was wise. He did not begin with words and methods which were far above the heads of simple folk. He spoke to them and acted on them in a way that simple minds could grasp and understand. There have been times when unintelligibility has been accounted a virtue and a sign of greatness. Jesus had the still greater greatness--the greatness which a simple mind could grasp.

(iii) In one thing this miracle is unique--it is the only miracle which can be said to have happened gradually. Usually Jesus' miracles happened suddenly and completely. In this miracle the blind man's sight came back in stages.

There is symbolic truth here. No man sees all God's truth all at once. One of the dangers of a certain type of evangelism is that it encourages the idea that when a man has taken his decision for Christ he is a full-grown Christian. One of the dangers of Church membership is that it can be presented in such a way as to imply that when a person becomes a pledged member of the Church he has come to the end of the road. So far from that being the case the decision and the pledge of membership are the beginning of the road. They are the discovery of the riches of Christ which are inexhaustible, and if a man lived a hundred, or a thousand, or a million years, he would still have to go on growing in grace, and learning more and more about the infinite wonder and beauty of Jesus Christ. F. W. H. Myers, in his poem Saint Paul, makes Paul say:

"Let no man think that sudden in a minute

All is accomplished and the work is done--

Though with thine earliest dawn thou shouldst begin it

Scarce were it ended in thy setting sun."

It is gloriously true that sudden conversion is a gracious possibility, but it is equally true that every day a man should be re-converted. With all God's grace and glory before him he can go on learning for a life time and still need eternity to know as he is known.

THE GREAT DISCOVERY (Mark 8:27-30)

8:27-30 Jesus and his disciples went away to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. On the road he asked his disciples a question. "Who," he said to them, "do men say that I am?" They said to him, "Some say, John the Baptizer; others say, Elijah; others, one of the prophets." He asked them, "You--who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are God's Anointed One." And he insisted that they should tell no man about him.

Caesarea Philippi was outside Galilee altogether. It was not in the territory of Herod, but in the territory of Philip. It was a town with an amazing history. In the oldest days it was called Balinas, for it had once been a great centre of the worship of Baal. To this day it is called Banias, which is a form of Panias. It is so called because up on the hillside there was a cavern which was said to be the birthplace of the Greek God, Pan, the god of nature. From a cave in the hillside gushed forth a stream which was held to be the source of the River Jordan. Farther up on the hillside rose a gleaming temple of white marble which Philip had built to the godhead of Caesar, the Roman Emperor, the ruler of the world, who was regarded as a god.

It is an amazing thing that it was here of all places that Peter saw in a homeless Galilaean carpenter the Son of God. The ancient religion of Palestine was in the air, and the memories of Baal clustered around. The gods of classical Greece brooded over the place, and no doubt men heard the pipes of Pan and caught a glimpse of the woodland nymphs. The Jordan would bring back to memory episode after episode in the history of Israel and the conquest of the land. And clear in the eastern sun gleamed and glinted the marble of the holy place which reminded all men that Caesar was a god. There, of all places, as it were against the background of all religions and all history, Peter discovered that a wandering teacher from Nazareth, who was heading for a cross, was the Son of God. There is hardly anything in all the gospel story which shows the sheer force of the personality of Jesus as does this incident. It comes in the very middle of Mark's gospel and it does so designedly. for it comes at the gospel's peak moment. In one way at least this moment was the crisis of Jesus' life. Whatever his disciples might be thinking, he knew for certain that ahead lay an inescapable cross. Things could not go on much longer. The opposition was gathering itself to strike. The problem confronting Jesus was this--had he had any effect at all? Had he achieved anything? Or, to put it another way, had anyone discovered who he really was? If he had lived and taught and moved amongst men and no one had glimpsed God in him, then all his work had gone for nothing. There was only one way he could leave a message with men and that was to write it on some man's heart.

So, in this moment, Jesus put all things to the test. He asked his disciples what men were saying about him, and he heard from them the popular rumours and reports. Then came a breathless silence and he put the question which meant so much, "Who do you say that I am?" And suddenly Peter realized what he had always known deep down in his heart. This was the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, the Son of God. And with that answer Jesus knew that he had not failed.

Now we come to a question which has been half-put and half-answered more than once before, but which now must be answered in detail or the whole gospel story is not fully intelligible. No sooner had Peter made this discovery than Jesus told him he must tell no man of it. Why? Because, first and foremost, Jesus had to teach Peter and the others what Messiahship really meant. To understand the task that Jesus had in hand and to understand the real meaning of this necessity, we have to enquire at some length what the Messianic ideas of the time of Jesus really were.

The Jewish Ideas Of The Messiah

Throughout all their existence the Jews never forgot that they were in a very special sense God's chosen people. Because of that, they naturally looked to a very special place in the world. In the early days they looked forward to achieving that position by what we might call natural means. They always regarded the greatest days in their history as the days of David; and they dreamed of a day when there would arise another king of David's line, a king who would make them great in righteousness and in power. (Isaiah 9:7; Isaiah 11:1; Jeremiah 22:4; Jeremiah 23:5; Jeremiah 30:9.)

But as time went on it came to be pitilessly clear that this dreamed-of greatness would never be achieved by natural means. The ten tribes were carried off to Assyria and lost forever. The Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and carried the Jews away captive. Then came the Persians as their masters; then the Greeks; then the Romans. So far from knowing anything like dominion, for centuries the Jews never even knew what it was to be completely free and independent.

So another line of thought grew up. It is true that the idea of a great king of David's line never entirely vanished and was always intertwined in some way with their thought; but more and more they began to dream of a day when God would intervene in history and achieve by supernatural means that which natural means could never achieve. They looked for divine power to do what human power was helpless to do.

In between the Testaments were written a whole flood of books which were dreams and forecasts of this new age and the intervention of God. As a class they are called Apocalypses. The word literally means unveilings. These books were meant to be unveilings of the future. It is to them that we must turn to find out what the Jews believed in the time of Jesus about the Messiah and the work of the Messiah and the new age. It is against their dreams that we must set the dream of Jesus.

In these books certain basic ideas occur. We follow here the classification of these ideas given by Schurer, who wrote A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ.

(i) Before the Messiah came there would be a time of terrible tribulation. There would be a Messianic travail. It would be the birth-pangs of a new age. Every conceivable terror would burst upon the world; every standard of honour and decency would be torn down; the world would become a physical and moral chaos.

"And honour shall be turned into shame,

And strength humiliated into contempt,

And probity destroyed,

And beauty shall become ugliness...

And envy shall rise in those who had not thought

aught of themselves,

And passion shall seize him that is peaceful,

And many shall be stirred up in anger to injure many,

And they shall rouse up armies in order to shed blood,

And in the end they shall perish together with them."

(2Baruch 27.)

There would be, "quakings of places, tumult of peoples, schemings of nations, confusion of leaders, disquietude of princes." (4Ezra 9:3.)

"From heaven shall fall fiery words down to the earth. Lights

shall come, bright and great, flashing into the midst of men; and

earth, the universal mother, shall shake in these days at the hand

of the Eternal. And the fishes of the sea and the beasts of the

earth and the countless tribes of flying things and all the souls

of men and every sea shall shudder at the presence of the Eternal

and there shall be panic. And the towering mountain peaks and the

hills of the giants he shall rend, and the murky abyss shall be

visible to all. And the high ravines in the lofty mountains shall

be full of dead bodies and rocks shall flow with blood and each

torrent shall flood the plain.... And God shall judge all with war

and sword, and there shall be brimstone from heaven, yea stones

and rain and hail incessant and grievous. And death shall be upon

the four-footed beasts.... Yea the land itself shall drink of the

blood of the perishing and beasts shall eat their fill of flesh."

(The Sibylline Oracles 3:363ff.)

The Mishnah enumerates as signs that the coming of the Messiah is near,

"That arrogance increases, ambition shoots up, that the vine

yields fruit yet wine is dear. The government turns to heresy.

There is no instruction. the synagogue is devoted to lewdness.

Galilee is destroyed, Gablan laid waste. The inhabitants of a

district go from city to city without finding compassion. The

wisdom of the learned is hated, the godly despised, truth is

absent. Boys insult old men, old men stand in the presence of

children. The son depreciates the father, the daughter rebels

against the mother, the daughter-in-law against the mother-in-law.

A man's enemies are his house-fellows."

The time which preceded the coming of the Messiah was to be a time when the world was torn in pieces and every bond relaxed. The physical and the moral order would collapse.

(ii) Into this chaos there would come Elijah as the forerunner and herald of the Messiah. He was to heal the breaches and bring order into the chaos to prepare the way for the Messiah. in particular he was to mend disputes. In fact the Jewish oral law laid it down that money and property whose ownership was disputed, or anything found whose owner was unknown, must wait "till Elijah comes." When Elijah came the Messiah would not be far behind.

(iii) Then there would enter the Messiah. The word Messiah and the word Christ mean the same thing. Messiah is the Hebrew and Christ is the Greek for the Anointed One. A king was made king by anointing and the Messiah was God's Anointed King. It is important to remember that Christ is not a name; it is a title. Sometimes the Messiah was thought of as a king of David's line, but more often he was thought of as a great, super-human figure crashing into history to remake the world and in the end to vindicate God's people.

(iv) The nations would ally themselves and gather themselves together against the champion of God.

"The kings of the nations shall throw themselves against this

land bringing retribution on themselves. They shall seek to

ravage the shrine of the mighty God and of the noblest men

whensoever they come to the land. In a ring round the city the

accursed kings shall place each one his throne with his infidel

people by him. And then with a mighty voice God shall speak unto

all the undisciplined, empty-minded people and judgment shall

come upon them from the mighty God, and all shall perish at the

hand of the Eternal." (Sibylline Oracles 3: 363-372.)

"It shall be that when all the nations hear his (the Messiah's)

voice, every man shall leave his own land and the warfare they

have one against the other, and an innumerable multitude shall be

gathered together desiring to fight against him."

(4Ezra 13:33-35.)

(v) The result would be the total destruction of these hostile powers. Philo said that the Messiah would "take the field and make war and destroy great and populous nations."

"He shall reprove them for their ungodliness,

Rebuke them for their unrighteousness,

Reproach them to their faces with their treacheries--

And when he has rebuked them he shall destroy them."

(4Ezra 12:32-33.)

"And it shall come to pass in those days that none shall be saved,

Either by gold or by silver,

And none shall be able to escape.

And there shall be no iron for war,

Nor shall one clothe oneself with a breastplate.

Bronze shall be of no service,

And tin shall not be esteemed,

And lead shall not be desired.

And all things shall be destroyed from the surface of the earth."

(Enoch5 2:7-9.)

The Messiah will be the most destructive conqueror in history, smashing his enemies into utter extinction.

(vi) There would follow the renovation of Jerusalem. Sometimes this was thought of as the purification of the existing city. More often it was thought of as the coming down of the new Jerusalem from heaven. The old house was to be folded up and carried away, and in the new one, "All the pillars were new and the ornaments larger than those of the first." (Enoch 90:28-29.)

(vii) The Jews who were dispersed all over the world would be gathered into the city of the new Jerusalem. To this day the Jewish daily prayer includes the petition, "Lift up a banner to gather our dispersed and assemble us from the four end?, of the earth." The eleventh of the Psalms of Solomon has a noble picture of that return.

"Blow ye in Zion on the trumpet to summon the saints,

Cause ye to be heard in Jerusalem the voice of him that

bringeth good tidings;

For God hath had pity on Israel in visiting them.

Stand on the height, O Jerusalem, and behold thy children,

From the East and the West, gathered together by the Lord,

From the North they come in the gladness of their God,

From the isles afar off God hath gathered them.

High mountains hath he abased into a plain for them;

The hills fled at their entrance.

The woods gave them shelter as they passed by;

Every sweet-smelling tree God caused to spring up for them,

That Israel might pass by in the visitation of the glory of

their God.

Put on, O Jerusalem, thy glorious garments;

Make ready thy holy robe;

For God hath spoken good for Israel forever and ever,

Let the Lord do what he hath spoken concerning Israel and

Jerusalem;

Let the Lord raise up Israel by his glorious name.

The mercy of the Lord be upon Israel forever and ever."

It can easily be seen how Jewish this new world was to be. The nationalistic element is dominant all the time.

(viii) Palestine would be the centre of the world and the rest of the world subject to it. All the nations would be subdued.

Sometimes it was thought of as a peaceful subjugation.

"And all the isles and the cities shall say, How doth the

Eternal love those men! For all things work in sympathy with them

and help them.... Come let us all fall upon the earth and

supplicate the eternal King, the mighty, everlasting God. Let us

make procession to his Temple, for he is the sole Potentate."

(Sibylline Oracles 3:690ff.)

More often the fate of the Gentiles was utter destruction at which Israel would exult and rejoice.

"And he will appear to punish the Gentiles,

And he will destroy all their idols.

Then, thou, O Israel, shalt be happy.

And thou shalt mount upon the necks and the wings of the eagle

(i.e., Rome, the eagle, is to be destroyed)

And they shall be ended and God will exalt thee.

"And thou shalt look from on high

And see thine enemies in Gehenna,

And thou shalt recognize them and rejoice."

(Assumption of Moses 10:8-10.)

It was a grim picture. Israel would rejoice to see her enemies broken and in hell. Even the dead Israelites were to be raised up to share in the new world.

(ix) Finally, there would come the new age of peace and goodness which would last forever.

These are the Messianic ideas which were in the minds of men when Jesus came. They were violent, nationalistic, destructive, vengeful. True, they ended in the perfect reign of God, but they came to it through a bath of blood and a career of conquest. Think of Jesus set against a background like that. No wonder he had to re-educate his disciples in the meaning of Messiahship; and no wonder they crucified him in the end as a heretic. There was no room for a cross and there was little room for suffering love in a picture like that.

THE TEMPTER SPEAKS IN THE VOICE OF A FRIEND (Mark 8:31-33)

8:31-33 He began to teach them that it was necessary that the Son of Man should suffer many things, and should be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and rise again after three days. He kept telling them this plainly. And Peter caught him and began to rebuke him. He turned round; he looked at his disciples; and he rebuked Peter. "Get behind me, Satan," he said. "These are not God's thoughts but men's."

It is against the background of what we have just seen of the common conception of the Messiah that we must read this. When Jesus connected Messiahship with suffering and death, he was making statements that were to the disciples both incredible and incomprehensible. All their lives they had thought of the Messiah in terms of irresistible conquest, and they were now being presented with an idea which staggered them. That is why Peter so violently protested. To him the whole thing was impossible.

Why did Jesus so sternly rebuke Peter? Because he was putting into words the very temptations which were assailing Jesus. Jesus did not want to die. He knew that he had powers which he could use for conquest. At this moment he was refighting the battle of temptations in the wilderness. This was the devil tempting him again to fall down and worship him, to take his way instead of God's way.

It is a strange thing, and sometimes a terrible thing, that the tempter sometimes speaks to us in the voice of a well-meaning friend. We may have decided on a course which is the right course but which will inevitably bring trouble, loss, unpopularity, sacrifice. And some well-meaning friend tries with the best intentions in the world, to stop us. I knew a man who decided to take a course which would almost inevitably land him in trouble. A friend came to him and tried to dissuade him. "Remember," said the friend, "that you have a wife and a family. You can't do this." It is quite possible for someone to love us so much that he wants us to avoid trouble and to play safe.

In Gareth and Lynette Tennyson tells the story of the youngest son of Lot and Bellicent. He has seen the vision and he wishes to become one of Arthur's knights. Bellicent, his mother, does not wish to let him go.

"Hast thou no pity on my loneliness?" she asks. His father, Lot, is old and "lies like a log and all but smouldered out." Both his brothers are already at Arthur's court. "Stay, my best son," she says, "ye are yet more boy than man." If he stays she will arrange the hunt to keep him happy in the chase and find some princess to be his bride. The boy has had the vision, and, one by one the mother, who loves him dearly, produces reasons, excellent reasons, why he should stay at home. Someone who loves him speaks with the tempter's voice, all unaware that she is doing it. But Gareth answers,

"O Mother,

How can ye keep me tethered to you--Shame.

Man am I grown, a man's work must I do.

Follow the deer? Follow the Christ, the King,

Live pure, speak true, right wrong, follow the King--

Else, wherefore born?"

So Gareth went when the vision called.

The tempter can make no more terrible attack than in the voice of those who love us and who think they seek only our good. That is what happened to Jesus that day; that is why he answered so sternly. Not even the pleading voice of love must silence for us the imperious voice of God.

THE WAY OF THE DISCIPLE (Mark 8:34-35)

8:34-35 He called the crowd to him, together with his disciples, and said to them, "If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and let him take up his cross, and let him follow me."

This part of Mark's gospel is so near the heart and centre of the Christian faith that we must take it almost sentence by sentence. If each day a man could go out with only one of these sentences locked in his heart and dominating his life, it would be far more than enough to be going on with.

Two things stand out here even at first sight.

(i) There is the almost startling honesty of Jesus. No one could ever say that he was induced to follow Jesus by false pretences. Jesus never tried to bribe men by the offer of an easy way. He did not offer men peace; he offered them glory. To tell a man he must be ready to take up a cross was to tell him he must be ready to be regarded as a criminal and to die.

The honesty of great leaders has always been one of their characteristics. In the days of the Second World War, when Sir Winston Churchill took over the leadership of the country, all that he offered men was "blood, toil, tears and sweat." Garibaldi, the great Italian patriot, appealed for recruits in these terms: "I offer neither pay, nor quarters, nor provisions; I offer hunger, thirst, forced marches, battles and death. Let him who loves his country in his heart, and not with his lips only, follow me." "Soldiers, all our efforts against superior forces have been unavailing. I have nothing to offer you but hunger and thirst, hardship and death; but I call on all who love their country to join with me."

Jesus never sought to lure men to him by the offer of an easy way; he sought to challenge them, to waken the sleeping chivalry in their souls, by the offer of a way than which none could be higher and harder. He came not to make life easy but to make men great.

(ii) There is the fact that Jesus never called on men to do or face anything which he was not prepared to do and face himself. That indeed is the characteristic of the leader whom men will follow.

When Alexander the Great set out in pursuit of Darius, he made one of the wonder marches of history. In eleven days he marched his men thirty-three hundred furlongs. They were very nearly giving up, mainly because of thirst, for there was no water. Plutarch relates the story. "While they were in this distress, it happened that some Macedonians who had fetched water in skins upon their mules from a river they had found out came about noon to the place where Alexander was, and seeing him almost choked with thirst, presently fined an helmet and offered it to him. He asked them to whom they were carrying the water; they told him to their children, adding, that if his life were but saved, it was no matter for them, they should be well enough able to repair that loss, though they all perished. Then he took the helmet into his hands, and looking round about, when he saw all those who were near him stretching their heads out and looking earnestly after the drink, he returned it again with thanks without tasting a drop of it. 'For,' he said, 'if I alone should drink, the rest would be out of heart.' The soldiers no sooner took notice of his temperance and magnanimity upon this occasion, but they, one and all, cried out to him to lead them forward boldly, and began whipping on their horses. For while they had such a king they said they defied both weariness and thirst, and looked upon themselves to be little less than immortal." It was easy to follow a leader who never demanded from his men what he would not endure himself.

There was a famous Roman general, Quintus Fabius Cunctator. He was discussing with his staff how to take a difficult position. Someone suggested a certain course of action. "It will only cost the lives of a few men," this counsellor said. Fabius looked at him. "Are you," he said, "willing to be one of the few?"

Jesus was not the kind of leader who sat remote and played with the lives of men like expendable pawns. What he demanded that they should face, he, too, was ready to face. Jesus had a right to call on us to take up a cross, for he himself first bore one.

(iii) Jesus said of the man who would be his disciple, "Let him deny himself." We will understand the meaning of this demand best if we take it very simply and literally. "Let him say no to himself." If a man will follow Jesus Christ he must ever say no to himself and yes to Christ. He must say no to his own natural love of ease and comfort. He must say no to every course of action based on self-seeking and self-will. He must say no to the instincts and the desires which prompt him to touch and taste and handle the forbidden things. He must unhesitatingly say yes to the voice and the command of Jesus Christ. He must be able to say with Paul that it is no longer he who lives but Christ who lives in him. He lives no longer to follow his own will, but to follow the will of Christ, and in that service he finds his perfect freedom.

FINDING LIFE BY LOSING LIFE (Mark 8:36)

8:36 Whoever seeks to save his life shall lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel shall save it.

There are certain things which are lost by being kept and saved by being used. Any talent that a man possesses is like that. If he uses it, it will develop into something still greater. If he refuses to use it he will in the end lose it. Supremely so, life is like that.

History is full of examples of men, who by throwing away their lives, gained life eternal. Late in the fourth century, there was in the East a monk called Telemachus. He had determined to leave the world and to live all alone in prayer and meditation and fasting, and so to save his soul. In his lonely life he sought nothing but contact with God. But somehow he felt there was something wrong. One day as he rose from his knees, it suddenly dawned upon him that his life was based, not on a self-less, but on a selfish love of God. It came to him that if he was to serve God he must serve men, that the desert was no place for a Christian to live, that the cities were full of sin and therefore full of need.

He determined to bid farewell to the desert and set out to the greatest city in the world, Rome, at the other side of the world. He begged his way across lands and seas. By this time Rome was officially Christian. He arrived at a time when Stilicho, the Roman general, had gained a mighty victory over the Goths. To Stilicho was granted a Roman triumph. There was this difference from the old days--now it was to the Christian churches the crowds poured and not to the heathen temples. There were the processions and the celebrations and Stilicho rode in triumph through the streets, with the young Emperor Honorius by his side.

But one thing had lingered on into Christian Rome. There was still the arena; there were still the gladiatorial games. Nowadays Christians were no longer thrown to the lions; but still those captured in war had to fight and kill each other to make a Roman holiday for the populace. Still men roared with blood lust as the gladiators fought.

Telemachus found his way to the arena. There were eighty-thousand people there. The chariot races were ending; and there was a tenseness in the crowd as the gladiators prepared to fight. Into the arena they came with their greeting. "Hail, Caesar! We who are about to die salute you!" The fight was on and Telemachus was appalled. Men for whom Christ had died were killing each other to amuse an allegedly Christian populace. He leapt the barrier. He was in between the gladiators, and for a moment they stopped. "Let the games go on," roared the crowd. They pushed the old man aside; he was still in his hermit's robes. Again he carne between them. The crowd began to hurl stones at him; they urged the gladiators to kill him and get him out of the way. The commander of the games gave an order; a gladiator's sword rose and flashed; and Telemachus lay dead.

Suddenly the crowd were silent. They were suddenly shocked that a holy man should have been killed in such a way. Suddenly there was a mass realization of what this killing really was. The games ended abruptly that day--and they never began again. Telemachus, by dying, had ended them. As Gibbon said of him, "His death was more useful to mankind than his life." By losing his life he had done more than ever he could have done by husbanding it out in lonely devotion in the desert.

God gave us life to spend and not to keep. If we live carefully, always thinking first of our own profit, ease, comfort, security, if our sole aim is to make life as long and as trouble-free as possible, if we will make no effort except for ourselves, we are losing life all the time. But if we spend life for others, if we forget health and time and wealth and comfort in our desire to do something for Jesus and for the men for whom Jesus died, we are winning life all the time.

What would have happened to the world if doctors and scientists and inventors had not been prepared to risk experiments often on their own bodies? What would have happened to life if everyone had wished for nothing but to remain comfortably at home, and there had been no such person as an explorer or a pioneer? What would happen if every mother refused to take the risk of bearing a child? What would happen if all men spent all they had upon themselves?

The very essence of life is in risking life and spending life, not in saving it and hoarding it. True, it is the way of weariness, of exhaustion, of giving to the uttermost--but it is better any day to burn out than to rust out, for that is the way to happiness and the way to God.

THE SUPREME VALUE IN LIFE (Mark 8:37)

8:37 What profit is it for a man to gain the whole world and to forfeit his life? For what is a man to give in exchange for his life?

It is quite possible for a man in one sense to make a huge success of life and in another sense to be living a life that is not worth living. The real question Jesus asks is, "Where do you put your values in life?" It is possible for a man to put his values on the wrong things and to discover it too late.

(i) A man may sacrifice honour for profit. He may desire material things and not be over-particular how he gets them. The world is full of temptations towards profitable dishonesty. George Macdonald tells in one of his books about a draper who always used his thumb to make the measure just a little short. "He took from his soul," he said, "and put it in his siller-bag." The real question, the question which sooner or later will have to be answered is, "How does life's balance sheet look in the sight of God?" God is the auditor whom, in the end, all men must face.

(ii) A man may sacrifice principle for popularity. It may happen that the easy-going, agreeable, pliable man will save himself a lot of trouble. It may happen that the man inflexibly devoted to principle will find himself disliked. Shakespeare paints the picture of Wolsey, the great Cardinal, who served Henry the Eighth with all the ingenuity and wit he possessed.

"Had I but serv'd my God with half the zeal

I serv'd my king, he would not in mine age

Have left me naked to mine enemies."

The real question, the question every man in the end will have to face, is not, "What did men think of this?" but, "What does God think of it?" It is not the verdict of public opinion but the verdict of God that settles destiny.

(iii) A man may sacrifice the lasting things for the cheap things. It is always easier to have a cheap success. An author may sacrifice that which would be really great for the cheap success of a moment. A musician may produce ephemeral trifles when he might be producing something real and lasting. A man may choose a job which will bring him more money and more comfort, and turn his back on one where he could render more service to his fellow-men. A man may spend his life in little things and let the big things go. A woman may prefer a life of pleasure and of so-called freedom to the service of her home and the upbringing of a family.

But life has a way of revealing the true values and condemning the false as the years pass on. A cheap thing never lasts.

(iv) We may sum it all up by saying that a man may sacrifice eternity for the moment. We would be saved from all kinds of mistakes if we always looked at things in the light of eternity. Many a thing is pleasant for the moment but ruinous in the long run. The test of eternity, the test of seeking to see the thing as God sees it, is the realest test of all.

The man who sees things as God sees them will never spend his life on the things that lose his soul.

WHEN THE KING COMES INTO HIS OWN (Mark 8:38; Mark 9:1)

8:38 "Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him also shall the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels." And he used to say to them, "This is the truth I tell you--there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste of death until they shall see the Kingdom of God coming with power."

One thing leaps out from this passage--the confidence of Jesus. He has just been speaking of his death; he has no doubt that the Cross stands ahead of him; but nonetheless he is absolutely sure that in the end there will be triumph.

The first part of the passage states a simple truth. When the King comes into his Kingdom he will be loyal to those who have been loyal to him. No man can expect to dodge all the trouble of some great undertaking and then reap all the benefit of it. No man can expect to refuse service in some campaign and then share in the decorations when it is brought to a successful conclusion. Jesus is saying, "In a difficult and hostile world Christianity is up against it these days. If a man is ashamed under such conditions to show that he is a Christian, if he is afraid to show what side he is on, he cannot expect to gain a place of honour when the Kingdom comes."

The last part of this passage has caused much serious thought. Jesus says that many who are standing there will not die until they see the Kingdom coming with power. What worries some people is that they take this as a reference to the Second Coming; but if it is, Jesus was mistaken, because he did not return in power and glory in the lifetime of those who were there.

But this is not a reference to the Second Coming at all. Consider the situation. At the moment Jesus had only once been outside Palestine, and on that occasion he was just over the border in Tyre and Sidon. Only a very few men in a very small country had ever heard of him. Palestine was only about 120 miles from north to south and about 40 miles from east to west; her total population was 4,000,000 or thereby. To speak in terms of world conquest when he had scarcely ever been outside such a small country was strange. To make matters worse, even in that small country, he had so provoked the enmity of the orthodox leaders and of those in whose hands lay power, that it was quite certain that he could hope for nothing other than death as a heretic and an outlaw. In face of a situation like that there must have been many who felt despairingly that Christianity had no possible future, that in a short time it would be wiped out completely and eliminated from the world. Humanly speaking, these pessimists were right.

Now consider what did happen. Scarcely more than thirty years later, Christianity had swept through Asia Minor; Antioch had become a great Christian church. It had penetrated to Egypt; the Christians were strong in Alexandria. It had crossed the sea and come to Rome and swept through Greece. Christianity had spread like an unstoppable tide throughout the world. It was astonishingly true that in the lifetime of many there, against all expectations, Christianity had come with power. So far from being mistaken, Jesus was absolutely right.

The amazing thing is that Jesus never knew despair. In face of the dullness of the minds of men, in face of the opposition, in face of crucifixion and of death, he never doubted his final triumph--because he never doubted God. He was always certain that what is impossible with man is completely possible with him.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Mark 8:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/mark-8.html. 1956-1959.


Lectionary Calendar
Monday, December 10th, 2018
the Second Week of Advent
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