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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Mark 8

The Road to Jerusalem (8:27-10:52)

Many commentators on Mark utilize the geographical references to reconstruct a map on which to chart Jesus’ movements. We have not done so in our study of the first half of the Gospel. Our one exception has been to indicate how Jesus’ mission had first been directed to his home country and only then to the neighboring territories, first to Israel and then to the Gentiles. Apart from this exception we have concluded that in his references to various places Mark was more interested in theological than in cartographical significance. Let us illustrate this by recalling the role played in his drama by three places: the boat, the wilderness, the road.

Let the reader recall all that has taken place in the boat. Let us begin with the scene where Jesus had first enlisted his followers. They had been in their boats fishing. At his summons they had left their nets and had followed him, under his pledge to make them fishers of men (Mark 1:16-20). Thereafter no one but his disciples is pictured as being in the "same boat" with him. In some of the boat scenes the anonymous crowd was mentioned, but we should notice in what connections. In a number of scenes, Jesus used the boat in order to escape the crowd and in order to devote himself to the needs of the disciples (Mark 3:9; Mark 4:35; Mark 5:18; Mark 6:32; Mark 8:10). In one scene, he teaches the crowd from the boat, quite as if it were his pulpit or as if he were casting his net for men (Mark 4:1). In three other scenes, he disembarks from the boat in order to struggle with the demons in men and to heal them (Mark 5:2; Mark 5:21; Mark 6:54).

From the first, special significance was attached to joining him in the boat. Why did none but disciples belong there? Because this was the place to share bread with him, the place for him to rebuke their blindness and hardheartedness (Mark 6:52; Mark 8:14-21), and the place where he tested their faith by involving them in sudden violent storms. When he had been present but asleep, their fears of wind and sea had quite demoralized them (Mark 4:35-41). When he had been absent, they had been wholly unable to make headway against the wind, at least until his amazing arrival (Mark 6:45-52). The Christian symbolism in this language is unmistakable.

So, too, in the use of the pictures of the wilderness (or desert, or the country, or a lonely place, for the same Greek noun is translated in these various ways). In the vocabulary of the Early Church, the wilderness was the place where all those lived "who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus" (Revelation 12:17). Here was the place as well where the forces of evil were especially active in assailing these followers. This is the place where Jesus had wrestled with Satan (Mark 1:12-13), the place of prayer and of vocational renewal (Mark 1:35-39), the place of escape from popular clamor (Mark 1:45; Mark 6:31), yet the place where God had fed the multitude of pilgrims who, so to speak, had left Egypt and were bound for the Promised Land (Mark 6:35; Mark 8:4). This is symbolically the place where those who entered the boat with Jesus were bound to arrive (Mark 6:31), yet it is the place where they were expected to feed the shepherdless flock (Mark 6:37). One other nuance in this conception must be mentioned: the wilderness is the region where the prophet prepares the road, the highway, of God. Desert highway; this is a paradox which intentionally expresses the style of living adopted by John, by Jesus, and by his disciples. At the very outset Mark had announced the fulfillment of the prophet’s promise: in the wilderness the way of the Lord will be prepared (Mark 1:2-3). Thereafter Mark pictures John, Jesus, and all God’s children as being at home in the wilderness. All join in preparing God’s road. Thus, for example, when Jesus had sent his disciples out on this road (Mark 6:8, "journey") to preach repentance like John, he had ruled out any equipment except what was appropriate to this locale. Mark appeals to this picture of the road sparingly, however until the second half of his Gospel begins at 8:27. Now the image derives a new dimension, for this teacher is one who knows "the road of God" (see 12:14) and who teaches that road by walking it. Moreover, this road has a very definite terminus, for it is the road to Jerusalem. As in the case of the boat, this image of the road seems to be restricted to Jesus and his followers, because it is the narrow way leading to the Cross. The teaching which Jesus gave on the way drew its meanings from this fact (Mark 8:27-38). This is why confusions of the disciples here became especially poignant (Mark 9:33-50). Milestones were provided by disclosures of progress toward this terminus (Mark 10:17; Mark 10:32; Mark 10:46; Mark 10:52). We should not, of course, infer that all geographical values have been eliminated. Quite the contrary, because in this segment of the narrative Mark makes frequent mention of successive stages. This journey begins in the region of Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27), then winds through Galilee (Mark 9:30), then through Transjordania (Mark 10:1), finally to Jericho (Mark 10:46) and the suburbs of Jerusalem (Mark 11:1). Yes, Mark gives us a very rough itinerary, but even so, he remained aware that this particular road was one which must be walked by every group of disciples in every generation. How this awareness was embodied in his narrative we shall observe as we trace the successive stages of this awesome pilgrimage.

Verses 1-21

Two Kinds of Bread (8:1-21)

What binds together these twin healings and the following story of a feeding? (Mark 8:1-10). Probably both took place among Gentiles. This may be Mark’s reason for including two wilderness suppers, the earlier one being for Jews (Mark 6:30-44). We should not forget that in Rome the Jewish and Gentile Christians had been unable to eat together at the Lord’s Table (Romans 14). The location "in the desert" may be a significant link to the prophecy to which we have referred: "The desert shall rejoice and blossom . . . For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert . . . the redeemed shall walk there" (Isaiah 35). More significantly, the work of the shepherd includes, as we have seen, protecting the flock from enemies (the demons), healing and feeding the sheep, and, not the least, teaching them the mercy of God. In the familiar Twenty-third Psalm, the spreading of the table is but one of many ways of describing essentially the same miraculous work of restoring the soul.

Again, a rather curious feature of the story is a distinction between the disciples and the crowd. Jesus’ compassion is directed to the hungry. He expects the disciples to feed them, however small their larder. The disciples serve as deacons (Acts 6:1-6).

Only Jesus presides as host — giving thanks (the Greek word from which "Eucharist" comes), breaking the loaves, and giving to the deacons for the congregation. Nothing is said of the disciples’ hunger, or of their eating. Their work is exclusively as servants of the sheep. So Jesus feeds his Church miraculously and abundantly. The "seven baskets full" of the broken pieces clearly indicates abundance. The number seven may also suggest the seventy nations of the Gentiles. More interestingly, the "broken pieces left over" indicates that this supply of food from God is inexhaustible. (Note "the children’s crumbs" of Mark 7:28.) From this table, fragments are available for many others than those being fed at a given setting. This table, with its Host and its food, is intended to include all. Are there four thousand Gentiles present? The fragments indicate that there can be no limit to the number; or, even more strongly, the fragments are a prophecy that countless thousands will be fed from the same supply.

The little company of Ix)rd and deacons seems to be traveling very frequently by boat. They cross the lake (vs. 10) and almost immediately recross it (vs. 13). Why so short a trip? Or, rather, why does Mark give so brief an account of this visit to Jewish territory? Two reasons may be suggested.

1. Mark wanted to stress the contrast between the response among the Jews and the response of the Gentiles. When Jesus had appeared unknown among the Gentiles, a woman had sought him out to fall at his feet in reverence and supplication (Mark 7:25). When he touched shore in a Jewish town where he was well known, he ran afoul of the Pharisees with their arguments and their demands for proofs (much like the Jewish Christians of Romans 14). To unbelievers no signs would be given; but to believers he gave freedom from demons, from sickness, and from hunger. What a contrast!

2. The second reason for Mark’s brief reference to the encounter with the Pharisees is this: he needed something by way of a background for his next episode, which even with this help remains one of the most difficult bits of dialogue in the Gospel. The dialogue centers on the subject of bread and leaven. Do they or do they not have bread with them? Have they adopted the leaven of the Pharisees? The earlier debate with the Pharisees, leading to Jesus’ decision to leave them (like so many Apostles later on), at least suggests that there is something about their leaven which the disciples must shun (vs. 15).

It seems that the Twelve were completely baffled. No less so are modern readers. Yet Jesus had grounds for complaint; they should have understood. What were these grounds? The memory of the baskets of fragments, first twelve and then seven. They remembered, but they did not understand. Mark gives a few clues to the enigma: "blindness" is "deafness" is "hardness of heart" is "misunderstanding." By implication, understanding is equivalent to seeing and hearing and receptivity. Mark thus interpreted in a symbolic way the previous cure of deafness (Mark 7:31-37) and the subsequent cure of blindness (Mark 8:22-26), and he sets these cures in contrast to the need of the disciples for similar healing.

But now we must ask what can serve as a single object for the seeing-hearing-understanding heart. It has to do with bread, the bread which they have and the fragments in the baskets. Moreover, this bread is set over against the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod. They are in danger of substituting this leaven for the bread which they have. What is this bread and this leaven?

Here a clue is provided by the seeming contradiction in the text. They have no bread and yet they have one loaf (vss. 14, 16). How can they have one loaf without knowing it? A reference at this point to the Eucharistic language and practice of the Church may help, for regularly the followers of Jesus participated in his body as the broken bread. "The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). The perennial task of disciples is to discern the body, to see the Lord as one loaf, to feed with faith upon the bread of life. Where the Lord is, there is always one loaf. He is always able to satisfy his hungry flock and to leave ample fragments for others. To trust in him is to see, to hear, to accept, and to obey the good news of God’s presence and power. But the danger is always present of eating the other leaven — blindness to the signs of God’s Kingdom, proud insistence on proofs, deaf stubbornness in opposing the inclusion of Gentiles, hardhearted reliance upon religious status and political power. If one understands what is bread and what is this leaven, then he will live in a world of abundance; if not, he will live in a world of scarcity, of famine, of rivalry, and of secret despair.

Verses 22-26

A Blind Man Sees (8:22-26)

In all the previous episodes (the stories of the wilderness supper, the skepticism of the Pharisees, the dilemma of the disciples) Mark had been speaking of blindness. The account of a cure comes therefore as a short dramatic climax. Notwithstanding the baffling character of the Kingdom’s presence, men can be helped to see, as was this man in Bethsaida. There is only one novel element in this account; the cure required two stages — first partial sight, then clear vision. Having observed Mark’s primary concern with the blindness of the Twelve (vs. 18), we may safely infer that the two stages symbolize steps in Jesus’ cure of them. Probably the first step is represented by the very next episode. In the previous incident the Twelve had been blind; in the next they gain partial sight. In either case, both for the Bethsaidan and for the Twelve, the cures wrought by Jesus were seen by Mark as fulfillments of the same prophecy of Isaiah which we have cited. "The eyes of the blind shall be opened," for God "will come and save you" (Isaiah 35:4-5; Isaiah 29:17-19).

The Coming Confession (8:27-9:1)

From this point on, Jesus concentrates his attention upon those for whom this road will serve as a classroom — his disciples. At the outset, they are confronted with a difficult question — the standing of their teacher. Aware of varying impressions of him, they must form their own. For those who once begin this march, the options among the various answers are limited. Others may think of this Man as a tool of Beelzebul or as insane or as an enemy of the nation. They, however, have seen him as a colleague of John the Baptizer, or as Elijah come again to proclaim the New Age, or as one of the prophets sent to announce God’s doom and dawn. All these options, it is clear, were positive evaluations; whichever is adopted, Jesus must be given a hearing as a man sent from God with an important mission to Israel. He continues the work of these authorized messengers. Those who joined in this appraisal would have been constrained to listen and to follow. Yet Peter, speaking for the disciples as a group, tried to say something more: You are the Messiah (vs. 29).

What is the Teacher’s response? No word of approval or praise. No immediate confirmation. Only a command to silence, and the beginning of the real lesson. Why should they tell no one about him? Because the simpler titles were adequate? Perhaps. Because further instruction was needed before they would know what being the Messiah entailed? This is the better answer. It was good that they should call him "the Christ," but not good enough. They must know what the title meant, what work the Christ must accomplish, and how he would accomplish it. In all the records about Jesus, we hear him warning against reliance on verbal confessions alone. Just as he would become what God intended for him only by obeying God to the end, so they, too, would become what he intended for them by obeying him to the end. To use the right title was a good first step. It was like the first step in the returning vision of the blind man (Mark 8:24). But apart from another step, the blind would never see clearly.

Therefore Mark hastens on from Peter’s confession to this next and even more important lesson: "The Son of man must suffer." This is the lesson the teaching of which would require the remainder of the journey on this road (he "began" to teach). This lesson was given so plainly that there was no mistaking the meaning. It was because Peter understood the meaning that he protested so loyally and yet so blindly. Loyally? This question must be answered. To whom was Peter loyal in his protest? To Satan! Very abruptly Jesus accused Peter of speaking for Satan, of putting Jesus to the test as Satan had earlier tried to do. This Messiah would become the Messiah only in and through his rejection and death.

This lesson concerning the Messiah’s road was welded into the lesson concerning those who would "come after" him. Each follower must — there is no escape clause — "take up his cross." To reject the Messiah’s road is the same as rejecting the disciple’s road. To believe in him as this Messiah is a lie unless the believer accepts martyrdom for his sake and the gospel’s. In short, his teaching was no easy platitude about the spiritual life. Far from it. This was an ironclad requirement of actual martyrdom. Though modern readers can easily dissolve the iron into cobwebs, Mark’s readers could not, for the language reminded them too harshly of the criminal courts and the prisoner’s cell. They knew that when a Christian was summoned before the judge, he could "gain the whole world" by denying that he was Christ’s follower.

He would be tempted to do so in order to avoid losing or forfeiting his life. In doing so he would be "ashamed" of Jesus and these very words; he would accept life on terms set by "this adulterous and sinful generation." But to avoid public disgrace and death in a Roman court by disowning the Messiah would have only one consequence: the Messiah would disown his one-time follower in the final and ultimate court of appeal (vs. 38). Mark and his readers knew how terrifyingly realistic this language was, for they had vivid memories not only of the cross on Golgotha but of many crosses on other hills. Consequently, it was important to know how far away was this final courtroom of which Jesus had spoken. Jesus gave the answer: "Truly, I say to you [thus asserting his divine authority], there are some standing here [his eyes were on his disciples] who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power [they will be executed by human hands but not before they have experienced the judging and redeeming power of God]" (Mark 9:1; compare Acts 7:54-56). In short, Mark believed that just as the Messiah would enter into his power through dying (vs. 31), so his disciples would see his Kingdom coming with power through their own dying. Losing their lives for his sake and the gospel’s would be the means of salvation (vs. 35), and this salvation was no farther away than the event through which they would make their "good confession" (see 1 Timothy 6:13). All this was the gist of all the lessons on the road to Jerusalem (how appropriate this place!), by which the Teacher explained the meaning of Messiahship to his followers. Their coming confession of faith, like his, would be given not in a church but in a courtroom.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Mark 8". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/mark-8.html.