WHEN THE FIVE thousand were fed, as recorded in Mark 6, the disciples took the initiative by calling their Master's attention to the needy condition of the crowd. On this second occasion the Lord took the initiative, and drew His disciples' attention to their need, expressing His compassion and concern on their behalf. As on the first occasion so again now the disciples have simply man before them, and think only of his powers which are wholly unequal to the situation. They had not yet learned to measure the difficulty by the power of their Lord.
Hence the instruction which was conveyed by the feeding of a huge crowd with earthly resources of the tiniest order, was repeated. There were slight differences, both as to the number of the people and the number of the loaves and fishes used, but in all the essentials this miracle was a repetition of the other, as once more He fulfilled Psalm 132: 15, and displayed the power of God before their eyes.
Having fed the multitude, He dismissed them Himself, and immediately after departed with His disciples to the other side of the lake, just as on the previous occasion. On His arrival certain Pharisees came with aggressive intent requesting a sign from heaven. He had as a matter of fact just been giving very striking signs from heaven in the presence of thousands of witnesses. The Pharisees had no intention of following Him, and hence had not been present so as to see the sign for themselves, still there was ample witness to it if they cared to listen. The fact was of course that on the one hand they had no desire to witness any sign that would authenticate Him and His mission, and on the other hand they had no ability to see and recognize the sign even when it was plainly before their eyes. Their utter unbelief grieved Him to the heart.
In verse 34 of the previous chapter, when He was confronted with human weakness and disability of a bodily sort, He sighed: here confronted with blindness of a spiritual sort, He sighed deeply in His spirit. Spiritual incapacity is a far more serious matter than bodily incapacity. They were blind leaders of a blind generation and groping about for a sign. No sign would be given to them, for to blind men signs are useless. This was the occasion when, as recorded at the beginning of Matthew 16, the Lord told them they could discern the face of the sky, but not the signs of the times.
Let us not dismiss this matter as being something which only concerns the Pharisee: in principle it also concerns ourselves. How often has the true believer been troubled and disheartened, thinking God has not spoken, or acted, or answered, when really He has, only we have not had eyes to see. We may have continued beseeching Him for more light, when all the time all that was wanted was a few windows in our house!
The motive actuating these Pharisees was wholly wrong, since their object was to tempt Him. So the Lord abruptly left them and departed again to the other side of the lake, which He had left but a short time before, and the disciples were without bread. Thus for the third time they were face to face with the problem raised in the feeding of the five thousand and the four thousand, only on a very small scale.
Alas! the disciples no more met the problem in the strength of faith when it was on the small scale than when it was on the great scale. They too had not so far had eyes to see the power and glory of their Master, as displayed twice in His multiplication of the loaves and fishes. True faith has penetrating vision. They should have discerned who He was, and then they would have looked not to their paltry loaves or fishes but to Him, and every difficulty would have vanished. In the small crises that mark our own lives are we any better than they were?
The Lord's charge about the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod is not explained to us here, as it is in Matthew, but we must note its significance. He referred to the doctrine of the two factions, which worked like leaven in those who came under the influence of the one and the other. That of the Pharisees was hypocrisy. That of the Herodians was utter worldliness. In Matthew we read of the leaven of the Sadducees, and this was intellectual pride which led them into rationalistic unbelief. Nothing does more effectually blind the mind and understanding than leaven of these three kinds.
The blind man of Bethsaida, of whom we read in verses 22 to 26, exactly illustrates the condition of the disciples at that time. When the blind man was brought to the Lord, He took him by the hand and led him out of the town, thus separating him from the haunts of men, just as previously He had turned His back upon the Pharisees and those with them (verse 13). Outside the town the Lord dealt with him, performing His work in two parts-the only time, as far as we remember, that He acted thus. As the result of the first touch he saw, "men as trees, walking." He saw, but things were badly out of focus. He knew that the objects he saw were men, but they looked much bigger than they were.
Thus it was with the disciples-man was too great in their eyes. Even as they looked at the Lord Himself it would seem that His humanity eclipsed His Deity in their eyes. They needed, like the blind man, a second touch before they saw all things clearly. The presence of the Son of God amongst them in flesh and blood was the first touch that reached them, and as a result they began to see. When He had died and risen again and was ascended to glory, He laid His second touch upon them in shedding forth His Spirit, as recorded in Acts 2. Then they saw all things clearly. We may well earnestly pray that our spiritual vision may not be near-sighted and out of focus, lest the great trees, we think we see, turn out to be merely feeble little men strutting about. Such a state is possible for us, as 2 Peter 1: 9 shows, and there is no excuse for us, since the Spirit has been given.
The blind man, when cured, was not to go into the town nor testify to any in the town; moreover the Lord Himself now withdrew with His disciples to Caesarea Philippi, the most northerly town within the confines of the land, and very near the Gentile border. Clearly He was beginning to withdraw Himself and the testimony to His Messiahship from the blind people and their yet more blinded leaders. Here He raised the question with His disciples as to who He was. The people hazarded differing guesses, but all imagined Him to be some old prophet revived, just a man, and none had sufficient interest to really find out.
Then Jesus challenged His disciples. Peter became the spokesman and answered confessing His Messiahship, but this only produced a rejoinder which probably astonished them greatly, and may astonish us as we read it today. He charged them to be silent as to His Messiahship, and began to teach them as to His approaching rejection and death and resurrection. Any testimony that had been rendered to Him as the Messiah on earth was now formally withdrawn. From this point He accepted His death as inevitable, and began to turn the thoughts of His disciples to that which was impending as the result of it. This was the orderly progress of things on the human side; and it does not contradict nor clash with the divine side- that He knew from the outset that which was before Him.
Moreover, the disciples were as yet hardly fit to bear further testimony, had it been needed. Peter indeed had some measure of spiritual sight, for he had just confessed Him as the Christ; yet the intimation of His approaching rejection and death raised a vehement remonstrance from this very man. In this Peter's mind was being swayed by Satan, and the Lord rebuked this spirit of evil who was behind Peter's words. Peter's mind was set on "the things that be of men," and so he answered very aptly to the man of whom we have just read, who saw men as trees walking. Though he recognized the Christ in Jesus, he still had men before him, and in this the other disciples were no better than he. So how could he go forth as an effectual witness to the Christ whom he recognized? No wonder, after all, that at this point He charged His disciples that they should tell no man of Him.
We may pause here, each to face the fact that we cannot effectually go forth in testimony unless we really know the One of whom we testify, and also know and understand the situation that exists, in the face of which the testimony has to be rendered.
In the closing verses of our chapter the Lord begins to instruct His disciples in the presence of the people as to consequences that would follow from His rejection and death. They imagined themselves to be following a Messiah who was to be received and glorified on earth; and the fact was, He was about to die and rise again and be for the present glorified in heaven. This entailed an immense change in their outward prospects. It meant the denying of self, the taking up of the cross, the losing of life in this world, the bearing of shame as identified with Christ and His words, in the midst of an evil generation.
The force of "deny himself" is hardly expressed by "self-denial," which is the denying oneself of something. What the Lord speaks of is not that but the denial, or the saying of "no," to oneself. Also, "take up his cross" does not mean bearing trials and troubles merely. The man who in those days took up his cross was being led to execution. He was a man who had to accept death at the hands of the world. To say "no" to oneself is to accept death internally, on one's own spirit: to take up one's cross is to accept death externally at the hands of the world. That is what discipleship must mean, since we follow the Christ who died, rejected of the world.
This thought is expanded in verses 35-37. The true disciple of Christ is not aspiring to gain the whole world; he is ready rather to lose the world, and his own life in it, for the sake of the Lord and His Gospel. The perfect Servant, whom Mark depicts, gave His life that there might be a Gospel to preach. Those who follow Him, and are His servants, must be prepared to give up their lives in preaching the Gospel. If they should be ashamed of Him now, He would be ashamed of them in the day of His glory.
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