Mark 8:22-38. A healing of two halves.

And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see men, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”

And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.

And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”  Mark 8:22-38

“Having eyes do you not see…?”  Mark 8:18

 “Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter”  John 1:44

 We’ve just had a longish section dealing with Jesus’ messianic mission to both Jews and Gentiles. He has come to the Jews as the new David; as the shepherd who cares for his sheep, who feeds them, teaches them, and has compassion on them; and also as the king who commands the army of Israel.

He has come to the Gentiles also, and fed them- his sheep are not limited to Jewish men. Jesus is the saviour for all Israel, and for all the four corners of the earth. There is no other saviour.

 We come this week to the start of the passage right at the middle of the book- the account of Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah.


1.      Mark has 16 chapters. This is at the midpoint of the book in that sense. Are there any other ways in which this is a turning point or central point for the book as a whole?

 2.      The healing of the blind man is the only healing done in two stages, and the only one where Jesus asks whether the “patient” is healed. Why is this?

 3.      The healing of the blind man is unique to Mark. None of the other Gospel writers record it. Why is this?

 4.      Why is the man told not even to enter the village?

 5.      Peter is called “Satan”. This is hard language. Why does Jesus use it?

 6.      What does it mean in practise to “take up your cross” and “lose your life”?

 1.      Mark has 16 chapters. This is at the midpoint of the book in that sense. Are there any other ways in which this is a turning point or central point for the book as a whole?

You may recall that we said at the start that this Gospel is divided into two parts. The division is seen both in the location of Jesus ministry, and in the themes of his teaching.

The first half is set in Galilee and the Northern areas, and there Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God has come, and that he is the king, the Messiah. Mark summarises Jesus’ teaching in 1:15- “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” This is the thrust of Jesus’ teaching to his disciples and to everyone else at this point. At the centre of Jesus’ teaching, are the themes of the coming of the kingdom of heaven to earth, and his identity as the king. So he speaks of himself as the bridegroom and speaks about the new wine in chapter 2. And in Ch.4, he says that he has come as the light into the world, and that the kingdom of God has been planted like a seed that will grow.

The second half is different both in geographical location and in content. Events here are set on the road to Jerusalem and in the city itself. Jesus is travelling to that city in order to die there, and his teaching reflects that awareness. In the second half of the Gospel, Jesus teaches about who Messiah is, and what his role must be. The disciples have understood that God’s kingdom has come and that Jesus is the king- and they are ready to follow the great king. But Jesus has some further teaching for them. The king must die as a ransom for his people. Though he is the hope of Israel, Israel will reject Messiah. Jesus has come to suffer and be humiliated.

This is the midpoint of the book, both geographically and theologically

 2.      The healing of the blind man is the only healing done in two stages, and the only one where Jesus asks whether the “patient” is healed. Why is this?

3.      The healing of the blind man is unique to Mark. None of the other Gospel writers record it. Why is this?

So this incident is unique to Mark, and is also the only healing that falls into two phases. Reading through the few verses dealing with the 2-stage healing of the blind man, we’re left with some obvious questions.  Why isn’t the man healed immediately? Why aren’t his eyes opened all at once? Jesus heals plenty of other people in one step- is he not able to do the same for this man? Is it that this man is an especially difficult case? Is he really really blind, blinder than “normal” blind, blinder than all the other blind men Jesus met, so that Jesus just can’t summon up the power to heal him all at once?

And given that this is an unusual miracle, why is it that only Mark records it? Why didn’t Matthew or Luke or John think it added anything to their Gospels? Or to put the question the other way, why does Mark think it’s important?

Those two questions are bound up together, and are also linked to the answer to question 1 above. Mark’s Gospel makes clear the way the disciples understood, and didn’t understand, Jesus. The two-stage nature of the Gospel reflects the disciples’ experience. Jesus came to them preaching the good news of the kingdom of God, and they followed him. They understood that he was the Messiah, and the only hope for Israel. They understood that he was the Son of God. But they didn’t understand how his ministry on earth would end. They didn’t understand that the crucifixion was necessary. They understood the first half of Mark’s Gospel, but not the second. They identified Jesus’ messianic office correctly, but did not yet understand what that office meant for the holder and his followers.

We see this theme writ large across the next few chapters- Jesus repeatedly predicts his own death, and the disciples repeatedly don’t get it. Jesus repeatedly says that his kingdom is about suffering and humility and victory through weakness. The disciples repeatedly show that their hopes and values are very different.

This healing of the blind man is part of that theme. It is a kind of acted parable. There is a deliberate parallel to be drawn between the blind man and Peter, who stands as an example of all the disciples. Peter and the blind man both came from Bethsaida. Both men were led out of Bethsaida. Both men were genuinely given light. Both men were asked by Jesus what they could see.

Jesus laid hands on the blind man twice. After the first touch, Jesus asks what he sees, and he tells Jesus that he can see. But he can only see in part. He does see true things, a lot more than he could see before, but he does not yet see fully. In the same way, the disciples were blind- Jesus says so himself in 8:18 “Do you have eyes, but fail to see”. They have been given genuine light- enough to recognise Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah. Jesus asks them what they see (“who do you say that I am?”), just as he asks the blind man what he can see. And both the disciples and the blind man are yet to see clearly.

At first glance, when reading Peter’s confession in v29, it would appear that Peter and the others have been cured of their dullness and have perceived who Jesus really is, but to make the point that they do not yet see clearly, we are immediately shown that Peter has a very distorted view of what Messiahship means. They do now see more clearly than they did before, but the opening of their eyes is not yet finished. Jesus has patiently revealed to them that he is the Messiah, and they have understood that much. They have asked themselves the question before in bewilderment- “Who is this man?” (4:41)- but now they know a true answer- “You are the Christ”. What they don’t know is what being the Christ means. They haven’t grasped that it means death before victory.

The inference we can draw from seeing this 2-stage healing here at the centre of the gospel, is that just as Jesus finishes the job for the blind man, so he will also finish the job of opening the disciples’ eyes.

 4.      Why is the man told not even to enter the village?

This instruction is part of a much larger set of verses in Mark’s Gospel. Again and again, we find Jesus ensuring a level of “secrecy” about who he is. Right at the start, in chapter 1, Jesus commanded a demon he cast out in the synagogue to keep silent (1:25). He refused to allow other demons to speak, and Mark tells us explicitly that this was because the demons knew who Jesus was (1:34). Jesus repeatedly tells demons, people he heals, and even his own disciples, not to speak of certain things publicly (1.43-45; 3.12; 5.43; 7.36; 8.26; 8.30; 9.9). He takes his disciples away from the crowds, to teach them in private (4.34; 7.17-23; 9.28; 8.31; 9.31; 10.32-34; 13.3). His public teaching is often in parables, given deliberately so that outsiders may not understand (4.10-13). Here, we can see that the command for secrecy is strong. This man is not simply told not to tell others about what has happened to him; he is told not even to show himself to those who know him as a blind man- not even to enter the village.

“Why all this secrecy?” one wonders. Why does Jesus’ identity have to be hidden? Why shouldn’t it be shouted from the rooftops? And especially now that the disciples have understood who Jesus is- couldn’t this be the launching pad for a new evangelistic initiative? Send the 12 out again to proclaim openly that the Messiah is here, doing signs and wonders?

The secrecy all fits in with the point made about the disciples’ understanding. The Twelve still don’t understand something very important. They do now see, whereas before they were utterly blind, but they see fuzzily. They see the truth as clearly as a man sees who looks at other men, blinks a few times, and says, “Wow! Walking trees! Who’da thought it?”

They haven’t understood that Jesus will go quietly to his death, not raising an army and fighting for the throne of Israel. The idea of the cross, and the grave, and the resurrection, is just not part of their scheme for the future. And when those things do happen, the disciples will be taken by surprise. So Jesus’ identity must remain a secret for now. Only after the Son of Man has risen from the dead, will it be safe to declare to all men who he is.

Here, where this miracle mirrors the understanding of the disciples, the command must be a strong one. If even the disciples draw the wrong conclusions from their true understanding of Jesus’ identity, then those who don’t know Jesus at all will go further wrong.

 5.      Peter is called “Satan”. This is hard language. Why does Jesus use it?

Jesus does now begin to teach them about his death. For the first time in the Gospel, he mentions it- and in fact, he does more then merely mention it. He teaches plainly about it, not in parables or using ambiguous language. He states it openly, so that they must grasp what he is saying.

And they do grasp it, but they don’t believe it. Peter thinks he knows what the Messiah is supposed to be like, and the Messiah can’t possibly be rejected and die- so he takes Jesus aside and says, “No, this can’t happen to you. You have got to save Israel. You are the Christ, God’s anointed one. You mustn’t talk like that.” He hadn’t seen that Jesus’ Messiahship had sacrifice at its heart. He had never brought together the Old Testament teaching on the Messiah who would bring in the kingdom of God, and the Suffering servant who would forgive sins, bearing the iniquity of God’s people. He expected Jesus to bring God’s kingdom in with power, majesty, and glory. Probably, he saw that this meant more than merely defeating the Romans- but it certainly included that. And Jesus now says to Peter that he will be the Messiah through rejection, shame, and death. Peter is shocked, and tries to rebuke Jesus.

Jesus response to Peter is very severe. Nobody else is spoken to so harshly. Even the scribes and Pharisees are not called “Satan” by Jesus. But Jesus could hear Satan’s voice in Peter’s words. Satanism isn’t about goats’ skulls and midnight ceremonies involving candles and pentagrams. It’s about trying to edit the cross out of things. It’s about seeing no point in a suffering sacrifice for sin.

We know that Jesus did feel strongly about the cross. When he thought of it in the garden of Gethsemane, sweat ran from his forehead like drops of blood. He was a real man, and he feared pain and death. And more than that, he dreaded bearing the load of sin, and knowing his Father’s wrath. He got all churned up inside when he thought about the terrible things that awaited him. We have never known anything like it. We get anxious over tiny little things. A difficult situation at work, a possible conflict… We can sweat over those things. Jesus knew he was going to be tortured to death, abandoned in the darkness- and he prayed beforehand “Abba Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me, yet not what I will but what you will.” It was a strong temptation for Jesus to refuse the cross. Only his obedience was stronger.

Satan had already played on this fear when he tempted Jesus in the wilderness. He took Jesus up onto a high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and said to him “All this can be yours, if you will bow down and worship me”. Satan offered a crown without the cross, telling Jesus he could still be king, but could just skip the dying in agony part. And Satan again tries that tactic here, using Peter’s lack of understanding to test Jesus. Peter really is speaking as Satan speaks. And Jesus again resisted temptation, and again submitted to his Father’s will.

 6.      What does it mean in practise to “take up your cross” and “lose your life”?

The phrase has passed into common usage- incidentally just one small evidence of the influence the Bible has had on the English language. “We all have our crosses to bear”, is something you hear people say, meaning that we should put up with irritations of life graciously, because life isn’t perfect, and everyone has to put up with things they don’t like, and there’s no point complaining. Jesus also spoke of “losing your life” as well, and often that is made to mean “not being selfish, losing your self-centredness, being so generous that you care about others, not about yourself”. But those things aren’t what Jesus meant when he spoke of bearing the cross or losing your life. To the people who heard Jesus, and to the people who first heard Mark’s Gospel read, a cross was not a minor annoyance of life. It was a brutal instrument of very real, very painful death. “Losing your life” is meant quite literally. Mark’s readers could fully expect to lose their lives for Jesus’ sake and for the gospel’s, and not metaphorically.

Jesus wanted everybody to hear this. Peter had taken him aside, but he now calls the other disciples, and the crowd as well (v34) to tell them that following him means suffering as he will suffer. He makes it clear that just as he will have the cross before the crown, so too will those who serve him. Because of the passing of time, and because of the frequent spiritualization of this passage, we need to be careful to hear it as the group Jesus spoke to would have heard it, and as Mark’s readers, the Gentile Christians would have heard it. By this warning Jesus gives about carrying the cross, they would certainly have understood that Jesus expected them to die for his sake.

 Jesus’ point is exactly that- that if you are his disciple- then you will see him as the most important one. If you have to die for being a Christian, then you’ll do it, because being a Christian is more important than living. The Christian believes that Jesus died for him, to save him- forever. So losing all that this world has to offer is a small thing, insignificant. Whoever would seek to preserve his life, whoever is too scared to follow Jesus, knowing that it will get him killed- he is the one who will lose his life in the end. He will die eventually no matter what, and who will care after death whether they’ve had 70 years alive and died in bed, or 30 years alive followed by execution? Following Jesus might get people killed in the short term-and it did for plenty of the early disciples. There was persecution from the Jews in Jerusalem in the early days, Paul going around making widows left right and centre- and then there was official Roman persecution later, after the great fire of Rome, which Nero conveniently blamed on the Christians. But it’s worth it. The people of this world strike a bargain whereby they sell their souls for the things this world has to offer. And most men don’t drive a very hard bargain. But the followers of Jesus Christ don’t try to gain what they cannot keep. They are ready to die- knowing they dying, they shall live.

 Just as Jesus will be rejected by this generation, so will his followers be. But just as Jesus will be raised from the dead, and will sit in glory, enthroned in heaven, so also will his followers be. Why does Jesus refer to the Son of Man, and the glory of holy angels? Because they are reminders of his eternal glory. Jesus might appear to human eyes as a man, and might be soon battered and broken on the cross, but he will be raised, and he will come again in power and majesty. Into his hands will be given the judgement on the last day. He will honour those who have followed him faithfully, and will reject those who have not been willing to follow him even unto death.

 Peter, in later life, seems to have meditated upon the idea of Jesus as the rock. He preaches to the priests and scribes in Acts 4, quoting Psalm 118, saying that the stone that the builders rejected, has become the chief cornerstone, and there is salvation in no-one else. And he quotes it again in his first letter, adding a couple of quotes from Isaiah about the cornerstone chosen and precious, and about the Lord being a rock of stumbling (Read I Peter 2:6-9).

Perhaps Peter dwells on the theme because he knew that he himself had come close to stumbling at Jesus. The Jews did stumble, because Jesus died rejected, and therefore didn’t fit the mould of the sort of powerful glorious king they wanted. He was as offence to them, and they hated him.

He still is an offence to many today. Read again his words to the disciples and to the crowd. They are still offensive to many. People want to make Jesus out to be a gentle teacher. His violent eand was a tragedy, cutting short a promising career in gentle teaching. Well, even if we forget the fact that Jesus could be far from gentle at times- he could throw tables around in the temple- even if we assume he was a gentle teacher, surely those who want to say he was only a gentle teacher are missing the point. The violent death he suffered was not an afterthought, it was the goal of his whole life. People find that hard to swallow. It isn’t pleasant to them- the idea of redemption and sacrifice. They’d rather have a moral teacher than a saviour. They stumble at Jesus. They reject the cornerstone.

Again, Jesus makes absolute claims here. That is very offensive to some people. Jesus says that those who want to follow him, must be ready to lose their lives for his sake and the gospel’s. He demands absolute allegiance. He doesn’t want half-hearted followers. He refuses to recognise them as followers at all. Anybody who isn’t willing to lose his life for Jesus now, will lose his life forever when Jesus returns. It is a claim at which many stumble. How arrogant, they say- because they don’t really want to acknowledge that Jesus does have an absolute right to treat them as they deserve. There is no life except with Jesus. Only those who follow him will find life. Anything else leads only to death. It couldn’t be more plain.

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