Sign Seeking - Spiritual Dullness

OVERVIEW - Mark highlights the unbelief behind the inability of both the opponents and disciples to perceive exactly who Jesus is - Mark 8:1-21

Comet Photo by Samuel PASTEUR-FOSSE on Unsplash
Despite all they had seen, the disciples remained dull of hearing, running the risk of submitting to the same disbelief that characterized the opponents of Jesus, especially that of the Pharisees. Regardless of his many miracles and exorcisms, they still could not comprehend who he was, the Messiah of Israel and the savior of the world - [
Photo by Samuel PASTEUR-FOSSE on Unsplash].

DULLNESS. In the next story, Jesus miraculously fed four thousand men, plus women and children. This is the second such incident recorded in Mark, where Jesus multiplied loaves and fishes to feed a large crowd.
  • (Mark 8:1-9) - “In those days, there being again a large multitude and not having anything to eat, having summoned the disciples, he says to them, ‘I am moved with compassion on the multitude, because already three days they are lingering with me and have nothing to eat, and if I dismiss them hungry to their home they will give out on the way, and certain of them are from afar.’ And his disciples answered him that, ‘From where is one able to satisfy these with loaves, here in a wilderness?’ And he was asking them. ‘How many loaves have you?’ Now they said, ‘Seven.’ And he directed the multitude to recline on the ground; and taking the seven loaves, having given thanks, he broke and was giving to his disciples that they might set before them, and they set before the multitude.  And they had a few small fishes, and having blessed them, he said also to set these before them.  And they ate and were satisfied, and they took up seven large baskets of fragments.  Now they were about four thousand; and he dismissed them.”
In those days” places the event in the sojourn of Jesus through the Decapolis territory east of the Sea of Galilee. Most likely, the “multitude” included many Gentiles from the surrounding region - (Mark 7:31).

Jesus was “moved with compassion on the multitude,” and so, “summoned the disciples.” He already knew what he was about to do.

Some members of the crowd had “come from afar,” a clause used in the Hebrew Bible for Israelites who were scattered among the nations. For example:
  • (Isaiah 60:4) - “Lift up your eyes round about, and see; they all gather together, they come to you. Your sons will come from afar, and your daughters will be carried in the arms.”
  • (Jeremiah 46:27) - “But as for you, O Jacob My servant, do not fear nor be dismayed, O Israel! For see I am going to save you from afar, and your descendants from the land of their captivity; and Jacob shall return and be undisturbed and secure, with no one making him tremble.”
The disciples complained, where were they to find enough food to “satisfy” the needs of four thousand men?  The same Greek word is used at the end of the story after the multitude “ate and was satisfied.”  The answer to their question was Jesus!  Only he could satisfy the needs of the hungry multitude.

Already the disciples had seen him feed five thousand men and witnessed many miraculous healings and exorcisms. They have seen Jesus calm a storm and walk on water, yet they still lacked faith and the insight into the person and mission of Jesus that faith gives.

SIGN SEEKING. Next, the Pharisees approached him, not to see Jesus perform miracles, but instead, supposedly, seeking a “sign from heaven,” a cosmic event that would validate his mission and its divine origin. But they had an ulterior motive - to test him.

The Greek verb translated “test” occurs four times in Mark: once when Satan tested Jesus, and three times when the Pharisees did likewise - (Mark 1:13, 8:11, 10:2, 12:15).

The account intends for the reader to understand that, by “testing” him, the Pharisees were acting as Satan’s surrogate:
  • (Mark 8:10-12) - “And immediately, having gone into the boat with his disciples, he went into the district of Dalmanutha. The Pharisees came out and started to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, testing him. And having groaned deeply in his spirit, he says: Why is this generation seeking a sign? Truly, I am declaring to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”
Dalmanutha” is mentioned in no other ancient document, and its precise location remains uncertain. The account in Matthew calls it “Magdala,” which locates it in Jewish territory on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Presumably, Dalmanutha is another name for the same place. The change in location explains the arrival of the Pharisees. Jesus had left the Gentile territory of the Decapolis.

The Greek term rendered “sign” (semeion) is different than the word Mark applies to the miracles of Jesus, or dunamis.  Mark never equates “sign” with “miracle”; he never calls a miracle a “sign.”

His deep groan expressed the exasperation of Jesus at their presumption and unbelief. The verb rendered “groan” (anastenazein) occurs only here in the Greek New Testament. In Greek literature, it was used to express dismay, not anger. For those with eyes to see, there had been plenty of evidence to validate the source of his ministry.
This generation” echoes the Old Testament usage for the Israelite generation that wandered forty years in the wilderness because of its unbelief - (Numbers 14:10-23, Deuteronomy 32:5, 32:20, Psalm 95:8-11).

In the gospel accounts, “generation” normally refers to the generation of Jews contemporary with Jesus that did reject him. Why should he give any further "signs" to that "generation"? Had it not already rejected the plain evidence provided by his deeds and words?

LEAVEN AND UNBELIEFLeaven was used to ferment bread dough to make it rise. In scripture, quite often, it symbolized corruption and sin. Like leaven, sin and unbelief spread infectiously. In Matthew, the “leaven of the Pharisees” referred to their false teachings, in Luke, to their hypocrisy.  Mark does not spell out explicitly what it represents here, though the context points to unbelief.
  • (Mark 8:13-21) - “And having left them, again embarking, he departed to the other side. And they forgot to take loaves, and except for one loaf, they had nothing with them in the boat. And he charged them, saying, Take heed! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the leaven of Herod!’ And they were deliberating one with another because they had no loaves. And having perceived, he says to them, Why are you deliberating because you have no loaves? Not yet perceive you, neither understand? Have you hardened your hearts? Having eyes, see you not? And having ears, hear you not? And are you not remembering? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets of fragments did you take up? They say to him, Twelve! When the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets of fragments took you up? And they say to him, Seven. And he was saying to them: Not yet, do you understand?
The mention of the Pharisees and Herod together is unusual; the Pharisees had little in common with Herod and his supporters. However, one thing they did share was opposition to Jesus; in the case of the Pharisees, opposition fueled by unbelief.

At this juncture, the disciples were showing signs of succumbing to the same unbelief, and this despite all they had seen and heard. Unfortunately, prior to his death and resurrection, they remained dull of hearing and spiritually blind.




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