Sign Seeking - Spiritual Dullness

SYNOPSIS - The gospel accounts highlight the unbelief behind the inability of both his opponents and disciples to perceive exactly who Jesus is - Mark 8:1-21.

Comet - Photo by Frank Zinsli on Unsplash
In the Feeding of the five thousand the disciples were described as having “two fishes” using the normal Greek term for “fish” or ichthus. However, in the Feeding of the four thousand they had “a few small fish,” a clause with of the diminutive form of the Greek word - ichthudion. Most likely, it refers to sardines or a similar species of small fish, a staple of the region’s diet. Likewise, two different Greek words are used for “basket” in each of the two mass feeding accounts. - [Photo by Frank Zinsli on Unsplash].

The remnants of the food from the earlier mass feeding event were gathered into twelve “baskets” or kophinos. In contrast, in the feeding of the four thousand, the remains were gathered into seven “large baskets” or spuris.

Not only does the gospel of Mark treat the two feedings as separate events, but he also records Jesus confirming this fact - (“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”).
  • (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 directs the multitude to recline on the ground; and taking the seven loaves, having given thanks, he broke [them] 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.”
The parallel passage is found in Matthew 15:32-39.  The opening clause, “in those days,” places the event during the sojourn of Jesus through the Decapolis territory east of the Sea of Galilee - (See - Mark 7:31).  While Mark does not state whether the crowd was Jewish or Gentile, it quite probably included many Gentiles from the surrounding region.

The story of the four thousand has both similarities and differences with the Feeding of the five thousand. Some commentators argue from the similarities that there was only one original feeding and Mark divided it into two separate feedings - (Mark 6:33-44).

 However, the differences are more significant, for example:
  • At the first feeding, there was a total of 4,000 persons; at the second feeding, there were 5,000 men, plus women and children.
  • The feeding of the 4,000 occurred in Gentile, that of the 5,000 in Jewish territory.
  • The 4,000 remained with Jesus for three days, the 5,000 just one day.
  • The 4,000 came from distant towns, the 5,000 were from local villages.
  • Jesus fed the 4,000, he commanded his disciples to feed the 5,000.
  • Jesus fed the 4,000 with 7 loaves and five fishes, the disciples distributed 5 loaves and two fishes to the 5,000.
  • After feeding the 4,000 there were 7 baskets of leftovers, the feeding of the 5,000 produced twelve baskets of leftovers.
Jesus stated that he was “moved with compassion on the multitude.”  Mark then states that Jesus “summoned the disciples.”  In the story told in Chapter 6 the disciples brought the need to the attention of Jesus.

In the present passage, Jesus “summons” his disciples because he already knows what he is about to do.  This Greek verb is always used in Mark’s gospel by Jesus to summon his disciples or others to himself - (Mark 3:133:23, 6:7, 7:14, 8:1, 8:34, 10:42, 12:43).

The Greek verb for “lingering” is an intensified form of the verb normally used for “remain” or “abide.”  This intensified form has the sense to “remain towards; to linger.”  The verb is in the present tense, signifying ongoing or continuing action.  The men and women in the multitude were lingering with Jesus for some time, which indicates they were with him willingly and eagerly.

The text notes that some of the crowd had “come from afar.”  This may be simply an observation, a statement of fact.  However, the clause, “those from afar,” was used in the Old Testament for Israelites scattered among the nations. Note the following:
  • (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 the four thousand?  The same Greek word is used in verse 8, “They ate and were satisfied.”  The answer to their question is - Jesus!  Only he could satisfy the needs of the hungry multitude.

Banquet - Photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash
By Meritt Thomas on Unsplash

The disciples do not perform well in this story.  Already they have seen Jesus feed five thousand men, plus women and children. Already they have witnessed healings and exorcisms, they have seen Jesus calm a storm, and they have seen him walk on water, yet they still lack faith and the insight that faith gives.

Sign Seeking

The Pharisees were not seeking miraculous deeds performed by Jesus but a “sign from heaven” - A cosmic event that would validate his messiahship and its divine origin. They had an ulterior motive - The desire to test Jesus.

The Greek verb translated “test” occurs four times in the gospel of Mark - When Satan tested Jesus and three times when the Pharisees did likewise - (Mark 1:13, 8:11, 10:2, 12:15). 'Mark' wants us to understand that the Pharisees are acting as Satan’s surrogate by “testing” him.
  • (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’” - (Compare - Matthew 16:1-4).
Dalmanutha” is mentioned in no other ancient document and its precise location remains uncertain. The account version in the gospel of 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. This change in location explains the arrival of the Pharisees - Jesus had departed from the Gentile territory of the Decapolis.

The Greek term for “sign” or sémeion is different than the word the gospel of Mark applies to the miracles of Jesus - (dunamis).  Mark never equates “sign” with “miracle” - He never calls a miracle a “sign.”

The deep groan in his spirit is due to the exasperation of Jesus at their presumption and unbelief. The verb for “groan” or anastenazein occurs only here in the Greek New Testament. Its use in Greek literature demonstrates that it signified expressions of dismay, not groans of 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).
The term is used in the gospel accounts for the “generation” of Jews that rejected Jesus. Why should Jesus give any further "signs" to a "generation" that had already rejected the plain evidence provided by his earlier deeds and preaching? - (See - Matthew 11:16, 12:41-42, 23:36).

Leaven and Unbelief

Leaven was used in the making of bread. When it fermented, it caused the dough to rise.  In scripture, leaven is frequently a symbol of corruption and sin.

Like leaven placed in bread dough, sin and unbelief spread infectiously. In Matthew’s version, the leaven of the Pharisees refers to their false teachings. In Luke, to their hypocrisy.  Mark does not spell out precisely what the “leaven of the Pharisees” is; the context and the disciples' reaction point to unbelief.
  • (Mark 8:13-21) - “And having left them, again embarking, he departed unto 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 have 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?’” - (Compare - Matthew 16:5-12, Luke 12:1).
The mention of the Pharisees and Herod (Antipas) together is unusual. The Pharisees had little in common with Herod. The one thing they did share was opposition to Jesus; in the case of the Pharisees, opposition fueled by their unbelief.

At this juncture, the disciples are showing signs of succumbing to the same kind of disbelief and this is probably what Mark has in mind in placing this story here. Earlier, Jesus traveled in a more circuitous route due to the opposition and dangers posed by Herod and the Pharisees - (Mark 6:14-29, 7:1-8:9).

The Greek verb rendered “deliberate” is always used negatively in the gospel of Mark, and always with reference to opponents or the disbelieving disciples that argued over who and what Jesus was - (Mark 2:6-8, 8:16-17, 9:33, 11:31).

Despite all they had seen, the disciples were still dull of hearing and running the risk of falling into the same disbelief that characterized the Pharisees, all in reaction to the person, teaching, and deeds of Jesus.



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