Truth, Tradition and Other Miracles

In this section of Mark's gospel, the writer uses the miracles where Jesus heals the blind and deaf as a preview of the opening of the Apostles' unbelieving eyes and ears.
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In the first six chapters of his gospel, Mark has established the case for the deity of Christ. He has shown that by His teaching, Jesus claimed to be the Messiah. He has described miracles done by Jesus that could only be performed by one having supernatural power. Even in describing the reaction of the people, there is the suggestion that they were impressed and believed the claims and miracles.

Mark also keeps us aware of the difficulties Jesus was encountering from various groups who witnessed these things but refused to accept or believe what was before their eyes. Some rejected and turned away while others attacked Jesus.

There is also the sub-story of Jesus teaching and developing the faith of His Apostles while preparing them to realize the truth of His mission. In chapters 7 and 8 Mark continues to describe Jesus' ministry among the people.

Religious Tradition — 7:1-23

Jesus was teaching His Apostles the very great difference between human religious traditions and the authoritative Word of God. The Pharisees had made a life's work out of creating and maintaining an intricate set of religious rules and traditions based on (but not authorized by) God's Word. For example, the Word said not to work (at one's regular job) on the Sabbath but to focus on the spiritual matter of one's relationship with God (Exodus 20:8-11). The Pharisees devised torturous definitions and rules to define what "work" was. Some of their definitions included the lighting of a fire or the carrying of more than one stick of wood, they even determined that walking more than a certain number of paces on the Sabbath would be considered as "work!" They explained that these rules guarded the people from breaking the actual laws of God. They considered these regulations a kind of hedge around God's laws so that the people would not even come close to violating a stated command of God. The Pharisees also appointed themselves as the guardians who interpreted and monitored these rules as well as punished those who violated them.

Chapter 7 describes a conflict between Jesus, the Apostles and the Pharisees over these rules.

1The Pharisees and some of the scribes gathered around Him when they had come from Jerusalem, 2and had seen that some of His disciples were eating their bread with impure hands, that is, unwashed.
- Mark 7:1-2

A religious delegation came from Jerusalem to observe Jesus while He taught the people. They questioned the morality of the Apostles because they ate their food with unwashed hands or "impure" hands. The implication was that by extension, Jesus, their teacher, was also impure. Their own teaching stated that if a Jew came into contact with a Gentile or something touched by a Gentile, the Jewish person would then be defiled or impure since the food they later touched and ate (without first ceremonially washing themselves) would transfer Gentile impurity onto themselves (like bacteria). Being impure meant that you could not participate in social interaction or public worship at the temple.

3(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; 4and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.)
- Mark 7:3-4

These rules for washing (Mark makes a parenthetical statement for the reader) were invented by the "elders" or Jewish teachers over the years. The Old Testament had rules about washing for the priests but did not have rules for the people in this regard. These were man made rules.

The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, "Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?"
- Mark 7:5

They challenge Jesus by accusing Him of setting aside these rules and traditions established over the years.

6And He said to them, "Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written: 'This people honors Me with their lips, But their heart is far away from Me. 7'But in vain do they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.' 8Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men."
- Mark 7:6-8

Jesus accuses them of being hypocrites. The word "hypocrite" used here refers mainly to religious hypocrisy (the root word in the original Greek language described an actor under a mask). The idea is that a hypocrite tries to act before men in the way he ought to be before God, and yet is not. The worst form of hypocrisy is when you begin to believe the deception yourself.

Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13 to describe two kinds of hypocrisy:

  1. A person who honors God with his words but does not follow through with actions.
  2. Teachings that are invented by men but are presented as being from God.
9He was also saying to them, "You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. 10For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and, 'He who speaks evil of father or mother, is to be put to death'; 11but you say, 'If a man says to his father or his mother, whatever I have that would help you is Corban (that is to say, given to God),' 12you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; 13thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that."
- Mark 7:9-13

After denouncing them as hypocrites for saying and not doing, and teaching human doctrines as coming from God, Jesus gives an actual example of this type of hypocrisy as practiced by the Pharisees. He even adds one more condemnation saying that the only way they succeed in their imposition of human traditions is by first removing God's laws. In other words, they do not only teach men's laws, they remove God's laws in order to do it!

The example Jesus gives has to do with the responsibility of honoring one's parents in the form of parental care (Exodus 20:12). Their responsibility, by God's command, was to honor and care for their parents. The Pharisees taught that if someone pledged a certain amount of money to God (Corban), that money could not be used for anything else (this included assisting parents). The Corban exception did not mean that they actually gave the money to the Lord and by doing so lost access to it as happens when a charitable donation was made. Corban giving was like setting up a trust fund. In this way they actually froze this money so that it could not be used while parents lived, thus providing the excuse for not assisting their family. In this way their selfishness was wrapped in a cloak of charitable giving and false devotion to God.

Corban was not, in itself, a bad thing. After all, leaving money to the temple in one's will was a generous and godly thing to do. The problem was that the Pharisees would use this pledge as an excuse in refusing to help their parents ("Sorry mom and dad, can't help you because my money is tied up in a pledge to the temple."), and when the parents died they would often break their pledge and take this money back. Jesus tells them that this was one of many things wrong with their teachings and conduct.

14After He called the crowd to Him again, He began saying to them, "Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: 15there is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man are what defile the man. 16If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear." 17When he had left the crowd and entered the house, His disciples questioned Him about the parable. 18And He said to them, "Are you so lacking in understanding also? Do you not understand that whatever goes into the man from outside cannot defile him, 19because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and is eliminated?" (Thus He declared all foods clean.) 20And He was saying, "That which proceeds out of the man, that is what defiles the man. 21For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, 22deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. 23All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man."
- Mark 7:14-23

The Lord gives another example of this inconsistency by responding to the earlier accusations concerning washing and defilement. He explains that food does not have the power to make one pure or impure. Morality has to do with a person's heart, not food. Food is consumed and voided, it has no moral effect in and of itself.

Washing before eating did not increase or decrease one's standing with God from a moral perspective either. Morality and impurity were not like bacteria that could be transmitted by touch or contact. In saying this Jesus pronounced all foods clean. This meant that there was no moral value in eating or not eating certain foods.

Jesus goes on to explain that what causes impurity are things produced by the heart, spoken by the lips and carried out by the hands. In other words, what you think, say and do are the things that make you impure in God's eyes.

Once again Jesus declares that substituting man's word for God's Word is hypocritical and dangerous. Hypocritical because we begin to believe that our traditions are more important and effective than God's laws.

Dangerous because:

  • We lose the power to change or effect our lives when we change God's Word for human tradition.
  • We lose sight of what is important. We focus on keeping the man-made rules instead of knowing and obeying God's Word.
  • We lose salvation because Jesus tells us that only those who obey the Word of God will enter into the kingdom.

At this point Jesus became a mortal enemy of the Pharisees because He not only answered their charge against Him, He also denounced and exposed them as hypocrites.

The Syrophoenician Woman — 7:24-30

Jesus has earned the wrath of the religious leaders by exposing them through His teachings. Now He will earn their undying opposition by performing a miracle on behalf of the ones that they had originally complained about. They argued that you could defile yourself simply by touching something that a Gentile touched. Now Jesus is going to do a miracle that will heal a Gentile and this, in their eyes, would be a major breach of their laws. It was not a breach of God's laws because the Jews were supposed to be a light and blessing to the Gentiles (Isaiah 49:6) and Jesus was doing just that. However, the Pharisees had created so many rules designed to avoid the idolatry of the Gentiles, they lost any opportunity of actually winning them over.

Jesus got up and went away from there to the region of Tyre. And when He had entered a house, He wanted no one to know of it; yet He could not escape notice.
- Mark 7:24

Jesus leaves Capernaum and goes to the furthest border of the country in order to avoid the crowds and His enemies.

25But after hearing of Him, a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately came and fell at His feet. 26Now the woman was a Gentile, of the Syrophoenician race. And she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter.
- Mark 7:25-26

The woman was a Gentile and a pagan but believed in Jesus' power. Note how her approach was different than that of the Jewish leaders.

27And He was saying to her, "Let the children be satisfied first, for it is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." 28But she answered and said to Him, "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table feed on the children's crumbs."
- Mark 7:27-28

Jesus responds to her request by describing His primary mission: to feed the children (God's chosen people, the Israelites), and preach the good news to them first, according to the Word. In that society few families kept dogs as pets and when they did the animals were fed leftover scraps from the table. Jesus uses the word for "pets" in this passage and is saying, "Let the children eat first because it would not be right to feed the pets with the food meant for the children." The woman understands that righteousness must be fulfilled, first things first, but she pleads, "After the children are fed don't the pets usually get the leftovers?" She accepts her position in the order of things (the Messiah was sent to the Jews, not the Gentiles), but her desperate situation and belief in Jesus move her to ask Him for help anyways.

29And He said to her, "Because of this answer go; the demon has gone out of your daughter." 30And going back to her home, she found the child lying on the bed, the demon having left.
- Mark 7:29-30

Jesus performs a great miracle, this time at a distance, exercising only His will in casting out a demon. This is another example of Jesus addressing a common problem of that era:

  • The gospels record 80 instances where He dealt with demons or evil spirits.
  • Unlike their characterization in popular books and movies, the demons described in Scripture never manifested themselves as monsters or persons outside of the people that they possessed.Their presence was only known because of the suffering they caused and, at times, the brief utterances they made when confronted by Jesus.

The Deaf and Dumb Man — 7:31-37

Jesus returns to the area where the demoniac had lived and this time the crowds are eager to see Him.

31Again He went out from the region of Tyre, and came through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, within the region of Decapolis. 32They brought to Him one who was deaf and spoke with difficulty, and they implored Him to lay His hand on him.
- Mark 7:31-32

A crowd gathers and wants to see a miracle. They tell Jesus to lay His hands on the man to heal him. Jesus performs this miracle but He does so to prove who He is, not to put on a show.

33Jesus took him aside from the crowd, by himself, and put His fingers into his ears, and after spitting, He touched his tongue with the saliva; 34and looking up to heaven with a deep sigh, He said to him, "Ephphatha!" that is, "Be opened!" 35And his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was removed, and he began speaking plainly. 36And He gave them orders not to tell anyone; but the more He ordered them, the more widely they continued to proclaim it.
- Mark 7:33-36

The man is confused, so Jesus takes him aside so they can be alone. The Lord needs to communicate to the man what He is about to do and uses various methods to accomplish this:

  • His fingers on the man's ears to signal that the problem of deafness is recognized.
  • He spits and touches the tongue to signify the same about the inability to speak.
  • A sigh and look toward heaven to show where the solution is coming from. This was a way to communicate that the man's own prayers (sighing) were heard and were about to be answered.
  • Jesus looks at him and says, "Be opened," and the fact that the man hears and responds is a sign that the miracle has taken place.
They were utterly astonished, saying, "He has done all things well; He makes even the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."
- Mark 7:37

Once again, Mark comments that the reaction of the people demonstrates that they were convinced that these were legitimate miracles.

Feeding the Four Thousand — 8:1-21

1In those days, when there was again a large crowd and they had nothing to eat, Jesus called His disciples and said to them, 2"I feel compassion for the people because they have remained with Me now three days and have nothing to eat. 3If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way; and some of them have come from a great distance." 4And His disciples answered Him, "Where will anyone be able to find enough bread here in this desolate place to satisfy these people?" 5And He was asking them, "How many loaves do you have?" And they said, "Seven." 6And He directed the people to sit down on the ground; and taking the seven loaves, He gave thanks and broke them, and started giving them to His disciples to serve to them, and they served them to the people. 7They also had a few small fish; and after He had blessed them, He ordered these to be served as well. 8And they ate and were satisfied; and they picked up seven large baskets full of what was left over of the broken pieces. 9About four thousand were there; and He sent them away. 10And immediately He entered the boat with His disciples and came to the district of Dalmanutha

11The Pharisees came out and began to argue with Him, seeking from Him a sign from heaven, to test Him. 12Sighing deeply in His spirit, He said, "Why does this generation seek for a sign? Truly I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation." 13Leaving them, He again embarked and went away to the other side.

14And they had forgotten to take bread, and did not have more than one loaf in the boat with them. 15And He was giving orders to them, saying, "Watch out! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod." 16They began to discuss with one another the fact that they had no bread. 17And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, "Why do you discuss the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet see or understand? Do you have a hardened heart? 18Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember, 19when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces you picked up?" They said to Him, "Twelve." 20"When I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets full of broken pieces did you pick up?" And they said to Him, "Seven." 21And He was saying to them, "Do you not yet understand?"
- Mark 8:1-21

This is the second time that Jesus performs this miracle since Mark would not repeat the same event twice in his own gospel. It is similar in situation and outcome, but the people and location are different (verses 1-10). This miracle actually sets the stage for teaching that Jesus will give His disciples after they leave this place.

He warns them about the Pharisees' teachings and treachery now that He has incurred their wrath by exposing and condemning them publicly. He does this using a figure of speech comparing their evil to the leaven hidden in dough. The Apostles misunderstand His warning thinking that He is scolding them for forgetting to bring the bread left over from the miraculous feeding of the 4000. Jesus then chastises them, but not for forgetting bread. He rebukes them for failing to understand what all the miracles and teachings meant (that He was the Son of God).

Curing the Blind

22And they came to Bethsaida. And they brought a blind man to Jesus and implored Him to touch him. 23Taking the blind man by the hand, He brought him out of the village; and after spitting on his eyes and laying His hands on him, He asked him, "Do you see anything?" 24And he looked up and said, "I see men, for I see them like trees, walking around." 25Then again He laid His hands on his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and began to see everything clearly. 26And He sent him to his home, saying, "Do not even enter the village."
- Mark 8:22-26

In this passage Jesus performs another great miracle, healing a blind man. This miracle, like the one that cured the deaf and dumb man, was done in stages in order to help this person understand what was happening to him.

Jesus needs time and freedom of movement in order to complete His ministry in the region so He tells the man not to go public with the news of his healing.

The Great Confession

27Jesus went out, along with His disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way He questioned His disciples, saying to them, "Who do people say that I am?" 28They told Him, saying, "John the Baptist; and others say Elijah; but others, one of the prophets." 29And He continued by questioning them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered and said to Him, "You are the Christ." 30And He warned them to tell no one about Him.
- Mark 8:27-30

It seems that the gradual opening of the man's ears and mouth along with the similar opening of the blind man's eyes symbolize the gradual opening of the Apostles' spiritual ears, mouths and eyes. Jesus now asks them directly who they think He is, and Peter acknowledges the conclusion that all the miracles and teachings point to: that Jesus is the Messiah. And with this confession, Jesus' first goal with His Apostles is reached. They believe the evidence before them and acknowledge the conclusion that this evidence points to.

Jesus warns them not to share this just yet. To preach what they believe to be true about Him now would cause riots. There is still another important goal of His ministry to be met, one that He begins to describe immediately after their confession of faith.

The Cost of Discipleship — 8:31-38

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.
- Mark 8:31

Jesus now reveals to them the purpose of His ministry, the reason that the Messiah had come and His final end.

32And He was stating the matter plainly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. 33But turning around and seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter and said, "Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's."
- Mark 8:32-33

Peter demonstrates that he has not fully grasped the meaning of what Jesus has just revealed to them. He sees the death of Jesus as a failure of His ministry and tries to talk Him out of such a notion. Jesus rebukes him sharply lest the other Apostles be carried away by his doubt and fear. At this point Jesus establishes the criteria for those who want to be disciples of the Messiah. They now believe that He is the Messiah, so as the Messiah this is what He demands of His followers and why:

  • He demands that each choose who they will follow.
  • If they follow Him, even to His death, He will save them.
  • If they do not, there is no one to save them.

Until this time it had been a wonderful ride:

  • He provided teaching that opened their eyes and hearts.
  • He performed tremendous miracles that created wonder in them.
  • He denounced the Pharisees who had restricted them for so long.
  • He fed them, healed them and encouraged them.
  • He took the brunt of the criticism and attacks from the people and the religious leaders.

After having ministered to them in this way, Jesus said to them, "It is time for you to make a choice, to take a stand; you are either with me or not with me, and the survival of your souls will depend on this decision." This, of course, is the choice of every disciple of Jesus Christ, then and now! Somewhere along the line everyone has to commit one way or the other.

After challenging His Apostles to a deeper commitment, Jesus will continue His work of miracles and teaching, opening their eyes even more as He leads them to the climax of His earthly ministry.

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