The student smiled smugly as the lights dimmed and the first image appeared. It showed a bird's pair of feet. A slight disappointment came over him. He knew birds from their overall appearance, not just their feet. His hopes of one hundred per cent had gone. Never mind! Plenty more to come! The next slide came up. It showed another pair of feet. So did the next one. And so did the next one!
It was too much! "Professor!" he interrupted, "The examination is supposed to be about identifying birds. So far you have only shown birds' feet."
"That's right," the examiner said patiently. "The whole examination requires you to identify birds from their feet."
The student panicked. "But that's not fair. I've learnt to recognise birds from their overall size, shape and appearance."
"Then you have learned wrongly." The student was furious. He got up and made for the exit. The examiner went on, "Young man, if you leave now you will fail the exam completely."
"I don't care," he snapped, "if you can't make it fair now, it's no use waiting."
"You are the rudest student I have ever come across," said the examiner. "What's your name?"
The man paused on his way to the door, pulled his trousers up to the knees and shouted, "Guess!"
In Mark 8 we have the account of the feeding of four thousand people with seven loaves and a few small fish (vv. 1-10). Jesus moved away with his disciples to a place called Dalmanutha. Some Pharisees came up to him to test him by asking him "for a sign from heaven". Jesus refused, got into the boat and started across towards the other side of the lake (vv. 11-13).
Jesus warned them to be on their guard against "the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod". They took this as a reference to their failure to bring enough bread on the boat. We hear Jesus saying to them, "Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don't you remember ?" (vv. 14-21) As Matthew explains, Jesus was warning them against "the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees" ( Mt. 16.12).
They arrived at "Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him" (Mk 8.22).
Jesus healed the man, restored his sight. There are some striking aspects to this healing:
We think back to those earlier words of Jesus to his disciples, "Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don't you remember ?" Of course, they had seen - they had experienced the miracle of the feeding of the crowd! And yet, they hadn't seen - they lacked understanding of what it all meant!
They moved on from Bethsaida to "the villages around Caesarea Philippi". That's near the source of the Jordan River and about 40 kilometres north "as the crow flies".
Away from the crowds of Capernaum (or further south at Jerusalem!), Jesus asks his disciples some very probing questions. "Who do people say I am?" (v. 27). The answers varied, but all saw Jesus as a person with a special message from God. "Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets" (v. 28).
"But what about you?" he asked them. "Who do you say I am?" Peter answered, "You are the Christ". Then Jesus "warned them not to tell anyone about him" (vv. 29-30).
The disciples, like the crowds, have seen and heard the ministry of Jesus, but what have they grasped from that? Do they really know who he is?
John Grassmick observes, "At the centre of his Gospel Mark placed Peter's confession that Jesus is the Messiah. Up to this point the underlying question had been, 'Who is he?' After Peter's declaration on behalf of the Twelve, Mark's narrative is oriented toward the Cross and the Resurrection. From now on, the underlying double question was, 'What kind of Messiah is he, and what does it mean to follow him?' This crucial passage is the point to which the first half of the book leads and from which the second half proceeds" (Bible Knowledge Commentary).
The disciples have moved from "seeing" (experience) to "knowing" (knowledge). The challenge now is to "follow" Jesus (commitment).
Jesus is to be the suffering Messiah who dies for the sins of the people. That has implications for all who would be named his disciples. "If anyone would come after me," he told them, "he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it" (vv. 34-35).
I have always been struck by Annie Valloton's line drawing on these verses in the Good News Bible. A whole crowd of followers are carrying literal crosses.
For us a cross is a beautiful ornament. For those first hearers it was an instrument of death. To deny oneself and follow Jesus isn't to give up eating ice-cream during Lent. "Deny" is the same word used to describe Peter's denial of Christ. To quote Grassmick again, "Jesus' submission to God's will is the proper response to God's claims over self's claims. For him it meant death on the cross. Those who follow him must take up their (not his) cross, whatever comes to them in God's will as a follower of Jesus. This does not mean suffering as He did or being crucified as he was. Nor does it mean stoically bearing life's troubles. Rather, it is obedience to God's will as revealed in his Word, accepting the consequences without reservations for Jesus' sake and the gospel (cf. 8.35). For some this includes physical suffering and even death, as history has demonstrated (cf. 10.38-39)."
It is one thing to "see" Jesus - to experience his love, grace, power It is another to "know" him - to recognise that he is uniquely the Son of God, the promised Messiah. The question is how we respond to his call for us to "follow" him - having accepted all that he has done for us, having come to know him for who he is, we need to give ourselves for all that he wants to do in and through us. Are you ready to follow him?
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