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THE PENTATEUCH --- GENESIS ---EXODUS--- LEVITICUS --- NUMBERS --- DEUTERONOMY --- THE BOOK OF JOSHUA --- THE BOOK OF JUDGES --- SAMUEL --- KINGS --- PSALMS 1-50--- ECCLESIASTES--- SONG OF SOLOMON --- ISAIAH --- JEREMIAH --- EZEKIEL --- DANIEL --- --- HOSEA --- --- JOEL ------ AMOS --- --- OBADIAH --- --- JONAH --- --- MICAH --- --- NAHUM --- --- HABAKKUK--- --- ZEPHANIAH --- --- HAGGAI --- ZECHARIAH --- --- MALACHI --- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW ---THE GOSPEL OF MARK--- THE GOSPEL OF LUKE --- THE GOSPEL OF JOHN --- THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES --- READINGS IN ROMANS --- 1 CORINTHIANS --- 2 CORINTHIANS ---GALATIANS --- EPHESIANS--- PHILIPPIANS --- COLOSSIANS --- 1 THESSALONIANS --- 2 THESSALONIANS --- 1 TIMOTHY --- 2 TIMOTHY --- TITUS --- HEBREWS --- JAMES --- 1 & 2 PETER --- JOHN'S LETTERS --- JUDE --- REVELATION --- THE GOSPELS & ACTS
By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
The Wider Ministry begins - the Apostles Are Sent Out - Opposition Continues (6.6a-56).
Having established that Jesus is Lord of the elements, Lord over evil spirits and Lord over life and death, Mark now deals with the widening of His ministry, although again this does not take place without disappointments and opposition as before. Jesus sends His disciples out to preach with great success, although ever in the background is the shadow of Herod Antipas who was responsible for the death of John, and no doubt took an interest in their activities through his spies. On their return Jesus takes them aside to a lonely place, (it is quite probable that some of them had had a rough time of it as Matthew 10 implies), but they are joined there by a determined crowd of a few thousand people eager to hear more of His teaching. Seeing in this crowd the foundation members of His new community, He provides them with bread from Heaven, and indication that they can now partake of the Messianic banquet (Isaiah 25.8). But the success there is diminished when a further encounter with the vagaries of the sea brings out the disciples’ underlying unbelief. They have not yet learned ‘the lesson of the loaves’ (8.18-20).
Analysis of 6.6b-56.
Note that in ‘a’ He goes around the villages teaching, and in the parallel the crowds gather to be healed. In ‘b’ He reveals His ability to give authority over unclean spirits to His disciples, who go out in faith and are successful, and in the parallel He reveals His power over nature, and His disciples reveal their unbelief and hardness of heart. In ‘c’ Herod typifies the earthly rule of man, and the kind of ‘dish’ that it can result in, while in the parallel Jesus typifies the Kingly Rule of Heaven and the kind of food that it provides. Centrally in ‘d’ His disciples return triumphantly from their mission and Jesus takes them to be alone with Himself.
The Extension of the Ministry - the Twelve Are Sent Out Empowered by Jesus to Proclaim the Kingly Rule of God (6.6a-13).
Now begins the further expansion of the ministry. Jesus sends out His Apostles in order to extend the sphere of His ministry. It is the seed of worldwide evangelisation (compare Acts 1.8). This ministry of the Apostles is emphasised in all Synoptic sources and there is no reason to doubt its genuineness. The specific instructions given to them, so suitable to their circumstances, and the ‘primitive’ nature of the message, both confirm this. This period of ministry clearly lasted some time (verse 10).
By this sending out the glory and power of Jesus is again remarkably revealed, for ‘He gave them authority over unclean spirits’. What a remarkable statement this is. Who could possibly be seen as having such power? The giving of authority over the unseen world. Nowhere is this ever said of others. It is telling us that He not only had unique authority over the powers of evil, but was able to give that authority to others. Who could do this but the Lord of glory? Up to now Jesus has revealed His power and His authority. Now, in this commencement of the Apostolic ministry, He is revealed as the One Who can not only exercise divine powers but can convey that divine authority to others to exercise under His command. He is ‘the Lord’ of all.
In the Old Testament Moses was told by God that He would take of the spirit that was on Moses and would give it to others (the seventy elders) but that was the act of YHWH, not of Moses (Numbers 11.16-17). Elisha also asked that the firstborn’s portion (the double portion) of the spirit that was on Elijah might come on him, but again Elijah had to leave it in the hands of God as to whether it would happen (2 Kings 2.9-10). But with Jesus there was no such limitation. He is the drencher in the Holy Spirit (1.8).
Again then we are brought face to face with the uniqueness of Jesus. No other could choose to pass on the Spirit. And no other before Him had planned such an offensive. It was a systematic coverage of Galilee with His word. It was all systems go. The time to which the prophets had pointed was now here. On those who were walking in darkness in Galilee of the nations the light was now shining (Isaiah 9.2).
Analysis of 6.7-12.
Note that in ‘a’ he sends them out (to preach) and to cast out evil spirits , and in the parallel that is what they do. In ‘b’ they are to take only the clothes that they stand up in and sandals on their feet, and in the parallel they are to shake the dust off those sandals against those who refuse to receive them. Centrally in ‘c’ they are to remain with the first one who welcomes them (because they are His).
6.6a ‘And he went round about the villages teaching.’
Jesus’ response to the failure of His neighbourhood to receive His words was to reach out wider and go through the villages teaching the Kingly Rule of God.
6.7 ‘And he called to him the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and he gave them authority over unclean spirits.’
Jesus was aware that much needed to be done so, after a time, when He felt they were ready, He commissioned the twelve to go out in twos to teach (gathered from verse 6a) and to preach that men should repent (verse 12) and that the Kingly Rule of God was now available (Matthew 10.7). And He gave them authority so that they could cast out evil spirits. We note their twofold ministry, to teach and to overcome the Evil One. Mark selects these two as central to the work that Jesus had come to do. Healing was but a compassionate by-product. For the reason that He had come was to bring men under the Kingly Rule of God and to overcome Satan and his minions.
Travelling preachers and Rabbis were a common enough sight in the world of that day in both Jewish and Gentile territory. The difference lay in their message. But another difference applied to the Apostles. They were not to beg or seek alms, but were to go with minimum provision in poverty trusting God. Such missions were unknown in Judaism. But they indicate what should be at the root of every ministry. For while these instructions had in mind Jewish laws of hospitality, they provide the principle which should be at the root of all who serve Him full time, living at the minimum so as to maintain humility of spirit.
‘He sent them out two by two.’ He Himself knew the loneliness of the preacher and He ensured that each had another for support. Each could encourage the other and give strength in times of weakness. Compare 11.1; 14.13; Luke 7.19; John 1.35. The idea was also that everything should be established by the mouth of two witnesses. In a similar way Paul also took a major companion with him wherever he went, first Barnabas and then Silas. He had heeded well the words of Jesus.
Jesus also ‘gave them authority over unclean spirits’. But it was an authority within their limitations. They were never, as the Master was, in total control. Thus in 9.14-29 we learn of their failure in a difficult case where they became aware that they needed more prayer life behind them to succeed in such cases, something which Jesus had. They needed to grow in strength and authority through constant prayer. That incident (as did that of the Gadarene demoniac) indicates that evil spirits had differing levels of power, and so have men of God.
But He also wanted to ensure their total dependence on God, and that they would avoid accepting gifts for their services, and so He commanded them to go out trusting God to supply all their needs, and never to have two of anything. These commands assume a background such as we find in Matthew 6.19-34).
6.8-9 ‘And he charged them that they should take nothing for their journey except only a staff, no bread, no pack, no money in their belt, but to go shod with sandals and not to put on two coats.’
They were to take only the minimum that they were standing up in on their journeying. God would provide the remainder. Now the prayer that they had been taught, ‘give us today our daily bread’, would take on new meaning. Behind this requirement was the need to make clear that they were going out as preachers, not as recruitment sergeants. Like Jesus they were to be meek and lowly in heart.
‘Except only a staff.’ There is no real contradiction with Matthew. If they had a staff with them they could take it, but they were not to seek one out if they did not have one (Matthew 10.10). The point was that they were not to stop in order to obtain one, nor to think in terms of earthly protection, or of belligerence. The sense of urgency was to be paramount. We can see the situation as it arose. Firstly He said to them all, ‘Do not take a staff.’ Then one or two who always carried a staff, probably including Peter, then said, ‘Should we then throw our staves away?’ To which Jesus replies, ‘No, if you already have one, take it.’ Thus to Peter He said, ‘only a staff’. To Matthew He said, ‘Take no staff’.
And for all provisions they must trust God and God alone. Food, money, and other necessities would be provided by Him as they trusted Him and worked faithfully in His name. They had to travel by faith with minimum preparation. ‘Pack’ may mean a begging wallet. They were not to beg. God would supply their needs (Matthew 6.25-34).
These provisions demonstrated the haste with which they were to begin their journeys. They stressed the urgency of them. And they stressed what their hearts should be set on. They were to stop for nothing and be ready to live on the minimum. And like Elijah they were to depend fully on God (1 Kings 17.3-6).
‘To go shod with sandals.’ They were to go in what they were wearing and not to pack extra sandals or other footwear (Matthew 10.10; Luke 10.4).
‘Not to put on two coats.’ The same applied as with the sandals. They were not to be over-provided for, or to provide for eventualities. They were to be satisfied with minimum basic clothing. Whatever was needed extra God would provide (Matthew 6.25-34). On cold nights two coats would have been welcome protection if they had to sleep outside, but Jesus is saying, ‘trust God and recognise that He will always provide shelter for the night unless He has a deeper lesson to teach you’.
6.10-11 ‘And he said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, there stay until you leave the area. And whatever place will not receive you and do not listen to you, as you leave there shake off the dust that is under your feet for a testimony to them.” ’
They were not to be choosy or look for comfort. Whenever God provided them with accommodation, however poor and mean, that was the accommodation that they should continue to use in that place. They were not to look around for a better, thus causing grief and insult to the first host and delay in their ministry. They were to be satisfied with what they had, to be totally devoted to their work. Self comfort was to be ignored. Note how this provision assumes a fairly lengthy stay. And it would occur from town to town. Thus this preaching tour probably lasted many months, during which some of them may well have experienced synagogue punishment because of what was seen as their heretical message, and even have been called before Herod or some of his officials (compare Matthew 10.17-18. As in the Old Testament declaring that something would happen then assumes that it did happen. See e.g. Exodus 17.1-7 where it is simply assumed that the people drank water from the rock). They would not be seen as having quite the same status as Jesus.
But hospitality to strangers was looked on as a sacred duty in the Near East, and especially among Jews, thus they should never be short of it in places that welcomed them. The first to offer it would be indicating a quick response of faith to their message, a worthiness to be blessed by their continued presence with them. There was no danger at this stage of their becoming spongers. Later the Christian church (in the Didache) would deem it necessary to indicate that a prophet who stayed more than three days in one place was overstaying his welcome and was a false prophet.
But to be refused hospitality would be to indicate enmity and their rejection by those who refused it. So Jesus added that those who refused to listen to their message also come under this heading.
‘Shake off the dust.’ When places refused to receive them they should leave behind a sign, the dust shaken from their sandals, as a witness to the lack of hospitality of the place. This arose from the practise that pious Jews had of shaking the dust from their feet and clothing when they left Gentile territory. The idea being that such dust contained uncleanness, and that it was defiled because the Gentiles did not observe the laws of purity. Thus the similar act by the Apostles would indicate that the place was looked on as unclean and defiled. We can also compare Acts 18.6 where the shaking off of the dust indicated that the messengers were free from guilt and that the recipients had brought their judgment on their own heads, which was based on the same principle.
‘As a witness to them.’ Their solemn act would be an act of witness to the people that judgment was now declared on them because of their refusal to listen to God’s word. And if they still did not repent it would be a further witness against them at the Judgment on the last day.
6.12 ‘And they went out and preached that men should repent.’
As Jesus had commanded, the twelve Apostles went out, calling on men to ‘repent’. This meant to ‘have a change of heart and mind’, and to ‘turn from sin’ (see on 1.4) and to recognise that the Kingly Rule of God was drawing near (Matthew 10.7), indeed was there to be accepted or refused. The ‘primitive’ nature of the message (no mention of believing in Jesus or of the coming Judgment) demonstrates the authenticity of the passage. It was the initial message of Jesus, the foundation which had to be laid in preparation for what was to follow.
6.13 ‘And they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them.’
Their ministry was accompanied by successful acts of power. Evil spirits were cast out, and as well as that they healed the sick by the anointing with oil (compare James 5.14 where it is ‘in the Name of the Lord’). This anointing with oil demonstrated the separation of the person in question to God as in the Old Testament. They were healed because they responded to Him in faith and became His. Healing in God’s name put them in further debt to God, signifying that they were henceforth to live for Him and obey Him. They became His property. It also distinguished the ministry of the Apostles from that of Jesus, He healed through His own power and authority, whilst they healed through His power and authority. Thus the oil was also symbolic of the Anointed One in Whose Name they healed.
It is true that oil was also at this time seen as a healing medicament (compare Luke 10.34). But elsewhere when it was used it was seen as working gradually. There was nothing of that idea here. Here the thought was rather that these people were being set apart to God, and committed to the Name of the Anointed One. Healing could only be expected where there was a submissive heart (compare 2.1-12).
This ministry of the Apostles was vital preparation for their future. They preached, and they preached effectively, what they had heard from Jesus, thus sealing it in their own minds; they would then begin to appreciate how little they knew of what they should know and would thus in future pay even more attention to Jesus’ ministry (no one learns more, or is more aware of his own need to be taught, than he who genuinely seeks to teach others); and their words prepared men for the time when Jesus Himself would arrive to preach among them, and laid the foundation for the future message. Jesus clearly saw the mission as a success. Had He not done so He would not have later sent out the seventy (Luke 10.1-17). There would, of course, be a limit to what the disciples taught. They still had very mistaken ideas about the Kingly Rule of God, as John had had before them. But they could not go wrong on the central message, that the Kingly Rule of God was about to break in on men. Perhaps it was their over-enthusiasm that resulted in five thousand men seeking them out along with Jesus in the desert place.
The Response of King Herod In View Of His Previous Execution of John the Baptiser (6.14-29).
Meanwhile it was inevitable that news of the activities and power of Jesus, and of His disciples, would reach Herod’s palace through his spy system, and when it did his conscience struck him, for he had had John the Baptiser executed, and hearing about the miracles, he thought that this must be John come back to life, and was greatly troubled.
This section is inserted here for a number of reasons.
It may also suggest that Mark might not have been aware of what Jesus did while the Apostles were away, and thus could not tell us. His chief source of such information (Peter) was out preaching the good news. There is no suggestion at this stage that Herod became threatening, although his police might have begun to take a deeper interest in what was going on, especially once preachers suddenly began appearing all over the kingdom. Later this would change and he would become more threatening (see Luke 13.31). But while not willing to hear them he seems to have had a deep respect for genuine men of God, unless he felt that they were threatening his position, and he had perhaps learned a salutary lesson with John.
Note that in ‘a’ Herod says that Jesus is John the Baptiser risen from the dead, and in the parallel John’s body is laid in a tomb. In ‘b’ Herod speaks of ‘John the Baptiser whom I beheaded’, and in the parallel we have the description of how he did so. In ‘c’ John had condemned Herod’s marriage to Herodias, and in the parallel Herodias’ daughter asks for his head on a serving plate. In ‘d’ Herodias set herself to have John put to death, and in the parallel that is what she tells her daughter to demand. In ‘e’ we find a description of Herod’s kingdom, and in the parallel he offers Herodias’ daughter half his kingdom. Centrally in ‘f’ Herodias’ daughter pleases Herod and he offers her whatever she wants (there is here a perverted similarity to what Jesus says that God offers to believers - Matthew 7.7-12; Luke 11.9, as symbolised in the feeding of the five thousand which follows). Note also the repetition of the offer, “Ask of me whatever you will and I will give it to you” followed by “Whatever you will ask of me, I will give it to you’, the kind of repetition found in the second part of chiasms in the Pentateuch.
6.14-16 ‘And King Herod heard of him, for his name had become known, and he said “John the Baptiser is risen from the dead, and that is why these powers work in him”. But others said, “It is Elijah”. And others said, “It is a prophet, even as one of the prophets”. But Herod when he heard of it said, “John whom I beheaded, he is risen”.’
This Herod was Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. He was tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea from his father’s death, the date of which is not certain, dating anywhere from 5 to 0 BC. (The date is dependent on the identifying of certain astronomical occurrences and interpretation of other evidence, and is complicated by the question as to whether coinage was issued with spurious dates on it in order to magnify royal claims. If the enrolment of Luke 2.1 was that of Augustus’ twenty fifth anniversary of his reign, and the celebration that of the 750th anniversary of Rome, his father’s death was after 3 BC, the year of the celebration). He ruled until 39 AD. He was not strictly a king (he was a tetrarch) but he was popularly known as one. Matthew and Luke style him correctly, Mark popularly. His attempt to be officially named ‘king’ in fact led to his downfall and he was exiled to Gaul.
When Herod heard about this man Jesus Who was going around like a prophet and doing great wonders, his conscience struck him, and he was afraid, for he had reluctantly had John the Baptiser executed and now thought that he had come back from the dead. His conscience was giving him no rest.
‘Herod heard of Him.’ The news about this new prophet who drew such large crowds and performed miracles, although not directly affecting Tiberias where Herod had his palace, would hardly remain hidden. His police would have drawn it to his attention, and also the fact that He was proclaiming the coming of the Kingly Rule of God.
‘For His name had become known.’ Everyone was talking about Him for good or bad, especially so now that His Apostles were also going around preaching. Some were saying that He was the expected Elijah (Malachi 3.1), others that He was a great prophet like the revered prophets of old. Thus some at least were positive in their thoughts about Him. It is noteworthy that they did not at this stage think Him to be the Messiah. He was not behaving like they expected a Messiah would. But they did recognise His status as a man of God. The views of the leading Pharisees that He was of the Devil had not taken hold in Galilee, nor seemingly with most of the Herodians. But Herod was burdened down with guilt and was convinced that John the Baptiser had returned and he feared what would happen next. But why was he so afraid?
6.17-20 ‘For Herod himself had sent out and laid hold on John and bound him in prison, for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for he had married her. For John said to Herod “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias set herself against him and desired to kill him, but she could not, for Herod feared John knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. And when he heard him he was greatly perplexed, and he heard him gladly.’
This summary of the situation reveals Herod’s initial reluctance to act against John, only doing so because of his strong-minded wife’s insistence and John’s accusations. But even then he had refused to allow him to be killed. John had enjoyed Herod’s special protection, for Herod had respected and feared him as a true man of God and would bring him into his presence to hear what he had to say. He did not want such blood on his hands. We have here an interesting picture of a divided Herod. On the one hand he was a tyrant, but on the other he had a kind of recognition that he should be taking God into account. Thus when it came to religious matters he vacillated between one position and the other. There is an interesting parallel here with the story of Ahab and Jezebel, where another weak king was controlled by his wife.
‘He was greatly perplexed’ (some manuscripts have ‘did many things’) probably included the fact that he was in two minds about what he should do about Herodias. A man’s struggle with himself against the attractions of a desirable woman is the cause of many a man’s perplexity. The flesh struggles with the conscience, and neither will cease its demands, often making the man behave strangely and act seemingly out of character.
‘Had bound him in prison.’ Josephus tells us that this was at Machaerus near the Dead Sea, a bleak place where there was both palace and prison. Mark does not tell us anything about the place where the events occurred.
‘Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife.’ Names in the Herod family were of great complexity not helped by the fact that Herod and Philip were both family names and given freely. ‘Herodias’ was the granddaughter of Herod the Great, being the daughter of his son Aristobulus. Thus she was niece to Herod Antipas. ‘His ‘brother Philip’ was not Philip the Tetrarch who later married Salome. Rather he was another Herod Philip who lived as a private citizen at Rome, and who was a son of Herod the Great by a second Mariamne, and thus also Herodias’ uncle.
Marriage to Herodias was not only attractive because she was clearly a desirable woman, inheriting the beauty of her grandmother Mariamne, but also because she was of royal descent as part Hasmonean and thus more acceptable to the people than Antipas himself who had no recognised Jewish blood in him. But if this was part of his reason for marrying her it failed, partly due to John the Baptiser’s strictures, for they hated him even more.
‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ Marriage to a brother’s wife while the brother was still alive was forbidden (Leviticus 18.16; 20.21). This condemnation and Herodias’ resulting hatred, added to John the Baptiser’s strong support among the people. And they hated Herod Antipas all the more for this behaviour, thus making for a possible uprising. These were the reasons for John’s imprisonment.
6.21-23 ‘And when an opportune day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a feast for his court officials and military officers and the chief men of Galilee, and when Herodias’ daughter herself came in and danced, she pleased Herod and those who sat at meat with him, and the king said to the young woman, “Ask of me whatever you will and I will give it to you”. And he swore to her, “Whatever you will ask of me, I will give it to you, to as much as half of my kingdom”.
Unexpectedly an opportune day came for Herodias to achieve her end. It is quite probable that she knew of Herod’s propensity, when drunk on such occasions, to make rash promises to dancing girls, and she plotted accordingly. She sent in her own daughter (by Herod Philip, probably the beautiful and seductive Salome. She may well have noted Herod’s glances at her), to dance before the king and all the important people with him. Such dances were expected to be lewd and suggestive, and this girl’s would be no exception, and it raised Herod’s excitement to such an extent that he offered her as much as half his kingdom as a reward.
Such an extreme offer was presumably made because it was his stepdaughter and nothing less would have been seen as sufficient (she had all she could want already), and also probably because Herod had in mind another occasion when such an offer had been made (Esther 5.3; 7.2). It was not intended to be taken literally (he was under Rome and could not give half his kingdom away) but if considered at all in his drunken state it was basically a willingness that if she wished she could rule half his kingdom (either Peraea or Galilee) under him.
‘When an opportune day was come.’ This could mean simply a suitable day for Herod to hold a feast, that is, on his birthday. But more probably it refers to Herodias’ wish to kill John the Baptiser.
‘On his birthday.’ Little did he realise that on this day of celebration he would do that which would blight his life thereafter.
‘Court officials’ (literally ‘lords’). ‘Military officers’ (literally ‘chiliarchs’), leaders of a thousand men’ but here with a more general meaning to include all high ranking officers.
‘The leading men of Galilee.’ This has led some to posit that the event may have occurred at Tiberias, but this interpretation is not necessary. Herod’s entourage would go wherever he went, especially for his birthday celebrations, and the leading men of Peraea would also be there. The specific mention here of the leading men of Galilee is rather to tie them in with the evil deed. They too were responsible for what happened to John the Baptiser.
‘The daughter of Herodias herself.’ The manuscripts are divided here, the main difference being between whether we read ’autes or ’autou. The former means in context ‘herself’ the latter would mean ‘of him’, that is Herod. The latter would be using ‘daughter’ loosely as meaning stepdaughter and may have arisen to emphasise the appalling fact that he allowed her to perform such a dance at all (in verse 24 she is clearly Herodias’ daughter’). It could, however, indicate that he had a daughter, also called Herodias (possibly like Herod a family name)
‘Came in.’ No respectable princess would have considered entering such a gathering of half-drunk men. Queen Vashti gave up her position rather than do so (Esther 1.12). And Jews would have been appalled. But Herod regarded neither. He was used to Roman orgies.
‘Danced.’ Dances at such gatherings were lewd and highly suggestive to fit in with men’s propensities. They were usually performed by experienced professional prostitutes and few rulers (or their wives) would have allowed their daughters to take part in such dances. But the Herods had a reputation for moral depravity. Some women love exposing themselves and shocking people, and Herodias’ daughter was clearly such a one, and her mother had a deeper motive in mind for which she did not mind a ‘little’ impropriety, while Herod, although possibly taken aback, no doubt enjoyed the opportunity for seeing his seductive stepdaughter in such a guise (she was not after all his blood daughter).
‘Ask of me whatever you will.’ This was no doubt Herod’s regular drunken response to an act that pleased and stirred him so that his emotions were deeply aroused. But money or jewellery was usually in mind. However, because it was his stepdaughter he extended the offer, in his drunken pride possibly even seeing himself as like Ahasuerus and not wishing to be outdone by a past foreign king (Esther 5.3; 7.2).
There are undoubted parallels between this account and events in the book of Esther, not because of deliberate copying but partly because of Herod’s own reference and partly because Mark probably intended a deliberate contrast between the chaste woman there and this immoral strumpet; a contrast between the one whose actions destroyed an evil man, who was set to destroy God’s people, and this one whose actions resulted in the death of a holy man of God (see Esther 2.9 LXX; 5.3, 6).
6.24-26 ‘And she went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask?” And she said, “the head of John the Baptiser”. And she came in immediately and hastily to the king, and asked saying, “I will that you forthwith give me on a plate the head of John the Baptiser.” And the king was deeply sorry, but for the sake of his oath and of those who sat at meat, he would not reject her.’
But what was she to ask for? The decision made was that it should be ‘The head of John the Baptiser.’ The idea was not hers but her mother’s, but it may well have been she who added the idea of the serving dish. They were two of a kind. ‘Came in immediately.’ Was her haste because the idea pleased her so much? The king felt trapped. He had given his oath and all his courtiers were watching.
But it was so unusual an occurrence that the leading men of Galilee could have protested, and he could have stressed that this kind of thing had not been in his mind, and that the head of John the Baptiser was worth more than half his kingdom. It might indeed bring down his whole kingdom. But neither thought it important enough to make the effort. Their ideas of their own prestige, importance and well-being came first. And John was not considered important enough to be worth intervention.
‘On a plate.’ A large dish. The crowning indignity. His gory head brought in on a plate. Who would suggest such a thing? Certainly not a well bred or sensitive princess. But it befitted the mind of a princess who could perform such a licentious dance. The two went together. Mark may well have seen here a contrast between John’s head served up on a dish, and the bread shortly to be offered by Jesus to the five thousand (verses 30-44). The first was typical of the world and what it offered, the second would be typical of what God offered, the bread of life.
‘The king was deeply sorry.’ A very strong word indicating excessive regret (compare its use in Mark 14.34)
‘Reject her.’ Possibly better, ‘break faith with her’, ‘break his word to’ (compare its use in Psalm 15.4 (14.4) LXX).
6.27-28 ‘And immediately the king sent out an executioner and commanded to bring his head, and he went and beheaded him in prison, and brought his head on a plate and gave it to the young woman, and the young woman gave it to her mother.’
The evil deed was done. No excuse can be found for Herod. Had he wanted to he could have avoided it. Probably no one would have blamed him, and no one would have seen the twisting of his oath by Herodias’ daughter as binding. It was not within the spirit of the offer. But men have strange ideas when it comes to ‘honour’, sometimes it replaces rightness, and possibly Herod was secretly glad of the excuse. Whichever was true he gave the command and John was beheaded and his head brought in on a plate.
‘An executioner.’ The word is ‘speculator’, originally it was used of a Roman scout but was then used to denote a member of the headquarters staff of a ruling personage whose duties included the carrying out of executions. This it came to be used in Aramaic and Rabbinic Hebrew for an executioner.
‘Gave it to the young woman, and the young woman gave it to her mother.’ When Herodias’ daughter looked at the grisly present she had received she faltered and passed it immediately to her hardened mother. She did not want it. There was still some vestige of decency, however small, within her. But for Herodias there was only delight. We can compare these words here, with the words, ‘He gave them to His disciples to set before the people’ (verse 41). What a contrast between two worlds.
6.29 ‘And when his disciples heard, they came and collected his corpse and laid it in a tomb.’
The same word for corpse is used in 15.45 in a similar setting and the parallel may be intentional. And they also laid him in a tomb (compare 15.46). Both the forerunner and his Master received similar treatment, and both would rise again.
Note. The differences in this account and that of Josephus, who makes the whole thing purely political, can easily be put down to differences of approach. Josephus, a Jewish historian seeking to present the Jews in a good light, is interested in political propaganda in support of the Jews and the facts here do not reflect well on them. He stated that the reason for John’s death was because Herod feared that John’s influence over the people might lead to a political rising. And that was of course true. Had it not been for that he would not have been in prison. But this does not prevent acknowledgement of the further influence of a jealous and angry woman. Mark is not concerned about politics. He is concerned about man and his relationship to God. And he may even have had sources not open to Josephus, for the wife of Herod’s steward may well have been known to him (Luke 8.3). He did not need the rumour of the marketplace. (End of note).
The Disciples Return and Take a Break - The Feeding of Five Thousand People (6.30-44).
When the disciples returned and explained to Jesus all that had happened He sought to take them somewhere where they could rest and recuperate, and no doubt where He could give them advice and reassurance. Perhaps also He was a little concerned at some of the things which they had told Him. Their view of the Kingly Rule of God had still not been tailored in line with how Jesus saw it. Perhaps they had been rousing interest in the wrong way. That was always a danger with sending out novices. And then a crowd of interested men who were anxious to learn and see more, outwitted them by making their way round the lake. Thus would occur a further revelation of the power of Jesus as Lord of creation, the miraculous feeding of a great crowd of genuine seekers.
Again we have the contrast with Herod’s behaviour. While Herod had held a great feast and had drenched the nation in the blood of a prophet, Jesus was holding a great feast and bringing to them the bread of life as promised by the prophets (e.g. Isaiah 55.1-2). This celebration feast was a proclamation that the new king was here, and that the Messianic banquet was beginning (Isaiah 25.8). Earthly kingdoms no longer mattered. Let them forget Herod and his like. The Kingly Rule of God was here.
Note that in ‘a’ the Apostles gathered together to Jesus to tell Him what they had done, and in the parallel He took leave of them so that He could be alone to pray. In ‘b’ He calls them to go apart into a desert place in order to get away from the crowds, and in the parallel He sends them to Bethsaida while He sends the crowds away. In ‘c’ they went away in a boat, and in the parallel they entered into a boat. In ‘d’ He saw the great crowd like sheep without a shepherd, and in the parallel they were more than satisfied. In ‘e’ He commands His disciples to give the crowds food to eat, and in the parallel they do so. In ‘f’ they assess what is required to feed the crowd, and in the parallel they discover how much they actually have. Centrally in ‘g’ Jesus takes charge of the whole situation
The Apostles Return From Their Mission (6.30-34).
6.30 ‘And the Apostles gather themselves together to Jesus, and they told him all things, whatever they had done and whatever they had taught.’
‘The Apostles.’ This is remarkably the only reference to ‘the Apostles’ in Mark. But that it carries all the full meaning of the title we cannot doubt, for by the time that he was writing the title had become a settled one (he could just as easily have called them ‘the disciples of Jesus’ in contrast with those of John - verse 29, but then it could have included more than the twelve. These were the original ‘sent out ones’). Mark would not have used it without having its meaning to the churches in mind. Indeed it is an indication that he sees here their improved and permanent status after their successful ministry. They have proved that they are genuine Apostles and can now bear the title. After this he falls back on the word ‘disciples’ because he is indicating that they have much to learn before they can successfully carry into effect their new status. He tells us no more about their further ventures.
The word Apostle was given a new meaning by Jesus (compare Luke 6.13). In classical Greek it had come to signify ‘the fleet, the armada’ and had earlier been used of expeditions. It was only rarely used of representatives, although it would be used by Paul of ‘apostles (messengers/ambassadors) to the churches’. On the other hand some have related it to the Hebrew ‘shaliach’ and its Aramaic equivalent. But while that word does mean an authorised agent or representative, such a position was temporary for a particular occasion. It was never seen as permanent. There can, however, be no question that Jesus intended their appointment to be seen as permanent. Thus if He did use ‘shaliach’ or its equivalent it was with a new significance. They were not the normal type of shaliach who acted merely as a proxy. The two terms and their functions cannot be equated. ‘Apostle’ was given a unique position of its own.
‘They told Him all things.’ They reported back in detail, both as regards actions and words. They wanted His approval and they wanted His guidance. All who have ever begun preaching will be aware of their need for both. They had much to learn. Given their expectancy of an earthly kingdom (10.37; Matthew 20.20-28; Luke 22.24-27; Acts 1.6) it might also have concerned Him as to quite what they had been saying.
6.31 ‘And he says to them, “Come you yourselves apart into an isolated (or desert) place and rest awhile.” For there were many coming and going and they had no leisure so much as to eat.’
Recognising the strain their activities had put them under Jesus desired to take them to a quiet and uninhabited place where they could rest and recover, and where He could listen to what they had to say and guide them, for the place where they were was public and they were constantly being interrupted, so much so that they did not even have a chance to eat. This appears to have been a regular problem for them (compare 3.20).
6.32 ‘And they went away in the boat to a desert place apart.’
So taking ship the group sailed to an isolated place where they could be alone. Luke tells us that this was in the vicinity of Bethsaida Julias situated near the top of the lake to the East (Luke 9.10). It was necessary even for these young and exuberant men to have a vacation sometimes, not one of making merry, but of getting alone with God. And no doubt they took food with them which they may well have consumed on the boat.
6.33 ‘And the people saw them going, and many knew them, and they ran there together on foot from all the cities and outran them.’
But this time ‘the boat trick’ did not work, for their action in taking ship was noted by those who knew them, who discerned where they were going and made their way there on foot, meanwhile publicising what they were doing so that others joined them. The boat appears to have made slow progress for the crowd arrived at the place where the boat would land before the boat even arrived. The wind may not have been kind to those in the boat which may explain why their arrival was delayed. The result was that the boat was greeted by a large crowd of people. This incident emphasises how difficult it was for Jesus to get alone by Himself, and how greatly His popularity and prestige was growing.
6.34 ‘And he came out and saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them because they were as sheep not having a shepherd, and he began to teach them much.’
Jesus was not dismayed by what had happened. He recognised the great longing of the crowd and their sense of needing guidance and help. He ‘had compassion on them’. This word for compassion is used only of or by Jesus. The word speaks of a compassion that responds with action.
‘They were as sheep not having a shepherd.’ Such sheep are aimless, poorly fed and in danger of perishing. He saw their need for a Shepherd. (See Numbers 27.17; 1 Kings 22.17; 2 Chronicles 18.16; Ezekiel 34.5; Matthew 15.24 compare Zechariah 11.4-6). ‘He began to teach them many things’ or ‘to teach them at length’. Possibly the comment about the sheep indicates that Jesus used this as an illustration in His teaching to them. Later He would certainly later tell parables about sheep (Matthew 12.11-12; 18.12-13; 25.32-33; 26.31; Luke 15.4-6) and declare that He was the good shepherd (John 10).
Some have suggested that the crowd who had gathered were there because they were hoping to stir Jesus into military action, and no doubt some of them were there with that in mind as John may be indicating (John 6.15). But we need not doubt that on the whole they were there in order to learn more about what He had to say, otherwise He would not have treated them as members of His covenant community by feeding them miraculously. However, that being said, in Galilee any prophet was seen as a possible rallying point.
The Feeding of the Five Thousand (6.35-43).
Many attempts have been made to rationalise this account. The suggestion is made that when the crowd saw the disciples (or the little boy) sharing food they too began to share their food; or that it was only a symbolic meal, merely a taste of bread giving the promise of participation in the Messianic Feast, which somehow satisfied the people. But all have to accept that that is not what the account actually says. The account tells us quite clearly that under Jesus’ ministration the food was somehow multiplied until it fed the whole crowd with more than enough. And that is the message that Mark wants to convey. The Son of God was here. That this manifestation of His power was expected to teach them a vital lesson comes out in 6.52 and 8.17-20. Unless the miracle was genuine those words would have been meaningless.
There were certainly those in the crowd who connected what happened here with Moses. Going out into the wilderness in a large crowd, finding themselves hungry, being fed by the Prophet miraculously, all pointed to bread from Heaven (compare John 6.31-32) and the possibility of coming deliverance. We can see why the crowd, and even the disciples were perhaps getting a little excited. That is why at the end Jesus compels His disciples to leave by boat before He dismisses the crowd. Things were in danger of getting out of hand. But this need not mean that this was the original reason why the crowd came. It is simply a reminder of the explosive situation in Galilee, and of how quickly believers in the Kingly Rule of God could begin to see it as happening physically. In the end only Jesus’ death could demonstrate that that was not why He had come.
6.35-36 ‘And when the day was now far spent his disciples came to him and said, “The place is isolated, and the day is now far spent. Send them away that they may go into the country and villages round about and buy themselves something to eat.”
As evening approached and Jesus went on preaching, the disciples became concerned. Had Jesus overlooked the fact of where they were? The crowd were far from home, there was nothing to eat and nowhere convenient to find food. Even now it was probably too late but at least if the crowd left now there may be a chance that they could find food somewhere if they scattered. They were being thoughtful and helpful, if a little over-optimistic. It should be noted that this does not sound like a crowd who had come together for a military purpose.
6.37a ‘But he answered and said to them, “You give them to eat.”
We must not miss the force of these words. The ‘you’ is emphatic. Jesus knew that they had no food to give. He knew that they would be baffled. But He wanted them first to be aware that feeding this crowd would require something special, secondly that it was in the future to be their responsibility to feed His people, and thirdly that there were in Him the resources they needed for the task, something that they needed to become confident about. They must recognise that they could not foist the task off on others because of the difficulties. They had to be the shepherds with His support. And feed the crowds they in fact would. It was an important lesson.
This was an amplification of the lesson that they had learned about trusting God for provision while out on their ministries. Now they had to trust God for others too. It is difficult to avoid the impression that Jesus has 2 Kings 4.42 in mind, where Elisha says to his followers, ‘Give to the people that they may eat’, at a time when there was patently too little food for everyone. There it was followed by the insufficient becoming sufficient and to spare. Was Jesus then testing out His disciples to see what they would do, and how they would respond? After all they had claimed that they had ‘understood’ about the coming of the Kingly Rule of Heaven (Matthew 13.51). Did they have sufficient understanding and faith for this moment? There may have been a slight hope at the back of His mind that it would be so, but the more probable significance in what He is doing is that He wants His disciples to recognise that in following Him and being His Apostles they must take responsibility for believers, not leave them to themselves.
( In LXX Elisha says, ‘dote tow laow’ - ‘give to the people’. Here in the translation from the Aramaic Jesus says ‘dote autois’ - ‘give to them’. LXX then uses esthio while Jesus uses phagein, but it should be noted that LXX then has phagomai in verse 43 where ‘the Lord’ says they shall eat. Mark’s source may well have been distinguishing Jesus from Elisha by deliberately using the verb ‘the Lord’ used).
6.37b ‘And they said to him, “Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii of bread and give them to eat?”
The disciples were both incredulous and possibly a little peeked (Matthew and Luke tone this down). They knew, and knew that Jesus knew, that they did not have enough funds. Food for this great crowd would take the day’s wages of two hundred men (a denarius was a day’s wage - Matthew 20.2). How then could He expect them to feed them? It was not quite fair. Had this story been an invention there is no way that these words, spoken in this way, would have been included
6.38 ‘And he says to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” And when they knew they say, “Five, and two fish.”
Then He called their attention to what they did have. His command was firm. They must sum up their resources. And when they did so they found that they had five loaves and two fish. And little though they knew it, that would be enough. The loaves would not be large loaves. They would be the flat cakes. John 6.9 tells us that they were barley loaves, the food of the poor. The fish would also be fairly small.
6.39-40 ‘And he commanded them that all should sit down group by group on the green grass. And they sat down in ranks, by hundreds and by fifties.’
Peter remembered vividly the greenness of the grass, which indicated springtime. But was there a hint here that He Who made the grass to grow by abundant rain, a wonderful provision of God, could also feed the hearts of men? (Isaiah 44.4). When the grass fails and there is no green thing it is a time of desolation (Isaiah 15.6). Thus when the grass flourishes times are good. We may also compare it with the green pastures to which ‘the Lord is my Shepherd’ led His people (Psalm 23.2). In Scripture man is often likened to the grass, usually dying grass. But this was a time of life, and the grass was alive.
‘They sat down rank by rank.’ Literally ‘garden plot by garden plot’. This was probably depicting their orderliness, or perhaps the colourful groups on the green grass. Whoever described all this, and it must have been an eyewitness, seems to have had an eye for colour. Similar descriptions are used by the Rabbis of the arrangement of their students like rows of vines in a vineyard and like garden beds, mainly depicting their orderly arrangement.
6.41 ‘And he took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven he blessed, and broke the loaves, and he gave to the disciples to set before them, and he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were filled.’
There is no avoiding the miraculous supply. (It would even have taken a miracle to take two fish and give but a few hundred even a little). Jesus looked up to the Giver and then distributed to the crowd through the disciples. And all were filled. In His hands five loaves and two fish were sufficient and to spare.
‘Looking up to heaven He blessed.’ For the idea of looking up to heaven see 7.34; John 11.41; compare Job 22.26. In each case He was looking for the miraculous power of God to work. It was symbolic of calling on God.
‘He blessed’. He blessed God, as a Jewish father would give a blessing over the bread of the household. The blessing may have been the regular one, ‘”Blessed are you, Oh Lord our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread on the earth”. Note that it is not the bread which is blessed but God Himself. It is gratitude for provision.
‘And broke the loaves’. An action preparatory to eating. Here it was for the purposes of distribution. It indicated sharing and the oneness of the company. A Jewish father would himself eat a piece and then pass the remainder round.
‘And He gave to the disciples to set before them.’ The verb in the imperfect may indicate ‘went on giving to the disciples’.
‘And they all ate and were filled.’ It is stressed that there was sufficient for everyone.
6.43 ‘And they took up broken pieces, twelve basketfuls, and also of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.’
The term for ‘basket’ denotes the wicker basket (kophinos) carried regularly by Jews, (and for which they were well known), so that they could take their provisions with them, undefiled by the world. It was indeed a popular joke among Gentiles. From where did the baskets come? They probably belonged to the disciples, although being empty.
The broken pieces would not have been gathered from the grass, (poor men did not throw away food), but would be those left over after the distribution. They were gathered so as to be eaten later. The significance of the twelve basketfuls over was that God’s supply was not only for the present but continued into the future. There was sufficient for the twelve tribes of Israel to go on being fed by Him.
‘Those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.’ The disciples had good reason to know. They had arranged the crowd in groups and had distributed the bread to the men of the households, although five thousand may be a round number. Five is the number of covenant, and ‘a thousand’ means ‘a large number’. Here the large covenant community had been fed.
But while the disciples were aware of the extent of this miraculous feeding we must recognise that that was not necessarily so for the crowds. What the disciples saw close up they only saw at a distance, and many were quite some distance away. They obviously realised that there were not huge stocks of food there but it would seem to them that the disciples (or someone) had at least twelve baskets of food available, for they saw at least twelve baskets and were not to know that the twelve baskets were empty. What they saw was the food coming round in abundance, more than twelve basketfuls could hold. They did not know exactly where from, and they probably remembered the parallel incident with Elisha From what John tells us they must have suspected that something unusual was happening, but they were probably not quite sure what.
John, however, tells us that they certainly saw it as a sign sufficient to arouse their interest so as to want to press home claims to make Him king (John 6.14), although nowhere in all four Gospels is any great surprise revealed as there would normally have been at a miracle He had performed. It seems that most knew that a miracle had happened, but did not realise the extent of it. To both Mark and the Apostles, of course, it was a genuine ‘sign’ of Who Jesus was. Thus we are probably safe in assuming that the crowd themselves did not realise quite how great a miracle it was. Probably the main significance to them of the event was that it was the initial experience of the coming of the good times promised by the prophets. On the other hand they did see it as ‘bread from Heaven’ and perceive that a miracle had taken place (John 6.14). And sadly what they then sought was not spiritual life but more of such physical bread (John 6.26).
So What Message Was Jesus Seeking to Convey?
Firstly we must recognise that this was an act of compassion. It was not something for which Jesus had prepared. He had been trying to avoid the crowds, not arranging to see them. It was because He had compassion on them that He did what He did. However there can be no question that what He did He did for a purpose, for He knew what might ensue as news of the miracle spread round. Thus we can be sure that it had been His intention to do this at some stage in His ministry.
The major question is what further significance it had. The following should be considered.
There are good grounds for seeing in this feeding God’s offer of salvation to the Jews through Jesus, and in the later feeding (8.1-10) God’s similar offer to the Gentiles. This feeding was of people who had specifically come from Galilee, and the baskets that gathered the fragments were distinctively Jewish baskets by which Jews were recognised everywhere. Furthermore the number five is prominent here (five thousand men, five loaves) and that was the covenant number of Israel. The covenant of God was given specifically on two tablets in two sets of five (Exodus 32.15-16; 34.1); there are five books of the Law in the covenant; the five books of Psalms govern covenant worship; there are five fingers to the hand with which a covenant is sealed (Genesis 14.22; 24.9; Exodus 17.16; Job 17.3); five and its multiples are predominant in the Tabernacle and the Temple, thus the measurements in the Tabernacle were mainly in multiples of five; the altar was five cubits by five cubits; peace offerings for the people were in fives (apart from oxen) - Numbers 7.17-83; the cost of redemption was five shekels - Numbers 18.16.
The other feeding was in Gentile territory and followed Jesus’ dealings with the Syro-Phoenician woman. The number of persons there was four thousand, four being the number of mankind. Four rivers from Eden encompass the world (Genesis 2.10); there are four ‘corners’ of the earth (Revelation 7.1; 20.8); the four winds or spirits of earth and heaven affect mankind (Jeremiah 49.36; Daniel 2 & 7; Zechariah 6.5; Revelation 7.1); the four angels of judgment affect mankind (Revelation 9.14); four horns in Zechariah represent the outside world’s attack on God’s people (Zechariah 1.18-19; four beasts represent world empire in Daniel; four living creatures represent creation in Ezekiel and Revelation. The other prominent number in the account is seven which was the universal sacred number. (Compare also the five kings who represented the covenant land as against four kings representing the outside world in Genesis 14).
Jesus Comes to His Disciples in Their Need, Walking on the Water (6.45-53).
As ever in salvation history the blessing is to be followed by trial. Having been fed by God they must now learn that times can also be hard, and that He is trustworthy in the hard times also. In the future they would have to feed the people, but they would be feeding a people who would as well have to endure the problems of life. Christians are not sheltered from those. After their mountain top experiences they have to face the waves of hardship. They therefore needed to learn that the One In Whom they trusted would walk with them in that hardship and would bring them safe to shore.
Earlier we have seen the Apostles going out in triumphant faith and enjoying great success. Now we see them fearful and almost faithless in the face of the strong winds and the unexpected appearance of Jesus. They still have much to learn.
It is quite possible that Mark deliberately places these two great miracles (the loaves and walking on the water) after the achievements of the disciples in order to keep those achievements in perspective. Acting under His authority they had power, but their power did not compare with that of the Master Himself.
Here Jesus sent His disciples ahead of Him by boat to sail to ‘Bethsaida of Galilee’ (John 12.21). He had revealed His power over natural things in the multiplying of the bread and He would now again demonstrate to them His power over the elements. What they experienced was intended to remind them of the Scripture which said, “Your way is in the sea, and your path in the great waters” (Psalm 77.19; see also Isaiah 43.16), words spoken to the Lord of creation. Jesus was about to demonstrate again that He was Lord of creation and could bestride the waves.
However, we must read what is said and not over-exaggerate the account. They met a contrary wind, not a storm, something they were well able to deal with even if it was hard work. This is not a further account of the stilling of a storm. All that is parallel with the other account is that they were in a boat at sea and the going was tough. Here there was a contrary wind, there there was a raging storm (a very different thing to experienced sailors). Here Jesus came walking on the water, there He was asleep in the boat. Here He saves them further effort, there He saved their lives. It is true that in both cases a wind ceases, but here it is a contrary wind that is a hindrance to rowing, and that is all, while there the violence of a destructive wind was combined with the raging of the boiling sea, and that was calmed as well. Those hardy sailors would have been amazed that people called the incidents at all similar. They are different at almost every point.
Note that in ‘a’ H constrains the disciples to board the boat and make for the other side, and in the parallel they reach the other side. In ‘b’ Jesus prays in confident faith, and in the parallel the disciples are amazed and flummoxed, because of their lack of faith. In ‘c’ He sees them having a hard time against the prevailing wind and would have passed them by, and in the parallel He goes up to them in the boat and arranges for the wind to cease. Centrally in ‘d’ what appeared at first to be a horror, turned out to be Jesus coming to meet them.
6.45-46 ‘And immediately he constrained his disciples to board the boat and to go before him to the other side, towards Bethsaida, while he himself sends the crowds away. And after he had taken leave of them he departed to the mountain to pray.’
‘Immediately He constrained His disciples.’ There was certainly pressure there and we may ask why. Possibly it was to prevent the disciples from saying anything further to the crowds about the miracle (they might well have thought it would produce what they thought was a good effect), or equally probably because He was also getting uneasy at the attitude among the crowds and was fearful that in their enthusiasm at being fed by Him they were about to press His Messianic status (see John 6.15 where this is made quite clear). And He did not want the disciples, who were still struggling to grasp the truth about Him, to become involved. He preferred to deal with the matter alone. (With their limited understanding the disciples might have become equally excited. They had been preaching that the Kingly Rule of God was coming, and they may have thought that here was its beginnings, but in totally the wrong way).
A further reason was that He wanted time alone to pray. So once He had seen the disciples off and had persuaded the crowds to return to their homes He went alone into a nearby mountain to pray. For Jesus praying see 1.35 and 14.32-42, each time during the night, but compare Matthew 14.23. See also Luke 6.12; 9.18; 11.1. Jesus went without sleep to pray at crucial times in His ministry, but also no doubt prayed regularly at other times. Pious Jews prayed at ‘the time of prayer’ morning and evening. So in the midst of a despairing world He walked in total faith. These particular mentions of prayer come at the commencement of His ministry as He faces up to the huge burden involved in constant teaching, healing and exorcism (1.35), at the initiation of the new community following the Apostles’ successful ministry (6.46) and as He faces His final agony prior to His death, three great stepping stones in His life.
‘Bethsaida’ means the house of fishing, a very suitable name for a fishing town or village, and there may well have been two of them (otherwise why would John speak of a Bethsaida ‘of Galilee’? - 12.21), one at the top of the lake to the East, Bethsaida Julias, and one lower down the lake on the west bank, Bethsaida-of-Galilee, a small fishing village. Or it may be that they both refer to the same town, and that having been with the crowds to the East of Bethsaida Julias He sent them away from the crowds ‘to the other side’ across a portion of sea at the top of the lake, to the area West of Bethsaida Julias. The area would be known by the name of the town.
6.47-48 ‘And when evening was come the boat was well out at sea and he alone on the land, and seeing them distressed in rowing, for the wind was against them, about the fourth watch of the night he comes to them walking on the sea. And he would have passed by them.’
Night drew in as the disciples were at sea. The lake was choppy and they were heading into a strong wind, and they were finding the going extremely difficult. As they pulled at the oars and seemed to make little headway they were becoming exhausted. They were no doubt wishing that they were back on land, and would have been wondering what Jesus was doing.
We are not told at what time Jesus ‘saw’ them. It was possibly from the mountain before nightfall set in, so that, knowing the weather and their situation, He knew that their voyage would take some considerable time. Or it may have been by bright moonlight, looking across the lake. But we may assume that He spent some time in prayer, and then came down from the mountain and began His walk across the sea. Praying, making His way down the mountain at night, reaching the shore and then walking across to where they were (the waves were rough and the wind was against Him too) would also take some considerable time, and by the time He reached the spot where they were it was ‘about the fourth watch of the night’ (following the Roman system, the Jews split the night into four watches), nearly three or just after three in the morning. Thus they had been at sea nearly eight or nine hours. The adverse wind was so strong that they had made little progress.
‘And He would have passed by them.’ This was how it appeared to them and indeed was His intention if they had had sufficient faith. Mark wants us to recognise that without a boat Jesus could easily have reached the destination before them, wind or no wind. It is a reminder that there are no contrary winds to God. Passing by them may not have been His final purpose. They were not in danger, just exhausted, and He had compassion on their exhaustion. But it is clear that He had an important lesson to teach them about His power over the sea, (whose idiosyncrasies they knew), and therefore over nature. He knew that it was about time that they woke up to Who and What He was, so that they recognised His ability to be with them and keep them under all circumstances. The multiplying of the bread should have made that clear, but He knew that it had not, and now He was enforcing the lesson. And perhaps He wanted to test their faith and fortitude.
6.49-50a ‘But they, when they saw him walking on the sea, supposed that it was a ghost and cried out, for they all saw him and were distressed.’
They had spent hours at the oars and were exhausted, the wind was howling, the waves beating against the boat, and it was night, and the sight of this figure walking across the sea was the last straw. What could it be but a ghost? All of them saw it, and there was pandemonium as they shouted and pointed, or cowered back, in dismay.
6.50b-51a ‘But he immediately spoke with them and says, “Be of good cheer. It is I. Do not be afraid.” And he went up to them in the boat and the wind ceased.’
Jesus immediately assured them that all was well. They had failed the test but they would learn from it in the future. It was at this time that Peter made his attempt also to walk on the water (Matthew 14.28-31). Then having assured them that it was really He, He approached the boat and clambered in. And to their surprise the wind immediately ceased. But note that this was the cessation of a contrary wind, not the stilling of a storm.
’It is I’. The Greek is ‘ego eimi’ - ‘I am’. While Jesus simply meant ‘it is I’ (this is the regular Greek for that), it is possible that Mark intends us to get the inference that He is the ‘I am’, the God of the covenant (Exodus 3.14-15). That is why they do not need to be afraid.
6.51b-52 ‘And they were greatly amazed in themselves, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their heart was hardened.’
Mark sums up their position. They were full of amazement (and in their amazement cry out ‘truly you are the Son of God’ - Matthew 14.33), and it was because they had not learned the lesson of the multiplied loaves. They had failed to realise that One was here Who could miraculously expand nature, Who controlled material things and therefore to Whom a jaunt on the sea was as nothing. For He is the One Whose “way is in the sea, and His path in the great waters” (Psalm 77.19; see also Isaiah 43.16)
‘Their heart was hardened.’ They had seen a number of amazing things but their minds would not yield to the truth of them and what they indicated. They just could not accept it. It was not that they had difficulty believing in Jesus’ close relationship with God, and that He was pleasing to God, it was that they could not go that step further and recognise that God walked on earth in Him. They had yet much to learn. There is a constant stress on their inability to understand (7.18; 8.17-19) which brings out the accuracy and factualness of the Gospel. No one who respected the Apostles would have invented such ideas. The cry in Matthew that He was the Son of God does not alter this fact. Like the cry ‘it is a ghost’ it was wrung from them by the situation. It was not yet a thought out position.
What a contrast there is between Jesus on the mountain at prayer, and at peace, and the disciples toiling on the sea and lacking in sufficient faith. They would learn from this that they too, if they would face the problems of life serenely, must learn to enjoy times alone with God in the mountain.
6.53 ‘And when they had crossed over they came to the land to Gennesaret, and moored to the shore.’
Having crossed over they moored to the shore. They were safe on dry ground at last, and now they had Jesus with them. All is well when we have Jesus with us. They ‘ran into the shore’ or ‘moored to the shore’ is an unusual expression and is possibly a technical term used by the fishermen of Galilee. A long rope no doubt reached from the boat to a post on the shore. ‘The land of Gennesaret’ was on the west shores of the sea of Galilee. It probably refers to the fertile and well populated plain, south west of Capernaum, or possibly to a fishing village in it, the feminine suffix transliterated ‘et’ being added to the name of the plain of Gennesar. This is attested to in 1 Maccabees 11.67 (‘the water of Gennesareth’) and Josephus (Gennesar’). Compare also ‘the sea of Chinnereth’ mentioned in Numbers 34.11. The fact that they arrived here may be because the wind and waves had driven them off course so that they had no choice. Alternately perhaps there was a Bethsaida near here although there is no evidence of it.
The central purpose of this incident then was to help in revealing to the disciples that He was truly the unique Son of God (see Matthew 13.33), but it has a secondary significance in that it reveals to all Who are His that He can be with them in every kind of adversity. The church did need not fear the winds and the toil that it had to face, because there is One Who is watching Who knows their toil and their concerns, and will come to their aid when the time is right, often in ‘the fourth watch of the night’.
The Ministry Continues in Galilee (6.54-56) .
Although brief this summary gives the hint of an eyewitness. There is a memory of how people were healed just by touching his clothes. The purpose of the summary is to bring out His continued manifestations of power but it is noteworthy that His preaching is not mentioned (see below). In the midst of seeming success there is a hint of failure. They had not come to hear His words. There is outward show but the failure of true response. Yet it also continues the theme of the Messianic banquet. Here was the Isaianic healing for Israel (Isaiah 35.5-6; 61.1-2; Matthew 11.5). The king was among them.
Note that in ‘a’ they knew Him, and in the parallel as many as touched Him were made whole (an apt picture of salvation). In ‘b’ and its parallel they brought their sick to Jesus. Centrally in ‘c’ it happened wherever He was.
6.54-55 ‘And when they were come out of the boat immediately the people knew him, and ran round about that whole region and began to carry about on their mattresses those who were sick where they heard he was.’
As it was not far from Capernaum it was inevitable that people would be there who recognised Him and His disciples when they landed. Their first impulse therefore was to gather the sick from the whole region and bring them to Him. It was of course natural but confirmed the fears that He had previously voiced. They sought him mainly for healing rather than for truth.
‘The people knew Him.’ On the surface a simple statement of recognition, but possibly underlying it is that knowing Him as the Isaianic prophet they knew that they could bring all their sick for healing. It also contrasts with the people of His own country who did not know Him (6.1-6).
‘On their mattresses.’ Literally ‘on the mattresses’, that is, the mattresses that belonged to them.
6.56 ‘And wherever he entered, into villages, or towns or the countryside, they laid their sick in the marketplaces and begged him that they might touch if it were but the hem of his clothing, and as many as touched him were made whole.’
Whether He visited town or countryside they came for healing and laid their sick ‘in the marketplaces’, that is the village meeting points where people met to talk and barter. True marketplaces would be restricted to the big towns. And He healed them all. His power was clearly manifested.
‘The hem of His clothing.’ The hem or fringe or tassels worn by every orthodox Jew (Numbers 15.37; Deuteronomy 22.12), reminding men of God’s commandments. Touching only His clothes was a sign of the deep respect that they had for Him. They did not feel that they should inflict their presence on Him by a firmer touch, but sought only a point of contact.
‘And as many as touched Him were made whole.’ Note that it was because by their act they saw themselves as touching Him that they were healed. It was He and not the garment Who healed them. The clothes were part of the man. (There is no place for relics or ‘The Robe’ here).
Outwardly His ministry was as successful as ever, but we note that while He must have used the opportunity for preaching Mark does not mention it, and in spite of His extensive travels this is true from now to 10.1, where the preaching is in Judaea. (Contrast 1.14, 22, 39; 2.13; 4.1; 6.2, 6, 12, 34). In fact the mention of teaching is now restricted to His disciples (9.30-31). And this may indeed be the explanation for the silence. Perhaps it was so that we may recognise a change of emphasis. The ministry in Galilee has reached its climax. And now the training of His disciples for the future must begin. Certainly He did continue to preach (8.1), as is emphasised in 10.1 ‘as was His custom’. So He preached continually.
It should be noted how what happens here leads into the next incident. These people who were touching Jesus would not all be observing the laws of ritual cleanliness. Thus by their touch some of them would be rendering Him ritually unclean. But how do you make unclean the One Whose power makes you clean by full healing and restoration? It was just this kind of situation in the marketplace that persuaded the Scribes and Pharisees of the need for ceremonial cleansing before a meal because of the possibility of having been ritually defiled by contact with ‘unclean’ people. Unlike Jesus they shied from the touch of ‘sinners’, but they could not totally avoid it. It is very probable that any critical Pharisee who observed the touches of the crowd would have remonstrated about it.
Jesus begins To Reach Out To Gentiles (7.1-8.21).
At this stage in His ministry Jesus begins to reach out further afield, for from this point on He spends much time preaching in territory which is mainly Gentile, although still containing many Jews. He prepares His disciples for it by His words to the Scribes and Pharisees, and then to the people, on what is truly essential, and then moves on to Tyre and Sidon where a Syro-phoenician woman’s simple faith brings home the right of Gentiles to partake of God’s table. The result is that He begins a campaign in Gentile territory. While this may partly have been due to pressures in Galilee, it is a clear expansion of His ministry.
Analysis of 7.1-8.21.
Note that in ‘a’ Jesus exposes the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees, while in the parallel He warns His disciples to beware of it. In ‘b’ He points out that it is what comes from within that defiles a man, and in the parallel we have an example of this in the sign-seeking Pharisees. In ‘c’ Jesus gives the Syro-phoenician woman ‘bread from God’s table’, and in the parallel He gives bread from God’s table to four thousand who gather in Gentile territory. Centrally in ‘d’ He heals a man who is deaf and speech impaired, a picture of the failure of Israel, and of the world, which He is now here to remedy.
The Scribes from Jerusalem Return To Learn Some Home Truths (7.1-16).
Jesus’ continued impact is now brought out by the reappearance of the Doctors of Law from Jerusalem who have come down to investigate Him again. It may well be that they had heard of the new widespread preaching activity. They recognised that this was becoming something serious. This incident brings out vital differences between Jesus’ approach and the approach of ‘the Scribes’. They were concerned with ritual detail, and much of that ritual detail was with respect to non-Scriptural ritual based on men’s promulgations. Jesus was more concerned with men’s inner hearts. In the end it was all a question of where the emphasis should be laid.
And it was a burning issue, both for the people who lived in Galilee in the time of Jesus, who were mainly looked down on by the Pharisees but in their hearts were desirous of knowing God, and by the church of Mark’s own day which was constantly under harassment by Judaisers who claimed that their way was the way of Jesus.
We must not be unfair to these Doctors of the Law. By their own light and in their own way they were desirous of serving God, and they were seeking to be obedient to the covenant made through Moses. But Jesus’ point was that they were putting the emphasis in the wrong place, and thereby in danger of missing the main point of the Law. They believed indeed that God had chosen them to be His example to the world, and the best of them strove to be just that. But they had become so hidebound in their attempts to interpret it, that they had become slaves to the ritual which they themselves had set up in such a way that other more important things became overlooked. For being sure that eternal life could be received by faithfulness to the covenant as the Old Testament had said, they gave their whole lives to its fulfilment. But then in seeking to understand it they laid their emphasis on the ritual rather than the moral, something which has always been attractive because it gives a sense of security, however false, while not making huge moral demands. So they built up ritual rules to enable its fulfilment, in order to provide a clear way of doing so. But this had sadly led them away from the heart of their religion as found in true worship and compassion and mercy, and it had resulted in the building up of a religious system which, although they had convinced themselves it would help to ensure their fulfilment of the covenant, sadly prevented their true fulfilment of it, because it made them concentrate on inessentials. And one of those inessentials was to do with ritual washing. Ritual had become overwhelmingly important. They could look with equanimity on a man’s greed and pride, but not on his failure to ‘wash his hands’.
Thus this incident was centrally important because it was a challenge to how the Kingly Rule of God was to be seen, what lines it was to follow and what should be considered as central to its message. Having begun the establishment of the Kingly Rule of God a crisis point had been reached. The question was, on what basis were the rules of the new kingdom to be determined? (The writer knew that this was a challenge for the church as well. They too needed to be certain about the basis of their behaviour). Was it to be based on Pharisaic rules, or was it to be based on Old Testament principles and Jesus’ reinterpretation of them in, for example, the sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7)?
We must not misinterpret this confrontation. There were many points of agreement between them. Jesus was not arguing about the maintenance of rules of cleanness and uncleanness as found in the books of Moses. He was not trying to establish that the laws of uncleanness no longer applied. Indeed He scrupulously observed these requirements Himself. What He was seeking to look at was the fundamental question of what really made men defiled in the light of the particular demands made by these Legalisers, and to establish the fact that men’s ways under the Kingly Rule of God could not be determined by the rules that the Pharisaic teachers had made. It was the whole basis of living under the Kingly Rule of God that was at stake, and on what men should set their hearts. The old was passing away and the new had come.
But because Mark was writing to Gentiles he had first of all to try to demonstrate to them what the problem was, for many of them had little knowledge of the regulations that covered Jews.
The placing of this passage here after the success described in the previous passages can be compared with the placing of 6.1-6 after the successes of chapter 5. It was a coming down to earth. It was always necessary to remind those who read or heard these words that the way was not totally smooth, for after all it led to the cross. It is also an important passage in that it explains in some depth precisely why Jesus disagreed with the Scribes and Pharisees.
But this passage is also preparatory for what is to come, for from this time onwards Jesus’ ministry will reach out into Gentile territory. Many a Jew would have frowned at the thought of a Jewish prophet wandering among the Gentiles (in spite of the example of Jonah) and would have been concerned about the fact that He would become ‘unclean’. Thus Mark makes clear from the start that far from that being so, it really marks a new beginning in understanding. He is indicating here that for Jesus what really mattered was not outward conformity to religious requirements, but the transformation of the inner hearts of men. And that was why He could move freely among the Gentiles, and was His purpose for them. He was not going among them in order to turn them into Jews, but in order to transform their inner lives.
The passage slits into two sections, the first dealing with the question of tradition (7.1-8), the second with the way in which the Scribes sometimes misused the Law (7.9-13).
Jesus Faces Up To The Scribes From Jerusalem And Warns Them Against A False Emphasis On Their Traditions Instead Of On The Commandment of God (7.1-8).
Here Jesus makes clear that ‘the traditions of the elders’ are not binding on men because they are not a part of the Scriptures, but are the traditions of men. All societies build up traditions, but all need to recognise that in the end they have no binding force, and do not apply to all. It is otherwise with the word of God.
Note that in ‘a’ the Pharisees and Scribes grumble because His disciples do not follow the traditions of men, and in the parallel Jesus cites Scripture demonstrating that the traditions of men lead men away from the commandments of God. In ‘b’ the Pharisees and all the Jews wash their hands, holding the traditions of the elders, and in the parallel they ask why His disciples do not do so. Central in ‘c’ is the list of some of the things that they do.
7.1 ‘And there gathered together to him the Pharisees and certain of the Scribes who had come down from Jerusalem.’
The fact that these men approached in a body demonstrated the official nature of the investigation. They were there to test His orthodoxy and to find out more about the new expansion of His ministry. The Pharisees, who were relatively few in number but had an importance beyond their numbers as ‘observers and teachers of the Law’ (there were altogether around six to seven thousand of them), had called in these Doctors of the Law to support their case against Him. They wanted to discredit Him in front of the people (verse 14), and who better to do it than the experts from Jerusalem.
7.2-4 ‘And had seen that some of his disciples ate their bread with defiled, that is, unwashed hands. For the Pharisees and all the Judaisers do not eat unless they ceremonially wash with the fist, holding the traditions of the elders. And when they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they douse (or ‘purify’) themselves. And there are many other things which they have received to hold, drenchings of cups and pots and brass vessels.’
The first thing that caught the attention of these ‘pious men’ was that some of Jesus’ disciples were not observing the correct ritual with regard to cleanliness of the hands. And because they considered that to lie at the heart of being righteous it offended them deeply. It made them ‘hot under the collar’. For someone who failed to fulfil the correct ritual would almost certainly end up ritually unclean.
The initial point to note here is that this criticism of ‘some of His disciples’ brings out that Jesus Himself did observe these religious requirements. He did not set at nought these people’s cherished beliefs. Nor were they directly accusing Him of such a failure. Outwardly they had no case against Him Himself, as they acknowledged.
But what did stir Him to the attack was the fact that these great men of the Law, who were responsible for the teaching of the Jews, were laying more store on their own ritual requirements than on what mattered far more, fairness, human sympathy and obedience to God’s word and certain other aspects of the Books of Moses, and were intent on making their own requirements the basis for any future kingdom.
And He was also well aware that they had not come to give guidance in a positive way, but in order to attack and undermine His ministry. They were not saying, ‘let us come together and discuss how best the Kingly Rule of God can be established’, but rather ‘you are guilty of going about it the wrong way and are therefore fit only to be condemned’.
‘With unwashed hands.’ This lay at the centre of the argument for it was not of course a question of whether to wash the hands before meals for hygienic purposes (although it undoubtedly aided hygiene), but rather was a question of ritual washing to remove ‘religious defilement’, that is, the contact with what was ritually doubtful and ceremonially unclean. Indeed they laid great stress on these requirements. But in fact this particular ritual washing described here was an addition to the Law, for it was nowhere commanded in the Old Testament.
So these men were not excited about this new interest in God which was being aroused, and the new sense of sin which was bringing men to repentance and morally and spiritually changing their lives, they were simply out to maintain the status quo, and were there to drag people back into a pool of ritualism.
Mark then briefly pointed out to his Gentile readers some of the other similar requirements of the Pharisees to do with the washing of pots and cooking and drinking vessels.
Of what then did such defilement consist? To the Pharisees all Gentiles were unclean for a start, for they did not observe any of the rules of ‘cleanness’ (Leviticus 11-15) and were not careful about contact with dead things. Furthermore anything touched by them also became unclean (hollow vessels only if touched on the inside). And what was true of Gentiles was also, although not to the same extent, true of ‘sinners’. A ‘sinner’ was someone who did not tithe rightly or follow the strict purification requirements of the Pharisees. While they may mainly observe the requirements of the Books of Moses, they did not do so in the terms laid down by the Pharisees. To come in contact with either of these two groups, Gentiles and ‘sinners’ was to be defiled. The Scribal views thus excluded them from close contact with the majority of people.
According to their ideas if a man went to the marketplace he may well accidentally be ‘contaminated’ by contact with such people (although he would make every effort to avoid them) and would therefore need to make himself clean in accordance with the teachings of the Pharisees. In order to do so he would need to follow out the procedures for ritual washing before he ate his meal. It was a world of religious isolation.
It should be carefully observed that this argument is not about the Levitical requirements with respect to cleanness. There anyone who touched a dead body became unclean, as did anyone who touched a woman after child birth or a skin-diseased person, or a woman during her period, or a leper, or an unclean animal. And anyone who touched anyone who had touched any of these was unclean, and so on. If such an unclean person had touched cups, or pots (measures) or brass vessels these utensils too might have become unclean depending on where they were touched by something or someone unclean. These too had to be specially cleansed. And of course, if there was any doubt at all about whether they were clean, they had to be cleansed. In some cases, such as contact with death, the cleansing took seven days, for others it only lasted until the evening, but this is not what the argument is about. Both sets of people conformed with these requirements. There was no dispute about that. It was the question of ritual washings of the hands and of cooking utensils that was in question here, and of whether this should be central to the teaching concerning the Kingly Rule of God.
The Pharisees believed that because of the possibility of unknown contamination by persons who were ritually unclean or by some other unclean source it was necessary to wash both before every meal and in between courses. And this involved a complicated process. The water for washing had to be taken from large stone jars which had been kept ‘clean’ so that the water itself was kept ‘clean’. Such water could be used for no other purpose. First all dirt had to be removed. Then the hands might be held with the fingers pointed upwards and water was poured over them, having to run down to at least the wrist. Then while the hands were wet each had to be cleansed, seemingly with ‘the fist’ of the other, probably by the joint action of rubbing the palm over the fist. But the water was now unclean so the hands were then held downwards and water poured over them again so that it began at the wrists and ran off the end of the fingers. That was one way of doing it.
Alternately this might all be done by dipping the hands up to the wrist in a vessel containing clean water, again apparently rubbing on ‘the fist’. Then the hands were clean.
And if you went on a journey you had to ensure that you had the means to do this. This was what the Pharisees required, and this was what these accused disciples had failed to do (the phrase ‘some of the disciples’ may not mean that the twelve were included. ‘Disciples’ can mean the twelve, but it can also include the wider group. It is not a strictly defined number).
‘By the fist.’ (pugme). Various alternative renderings are suggested, ‘up to the elbow’ - ‘diligently’ (so a Syriac version) - ‘often’ (pukna) as in some MSS, but rubbing the palm on the fist seems quite natural and we can therefore accept ‘by the fist’. The alternatives are clearly to avoid the difficulty when looking at it generally.
‘The Pharisees and the Judaisers.’ The Pharisees and ‘the Jews’, those who followed Pharisaic teaching on the matter and saw themselves as true Jews, and saw those who did not agree with them as not being true Jews. Any of the common people who did not do this were seen as ‘sinners’.
‘The traditions of the elders.’ These included past decisions of Scribes, some made long before the time of Christ, on the teaching in the first five books of the Bible (‘The Torah or Law’). These formed the oral law and had been remembered by rote and passed on, and were subsequently recorded (as considerably expanded later) in the Mishnah in the second century AD. They covered many aspects of life in great detail and had to be assiduously learned by the pious Jew to ensure he always did the ‘right’ thing. Not necessarily morally right as we shall see, but religiously right. There were over six hundred of these ‘instructions’.
But what began as a helpful interpretation of Scripture had slowly developed into a hotchpotch of regulations which so interpreted the Law as to make it seemingly attainable, although only with great effort, and crowded out consideration of more important matters. It was a manipulation of the Law so that they would be able to ‘keep the covenant’ faithfully, and establish their own righteousness to their own satisfaction.
Paul had been like this. He pointed out that he had striven to attain ‘the righteousness of the Law’ and had seen himself as almost there, as blameless (Philippians 3.6). And then he had come across the commandment, “You shall not covet” and had looked in his heart and had discovered that he was still guilty (Romans 7.7), and that all his carefully built up righteousness had come crashing down. He had recognised that all his careful observances of ritual law had not made his heart and will pure, and that all his efforts had been in vain.
7.5 ‘And the Pharisees and the Scribes ask him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with defiled hands?” ’
We can be sure that the Pharisees and Scribes here were not the most amenable ones like Gamaliel (Acts 5.34). They had not come in order to be helpful. If they had Jesus would have responded accordingly. Rather they had come in order to find fault. We already know that they had thought in terms of His death (3.6), and that certain Doctors of the Law, possibly these same ones, had accused Him of being in league with Satan (3.22). So they were waiting for an occasion to attack Him.
But having said this we need not doubt that seeing some of Jesus’ disciples eating without going through the proper ritual would undoubtedly have sent shivers up their spines, so strongly did they feel about it. Thus it was not just a technical question but one put with deep feeling. And the blame was laid squarely on Him in front of the crowd. The inference was that He was being deficient, that He should have ensured that His disciples observed the sacred traditions of the elders. And the crowds would be listening and watching.
It was a challenge that had to be met head on. Unless He answered it He would be seen as accepting that all Who followed Him would have to be bound by the traditions of the elders, something which would certainly have taken their eye off what was most important, and would have limited His message.
Of course, had He thought that they were right He would have acknowledged it. But His view was rightly that there were other things in God’s word which were more important than arguments about a particular sect’s interpretation of the Law, especially when the people involved in that sect were not themselves outstanding examples of godliness and morality.
7.6-8 ‘And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honour me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men.’ You desert the commandment of God and hold fast the tradition of men.” ’
Jesus then cited the words of Isaiah which indicated how hypocritical men were. With their lips they gave great honour to God, but in their hearts they were far from Him. For rather than assiduously following His genuine requirements, they only did so in terms of their own interpretations, many of which were simply the teachings of men. Thus they were ignoring the commandment of God, and were holding fast to man’s traditions.
So Jesus’ reply was that they were asking for observances that were not required by Scripture, rather than looking to what would please God most. By concentrating on trivia which they had themselves invented they were missing the main point. He was never in any doubt about their attitude and opposition. And while He was willing to conform to their practises Himself He was grieved that they cared more about ritual activity than about the things that mattered most, justice, compassion and mercy. As He declared here, they were exactly the type that Isaiah had prophesied about (Isaiah 29.13). They spoke in a hushed voice about God and gave a great show of being concerned about His Law, but they then altered it to suit themselves, and laid great emphasis on those interpretations of their own, while ignoring its most basic demands. They deserted God’s commandment, which was pure and simple, (and yet demanding, and speaking to many occasions at the same time, as He Himself in His teaching was revealing), and instead expanded it and changed it to fit in with their own preconceptions, giving it their own limited significance and emphasis, and as a result ignoring the greater matters because they were too busy with minor details (Matthew 23.23-26). We can see more of what He means by studying Matthew 5, where He takes what was said by ‘men of old’, and demonstrates what they should have said.
The decisions of the Rabbis, growing in complication and often subtly twisting words and meanings, had come to mean more to them than the word of God. Thus He pointed out to them that with all their show of piety their worship was in vain. For in many of them their hearts were so tied up with rules and regulations of their own devising, that they left no room for open-heartedness and compassion. Paul had described it exactly in Romans 7. He too had been so taken up with keeping the Law that he had failed to recognise the covetousness of his own heart. And when it had suddenly come home to him he had been appalled, especially when he had recognised that he could not get rid of it.
Then Jesus went on to illustrate it by example. This issue was of vital importance. The vital question was, what was to be the authority that man recognised as totally binding? Both would agree that the Law of God as contained in the Bible was binding as being from God. There was no argument about that. The question then was, was the interpretation of that Law which was made by the Rabbis, which not only explained but also reinterpreted and thus altered that Law, equally binding? The Pharisees said ‘yes’, although they even disagreed among themselves whose interpretation was the most binding, thus demonstrating that they did not see all as binding, for there were different schools of thought. But Jesus said ‘no’, that they were the traditions of men not of God, and had to be judged accordingly. What mattered more was to love God and obey the inner heart of the Law.
‘Hypocrites.’ Those whose lives are an outward show, a play-acting, making out that they are what they are not, whether consciously or unconsciously. (The word was used of play-actors).
The quotation from Isaiah is very similar to LXX apart from the last section. But that is an interpretation of the Hebrew text. Assuming Jesus was speaking in Aramaic this might be Mark’s way of translating, based on his knowledge of the LXX text (the text being used by his readers) but deliberately altering it to take into account the Hebrew rendering where he felt it necessary in order to give the true sense of Jesus’ words. Or it may have been quoted from a text of which we are at present unaware. The discoveries at Qumran have revealed that there were then Hebrew texts more in line with the LXX than with the Massoretic text. Either way he was satisfied that it brought home the true significance of what the Scripture was saying.
Jesus Illustrates His Point From A Specific Example (7.9-13).
Here Jesus takes one outstanding example of their attitude which may well have had in mind a recent case known to all which had become infamous.
Note that in ‘a’ they are seen as rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep their traditions, and in the parallel of thus making it void. In ‘b’ He cites what the Law said about parents, and in the parallel how they actually behaved towards them in particular instances. Centrally in ‘c’ He gives an example of one of their interpretations.
7.9-13 ‘And he said to them, “Full well do you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. For Moses said, ‘Honour your father and your mother’, and ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother let him die the death’. But you say, ‘If a man shall say to his father or his mother, “That by which you may benefit from me is Corban”,’ that is to say, given to God, you no longer allow him to do anything for his father or his mother, making void the word of God by your tradition which you have delivered. And many such like things you do.” ’
Jesus pulled no punches. He called on an example of what their tradition was actually doing. It was in effect rejecting God’s commandments, even though it appeared to be honouring God, for it was altering them to fit in with their ideas. Then having done that they fixed all their attention on observing the particular rules that they had determined, even though it resulted in breaking the main principles that lay behind it. (This is something of which we can all be guilty).
Note Jesus’ emphasis on ‘what Moses said’. They claimed to honour Moses and yet set aside his teaching. The quotations are taken from Exodus 20.12 and 21.17, the latter demonstrating how seriously the matter was to be taken.
The principle described here is that by which a man might avoid his obligation to his parents by a religious device. Jesus may be referring to a case that had actually recently occurred and was the talk of Galilee. The man would declare that his possessions were ‘Corban’, ‘given to God.’ Corban constituted a solemn Jewish oath. Once a gift was ‘corban’ it was dedicated to God. Thus while useable by himself he would not be allowed to use his possessions to support his parents, for those possessions now belonged to God and when he died they therefore had to go to God. Meanwhile he retained free use of them for himself, except perhaps for a portion devoted to religious use, but could avoid his responsibility towards his parents. It was a device which could be used to get out of obligations. And as certain Rabbis had declared on this, had ‘delivered’ it, if he did it he was actually looked on by them as righteous, even though he was failing to honour his father and mother, and breaking the serious requirements of the word of God.
(The Rabbis themselves would in fact later accept, as recorded in the Mishnah, that no oath could so abrogate the command to honour father and mother. That may even have been as a consequence of the publication of this criticism by Jesus although they would never have admitted it).
Alternately Jesus might be indicating a situation where a man had in a rash moment made his goods ‘Corban’ as against his parents and now wished to restore the position but was being told by certain Rabbis that he could not withdraw his oath. Their decision being that the goods were dedicated to God and could not be used for the parents. Either way God’s prime commandment was being thwarted, whether by the man with the connivance of certain Rabbis, or by the Rabbis themselves.
We note again that Jesus saw ‘the Law’ as the commandment of God. It had to be obeyed. In contrast He saw the traditions of the elders as the traditions and precepts ‘of men’, as against the Pharisees who considered them as almost of equal weight. To Jesus the word of God was primary and inspired by God, but its interpretation, where there was doubt, He saw as secondary and not so inspired, simply being men’s ideas about it. To the Pharisees the interpretation as made by them was equally the word of God, and equally inspired (and often thereby supplanted it). This was the main point Jesus was contending against. He was fighting for an unadulterated acceptance of the word of God.
‘Which you have delivered.’ The word means ‘handed down, passed on’. The traditions of the elders were both passed down by the Rabbis and also passed on in their verdicts. They were wholly of their making. ‘Delivered’ often refers to a legal verdict.
Jesus Calls On The Crowd To Consider The Heart Of The Matter (7.14-17).
Jesus now turned His attention to the crowd and asked them to consider what was at the heart of the matter. For the fact was that what truly defiled men were not outward things, which simply passed through the body and came out again, but what came from men’s hearts, which was a part of what they were. It was thus the heart that needed to be cleansed.
7.14-15 ‘And he called to him the crowd again and said to them, “Take notice of me all of you and understand. There is nothing from outside a man that going into him can defile him. But the things that proceed from the man, they are those that defile the man.” ’
The crowd had been gathered round listening to the dispute which had been intended to discredit Jesus in front of them. Now Jesus drew them into the conversation. He wanted them to consider the truth for themselves, and it was important to Him that they recognised that He had good grounds for His argument. He stressed that the only thing that really defiled a man in God’s eyes was what was inside him and came from him, not what he himself partook of. What He was countering here was the idea that because a man had not ceremonially washed himself (as some of His disciples had failed to do) what he was eating necessarily defiled him. What He wanted to turn attention to was that what men thought and how they behaved morally was more important than what they ate, and that what really mattered was moral rightness, as He explained later to His disciples (verses 18-23).
At first sight this seems to suggest that Jesus is discounting the Old Testament teaching on foods which were ‘unclean’. But nothing was further from His mind. His statement was not intended to deal with that question. It was intended to be general rather than specific. There is no doubt in fact that He did abstain from, and would at this stage have accepted that other Jews should abstain from, ‘unclean’ food as described in Leviticus 11. That assisted men to live wholesome lives. But what He had in mind here was the food which some of His disciples had been eating which was not unclean of itself, and was only seen to be so because of Rabbinic rules. He was speaking of an obvious general fact, that it is not what is eaten that makes a man sinful, but what comes from his heart. That what really makes a man unclean is the sin that comes from his inside him. And while it contained the seed of the idea that no food was unclean of itself, that was not what Jesus was intending to indicate here. Such a thought was not explicit. He was rather contending with overbearing requirements which were then claimed to be commandments of God.
Of course, if wrongly applied Jesus words could be criticised. All who heard Him knew that to eat something poisonous would be foolish and could even be fatal. But Jesus’ point was that it would not defile him before God, not that it was all right to eat anything.
‘Take notice of me all of you and understand.’ He did not want them to go away just thinking they had heard a technical argument. It was an important lesson for them to consider, that they should consider their own hearts.
7.16 ‘If any man has ears to hear, let him hear.’
This verse is omitted by a few good authorities (including Aleph and B) but has strong support. It may well have been accidentally omitted in copying (see 4.23), or alternatively introduced to emphasise the importance of what was being said. It will be noted that it is supported by the balance of the passage and by the usual Marcan chiastic pattern. It emphasises the importance of the truth that Jesus had just expressed and demands response to it as something to be carefully followed through. He did not just want people to consider a technical point, He wanted men to consider the state of their inner hearts. It reinforces ‘take notice of me all of you’ (compare 4.3 together with 4.9).
Jesus Explains His Meaning to the Disciples (7.17-23).
Once they were back in the house that they were staying at the disciples broached the question again and Jesus explained things in more depth to them.
Note that in ‘a’ He asks them if they are without understanding, and in the parallel explains what is at the heart of the matter and will bring understanding, that it is the evil within a man which defiles him. In ‘b’ He points out that what enters a man from outside cannot morally defile him, because it passes through the body, but that what comes from His inner heart, of which He gives numerous examples, does defile him. Central in ‘c’ is the clear principle (probably a comment by Mark) that logically by His statement He was declaring all foods ‘clean’.
7.17 ‘And when he had entered into the house from the crowd his disciples asked of him the saying.’
It was quite understandable that the disciples should want His enigmatic statement to be expanded on. They wanted to learn, and never more so than now when they had a responsibility to go out preaching. So they asked Him what His illustration meant. The gentle rebuke of verse 18 confirms that they really did ask this question. No one would later have invented this about the honoured Apostles.
7.18-19 ‘And he says to them, “Are you also so without understanding? Do you not perceive that whatever from without goes into a man cannot defile him, because it does not go into his heart, but into his stomach, and goes out into the latrine, purifying all the food.” ’
It is clear from this that Jesus was beginning to expect more of His disciples and was a little disappointed at their slowness. The point was that only what affected the heart of a man, the essential man, could really defile him spiritually. But food merely goes into the stomach, and the resulting waste then goes into the latrine (toilet, cesspit). So if we see the final words as spoken by Jesus He is saying that it is clear from everyday experience that in this way the food has been purified and any defilement removed, for it comes out at the other end. That makes it clear that that it is not what he eats or how he eats that makes him sinful, it is what he allows to come from within his heart.
Some, however, see ‘purifying all the food’ as a comment added by Mark signifying that the assumption must therefore be that all meats are clean. RV translates it as, ‘this He said making all meats clean’, but ‘this He said’ is not in the text, it is read in to make the sense and may be wrong. The principle is, however, correct. Essentially in what He was saying Jesus was saying that food cannot defile a man.
7.20 ‘And he said, “That which comes out from a man, that defiles the man. For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, covetings, wickednesses, deceit, debauchery, an evil eye, blasphemies, pride, foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.” ’
Jesus then expanded on His words. What He was speaking of were the sins that came from men’s hearts and ruined their lives. These were what came ‘out of the man’, revealing him to be sinful. And He emphasised that central to all are evil thoughts. As a man thinks in his heart, that is what he is like (Proverbs 23.7). We may not all be adulterers and murderers, He is pointing out, but we have all considered it at one time or another. This argument is expanded on in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). ‘Evil thoughts’ is distinguished in the Greek, denoting that it includes all that follows.
Examples are then listed covering a wide range of human sin. Many are referring directly to the ten commandments, but expanded to include thoughts as well as acts (although ‘you shall not covet’ had already done that). Sexual misbehaviour, theft, murder, coveting (wrongly desiring what others have), deceit (or guile) all refer to direct commandments. ‘Wickednesses’ cover any evil behaviour that causes harm - the Devil is ‘the wicked’ one. Debauchery refers to uncontrolled living, especially drunkenness and its consequences, but ranges wider. Such a person shows little restraint. The ‘evil eye’ in a Jewish context means an eye that sees sinfully (see Luke 11.34; Matthew 20.15), and thus is envious, or full of hate, or mean and miserly. Blasphemies and slanders (the carelessness and wickedness of the tongue especially with regard to God), pride (‘showing oneself above others’) and foolishness (especially religious insensibility - it is the fool who says in his heart, ‘there is no God’ and shows it by how he lives- Psalm 14.1; 53.1) are all sins regularly condemned in Scripture. But note that even the thought of these is sin (‘evil thoughts’ - compare Jesus teaching in Matthew 5.28). All the words but one are found in the LXX demonstrating that the list is typically from a Jewish background.
Mark drops the matter there because the main point has been made, and we are left to ponder the main point that Jesus was making. But the emphasis of the whole chapter is on the need to see all things from a new point of view that gets to the heart of what sin really is, and that that is what the preaching on the new Kingly Rule of God had to do.
Excursus On The Impact of Jesus Which Would Replace Unnecessary Ritual.
There can be no doubt that Jesus’ argument here went further than just what was being determined in the context. It went to the root of the whole question of ritual law. It makes us rightly ask what the intention of ritual is and when it can be seen as irrelevant and superseded. And it contributed to releasing the Christian church from certain aspects of the Law which had gradually become superseded.
Humanly speaking this was the genius of Jesus. Time and again He brushes aside extraneous matters and gets to the heart of questions which have puzzled men in all ages. It is not a question of whether anyone had ever had such ideas before, it is the sheer breadth of His coverage and the depth of His understanding that amazes us. And His teachings are full of examples of this very thing. By a simple story He dealt with racial and religious prejudice at a stroke leaving no excuse for anyone to be racist (Luke 10.25-37). He defined moral goodness in terms of doing to others what we would that they would do to us (Matthew 7.12), something which simply brings home moral truth to everyone without having to go into greater detail. We all know what in our inner hearts we want for ourselves. He summarised true religious attitude in a simple prayer (Matthew 6.9-13). He told stories which left men in no doubt of the direction in which they should go. And here He deals with the question of how ritual is to be seen at a stroke. And in every case we have to agree with Him. We have no choice. He knew what all men wish to know.
And these are but a few examples of His genius. He gave out a moral teaching that has been acknowledged in all ages as being supreme, both with regard to its coverage and with regard to what He omitted. Those who doubt it do but make fools of themselves. If we calculated its extent we would discover how little we have of it, but when we study it we are amazed at the vastness of the ground He covered.
Some foolish men have tried to deny that He ever existed. But how then to explain this incredible range of moral teaching given in so small a scope which suddenly arrived in the 1st century AD and has changed the history of the world? To suggest that it came from the early church is ridiculous. Had they not remembered it word for word they would soon have destroyed it. To suggest that the Gospel writers invented it is to produce four geniuses instead of one. For the truth is that none had the ability or the understanding. In truth if we refuse to acknowledge the existence of Jesus, we must postulate an unknown genius who lived in Palestine at the same time and did exactly what Jesus did. And then acknowledge that He was called Jesus.
That Jesus was a Jew comes out clearly in all His teaching. His deep knowledge of the Old Testament and of Judaism comes out in almost every word He uttered. But His importance morally speaking is that He transcended both. While He lived faithfully as a Jew, here was someone Who was unique in history, and could see through the failures of Judaism. And once He had existed nothing could ever be the same again. But the great problem that He posed for mankind was that He would not stop there. Had He done so He would have been buried and finally have been revered by all good men as an outstanding Jew, and as easily ignored. But unlike other moral geniuses such as Confucius, Buddha, Marcus Aurelius and so on He did not leave it like that, He put right at the heart of His teaching claims about Himself that revealed His claim to be that He was more than a man.
There is no trace of madness or megalomania in His words, but He clearly believed and taught that He had a unique relationship with God that was like that of an only Son with His Father, and that by their response to Him all men will be judged. Without any arrogance He pointed all men to Himself and His unique status. In all humility He constantly set Himself above the most revered names of history (e.g. Matthew 5.21-22 and following; 11.11; 12.38-42; John 8.56-58). With an ordinary man this could have been dismissed as eccentricity, but with a man of the stature of Jesus it could not be dismissed at all. And then He made clear that He had come in order to die. We cannot avoid the idea. It lies imbedded in His teaching. And He made clear that His death, unlike the deaths of other men, was not to be His end, but would in some way change the world. All this is really indisputable to anyone who fairly considers what He taught, even if they make certain exclusions. For nothing of this can be eradicated from His teaching without almost eradicating all.
Furthermore the reason that the message about Him did reach out to the world was certainly because of belief in His resurrection. It was because they believed that Jesus had risen again and was carrying on His kingly rule. And they did not do so on the basis of some mindless ‘faith’, they did so because they believed in an empty tomb which had been witnessed by others, and the testimony of trustworthy people Who had seen Him alive, and not singly but in groups, one of which was over five hundred strong (1 Corinthians 15.3-8; Matthew 28.9-20; Mark 16.9-20; Luke 24.13-53; John 20.11-21.22). And a large number of these were eventually put to death because of their testimony, rejoicing because they knew that it was so.
And this teaching on religious ritual was an example of what we are talking about. For good reason Old Testament law had required certain ritual behaviour in order to teach a new born nation how to live and what to believe, to lift it from the morass in which it found itself, and from unwholesome living. This ritual was provided and laid a solid foundation for the future which resulted in this nation becoming a moral example to the world, not so much by its general behaviour but because of its holy books and their general conformation with their teaching. The laws of cleanliness pointed in the direction of what was wholesome and good. There is no question but that they contributed to good hygiene, but even more important than that was the fact that (until they were given undue emphasis) they had a wholesome influence on life, which made men almost unconsciously aim at a higher good. They helped to keep men from the degradations of life, and to fix their minds on God and His ways.
But by the time of Jesus that influence had been marred by over application. The ritual no longer lifted men up, it burdened them down. And it had been given a prominence that excluded more important matters. Nothing was more clear to Jesus than this fact. He had grown up with it, and He had submitted to it, and He had watched its impact all around Him. And now He had begun His mission which would among other things free men from the chains with which ovdr-zealousness had bound them.
Thus His teaching here concerning what really mattered in men’s lives was the beginning of a move which would lift these restrictions from men while continuing to stress the need for true wholesomeness. To the end of His life He would observe the requirements of the Pharisees, for none knew better than He that replacement of them by something better was important before they were removed. It was not something to be achieved at a stroke. To lose them would have left many not knowing where to look. But by gently shaking their foundations He ensured that one day it would be so. It could, however, only be achieved when there were those who had a strong willingness to follow after wholesomeness even when the ritual was removed.
Thus when the early church became largely Gentile, although retaining a large Jewish base, it became recognised that they need no longer be bound by this ritual, firstly because they were unacquainted with its significance, secondly because it had been replaced by something better, and thirdly because it was now unnecessary to distinguish a certain nation from all others. It could thus be laid aside without destroying their moral roots. For what it pointed to was now far better exemplified in Jesus Christ, Who had indeed largely fulfilled the significance of Old Testament rituals. The new had come and therefore the old could be replaced.
This process outwardly began here, and it was given a great forward impulse when Peter had his vision from God before preaching to Cornelius and his men (Acts 10.9-16). There he learned that what was approved of by God could not be described as unclean. And it finally resulted in the decision of the Jewish-Christian Council that Gentile Christians were to look to Christ and not be restricted by Old Testament ritual (Acts 15.13-21). And it was confirmed by Paul in his letters where he specifically links it with the Kingly Rule of God (Romans 14, see the whole but especially verse 17). Under the Kingly Rule of God lesser restrictions were unnecessary. But its logic lay in what Jesus had taught here. This is why, although we should be careful what we eat, we are not restricted by the restrictions found in Leviticus, although doing well to take heed to their principles (see our commentary on Leviticus). And that is because it is not the outward which can defile us, but what lies deep within our hearts.
And it should be noted that such a view of much of this ritual of the Pharisees is not only acknowledged by Christians, but by the vast majority of Jews as well, for they no longer consider it necessary to follow these regulations of the Pharisees.
End of Excursus.
Jesus Ministers in Gentile Territory - the Syro-phoenician Woman - the Feeding of Four Thousand Men (7.23-8.26).
Having made His point strongly Jesus now moved to Gentile territory and seemingly remained there until 8.10, where after a brief visit to Galilee He again returned to Decapolis. But first he moved to the borders of Tyre and Sidon. Then from the borders of Tyre He travelled through Sidon down to the Sea of Galilee ‘through the midst of the borders of Decapolis’. All this was Gentile territory. There would seem to have been a specific intention of avoiding Galilee.
Various reasons have been suggested for this. Firstly that He was avoiding Herod’s threatening, secondly that He was removing Himself from the attacks of the Rabbis, thirdly that He was seeking privacy, possibly so that He could concentrate on teaching His disciples, and fourthly that He wanted to move on into other regions with His message. The first is never even hinted at and is unlikely as a main reason because Jesus’ only reference to Herod’s later intentions against Him were answered with quiet defiance (Luke 13.32). At this stage Herod still thought of Him as John the Baptiser returned from the dead and probably wanted to keep well clear of Him. The second is also unlikely as a main reason as nothing is suggested of further intentions to kill Him and He was not afraid of their criticisms. The third, seeking privacy, is one stated reason (7.24), although there is no specific indication that at that point He was concentrating on teaching His disciples. The fourth is very possible, although interestingly His preaching there is not mentioned but assumed (8.1). All four factors may have contributed to His decision with the last probably being finally the main factor, especially after the incident with the Syro-phoenician woman.
But we must also bear in mind that it may be Mark himself who is intending to bring this out. That what we have here was rather an impression that Mark was seeking to convey as he illustrates the expansion of Jesus’ ministry, that Jesus’ words and logic had now opened the way to His ministry in Gentile territory, rather than that He was avoiding Galilee.
Moving to Tyre - The Syro-phoenician Woman (7.24-30).
That this incident was a turning point in the ministry of Jesus cannot be denied, and there are good grounds for arguing that Matthew’s Gospel revolves around it. For from this point onwards Jesus ceased ministering only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel and engaged in a wider all-inclusive ministry.
That it was deliberate we need have no doubt. It was a recognition by Jesus that He had now received a message from His Father that there was a Gentile world waiting to be incorporated into the house of Israel who in God’s eyes were an essential part of it. It had now been made apparent to Him that while a multitude of Jews were ready to respond to His teaching, a limit was being placed on this by the intransigence of the religious authorities, while outside in the wider world there was a welcome waiting for His message. And He acted accordingly. That He had previously had this in mind comes out in His earlier words to the Gadarene ex-demoniac when He had told him not to join Him in Galilee, but to go out among his fellow-countrymen and proclaim what great things the Lord had done for Him and how He had had mercy on Him (5.19). That could surely only have been with the expectancy that one day He would be following up that witness by Himself returning to Dalmanutia.
Yet at the same time it was not an outright ministry among the Gentiles, for in the areas that He visited were many Jews who flocked to hear Him, but the idea that no Gentiles did flock to Him is beyond belief, for whatever other motive they may have had in mind, a successful healer and exorcist could hardly be ignored. Thus was He able to commence His ministry among Gentiles while at the same time preserving the recognition that His prime ministry at this time was to the Jews.
This explains why His Apostles after His death took so long to recognise that what He had done was also open to them. It was quite understandable that with their rigid backgrounds they found it difficult to recognise that the Gentile world awaited their ministrations. They had no doubt seen the ‘conversions’ of Gentiles under Jesus’ ministry as a prelude to them becoming proselytes (Gentiles officially welcomed into the Jewish faith by being circumcised and committing themselves to observance to the Law, a position recognised as early as Exodus 12.48-49). But they were to learn that it went further than that.
The sequence of events from here to 8.38 is revealing. First the Syro-phoenician woman is offered a taste of ‘bread’, because of what Jesus is going to do (7.24-30), then the ears of the deaf man are very vividly unstopped and the dumb speaks (7.31-37), then the mixed crowd of Jews and Gentiles are offered abundant bread which symbolises what He will do for them (8.1-10), their ears are being opened, then the Pharisees are revealed as virtually deaf and blind because they require signs (8.11-13), then the disciples are depicted as short of bread and as both deaf and blind in their understanding of what bread they should receive, (8.14-21) then a blind man is healed, at first partially and then wholly (8.22-26), and then comes the self-revelation of Jesus as He draws from His disciples that He is the Messiah. At last their eyes are partially opened and they are no longer deaf, and they can feed on Him (8.27-38), and the inference is that one day they too will see clearly, as will especially Peter, James and John on the mount of transfiguration (9.1-8).
And all this follows the fact that Jesus had been criticised because His disciples had eaten bread with defiled hands. As Jesus had pointed out such bread eaten in His presence was not defiled. If only the Pharisees had reached out and taken His bread they too would not have been defiled, just as those who were spoken of subsequently, who did reach out, were not defiled. But they were blind to His bread and would not take it because they saw it as defiled. And so paradoxically His bread was now going in earnest to those whom the Pharisees saw as defiled, and who would not be, because they would receive it, while in contrast His disciples must avoid the defiled bread of the Pharisees (8.15) and receive the true bread. The whole section is a mass of vivid illustration, with the bread of God central, the Pharisees depicted as blind and hardened, the mixed peoples of Decapolis being abundantly fed, and the disciples being led from darkness to light. It was a period of amazing change.
Note that in ‘a’ Jesus went into a house, and in the parallel the woman returns to her house. In ‘b’ her child has an unclean spirit, and in the parallel the demon has left her daughter. In ‘c’ she is a Syro-phoenician and seeks help from the God of Israel, and in the parallel the dogs under the table may eat of the children’s crumbs. Centrally in ‘d’ the children have first right to be filled.
7.24-25 ‘And he arose from there and went away to the borders of Tyre and Sidon. And he went into a house and would have no one know it. But he could not be hidden, for immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit, having heard of him, came and fell down at his feet.’
‘From there.’ A general statement meaning ‘from where He was’ i.e. in context from Gennesaret - 6.53 (or from the house - 7.17). But there is no indication of how much time had elapsed. It is significant that Mark puts this account immediately after Jesus’ statement about nothing from without being able to defile a man. That was a first move necessary for welcoming Gentiles.
‘The borders of Tyre.’ In the plural the word can also mean ‘region’. He actually entered the region of Tyre (not Tyre itself). Some good authorities add ‘and Sidon’. Either way the thought is merely that he crossed the border into that region, not that he visited those towns. There is no suggestion anywhere that He entered a town until He reached Bethsaida in Decapolis, and in general he seems to have excluded the idea.
‘Into a house.’ Jesus was given a welcome and hospitality, presumably by a Jew who lived in the region (there were many Jews in the area), and His wish was for complete privacy. He did not want His presence to be generally known. It would seem that His main purpose in being here was to have time for rest and recuperation.
No mention is made of the disciples by Mark, although they are mentioned by Matthew. But He was too well known for secrecy to be possible (‘He could not be hidden’ - compare 3.8) and word had clearly got around that the new Jewish prophet was in the area and was staying at this house. For within a short time a woman whose daughter was ‘possessed’ sought Him out and fell before Him in supplication, an action acknowledging her recognition that He was a man of God.
Matthew lets us know that she did not come to the house but waited until Jesus and His disciples went out for a walk. For a woman, and a Gentile one at that, to come to Jesus in the house would have been heavily frowned on. It would have been seen as bad enough that He spoke to her outside (but Jesus did not feel bound by such prejudices. Compare the Samaritan woman in John 4).
7.26 ‘Now the woman was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by race. And she pleaded with him that he would cast out the demon from her daughter.’
Mark, like Matthew, makes absolutely clear that the woman was not of the Jewish race. She was ‘a Greek’, although not by race for she was a Syrophoenician. So ‘a Greek’ probably simply means a Gentile. Alternately it may signify Greek in culture and language.
‘A Syrophoenician by race.’ A Phoenician of Syria in contrast to those of Carthage.
‘Pleaded with Him.’ That is, described the situation and earnestly begged Him to accompany her to rid her daughter of this dreadful demon that was possessing her.
‘That He would cast out the demon.’ In verse 25 it was described as ‘an unclean spirit’. That was Mark’s way of describing it. This was the woman’s, ‘a demon’. ‘Unclean’ would mean nothing to her. And that is the point. If Jesus had just responded without further comment she would simply have gone away and thanked her gods. But Jesus gently made her face up to the fact that there was only one God Who could help her, and that she must first acknowledge Him.
7.27 ‘And he said to her, “Let the children first be filled, for it is not the right thing to do to take the children’s bread and toss it to the little dogs.” ’
Jesus used a well known picture. The family meal, the children round the table and pet dogs waiting for scraps of food to be tossed to them. In order to clean the hands (there were no forks) they would often be wiped on a piece of bread and this would then be tossed to any pet dogs. But for someone to take the children’s bread so as to give it to the dogs would not be right. ‘The children’ represented the people of Israel, the Jews, the bread His message and ministry, and the little dogs the Gentiles.
‘The children first.’ His point was that His first ministry was to the Jews and that He represented the God of the Jews. It was they who were primarily chosen by God even though they had turned aside from Him (Exodus 4.22; Deuteronomy 14.1; 32.6; Isaiah 1.2). His first aim was to restore those of them who would come. It was only once this was fulfilled that the Gentiles could benefit as well if they responded to the true God. Thus He confirmed that His first ministry was to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10.6; 15.24).
Here then it was stressed that Jesus had come first of all to win Israel to God. All His preaching up to this point had been to Israelites (including, rarely, Samaritans, who also worshipped the God of Moses) and He saw that as His basic mission. As the Servant of the Lord He must raise up the tribes of Jacob preparatory to being a light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 49.6). But it also stressed to her that it was only in this God that what she wanted could be found.
‘The children’s bread.’ Bread had early been closely connected with the children of Israel. The ‘bread of the presence’, the twelve loaves of showbread in the Tabernacle, which was placed on a table in the Holy Place, clearly represented the people of Israel in their twelve tribes. And it was eaten by the priests in order to demonstrate that they all belonged to God. But it ever continued before Him. To take of that bread and give it to the Gentiles would have been seen as an act of the grossest sacrilege.
But bread was the very staff of life, and when the thought came for His people to be fed (Psalm 28.9), and no picture of the shepherd was in mind, the thought would be of bread. See Isaiah 55.2; Jeremiah 3.15; Micah 5.4 (in Hebrew). Thus did bread represent the word of truth. And when Jesus taught His disciples to pray, ‘give us today the bread of tomorrow’ His meaning may well have been the bread of the coming Tomorrow, the Messianic banquet. This is why Jesus could reveal Himself as the bread of life (John 6.35) and finally symbolise the fact at the Passover meal in the Upper Room. That Jesus even hinted at giving this bread to Gentiles would have come as a huge shock to His Apostles, but it did demonstrate that He was ready to do so once the woman acknowledged its source.
‘The little dogs.’ The Jews described the Gentiles as ‘dogs’, and those dogs were not the little pets in some households but the scavenger dogs who roamed the streets and gathered outside towns in order to find scraps. Nothing ‘holy’ must be given to them (Matthew 7.6). They were dirty, disease-ridden and semi-wild. But in His illustration Jesus softened the description, speaking of little pet dogs, while knowing that she would be aware that He had the Gentiles in mind. The illustration left the door open for the woman to come back with a response. All knew that pet dogs would sometimes receive food from the table.
7.28 ‘But she answered and says to him, “Yes, Lord. Even the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.” ’
The woman recognised humbly that what Jesus said was right and proper. He was a Jewish prophet and His message was to the Jews and concerned the God of Israel. But she had caught on to the opportunity He had left open and applied it accordingly. The pet dogs do not eat at the table but they are allowed the crumbs. Would not then the God of Israel have compassion on her despite her race?
The Pharisees had criticised the eating of bread in His presence by defiled hands, because they wanted to be rid of Him, but this woman was happy to receive even His crumbs.
‘Lord.’ Here meaning ‘sir’, but Mark wanted his readers to see its double meaning.
7.29 ‘And he said to her, “For this saying go your way. The devil has left your daughter.” ’
Jesus recognised her faith, and, what was more, that she acknowledged that her hopes lay in the God of Israel. But He tried her yet once more. Instead of going with her He informed her that He had cast out the devil at a distance. What a remarkable thing that was. He did not need to confront these evil spirits directly. He could send His command over a distance. It revealed that He was truly Lord over all, the true Son of God, as Mark intends us to realise. Once again His great authority is revealed.
7.30 ‘And she went her way to her house, and found the child laid on the bed and the devil gone out.’
Her faith was up to His test. Believing, she left Him, and found it was even as He had said. His authority had reached over the miles. For such faith compare Matthew 8.5-13; Luke 7.1-10; John 4.46-53). That it was a genuine miracle comes out in that a demon would not leave the one it possessed of its own accord. But no wonder Jesus had then to leave the place where He was staying. The news would soon have meant great crowds of Gentiles gathered round Him and He was not ready for that yet. Everything had to move in God’s time. But from that time on He began to preach in Gentile country as 8.1 demonstrates. There were of course many Jews there. But He also recognised that some Gentiles were ready to receive the bread of life as eagerly as the pet dogs received the crumbs. They too had a right to receive the bread of life.
There is a good case for seeing this case as a major turning point in His ministry, especially in Matthew. Up to and including this point he has stressed the mission of Jesus to Israel. After it the door gradually opened to the Gentiles, and He fed a crowd of both Jews and Gentiles as He had previously fed the crowd of Jews only, and the exclusiveness was not again mentioned, a changed situation already previously hinted at in the visit of the Magi to Jesus (Matthew 2). Matthew ends his Gospel with Jesus sending His disciples out into the whole world, to ‘all the nations’ (Matthew 28.19-20). Mark’s ending emphasises the same message (16.15). The Kingly Rule of God reaches out to the Gentiles.
The Healing of the Deaf and Dumb Man (7.31-37).
Continuing His ministry in Gentile territory Jesus entered the region of Decapolis where He had exorcised the Gadarene ex-demoniac and there performed a remarkable healing. His method of healing by using physical methods in a public way, draws attention to the unusualness of this incident (especially in the light of the previous healing at a distance) and we must ask if there was any special reason for it. When we consider the opening of the blind eyes, healed in a similar way (8.22-26), which is placed just before the disciples’ ‘eyes’ were opened (8.27-31), and the cursing of the fig tree, which demonstrated the barrenness of Israel (11.12-14), we look for a specific message in what He did. And that message undoubtedly was that He had come so that through His ministry spiritually deaf ears would hear, and tongues would begin to speak because of His impartation of blessing. As Isaiah had said of the day when God’s blessing would be revealed, ‘the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf will be unstopped, then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing’ (Isaiah 35.5-6). That day was now here, and on Gentile territory. The ears of Gentiles were about to be opened, and their mouths so as to give glory to Him.
Note that in ‘a’ they bring a deaf man with a speech impediment, and in the parallel He makes the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak. In ‘b’ He took the man aside privately, and in the parallel He enjoins silence on all. In ‘c’ He says, ‘Be opened’, and in the parallel the man’s ears are opened.
7.31 ‘And again he went out from the borders of Tyre, and came through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee, through the midst of the border of Decapolis.’
The strange route taken is often commented on, for Sidon is to the North of Tyre and the Sea of Galilee to the South. It clearly contains a part of His life which was not well known, but which Mark mentions in order to stress His continued presence in Gentile territory. This may well have been a period of recuperation and private teaching of His disciples. No doubt it also enabled Him to spend time alone with His Father. He had to move on from the region of Tyre because He was apprehensive of the crowds that might seek Him out, and North was the best route in order to be incognito. Then He eventually moved South through Decapolis, still avoiding Galilee. It would appear that He moved along the territory just inside Decapolis’ Western border until He reached the Sea of Galilee.
Consideration must also be given to the thought that both Tyre and Sidon were within the land promised to Israel (Joshua 19-28-29) and that Jesus was as it were possessing these lands in God’s name.
7.32 ‘And they bring to him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech and they beg him to lay his hands on him.’
The fact that Mark deliberately brings out that all present expected Jesus to ‘lay His hands on Him’ stresses the unusualness of the healing, because He actually did not do that. This suggests that Mark wants us to see significance in what He actually did do. The one who was brought was stone deaf as revealed by the resultant inability to speak properly. Had he had slight hearing he could have learned to speak properly. It may, however, be that the man was a deaf mute.
We do not know whether the man was a Jew or a Gentile. The fact that Jesus used Aramaic in His healing is hardly decisive. When He spoke the words the man was still deaf. Probably he is intended to represent both Jew and Gentile, for all were deaf to God and His word.
‘An impediment in his speech.’ The Greek ‘mogilalon’ is rare. Interestingly in LXX it occurs only in Isaiah 35.6, confirming the suggestion that Mark has that passage in mind. It indicates that an example of the presence of the Kingly Rule of God is about to be demonstrated. Its prime meaning is speech impediment, but it can mean dumb. Verse 35 ‘he spoke plainly’ would suggest the former meaning here, although ‘dumb’ in verse 37 would support the latter. But as Mark is intending reference to Isaiah 35.6, where it does mean dumb, the double entendre is understandable.
Thus Mark (and Jesus) intends us to see the man as symbolising man in his deafness to the divine message (like the disciples would be seen to be - 8.18). And because man is deaf he can only stutter when speaking about God. Jesus was concerned for His disciples to receive from this the message that they too were deaf and stuttering, and that the One Who would unstop the ears of the deaf and make the tongue of the dumb sing was now here. (If we can assume that the disciples were with Him this was a message for the disciples, He did not want the incident to be passed on outside - verse 36). He was working up to Caesarea Philippi (8.27-31) which would come after the time in the region of Sidon.
7.33-35 ‘And he took him aside from the crowd privately, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue, and looking up to heaven he sighed and says to him, “Ephphatha”, that is, “Be opened”. And his ears were opened and the bond of his tongue was loosed and he spoke plainly.’
‘He took him aside from the crowd privately.’ It may be that this was from compassion as He recognised the man’s sensitivity, but it also demonstrated that what was to happen was for the disciples’ eyes alone. But more, it signified what He had done with the disciples. He had separated them out so that He could open their deaf ears and enable their tongues to speak. And shortly that would be so.
‘Put His fingers into his ears.’ The finger of God is a feature in the Old Testament. The ten commands of the covenant were written with the finger of God (Deuteronomy 9.10) and the non-Jewish (therefore ‘Gentile’) magicians themselves recognised in the miracles in Egypt the finger of God (Exodus 8.19). It is probable then that Jesus wished His disciples later to see that God’s message through both word and miracle (both ‘fingers of God’) was applied to the deaf ear so that it heard, and that it was first a message of what He was doing for them also and secondly what He would do for both Jew and Gentile.
‘And he spat and touched his tongue.’ It was from the mouth of Jesus that the man’s tongue would be loosed. Again the whole symbolism demonstrated that God through Jesus’ power and words would unstop first the disciples’ ears and tongues, and then the ears and tongues of both Jews and Gentiles, and would make them speak freely as promised in Isaiah 35. It was a physical demonstration that He was here to introduce the new age.
‘And looking up to heaven He sighs and says to him, “Ephphatha”.’ The fact that Jesus looked up to heaven was significant. For the idea of looking up to heaven see 6.41; John 11.41; compare Job 22.26. In each case He was looking for the miraculous power of God to work in extreme cases. It was symbolic of calling on God. Only God could unstop men’s ears and loosen their tongues. ‘He sighs (or groans)’. This was because He had in mind mankind in its deafness and what would be involved in its relief. ‘And says, “Be opened”.’ This was the longing of His heart. First that the ears of His disciples might be opened, and then through them the ears of all of those given to Him by the Father. He saw in this man, and wanted His disciples to see, the whole future of redeemed mankind.
‘Ephphatha.’ Mark regularly gives us the Aramaic actually spoken by Jesus, compare 3.17; 5.41; 7.11; 11.9; 14.36; 15.22, 34. At important moments he wants to record Jesus’ exact words. A translation was not sufficient.
‘His ears were opened and the bond of his tongue was loosed and he spoke plainly.’ The man was made whole and fully restored. His ears were opened and he could hear and speak plainly (see Isaiah 32.4).
‘The bond of his tongue’. His tongue was as though it had been bound. Now it was free to speak freely. There are really no grounds for connecting it with the man needing to be freed from a demon. Jesus’ whole method used here is against that. He never touched those possessed by evil spirits, He exercised His authority with a word of command.
Many commentators connect the healing methods used here with the fact that saliva was seen in those days as having natural healing, or even magical, qualities. But Jesus had no need for such methods. On the other hand it may be that as this was Gentile territory he did use the spittle partly as an aid to faith, compare also 8.23, also in Gentile territory. It would identify the man more closely with Him.
7.36 ‘And he charged them that they should tell no man, but the more he charged them the more they spread it widely (published it a great deal).’
The restoration in this manner was intended to be a lesson to the disciples, while the miracle was for the man’s own good. But Jesus did not want great crowds coming for miracles. So He firmly requested the people there that they would not tell others about it. But what He asked is contrary to what men are, and they went out and told everyone they knew what had happened.
7.37 ‘And they were astonished above what can be measured, saying “He has done all things well. He makes even the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak.” ’
The result was huge astonishment all round. This was the first experience they had had of Jesus.
‘He has done all things well’. Mark may intend here an echo of Genesis 1.31. ‘And God saw all that He had made and behold it was very good.’ The Creator was at work again.
‘He makes even the deaf to hear and the dumb to speak.’ Certainly we are to see here reference back to the Old Testament promises of restoration, especially Isaiah 32.3-4; 35.5-6. It indicated that the Kingly Rule of God was here.
The Feeding of Four Thousand Men (8.1-10).
In the light of Jesus’ experience with the Syro-Phoenician woman this feeding is of huge significance and tremendous importance. It was not just a repetition of the feeding of the five thousand (6.30-44) but an important indication that Jesus was now aware that the bread of life should even now be made available to Gentiles. He felt it necessary to extend His blessing, offered previously only to Israel, to the Gentiles before His ministry was complete. The woman had received His crumbs, now these people in Gentile territory were to receive bread in abundance.
Apart from superficial similarities that arise simply from the fact of feeding a crowd - the crowd gathered, the sitting down, bread and fish (staple diets), the blessing, the distribution of the food and the gathering of the fragments, all of which would necessarily be repeated in any such incident, the details are in fact very different.
Here Jesus initiated the feeding, in chapter 6 it was at His disciples’ suggestion. Here they had been there three days and had run out of food, in chapter 6 it was the same day and they had assembled hurriedly and had no food. Here He has compassion on them because they have no food (symbolically the Gentiles did not have ‘the word’), there He was concerned because they were as sheep without a shepherd, (a typical Old Testament picture of Israel). Here the question was, ‘From where can food be obtained?’ There the suggestion was that the crowd be sent away. Here there were seven loaves, there there were five. Here there were a few small fish, there there were two. Here there are seven baskets gathered up, there there were twelve, and the baskets are of a different type. In the detail the account is different in almost every way.
As mentioned previously the numbers themselves are significant. Whereas five, the covenant number, and twelve, the number of the twelve tribes, had pointed to Israel, here four, the world number, and seven the universal number of divine completeness and perfection, point to the whole world. Furthermore in chapter 6 the bread was gathered up in identifiable Jewish baskets, here in ‘universal’ baskets.
Note that in ‘a’ there was a great crowd, and in the parallel they were about four thousand. In ‘b’ He has compassion on them because they have no food, and in the parallel they all ate and were filled. In ‘c’ the disciples ask how they can fill the men with bread, and in the parallel they do so. In ‘d’ there are seven loaves, and in the parallel Jesus offers the seven loaves to the crowd. Centrally in ‘e’ Jesus was in control.
8.1 ‘In those days, when there was a great crowd and there was nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and says to them.’
The gathering of the great crowd is explicable in terms of the spreading of the news of the healing of the deaf and dumb man (7.36), and probable subsequent healings which would inevitably follow His growing reputation, possibly enhanced by the witness and remarkable change in the ex-demoniac described in 5.20. However the connection is loose and we need not think that the one incident immediately followed the other, although the one is certainly the final consequence of the other, and what followed from it. Mark clearly intends us to see that this was also was in Decapolis. (Furthermore this is supported by the fact that in verse 10 they cross to Dalmanutha and in verse 22 return to Decapolis).
‘There was nothing to eat.’ The crowd had been with Him for three days and had run out of food. So Jesus turned to His disciples. He saw it as their responsibility to meet the needs of the people as He had done previously (6.37).
8.2-3 “I have compassion on the crowd because they continue with me now three days and have nothing to eat, and if I send them away fasting to their home they will faint in the way, and some of them are come from far.”
Here it is Jesus Who expressed concern for the lack of food, while in chapter 6 it was the disciples. He had preached to them and had no doubt done many healings over the three days and He knew that now their food supplies were gone. And He knew that many had come long distances and in His compassion was afraid that if they returned home without food they would not be able to make the journey.
We note that here His compassion is expressed for their lack of food. In chapter 6 they had only had one day without sufficient food and His concern was more for their spiritual need, but here their physical need was greater and thus He had concern for that. Jesus was concerned for the whole man and his needs.
The crowd was presumably a mixture of Jews and Gentiles. When such a wonder worker was at work it was unlikely that Gentiles would keep away, and Mark (and undoubtedly Jesus) has this very much in mind.
8.4 ‘And his disciples answered him, “From where will one be able to fill these men with bread here in a desert place?”
Some have argued that the disciples would not have asked this question if they had already been at the feeding of the five thousand. But that is not necessarily so. They had no doubt seen that as a unique event and may well have recognised its significance, with its particular pointers, as applying specifically to Israel. Even if they had been that discerning, however, they would not expect the same for Gentiles. Gentiles had not been fed by God through Moses. (They had in fact, for the ‘people of Israel’ were actually a mixed multitude, but they were not seen in that way in Jewish eyes). And they may have remembered how Jesus had been apprehensive of the crowd and had hurried them off afterwards, almost as though He had regretted what He had done.
Other factors to take into account are:
Thus overall their attitude would not really be surprising even if they had been present some time previously at an earlier miracle of such magnitude, especially as this time Gentiles were involved. They were not constantly expecting the ‘greater’ miracles.
8.5 ‘And he asked, “How many loaves have you?” And they said, “Seven”.’
Jesus knew His disciples had some food and asked what loaves they had. The reply was ‘seven’. At this the ears of everyone who was listening to the Gospel being read, and believed in Jesus, would prick up. Every listener would recognise the divinely perfect number, conveying the idea that there was sufficient there for God to do what He would if only the disciples realised it. This was why Mark added the mention of fish only as a secondary item. He did not want to take away from the impact of ‘seven loaves’.
8.6-7 ‘And he commanded the crowd to sit down on the ground, and he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks he broke and gave to his disciples to set before them. And they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish, and having blessed them he commanded to set these also before them.”
Some have likened this to the giving of bread at the Lord’s Supper, but while in some way it prepared for the latter it is interesting that here He gave thanks for the bread while in 6.41 and 14.22 He blessed it. Here it is the fish that He blessed. Had Mark intended to bring out the parallel this is not what we would have expected. (Interestingly in 14.23 he gave thanks for the wine). Thus there is no slavish following of a recognised liturgy and we should recognise that what was done here simply followed the normal pattern of a Jewish meal. But certainly the significance is similar. He was offering Himself to them as the Bread of life (John 6.35).
‘Having given thanks He broke and gave to His disciples.’ As a Jewish father would give thanks and break and hand on pieces of bread, so did Jesus in His Father’s name. But there is symbolism here for it portrayed how once He was broken His disciples would minister Him as the Bread of life to the world.
The fish also were ‘blessed’, (that is God was blessed for their provision), and passed on, mentioned only because they were part of what happened, but stated separately and unnumbered lest they blur the significance of the seven loaves. In this account the stress is on the sevenfold, divinely perfect bread.
8.8-9 ‘And they ate and were filled, and they took up of broken pieces that remained over, seven baskets. And they were about four thousand, and he sent them away.’
How remarkable an event is summed up in such few words. Firstly they ate and were filled. What Jesus was offering of Himself as symbolised in the bread was fully satisfying. Then having partaken of the sevenfold loaves, symbolising the perfect and sufficient provision of God, there is perfection and sufficiency remaining, seven baskets. Both accounts stress the broken pieces. It was only as Jesus was broken for His own that future provision was made for them.
‘Seven baskets.’ These were large mat baskets as used universally.
‘And they were about four thousand.’ Four times a thousand, representative of the whole world.
‘And He sent them away.’ No fear of an uprising here. No one wanted to make Him a king. They were satisfied with what they had received.
We should, however, recognise the significance of what He had done. He had revealed that as the Messiah He had come to meet the needs of the whole world, and to invite them to His Father’s Table. All could now partake in His deliverance.
The Pharisees Come Seeking A Sign (8.11-13).
The stubbornness of the Pharisees is now contrasted with the willingness of the people in Decapolis to receive Him, and to recognise the sign that He gave them. But by all current thought the situation should have been the opposite. It should have been the common people who sought a sign while the Pharisees demonstrated their superior understanding by believing. However, it was not so. It reminds us that once we begin to think that we can judge how God will work we very often end up totally mistaken.
How poignant it is that the Pharisees who criticised some of Jesus’ disciples for receiving bread with unwashed hands now find themselves with no spiritual bread because their hearts are defiled. All that they have is ‘the leaven (corrupted bread) of the Pharisees’ (8.15). Thus they come seeking a sign. Meanwhile the people in Decapolis, whom certainly they would have seen as defiled, had received a sign and had also enjoyed abundance of such bread.
But we are not to see the Pharisees as ‘seekers’. Their purpose in asking for a sign is not in order that they might be convinced, it is in order to demonstrate to the people that He cannot give one. They are ‘testing’ Him and hoping to expose Him, for their opposition is increasing. And Jesus’ forthcoming warning to His disciples to beware of their leaven may well be an indication that they had been trying to get at the disciples.
It is in fact difficult to see what kind of a sign Jesus could have given which would have satisfied them. They knew of His healings and had witnessed them, and as a result had accused Him of being a blasphemer. They knew that He had cast out evil spirits, but had interpreted that as meaning that He was in league with the Devil. What other sign then could He have given them which would not have been interpreted in the same way? Any sign that He gave could therefore be twisted in order to confirm His association with the Great Deceiver. They were not speaking from a level playing field.
Note that in ‘a’ He enters the boat and comes to Dalmanutha, and in the parallel He leaves it again and enters a boat and departs to the other side. In ‘b’ the Pharisees test Him, asking Him for a sign of Who He is, and in the parallel He says that no sign will be given to them. Centrally in ‘c’ His sigh reveals how disappointed He is with that generation.
8.10 ‘And immediately he entered into the boat with his disciples and came to the parts of Dalmanutha.’
Jesus took boat and returned to Galilee. Dalmanutha is at present unknown to us. Matthew has that they ‘came into the borders of Magadan’ (15.39) which papyrus 45 also reads in Mark. Magadan is also unknown. One family of texts (the so-called Caesarean) has Magdala in both Matthew and Mark, clearly a secondary reading but it may be that Magdala was in Magadan making it South of Capernaum. Otherwise we must simply accept that we do not know where it was except that it was in Galilee.
8.11 ‘And the Pharisees came forth and began to question with him, seeking of him a sign from heaven, tempting him.’
On His arrival the Pharisees came and began to dispute with Him. How genuine they were we do not know. Probably their aim was simply to discredit Him. But it brings out how, in spite of all that He has done and achieved they are still as blind as ever. So they point out that if He really is the Coming One they must have some spectacular sign from Him, something which will be blindingly convincing, and be an outward and compelling proof of divine authority in accordance with their own thinking.
Perhaps they sought the ‘bath kol’, that distant voice from heaven, speaking so that they could hear, or fire coming down on the enemies of Israel as it had for Elijah and Elisha. But in fact no sign would have convinced them of the truth, for they did not want someone like Jesus. They wanted something that would confirm them in their own position. And even then they would have interpreted it in their own fashion.
There is a deliberate contrast here. Mark, as he will emphasise shortly (8.18-21), wants us to realise that such a sign had been given, to those who had eyes to see and ears to hear, in the feeding of the seeking crowd but that it was not available to the doubting Pharisees who only had their own leaven (corrupted bread) to make do with. For God does not win people by signs. That is not their purpose (and indeed if it were they would fail). They are rather given in order to boost those who are already genuinely seeking and to those who believe (as with John the Baptiser in prison - Matthew 11.2-6).
‘Tempting Him.’ They were putting Him to the test, but it was a repeat of the old temptations at the beginning, the temptation to take the easy and spectacular way out.
8.12 ‘And he sighed deeply in his spirit and says, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly I say to you, there shall be no sign given to this generation.”
Their unbelief moved Him deeply, and He recognised that that unbelief was not only in them but in many of the people who had crowded around to see miracles. They were all looking for the wrong thing. And He was greatly distressed by it. After all that He had done and taught, all that they could think of was spectacular signs.
‘This generation.’ That is, the majority who failed to truly respond to His words. It included the Pharisees, the Scribes, the people of His own home region (6.1-6) and and all who rejected the message of His disciples (6.11). But no sign would be given them for any such sign would have produced the wrong result. If they had had eyes to see they had in fact seen much that demonstrated that the Kingly Rule of God had drawn near, but it had not convinced them, because it was not what they wanted. They did not want a call to obedience and moral rectitude. They wanted to be lifted along on a wave of divine power and to be given freedom to live as they wanted to live, freedom from the Romans and all their adversaries, so that they could follow their own ways. They wanted a heavenly visitant, revealing what they thought of as heavenly powers, who would do it all for them. They wanted to be miraculously fed by the Messiah, (which interestingly the people of Decapolis had been). These were the signs that their literature had promised them. For the truth was that these great ‘seekers after righteousness’ had lost the moral dimension.
8.13 ‘And he left them and again entering into the boat departed to the other side.’
The silence concerning what He did in Galilee speaks volumes. As far as Mark was concerned His activity there was in the past. They had had their opportunity and had failed to seize it. And now their opportunity was gone. They had proved themselves to be ‘standing outside’ (3.31). Now instead would begin the opening of the eyes of the disciples, those who were on the inside, which would put Him on the path to the cross.
The Conversation in the Boat (8.14-21).
But the Pharisees and Herodians are not the only blind ones. As attention now turns to the Apostles they too are seen to be lacking in understanding. They are seen as being disturbed about having little ‘bread’ when what they should have been concerned about was false ideas. They are told by Jesus to beware of being satisfied with ‘the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod’, a leaven or teaching whose futility is evidenced by their seeking of a sign. There may be in this an awareness on the part of Jesus that the Pharisees and Herodians had been putting out feelers towards some of the disciples. But however that may be they are perplexed at what He means, thinking only in terms of physical bread, revealing that they too are still spiritually unaware, both deaf and blind. They have still not learned the lesson of the loaves, that He is the Messiah and the One Who has brought a truth which is contrary to, and superior to, the teaching of the Pharisees and Herodians. Jesus has yet much to do in order to prepare them for the future.
Note that in ‘a’ He warns them of the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod, and in the parallel is concerned because they do not understand. In ‘b’ they reason that this must be because they have no bread, and in the parallel He asks them whether they have forgotten how He had produced bread at will. In ‘c’ He is concerned at their lack of understanding and perception, and in the parallel because they neither see nor hear. In ‘d’ He is concerned at the hardness of their hearts.
8.14 ‘And they forgot to take bread. And they had no more than one loaf in the boat with them.’
In spite of our natural curiosity we are not told who had forgotten to take the bread. Someone was responsible and had failed in their responsibility. Perhaps it was all of them, each leaving it to the other. But however that may be they had realised to their dismay that they were now entering Gentile territory with only one loaf between them.
So Jesus will now take the opportunity to draw their attention to the fact that they were not only short of bread, but also of the bread of truth. (This in preparation for the awakening soon to come at Caesarea Philippi and its high mountain (8.27-9.8)).
In the context which has preceded this episode the disciples have been thwarted by only having five loaves and then seven loaves. Thus this description of their being down to ‘one loaf’ might be intended to indicate that they have now reached the end of their resources. What they should of course have remembered was that the Syro-phoenician woman had only needed crumbs.
8.15 ‘And he charged them saying, “Take notice. Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod ”.’
The situation drew from Jesus one of His enigmatic sayings. As He saw them worrying about shortage of bread He still remembered the Pharisees’ demand for a sign, which had demonstrated their spiritual bankruptcy. He did not want His disciples to be in the same position. Rather than worrying about bread they should be concerned about the false teaching that might deceive them and lead them astray. So their concern should not be about lack of bread but about ensuring that they had the true bread, the genuine sign of which they had been privileged to witness. They had to ensure that they avoided the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod. In other words they were to avoid being led astray by religious ritual and pious pronouncements or by worldly advancement, seeking rather to enjoy the bread of life. He may also have had in mind their need to avoid the desire of the Pharisees for spectacular ‘signs’.
The feeding of the crowd should have demonstrated to them that He was here, not in order to raise an insurrection, or to be a sign-giver, but so as to be a Messiah Who would feed men’s hearts with Himself as the Bread of life, and that that was therefore what should now be their main concern. The Pharisees offered the way of ritual and religiosity, and even of passive resistance against Rome, Herod offered the way of compromise, and of cooperation with Rome. But what they should be concerned about was that they received His teaching truly unaffected by any such false ideas. He wanted them to be free from political ideas so that they could concentrate on what was important, the feeding of the souls of men.
‘Leaven.’ Dough that had been left and had fermented. It was thus permeated with corruption.
Matthew interprets ‘leaven’ as ‘the teaching of --’ (16.12). Luke interprets it as ‘hypocrisy’ (Luke 12.1). Either way it was corrupted bread. It refers to the inner thinking of the Pharisees and Herod, truth twisted into their own kind of falsehood by the Pharisees, and putting earthly pleasure, power, gain and prestige before godliness by Herod. They had to beware of both ritualism and worldliness.
This is confirmed by the use of the idea of leaven in 1 Corinthians 5.6-8 and Galatians 5.9, and in Rabbinic Judaism where leaven was a common metaphor for the evil tendency in man. Thus Jesus was warning them against allowing their thoughts to be turned aside from concentration on Him as the source of life towards either legalistic practises and the traditions of men, which twisted the truth and resulted in hypocrisy, or towards grasping, worldly, ungodly behaviour which resulted in the same. Had Judas heeded this he would not have betrayed Jesus. Perhaps Jesus was in fact already aware that some of His disciples were being approached privately by representatives of both the Pharisees and Herod, and were even possibly a little shaken by it. For they had grown up respecting the Pharisees and fearing Herod.
8.16 ‘And they reasoned one with another, saying, “It is because we have no bread.” ’
But once again the obtuseness of the disciples comes out. Their thinking is still on the physical plain so that they miss the point of what He is saying. They are still deaf and blind. They think that all that Jesus is talking about is physical bread.
8.17-21 ‘And Jesus perceiving it says to them, “Why do you reason because you have no bread? Do you not perceive, nor understand? Have you your heart hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves among the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They say to him, “Twelve”. “And when the seven among the four thousand , how many basketfuls of broken pieces did you take up?” And they say to him, “Seven”. And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” ’
Jesus was clearly a little exasperated at their failure to think along spiritual lines. He could not think why they were so taken up with a shortage of physical bread when He had proved Himself able to be the provider of more than sufficient. Were they blind and deaf? Let them consider the twelve and seven baskets that were left over (He made them say the numbers) which had indicated sufficiency of spiritual provision for Israel and for the world. Did they really think then that He was concerned about their receiving physical bread (that is provision for their needs) from the Pharisees and Herod?
No, what He had done with the loaves had symbolised spiritual provision as well as physical provision, provision for the hearts of men. Had they not realised then Who and What this showed Him to be, and what it demonstrated that He had come to do? Had they not recognised that His main aim had been to offer men spiritual food, and that that was what He was talking about, the need to avoid the wrong ‘spiritual food’? Did they not realise that he was referring to the danger of being misled by Pharisaic teaching with its resulting hypocrisy and Herodian teaching with its resulting worldliness. The problem was that their thoughts and their hearts were in the wrong place, and their minds taken up with the wrong things. He longed that they would recognise in Him the One Who was spiritually all-sufficient, and that they would think along spiritual lines, recognising in Him the Bread of life and the true Coming One, the Great Physician Who had come to make men whole.
So here we are emphatically reminded that in spite of all that they have seen they are still lacking in understanding. They are blind and deaf and even ‘hardened’. The word is strong. Their problem is not only one of obtuseness but one of an unwillingness to face the truth of what kind of Messiah He had come to be. It is no accident that this comes after the healing of the deaf and dumb man by uniquely special means, which had been intended to indicate men’s deafness, and comes before the healing of the blind man, also by special means, which will indicate men’s blindness. They too would need to be ‘healed’ before they could ‘hear’ and ‘see’.
Note that in these words the two feedings are referred to clearly as separate events, and the numbers and types of baskets are both distinguished.
A Pause For Thought.
If we were to take what Mark has written literally, and assume it was chronological, it would suggest that having covered a fairly short period of ministry up to this point, first in Galilee and then in Gentile territory, Jesus will, within a short period, having prepared His disciples and preached a little in Judaea, arrive in Jerusalem to die. But we know from John’s Gospel that that was not so.
For we know from John that His ministry covered a minimum of two years, and probably more, for three Passovers are mentioned by him (2.13; 6.4; 11.55) and there are good grounds for thinking that there was at least one more. Mark to some extent actually supports this for 2.23 (plucking of grain) compared with 6.9 (green grass) suggest at least a year has passed, and 14.1 (the Passover - at the same time of the year) requires another year.
But the fact is that Mark, as we have noted previously, selects his subjects with a view to presenting Who Jesus is rather than in order to give an indication of exact chronology. He is to some extent, but not completely, like a writer who builds up a life story by having chapters on different themes, building up to the final chapter that way rather than chronologically, although having said that there is unquestionably a certain chronological framework. It would probably also be a mistake to assume that apart from a brief ministry in Judea (10.1), all Jesus’ ministry has ceased at this point. Indeed we must remember that between the incident at Caesarea Philippi (Luke 9.18-27) and the preparation for the final Passover (22.7) Luke contains an abundance of teaching and indications of visits to Jerusalem and its environs (10.38-42; 13.34 with Matthew 23.37-39).
Thus we must accept the message that Mark conveys but not get caught up in the chronology. His themes of the beginning of the proclamation of the drawing near of the Kingly Rule of God (chapter 1), His presentation of the king (2.1-3.6), His appointment of Apostles and successful ministry throughout Galilee (3.7-7.23), His continued ministry in mixed Jewish-Gentile territory (7.24-8.26), together with the growth of opposition revealed throughout, which have led up to this point, are to be seen as a thematic historical survey rather than as a strictly chronological life story. And his narrative will continue to be such, as we come across a review of His teaching to His disciples (8.27-10.45), which is interspersed with and followed by the journey to Jerusalem (10.32-11.11). So the aim is to convey the story of His life thematically, with only a general idea of chronology as He moves towards the cross. As Luke puts it, his face was now set towards Jerusalem.
A further interesting point may also be considered here before we move on. As has often been pointed out, from 6.30- 8.26 we have partly parallel themes. In 6.30-7.31 we have the miraculous feeding of a crowd (6.35-44), the crossing of the sea (6.45-56), dispute with the Pharisees (7.1-23), incident about bread (7.24-30), and an unusual healing (7.31-37). Interestingly this is then followed by a miraculous feeding of a crowd (8.1-9), a crossing of the sea (8.10), a dispute with the Pharisees (8.11-13), an incident about bread (leaven) (8.14-21), and an unusual healing (8.22-26). This is clearly not accidental and is an example of Mark’s thematic approach (compare the introduction on 3.13-19a).
We must not, however, exaggerate the similarity. The two feedings are different in many ways. The climactic crossings of the sea (and Jesus regularly crossed the sea) are also very different, with one depicting a major and life threatening incident, while the other depicts just a simple if laborious crossing The disputes with the Pharisees are of a totally different nature, and one is long while the other is brief. The incidents about bread are totally different in both significance and content, while the two miracles, although portrayed similarly in outline, are also very different. In other words the similarities are the deliberate work of Mark, while the differences demonstrate that they are not just repetitions of the same incidents.
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