Mark 8:1-21

The Demands of the Pharisees and the Dullness of the Disciples

We have in the course of our study considered some of the objections that critics have raised about the events recorded in Mark.  Skeptical scholars have doubted whether Jesus could really have fed 5000 men with so few provisions.  They claim the true miracle was that the crowd learned to share.  They have doubted whether Jesus really walked on water.  In all likelihood, they say, he found a slightly submerged sandbar and it  only appeared to his disciples that he was walking on water.

This passage is no exception to their scrutiny.  Jesus feeds 4000 people.  Didn’t we already see this?  Certainly this is some kind of scribal error.  Are we really to believe that the disciples after witnessing the first miracle of the feeding of the 5000, are still asking Jesus how all these people could be fed?  One of these Bible critics from the late 19th century puts it this way: “This failure of the disciples to recall the previous miracle is one of the really strong reasons for doubting the repetition of the miracle.  The objection is valid; the stupid repetition of the question is psychologically impossible (A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Mark, Ezra Gould, p. 142).”

This critic is right to point out that psychology cannot account for the disciples’ dullness.  That this is some sort of scribal error, however, does not explain what is going on here.  The issue with the disciples is not an issue of psychology.  It is an issue of their heart.  We should be struck that not only do they reveal their obtuseness with the feeding of the crowd, but only a short time later that repeat the same mistake yet again.  They run out of bread alone on the boat with Jesus, and for a third time they fail to take Jesus into consideration.

#1 Jesus is both willing and able to feed his sheep.

1In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, 2“I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. 3And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.”  Mark 8:1-3

Jesus and his disciples find themselves once again surrounded by a crowd in the wilderness.  Mark does not give us any obvious indication as to where exactly they are in the wilderness.  Because he was last in the Decapolis, which was a heavily Gentile region, it is often assumed that this crowd was mostly Gentile.  The contrast is then drawn between the Jewish feeding of the 5000 and the Gentile feeding of the 4000.  This is interesting speculation, but note that Mark makes no clear indication as to the location of this miracle or the makeup of the crowd.

In the previous feeding miracle, it was the disciples who called Jesus’ attention to the hunger of the crowd; here it is Jesus who speaks first.  Jesus once spent 40 days in the wilderness without food, but he is unwilling to let this crowd go more than 3 days.  Jesus is full of compassion and in case his disciples were unaware of this, he tells them plainly. What we should not miss here, is that Jesus is clearly revealing his willingness to serve the crowd.

4And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?”  5And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” Mark 8:4-5

Again Jesus has already demonstrated his willingness to act here.  He told his disciples directly “I have compassion on the crowd.”  As we noted in the introduction, their response to Jesus here seems to defy reason.  How could they once again be asking Jesus this question?  This is not an example of Christian modesty.  Now surely many of us have thought to ourselves when given a task to do from the Lord, “Who me?  Are you sure you want me to do this God?” But once it becomes clear — and it should have been crystal clear to the disciples by this point — to continue to shrink from the task is plain old disobedience.  It betrays a lack of faith in the power of God.  This, by the way, was exactly how Moses angered the Lord (c.f. Exodus 4:14).

Yet nevertheless, Jesus does not give up his disciples.  He responds not with a rebuke (though that would not be undeserved) but with a question.  “How many loaves do you have?”  Jesus will continue to work through the weakness of his disciples.

6And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. 7And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. 8And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. 9And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away. 10And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha.  Mark 8:6-10

Jesus once again takes what little is brought to him and multiplies it for his purposes.  What comes into view here is not only his willingness, but his ability.  Jesus can do abundantly more than we can think, ask, or even imagine.  Taking seven loaves and a few fish he feeds a crowd of 4000 people.  In the previous account, remember that he fed 5000 men, here he feeds 4000 people.  Seven baskets of leftovers are collected.   Some have attributed symbolic significance to these numbers.  I find commentator James Edwards helpful at this point:

“Unlike the Gospel of John or the Revelation, for example, Mark does not major in symbolic meanings (as he does, e.g. in irony) and in general it is unwise to load his details, and particularly his numbers, with symbolic value (Pillar NT Commentary: Mark, p. 231).”

#2 Pharisees are neither willing nor able to recognize  Jesus for who he really is.

11The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. 12And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” 13And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.  Mark 8:11-13

In just a moment Jesus is going to rebuke his disciples for their hardness of heart, but first Mark gives us the account of Jesus rebuking the Pharisees.   What is most ironic here, is that Jesus, through out his time in Galilee and the surrounding regions, has been performing one sign after another.  We considered last week how Jesus fulfilled every one of the signs listed in Isaiah 35:5-6.  Even here he has just finished feeding 4000 people with seven loaves and a few fish.  And the Pharisees come to Jesus asking for a “sign from heaven.”  In Matthew’s gospel, which was written for a Jewish audience, it is recorded that the Pharisees came to Jesus twice asking for a sign (c.f Matthew 12:38-42, 16:1-4).  Indeed Paul was right to conclude that “the Jews demand signs and the Greeks seek wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:22).”

Jesus had performed signs and yet the Pharisees failed to believe.  By this we learn that faith does not come by seeing.  Despite what many insist to be true, signs will never produce faith.  The Pharisees were unwilling and therefore unable to see Jesus for who he really is.

#3 The disciples demonstrate a persistent spiritual dullness.

14Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” 16And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. 17And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? 19When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20“And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”  Mark 8:14-21

We expect that Jesus will be misunderstood by outsiders like the Pharisees; we don’t expect him to be misunderstood by his own disciples.  For the third time now, the disciples are running low on bread in the company of Jesus.  They have previously witnessed him take 5 loaves and feed 5000.  They have just watched him take 7 loaves and feed 4000.  Now they have one loaf and presumably little more than a dozen men.  Not to worry right?  Either hearing their conversation or perceiving their thoughts (or perhaps both) Jesus tells a short parable.  “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod.” Yeast is a small thing which in time has a big effect.  Just a little yeast works it’s way through the dough and the entire loaf rises.  What is Jesus saying?  Beware of the unbelief of the Pharisees.  Beware of the hard heart and stiff neck of the Herodians.  Don’t you become like them!

As perhaps we have come to expect by now, the disciples do not understand this parable as their conversation returns to the fact that they have no bread.  Perhaps they have taken this parable to be a warning as to where they should get their bread.

Jesus lays down a harsh rebuke.  He asks them seven questions in rapid succession.  They are not rebuked for the lack of preparation in failing to bring enough bread.  No, they are rebuked for their lack of faith in failing to understand who Jesus is.  They have been given the “signs” that the Pharisees seek, yet still they display a confounding dullness.  We should feel the weight of Jesus’ final question in verse 21: “Do you not yet understand?”  The disciples do not.  We have seen this over and over in Mark’s gospel.  But the time is soon coming when he will open their minds to grasp what has been before them the entire time.  The first climax of the Gospel of Mark is coming soon.  Jesus and his disciples will soon take off for Caesarea Phillipi.  On the way, Jesus will ask his disciples directly “Who do you say I am?”  And finally, we hear from the lips of an apostle a most startling (and true) confession:  You are the Christ!

Discussion Questions

Getting Started: We see in this passage Jesus feeding another large crowd. Compare this feeding with the last feeding found in Mark 6:30-44. What are the similarities? What are the differences?

  1. In what ways does Jesus make his willingness to feed the crowd known to his disciples in verses 1 to 3?
  2. What does the question the disciples ask in verse 4 reveal about themselves?
  3. Do you think the disciples are just being modest (“we can’t expect Jesus to feed another crowd!”) or are they displaying a lack of faith in Jesus? In what areas of your life do you struggle to have faith in the power of Jesus?
  4. What do we learn about the ability or power of Jesus in the feeding of the 4000?
  5. What attitude do the Pharisees have toward Jesus (v.11-13)?
  6. Why won’t Jesus give the Pharisees a sign? Do you think they would have believed if they had received a sign? Why or why not?
  7. Name the three times in the Gospel of Mark that the disciples have been with Jesus when they’ve nearly run out of bread.
  8. What is the meaning of the parable Jesus shares in verse 15? How does leaven work? What is he warning the disciples of? Do you think the disciples understood the parable?
  9. What was it that the disciples were supposed to have understood from the feeding of the 5000 and the feeing of the 4000?
  10. How can we guard ourselves from having a hard heart?
  11. What is one thing you want to remember from this passage?


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