Slowly but Surely


Mark 8:1-26

Now I am reading three successive paragraphs this morning, not just one as is our custom. And I do that precisely because each of these is a reprise. “Reprise” is originally a musical term. It refers to the repetition of or return to the already introduced theme of a sonata or other piece of music. So it refers to the recapitulation of a melody later in the same work. We have such a reprise here, though, as is often the case with reprises, there are some differences between the earlier and the later renditions. We could explore those differences but they are generally in the nature of details. It is in the repetition itself that we find an important lesson and I want to draw your attention to that lesson this morning.

Text Comment

v.1
The indications are that the Lord and his disciples are still in the Decapolis, the largely Gentile area east of the Sea of Galilee. One of the important features of the miracle about to follow, then, is that it was performed for the sake of Gentiles, as the feeding of the 5,000 had been performed for Jews. I won’t take the time to point them out but there are a number of differences in detail between the first feeding and the second.
v.5

One of the fine commentators on the Gospel of Mark suggests that the Lord’s repetition of the same question he had asked before the feeding of the 5,000 suggests an almost humorous resignation: “Here we go again!” [France, 308]

v.9

In distinction from the account of the feeding of the 5,000 the gender of those included in the count is not specified. There is no word “men” as in the NIV translation. A better translation would be 4,000 people, that is to say, men, women, and children. In other words the crowd may have been considerably smaller than in the previous instance where there were 5,000 males and, in addition, perhaps a number of women and children.

v.13

The hardness of the heart of the Jewish leadership has remained unaffected by all that they had seen Jesus do and heard him say. They were still challenging him as a competitor rather than welcoming him as the Savior of the world. Faith that depends upon visible proof is not faith at all, but unbelief.

v.15

The only thing the Pharisees had in common with Herod was their opposition to Jesus.

v.18

In other words, Jesus did not leave all the unbelief behind him with the Jews on the shore. It is a point needing to be faced by every Christian that there is a great deal in his or her heart that makes him or her a partner with the unbelieving world rather than a loyal soldier of the kingdom of God.

v.22

Now follows the healing of a blind man, in various ways like the healing of the deaf-mute we considered in 7:31-37. These two miracles are the only two miracles in Mark omitted in Matthew and Luke.

v.25

This is the only miracle in the Gospels that proceeded in stages, as if the Lord hadn’t been able to effect it immediately. That in any respect Jesus should be viewed as having failed, even if only at first, is such an unlikely thought that the fact that the miracle required successive touches is a striking demonstration of the fact that it occurred just this way. It is an eyewitness touch. Why the Lord healed this man in stages has been a question long discussed and never answered entirely satisfactorily. But it is certainly possible, following upon and contrasting the spiritual blindness of the disciples that the stages of the miracle of granting sight to this blind man may very well suggest the process of revelation that occurs in the believer’s heart. People don’t grasp the truth all at once; they don’t see Jesus all at once. It is a process by which they come to understand, to grasp the full truth about him only in steps and stages.

v.26

As in the previous miracle of the healing of the deaf-mute, there is an emphasis on blindness as a spiritual quality as well as physical, and sight as a spiritual capacity as well as physical. In Mark’s Greek there are eight different words used for sight and seeing in vv. 23-25, emphatically picking up the fact of the disciples’ spiritual blindness from the previous paragraph and providing a counterpoise.

As I said, what we have here in these three paragraphs is a reprise, the repetition of themes we have encountered before, quite exact repetition in fact. The feeding of the 5,000 is reprised in the feeding of the 4,000. The Lord’s drawing attention to how spiritually thick and dull and dense the disciples were reprises the same point made after the feeding of the 5,000 in 6:52. The miracle of the healing of the blind man reprises the healing of the deaf-mute, in ways that draw our attention to the similarities between the two miracles.

But in these reprises or repetitions is found an important lesson and I want to draw that to your attention this morning. It comes to our attention most strikingly in the disciples’ question in v.4: “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?” Skeptical scholarship takes this question as evidence that there could not have been two separate miraculous feedings (they don’t believe in one, so they could hardly believe in two!). Their point is that surely, if the disciples had been present at and participants in the feeding of the 5,000, they wouldn’t have asked such a question. They would have known very well that Jesus could supply the food; indeed, they would have expected him to. That is the way an unspiritual man reads v. 4 and the disciples’ question.

But what does a discerning reader take from that question they asked when we might have expected them to assume that the Lord would miraculouslyfeed another multitude as he had done once before? A more honest account of the Gospel presentation of the disciples and their struggle to come to terms with what they were witnessing suggests that this denseness on their part, this inability to hold a thought was entirely characteristic. Indeed, a few verses later, in 8:17-21, the Lord Jesus himself draws attention to how slowly they were cottoning on to what was happening around them and how impenetrable their understanding seemed to be. The brute fact of the Lord’s training of the twelve was that every step forward took much effort on his part.

So when, in v. 4, they ask a question that seems to suggest they had forgotten all about the miraculous thing that Jesus had done not so long before, and when, right after the miracle we are treated to another illustration of their slowness to pick up on what is happening around them, we in fact are seeing nothing but what we are well used to in reading the Gospel accounts of these twelve men. The Pharisees and other Jews were totally blind. They saw the miracles, they heard the Lord’s sermons and they gained absolutely not one shred of understanding. The disciples, however, were more like this blind man, who first saw vague shapes and only later sharp and clear images.

And there is an important lesson for us in how slowly they learned the lessons of faith and in how many times they had to be taught the same lessons. The Lord’s public ministry extended over most of three years and those three years were, from beginning to end, like these few days of miraculous healing and feeding. Day after day, month after month, and year after year the Lord healed the sick in this breathtaking way and performed other works of heart-stopping power – such as feeding thousands with a few scraps of food, or raising the dead, or stilling storms will a single command. And day after day and year after year the disciples slowly plodded onward in their understanding of the Messiah and his ministry. They would seem to gain some insight one day and promptly lose it the next; only to find it again and lose it again as they listened to the Lord and watched him. And, to be entirely frank, at the end of the three years we find them still quite confused on vital points.

When you take the whole Gospel narrative of the Lord’s public ministry under your view, you will think that everything moves at a tortuously slow pace. How different from what we might have expected. How different from what, still now, we imagine would have been the case had we been there. In our day, when we expect our pizzas in ten minutes, when dinner takes no longer than the time it takes to drive by a fast-food restaurant’s window, when, with credit cards and more disposable income than our forefathers dreamed of, we expect to possess now and at once what it took them a lifetime to accumulate; I say, in our day it is very difficult for us to appreciate how slowly the wheels of salvation turn; how plodding and slow of step is the Spirit of God in the midst of his church and the progress of work of Christ in his people.

No, in our day, if we stop and think about it, we find it hard to believe that one or two miracles would not have sufficed to do the job and are aghast that the disciples should have been so slow to pick up on the obvious lessons of which they were eyewitnesses. Perhaps we think – some TV evangelists seem to think – that had there been television in the Lord’s day, the entire ministry could have been reduced to a few weeks with the same effect.

But that is, of course, a great mistake. It is our hurry-up manner and our expectation of instant results that needs correction from the Word of God. For it is not only in the Gospels that things move slowly in the kingdom of God. It is not only in the Book of Acts that, once again, the disciples suffer setbacks, plod along gaining some spiritual ground only to see some of it lost, and we find, by the end that, while the gospel has made its way step by step out into the world, it still remains a small and insignificant feature on the landscape of the imperial world. It is also in our own Christian lives that it takes so much time and so much experience for the Lord to accomplish his purposes in us. And that is so whether we are speaking of the life of the church as a whole or the life of the individual believer. Samuel Rutherford wrote this way of the work of God in his day, in the middle of the 17th century:

“There be many vessels to be melted: a fire for an afternoon, or a war for a morning…or a week, cannot do it. Seven days’ sickness of a dying child, putteth David to go softly and in sackcloth. Years are little enough to humble proud Scotland and England. God humbled Israel 400 years and above in Egypt; and Judah must lie smoking in the furnace 70 years. One temple was 46 years in building: God hath taken 80 years to reform England, and many years to reform Scotland, and the temple is not yet built: give to our Lord time; hope, and wait on.” [Trial and Triumph, 57]

Surely that fact has puzzled every thoughtful Christian through the ages. Here we are 2,000 years after Pentecost and still the Gospel moves forward at such a plodding pace. To be sure, it is gathering great multitudes as with a net in some places, but it has seemed to have its day and is definitely on the wane in others. Surely any Christian who lived in those early days after Pentecost did not expect that the following 2,000 years would pass as they have: a record of success to be sure, but matched by failure, regression, erosion, and setback. And particularly it would have been hard for any such person to imagine that the church herself would lose, over and over again, the treasure that God had placed in her hand and heart. But she has. She has seen God’s power and felt his grace and love and heard his voice as rushing waters and then a few years later has seemed to forget everything she saw and felt and heard. How many times through the ages has the Lord had cause to sigh and then say to his people, “Do you still not understand?”

And what is true of whole churches and epochs in the history of the church is no less true of your life and mine. How slowly, ponderously even, how ploddingly does the Spirit seem to make his changes in you and sanctify you to himself. How slowly does he gain his name in your life. With what small steps does your understanding or your love or your faith or your repentance or your obedience advance.

To be sure there are crises in our lives, compacted moments in which the Lord brings to pass a great deal of change. Conversion, the beginning of the Christian life is the greatest of these, but there are others, in which the Lord accomplishes in a moment or a day what would otherwise have taken much longer – when he grants a burst of insight, or when powerful conviction pulls down some sin in your heart or life, or when the Lord draws near and shows you his glory. So much was the Lord a true man that there were such crises even in his own life: his temptation in the wilderness, his transfiguration, his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, for example. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. Some Christians think that they ought to be the rule and not the exception, but the united witness of the Christian ages reminds them that it is not to be.

When we think about the Bible’s teaching concerning time and the passing of time, we are accustomed to think of how rapidly time is passing and how carefully, therefore, we need to redeem the time that is given to us. And this is right, of course. Moses and many other biblical writers encourage us to pray to the Lord to teach us to “number our days and so apply our hearts to wisdom.”

But we are also taught to ponder how much time God takes to achieve his purposes – how even omnipotence works gradually. He kept Moses waiting 40 years in Midian before giving him his great calling. Many years passed between David’s anointing as king and his assuming the throne. Paul waited some 14 years between his conversion and his entrance upon his apostolic ministry. And times without number Holy Scripture reminds us that, as Rome was not built in a day, so faith and Christlikeness are not built in a Christian life in a day, a week, a year, or a decade.

I remember as if it were yesterday, years ago dividing a stick of gum between two of my children and my daughter asking: “Daddy, may I have the biggest piece?” Well she was not too young even then to learn that our Savior has called us to a life of self-denial and that we are summoned to put the interests of others before ourselves. But here I am, already an adult those many years ago and many years more an adult now, and I am still wanting that biggest piece, and so are you, in some cases after 40 years a Christian, or 50, or 60 or more. How slowly we put on Christ! How often we forget the lessons of the past and must learn them as if we had never been taught them before. Before we are too hard on the disciples here in the Decapolis, we should remember how often we have doubted the Lord as if he had never shown his grace and power to us.

One wise commentator, one of the very best on the Gospel of Mark, answers those skeptical scholars who can’t believe the disciples would have asked the question they asked in v. 4 if they had already witnessed the feeding of the 5,000 by saying,

“As a matter of fact, even mature Christians (which the disciples at this time certainly were not) do often doubt the power of God after they have had signal experience of it.” [Cranfield, 205]

Truer words have never been written. Daniel Rowland, one of the greatest preachers of the Great Awakening and the greatest preacher of the Awakening in Wales, a contemporary of George Whitefield and the Wesleys, figured that he would have reached full maturity in the Christian life when he was able to do four things consistently:

  1. Repent without despairing;
  2. Believe without presuming;
  3. Rejoice without levity;
  4. And be angry without sinning.

That is, 1) truly to repent of your sins, to sorrow for them and turn away from them without discouragement, without forgetting the greatness of God love and forgiveness; 2) to believe, really believe all that God has promised and Christ has done for us and will do for us, without in any way relaxing my determination to serve the Lord, lest he say to me “depart from me, I never knew you”; 3) Deeply to rejoice and be glad in my salvation and the salvation of my loved ones and others, without losing sight for a moment of the terrible seriousness of life; and, 4) finally, to be properly angry at all that is evil and stands opposed to the kingdom of God, without that anger diminishing in the least the love I have in my heart for my neighbor and, especially, for my enemies.

Are you there yet? I’m not, by a long shot, I’m not. And I’ve been a Christian all my life. Who am I, who are you to say “tsk tsk” to the disciples for not having caught on quickly enough? Why, it often seems to me that I have hardly begun to grow in the grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ. I read the lives of eminent saints and realize that there is so much more that ought to be true of me as a Christian, so much more in my heart and so much more in my relationship to others. And I know that the wisest of you and the godliest of you are the most conscious of the chasm that separates what you are from what you know by now you ought to be. Oh, yes, the wheels of salvation and of sanctification turn slowly indeed.

And so it is with this rite, this means of grace, the Lord’s Supper that we are about to participate in and make use of for the umpteenth time. It is an instrument of God’s grace and so of change in our lives. The Lord instituted it for our spiritual nourishment, encouragement, and strength. But like all else in the Christian life, it does its great work slowly, gradually, and over a long time. We would very much like every Lord’s Supper, every Sabbath day, just as every sermon, every prayer, every hymn of praise, to be an earthshaking, soul-stirring event for us. We would like the Lord to come down and make himself known to us in shatteringly exhilarating ways every time we take the bread and wine into our hands and into our mouths. Every time we come to the table we would like to be transported to the foot of the cross and there behold our Savior giving himself up to death for us; behold there the King of Love and have our hearts melted by the sight. But it is not usually so; just as it was not the case even with the Lord’s disciples that the wonderful, the stupendous things they saw transformed first their hearts and then their lives by a succession of gigantic leaps. No, with the Lord’s Supper as with everything else in our lives as the followers of Christ, so deeply dull as we are, the change comes slowly, step by step, perhaps better inch by inch, slowly building up faith and obedience; slowly digging down to a deeper reverence, love, and thanksgiving.

I can remember my very first Lord’s Supper, the conclusion of a Sunday morning service at an Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship summer conference at a camp not far from our summer place in the Colorado mountains. The family had gone there for morning worship rather than down to the church we usually attended in the city, for some reason I cannot now remember. What I most remember about that first communion – I was fourteen years of age at the time – was that I accidentally dropped the little plastic cup on the hard wood floor after I had drunk from it. The other thing I remember is my disappointment that after waiting so long to take my first supper, it was not a more earthshaking event. Then there were the communion services, four times each year, in the churches of my youth; the services at the church I attended during my college years; the Lord’s Supper in the church in Roorkee, India, in the chapel at King’s College in Scotland; and all those wonderful communion services through the three years at Gilcomston South Church in Aberdeen. I have taken the elements at the rail of a large charismatic Anglican church in York; from the hand of a priest of an Episcopal Chapel in Cripple Creek, CO. I have sat at the Lord’s Table in large and impressive sanctuaries and in small rustic camp meeting halls in services in Canada, Holland, and Italy. And then there have been all the Lord’s Suppers here which I have taken and have served in Christ’s name to you and to others since May of 1978, nearly 30 years ago, the very best Lord’s Suppers of my life.

In all of these times at the Lord’s Table, one by one and all together, the Holy Spirit has done his work of grace in me and in you. Slowly but surely they have built up the name of Jesus Christ in our heart and life and slowly but surely they have nourished and strengthened our faith and made us different people. And yet not one of them, nor all of them together, has yet done nearly what needs to be done and so I continue to come to this Table as you do to be fed by the Lord – week after week, month after month – to have the Lord feed me as he fed the 4,000. Some of our Reformed theologians, early on, foolishly asserted that a man of strong faith didn’t need the Lord’s Supper [Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics 601] But where is that man whose faith is so strong? He is yet to be found in the world! And so it remains: I must come, you must come time after time, come to worship, to hear the Word of God, to make new vows to the Lord, to have him serve you his miraculous food. For growing up in the Lord, growing that high, for sinful, small people like ourselves takes a great deal of time, even when the Almighty God is at work. It is a work he performs in steps and stages.

Ready yourself now to take one more step, to draw one step nearer to all that you long to be for your Savior’s sake. Let him decide the pace at which you will advance, but look to him always for more than now you have.

And thus that dark betrayal-night
With the last advent we unite,
By one blest chain of loving rite,
Until he come.