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Jesus normally healed people with a word or a touch, and their healing was instant. Here we see a healing that at first glance seems to be only partially successful the first time, and it took a second touch from Jesus for the man to see clearly.
This is also the second time we see Jesus taking someone aside, away from the crowds, to heal them; on both occasions he also tells the healed men not to tell anyone what had happened.
So what is happening here?
It’s important for us to understand the purpose of Jesus’ miracles. Essentially there are three reasons for them:
- A demonstration of God’s compassion. God’s heart is towards the poor, the downcast, those crippled by sin and by the curse, and Jesus’ healing from disease and evil spirits is a demonstration of this mercy. However this is not the primary reason. If it were, me might ask why Jesus did not heal everyone – why should some be healed and others miss out?
- His miracles – not just healings – were signs that pointed to His identity as the Messiah. Many of his signs were not ‘original’ – in that they were the same as, or similar to signs performed in the Old Testament, indicating that Jesus comes as the fulfilment of the Old Testament. In the Old Testament there are two great ‘waves’ of miraculous signs – at the time of Moses and Aaron during the Exodus, and at the time of Elijah and Elisha. Then the third great wave which surpasses the first two comes with Jesus, as he comes in fulfilment of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah). We will see this pictured next week in our next passage.
- His miracles often had a teaching purpose; they were parables that illustrated something of the nature of his ministry, or of the kingdom, or of the state of those whom he had come to save. This is one of those.
It was actually a three-stage healing. The first stage was the man being blind. The second was him looking, but not seeing clearly. And the third, after Jesus’ touch, when he saw everything clearly. The fact that Jesus took him away from the crowds, and told him not to go back to the village, shows that Jesus wanted only his disciples to be witnesses of this healing (at this stage). He was preparing them for the conversation they were about to have on the road from Bethsaida to Caesarea Philippi.
‘Who do people say that I am?’ ‘Who do you say that I am?’ These are good questions to ask people if we are looking for an opportunity to speak to them about Jesus.
In 2013 we ran a public survey on the uni campus asking the question, ‘Who do you think Jesus is/was?’
We gave people 9 options – four of which were technically true, and the rest based on other common answers. As you can see, nearly 20% were not happy with our options, and preferred to state their own opinion.
We may think it’s a positive thing that 27% said, ‘Son of God come as a man’ – but very often it was a token response, often with people saying something like, ‘I went to a Catholic school, and that’s what the Nuns told me…’. When pressed further on what is meant by ‘Son of God, most people are very vague – they know it’s technically the answer they think we’re looking for, but they have little or no idea of what it actually means.
This is a crucial question for understanding Mark’s Gospel. All the way through, we see people coming to all kinds of conclusions about Jesus’ identity – Good Teacher, Son of David, or simply being amazed but not saying who they think He is. The Gospel opens with the words, ‘The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ (1:1), but the first time that Jesus is publicly declared by someone to the be the Son of God is at the cross, by the Centurion. He was the most unlikely person to have recognised Jesus – he was a Gentile, a Roman (an enemy of Israel), and a soldier, most probably uneducated and at the bottom of the social ladder.
And we see Jesus telling people who have seen a glimpse of his glory not to tell others – what some Bible scholars call, ’The Messianic Secret’. Why does he do this? It might seem strange that Jesus wanted his identity hidden.
We will not know who Jesus is truly – and what t means to call him ‘Son of God’ unless we see the whole picture, which includes the cross. If we just look at his teaching, we might call him ‘Rabbi’; if we look only at his miracles we might say, ‘He is a prophet’, or at him riding into Jerusalem on a donkey we may shout with the crowds, ‘He is a king, coming to save us from the Romans.’
But to see Jesus clearly and fully, we need to see the full revelation of him that the Father gives us, as we watch him go to Jerusalem to suffer, be rejected by his own, be crucified and rise again. Jesus would only fully complete his role as Messiah once he had gone to the cross in humble obedience to his Father and in self-giving love for sinners. This was the revelation that was given to the Centurion at the cross as he saw the way Jesus breathed his last; and the fact it was a centurion shows that seeing Jesus clearly can only come by revelation.
So the people were ‘seeing but not perceiving, hearing but not understanding’ (4:12) – like the partially healed blind man who could make out fuzzy shapes, but could only make a guess that the walking trees he saw were actually people. Left to our own reasoning, with all our biases and prejudices and ideas about who we want Jesus to be for us, we will never see him clearly. We will choose to look at only one part of the story – the part that allows us to custom-made a Jesus of our own design, but it won’t be the real Jesus.
However, when Jesus makes himself known, he does so clearly. ‘Who do you say that I am’ is not saying that the disciples are cleverer than the crowds and can work it out. These are the ones to whom Jesus has been making himself known. He had told them, ‘To you has been made known the secrets of the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 13:11). He had shown them his glory, and taught them about his Father and his mission to do the Father’s will. And so Peter’s correct answer was given because Jesus had been revealed to him by the Father.
But even Peter, while on the right track, still did not fully comprehend what ‘You are the Christ’ meant. He could not see how Jesus could possibly fulfil his role as Messiah by going to Jerusalem and being killed. But the cross is not just one aspect of Jesus’ work. If we don’t have the cross, we don’t have a part of Jesus, we don’t have him at all.
There’s a group pf people who call themselves ‘Red Letter Christians’ who in their words, ‘wants a Christianity that looks like Jesus again.’ They call themselves ‘Red Letter Christians’ because the focus in on the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels, which in some versions of the Bible are printed in red, especially the Sermon on the Mount, which they say is the heart of Christianity.
But Jesus’ focus was not on the sermon on the Mount; it was on Jerusalem and the cross and resurrection. For him this was the heart of his mission, and he called his followers to focus on this. A christianity that look like Jesus is one with the cross at the centre, not our attempts to follow Jesus’ moral and ethical teaching.
Jesus’ response to Peter is intriguing. After the talk about who people perceive Jesus to be, and his rebuke of Peter for thinking he could understand Jesus by using human reasoning, he called the crowds to himself and we might expect him to say something like, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him correctly understand my true identity, and what it means for the Messiah to suffer.’ That would be the logical flow of the story.
However his call is different. He doesn’t address the fact that people – including Peter – didn’t understand him and his mission, but he goes right to the heart of why they could not comprehend how to be Messiah he must go to the cross.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
For all his bravado – later declaring that he would be willing to die for Jesus – Peter (and the other disciples) are, at this stage, more concerned with their own welfare. This is demonstrated shortly (9:33-37) when the disciples are arguing among themselves about which of them is the greatest. Their vision of the Kingdom involved Jesus as King, and them at his right and left hand as his Cabinet, receiving the acclaim of the people. This vision could not accomodate a suffering Messiah. The wanted glory – for Jesus and for themselves – but without the shame of the cross.
But this, Jesus says, is man’s thinking, not God’s. The ways of God seem upside-down to us; but the reality is that in our sinfulness we have turned the ways of God upside-down, and Jesus came to turn them right-side-up again.
Jesus’ path to glory was to be though humble, obedient service; through laying aside his own will and following the will of His Father. While he is the eternal Son, through whom and for whom the entire universe has been created, and whose right it is to claim authority as God, instead he takes the path of humility, self giving, laying down his life for those who are his enemies, so that his enemies may become not only friends, but members of his own family!
This is the way things have always been. His humility was not something he took on board because of the problem of sin and evil and death; humble servanthood is not a product of the fall. Rather, humility, self giving, other person centredness is right at the very heart of God. That is His glory: that He is Love, and He continually gives of Himself to others. Humility, then, was not his path to glory – is is his glory!
And because we are creatures in his image, these traits are also to be at the heart of a true human being. In Jesus we see not only the true servant-heart of our God, but we also see the glory of a human being living in service and self-sacrifice.
Jesus turns our whole world upside down. And when He does, we realise that that is the way it is supposed to be.
The biggest barrier to us comprehending who Jesus is is not our intellect, but our ego. Notice that Jesus essentially says the same thing three times:
In our human pride we think we can save ourselves, that it is possible for us to gain the whole world, and that we have the capacity to atone for our wrongs (not that we think our capacity is great, but that our wrongs are minimal). The Bible presents the problem of humanity as idolatry – and the biggest idol in our collection is ourselves.
This is why the cross of Jesus is an offence to our egos. As Jesus goes to the cross we see that he is doing for us something that we are unable to ever do for ourselves – there is nothing a person can give that will ransom their own soul from sin and the grave. We can only stand helpless and watch as Jesus goes to the cross in our place, and gives the ultimate sacrifice that only he as the Son of God can give. The cross declares our helplessness and emptiness, and our desperate need of mercy.
These are the ‘words’ that Jesus warns us about being ashamed of.
To ‘deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus,’ means that our ego must die. We must be put to death, and have all of our self-sufficiency and self-righteousness crucified with Christ, so that we might live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died for us and rose again.
Jesus’ solution for us is not to hype us up or build our self-confidence, but to take us with himself to the cross, crucify our selfish desires, and raise us up with himself into new life as citizens and Sons in the Kingdom of God. He will cure our blindness, and our fuzzy vision, and enable us to see clearly that we are loved with a love that is stronger than death. And, secure in this love of God in Jesus Christ, we will be free to love – free to no longer live for ourselves, but for him.