The Bread of Understanding, Mark 8:1-21

The strength of our faith today in large part comes from remembering God’s faithfulness yesterday.

Jesus initiates another miraculous feeding of thousands of people.  Afterwards, He moves on and is confronted by a group of Pharisees who demand He give them a sign from heaven.  Annoyed, Jesus refuses and leaves them. While crossing the lake with His disciples He warns them about the Pharisees and King Herod.  Since He spoke with a metaphor they are confused. As a result, He turns to them and rebukes them for their hard-hearts and not understanding what He’s talking about.

Bread Enough (1-10)

If you are having feelings of deja vu its because we’ve seen this scene before.  Last time, it was 5,000 people fed by 5 loaves and 2 fish. That happened fairly recently back in chapter 6.  Now, almost point for point a rerun of that episode, Jesus feeds 4,000 people with just 7 loaves and a few fish.  Three points for our attention: 1) Jesus’ Compassion, 2) Disciple’s Confusion, and 3) The Crowd’s Contentment

First, see the compassion of Jesus.  Read verses 1-3.  Jesus, again, is the one who initiates a concern for the people.  He does so out of His divine compassion, “The Lord is compassionate and gracious” Psalm 103 declares.  

A perfect example is the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:33 who helped the beat up man lying on the side of the road. It said, “But a Samaritan as he travelled came where the man was and when he saw him he took pity on him.” It goes on to describe the compassionate action he took to help the man.  He saw the need and did something about it. 

Compassion is an inner feeling of pity that leads to an outward act of help.  In this way Compassion is not an idle impulse. If you can talk about someone’s suffering without feeling your heart dragging you towards that person to do something to help them then it’s not actually compassion you’re feeling.  Instead, compassion gives you no rest until you have helped relieve someone’s burden. It will set you in motion and get you moving towards the person you have compassion for. Compassion puts hands on your heart. In Mark 9:22, someone said to Jesus:  “take pity on us and help us”.  That’s compassion:  the feeling follows through to helping.  

Here Jesus looks out and sees the 4,000 people are hungry.  He can’t send them away until He feeds them. His compassion won’t let Him.  His divine quality moves Him to bless, specifically to bless where His creatures have need.

Application:  Jesus has compassion for you too.  

Second, see the confused disciples.  Read 4-5.  Sometimes as pastors we’re afraid of sounding repetitious and think because we said something 5 years ago our people “got it down”.  

As a parent have you ever thought to yourself, “Why don’t they get it?  We talked about this last week?” One of the things about parenting I’m learning is that the most important lessons take a long time to teach.  The better character traits require repeated talks, repeated discipline, and patience. The things that will make them good and virtuous adults will not be won overnight, but, rather over longer seasons stretching months and even years.

The things that would make the disciples great men of God didn’t happen overnight either.  And Jesus was in it for the long haul – He was committed to them. So He was ready to repeat lessons over and over again.  Our Lord is committed to our spiritual development. Are we?

Thirdly, see the contentment of the crowd.  The crowd is satisfied.  By Jesus’ compassionate provision – His miraculous provision – their needs were met.  We must find our contentment too in Jesus. We must see in Him our compassionate Savior who gives us every reason to be content in Himself.  

No Signs For You (11-13)

In this short episode Jesus is put to the test by the Pharisees.  They spend some time interrogating Him, then, they want Him to show them a sign from heaven.  “Gentiles seek wisdom,” Paul would say in 1 Corinthians 1, “but, Jews seek a sign”. A sign was a miracle and a miracle was a demonstration of divine power.  Moses was enabled to do miracles in front of the Jews to convince them he was their God-appointed deliverer. “We know that you are from God,” Nicodemus said to Jesus, “because no one could do the things you’re doing if God were not with Him.” (John 3).  Acts 2 records Peter’s first sermon and he says “Jesus was accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through Him, as you yourselves know. (Acts 2:22). Speaking in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians Paul said, “The things that mark an apostle – signs, wonders and miracles – were done among you with great perseverance.” (2 Cor. 12:12).  In other words, the Apostles operated with divine power to prove they were sent by God. Making the same point, Hebrews 2 says “God also testified to [the Gospel] by signs, wonders and various miracles [through the Apostles]…” (Heb. 2:3-4). Jews look for signs.  

So these Pharisees wanted to see God’s power to prove to them that God was speaking through Jesus.  Sounds fair, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, if they were unprejudiced and open minded. Which they weren’t.  You have to remember they were already decided in their hearts that Jesus was not from God. They had an a priori rejection of Jesus, meaning, from the start they already concluded He was not the Christ and no amount of evidence would convince them otherwise.  So, any miracle or sign He gave them would not be seen as proof He was from God. So what do they do with the undeniable miracles of Jesus? They credited His power to Satan (Mk. 3:22). So, really, any more miracles He did would only fuel even more that “Satan-gives-Jesus-power” narrative.  A few applications:

First, Jesus will not reveal Himself to unbelief.  Jesus responds to faith, not skepticism.  Those who believe in Him are the ones Jesus will reveal Himself to.  For instance: who did Jesus appear to after His resurrection? The disciples who believed in Him.  First Corinthians 15 explains it was the women, the 12 disciples, more than 500 other disciples and Paul.  Have you ever asked: “Why didn’t Jesus go and show Himself to the Sanhedrin or Pontius Pilate?” The answer is that unbelief is not rewarded.  Faith is. Jesus said this explicitly to Judas, not Iscariot, in John 14. Judas was confused why Jesus was planning to only show Himself to the disciples – and not the world.  Jesus answered, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” Now love and obedience are both expressions of faith (Gal. 5:6; Js. 2:18), and thus Jesus is saying that His intimate fellowship is for faith members only.  His greater revelations and spiritual insights are offered to the believing. Faith is the all-access pass to Jesus. Again this is why no Pharisees were ever included in the same private detailed discourses of Jesus that the disciples were so often privileged.

Second, Jesus will reveal Himself to “undeveloped belief”.  There’s a difference between determined unbelief and undeveloped belief.  Determined unbelief is what the Pharisees were: they were hardened, hateful, spiteful, and absolutely determined to reject Jesus no matter how much proof He gave.  Their unbelief was informed and intentional. On the other hand, many people in the Gospels have what I call “undeveloped belief”. These are people who don’t believe Jesus, but, not because they reject Him.  They’re simply ignorant of Him. They haven’t been exposed to His power. Unlike the Pharisees these people will believe once they have a personal encounter with Him. There’s the feeding of the 5,000, and here the 4,000.  Then there’s the guy in Mark 9 for instance. He confesses his lack of belief but asks Jesus to heal his son. Jesus does it for him. The guy didn’t have faith, but, his unbelief was not the informed, hardened, calculated rejection of Jesus like the Pharisees had.  The guy just simply didn’t know Jesus. He did now though. Gideon in the OT asked God to give him a sign, twice actually (Judges 6:36-40). He is very humble about it though. And as soon as God gives him his two signs he trusts God! It was an undeveloped belief; it needed to be developed and strengthened, and the sign would do that for Gideon.

You see, the Pharisees were doing what God said not to do:  putting God to the test. Deuteronomy 6:16 says, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”  Jesus quoted this command to Satan when Satan tempted Him in the wilderness. The reason asking for a sign is a sinful testing of God is precisely because the Pharisees had an evil and obstinate rejection of Jesus as God’s Son.  The reason it is not a sinful testing of God for Gideon or the disciples is because they asked in order that their faith would be strengthened. The Pharisees asked so their unbelief would be strengthened, others ask so their faith would be strengthened.

Application:  If you won’t accept what you’ve already been given, then, you won’t be given more, “The LORD confides in those who fear Him” (Ps. 25:14) and “If anyone chooses to do God’s will he will find out whether my teaching comes from God of whether I speak on my own” (Jn 7:17) and “If you hold to my teaching..then you will know the truth…” (Jn 8:31-32) and “Whoever has my commands and obeys them…I will show myself to Him” (Jn 14:21).

Keep in mind the Pharisees had front row seats to many, many of Jesus’ miracles already.  They had all the demonstrations of power they could ever want: the paralyzed guy lowered through the roof (2:1-12); the guy with the shriveled hand (3:1-6); over demons (3:22) and many more.  It begs the question: why were they asking for a sign when they already had so many shown them? If you won’t accept what you’ve been given already, you won’t be given more. What are you doing with what you’ve already heard?  

Application:  the longer you reject what God has given you the more calcified your unbelief becomes.  

It’s Not About Bread! (14-21)

The two previous events are now tied together in this last section:  the feeding of the 4,000 and Jesus’ refusal to give a sign to the Pharisees.  We now learn that in the one, the disciples still don’t understand, and, in the other the Pharisees still won’t understand.  

So this is quite comical.  I can see Jesus at the bow, looking forward into the sea, with the disciples behind him rowing or busy with boat-work.  Then they began to inventory their provisions and perhaps mentioned outloud that they were down to only one loaf of bread for the 13 of them.  Jesus, using the bread theme, warns them about the “yeast” of the Pharisees and of King Herod. It goes right over their heads. Not understanding Him, they conclude that He must be chastising them for not bringing enough bread.  This is hilarious, but Jesus doesn’t think so. He’s listening to them and whirls around in annoyance: “Why are you talking about having no bread?” Then He unloads 7 more questions, all of which are pointed, rebuking, and none of which He answers.  It’s a teaching method to use questions. Why do you think asking questions is a good teaching tactic?

The key to this battery of questions is the hard heart.  A hard heart will cause two problems.  

First, you will be unable to grasp spiritual truths.  He says things like:  still don’t see, understand, don’t have eyes to see or ears to hear.  That’s what the word hard means in the greek. It means deadened, made dull, unable to perceive or comprehend.  We might say someone is thick headed or a blockhead, you have to explain everything to them and they usually still don’t get it.  (Used in Mark 6:52; 8:17; Jn 12:40; and 2 Cor. 3:14).

Second, a hard heart will make you become forgetful.  You will forget God’s faithfulness, power and provision to you yesterday.  And that means your experience with God yesterday isnt informing your view of Him today like its supposed to.  This is why Jesus said: don’t you remember how I fed the 5,000 and the 4,000 and how many basketfuls were leftover?  In other words, they should not have worried about enough bread because they had seen Jesus provide miraculously for bread twice already.  They should have said: “Well, we don’t have bread, but, we know Jesus has that covered. So, He must mean something else by the ‘yeast of the Pharisees’.  Maybe He is referring to something spiritual.”  

And that He was.  Yeast is often used as an analogy for something that grows.  It could refer to something good, like the kingdom of God (Mt. 13:33).  Most often, however, yeast refers to sin and sin’s propensity to spread.  For instance, in 1 Corinthians 5 Paul rebukes the Church for not removing a man from their fellowship who unrepentant in committing a gross sin.  He says in verse 6, “Don’t you know that a little bit of yeast works its way through the whole batch of dough?” His point? The dough (the Church) was to remove the yeast (sinful Christian) or sin was going to spread in their church.

So Jesus’ point to His disciples was this:  don’t let the yeast of the Pharisees teachings spread to you.  Don’t adopt their sinful teachings. This would be important after He returned to Heaven and Commissioned them to go into all the world with the Gospel.  Which group would be their biggest obstacle? The Pharisees. The Pharisees would be the reason for the first big council in Acts 15 where the council had to determine if Gentiles would be required to obey the Law of Moses as the Pharisee-Christians wanted, or, if they would be free from any obligations to the Law of Moses.  In that council, they were faithful to Jesus’ words here in this boat and refused to let the yeast of the Pharisees’ legalism have any authority in the Church.  

Application:  Remember God’s faithfulness yesterday, so your faith is stronger today.  Through Jeremiah God asked, “Does a maiden forget her jewelry, a bride her wedding ornaments?  Yet my people have forgotten Me, days without number!” (2:32). The strength of our faith today in large part comes from remembering God’s faithfulness yesterday.  But, what does it mean to remember? It means to keep things in mind intentionally. God knew the Israelites would forget so He told them upfront when He gave them the Law in the beginning to do certain things to remind themselves.  Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 12, 20-25 details specific reminders for the Israelites. Love God wholeheartedly, fear Him and serve Him only, impress the things of God on your kids, talk all the time about the things of God, wear necklaces, wristbands, rings, etc. as symbols, decorate your homes…in other words, decorate your person and your environment with the words of God to keep reminding you of those words. This is how you stay at the table and eat the bread of understanding.


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