The Perfect Servant in Mark’s Gospel: His Activity

Here we conclude the large section (1:14-8:21) in which the activity of the Lord is prominent. Three cycles of activity have emphasised the Lord’s Authority (1:14-3:6), Ability (3:7-6:6a) and Adversity (6:6b-8:21).

Each cycle has ended in disappointment: hostility (3:6), unbelief (6:6) and misunderstanding (8:21). The perfect Servant was opposed, distrusted and misunderstood, even though His service was exemplary. While it may be expected that civil and religious authorities would oppose Him, it is particularly sad to note that His neighbours from Nazareth did not believe in Him, and His own disciples misunderstood His teaching.

In recent articles we have considered the adversity of Herod and the Pharisees to the Lord and His disciples. The Lord encouraged His disciples in the face of political pressure and exemplified to His disciples the proper response to religious opposition. Following on from exposing the Enmity, Externalism, Exclusivism and Egotism of the Pharisees in chapter 7, Mark records two more events which re-emphasise and underline this message in 8:1-13 before concluding with a warning to His disciples in 8:14-21.

The Exclusivism of the Pharisees Revisited (8:1-9)

The feeding of the 4000 is not as famous as the feeding of the 5000. Mark records both incidents. But why is this second narrative counted worthy of inclusion in the record when there are so many similarities between the two events? The answer is that there are also striking differences. In these distinctions Mark’s reason for inclusion is to be discerned. We will list a few contrasting features to draw out the lesson.

First, the location was different and the audience much more diverse. In contrast with the feeding of the 5000, the feeding of the 4000 took place on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. The crowd on this second occasion was, therefore, a mixed multitude of Jews and pagan Gentiles.

Second, while the 5000 had remained with the Lord for one day, the 4000 were with him for three days. Yet the disciples had not, on this second occasion, raised the issue of their need of food as they did with the first crowd. It was the Lord who personally raised the need of the 4000 with the disciples: “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away” (8:2-3 ESV). The Lord is, therefore, deliberately instigating this act of compassion toward the mixed multitude.

Third, while the disciples had to check for food for the 5000, they already knew they had seven loaves and a few small fish on the occasion of the 4000. Having recently experienced the Lord’s feeding 5000, it seems reasonable to assume that the disciples knew that the Lord could do the same again. Why, then, did the disciples hold back from suggesting this? Was it because they were unsure of the Lord’s willingness to provide for a multitude consisting of many Gentiles as well as Jews?

The Lord deliberately instigated the feeding of a mixed multitude that included many Gentiles, and He did this in spite of apparent hesitancy among His own disciples. As with the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (7:24-30), His actions reveal that He did not accept, or align Himself with, the exclusivity of the Pharisees. His compassion was boundless, and His provision was sufficient, and abundant, for all. Here was an implicit rebuke of the disciples’ hesitancy.

The Externalism of the Pharisees Revisited (8:10-13)

The Lord then “entered into a ship with his disciples, and came into the parts of Dalmanutha” (v10 KJV). Once again the Pharisees sought Him out with hostile intent. They came to “argue with him, seeking from Him a sign from heaven to test him” (v11 ESV).

The Lord did not play their game. Rather than give another sign to insincere people, the Lord sorrowed over them and asked, “Why doth this generation seek after a sign?” (v12).[1] This generation, among all generations, had no excuse to ask for a sign. “Demons obeyed His command … the blind, the lame and the sick responded to his healing hand, yes, and by His word the dead were raised to life. Nature was subject to Him, for the winds and the waves fell silent and still before Him, while bread sufficient to feed no more than a large family was multiplied under His blessing to meet the needs of the multitudes. What further sign could any man ask or need? And asking it, would these incredulous adversaries, if they received it, acknowledge His authority?”[2] The Pharisees were simply unwilling to believe.

The Lord’s answer to such faithlessness was not to pander to it. Those unwilling to respond would receive no further light: “Verily I say unto you, There shall no sign be given unto this generation. And he left them …” (vv12-13).

Just as the Pharisees’ emphasis on ceremonial cleansing was a covering for hearts that were far from God, so their request for additional evidences clothed a deep-seated animosity toward God’s Perfect Servant. The Lord, however, exposed their externalism once again.

The Caution (8:14-21)

This large sub-section (6:6-8:21) draws to a close with a caution from the Lord to His disciples. In their service for God they would face adversity. Lovers of sin, like Herod, would reject God’s truth. And lovers of self-righteousness, like the Pharisees, would reject God’s truth.

Disciples must proclaim God’s truth while facing opposition on two fronts. And they must be careful: “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod” (v15). A little leaven leavens the lump. So, take heed that the philosophy of the Pharisees (of adding tradition to truth) doesn’t influence you. And take heed that Herod’s philosophy (of rejecting truth that is inconvenient) doesn’t influence you. Beware!

[1] This and all further Scripture quotations are from the KJV.

[2] E. Schuyler English, The Gospel According to Mark (New York, NY: Our Hope Publications, 1943).