For lack of a better term, Luke 4:18-19 essentially serves as Jesus’s mission statement during his time on earth. There, Jesus stands to read in the synagogue, and, taking Isaiah 61 as his text, we’re given a definitive picture of just what the Son of man had come to do: speak good news to the poor, set free the captives, give sight to the blind, and provide rest to the oppressed. Throughout his earthly ministry, Christ was constantly verifying these claims, establishing and evidencing the gospel of the glory of God at every turn.
In Mark 8, we’re given an explicit example of this in Jesus’s healing of the blind man from Bethsaida. But despite the miraculous nature of this scene, Christ’s motivations for giving this man his sight are much more comprehensive than most think. Coming to Mark 8, we find a group of friends bringing a blind man into the presence of Christ. They were evidently burdened by their friend’s blindness but also aware of the power of Christ, even if they didn’t know exactly what that meant. Regardless, Jesus notices him, takes him by the hand, and leads him out of the village. (Mark 8:23) Here, we must note a few things before proceeding.
First, this is one of three miracles which Mark records as happening in relative privacy. Always there were disciples present as witnesses, but the primary figures in this miracle are only the sufferer and the Savior. In addition, this event is only recorded in Mark’s Gospel — no doubt to serve as further evidence of the Messiah coming as the Son of man, the Servant of God. Practically speaking, though, going “out of the village” was surely done to avoid the publicity that wound ensue after a healing of this kind. Earlier in the same chapter, the Pharisees clamored for signs of Jesus’s messiahship. (Mark 8:11-13) Ignoring the fact that Christ had literally just finished feeding over 4,000 people with a mere 7 loaves (Mark 8:1-10), the religious aristocrats were desperate for another “sign.”
But their curiosity wasn’t genuine, they only sought to “test him.” Knowing this, Jesus is baffled by their continued unbelief. Our text says that he “sighed deeply in his spirit.” (Mark 8:12) He was grieved, vexed, and disappointed at the spiritual blindness of these religious “experts.” Therefore, not wanting to appease the Pharisees’ insipid demand for more signs and wonders, Jesus leads the blind man outside the walls of the city. But this isn’t the only curious thing he does. Notice what happens.
“And [Jesus] took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Do you see anything?’ And he looked up and said, ‘I see people, but they look like trees, walking.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.” (Mark 8:23-25)
Out of all the miracles recorded in Mark, this is the only one that’s not immediate. Jesus lays his hands on the man twice, restoring his sight gradually, not instantly. Why does he do this? Some have suggested a seeming lack of faith on the part of either the friends or the blind man himself. That Jesus would would pin the hopes of healing on the measure of these strangers’ faith seems very unlikely. Furthermore, such a notion completely ignores the events prior and puts the onus of effectual healing on the supporters or the sufferer. An interpretation of this sort is merely man reading himself into the text, once again, making himself the center and not Christ.
I would contend that this miracle is much more inclusive, despite being conducted in relative exclusivity. Christ was making a specific point to his disciples through the healing of this man. Indeed, giving this man his sight back is rather cursory when understanding the larger context of what Jesus is trying to illustrate.
Previously, as we’ve seen, Jesus has already performed a miracle by feeding over 4,000 people with a mere 7 pieces of bread. But this miracle isn’t enough. The Pharisees demand more, they need “a sign from heaven.” (Mark 8:11) They want something directly from God to confirm this Nazarene’s claims of messiahship. But, frustrated by their inability to see past their own religiosity, Jesus leaves the Pharisees and denies them their sign. (Mark 8:12-13) He, then, proceeds to try to teach his disciples an important lesson about the Pharisees and their false religion. (Mark 8:14-21) I say “try” because the disciples were a pretty dense bunch of dudes. Speaking for myself, I can’t say I’d be any different than they were. But we might want to get away from the lofty exaltation and expectation we put on these guys. They’re guys, twelve of them, in fact. This is much more of a frat-house than an intellectual club. Nonetheless, Jesus insists on not letting this moment pass. He warns them of the erroneous teachings and mindset of both the Pharisees and Herod. (Mark 8:15) The caution is one against self-centeredness and self-reliance. And what are the disciples worried about? Their bellies.
“And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread.” (Mark 8:16)
As Christ attempts to exhort and enrich them in the gospel, the twelve apostles are more concerned with the fact that they only brought one loaf with them as they ventured across the Sea of Galilee. (Mark 8:14) This is probably another moment where Jesus “sighed deeply in his spirit.” He reminds them of what they’ve seen, of what they’ve witnessed (Mark 8:17-20), but they still didn’t get it. “Do you not yet understand?” the Lord says. (Mark 8:21) I imagine the faces of the disciples being very “deer in the headlights” right about now. They had obviously missed something and they weren’t quite sure where the seriousness of their leader was coming from. “But, Jesus, we got to eat.” I also imagine Christ exhaling at this point, an exhale tinged with frustration at his closest followers’ continued ignorance. “You still don’t get it, do you?” I hear him saying, “‘Do you not yet understand?’ Are you so blind?”
It’s with these thoughts in mind that we return to Jesus’s actual healing. You see, Jesus leads this man outside the city to illustrate a poignant truth for his disciples and for us. He wasn’t out for fame; his mandate wasn’t popularity. Jesus comes for the poor, blind, and oppressed. That’s us. Throughout the Scripture, “sight” and “seeing” are often used as a metaphor for understanding. Those without sight, then, were without understanding or comprehension. And so it is that we’re made to see that this blind man is a good representation of the disciples themselves.
Just as he was without sight, the disciples were without understanding. Like this man, the disciples had been given the good news, but they, too, still lacked clear vision. Just as this man saw men as “trees, walking” (Mark 8:24), the apostles saw Christ, but vaguely. They’d been given a glimpse at what he could do, but they still didn’t understand who he was or what he had come to do. Just as this man wasn’t able to see clearly after Jesus’s first touch, the disciples still didn’t get it. They were still operating under the inbred system of works and effort — a system which, when left alone, apart from the intrusion of grace, will always trump faith.
Jesus’s concern isn’t necessarily for the blindness of this man but for the blindness of the apostles’ hearts. Like the Pharisees, they were attracted to the signs instead of being absorbed by the Savior. Indeed, all that Jesus does in this scene is answer his own question — “Do you not yet understand?” he asks, and he might’ve gone on to say, “Here, I’ll show you what I’m talking about.”
The disciples should’ve seen this blind man as their spiritual representative in that moment, picturing their inability to comprehend Christ’s words and works. But the blurred vision of this man from Bethsaida not only pictures the incomplete view the disciples had of Christ, but our weakened conceptions of him as well. Jesus’s point is to manifest himself as the Christ, the promised Messiah. Not just another man. Not just a prophet. Not just a good teacher. Not just a humanitarian who seems to thrive on helping the helpless. He is God. God in the flesh. God come down. The Word among us. (John 1:14) The grace that comes to you. (1 Pet. 1:10 KJV)
“The Gospel not merely presents itself to you, but it comes to you. It does not ask you to meet it half-way. It meets you all the way. It is not a voice which speaks to you from afar, but one which comes to your very ear and heart.” (Bonar, #39)
Our text says that after Jesus touched the man the second time, “his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.” (Mark 8:25) Seeing Jesus clearly is seeing him for who he is. A God full of grace and truth. A God who’s not afraid to get his hands dirty and deliver his beloved delinquents.
Notes & References:
Horatius Bonar, Kelso Tracts (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1851).