Mark highlights the unbelief behind the inability of both his opponents and the disciples to perceive exactly who Jesus was – Mark 8:1-21.
Despite all they had seen, the disciples remained dull of hearing and ran the risk of submitting to the same unbelief that characterized the opponents of Jesus, and especially the unbelief and hostility of the Pharisees. Regardless of his many miracles, they still could not comprehend who he was, the Messiah of Israel and the savior of the world.
DULLNESS. In the first story, Jesus miraculously fed four thousand men, plus women and children, the second time in Mark when he multiplied loaves and fishes to feed a large crowd – (Mark 8:1-9).
This incident occurred as Jesus continued to pass through the territory of Decapolis to the east of the Sea of Galilee, and this means that the “multitude” very likely included many Gentiles from this largely Greek-speaking region. And there, he was “moved with compassion on the multitude” and “summoned the disciples.” He recognized the need of the crowd and already knew what he was about to do.
Some of those present had “come from afar,” a clause used often in the Hebrew Bible for Israelites who were scattered among the nations – (Isaiah 60:4, Jeremiah 46:27).
The disciples complained, where could they possibly find enough food to “satisfy” the needs of four thousand men? The same Greek word is used at the end of the story after the multitude “ate and was satisfied.” The answer to their question was Jesus! Only he could satisfy the needs of the hungry multitude.
Already the disciples had seen him feed five thousand men and witnessed many healings and exorcisms. They saw him calm a storm and walk on water, and yet they still lacked the insight into the person and mission of Jesus that faith gives.
SIGN SEEKING. Next, the Pharisees approached him, not to see Jesus perform miracles, but to seek a “sign from heaven,” a cosmic event that would validate his mission and its divine origin. But their real motive was to test him. The Greek verb rendered “test” occurs four times in Mark: once when Satan tested Jesus, and three times when the Pharisees did likewise – (Mark 1:13, 8:11, 10:2, 12:15).
The account intends for us to understand that by “testing” him the Pharisees were acting as Satan’s surrogate:
- (Mark 8:10-12) – “And immediately, having gone into the boat with his disciples, he went into the district of Dalmanutha. The Pharisees came out and started to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven, testing him. And having groaned deeply in his spirit, he says: Why is this generation seeking a sign? Truly, I am declaring to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”
The district of “Dalmanutha” is mentioned in no other ancient document, and its precise location remains uncertain. The account in Matthew calls it “Magdala,” which locates it in Jewish territory on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Presumably, it is another name for the same place. The change in location explains the arrival of the Pharisees, for Jesus had left the Gentile territory of Decapolis.
The Greek term rendered “sign” (semeion) is different than the word Mark applies to the miracles of Jesus or dunamis. In Mark, “sign” and “miracle” are never equated.
His deep groan expressed the exasperation of Jesus at their presumption and unbelief. The verb rendered “groan” (anastenazein) occurs only here in the Greek New Testament. In ancient Greek, it expressed dismay, not anger. For those with eyes to see, there had been plenty of evidence to validate the source of his ministry.
“This generation” echoes the Old Testament image of the Israelite generation that wandered forty years in the wilderness because of its unbelief. In the gospel accounts, “generation” normally refers to the generation of Jews that was contemporary with Jesus, and the one that rejected him. Why should he give any further “signs” to that “generation“? Had it not already rejected the plain evidence of his deeds and words? – (Numbers 14:10-23, Deuteronomy 32:5, 32:20, Psalm 95:8-11).
LEAVEN AND UNBELIEF. Leaven is used to ferment bread dough to make it rise. In scripture, quite often, it symbolized corruption and sin. Like leaven, sin and unbelief spread infectiously. In Matthew, the “leaven of the Pharisees” referred to their false teachings, and in Luke, to their hypocrisy. Mark does not spell out explicitly what it represents here, though the context points to unbelief.
- (Mark 8:13-21) – “And having left them, again embarking, he departed to the other side. And they forgot to take loaves, and except for one loaf, they had nothing with them in the boat. And he charged them, saying, Take heed! Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the leaven of Herod!’ And they were deliberating one with another because they had no loaves. And having perceived, he says to them: Why are you deliberating because you have no loaves? Not yet perceive you, neither understand? Have you hardened your hearts? Having eyes, see you not? And having ears, hear you not? And are you not remembering? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets of fragments did you take up? They say to him, Twelve! When the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets of fragments took you up? And they say to him, Seven. And he was saying to them: Not yet do you understand?”
The mention of the Pharisees and Herod together is unusual; the Pharisees had little in common with Herod, but one thing they did share was opposition to Jesus, and in the case of the Pharisees, opposition fueled by unbelief.
At this point, the disciples were showing signs of succumbing to the same unbelief despite all that they had seen and heard. Unfortunately, prior to his death and resurrection, they remained dull of hearing, spiritually blind, and decidedly lacking in faith.