Peculiar Passages: The Case of the Failed Miracle

Tim Thornborough | August 9th 2019

I love Mark’s Gospel. I’ve been to performances where it is recited dramatically;  I love to read it in a single sitting (takes about an hour and a half); and it’s the book I often turn to when introducing people to the life of Jesus and the gospel message.

It’s sometimes called the “Go Gospel” because of it’s pace and frequent use of the word “immediately”. Mark underlines how Jesus' miracles are not elaborate conjuring tricks, packaged into events. The Lord says something: it happens—immediately. No hanging around. No messing about. He speaks; it’s done. 

So around half way through—just before Peter makes his famous “you are the Christ” declaration on the road to Caesarea Philippi—something very odd happens. 

"And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he 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. And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”' Mark 8:22-25

Epic fail?

What is going on here? Why, when every other time Jesus heals immediately, does he need to, effectively do it twice? Was Jesus having an off day? Was he tired from the travelling, or did he “do it wrong” somehow? Perplexing… 

But of course, it’s none of these things. And again, what seems strange when you are looking at the detail, suddenly makes sense when you look at the bigger picture. When we focus on the trees walking, we miss the shape of the forest.

The healings we read about in the gospels are significant because Jesus is using them to reveal something significant about himself, God, and the gospel message. It’s why John picks seven significant miracles and describes them as “signs”. Signs are designed to point us to something. Mostly, they point us to the identity of Jesus—who he is. But here, it is a kind of enacted parable pointing to what is about to happen with Peter.

Confused disciples

Just before this incident is a long conversation with the disciples about miracles and the demand for signs by the Pharisees. They talk about the feeding of the 5,000 and the subsequent feeding of the 4,000. But it is clear that the disciples still do not yet understand what’s going on. He says to them, with what I imagine to be frustration in his voice: 

"Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? … do you not yet understand?" Mark 8: 17-18, 20

And the astonishing thing is that they don’t get it! All the mighty miracles performed in their presence have not given them the understanding they need to know who Jesus is.

And then immediately afterwards Peter suddenly gets it: “You are the Christ” (v 29).

But then Jesus begins to teach them that…

“…the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Mark 8: 31-33

Although Peter sees that Jesus is the Christ—he does not yet understand the kind of Messiah that the Lord Jesus came to be: a suffering servant who would die to bring forgiveness to the world, and usher in his kingdom and rule. Just like the man who is touched once by Jesus, and partially sees, Peter needs a “second touch” to fully comprehend who Jesus is, and what he has come to do. 

Far from losing his touch, the healing of the blind man in Mark is is a kind of enacted parable of what the disciples were about to go through. They were spiritually blind, God grants to them partial understanding, but there will come a time when they will fully “see” who Jesus truly is. This parable is a powerful reminder to them of how their understanding needs to grow. They spend the rest of Mark’s gospel seeing Jesus like the man sees people like trees walking around. Only as the full gospel story unfolds, with Good Friday, Easter Sunday and Pentecost will they finally understand more fully.

What do we take from this?

1. Always look at the context. Bible passages, perhaps especially in gospels, can feel like disconnected stories. They are not. The gospels are carefully constructed narratives where the stories link together and throw light on each other. Always read forwards and back, and from the beginning to the end. 

2. Understanding comes from God. Even when it seems blindly obvious to us, the truth of the matter evades both the Pharisees and Jesus closest friends, until we are “touched” by Jesus, who alone gives sight—understanding. So any of our preaching, teaching, explaining of the gospel to others must be soaked through with prayer that God would grant sight to those who listen—only he can do it.

3. Expect the same in our evangelism. I would not want to push this too hard, but it is our experience that people come slowly to an understanding of the gospel. People often have a number of significant moments in their journey towards Christ. Quite where along this road they are “converted” is sometimes hard to tell by us and them. So it encourages us to continue persevering in our prayers and in our gospel explanations as the light slowly dawns on our friends, as God opens their eyes.

Tim Thornborough

Tim Thornborough is the founder and Publishing Director of The Good Book Company. He is series editor of Explore Bible-reading notes, and has contributed to many books published by the Good Book Company and others. He is married to Kathy and has three adult daughters.

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