Many other grounds there be that brings not fruit to perfection, who are not found faithful to him that hath called them therein; so that now truth is, that many are called, but few chosen and faithful; many are ashamed at the Lamb’s appearance, it is so low & weak & poor & contemptible, & many are afraid seeing so great a power against him; many be at work in their imaginations, to compass a kingdom to get power over sin, & peace of conscience, but few will deny all to be led by the Lamb in a way they know not, to bear his testimony & mark against the world and suffer for it with him. – James Nayler1
Early in Mark’s Gospel,we are told that Jesus saw his mission to be traveling to different towns to preach.2 Although he had healed individuals one by one in his travels, his teaching ministry had grown to the extent that he was reaching thousands at a time: five thousand in chapter 6 and another four thousand in chapter 8. Yet in spite of the large number fed by his teaching, we do not see him rejoicing in this ministry. On the contrary, throughout the first and major portion of chapter 8, there are hints of Jesus’s dissatisfaction, impatience, and growing realization that more is required of him in his sojourn upon the earth. By comparing the events that occur early in this chapter to similar events that have taken place in the preceding two, we see Jesus being led to this difficult realization.
The first nine verses of chapter 8 revisit the feeding of the multitude that occurred in chapter 6; in the next verses, 11-13, the run-in with the Pharisees and scribes from chapter 7 is repeated. His disciples’ incomprehension is admonished in verses 16-21, and the healing of the blind man is in verses 22-26, each echoing events in chapter 7. Although chapter 8 repeats stories from chapters 6 and 7, the events differ in the later rendition, revealing Jesus’s changing awareness, moving from prophet to Messiah: from seeing himself as a man to seeing himself as the Son of man.
First, however, let’s delve into the details and compare these correlated stories.
The feeding of the multitude (6:33-44 and 8:1-9)
Both stories in chapters 6 and 8 are set in the wilderness where many people have nothing to eat; Jesus commands them to sit down, and then gives thanks for and blesses the food; his disciples distribute the food, and the people are filled; the remainder is gathered and fills a number of baskets; the people are sent away, and the episode is followed by travel on a ship. These many similarities tell us what is typical, and thus the differences between the stories inform us of the new direction the narrative is taking.
In both stories, it is Jesus’s compassion that moves him to meet the people’s needs.3 In the earlier story in chapter 6, however, his compassion arises from seeing the people as sheep not having a shepherd, and he thus begins to teach them. Comparing this with the feeding the multitude story in chapter 8, we see that his compassion arises directly from the people’s “hav[ing] nothing to eat.” The earlier use of the shepherd metaphor calls for some roundabout mental maneuvering to equate material food with spiritual food (the material food of loaves and fishes is used as metaphor for the spiritual food of Jesus’s teaching).4 In the later story, no such metaphor appears; Jesus states outright: the people “have nothing to eat” (2). This bluntness suggests an impatience on Jesus’s part: he is now seeing human need for sustenance is to be met directly, and not circuitously through metaphor. Additionally, he states the people have been with him three days with nothing to eat, indicating he’s aware of time’s passing and his need to act directly and without delay.
Following the feeding of the multitude in chapter 6, the disciples were put onto a ship, and Jesus went to a mountain to pray before later joining them. In chapter 8, they all debark together (10). The event is condensed, abbreviated, as if there’s no time for anything but action. Things need to move forward, get done.
When I brake the five loaves among five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? They say unto him, Twelve. And when the seven among four thousand, how many baskets full of fragments took ye up? And they said, Seven. (Mark 8:19-20)
The reader is invited to compare the numbers. Previously a larger number were fed with fewer loaves and fishes, and more baskets were retrieved. The later event fed fewer though the supply was greater, and fewer baskets were retrieved. The numbers show a decline in efficacy. The number seven appears twice in the chapter 8 story: both as the number of loaves offered and as the number of baskets of fragments taken up. The number seven signifies completion5 and is here used to signify that the time is fulfilled; Jesus can no longer continue in the same manner; the time for this kind of work is now finished.
The run-in with the Pharisees and scribes (7:1-13 and 8:11-13)
When the Pharisees and scribes challenge Jesus in the earlier story, he responds by expanding the discussion into a new topic (the Corban oath), and then he goes into detail about what that is, why it’s morally wrong, and that it is not in accord with the intent and spirit of the tradition. When the Pharisees again challenge him in the chapter 8 story, Jesus curtails rather than expands the discussion. He dismisses the Pharisees with one blunt statement, telling them they will not get what they want (12). Jesus seems to have realized that there is nothing to be accomplished by his explaining or interacting with these adversaries.
The uncomprehending disciples (7:18 and 8:16-21)
In each of these stories, the disciples fail to understand Jesus’s use of metaphor. Spiritual lessons often use metaphor, which relies upon a person’s ability to correlate familiar material objects and sensory processes with inward truth or reality; metaphor provides an outline of a real but unseen form.
The reality itself sits like a photograph beneath a sheet of tracing paper, onto which an artist copies barely visible forms. The traced image is an abstraction that suggests the reality hidden beneath. Though without some prior familiarity with the hidden thing itself, the viewer may not be able to make sense of the lines he sees; he may not understand what the drawing represents.
In both of these stories, Jesus expresses surprise that his metaphors do not communicate the hidden, inward reality. In the first story in chapter 7, however, he explains and elaborates upon the nature of that reality (18-23), while in the second story, he simply ends the conversation with the words “How is it that ye do not understand?” (21) and makes no further attempt to explain.
The healings (7:32-35 and 8:22-26)
In both of these stories, Jesus removes the one to be healed from the multitude or town (7:33 and 8:23), for he heals individuals, one by one—not groups. In the earlier story, one word, “Ephphatha,” was sufficient to heal the man. In the correlating story in chapter 8, the healing of the blind man requires two passes: the first attempt doesn’t fully work (24). Jesus is finding that his methods of working are not as effective as they were previously, and this signals a need for change. He ends the healing in his typical way: with a charge to tell no one. And here, the slow progress of his work must have been keenly felt.
In these early stories of chapter 8, Jesus has interacted with the people and with adversaries, disciples, and one ready to be healed, and he has repeatedly found a diminished effect. A tone of restless disquietude pervades these stories. The narrator conveys Jesus’s growing sense that there’s no longer time for elaboration and circuitous methods: things have to change, move forward, get done. That Jesus’s method of working no longer seems valid to him is a necessary development for his coming to accept the role of Messiah. The teaching he has done thus far is the work of a prophet, but the Son of man is called to more than prophecy.6
He and his disciples walk northward to the towns of Caesarea Philippi (27). The two previous chapters were set either in the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas or in territory under the province of Syria. They now enter the tetrarchy of Philip, Herod Antipas’s brother. Jesus is entering new territory: geographically and spiritually.
Whom do men say that I am?
A sense of oneself can arise either from within or be derived from the opinion of others. Jesus is here asking for information on how he is seen, not solely to determine whether others see him accurately but also, perhaps, to propel him into accepting the work he is to do and the role he is to embody.
“One of the prophets”(28), his disciples reply. It is not enough.
Prophets are sent to bear witness to the kingdom, but they are not entered into it;7 prophets bear witness to the Light, but they are not the Light.8 The identity Jesus is to have is not one that merely bears witness to but, in fact, is the Light. He is to become that which is born witness to: to be one with the Light. His identity – no longer tied to self-concept and certainly not to the opinion of others – is distinct from these worldly means of gaining self-knowledge.
But whom say ye that I am? . . . And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things (29 and 31).
These two verses, 29 and 31, show Jesus transitioning from being grounded in his personal self (using the personal pronoun “I” ) to his new way of being, in which he refers to himself in the third person, “the Son of man” (31). No longer defined by solitary personhood, he speaks of himself as representative and forerunner of the new way of being: the Son of man, the second Adam.
Thou art the Christ.
Perhaps Jesus needed to hear some headlong rashness to push him forward into accepting what he knew for certain must come. And Peter was just the man to provide it! “And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ” (29). Jesus’s routine command, “they should tell no man of him”(30), validates Peter’s assertion, and – now confident – Peter again steps forward, takes Jesus aside, and “rebuke[s]” him (32) after he’s heard the dire forecast of Jesus’s suffering, rejection, and execution. This time, however, Peter’s rashness has landed him on the wrong side, and he incurs Jesus’s strong rebuke in return. The back-and-forth positioning of Peter in this exchange suggests a similar back-and-forth struggle that Jesus must have experienced inwardly as he grew to accept what was to come. The passage shows the different forces at work – God’s will versus man’s (i.e., Satan’s ) – and the inward strife of man coming to grips with the will of God.
That the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again (31).
This chapter began with Jesus teaching the multitude and realizing that his manner of teaching, as well as his interactions with adversaries, disciples, and those in need of healing, were no longer sufficient. Having become aware of that fact, he took steps to accept the new work and role required of him. In this final passage of chapter 8, we see him having accepted all, and he is now ready to resume teaching the people.
And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me (34).
In the final passage of chapter 8, Jesus distills the nature of the struggle that he has undergone and that others, too, must undergo: denial of self and taking up the cross. In the Scriptures and “in the flesh,” Jesus is an example for us: showing us the human who senses the need for a better way and moves forward in truth, and is ultimately given to instantiate the Truth and the Life. To quote Nayler once again, we are “to be led in a way [we] know not,” a way not our own but Christ-taught, Light-filled. In this passage, Jesus firmly places the responsibility upon each person to undergo the struggle to renounce one’s worldly self and preoccupation and to turn one’s open, empty soul inward to receive the glorious substance that is Christ, the Light Within.
Christ in his people is the substance of all figures, types, and shadows, fulfilling them in them, and setting them free from them: but as he is held forth in the scripture letter without them, and in the flesh without them, he is their example or figure, which are both one, that the same things might be fulfilled in them that were in Christ Jesus.9
1 James Nayler, “The Lamb’s War against the Man of Sin,” Works of James Nayler (Farmington, Maine: Quaker Heritage Press, 2009), 4:9.
2 And he said unto them, Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also: for therefore came I forth (Mk. 1:38). The King James Version is used throughout this essay.
3 Jesus immediately speaks in this chapter of his having “compassion on the multitude” (8:2). In the earlier story, the same reason for assisting the people is given: “when he came out, saw much people, and was moved with compassion toward them” (6:34).
4 A shepherd who feeds sheep is a metaphor for Jesus’s teaching spiritual truth to people, a metaphor also used by George Fox: “All . . . who are made alive by Christ Jesus . . . and so are come to feed upon the heavenly and spiritual things, which Christ your shepherd directs you to, according to your capacity, age, and growth: and so to know him that God has sent to feed you, above all the feeders that men have sent” (The Works of George Fox [Philadelphia: Marcus T.C. Gould, 1831], 8:76).
5 “[T]he number 7, which is referred to in one way or another in nearly 600 passages in the Bible. . . . [is] the number of totality, of completeness” (The International Standard Bible Encyclopeaedia [Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1939], 2159).
6 “the son of God, who is the end of the prophets” (The Works of George Fox, 7:43)
7 For I say unto you, Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist: but he that is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he (Lk. 7:28).
8 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light (Jn. 1:6-8).
9 The Works of George Fox,3:592-93.
Christ with Disciples, c. 1655, Rembrandt