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Doug Van Meter - 5 May 2019

Seeing Clearly (Mark 8:22–26)

The ability to see is a wonderful blessing, which we should never take for granted. But spiritual eyesight is far more important than physical eyesight. The ability to clearly see our need to be reconciled to God, and to see God’s provision for that reconciliation in Jesus Christ, is essential. If we are blind to this, then we are in a most serious predicament as we are under the just condemnation of God. This text reminds us of our need to see clearly, not only to be saved, but also after we are saved.

Scripture References: Mark 8:22-26

From Series: "Mark Exposition"

An exposition of the Gospel of Mark by Doug Van Meter.

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I’ve been wearing glasses since university. I am sure that over the past forty years I have gone through many, many different lenses, and frames. Choosing a frame used to be far more difficult before I married. Then my resident fashion expert began to make that choice for me—happily, for all.

But when it comes to deciding on the strength or weakness of the lenses,that is largely up to me. It depends on how I do with the eye exam.

As skilled as my optometrist is (and she is skilled!), she is dependant upon my responses when I have to answer her questions about the clarity of my eyesight. It depends on how well I read the chart: “Y, B, A — mean, B. Um, I’m not sure. Help?” I find these exams stressful.

If you go to the eye doctor, you know what I mean. After all, if you get it wrong, your new lenses may give you trouble. They may cause trouble for others as well, especially if you drive!

Because I want to see clearly—because I want to be able to function well in life—it is important to admit that I have a problem and that I make the appointment. It is important that I pay attention during the examination. It is important that I am honest with my doctor in answering questions. And when I collect my glasses, if the lens is not right, then I need to speak up. If I don’t, then life can be distorted, dissatisfying and, in some cases, dangerous. So the next time you go to the optometrist, be careful! You want to make sure you can see clearly.

Physical eyesight is important. The ability to see is a wonderful blessing, which we should not take for granted. But our spiritual eyesight is far more important. We must nevertake this for granted.

The ability to clearly see our need to be reconciled to God, and to see God’s provision for that reconciliation in Jesus Christ, is essential. If we are blind to this, we are in a most serious predicament, for such blindness reveals we are under the wrathful condemnation of God. If that is you, you need God to enable you to see clearly. Ask him to do so today.

However, once we become a Christian, once our eyes are opened to the glorious truth of the gospel of God, we continue to find ourselves in need of better eyesight. Though we can sing with great joy, “I once was blind, but now I see!” we frequently find ourselves in need of more clarity concerning who the Lord is, what he is doing, and how we should respond.

Christians are able to see the truth of Jesus Christ and the gospel, but so frequently our eyesight dims and our spiritual perception of who Jesus is, of his kingdom priorities, can fade. We become rather near-sighted. In the words of Jesus, we can become “hardened” (v. 17) to who Jesus is, hardened to what he is doing, and therefore hardened to what is most important. It is for this reason that we need to regularly have our spiritual eyesight examined.

How clearly do you see? Regardless how you answer, each of us is in need of better and better spiritual eyesight. Each of us needs the ability to see Jesus, his gospel, and his kingdom more clearly. May Jesus touch us again and make us see more clearly than ever before.

The Context

The disciples had apparently been so focused on the material that they had missed the Messiah. They had not been seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. The consequence is that they remained spiritually hardened (blinded) to Lord Jesus Christ, both concerning who he was and what he was doing. They were near-sighted concerning why he came. And as we saw previously, this seems to be a major theme of Mark’s Gospel. And it is the theme behind the miracle before us in this text.

I have noted before that chapter 8 seems to be a thematic section highlighting Act Two of Mark’s three-act narrative. In Act Two, Jesus edges closer to Jerusalem and to what will prove to be the ultimate spiritual D Day, in which he will finish his work by dying on the cross.

But, as in Act One, Jesus continued to disciple the disciples to see more clearly who he was and why he had come. After firing off nine questions (which remain as relevant for disciples today), as a means of opening their ears and their eyes, Jesus took them on another journey.

They travelled to the north-eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, away from the more populated region, and they arrived in Bethsaida. When they arrived, “some people brought to [Jesus] a blind man and begged him to touch him” (v. 22). As in other instances in Mark, this man had friends who cared about him. Those who could see were concerned about a friend who could not see. With hope, they brought him to Jesus.

As with the healing of a deaf and mute man (7:31–37), Jesus “took the man by the hand, and led him out of the village” (v. 23). The touch would have communicated compassion and hope, and by taking him aside, Jesus would have alleviated the man of any sense of awkward self-consciousness before a crowd of people. Jesus was showing both great sensitivity and necessary secrecy.

Again, as with the healing of the deaf man, Jesus used saliva. This was not a magical rite but perhaps a means of helping this man to understand that he was using his life to help this man’s life. Nevertheless, as Jesus “laid his hands on him” healing had already begun. Jesus asked him, “Do you see anything?” (v. 23).

The man then “looked up” (which—hallelujah—he had not been able to do for perhaps a very long time!) and he saw “people” (v. 24). This must have brought such joy to his heart. From what follows (i.e. his recognition of basic shapes), it seems that perhaps he had had eyesight at one time before. Regardless, he could now see! Even if his eyesight was left like this, it would be better than not seeing at all—or would it?

The man responded, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking” (v. 24). There are different ways to translate this, but the meaning seems to be that he could now see, and could recognise that what he saw were people, but they seemed to resemble the trunks of trees rather than distinct persons. He could detect their movement and so it looked like trees walking. The man could see—no doubt about that—but he could not see clearly. And it seems that clarity was his desire.

Jesus responded by laying “his hands on his eyes again” with the result that the man “opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly” (v. 25).

Then Jesus “sent him to his home, saying, ‘Do not even enter the village’” (v. 26).

Apparently, Jesus wanted to keep this miracle as private as possible. This man’s experience of seeing clearly, at least for the time being, was to remain a secret. At another times, when Jesus has accomplished his purpose, it could be shouted from the rooftops!

So, what is the point of this story? What does it say to you and me?

The point of the story, it would seem, is that this miracle was an acted parable to help the disciples to understand that, though they were better off than the condemned Pharisees (they could at least see, while the Pharisees were completely blind to the things of God), yet they had a long way to go. They would need continual encounters with and continual touches from Jesus. They could see, but not as clearly as they could.

How true this is for me. If I might be so bold to assume, how true this is for you?

When it comes to the things of God, how often our spiritual eyesight is akin to the blurred and unclear sight of this man. That is, yes, we can see—we see Jesus as our Saviour—but still, we see men like trees, walking. We are happy to see, but we do not see as clearly as we should or as clearly as we could. And so, we need to return to Jesus for another touch so that our spiritual eyesight would be whole.

This miracle was a means of compassion for the physically blind man as well as a means of comfort for the spiritually blind disciples. There was hope that they would see more clearly, especially on the heels of the recent rebuke (vv. 17–21).

Upon Peter’s blurred vision (vv. 31–33), perhaps he would have reflected on this episode and found encouragement. That is precisely what this pericope has done for me.

Further, the scene of the transfiguration, which follows in chapter 9, may also be hinted at here. There, they saw more clearly than here.

So, what is necessary for seeing clearly? Let me suggest several things.

Be Honest

This acted parable confronts us with the self-examining question, “Do I realise what I am missing out on?” If so, I need to humble myself and ask for help. Rather than wasting our lives groping in the darkness, let’s rather confess that we too often see people, but they look like trees, walking. Let us then ask for another touch, and another, and another.

In his excellent sermon series, Spiritual Depression, Martin Lloyd-Jones said concerning this story, “Above everything else avoid making premature claims that your blindness is cured.” Jones goes on and comments, “What saved this man was his absolute honesty.” We need such honesty if our spiritual eyesight will improve.

Don’t Settle for Less

C. S. Lewis famously said of the Christian’s propensity to be too easily satisfied,

It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

In our case, the holiday by the sea is a clearer vision of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

If this man had simply said, “Yes, I see,” or even, “Yes, I see people,” he might never have seen more clearly. But he spoke up. He was happy to see light and shapes, but he knew that something was not right. He knew that, even though he was better off than he had been, things could be better yet. What about you? Are you really okay to live with the blur?

He was honest with the Lord. Rather than feel as though he had already received so much and therefore it might be ungrateful to ask for more, or perhaps running the risk of sounding critical about the work that Jesus had done, he honestly answered the question. And please note, Jesus wanted this honesty. This is the only occasion when, upon doing a miracle, Jesus enquired about its “success.” In other words, Jesus was probing in order to do more for this man. Such probing, of course, was precisely what Jesus was doing in the previous passage (vv. 17–21) when he fired those questions at the disciples. As it were, he was asking, “Do you see anything? Do you realise there is so much more to see? Do you realise that you don’t have to go about seeing and yet ‘not seeing’? Do you realise that, though you are better off than so many others, yet you can be even better off?” The same is true for you and me.

Is your life merely about a paycheque, or the next holiday, or retirement, or a relationship, or a career? Or is it about seeking first God and his kingdom. Are you close and yet so far away? Do you see and yet are blind?

What kind of clarity do we need? Simply, we need clarity about the material and the spiritual.

The disciples seemed to be consumed with their stomachs. So, when Jesus spoke about the dangerous, leaven-like influence of the Pharisaical and Herodian approaches to life, they immediately assumed that he was concerned about their supply of bread for their next meal. But before we are too critical of the disciples, reflect on how easily we become distracted from the important by the presence of the urgent. Reflect on how often you and I become distracted from the ultimate because we are consumed with the immediate. To put this another way, is it not true that you and I also have stomach troubles? That is, do our bellies not often get in the way of our belief (see Philippians 3:18–19)?

When the ‘I’ is Bigger than it Should Be

According to a South African optometry company, near-sightedness occurs when the eye is bigger than average. This causes the light to fall in front of the retina rather than on the retina itself. This means that the image is not centred in the eye as it should be. The result is that the person can see up close but struggles to see far off. So it is with spiritual near-sightedness.

When our “I” is bigger than it is meant to be, we will struggle to see the Lord and his truth as we should. In other words, we get in the way. We focus on the immediate while neglecting the ultimate.

Are you seeing more clearly? Do you see the eternal Bread of Life or merely the temporal life of bread? Don’t miss the point and hence your purpose. We need clarity about the identity of Jesus.

Non-Christian friend, what do you really know about Jesus? This is a matter of eternal life and death. Thank God that, in some way, you were brought to him today. How will you now respond? Seek him until you are found!

Be Humble

If we will experience better spiritual vision, then we need to admit our need. Of course, this requires realising we arein need. Once we realise that, we need to humble ourselves and submit to help. We need to humble ourselves and seek the touch of the Great Physician. Pride still goes before destruction and a haughty spirit still precedes a fall. But grace is also equal to its ancient promise to lift the humble. So, admit your need. Such humility is inseparable from prayer. What are you praying about? Let conviction lead to confession.

We need to stop this nonsense of assuming that we have it all together. Equally, we need to stop with the delusion that others think we have it all together! We don’t, and they don’t! Rather we are all in need of clearer vision. Like the disciples.

Ups and Downs

Again, as we saw last week, Mark wrote his Gospel, among other reasons, to remind Christians that following Jesus is a journey, which has ups and downs, including spiritually cognitive ups and downs. That is, we don’t always get it like we wish we would and like we think we could.

Mark was not making excuses for the disciples’ blundering blindness, but he was recording, warts and all, that they were often obtuse when it came to perceiving the person and work of Jesus. They were often blind when it came to seeing Jesus as King and blind when it came to appreciating what kingdom living means (e.g. 9:33–37). Nevertheless, eleven of them were the real deal.

Perhaps this was one of Mark’s goals: to help readers to see that the real deal needs a lot of help. We need one another to help us to improve our spiritual eyesight. We need the body of Christ to touch us, repeatedly, in order to improve our spiritual perception. We need those in the body of Christ to bring us to Jesus and to beg him to touch us so that we can see better. We need the intercession of others. This brings us to the next point.

Accept Help

A mark of humility is a willingness to seek help, and a willingness to accept help when it is offered. Sometimes we do not realise our need until it is pointed out to us.

l can remember talking with a parent whose young daughter began to wear glasses. Because she was so young, she really did not know what normal sight was. But as the doctor examined her, he was amazed that she could even get around! Because she had nothing to gauge her eyesight against, she did not know her need. In her case, she indeed may have seen men like trees, but walking. She needed someone to help her, and the doctor did.

I am sure that, after she began to wear her new glasses, a whole new world opened up to her. She could now see clearly.

Again, we need help from others if we will see clearly. And this is the glory of the body of Christ, the glory of the local church. We are called together into a covenant bond to help each other to see more clearly (see Ephesians 1:17; 3:3). We need the Spirit of God to reveal the truths of Christ to us (1 Corinthians 2:10). God has revealed these truths in the gospel (Colossians 1:26; 1 Peter 1:12), but we need the Spirit to help us to see them clearly.

Be Helpful

Yes, we need help—all of us. Therefore, we allneed to be helpful.

How do we help others to see more clearly? By we ourselves, first, seeing more clearly. By reaching out to them. By interceding for them.

One means towards this end is for concerned fellow disciples to lovingly ask us some hard, yet helpful questions, like those in vv. 17–21. Those nine questions of Jesus were fired off, propelled by love. Jesus wanted those, who had left all to follow him, to understand the magnitude of what was taking place. He wanted to rescue them from the culture of a nominal Judaism, fuelled by the godless religious leaders, the Pharisees. Jesus saw what was at stake and was determined to help these men get it. Therefore, he confronted them with these hard-to-hear questions.

Do we realise what others are missing out on? Then take the risks that love demands and ask the hard thing.

Be Hopeful

In many ways, this is the main emphasis of this pericope and therefore my main brotherly and pastoral concern. Let me explain—again!

As I hope we are coming to see, the disciples were on a journey of faith. They were proving to be slow learners. Jesus had been teaching them by various means, including direct exhortations and instructions and parables. As here, he also used parables of action. He demonstrated spiritual truth by miracles. And this particular miracle, as we have seen, drove home the point that spiritual perception doesn’t always happen immediately. Jesus sometimes grows our sight in stages. And this awareness should both produce hope and properly guide our expectations.

The Hope for Sight

The disciples would one day get it. In fact, very soon Peter would confess Jesus Christ as the Son of God (vv. 27–30). And then, amazingly (as with the miracle of the loaves), he would almost immediately slip into spiritual amnesia and blindness (vv. 31ff). And yet, on the Day of Pentecost, he would proclaim Jesus Christ the Lord. In fact, besides Judas, all the disciples would prove faithful in the end and to the end. There is hope for you and me!

Hope Empowers Perseverance

As we continue to follow Jesus, our spiritual perception will continue to improve. Peter explained it this way:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers,  be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.

 (2 Peter 1:3–11)

We literally cannot quit! We cannot help but work out our salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in us to will and to do of his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12–13).

Hope Empowers Patience

The words patience and perseverance are related, but here I am speaking of being patient with one another. True disciples always persevere to the end.

We can learn from this acted parable that spiritual perception is a journey. It occurs over time. Like a journey, eventually we get to the destination (glorification upon death or the Lord’s return), but along the way we cover a lot of ground. We need to be patient, both with ourselves and with others. And the more we are honestly patient with ourselves, the more patient we will be with others.

This should encourage us concerning our brothers and sisters. Yes, sometimes it seems like a sister just does not get it. She continues to be up and down in her commitment. She continues to stumble over simple doctrinal matters, and you feel like pulling your (or her!) hair out. Relax. Let this acted parable encourage you that the Lord will not abandon his own. He will continue to touch his children until that day when he returns and, as it were, lays hold of us bursting us from the grave to receive the adoption, the redemption of our bodies. Then faith will become sight and we will know as we are now known.

Members of local churches need to be lovingly patient with each other. Continue to intercede for one another. And seek the intercession of others. Be thankful they are patient with you!

Guarded Expectations

We should have great expectations for one another. After all, those whom God calls, he justifies, and those whom he justifies, he glorifies (Romans 8:28–30). Yet at the same time, we should be careful not to expect full glorification now—either others’ or our own. Jesus does not work like this.

Someone has commented concerning this two-stage healing that “it certainly bears a message for the unrealistic utopianism to which we Christians easily succumb, ‘If God is with me why doesn’t…?’ The God of history seems to take his own time with us, for his own reasons but always, we must remind ourselves, in love for us” (English).

Perhaps that is reading too much into this passage, but the point sticks. God does not usually grow us instantaneously (Galatians 4:19). Therefore, we need to faithfully and happily accept this. We should always have grace expectations but not perhaps grandiose expectations. Most of our spiritual growth will occur over the long haul with many ups and downs. And so with others.

I recently learned that the late R. C. Sproul, one of my favourite and most helpful theologians, struggled to quit smoking. After forty years, he was able to do so. Forty years! Think about that. A man who wrote perhaps the greatest book on the holiness of God, a man who obviously loved God with his heart, soul, mind and strength, a man who planted a marvellous church in Orlando, Florida, a Christian man who has left a legacy of clear-headed, heart-captivating truth in the form of books and thousands of lectures and sermons, struggled with an addiction for four decades before he came to see clearly. In thinking about this I have come to appreciate that perhaps his honest struggle against this addiction is another part of his legacy that the church would do well to remember: the legacy of honestly confessing that he needed to see more clearly. His prayerful confession was answered in this life and now forever answered in heaven.

Our own honesty can inspire both honesty and hope in others. This highlights the value of real community.

Consider the responsibility we have towards those who confess that they cannot see clearly: the responsibility of constructive concern.

Perhaps you can relate to my experience. On occasion I have bared my soul to others concerning my need to see clearly only to then carry on as alone as ever. With such individuals, I have become very hesitant about further transparency.

Brothers and sisters, when a fellow church member tells you that they see men as trees, walking, they are being vulnerable. Respond in such a way that their vulnerability is reduced, not increased. Be an Ananias who came alongside the blinded new Christian, Saul, who then became the sighted and insightful apostle Paul (Acts 9:8–19). Initially, Saul could only see men as trees walking, but with the help of brothers like Ananias, and later Barnabas, and then the congregation of the church of Jerusalem, this brother came to see spiritual truths like no one before him (Ephesians 3:1–6ff; etc.). The result has been that multitudes—including you and me—have been enabled to see more clearly.

The point we need to take home is that the local church should be a community of hope. Yes, hard things must be said (vv. 14–21); yes, the hateful and hardened need to be avoided (vv. 11-13). But the hungry need to be fed (vv. 1–10). And many of these among the hungry stand in need of further enlightenment by the repeated touches from the body of Christ. If each of us commits ourselves to be honest, to be humble, and to be helpful, then our community of faith will be more hopeful about seeing clearly.

But before we close, we need to ask, what, ultimately, do we need to see more clearly? The answer of course is, Jesus Christ and his cross. This is the clarity to which Jesus was guiding his disciples (vv. 23ff).

We never outgrow the gospel of God. We never outgrow the good news of what God has done for believing sinners through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is why the clarity that we need is never inseparable from that old and foundational truth. Our spiritual sight improves to the degree that the gospel becomes the A to Z of our lives. Maclaren put it well: “Christian progress does not consist in seeing new things, but in seeing the old things more clearly; the same Christ, the same Cross, only more distinctly and deeply apprehended, and more closely incorporated into my very being.”

Jesus is leading his disciples to his cross, and then to their own. When this happens, then they will see more clearly. Christian, so it is with you and me. Therefore, we must always pray, “Jesus, keep us near the cross.” He will respond with his gracious touch and, like this man, we will begin seeing clearly.