“Do you still not understand?” – Mark 8:21
Wilson Chow Professor (Biblical Studies)
There are various accounts in the Gospels where Jesus’ teachings and actions were not being understood, and even misunderstood by others. It is not just some outsiders who did that, sometimes even his own disciples. The Gospel of Mark has two of such consecutive instances where Jesus’ words were misunderstood by the disciples.
Misinterpreting – due to ignorance of the true meaning
In Mark 8:15, Jesus warned the disciples: “Be careful and watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” The occasion that the disciples had forgotten to bring some bread with them on board made them think that Jesus warned them because they have no bread. They discussed this matter with one another, completely ignoring the seriousness of Jesus’ warning about the yeast of the Pharisees and Herod. Jesus tried to redirect their attention with a series of rhetorical questions: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?” His questioning virtually put the disciples at the same level with the Pharisees and Herod, who had “hardened their hearts” because of Jesus’ words and deeds (Mark 3:5; cf. 6:52). That is just like the way the prophets rebuked the ignorant and rebellious Israelites (Jeremiah 5:21; Ezekiel 12:2; Isaiah 6:9-10), who rejected the prophets and their teachings. It is also reminiscent of the people of Israel in the wilderness (Numbers 14) after their departure from Egypt, where they rejected Moses’ leadership and eventually died of the plague.
Jesus pointed out that the disciples “misinterpreted” because they failed to comprehend the significance of the two miracles in which Jesus had fed the five thousand and the four thousand people. The disciples were clear about the specific facts of these two miracles. Jesus asked them twice how many basketfuls of pieces they picked up after the miracles, and they all answered accurately: twelve baskets and seven baskets respectively (8:19-20). However, they actually failed to grasp the true meaning concealed in the words.
The Pharisees and Herod were also aware of these miracles, whether it was Jesus healing a person with a withered hand on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-4) or multiplying bread to feed everyone. They still asked Jesus to “show them a sign from heaven” (8:11)! The perspective of the Pharisees is exactly the same as this generation (8:12). They meant to judge Jesus according to their laws, concerns and standards. Jesus probably thought his disciples were just like them as well!
They all missed the abundance of salvation into the kingdom of God through Jesus, who would bring earth-shaking changes to humankind and rebuild the relationship between human beings and God. The perspectives of the disciples were confined to trivial arguments and unnecessary worries, failing to see the greater significance of a new era of faith, nor the grand picture of the coming of God’s kingdom. It is no wonder that the disciples misunderstood the intended lesson in Jesus’ words.
Failing to understand – due to different agendas
Another incident in which Jesus was misunderstood followed immediately. On their way to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do people say I am?” The disciples reported some people’s views on Jesus: John the Baptist, Elijah, and one of the prophets. When Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do you say I am?”, only Peter replied: “You are the Messiah.” (8:27-29). The Gospel of Matthew also told us that Jesus noted that Peter’s confession was not inspired by human thoughts, but “was revealed to him by my Father in heaven” (16:17).
However, when Jesus confessed to them plainly: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again.” It happened to be this Peter, who had just confessed Jesus as the Messiah, now tried to pull Jesus back and began to rebuke him (Mark 8:31-32), probably trying to insist this should absolutely not be happening.
There is no doubt that Peter was sincerely reluctant to see his beloved and respected teacher suffers and eventually dies. The scripture uses a rather harsh word “rebuke”, in describing Peter’s reaction. In fact, the author also used the word “rebuke” as Jesus responded to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” The word “rebuke” appeared in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus drove out the evil spirits (1:25) and calmed the wind and waves (4:39). The same Peter, who had just accurately declared that Jesus was the Messiah, became a tool of evil power! However, this was obviously not just Peter’s own mistake. Like many contemporary Jews, he was looking forward to a Messiah who would restore Israel and lead the Israelites to overthrow their foreign rulers, and rebuild the glorious days of the Davidic dynasty. Whether Peter was acting out of affection or he was unable to withdraw from the expectations of his generation for the Messiah, he just felt too difficult to accept that God’s will was to be fulfilled in the form of suffering! Honestly who would choose such a path willingly? Is it like knowing it would be impossible but still would attempt to achieve it? Or the mindset of taking the bull by the horns? That it is a dirty job and someone has to do it? It is indeed a path of no return that embraces pain, extreme loneliness, abandonment and ultimate humiliation. Yet Jesus also taught his disciples to take up their cross and follow him (8:34-38).
We all have our own personal agendas out of our own human will. And our society as a whole has agendas for different people. What is the most urgent need in Jesus’ time? For the Jewish religious and political leaders at that time, it would be maintaining social stability and preventing chaos, in order to avoid suppressions from the Roman government. For them, Jesus was a dangerous person who could provoke disturbances. But for many Jews who suffered harshly under such regime, their hope was to overthrow the Roman rule and restore the dignity of their nation. We could have a clear understanding of the needs of the circumstance, and even an accurate proclamation of who Jesus is. However, when it comes to knowing and understanding the mind of Christ, we could still be very far from it. Do we really understand the will of God our Father?