Is this Mark’s Gospel or Tolkien?
At the very heart of Mark’s Gospel both structurally and theologically are two events that take place in 8:22-30. Each one includes the messianic secret theme (for more on the messianic secret read my post here) and together they act as the hinge upon which the entire message of Mark turns. Up to this point in the Gospel, Mark has focused primarily on Yeshua’s interactions with the crowds through a “twofold sequence of feeding miracles, sea crossings, conflicts with the Pharisees, conversations about bread, [and] healings.” Beyond this portion Mark begins to zero in on Yeshua’s interactions with his disciples and his impending sacrifice.
So what takes place here that is so significant for Mark as he relays his account of the Gospel? First, we come to 8:22-26 and see Yeshua heal a blind man using spittle. What is odd about this healing, however, is that at first the man does not see clearly. Instead his vision is only partially restored as he reports seeing “men like trees walking around.” Yeshua touches his eyes again and then the man could see “everything clearly.” He is then sent to his village with the command from Yeshua to keep silent concerning the matter. Next, 8:27-30 records Yeshua on the road to Caesarea Philippi, asking his disciples who people say he is, and who they say he is. After hearing the responses and especially Peter’s confession that he is the Messiah, Yeshua commands the disciples to be silent on his identity.
Many see these two events as distinct and unrelated. It may not be so easy, however, to flippantly cast them as unconnected. Referring to the healing of the blind man, Bailey and Constable suggest that “this account was probably intended as a visual aid to expose the disciples’ lack of spiritual perception.” While I agree with this assessment, I believe we can take it a step further and read this portion as a parallelism that joins the two events together and allows Mark to transition from the first half to the second half of his Gospel. Seeing the healed blind man as representing the disciples, we find Mark using the parallels in each account to illustrate the growth and development of the disciples as they began to inch closer to a full understanding of who Yeshua is and what he would perform.
The parallel relationship between the two events may be illustrated as follows:
The Blind Man
|After spitting on his eyes and laying his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” (8:23)||“Who do people say that I am?” (8:27)|
|“I see men, for I see them as trees walking around.” (8:24)||“John the Baptist; others say Elijah; but others one of the prophets.” (8:28)|
|Then he again laid his hands on his eyes… (8:25)||“But who do you say that I am?” (8:28)|
|He began to see everything clearly. (8:25)||“You are the Messiah.” (8:29)|
|And he sent him home saying, “Do not even enter the village.” (8:26)||And he warned them not to tell anyone about him. (8:30)|
Both accounts open with Yeshua asking a question of perception. At this point in his ministry many were still confused about who he was and the fullness of his identity had not yet been revealed. Some were beginning to recognize something special about Yeshua. Just as the blind man replied that he was seeing a hazy picture of men as trees walking around, so too the disciples report that many people had a hazy understanding of who Yeshua is. Is he John the Baptist? Elijah? Or one of the prophets?
It is important to mention here some of the Jewish background to this. There are a number of key passages throughout the Tanakh, and even in some of the earliest Mishnaic literature, which use the illustration of men as trees. Here are just a few:
“A person is like the tree of a field.” (Deut. 20:19)
“For as the days of a tree shall be the days of my people.” (Isaiah 65:22)
“He will be like a tree planted near water. . .” (Jeremiah 17:8)
We also see the picture of a righteous man being “like a tree firmly planted by streams of water. . .” in Psalm 1. And the concept is probably most evident in Isaiah 61:3 where the result of the Gospel in the lives of the followers of God is that they become “trees of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He might be glorified.”
The picture that the early Sages gleaned from such passages is one of a follower of God being compared to a tree in his study, learning, and application of the Torah. In other words, a disciple of God is compared with a tree in his development and walk with God—his discipleship. This idea is evident in Pirke Avot 3:22 where it states:
A person whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds is likened to a tree whose branches are numerous, but whose roots are few. The wind comes and uproots it and turns it upside down. But a person whose good deeds exceed his wisdom is likened to a tree whose branches are few but whose roots are numerous. Even if all the winds of the world were to come and blow against it, they could not budge it from its place. [emphasis added]
Why does this matter when we come to Mark? Because walking trees are meant to draw our attention to discipleship, and the growth and development of the life of the follower of God.
With this in mind, Yeshua touches the blind man a second time and the result is clearer vision. Similarly, he brings the question home to the disciples and gauges where they were in their understanding of his identity. Peter for the first time in Mark’s Gospel verbalizes the simple truth that he believed—that Yeshua is the Messiah. Peter’s vision is clear. While neither the blind man nor the disciples may have fully grasped the glorious potential that lay before them as they now began to see clearly, one thing remains certain for both—from that point on they would see and experience the world in an entirely new light. The blind man would be able to experience the fullness of an awakened sense—beholding the physical beauty of a sunset, the sheer force of a storm, or peering into the eyes of a loved one, all for the first time. The disciples would be able to experience the fullness of an awakened faith as they would begin to understand more and more the identity of their Rabbi, their Master, their Messiah.
Both the blind man and the disciples are told to keep silent—the messianic secret is put in effect. And from this point on in the Gospel we see a pattern used by Mark—the “thrice-repeated pattern of passion prediction, discipleship failure, and instruction regarding true discipleship (8:27-9:1; 9:30-41; 10:32-45).” Yeshua would now lead them down the path of understanding a very important, yet sometimes ignored, aspect of discipleship—suffering. By bringing their attention to his own impending suffering and death, he was also instructing them in the difficulties that they would face as his followers. Surely they too would suffer.
And surely we who are followers of Messiah will suffer as well. Nevertheless, we must understand that just as a tree grows from a seed, to a shoot, to a full-grown tree, so too our discipleship experience is a long-term process through which we incrementally grow in our knowledge, understanding, and obedience to the Word of God. And when the wind picks up and the storm approaches, we are to remain firm, grounded, and rooted. This is a lesson that Peter knew well, and that is what we will look at in the next post. Blessings.
 Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 282.
 D.A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005), 171.
 Bailey and Constable, The New Testament Explorer, 81.
 Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Academic, 2009), 246.
[…] posts on Mark’s Gospel we took a look at the Messianic Secret (here) as well as discipleship (here) and how each one relates to a major theme in Mark—the suffering of the Messiah. I’d like to […]
Brilliant. I’m really enjoying this series.