The Failure to Learn

March 4, 2018

Norwalk First United Methodist Church

Gospel of Mark

Third Sunday in Lent

The Failure to Learn

Mark 8:1-21

          Sometimes it seems that life is full of impossible situations. Many times, when we come to those impossible situations we seek some counsel from other people. Someone once said that the best way to deal with our problems is to laugh at them. But someone else said that laughing at your problems is like changing a baby’s diaper. It doesn’t fix the problem permanently; it just makes it more bearable for a while.

For example, here are some pearls of wisdom from the perspective of a cowboy:

  1. Never kick a cow chip on a hot day.
  2. Don’t ever squat with your spurs on.
  3. Never miss a good chance to shut up. And,
  4. Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.

But you see, there’s something better than laughing at your problems or applying cowboy wisdom. It’s Jesus. When you introduce Jesus into life’s impossible situations, he can transform them into a possibility. As we come to this eighth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus encounters three different groups in a single day. First, he has to deal with 4,000 hungry Gentiles; then he confronts some skeptical Jewish Pharisees. And finally, he must deal with the spiritual dullness of his disciples. There is some measure of impossibility in each encounter.

To be able to trace the journey Jesus followed on this day of encounters, it’s important to understand the geography of this part of the world. The Sea of Galilee is a freshwater lake shaped like a harp, thus, it was given the name Lake Gennesaret, which is the Hebrew word for “harp.” Jesus began his day on the Eastern side of the Sea of Galilee in the Decapolis area, the area of the ten Roman cities. As we learned before, this was Gentile territory.

Then Jesus and his disciples made the seven-mile journey across the lake to an area near Magdal, the home of Mary Magdalene. For many centuries, the location of Dalmanutha, mentioned in our scripture, was unknown. But excavations in Israel over the past five years have uncovered evidence that Dalmanutha was a large fishing village beside Magdal. Then after an unpleasant encounter with the Pharisees, they all get back on the boat and head to the northern part of the lake to the town of Bethsaida. It is a day of what could be seen as impossibilities. It is a day in which the disciples once again fail to learn the power of Jesus with them. But, it is a day that Jesus shows us God’s kingdom work among his people. Would you pray with me?


As our scripture opens, we once again hear a familiar story, a story we talked about only a couple of weeks ago. But it is different in many ways. The 5,000 people to be fed were with Jesus for only one day, but the 4,000 were with him three days. Jesus offered one prayer of “thanks” for the food for the 5,000, but with the 4,000 there were two prayers. In the first miracle Jesus utilized five loaves and two fish. Here he used seven loaves and a few small fish. In cleaning up after the first miracle, they picked up twelve small baskets of bread. After the second, there were seven large hamper-like baskets of remnants. And finally, the miracles were done for two opposite groups of people. The 5,000 were exclusively Jews, but the 4,000 that were fed in the Decapolis were predominantly Gentile. This was a whole new audience which needed to be exposed to this miracle.

And how did 4,000 Gentiles come to know of Jesus? Remember that demon possessed man he healed by driving the demons into the swine? Remember, how he wanted to travel with Jesus? And what did Jesus say to him? “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed. The news of this Jesus had traveled quickly!

For the disciples, this feeding of the 4,000 was a repetition of such an instructive miracle that it would help the disciples to learn. But unfortunately, as we later read, they had a failure to learn.

Folks, there are at least three things Christ wanted his disciples and us to see in these miracles of the bread and fish. First, Jesus wanted them to understand that he was the Bread of Life. As the second Moses, Jesus often paralleled himself with that of Moses. Jesus reminded his disciples and others in the Gospel of John that just like God provided manna in the desert for the Israelites when they escaped from Egypt, he has now provided bread from heaven for the sinners on this earth.

The major difference is that the manna from heaven provided temporary sustenance for the Israelites, but Jesus would provide sustenance for an eternity. Here is what Jesus said in the Gospel of John, chapter 6, after feeding the 5,000:

“I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a [person] may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If a [person] eats of this bread, [that person] will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”

You see, Jesus was the Bread of Heaven and that went all the way back to his birth in Bethlehem, which is literally the “city of bread.” And on the final evening of his life he took bread and boke it and said, “This is my body which is for you.” So, at the beginning and end of his earthly Incarnation, Christ powerfully underscored the great fact that he was the Bread of Life. Jesus wanted his disciples to understand this.

Second, Christ wanted his disciples to understand that he was not just Bread for the Jews, but also for the Gentiles. Jesus pronounced a blessing over the bread that was normal Jewish custom. But here, in the Gentile territory, Jesus gave a second blessing over the fish. He was trying to teach the Gentiles to thank God for their daily food. The bread miracle among Gentiles meant that Jesus was spiritual bread for the pagan world, for you and me. He wants to let us know that material things are not enough for humanity. We cannot meet our physical needs at the expense of our spiritual needs.

And lastly, Jesus wanted his disciples to understand that the supply always meets and exceeds the demand. You see, as we bring our needs to Jesus, he will be feeding us and giving us what we need. Look what happened! The disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over. The Greek word to describe these baskets means that they were large baskets, big enough to hold a man.

If you remember, in the feeding of the 5,000, twelve baskets of leftovers are collected. In the feeding of the 4,000, seven baskets of leftovers are collected. The numbers are symbolic. The twelve baskets of leftovers is symbolic of God’s full provision for the twelve tribes of Israel. The seven baskets collected represents the number of fullness and completion, as Christ is more than sufficient for the whole world. Folks, whatever the Lord has given us, there is still far more for him to give us. As long as we care to expand our souls, Jesus will continue to give us more of himself. The disciples now witnessed two amazing miracles in which thousands of people were fed, and yet, do they really see the miracles? Are they as blind as the next group Jesus encounters?

After this feeding, Jesus and his disciples get into the boat and travel to the region of Dalmanutha and there the Pharisees come to question Jesus. Like many previous occasions, the Pharisees were seeking to discredit and tempt Jesus. They wanted a sign that he was the Messiah. They believed that when the Messiah would come the most startling things would happen. There were many false Messiahs before Jesus who had promised astonishing signs, such as parting the Jordan River or making the city walls crumble. It was this kind of sign the Pharisees were demanding. But Jesus knew the unbelieving Pharisees would never be satisfied. If he agreed to their demand this time, they would continue to demand more signs in the future.

As then, our coming to faith in Jesus is not by the performance of miracles, but by faith in who Jesus is, the Son of God, and the Savior of sinners. Even today, like the Pharisees, millions of people want proof of Jesus by signs and miracles before they will yield themselves to Christ. But Jesus rejects this out of hand. We come to Christ and believe in Him because he is who he is; not what he can do.

Jesus raised the dead, cast out demons, healed the sick, caused the storms to cease, and turned water into wine. What more proof could the Pharisees demand from him? The simple fact is that the Pharisees eyes were blinded to the truth of God and their ears were closed to the Word of God. Miracles do not produce faith. Romans 10:17 says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

I like what Jesus did. He did not give in to the Pharisees demands. He simply left the Pharisees, got back in the boat, and crossed to the other side of the lake. As they were traveling across the lake, Jesus gave warning to his disciples. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” Leaven, or yeast, is a substance which ferments in order to produce its effect. It spreads through every fiber of the dough. This diffusion illustrates an evil quality of false teachers, who Jesus names as the Pharisees and Herod. Leaven, as Jesus uses it here, represent the evil of the Pharisees who refused to accept God’s Son by faith, while they alleged to uphold God and His Word. Jesus is telling the disciple by way of this parable that their greatest danger would not come from God-haters or atheists, but from professing God-lovers, who were determined to work out their own religion.

Folks, we too, must guard against ungodly influences that negatively affect our spiritual condition. We cannot dabble in sin or the desires of the flesh without consequence. We must guard against doubt, fear, complacency and compromise. One of Stan’s biggest lies declares that a little bit never hurt anyone. Jesus, in this parable of the yeast, declares that a very small amount can have a devastating effect. We must guard our hearts and lives against the evil influences of our day.

So, Jesus has fed 4,000 hungry Gentiles and has confronted some skeptical Jewish Pharisees. Now, he must deal with the spiritual dullness of his disciples. They have a failure to learn. They feel their need is much greater than the one loaf of bread they have with them. Much like the Pharisees, the yeast of doubt has invaded the disciples who think they cannot provide for their own needs.

Van Bogard Dunn writes the following in his commentary on Mark: “The signs of the Kingdom of God have been given to [the disciples] in the words and deeds of Jesus; they have participated in the Kingdom feast, not once but twice; and still they are so dependent upon their own power and their own resources that they cannot trust the power of God and receive the inexhaustible gifts of grace. Their crisis is not that they have no bread but that they have no faith.” Jesus said, “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?”

The disciples have spent at least two years with Jesus by now. I am sure he was disappointed at their lack of understanding. I am sure Jesus thought they should be more spiritually mature by now. This may not be you, but it makes me wonder how often Jesus has considered my life and questioned how I could possibly not understand. He has conveyed the same truth time and again, proving himself faithful and mighty in my life, and yet I completely miss the lessons he desires to teach. So often, I am too focused on my agenda and not open to the truth Jesus wants to convey to me.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, when you introduce Jesus into life’s impossible situations, he can transform them into a possibility. He did that with feeding the 4,000. He did that with the Pharisees who wanted a sign. And he eventually did that with the disciples. Let us not fail to learn the possibilities in our lives when Jesus is with us. I pray that we all will learn to obediently spend time with the Lord, with eyes wide open, ears ready to listen, and a heart ready to receive the truth he desires to share!