Monday, March 04, 2013

Mark 8:11–13

Mark 8:11–13 (ESV): The Pharisees Demand a Sign


Jesus has just fed the four thousand, then gotten into a boat and travelled somewhere else. When he lands the Pharisees find him, and begin to argue with him, demanding “a sign from heaven to test him” (verse 11 (ESV)).

Jesus’ response is to sigh “deeply in his spirit,” and ask aloud why this generation seeks a sign—and then to follow up by declaring that no sign will be given to it (verse 12 (ESV)). He then gets right back into his boat, and heads for the other side of the sea.


A fairly short passage, partially because Jesus simply refuses to interact with the Pharisees on this point. “Give us a sign from heaven that you are you who say you are!” they demand. “No,” Jesus replies.

Regular blog readers might be used to me trying to give the Pharisees the benefit of the doubt; I’ll do so again: On a certain level, you can see where the Pharisees are coming from. Jesus is making some big claims, claims that, if true, fundamentally change their entire relationship with God. What proof does He offer that these claims are true? I don’t think Jesus’ issue with the Pharisees is with this line of thinking; I don’t think He’d even disagree with them on this… up to a point. But by this point there have been a number of proofs offered, combining Jesus’ miraculous power with His knowledge of the Scriptures. The Pharisees should have had enough, by this point, to believe. If they didn’t, it must have been because they refused to believe—and in that case, what miracle could Jesus perform, what argument could He offer, what divine sign from the Father could he show, that would force them to give up their stubbornness? If the Pharisees were open to believing they would have done so by now; if they don’t, it’s because they weren’t open to believing.

This is directly applicable to people in our day. We’ve all known people who say that they’d believe if they just had proof, or if they could just see it with their own eyes. The Bible teaches us, however, that no amount of proof will be enough to soften a heart which is hard, whereas God is able to soften any heart that He wants. In other words, it’s not the amount or quality of the proof, it’s only a question of the work of the Holy Spirit: where He has softened a heart a person will believe, and where He hasn’t a person will refuse to believe. (This is good news when we give the Gospel. It means that all we have to do is deliver as much truth as we can, and let the Holy Spirit work; it’s not up to us to do all of the work of convincing someone to believe, though we should definitely try. At the end of the day, even if we explain things poorly, the Spirit can still use that to open a person’s heart.)

As for someone refusing to believe unless they see with their own eyes, I wonder: Does this mean that Jesus would need to come back, die for our sins, and rise from the dead in every single generation, so that people would believe in Him? As soon as a generation or two has gone by, people would be starting to doubt the accounts of His coming and rising from the dead, so it would have to be a repeat performance for Him to convince people generation after generation.

The fact is, although the Bible does offer proofs of its authenticity, the main thrust is not to convince us through argument, it’s to promote faith. By no means are we required to follow blindly, we should think about the things that we believe, and wrestle with difficult passages of the Bible, but neither is it ultimately up to us to be convinced. It’s up to us to have faith in God. This issue of trust vs. faith always brings me back to God leading the people out of Egypt; He parts the Red Sea, drowns Pharoah’s army, and then physically leads His people in their travels as a pillar of fire. He brings the people to a mountain and speaks to them, delivering the Ten Commandments. At this point the Israelites had no doubt whatsoever that there was a God, and that He had delivered them out of Egypt. Then God and Moses leave them alone for a little while, and the people immediately fashion an idol for themselves, and start giving it credit for their deliverance out of Egypt. In the entire history of the world I don’t think anyone ever had more proof of God’s existence than they did, but it wasn’t enough for them to trust Him.

By nature we’re all like that, to a greater or lesser extent.

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