I have entitled this sermon, “Wonder Bread” because I have never seen bread cause so much confusion before I looked at this passage of Scripture! And yet it serves such a powerful lesson and indictment here. In order to set our context, we have just witnessed Jesus and the disciples going through the land of Gentiles. They had gone through Tyre and Sidon where they encountered a couple of people expressing faith. The disciples watched as Jesus healed the Gentile woman’s daughter all the while testing her faith and providing her the opportunity to count the cost. Then they encounter a man who is healed by Jesus of his inability to hear and speak. And then we witnessed the inability for the people to remain quiet about the great power of Jesus. They were astonished beyond measure and zealously proclaimed the incident.
Let’s pick up the text for this week. We are in Mark 8.1-21. Read text.
It would seem as though Jesus and the disciples remain in the area of the Decapolis at the south end of the Sea of Galilee. And we learned that this was an area that was predominantly Gentile. And now another crowd gathers. And the account seems a little familiar. Didn’t we just learn of a feeding of a great multitude in Mark 6? The difference is that the former was a multitude of Jews. This time the Gentiles have gathered to Jesus.
The first point this morning is Food for the Gentiles. They had heard the reports of Jesus. Their curiosity has caused them to sit at his feet and learn from him for three days according to verse 2. This would cause me to conclude that this was more than just a casual curiosity – that they would remain with Jesus for three days. Jesus adds that some had come from far away. This idea of “far away” lends itself well to the Old Testament concept of the land of the Gentiles. And it also has the allusion to the Gentile people in the New Testament. Listen to these words in the Book of Acts, “Acts 2:38-39 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And in Ephesians, Paul refers to the body of Christ consisting of Jews and Gentiles alike. Ephesians 2:13 “13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” Ephesians 2:17 “17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.”
Though Mark does not include the content of Jesus’ teaching, we can be fairly confident that he was consistent with his message of repentance and belief because the kingdom of God is at hand. And thus he offered them the spiritual food that they were apparently craving. Jesus shows compassion by teaching the Gentiles and then concerning himself with their physical hunger as well.
He calls the disciples to him and says, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” And the disciples respond with, “of course Lord. We’ve been through this before and know the routine. We’ll just go scrounge up some…” Nope. “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?” Ugh!
The disciples missed it again. And Jesus says “how many loaves do you have?” How about the patience of Jesus here? I probably would have laid into them a little bit here. But Jesus is much more patient and understanding. He tells the crowd to sit down, breaks the loaves again, and gets them to the disciples to distribute to the people. They also acquired a few small fish and distributed them.
You certainly notice some similarities between the first and second feedings. But mostly we see some differences. First, we note that there were four thousand people in the Decapolis as opposed to five thousand men (which would have been significantly more counting women and children). We also see numbers here. And without trying to emphasize too much on numbers, we should at least point a couple things out. In the first feeding, there were twelve baskets that were filled with leftovers. It could be that this had Jewish connotations relating to the twelve tribes of Israel. Here we notice that there are seven baskets left over. “Seven” is usually symbolic of perfection or completion. As such, could it be that this number symbolizes the fullness of God’s provision for all peoples, now including Gentiles? It is worth considering as we have just witnessed Jesus interacting with Syrophoenician women, the deaf man, and the multitude in the Decapolis region. Now Jesus and his disciples get into the boat and go to a new location – Dalmanutha.
And it isn’t long before they again draw the attention of the religious leaders. And they didn’t come for the teaching or a meal of bread and fish. They came to argue. The second point: Proof and Faith. The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking a sign from heaven. Now, if we stopped there, we could conclude is that maybe the Pharisees wanted a little more proof before believing in Jesus. Perhaps they just needed a bit more and then they too would follow after him. No. They weren’t purposed for belief. They were purposed for indictment. All along they have been poised to try to destroy him. Jesus did not meet their expectations as Messiah. In fact, he was really interfering with their religiosity and having a great influence over the people. They wanted him out of the way for good. They were out to test Jesus.
To this point, Jesus has already provided numerous signs to authenticate his ministry. Let’s recount just a few of them to date. Jesus healed a leper in Mark 1 and told him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to them.” In Mark 2, Jesus heals the paralytic that was let down through the roof and says, “Mark 2:8–12 “8 And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” 12 And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!” A little later, he refers to himself as the new wine for new wineskins. In Mark 2:27–28 Jesus responds to being challenged regarding the Sabbath and says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
These Pharisees are not unlike many today. David Garland writes this: “They represent ‘this generation’ (8.12), which continually defies Jesus, tempts disciples to be ashamed of him (8.38), and is faithless (9.19). These people only want to engage in disputes and to test others so that they can embarrass them. They think that they can dictate to God the conditions under which they will or will not believe. They will not accept any ambiguity or paradox. These opponents want an irrefutable, unequivocal, visible proof that removes any doubt from the decision of faith. What they want from Jesus, therefore, eliminates the need for faith.”
Do you know anybody like this? Within the Christian faith, I believe that apologetics are important. “Apologetics” is an approach that offers a rational defense of the faith. And there are Scriptures that would confirm their necessity. But sometimes do we forget that all the arguments in the world may not convince some? I know some of you have argued until you have been blue in the face with some intellectual people. And yet they don’t believe. Anybody here have answers for all the objections to Christianity?? Me neither. Honestly, I don’t think that we are supposed to… because this rules out faith. Jesus calls us to trust him and the message of his gospel. Jesus hasn’t come to meet our expectations. He calls us to his.
For the Pharisees, the kind of Messiah they want will never come. They are determined to find a compliant superman who is endowed with heavenly powers and will fulfill their own earthly programs.” Does this ring true today? Do people seek a god who will serve them and their agenda rather than submitting to his or hers or its? And they miss out on the Savior of the world. Pride and self-absorption keep the majority of people away from salvation from their sin. They will not bow the knee to the One who demands all.
Regarding the Pharisees request for a sign from heaven, the ESV Study Bible notes say it succinctly here. “An open heart, together with Jesus’ demonstration of divine authority, should be more than enough for seeing that he truly is the Messiah.”
Be encouraged. Scripture has informed us of the tension between proof and faith, wisdom and folly. Ultimately it is not our well-articulated arguments that win people to Jesus. It is only by God’s sovereign power and spiritual insight that save lost souls. Consider the words of Paul to the church in Corinth:
1 Corinthians 1:18–25
18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
Those who are called by God will believe. Isn’t that incredibly encouraging?? You can go forth in the greatest confidence knowing that when you declare the gospel to one who is called of God, he or she WILL respond in faith, and be saved from sin, reconciled to God for all eternity! Guaranteed! It may not be the initial time they hear the gospel or from you. But they will respond in faith.
This appears not to be the case for the Pharisees. And in verse 12, Mark adds this curious and emphatic statement: “And he sighed… deeply… in his spirit…” In these ‘sighs’ Jesus portrays his humanity. It is these times where he understands the weight of the circumstances. Time and again, Jesus comes up against the Pharisees as they oppose him. Jesus is the Creator of the universe. Colossians 1 says that “by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.” Why do I bring this up now?? The Pharisees were created by him. And ironically, these are supposed to represent him. Aren’t these the ones who are intended to influence the people to grow closer to God?? And they reject him. And they oppose him. And so, Jesus sighs deeply in his spirit.
Jesus is fully divine and fully human. He is genuinely grieved. He is not mechanical or detached in his mission. He is not Robocop. Did I catch you off guard with that one? You know what I’m talking about, right? I tried to think of other examples. How about Spock from Star Trek? Or Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation? Data is an android who has impressive computational capabilities with no understanding of human behavior. He is unable to feel emotions or understand human indiosyncrasies. In fact, in one of the episodes or movies, he receives an emotion chip. Jesus, on the other hand, has taken on full humanity – emotions and all. And I believe he feels the weight of these confrontations.
He responds with an indictment against the religious leaders. Truly, amen, so be it, I say to you. I, the Creator of the universe say to you, my created beings, NO sign will be given to this generation. In fact the Greek construction is emphatic with this statement. There is now no way that they will be convinced that Jesus is the Messiah. Their fate is now secured. There would be no faith on their part. And thus they are condemned. There is no more discussion. Jesus has put them in their place. There is no use arguing any further with them. They will not exercise faith. And so he leaves with his disciples on a boat, to the other side of the Sea.
The third point this morning: Behaving Like Unbelievers. Verses 14-21 begin with a very curious statement. Mark says that “now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat.” My first question is how could they have forgotten provisions when they had seven baskets of leftovers? Maybe it’s just me and I often think of food… I don’t know. Another curious item here is Mark’s mention that they had forgotten bread, had one loaf, and in verse 16, they have no bread. So, what is it? Commentators believe that the brief mention of “one loaf” is an allusion to Jesus – the Bread of Life. John 6:48–51, Jesus says, “48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.” In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes, “1 Corinthians 10:16–17 “16 The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? 17 Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” And so, this allusion might very well be. But it’s not the emphasis of the passage.
Seemingly, out of the blue, Jesus utters this caution, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” To which the disciples, thoroughly confused start saying things like “what is he talking about? He knows we didn’t bring any bread. I told you to bring it. What happened? Now you’ve done it!” Jesus knows what is going on and says, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? This isn’t what I am referring to.”
I think what Jesus is doing here is taking a current physical situation and using it for a spiritual lesson. It’s kind of like “speaking of water, have you considered living water?” Jesus and the disciples had just dealt with feeding the multitudes with the bread and he says, “speaking of bread, you need to make sure you beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod!”
You may or may not know what ‘leaven’ is. It is like yeast that grows in dough, or fermented dough. It is referred to figuratively in Scripture – predominantly in a negative light. It is used in the context of sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians 5.6 where Paul says such things are like leaven and corrupts the whole lump of dough. It is used in Galatians 5 to refer to false teaching that corrupts the church. It is serious in nature because it is like a cancer. It infects the whole.
And so Jesus issues strong warning. Jesus uses some forceful direct words here. The first word, “caution” is best understood in this context as “to state with force and/or authority what others must do – ‘to order, to command.’ Ok. This seems pretty important. He then adds a second command to ‘watch out.’ This is has the meaning of coming to an understanding as the result of perception – ‘to understand, to perceive, to see, to recognize.’ It is as if this is a strong command to use discernment. (The irony here is that the disciples have difficulty discerning bread.) So Paul uses the word in the context of Acts 17 when it says, “Acts 17:22 “22 So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.” Or in Romans 7 where Paul says, “23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” There is insight and discernment in these contexts. There is a deeper understanding of things.
And then he says ‘beware.’ This means ‘to be ready to learn about future dangers or needs, with the implication of preparedness to respond appropriately—‘to beware of, to watch out for, to pay attention to.’ So it seems to include a discernment with an added readiness to respond. And the last two are imperative commands – although even the first word has the force of a command. Whatever Jesus is saying here about leaven of Pharisees and Herod is not to be taken lightly.
So what is this metaphorical leaven that Jesus is referring to? I believe that it actually refers to a few things. In Matthew’s parallel account, he identifies it as the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. So this would refer to their man-made religion and its unrealistic expectations of people. Luke refers to the leaven of the Pharisees as hypocrisy. They were exposed as clean on the outside and defiled on the inside. They weren’t the real deal. They were imposters. And I think in Mark’s context, we see an added element to the warning. And this is the unbelief of the Pharisees. They demanded signs and did not believe. The curious addition of Herod I think refers to his unbelief and misinterpreted miracles as an indication that John the Baptist had been raised. So, he too, didn’t get it.
And we will see that the disciples actually prove the point. He rifles off these several questions, “Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” This “seeing and hearing” is strong language. In fact, it is primarily used of unbelievers – those on the outside in Mark 4. Do you remember that? Jesus was explaining the parable of the sower and the seed and he says, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that “they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven.” They were in jeopardy of being in unbelief of Jesus.
There are clues to suggest that this was temporary and not a permanent unbelief. Jesus uses the word ‘yet.’ Obviously, he knows that their faith will mature and that many will be martyred for that same faith. And yet here it is not ‘yet’ mature. In his patience, Jesus calls the disciples to remember. This is significant. In the Old Testament, the Israelites would set up stones to remember God’s faithfulness to them. God often reminded them who he was and what he had done for them when it was time for them to act out in faith.
Here, Jesus in his grace, recounts the events of the day. Remember when I broke the loaves for the five thousand. What happened? How much was left over? Remember the feeding of the four thousand. What happened? Don’t you recall who I am? These moments happen frequently on the boat for the disciples, don’t they? The first time Jesus calms the storm with a few words. And the disciples tremble as they begin to understand who stands in the boat with them. The next time Jesus came walking on the water. And now, he reminds them who it is that can perform the miraculous feedings of multitudes. And he asks, do you not yet understand?
It is easy for us to criticize the disciples for their dullness and forgetfulness. I mean they have seen God work through difficult circumstances and seeing lives transformed because of their interactions with Jesus. They have heard his teaching and responded in unbelief.
And yet we don’t ever have these problems. Do we? We are much more mature in our faith in that. We don’t ever question his power in times of need. We never doubt his love or care for us. We are never anxious in our circumstances. There is nothing but complete trust in Jesus. Obviously you know I am joking. We are more like the disciples than we care to admit.
I, too, am like the disciples who were so consumed over the physical and superficial needs that I fail to see the power of God in daily life. I, too, ask questions like ‘how can we feed…? Where can we find? We can’t do that? And he says, “do you not yet perceive or understand? Do you not remember? Remember when I saved you from this? Remember when I gave you the words here? Remember when you thought all hope was lost? And, sadly, I can hear the words all too frequently, “Do you not yet understand?”
Jesus is the Creator of the universe, Savior of the world, Redeemer of mankind. And he calls on people to believe who he is and the message that he proclaims: “repent and believe the good news. The kingdom of God is at hand.” If you don’t yet know him, don’t be like the Pharisees who demand signs and don’t believe. Trust in what you know of him and mature in your understanding. For those of us who do know him and have trusted in him for salvation, let us continue to trust him each and every day as we lean completely on him for our sustenance.