In the Gospels, the disciples of Christ often appear as experts in missing the point. While seeing, they don’t yet see. Like an untrained miner, they do not yet possess and appreciation for the jewel that stands before them. Christ is the pearl of great price, the treasure of incomparable value. Yet, it took time for the disciples to perceive who Christ was and how he was bringing the kingdom of God.
The same might be true today. Although, we do not physically see Jesus Christ, we inhabit a world where the Spirit of Christ has been sent. While Christ’s absence may constitute some disadvantage to our understanding, the gift of the Spirit is a far greater advantage. As Jesus says of the Holy Spirit, “I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).
Thus, contrary to what we might think, to have the Spirit of Christ in this age is better than having the physical Christ. For to have the Spirit is to have Christ and the Father—for he is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. And more, in having the Spirit of Truth, we have One who opens our blinded eyes, convicts our dull souls, and enables us to see and believe in the Lord. Indeed, by the Spirit-inspired Word of God we have access to knowing in ways the disciples struggled to grasp.
A Theological Reading of Mark 8–9
In Mark’s Gospel we see how the disciples struggled to apprehend who Jesus was and what he was doing. In particular, Mark 8–9 show the disciples stumbling in the darkness, as Jesus begins to turn on the light. Consider a few points.
First, after feeding the four thousand (8:1–10), Jesus gets on the boat (v. 13) with this disciples. The disciples had forgotten to bring bread (v. 14). This was not a problem if Jesus—the feeder of 5,000 and 4,000, respectively—was with them. But instead of seeing their supply in him, they lamented their forgetfulness when he cautioned them against “the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod” (v. 15). Seeing Christ in their midst, they did not yet understand.
Next, Jesus healed a blind man in Bethsaida. Jesus asks, “Do you see anything?” (v. 23). Remarkably, the man replies that he sees people who look like trees (v. 24). From one angle, it looks as though Jesus’ optical surgery was unsuccessful, for he had lay “his hands on his eyes again” (v. 25). But from another angle, we see that this living parable explains exactly the condition of the disciples. They could see Jesus in part, but not in whole. They had a sense of who he was, but their vision was still blurry.
From the two-part healing, Mark turns to Peter’s confession and confusion. In 8:27–30, Jesus asks “Who do people say that I am?” and “Who do you say that I am?” In response the disciples identify the rumors going around, some say “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” Against all of these possibilities, Peter stands and declares: “You are the Christ” (v. 29). Clearly, he has a view of who Christ is. Matthew’s Gospel even includes Jesus praise of his Father for opening Peter’s eyes to see this.
Still, Peter’s understanding is obscured. For in the very next moment, as Jesus began to teach his disciples about his role as messiah, Peter rebukes Jesus. When Jesus said that he “must suffer many things . . . and be killed” (v. 31), Peter counsels him otherwise. Jesus’ reply is stunning: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (v. 33). The same disciple who saw Jesus as the Christ continued to possess a mind “set . . . on the things of man.” The dawn of the kingdom has come to the disciples, but more light is needed.
Such light arrives when Jesus takes Peter, John, and James to a mountain that would be named after what takes place next. Jesus promises that “some standing here will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power” (9:1). Then Mark records the unveiling of Christ’s radiant glory. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus is seen for who he is. Peter again responds in confusion. He offers to make a place for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (v. 5)—a gracious but utterly misled suggestion. In response, the Father cuts him off and declares, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” (v. 7).
In this vision and speech, Peter is given further light on who Jesus is. The event is something of a capstone of these visions, as the Son of glory has been commissioned to be the suffering servant. The “listen to him” harkens back to Deuteronomy 18:15, and Moses words about the prophet to come. But it also requires Peter and the apostles to listen to Jesus about the cross-centered exodus he’s about to make (cf. Luke 9:31.).
Still, this is not the end of the story. Coming down from the mountain, we find the disciples exercising their trademark ability to miss the point. A man has brought his son to Jesus for healing (v. 17). While Jesus was away, the disciples sought to what they had done at other times, to cast out the demon (v. 18). Their ability, however, was hampered by their lack of prayer (v. 29).
By contrast, Jesus brings healing to the boy, but not before eliciting a confession of faith from the father. Jesus says, “All things are possible for one who believes” (v. 23), to which the father replies, “I believe: help my unbelief!” (v. 24). After which Jesus turns to the boy and drives out the unclean spirit. In this moment, Jesus not only demonstrates the power of his kingdom and compassion for a father with his son, he also reveals more of who he is and how his followers might know him.
Seeing is Believing: How Jesus’ Healing Ministry Informs Our Understanding
When we step back to see what we can learn from these stumbling in the morning light, we discover three truths about prayer, faith, and the Holy Spirit.
No one comes to an understanding of Jesus apart from prayer. As David Helm has shown, revelation and understanding in the Gospels are often preceded by prayer. And in this case, it was the father’s cry for help that brought aid. Whether you classify, “I believe, help my unbelief” as a prayer, the petition for help brought healing and revealed more of Christ’s gracious power.
More theologically, this healing reveals something about how God makes himself known to us—namely, understanding follows faith. In the father’s case, he saw the power of God after he confessed his trust in Christ. So it is for us, spiritual perception that comes to those who believe. As Psalm 25:14 puts it, “The secret things belong to those who fear God.”
At the same time, ongoing faith leads to greater light. In the midst of their confusion, the disciples continued to walk in the light because they continued to walk with Jesus. In truth, they did not understand all that was happening, but as they kept their eyes on (and their feet with) Jesus, he continued to reveal himself before them.
Interpreting this stumbling into light are two accounts of healing. In the first, Jesus gradually opened the eyes of a blind; in the second, he responsively healed the son when his father interceded. Indeed, these two healing show the relationship of faith to healing and prayer to faith. Often our spiritual (in)sight takes time to form and sometimes it will not occur unless we plead for grace. Yet, to those who entrust themselves to Christ, they can rest assured that he will make himself known to them—by faith now and one day by sight.
3. The Holy Spirit.
Finally, as we read Mark today, we must remember that we occupy a different place in redemptive history. These events took place before the cross, before the resurrection, and before the gift of the Spirit. Hence, we occupy a “better” vantage point in history to know the Lord.
Still, that understanding only comes by the illuminating work of the Spirit. Therefore, as we read Scripture we must pray in faith for God to open our eyes and grant us understanding. This is what it means to walk in the Spirit, with trust rising in our hearts as we pray for God to grant us fresh light every day.
Walking by Faith Means Praying in the Holy Spirit
Discernment into the things of God do not come by sheer intellect or rigorous study. Just read Proverbs 2:1–7, which balances earnest seeking of wisdom with God’s gracious giving of wisdom (cf. 2 Timothy 2:7). Likewise, in Mark’s Gospel we see how the disciples received this gift in fits-and-starts, and we should expect something similar in our lives. Only, we can trust that as we pray, “I believe, help my belief,” we already have the Spirit of God working in our hearts.
In Christ, we have already received the very Spirit by which we might pray in faith and walk in faithfulness. May God grant us more of his spiritual light, that we might pray in faith, and see his saving, sanctifying, serving power taking shape in our lives.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
[photo credit: David Dicello]