Seeing the Grace of Christ (Better) Through the Chiasm of Mark 6:7–8:30

luke-palmer-305434Chiasms are the beeessstt!
— Nacho the Librarian —

If the name Nacho is unfamiliar, I’m not sure I can or should help. But if the word chiasm is equally enigmatic, let me encourage you to do some reading on the subject. It will pay huge dividends in your reading of Scripture.

Here’s why: Chiasms are a literary device often used by biblical authors, who seek to emphasize certain points in their writing. Because Hebrew Prophets and New Testament Apostles wrote without B, I, U on their keyboards, they had to make use of other devices to stress emphasis. And following from the repetitive nature of Scripture (see Peter Gentry, How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophetsch. 3), chiasms became a regular way biblical authors made their points. On chiasms, Gentry writes,

The word chiasm comes from the letter . . . chi (X), . . .where the top half of the letter is mirrored in the bottom half. If an author an author has three topics and repeats each on twice in the pattern C B A :: C’ B’ A’, the second cycle or repetition is a mirror image of the first arrangement.

A nice example is found in Isaiah 6:10, where Yahweh explains what will happen during Isaiah’s long ministry of preaching:

Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed. (46–47)

This way of writing fills the Scriptures. And growing disciples of God’s Word must learn how to identify such structures (and how to reject fanciful literary creations of the modern interpreters that are not in Scripture). Still, more often than not, when we find repetitions in Scripture, they are there to help identify the main points of the author. Thus, rather than being some esoteric approach to Scripture, seeing the structures of the biblical authors is a necessary and vital for understanding the message of Scripture.

Thus, I share the following outline of Mark 6:7–8:30, a section of Mark’s Gospel that identifies Jesus as the Christ. By paying attention to Mark’s literary structure, I contend we can better understand who Christ is and how disciples of Christ come to know him as Lord. 

A Rough Outline of Mark 6:7–8:30

After Jesus’ hometown rejected him (Mark 6:1–6), Mark says, “And he went about among the villages teaching” (v. 6b). Amazed but undaunted by Nazareth’s unbelief (v. 6a), Jesus traveled throughout Galilee in Mark 6–9 before making his appointed journey to Jerusalem (10:1ff).

In these chapters, he sent his disciples to proclaim the kingdom, he healed many, he fed both 5,000 and 4,000, he debated Pharisees, all on the way to revealing his identity in Mark 8:27–30. Indeed, his identity is a key point of chapters 1–8, but it is less apparent how Mark organizes his thoughts. Or at least, our modern versification does little to show Mark’s structure.

Paying attention to the structure of Mark’s Gospel itself, we can see that from the beginning, the identity of Jesus has been in question. This question is amplified after Jesus calmed the wind and the waves. Mark 4:41 reads: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Left unanswered, this question alerts the reader to see who Jesus is and to watch for clues until it is answered.

In some ways, it will take the rest of the book and specifically the death and resurrection of Jesus to know in full Christ’s identity. This is Peter Bolt’s thesis in The Cross from a Distance. Still, there is an intermediate answer to the question in Mark 8:29, and it is my contention that the events of Mark 8:27–30 are meant to culminate all the identifiers that Mark has included in the first eight chapters. Even more, I believe Mark has led us to see this by the way he has structured chapters 6–8.

Reading Mark in Context

When you come to Mark 8:27–30, Jesus’ asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (v.27). To this question, the disciples reply that some identify him as John the Baptist, others as Elijah, and others as a prophet. Jesus probes further and asks who they think he is, to which Peter responds for all of them: “You are the Christ” (v. 29).

Now typically, when this passage is preached, the exegesis focuses on the identity of Jesus, and rightly so. He is the Christ and not a mere prophet. He is the One to whom John the Baptist pointed, and not another Elijah leading to the coming of a different Lord. He is God the Son Incarnate and this a key proof text for that doctrine. Yet, such a microscopic view of Peter’s confession may miss the larger point Mark is making. Even more, such a narrow reading requires our systematic theology to fill in the exegesis, rather than the context of Mark’s Gospel.

Here’s what I mean: If you read Mark 8:29 in context, you have to ask: How did the disciples who did not yet understand Jesus’ identity in Mark 8:21 come to at least a partial understanding of his identity in just 8 verses. Remember, Jesus excoriates his disciples in Mark 8:17–21 for not understanding who he is, and yet now (miraculously) Peter understands. How is that?

At the same time, if you read Mark’s Gospel in one sitting, you may remember that the names John the Baptist, Elijah, and other prophets show up in the same order when Mark tells of Herod’s wicked execution of John the Baptist. In Mark 6:14–16, Mark reports,

King Herod heard of it [e.g., the ministry of Jesus’ disciples in Mark 6:7–13], for Jesus’ name had become known. Some said, “John the Baptist has been raised from the dead. That is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.” 15 But others said, “He is Elijah.” And others said, “He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” 16 But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised

Striking! The words of Jesus’ disciples in Mark 8:28 are preceded by these words describing Herod. What are we to make of this? Well, over the years, when I find repetitions like this in Scripture, I begin to wonder: Is this intentional? Has Mark organized his writing with these repetitions? Could this be a chiasm?

Indeed, this is exactly what I think Mark has done. And only as we read Peter’s confession in light of the whole section (6:7–8:30) do we understand the main point(s) Mark is making. At the same time, by discovering Mark’s structure, we find an answer to how Peter and the apostles came to identify Jesus as the Christ. And in this, we both discover who Jesus is and how disciples come to faith in Christ.

Mark’s Chiasm: Identifying Jesus and His Followers

Space does not permit a whole commentary on this section, it does not take too long to see a chiastic structure in Mark 6:7–8:30, where Mark puts together a string of events between Jesus’ denial in Nazareth and Peter’s confession in Caesarea Phillipi.

Here’s the basic outline:

6:7–13 — Jesus sends his disciples out to preach the gospel
6:14–29 — Jesus’ Identification is in Question (vv. 14–15)

6:30–52 — Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand + Jesus Walks on Water
[This results in hardness of heart]

6:53–56 — Jesus Heals Many Sick

7:1–5 — Jesus Debates Pharisees (I)

7:6–8 — Isaiah 29:13

7:9–13 — Jesus Debates Pharisees (II)
7:14–21 — Jesus explains the true source of spiritual uncleanness –

7:24–30 — Jesus Heals the Syrophoenician
7:31–37 — Jesus Heals a Deaf Man

8:1–21 — Jesus Feeds Four Thousand + Jesus Debates Pharisees + Jesus Corrects the Disciples.
[This results in hardness of heart]

Jesus Heals a Blind Man (8:22–26)
Peter Confesses Christ (8:27–30)

From this literary structure, two main features are highlighted.

  1. The identity of Jesus as the Messiah.
  2. The heart that divides believers from unbelievers 

In what follows, I will try to show the logic of this structure, so that we can see the meaning of his Mark’s Christ-centered message.

Mark’s Chiastic Structure

6:7–13 — Jesus sends his disciples out to preach the gospel — In sending his disciples to call for repentance (v. 12), we can conclude from Mark 1:15, that these disciples are preaching the gospel of the kingdom. This is what will bring salvation to God’s sheep, and what leads John the Baptist to hear about Jesus (6:14)

6:14–29 — Jesus’ Identification is in Question (vv. 14–15) — Set in the context of Herod’s execution of John, we find the question of Jesus identity. In this sorrowful report, Herod rejects the gospel by murdering the one who prepared the way for Jesus. In this way, Herod is identified as a violent unbeliever, but at present his question of Jesus’ identity is the same as those disciples whom God is bringing to know his Son.

6:30–52 — Jesus Feeds the Five Thousand + Jesus Walks on Water — Feeding the 5,000 identifies the lack of shepherds in Israel (6:34). This recalls the words of Ezekiel 34, and how God himself would feed and guide his sheep by means of a Davidic shepherd. As John tells this account in reference to Moses and the manna (John 6), it is likely Mark also has Old Testament themes in mind.

Additionally, we should read the feeding the five thousand with the walking on the water, another identifier of Jesus’ divine nature (cf. Job 9:8), is seen in v. 52, where Mark concludes, “for [the disciples] did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.”

A key to seeing the arrangement of Mark’s chiasm is this note about hardness of heart (6:52 = 8:17–21). The disciple’s hard-heartedness both identifies the disciples with the unbelieving Pharisees and will become the condition that Jesus must change in order for them to believe. 

6:53–56 — Jesus Heals Many Sick — Jesus heals many who come to him. “The fringe of his garment” (v. 56) may harken back to the healing of the unclean woman (5:28).

7:1–5 — Jesus Debates Pharisees (I) — In Galilee, Jesus debates scribes from Jerusalem over what makes a person clean.

7:6–8 — Isaiah 29:13 — Many times in Paul’s letters, he centers his argument with Scripture. Does Mark do the same thing here? If so, his main point is to identify the main problem with Israel. Of note, uncleaness is a recurring theme throughout Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. It’s striking that Jesus confronts these ‘clean’ Jerusalem Jews with their intrinsic uncleaness.

7:9–13 — Jesus Debates Pharisees (II)  — Jesus explains how the Pharisees break the Law with their traditions.

7:14–21 — Jesus explains the true source of spiritual uncleanness –-Like the contrast between Nazareth and Jairus and the woman with the issue of blood, this passage serves as a bridge between the main debate in this section with two prominent healings. It may also be intended to contrast the Pharisees unbelief and with the Gentiles belief (see next).

7:24–30 Jesus Heals the Syrophoenician’s Daughter — This healing matches the previous healing (6:53–56). The significance of this passage may be in how the Gentile ‘dog’ is received by Jesus. In pressing against her request, he brings out her faith. In light of Mark 6:1–6, her faith is what enables healing.

7:31–37 — Jesus Heals a Deaf Man — Another healing is mentioned. The two healings (7:24–30 and 7:31–37) parallel the many healings in 6:53–56.

8:1–21 — Jesus Feeds Four Thousand + Jesus Debates Pharisees + Jesus Corrects the Disciples — Feeding the 4,000 parallels the 5,000. While the numbers are different, the motive is the same. In both occasions, it is Jesus “compassion” that impels him to feed these hungry sheep (6:34; 8:2).

The second feeding sets up two responses. Like the Pharisees set in contrast to the Syrophoenician woman, this may again be an intentional contrast. First, the Pharisees demand another sign, proving their unbelief (8:11–13). But second, the disciples are no better. Jesus rebukes them harshly for their hard hearts (v. 17) and their lack of understanding (v. 22). This is what parallels the earlier spiritual blindness evidenced after the first feeding. And thus, at this point, the disciples are still no different than the Pharisees.

What will make a difference and open the eyes of the disciples? In this context, the answer may be that Jesus stays with the disciples in the boat, whereas he leaves behind the Pharisees (8:13). This choice reflects God’s prerogative to reveal himself to his little children and to hide himself from the proud (see Matthew 11:20–30). At the same time, it is the spiritual healing that Jesus brings to his disciples that will enable them to see and know who Christ is. And this comes from the next pericope.

Jesus Heals a Blind Man (8:22–26)  In the pericope that preceded the earlier identification question (6:7–13), Jesus sent out his disciples to preach the gospel. In so many ways, this is the message which identifies Jesus as the Christ. However, such understanding will only come when God grants sight. Mark 8:26–30 makes this clear, when Jesus heals the blind man.

In between the blindness of disciples (8:17–21) and the dawning of their sight (8:29), Mark records a healing that visualizes what the Spirit does to make blind man see Christ. Just as John 9 employs a physical healing of blindness to address Israel’s spiritual blindness, so here we find this healing as the key to answering the question: What changed in the disciples between 8:21 and 8:29?

The answer: God opened their eyes. However, as the unique healing tells, he only gave them partial vision. Not for lack of power, Jesus healed the blind man in stages. Why? Because this was the experience of the disciples. In Mark 8:29, they came to see Jesus as the Christ. But as Mark 8:31–33 indicates, they did not yet know what it meant for Jesus to be the Christ. Only in the cross and resurrection would Jesus’ full identity be seen. Thus, they saw him as the Christ, but not until he was hung on a tree, would they fully understand that the Messiah had to suffer before he would be glorified. Evocatively, the healing in Mark 8:22–26 also described men as “trees, walking.” I’m not sure what to make of that.

Peter Confesses Christ (8:27–30) — In the end, we come to Peter’s confession. Whereas Herod, the Pharisees, and many others who were in Christ’s presence rejected him, Peter and the apostles could now see who Christ was. Such understanding came not from themselves, but from God the Father. 

Putting the Pieces Together and Seeing the Grace of God

In Matthew’s Gospel, when Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, the Evangelist includes Jesus words to Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (16:17). In them, Jesus affirms that his identification is correct and that the source of understanding is God himself.

Mark’s Gospel does not include Matthew’s extra sentence, but from the structure of chapters 6–8, the point is made. The disciples came to know Christ because God sent them the gospel, opened their ears, and opened their eyes. Indeed, this seems to be the main point of this whole section.

Whereas Israel remained hardened in the unbelief of their impure hearts (Mark 7:1–23), Jesus came to save them from their sin and awaken them to his grace and glory. In the contrast between Herod and the disciples, the contrast between the Gentile woman the Pharisees, and the contrast between the Pharisees and the disciples after the feeding of the 4,000 Mark is calling us to believe on Christ. And to acknowledge that it is God who opens our eyes to see him. This Mark 6–8 teaches is as an act of miraculous grace, even greater than the various healings in these chapters.

In the end, by paying careful attention to the structure of Mark’s Gospel, we learn who Jesus is, if God permits, and how God opens our eyes. Truly, to know Christ is a gift of grace and not the result of works.

Thankfully, even seeing the chiasm in Mark 6–8 is not necessary for knowing Christ. Rather, it is a divine work of the Spirit which opens our eyes to Christ. Still, just like the man healed of blindness in two stages, so we who see Jesus as the Christ must ever endeavor to see him more clearly. This is where learning the structure of Scripture comes in. They roadmaps to the way in which the Spirit inspired God’s Word and by learning the curves of the text, we better see the substance of our Lord.

Therefore, take some time to learn about chiasms, because they will help you see Christ more clearly. And keep looking to him, because a constant gaze at the Son is the greatest way to know him and love him more.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Luke Palmer on Unsplash

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