Why did it take two touches from Jesus’ hand for a blind man to be healed? Continuing his exposition of the gospel of Mark, today R.C. Sproul contemplates the message Christ conveyed to His disciples by bringing this man from dimness to clarity of sight.
We continue this morning with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Mark, and we are currently in the 8th chapter of that gospel. This morning I will be reading from verse 22 through verse 30. This section of Mark’s gospel includes his account of what is called the “great confession,” the Caesarea Philippi confession given by Saint Peter, of which there is a larger version in Matthew’s gospel. It is striking to me that Mark’s version is so scanty, since Peter was the Apostle who was behind Mark in the writing of this text. I’m not sure how to explain that.
I also have to say that it’s a travesty of sanctity to go over the great confession of faith found in this chapter in such brief terms. I ask your forgiveness and the Lord’s for trying to combine that with the account of the healing of the blind man. Having said that, let’s look at the text, Mark 8:22–30, and I’ll ask the congregation to stand for the reading of the Word of God.
Then He came to Bethsaida; and they brought a blind man to Him, and begged Him to touch him. So He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the town. And when He had spit on his eyes and put His hands on him, He asked him if he saw anything.
And he looked up and said, “I see men like trees, walking.”
Then He put His hands on his eyes again and made him look up. And he was restored and saw everyone clearly. Then He sent him away to his house, saying, “Neither go into the town, nor tell anyone in the town.”
Now Jesus and His disciples went out to the towns of Caesarea Philippi; and on the road He asked His disciples, saying to them, “Who do men say that I am?”
So they answered, “John the Baptist; but some say Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered and said to Him, “You are the Christ.”
Then He strictly warned them that they should tell no one about Him.
This majestic confession of faith that we’ve just heard that came from the lips of Peter should be the great confession of our lips and of our hearts. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Again, O Lord, we look to you as the Author of this sacred text, and as the One who by Thy Spirit give illumination, so that we may understand it fully. Grant, O God, that we will have eyes that behold these things, not dimly or vaguely, that when we look at Christ, we may not see a man who is as a tree walking, but that our vision may be clear that we may perceive Him in all of His glory. For we ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
A Monument to Unbelief
Jesus gave His warning to the disciples about the leaven of the Pharisees and rebuked them for their lack of perception because they had failed to understand Jesus even as the rulers of the Jews had failed to understand His identity. Then we see that Jesus left and went to Bethsaida. When we mentioned that town before, I told you that the town name, Bethsaida, means “village of the fisher.” Bethsaida was a town that had been developed by Philip the Tetrarch of Galilee, and he named it in honor of the daughter of Caesar Augustus. It was the village from which Philip, Andrew, and Peter came to join Jesus in His band of disciples.
We would think that Bethsaida would be remembered in church history as the place where many people came to great faith because they were eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus. But when we look at the other gospels, we see Jesus rebuking the city along with Chorazin, saying, “Woe unto you Chorazin! Woe unto you Bethsaida! If the works that were done in Sodom and Gomorrah such as were done here, they would have repented long ago.” Far from being a monument to faith, the city of Bethsaida, in Jesus’ evaluation, was a monument to unbelief.
An Unusual, Gradual Healing
When Jesus comes into this town, the people bring a blind man to Him and ask Jesus to touch Him. I want to pause for just a second and ask the question: what is this miracle story doing at this place in Mark’s biographical sketch of Jesus in terms of His life and ministry? The last miracle Mark recorded was the miracle of opening the ears of the man who was deaf and making it possible for him to speak. Those two miracles, the healing of the deaf man and now the healing of the blind man, are the only two miracles of Jesus in the gospel of Mark that are absent from the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke.
That gets our attention because obviously Jesus did many works, as John tells us, that were not recorded by the gospel writers. When a particular author or a gospel incorporates a particular incident in his account of the life of Jesus, particularly if it’s not found in the other gospels, we take special note of it because it gives us a clue concerning that particular gospel writer’s chief concerns in what he’s addressing to his readers.
We see that these two miracle stories function as bookends between Jesus’ teaching about unbelief. After he heals the man who was deaf, the Pharisees challenge Him, and the disciples themselves are still without a formed faith. Then we see that after the healing of the blind man, the same point comes to bear with respect to the clarity with which the disciples understood Jesus.
There is something else to notice about the miracle recorded here before we look at it. This is the only miracle of Jesus in the whole New Testament where His work of miraculous healing does not take place instantly. In this case, the man’s healing required a second touch. His healing was gradual rather than instantaneous. That also has significance for Mark’s concern in what he’s aiming to communicate in his gospel.
Obviously, that the miracle of the healing of the blind man did not take place instantaneously was not due to any lack in the power of Jesus. Jesus is the One who can say to a dead man, “Come forth,” and instantly, the man comes alive. This is the Jesus who can calm the sea by a simple command. Why, then, does it take a double effort on Jesus’ part to effect the healing of the blind man? We’ll consider that in a moment.
Jesus Leads the Blind Man
Let’s look then at this unusual account of a healing at the hands of Jesus: “He came to Bethsaida, and they brought a blind man to Him, and begged Him to touch him. And so He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the town.” That’s something else unusual.
In almost every case where Jesus heals somebody, He heals them openly and publicly, not isolated from the multitude of witnesses. In this case, they say, “Jesus, touch the man.” They are asking for a healing touch, but instead He takes the blind man by the hand. The purpose of taking the man by the hand is not to heal him at the moment but to take him away from his friends who had brought him to Jesus. Now, Jesus tenderly can lead the blind man out of the town and into a private place. Elsewhere, Jesus warns about the situation that exists if the blind lead the blind: they both fall in a ditch. But here is the One whose visual perception was the most acute of any person that ever walked on the face of the earth taking the hand of a blind man and leading him for his healing.
Let’s look back at the text. “And when He had spit on his eyes and put His hands on him, He asked him if he saw anything.” Mark doesn’t tell us that He spit on His hands and then touched his eyes, he says that He spit on his eyes. I don’t know what to make out of that, but we already looked at this business of the use of spit as a healing agent. In any case, Jesus spits on the man and then He lays His hands upon him.
The Significance of Laying on Hands
Let’s stop there for a second. Why did Jesus do that? If we look through the whole scope of Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, we see that there’s a certain significance attached to the ritual of the laying on of hands. We see the laying on of hands now when we ordain people to ministry and to offices in the church. In the New Testament, according to James, when elders went to the homes of those who were acutely ill, they would minister to them by laying on their hands.
In the Old Testament, the primary usage of the laying on of hands was for three things. In the first instance, the laying on of hands was accomplished when people would lay hands on sacrifices that would be offered to God. That was a ritual that signified consecration, setting aside something to a sacred or special or a holy usage. In the second instance, the laying on of hands was done not to animals, but to people, with the consecration of the Levitical priests. Priests in the Old Testament were ordained by the laying on of hands, again signifying consecration—making something special. The third use of the laying on of hands was simply to communicate a blessing, as Melchizedek blessed Abraham in the Old Testament.
Almost nowhere in the Old Testament do you see the laying on of hands associated with healing, but Jesus now gives it that association in the New Testament. We think, for example, of Naaman, the leper, the general of the army of Syria, who was afflicted with leprosy and sought after healing from the hands of the prophet Elisha. He sent a messenger to Elisha begging that Elisha would minister to him and touch him, that he might be cleansed from his leprosy. So, Elisha said, “Let him come to me.”
When Naaman, the leper, came to the place of Elisha, Elisha didn’t even go outside to greet him. Instead, he sent his messenger to the leper, and he said, “Go wash in the pool seven times, and you’ll be clean.” Well, what was Naaman’s reaction? “Wow, that’s great. I can’t wait to get washed.” He’s enraged. “I came all this way for that prophet to touch me personally, and he sends his messenger out and tells me to take a bath.” He didn’t like that one bit until he finally got over his anger, bathed, and was clean of his leprosy. Elisha did it without the sacred touch.
Men Like Trees, Moving About
In this case, the plea is for Jesus to touch this blind man, and He accedes to that request. He spits on the man’s eyes, touches his eyes, and then does something else that’s unusual in this account. In most cases, when Jesus heals somebody, He commands them in the affirmative, saying, “Do this,” or, “Do that.” This is the only time we see that Jesus, when He touches somebody for healing, asks him how he’s doing. He asks him if he sees anything. By the way, in this short passage, there are nine different nuanced verbs with respect to vision that are used by Mark, and we only have one in the English language.
So, Jesus asks the man if he sees anything. The man looks up and says, “I see men like trees walking.” What does that indicate? The first thing it tells us is the man wasn’t born blind. If he had been, he wouldn’t be able to make a distinction between human beings and trees. He had lost his sight somewhere along the way. When Jesus asks, “What do you see?” the man responds: “Well, I see something. Things aren’t completely dark to me. I can see people out there.” I can really act this out right now until I put my glasses on, because I saw people as trees sitting here just a second ago. Anyway, he says: “I can see something, Lord. I can discern that there are people out there, but they look to me like trees moving about.”
The healing that Jesus had imparted to this man was not yet complete. The man had vision, but he was still myopic. His vision was dim. His vision was blurred, and he couldn’t make out the difference between people and trees. So, Jesus puts His hands on his eyes again, makes him look up, and he is restored. He sees everyone clearly. The force of that sentence is that Jesus has now reached this man to such a degree that when he looks up, the verb signifies that he can see clearly from a great distance. His vision is now without blur. It is impeccable. His healing is total and complete. Then, Jesus sends him away to his house, saying, “Neither go into the town nor tell anyone in the town.”
An Object Lesson
Why did it take two touches from the Master’s hand to heal this man? I don’t know. The Bible doesn’t tell us. I can guess. I can speculate. My guess would be this: Jesus intentionally healed this man in stages. Do you remember what Jesus said during the discussion just before this with His disciples in the boat? “Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Is your heart still hardened? Having eyes, do you not see? Having ears, do you not hear?” I believe that the immediate context for this account of healing somebody who is gradually moved from darkness, to dimness, to clarity is that Jesus, in healing this man, is giving an object lesson to His own disciples.
The disciples were not in total darkness as the pagans were. Their eyes had beheld many of the marvelous things of Christ. They beheld things that only angels would seek to be able to view. Jesus had just rebuked them, saying: “Don’t you understand it yet? Do you still not perceive the truth? Don’t you see anything?” They had some understanding, but not much. For all intents and purposes, when they looked at Jesus, if they had been asked, “Who do you say that He is?” the disciples may have said something like, “I look at Jesus, and I see a mighty oak walking around, but I don’t really understand the full measure of who He is.” Notice that this account is right before the watershed moment of recognition by the disciples of the identity of Jesus.
Who Do They Say I Am?
The book of Mark is divided into two parts. The first half devotes itself to the account of Jesus’ Galilean ministry in and around the Sea of Galilee that we’ve been looking at from the very beginning of our study. Now it moves to Caesarea Philippi, which is even further north than the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee. Don’t confuse Caesarea Philippi with Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast. Caesarea Philippi is twenty-five to thirty miles north of the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It’s at the base of Mount Hermon. It was a smaller Caesarea that Philip again established to honor Caesar Augustus, so Caesar’s name and Philip’s name are attached to it: Caesarea Philippi.
In Matthew 16, we get the fuller account of what takes place, but in that watershed moment, Jesus interrogates His disciples. Changing the pattern of rabbi and student, where normally the students or the disciples are constantly asking questions of the rabbi, here the rabbi interrogates His students. He says to them in this pop quiz: “What’s the scuttlebutt? What are people saying? Who do men say that I (and in Matthew’s version, the Son of Man) am? Who do they think that I am?”
The disciples report to Jesus: “Well, we have our ear to the ground. We hear the gossip. We hear the back-fence communications. Some people think you’re John the Baptist.” This was because the fame of John the Baptist had gone throughout the land and most of the people in Galilee had never seen John the Baptist. They had heard about him. So the disciples said: “A lot of them think you’re John the Baptist because you are a prophet like he was. Others think you’re Elijah.”
Why would some think that Jesus is Elijah? At the very end of the Old Testament, in the last book of prophecy, the book of Malachi, God makes the promise that Elijah must return before the Day of the Lord and the Messiah come. Elijah is the one who didn’t die in the Old Testament but was instead taken up in the chariot of fire into heaven. Jesus is getting so much attention that the people are buzzing, whispering, “Maybe this is Elijah who was to come, or one of the prophets.” It’s as if Jesus just completely dismisses them and says, “Okay, okay, that’s fine; but now the big question.”
It’s also the big question for you. You’ve heard now of the life and work of this man Jesus through eight chapters of the gospel. What do you think?
Who Do You Say I Am?
Jesus looked at His disciples and said: “Who do you say that I am?” He may have framed the question this way: “Do you see yet who I am? Have you finally perceived my identity? Or am I just a dim, blurred, walking tree to you? Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered for the whole group, “You are the Christ.” The fuller version reads this way: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responded to Peter on that occasion and said, “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonah, flesh and blood hath not revealed this to you but my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:16–17).
Peter said, “Thou art Christos; You are Mashiach; You are the promised Anointed One of God who came by way of prophecy from the very beginning in the third chapter of Genesis, all the way through the Old Testament where God reiterated His promise to His people that His anointed Son would come to save His people from their sins.” What do you think Peter said? “We know who you are. You’re the Christ. You are Messiah. You are the Son of the living God.”
You would think that, with that confession, Jesus would have turned to them and said, “Finally, after all this time, your hearts have melted, your ears have been opened, you’re hearing my Word, and now you get it.” Beloved, what follows in Mark’s record and what followed in Matthew’s record is that, even though this majestic confession of faith had come forth from the lips of Simon Peter, the disciples still didn’t understand it clearly. The confession was true, and it was an act of real faith when they made this confession. Matthew expands on it by recounting that Jesus pronounced His benediction on Peter, “Blessed are you.” Let me pause there.
Jesus Is the Messiah
Do you believe that Jesus is the Messiah? When you stand up publicly and join the church, whether it’s this church or any other church, and make your public profession of faith, are you declaring to your friends and neighbors: “I believe that Jesus is the Messiah. I believe He is the Christ. I believe that He is the Son of the living God”? If you believe that, then the same benediction that Jesus pronounced upon Simon Peter is your benediction. For He would say, “Blessed are you,” because this is not something you learned in kindergarten, this is not something you learned from the newspaper or from the secular media. Flesh and blood do not reveal this kind of information. If you believe in your heart that He is the Christ, you are blessed among people because God has allowed you to see His Son. Don’t ever forget that.
If you ever are downcast, if you are ever jealous of somebody else’s status or possessions, if you ever cry unto God, “Why me?” in the midst of affliction, hear these words: “Blessed are you,” for you have been able to see the most priceless treasure there is in this world. You have been able to recognize the pearl of great price, and if God never gives you another blessing for the rest of your days on this world, you would have no reason to do anything else but crawl over glass to proclaim His glory and His mercy to the whole world. The greatest blessing a human being can ever receive is that blessing to know Him.
Remember also that Matthew adds the response of Jesus to Simon: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, flesh and blood has not revealed this to you. Thou art Petros.” He gives him a new name, the Rock. Jesus says, “And on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). He does not say, “The spears of hell will not be launched against it,” or, “The fury of hell will not be aimed against it,” but, “The gates of hell.” Gates were defensive mechanisms in the ancient world. The church has an offensive mission to tear down strongholds and to tear down the gates of hell by the power of the gospel.
Jesus, on the road to Caesarea Philippi, said that He was going to build a church, not physically on Peter as some have supposed, but on this truth that Peter confesses. The very foundation upon which the church of Christ is established is that public confession, “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God.” When the church loses her confidence of the identity of Jesus, it doesn’t hurt merely the external trappings of the church, but it disrupts the church at its very foundation. That’s why we are established as a people of God on this confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Let’s pray.
Father, when we lift up our eyes, we pray that You will give us that clarity of vision that, even from a distance, we might recognize that You are the Christ without confusion, without blur or dimness. We pray that You would give us eyes to see so clearly that we would be willing to let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also, that we may live on the basis of that confession until we enter the gates of heaven. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.