hat does it mean to be a Christian? If you asked this question of an average group of people you would get a number of different answers. “It means going to church. It means believing in God. It means belonging to a religious tradition.” Jesus gives a radically different answer. A Christian is a disciple: a student who learns from Jesus by denying himself, taking up his cross and following Jesus.
Situated right in the center of Mark’s Gospel, chapter 8 addresses what it means to be a follower of Jesus. The first half of the chapter focuses mainly on a roadblock to true discipleship, namely, spiritual blindness. In the second half of the chapter Jesus presses His disciples to reckon with who He is and to lay everything else aside to follow Him.
The Danger of Pharisaism (8:1–26)
Suppose you were driving along the interstate. As you approach a blinking roadside sign you see one word: “Beware.” The sign has gotten your attention. After a few seconds the letters change to say, “Slippery road conditions.” The word beware would serve to underscore the gravity of the conditions. At the center of our passage, after feeding another enormous crowd Jesus and His disciples cross the Sea of Galilee to Bethsaida, a city on the sea’s northern coast. On the way, Jesus warns His hearers to “beware the leaven of the Pharisees” (8:15). Just as strings of a spider’s web converge in the center, so do the several parts of this passage converge on this warning.
Introducing the Warning
Don’t wonder if you don’t understand what Jesus means by “the leaven of the Pharisees.” The disciples didn’t get it either. It’s even harder for us to understand because we are so far removed from the concept of leaven, or yeast. People understood yeast in Jesus’ day because they made bread. They understood that bread changed with just a little bit of yeast. As Paul says, “A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Gal. 5:9). Leaven is the difference between flat and fluffy bread. Yeast cells grow on the sugars of the batter. Dividing and multiplying, they expand the bread by producing carbon dioxide. Jesus uses the word leaven to mean something small in quantity which thoroughly pervades a thing and changes it.
By comparing Mark’s account with those of Matthew and Luke we can better understand the leaven of the Pharisees. Matthew tells us that Jesus is talking about “the teaching of the Pharisees” (Matt. 16:12). Luke says the Pharisees’ leaven is hypocrisy (Luke 12:1). Christ uses the concept of leaven to illustrate a religious approach that can kill true spirituality by creeping in and changing our whole approach to God. He’s not just helping the disciples to be able to detect the faults of the Pharisees but to guard against them in their own lives. In fact, they were already beginning to show frightening signs (Mark 8:17–18). Let’s look at a few specifics of this warning, identifying five examples of the leaven of the Pharisees and how we can take heed against it.
The Specifics of the Warning
First, Jesus warns against the leaven of spiritual blindness. The Pharisees’ blindness to the things of God (8:18) is underscored by their request for a sign (8:11). Ironically, this passage is bookended by signs (8:1–10, 22–26) which the Pharisees are unable to interpret due to their blindness (Matt. 16:3; Luke 12:56). What good is a sign if you can’t see? Imagine being asked by a blind person if you could point him in the direction of a certain street sign. The Pharisees’ request is equally bizarre. We must beware of trying to pursue the spiritual life without having spiritual eyes. If you don’t understand what true religion is all about, if you don’t see your sinfulness or the beauty of Christ, if you don’t understand what this “gospel” talk is, ask God to give you sight. The healing of the blind man at Bethsaida is a case study in how the Lord grants sight (8:22–26). The man couldn’t see, but Jesus gave him vision, healing in stages to show that his restoration was no coincidence.
Second, Jesus warns against the leaven of unrepentance. The Pharisees’ lives were case studies in unrepentance. Mark doesn’t mention Jonah, but in the parallel passages Christ says, “No sign will be given you except the sign of Jonah” (Matt.16:4; Luke 11:29). Jonah was figuratively raised from the dead to validate his message of repentance. The Pharisees believed everyone needed to repent but them (Luke 15:7). Beware of self-righteous unrepentance. Prayerfully examine your heart in the light of God’s Word. Humbly study the sin in your own life from God’s perspective.
Third, Jesus warns against the leaven of doubt. He criticizes the Pharisees’ demand for evidence (8:11). The Pharisees’ religiosity obscured their lack of real trust in God. Jesus was right to deny their request for a sign. Faith takes God at his word. It doesn’t test God by seeking signs (Matt. 16:1). Jesus’ warning against doubt hit closer to home when He criticized the disciples’ concern over their lack of bread. When Jesus mentioned the yeast of the Pharisees, the disciples began to notice their lack of bread (8:16). They doubted the providential ability of Christ. There are several ways we can combat the leaven of doubt. First, we must focus on the promises of God which are the bedrock of the Christian faith (e.g., Heb. 13:5). Second, we should remember the pity of God (8:2). As in days of old God is moved to pity by the groaning of his people (Judg. 2:18). Third, we ought to reflect on the power of the God who can turn seven loaves of bread and a few small fish into a meal for thousands. Fourth, we need to remember (8:18) the providence of God. The disciples could look back over God’s providential dealings with them and say, “Thus far the Lord has helped us” (1 Sam. 7:12). Jesus’ disciples probably still had the miraculously created bread in their stomachs but already doubted. How quick we are to forget.
Fourth, Jesus warns against the leaven of materialism. Materialism is a denial of the supernatural and its practical implications. When Christ mentioned leaven, the disciples immediately thought about bread. They reveal affinity with the Pharisees, who were consumed with material things. Pharisaism is putting a religious gloss over our natural inclinations; humanism with a veneer of religion. We too are so prone to think in material terms. Counselors will tell you that the problem a counselee presents rarely demonstrates a firm grasp on the deeper spiritual issues. We think we’re stressed because of our busyness; the deeper problem may be that we place activities above spiritual disciplines. We think we’re depressed because we have no friends; the deeper problem may be that we put too much stock in human acceptance. Be sensitive to the spiritual reality of life. Jesus asked, “Is not life more than food and the body more than drink?” (Matt. 6:25). “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33).
Fifth, Jesus warns against the leaven of legalism. Legalism is the reduction of religion to law keeping. Sometimes Christianity is presented as simply a better way to live; the gospel as simply a better set of rules. Could this be why so many people today have no need for the church? The church has rules; the world has rules. Neither seems to keep them! Christianity is not about living by a better set of rules. It is about experiencing a relationship with the one who kept all the rules for us. It is about growing in love with God and learning to hear and respond to His voice as a lovely thing. If we hold on to even a little bit of legalistic works righteousness, we are in danger of missing Christ (Gal. 2:21).
Pharisaism has not gone extinct. All of us are tainted with it in. Sadly, the typical remedy for this problem is “Stop being a Pharisee,” which itself is a Pharisaic approach. The real solution to Pharisaism is to follow Jesus all the way to the cross; to receive healing for spiritual blindness, unrepentance, doubt, materialism, and legalism from His precious blood. It’s this solution that Mark presents in the second half of chapter 8.
The Call to Discipleship (8:27–38)
Jesus showed his integrity by explaining to his would-be followers the cost of discipleship. Up to this point it had been relatively exciting to follow Jesus. The crowds enjoyed the social, diaconal, and intellectual benefits of following the Teacher. But with every step toward the cross Jesus made plain that discipleship is not about fellowship or food. It’s not about having your ears tickled. Discipleship is costly.
Jesus was leading twelve men, most of whom were trying to following Him but were still learning how. He had around him a larger group of people who were still figuring out who Jesus was and whether or not they wanted to follow Him. Most of us fall into one of those two categories. So, what does discipleship mean to us?
The Path of Christ (8:27–33)
To follow someone means first to understand who he or she is and where that person is going. Before unveiling the radical call to discipleship Jesus invited the Twelve to reflect on who He is (8:27–30). This is one of the most important questions we can ever consider. Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Christ (v. 29) is very significant. He uses the Greek word Christos, which translates the Hebrew word Messiah. Both words mean “anointed one.” In the Old Testament people were anointed, or sprinkled with oil, to signify their appointment and equipping for an official position or task (e.g., 1 Sam. 16:13). The three main official positions were those of prophet, priest, and king. These Old Testament messiahs were typical, or representative, of the coming Messiah. In his baptism, Jesus was anointed by the Father to be His official prophet, priest, and king (Mark 1:9–11; Luke 4:18). As prophet He perfectly reveals to us God’s will. As priest, He sacrificed His own life for sinners and continues to intercede for those whom He is saving. As king, He governs and protects His blood-bought subjects.1
After clarifying the nature of His being, Jesus revealed the nature of His ministry. His announcement was so startling that Peter rebuked him (8:32): “The Son of Man must suffer many things.” Jesus here introduces a new phase in His ministry. From this point on Mark makes it increasingly clear that Jesus is headed for the cross.
Twice before Jesus had used the title “Son of Man” to refer to Himself (2:10, 28). From this point on He will use it much more frequently (it is His favorite self-designation). Jesus probably used this title because it carried the least amount of baggage in Jewish minds. It also aptly communicates both His lowliness and exultation. The Son of Man is a “human figure, ministering, suffering, dying,—though already clothed with authority in the midst of his . . . [humiliation, who will] return clothed in glory.”2 The title “Son of Man” is the perfect way to introduce Jesus’ future path. Jesus would suffer many things, being abandoned by friends, derided by critics, and tortured by enemies (8:31). As the stone the builders rejected, Jesus would be scorned by the leaders of the old system who had no place for a suffering savior. As the propitiation for our sin (1 John 2:2) He would be crushed under God’s devastating wrath.
If Jesus had stopped here, His message would have been tragic. But He went on. He would rise again on the third day. The way up is down. The way to glory is riddled with trials. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Ps. 30:5). This mingling of hope with hurt helped prepare the disciples for what Jesus would say next.
The Path of the Christian (8:34–38)
A true disciple is one who walks as Jesus walked (1 John 2:6). In His call to discipleship Jesus clearly outlines our path.
To follow Christ down this path we first need to know who Jesus is. That’s why He asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (8:29). The way you answer this question will profoundly shape your life. Is He your Prophet? Do you hang on His every word? Is He your Priest? Are you trusting in His blood alone for your salvation? Is He your King? Are you diligently learning to submit to His loving rule in every area of your life? Your answers to these questions are eternally significant. Disciples of Jesus have a desire to come after Christ (8:34) because He is worth following. Disciples are not ashamed of Christ or His words (8:38; cf. Rom. 1:16). No one is ashamed of his most valuable possession.
Second, to be disciples we must place a value on our soul. Is the eternal prosperity of your soul worth risking on a life of predictability, pleasure, or pandering to the desires of men? What can you give in exchange for your soul (8:37)? As you place an eternal value on your own soul, everything that would challenge your heavenly hope becomes a vile enemy.
Third, disciples must deny themselves. Our natural glory-seeking tendency is a great hindrance to effective cross bearing. But the gospel turns on its head the basic self-glorifying drive of natural man. When God changes our hearts we are no longer driven to please ourselves. But we still war against the flesh. Therefore we must deny ourselves. Calvin said, “We are God’s own; therefore let every part of our existence be directed toward him as our only legitimate goal.”3
Fourth, disciples must take up their cross. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Christ bids us to come and die.”4 The cross represents the sufferings of Christ that we experience (Gal. 6:17). To take up one’s cross is to embrace Christian suffering as part of God’s plan for our lives. Like Christ we learn obedience as children through cross bearing (Heb. 5:8). Cross bearing also compels us to more fully crave the perfect justice of God in a perverse world (Gen. 18:25). Only as we truly take up our cross will we relish the apostle’s claim that believers are crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20).
The call of discipleship is radical! In Mark 8 Christ speaks both of His suffering and the suffering of the Christian. But Christ did not suffer and die merely as an example of how we should suffer and die. He suffered and died as the ultimate self-denier for those who cannot go that far. He took up His cross for those who too often cast off their crosses. What a comfort that Christ calls us to follow Him as the Great Shepherd who supplies all our wants, answers all our fears, and promises us a place at His eternal banquet (Ps. 23).
1. Cf. Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 31.
2. B. B. Warfield, The Lord of Glory (Grand Rapids: Guardian Press, n.d.), 29–31.
3. John Calvin, The Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1952), 26.
4. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Macmillan, 1963), 99.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. How is it possible that the disciples could so quickly forget Jesus’ miraculous ability to feed the hungry (compare Mark 6:37 with Mark 8:4)? Can you relate?
2. Contrast Mark 8:4 with Mark 8:8. What is God here teaching His people?
3. In what ways must we take special heed to the leaven of the Pharisees (8:15)?
4. Why is Jesus’ question in Mark 8:27 so important?
5. How does Jesus’ rejection by the elders, chief priests, and scribes (8:31) demonstrate that Jesus cannot simply be added to the worldview of an unbelieving person?
6. Is it possible that we sometimes (more subtly) imitate Peter in rebuking Jesus (8:32)?
7. How are failing to take up one’s cross (8:34) and being ashamed of Christ (8:38) related?
8. Reflect on some ways that discipleship can be practiced in community in ways that it cannot be practiced in isolation from others.