13. Discipleship: The Challenge and Struggle to Understand (Mark 8:17,21)

You don’t get far into the story of Jesus as told by Mark without coming face-to-face with the role of the disciple or follower of Jesus. As others have noted, Mark’s Gospel can be considered a manual of discipleship. Evangelicals in North America for the past decade or two have used the term discipleship to express the process of Christian maturity. Evangelism is to be followed by discipleship as mature believers introduce new Christians to the ways of Jesus.

Mark certainly has many positive things to say about following Jesus. He promises to make known the secret things of God’s Kingdom, he introduces us to the way of life, he empowers us to oppose evil, his Spirit fills us and enables to tell the good news, and he tells us of the rewards that await true believers. But even as he is revealing these good things, Mark also has another message to share about the disciple’s journey.

Putting one’s full confidence in Jesus as the Messiah of God constitutes the initial step of faith, which is always accompanied by repentance. But discipleship truly becomes a journey of discovery – particularly discovering our own blindness, ignorance and misunderstanding about the ways of God. Trace the disciples’ experience through the entirety of Mark and this struggle to see, to know and to understand what God is about never stops. It is incessant, with flashpoints of insight followed by dramatic conflicts that are instigated by persistent misunderstanding.

We get hints early on (1:35-39).

  • When Jesus leaves Capernaum early in the morning to pray, the disciples hunt feverishly to locate him. Finding him, they want him to return to Capernaum and continue his remarkable ministry. But they misunderstand that his mission is larger than the city of Capernaum. He must go elsewhere.
  • In the midst of the storm they do not understand why Jesus can remain sleeping (4:38).
  • When Jesus stops in the crowd to ask who touched him, the disciples seem dumbfounded that he would ask such a question (5:30-31).
  • After feeding two huge groups of people, Jesus warns his disciples to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod” (8:15-16). They have no awareness that Jesus is talking about spiritual matters. They think he is concerned about their lack of bread.
  • At this point Jesus, perhaps with some frustration, asks, “Why are you discussing that you do not have bread? Do you not know, do you not yet understand? Do you have your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see and having ears do you know hear….Do you not yet understand?” (8:17-18,21). They know how many full baskets they collected after the crowds were fully satisfied, but apparently they have not understood what these miracles imply about Jesus.

A few verses later Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah. Finally, we think, the disciples are comprehending the truth. Jesus immediately reveals that he, the Son of Man is going to suffer and die. Peter begins to rebuke him! Jesus must publicly scold him for continuing to think in human terms, rather than God’s ways (8:33).

We could trace this persistent misunderstanding through Peter’s remarks during the Transfiguration, through the persistent disputes among the disciples about greatness, through the petition of James and John, through Peter’s denial and Judas’ betrayal and the desertion of all his followers at his arrest. Even when Jesus rises from the dead, they persist in their unbelief and lack of understanding. Finally Jesus upbraids their hard-heartedness (16:14).

Should we think that our journey in discipleship will have fewer challenges when it comes to understanding the ways of God? We might suggest we now enjoy the presence of God’s Spirit and have a clearer sense of what God’s plan is because we have the full canon of Scripture. This is true, but are our hearts less hardened or our minds less prone to think in human ways rather than God’s ways? Jesus’ warning about deceit (13:21-23) and the treachery of the human heart (7:20-22) should keep us walking humbly after Jesus.

When was the last time you were surprised at God’s ways and discovered that you had it wrong? Perhaps it was a matter of scriptural understanding or the direction that God wants His church to proceed or suggesting to God that He should heal a person or alleviate suffering. Or maybe you thought God wanted you to become wealthy or powerful or impressive in some way, only to discover that life is simple, tough, and humbling. Are we willing to learn the ways of God as we follow Jesus?

Application: as you reflect upon ways of God today:

  1. think about the last time God surprised you and revealed that your understanding was confused or wrong;
  2. reflect upon your feelings at that time and how you responded to God or to the person who was God’s instrument to help you;
  3. consider what would you do differently next time this happens;
  4. consider how this fact of discipleship should affect the way you treat other disciples and seek to work together.

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