Mark 8:11–21 (ESV)
11 The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. 12 And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” 13 And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side. 14 Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15 And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” 16 And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. 17 And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
One of my favorite movies is Bruce Almighty. There is a great scene in the movie where everything is falling apart for Bruce, the main character. Bruce goes on a drive, and he starts to pray, asking God to give him a sign. As he is driving and praying, sign after sign pops into view telling him to “stop,” “turn around,” “go the other way,” and “danger ahead.” At one point a truck full of these warning signs pulls out in front of Burce but Bruce ignores every sign as he waits for God to respond in a way that is acceptable to him.
In our passage, the Pharisees ask Jesus to give them a sign and we’re told that they ask for a sign in order to test Jesus. We don’t know exactly what they hoped to gain in trying to trick Jesus, and any speculation is useless as Jesus refuses to accommodate their demands. As we’ve been reading through Mark, we know that Jesus has been performing loads of miraculous signs for chapters now, but the amazing thing is that, like Bruce, the Pharisees have either missed these signs or they flat out ignored them.
In the end, we’re told that Jesus sighed deeply (verse 11). The original Greek is better translated as “groaned in his spirit” and this is the only place in the New Testament where the Greek word for “groaned” is used. The meaning of the word is best understood as dismay or despair. In other words, Jesus has been driven to the breaking point when it comes to these religious leaders. They have an absolute lack of faith, one that they share with their forefathers who rebelled against God and needed the intercession of Moses on their behalf (Exodus 33).
After that encounter, Jesus goes on to warn His disciples about the “leaven” of the Pharisees. I love this conversation because we get to see just how “human” the disciples are; they don’t understand what Jesus is speaking about and think they are being called out for not bringing bread with them. I can only picture Jesus letting out another deep sigh before He explains things to them.
Leaven, in this context, was seen as corrupting or diluting the truth and the message about God’s kingdom. We know from what we’ve read in Mark so far is that the truth and message about the kingdom of God was being distorted and even corrupted by the religious leaders through legalism and their desire to hold onto their power and position.
So here, Jesus is warning His disciples to be careful not to follow in the path of the Pharisees. Jesus wants them to understand who He is and the work that He is doing. Jesus doesn’t want the disciples to have hardened hearts but hearts that are faithful because they are centered on knowing who He truly is.
It’s a good warning for us today. It’s so easy for us to get distracted and out of focus; to take our eyes off Jesus and to focus on ourselves, or to follow after what the voice of the world tells us we should have, do, and be, rather than listen intently for the voice of Jesus and follow Him. Knowing Jesus, truly knowing Him, is what will bring us true joy and enable us to live faithfully as we stand in our culture today.
The alternative is something that I don’t think any of us want to hear, that groan from Jesus because our hearts have hardened to Him.
God bless you and know that you are constantly in my prayers!