This post continues an examination of the passages from St Mark’s Gospel which have been excluded from the three-year Lectionary used in public worship.

As such, it forms part of my ongoing series, Forbidden Bible Verses, also essential to understanding Scripture.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Mark 8:11-13

The Pharisees Demand a Sign

 11 The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. 12And 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.” 13And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.

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Last week’s entry ended with Jesus’s return to Dalmanutha, near His base in Capernaum.

Jesus no sooner disembarks from the boat when the Pharisees accost Him (verse 11). The argument is bad enough, but they also ask Him to perform a ‘sign from heaven’ to prove that He is the Son of God.

Bear in mind that in John 3 — so, earlier than this scene in Mark 8 — the Pharisee Nicodemus had already recognised Jesus’s divinity (John 3:2):

2This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Jesus had a lengthy discussion with him about belief and later on in John 7, Nicodemus was the one who put forth the case that Jesus should be able to have a hearing before the religious authorities before they judge Him. It did not make Nicodemus popular amongst his peers. Between those two chapters, it seems likely that Nicodemus came to believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah.

The parallel account to Mark 8:11-13 can be found in Matthew 16:1-4, about which I wrote in 2010. St Matthew’s account reveals a bit more of what Jesus said to the Pharisees. He gave them a sideswipe in their knowledge which enabled them to predict the weather then criticised their spiritual and intuitive blindness.

The post also provided background on the beliefs and approaches of the Pharisees and their enemies the Sadducees (emphses mine):

The Pharisees were experts in Mosaic Law and legalism.  As a result, they were also self-righteous and often attached more importance to legal observance than to Scripture.  They were powerful men in society and eager to make converts.  People sought their opinion and respected their learned minds.  Think of today’s experts we see on television — the Pharisees were similar.  ‘Oh, he went to Harvard — he knows what he’s talking about.’ ‘She has a degree from Oxford — why doubt what she’s saying?’

The Sadducees were free-thinking rationalists who used the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament — written by Moses) on which to base their judgments.  If a belief was too airy-fairy — angels, for one — they dismissed them either through ridicule or posing questions asking for proof or for a display of logic behind such a belief.  So, although they were religious Jews, they would not be dissimilar to some of today’s secularists — asking for a neatly factual answer to a difficult question of faith. 

With regard to Jesus, they allied, adopting ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ perspective.

This is similar to what is happening today between many atheists and some Muslims. Both wish to clamp down on free speech. On the surface — admittedly, there is an element of this — it looks like appeasement of Islamists, the radicals.  However, deep down, both must know that the end result is that such a move would compromise the Church and her faithful.

John MacArthur has a good observation of people walking in darkness seeking each other out and falling further into the abyss of unbelief:

The first thing you see about people in the darkness is they’re comfortable with other people in the darkness and the second is, that the darkness deepens. They’re comfortable with the people who are in the darkness, and they’re consigned to deeper darkness. The more evidence you give them, the deeper they go. They get near the surface and they run deep into the darkness the more the light shines

But they were no different than Pharaoh. You remember after all the signs and wonders that Moses did, it says, “Pharaoh hardened his heart.” That’s the second reality that’s so tragic …

I remember reading years ago, Voltaire, the French atheist, and some of his skeptical statements. One of them stuck with me, he said this, “Even if a miracle should be wrought in the open marketplace before a thousand sober witnesses, I would rather mistrust my senses than admit a miracle” …

And this then is the third thing. The first is the blind are comfortable with the other blind. And they are consigned to deeper blindness. And thirdly, they’re condemned to terminal blindness

This is where we are today with the alliance between unbelievers and Muslims. This is why the Left fawns over them. This is why some on the Democratic National Committee wanted to eradicate God and Jerusalem from their party platform at their recent convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. As it turned out, they were unsuccessful in their vote. Did the hand of Providence produce confusion?

The second element of the Pharisees’ challenging Jesus to perform a ‘sign from heaven’ is the arrogance of their unbelief, also present in today’s unbelievers. Matthew Henry says:

They came forth on purpose to question with him; not to propose questions to him, that they might learn of him, but to cross question with him, that they might ensnare him

There was a sign from heaven at his baptism, in the descent of the dove, and the voice (Mt. 3:16, 17); it was public enough; and if they had attended John’s baptism as they ought to have done, they might themselves have seen it. Afterward, when he was nailed to the cross, they prescribed a new sign; Let him come down from the cross, and we will believe him; thus obstinate infidelity will still have something to say, though ever so unreasonable. They demanded this sign, tempting him; not in hopes that he would give it them, that they might be satisfied, but in hopes that he would not, that they might imagine themselves to have a pretence for their infidelity.

Why would they have asked for such a sign at all? It’s helpful to read the aforementioned passage from Matthew to better understand. MacArthur explains:

Here’s their approach, this is a dispute. The Greek word argues…dispute. They wanted to discredit Him before the people. So this is what they desire. “They seek from Him a sign from heaven to test Him.”

As a test, they want Him to do a sign from heaven. Now there’s a reason for this. The Jews had a superstition. The superstition of the Jews is that God could do heavenly miracles, but demons could only do earthly miracles. That God could do heavenly miracles but demons could do earthly ones. You know, like the magicians in Pharaoh’s court did when they mimicked the miracles of God through Moses and they did their false miracles, this and perhaps the actual supernatural activities of demons through the centuries had created this kind of notion that demons could do earthly miracles, if you will, but only God could do heavenly ones.

And so, they come to Jesus and they say, “Look, do a sign from heaven,” literally, “out of heaven.” A miracle in the sky, stop the sun, Joshua did. Bring fire down from heaven, Elijah did. Eclipse the moon, rearrange the constellations. Start and stop a storm. And they did it to tempt Him. They really wanted to discredit Him. And, of course, it’s supposed to be a rock and a hard place. If He says I’m not going to do that, then the people are going to know He can’t. And if He can’t, then He’s discredited. He’s a fake. Maybe He’s doing what He does by the power of Satan which is what they had said all along. And if He says I can, and I will, and they don’t believe He can, then He’ll fail. So in either case, this is the dilemma He can’t avoid. If He says He’s not going to do it, then the people can assume He can’t and all He can do is what Satan does. And if He says He can and tries it, He’ll fail because He’s not the Messiah, He’s not from God, they were sure of that, and He’ll be discredited either way …

They didn’t need more signs, more evidence. They had plenty. But there was, after all, you know, the notion that in the time of the Messiah’s arrival and the establishment of the Kingdom and judgment and all of that, there would be signs in the heaven, didn’t Joel chapter 2, didn’t the prophet say the sun will be darkened and the moon will turn to blood and there will be signs in the sky? I mean, the prophet did say that. And oh, by the way, that will happen when Jesus returns again to establish His Kingdom and judge the ungodly, read Matthew 24 where Jesus Himself is a sign in the sky and all His holy angels with Him. Read the book of Revelation, they’ll come signs in the sky ...

Then He says to them, according to Matthew 16, “You’re a wicked and adulterous…and He doesn’t just say group…generation.” That means all you leaders and all this nation that follow you, scathing statement. You’ll have one more sign, according to Matthew 16, Jesus said, on the same occasion and it’s the sign of Jonah, remember that? A sign of Jonah is given by our Lord in Matthew 12:39 and 40, He says, “As Jonah was in the whale for three days with a great fish, I’m going to be in the ground for three days.” That’s the only sign you’ll be given. No more signs.

And when that sign came and the word got back to the leaders of Israel that He had risen from the dead, according to Matthew 28:11 to 15, they called the soldiers in who were guarding the tomb and bribed them to lie about the resurrection. That’s fixed darkness. They would deny it when they knew it happened.

After the Pharisees mock Jesus by arguing for this sign, Jesus responds with a deeply emotional response (verse 12): ‘he sighed deeply in his spirit’. MacArthur tells us:

Only once used in the New Testament, here is that verb, compound form. The simple form is used in chapter 7:34 when He sighed, it’s a Greek expression. He sighed over a physical suffering, we read about it in chapter 7, deafness, He sighed. Here it’s compound, He’s sighing deeply. Stronger emotion over spiritual blindness and over physical suffering. It breaks His heart, that’s why He wept when He entered Jerusalem, Luke 19, John 11. He wept at the grave of Lazarus when He saw the power of sin, impact of sin to produce pain. His grief is profound over this hard, hearted, obstinate unbelief in the face of massive evidence, massive signs.

Imagine knowing something very emotionally painful — rejection and unbelief — will happen, then it does. Jesus’s sorrow must have been very profound indeed.

He then declares that He will not under any circumstances cede to this taunting from the Pharisees. He has washed His hands of them. And, as both Henry and MacArthur say, when these unbelievers did find out about His Resurrection, they wanted its truth rubbed out. A number of atheists today believe this discreditation, citing various ancient documents. If you want to see these discussions, read the Telegraph comment sections following news items concerning Christianity.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus’s desertion of the Jewish people in Jerusalem takes place in John 12, specifically, verses 35 and 36:

35 The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. 36While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”

When Jesus had said these things, he departed and hid himself from them.

Back to today’s verses from Mark. When Jesus leaves them (verse 13) to get back into the boat, He is consigning the Pharisees to their unbelief. He’s washed His hands of them in Galilee and is leaving them to the judgment of God the Father.

MacArthur explains the timeline and change of focus of Jesus’s ministry at this point:

His Galilee ministry is coming to its end, He’s going to go down to Judea for the last months of His life before He goes to the cross. He’s wrapping up this extensive more than a year that He has spent in a very small area of Galilee. This is the last encounter with the Pharisees and the Sadducees are there as well. It’s a milestone. It really is. It’s a milestone because it is the last time these leaders of Israel will face their Messiah and Savior in that area.

This is it. From here on, whenever He relates to them He relates to them as a condemning judge. Up to this point there have been invitations extended to the leaders of Israel to believe. No more. Denunciation now. But it’s a milestone then for a second and corollary reason. Since He is through with the leaders of Israel, He is through also with the people who follow the leaders of Israel. And from this point on, our Lord’s instruction and His power displays are not for the leaders of Israel, not for the rejecters anymore but for those who believe. So from here on, everything that takes place is driven directly at the disciples.

Next time: Mark 8:14-21