In astronomy, every now and then, there will be some unusual event that really captures people’s attention. For example, Haley’s Comet comes around every 75 years or so and it always gets people excited. Every couple of years, there will be a lunar eclipse. But probably the most spectacular astronomical event is a solar eclipse. People have been known to fly around the world just to experience a solar eclipse, and it’s something very unusual. I’ve only had the opportunity to view a few of them in my lifetime.
Ancient people attributed solar eclipses to supernatural causes or demonic forces. Today, we understand that an eclipse is simply an alignment of the sun, the moon and the Earth, but for them, it was an intervention of the gods. Total solar eclipses were very frightening for people as the sun seemed to just disappear in the middle of the day and the sky darkened in a matter of moments.
In fact, after every solar eclipse, people believed that the gods would strike hundreds of people blind because of their unfaithfulness. Now, of course, we know that if you look at an eclipse with unprotected eyes, it can burn your retina, and that can lead to blindness. But I wonder how many ancient people over the centuries marveled at the magnificent spectacle of a solar eclipse, only to wake up the next day completely blind?
Blindness was a common feature of first century life — because of disease and accident and injury in battle. The Jews considered blindness to be one of the worst forms of suffering and they saw it as a punishment from God – remember in John 9 where the apostles asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” (John 9:1). There wasn’t much work you could do in the first century without your sight, and so most blind people ended up being beggars.
Sight is the one sense that most of us depend on more than any other. If we had to make a choice, most of us would rather give up our hearing or the sense of taste. We can imagine coping — if we had to — with the loss of a hand or foot. But the thought of being blind terrifies us.
In our English language, physical sight often serves as a metaphor for mental perceptiveness. And so, our language is filled with expressions that relate to our eyes but really have more to do with our minds.
For example, when we understand something, we say “Now I see!”
We accuse people of being blind when they can’t seem to understand something we’ve said.
When we want someone to think more clearly, we say “open your eyes!”
And in scripture, Jesus often used words about vision in the same way, to serve as a metaphor for spiritual perceptiveness. And so, in the gospels, “blindness” can refer a physical problem, but it can also refer to a spiritual problem. When Jesus talked about a person’s “eyes”, sometimes he was referring to the eyes in their head and sometimes he was referring to the eyes of their heart. And so, when Jesus called the Pharisees “blind guides”, we understand that he wasn’t suggesting they needed glasses but rather that they didn’t understand spiritual truths.
Here’s an interesting bit of trivia – in all the miracles that are recorded for us in the Old Testament, there is not one instance of a blind man being healed. And from the book of Acts to the book of Revelation, the only blindness healed was that of Saul of Tarsus and he had only been blind for three days, so that was a different kind of situation.
And yet, as we read through the gospels, we find that that the one miracle Jesus performed most often was giving sight to the blind. In the gospel of Mark, we’re going to see that this idea of “blindness” is an important theme in the story of Jesus.
There are only two healings of blind people recorded in the gospel of Mark. In Mark chapter 8, there is the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida. Then, in Mark chapter 10, there is the healing of Bartimaeus at Jericho.
But there are a lot of other “blind” people mentioned in Mark’s gospel. In Mark 4, he tells us that the crowds “see but don’t see” (Mark 4:12). In Mark 8, Jesus asks his disciples, “Do you still not see…?” and “Do you have eyes but fail to see…?” (Mark 8:17-18)
This play on words and the theme of “blindness” form an important part of Mark’s gospel as he shows us how Jesus dealt with both physical blindness and spiritual blindness.
Throughout the first 8 chapters of Mark, the question has been, “”Who is this man, Jesus?” We’ve seen different people react to him in different ways, coming to different conclusions about who this man was. We left off last week with Mark 8:21, where Jesus asked his disciples the question, “How is it that you do not understand?” But, they’re almost there. The disciples are almost ready to confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. They finally understand who Jesus is – or at least they think they do!
And so now Jesus is going to focus on what kind of Messiah he was and what kind of disciples he was looking for. And his apostles are going to have as much trouble understanding this as they did in understanding that Jesus really is the Messiah. We’re going to see that they continued to be just a little bit on the “slow” side.
As Jesus began his march toward Jerusalem and the cross, he predicted his upcoming death three times. And three times the apostles misunderstood him. It happens in chapter 8, then again in chapter 9, and then again in chapter 10. The only two healings of blind men that are mentioned in Mark’s gospel just happen to fall at the beginning and the end of this section. Is it possible that Mark might be trying to tell us something?
The recurring theme throughout this section of Mark is the misunderstanding of the disciples. Three times, the apostles are going to fail to understand what’s going to happen to Jesus. They see but they don’t see. They think they understand who Jesus is, but they don’t quite get it. They are spiritually blinded by their misunderstanding of the Messiah. And so, I think these two stories about Jesus healing physically blind men help us to understand the theme of spiritual blindness.
Let’s take a look at them.
The Blind Man at Bethsaida
Mark 8, beginning in verse 22, “And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Do you see anything?’ And he looked up and said, ‘I see people, but they look like trees, walking.’ Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.’” (Mark 8:22-25)
At first glance, this appears to be just another one of the miracle stories in Mark. Once again, Jesus comes in contact with a man with a physical problem. And once again Jesus has compassion on the man and heals him. Once again, this confirms Jesus’ identity through his miraculous power. But there’s something unusual in this story. Something that makes it stand out from all of the rest of the miracles.
There’s a word that is used repeatedly in the gospel of Mark. It’s the word “immediately.” Mark uses the word “immediately” 43 times in this gospel. Jesus did this. And then immediately, he went there and did that. And immediately this happened. Everything is happening immediately. Everything is happening right away. You get this sense of urgency as you read through the gospel of Mark.
Then you get to this healing of a blind man and, suddenly, everything comes to a screeching halt. Jesus did not heal this man immediately. He healed him in stages. It didn’t happen right away, it didn’t happen “right now”, it happened over a period of time. So, what’s going on here?
This is the only miracle of Jesus recorded in any of the gospels where Jesus took two tries to get it right. Every other healing was always instantaneous and complete — Jesus simply spoke a word or touched someone and the sick person was immediately made well. But here, Jesus has to touch this man twice in order to open his eyes.
His first touch provides only partial sight. The man can see, but not clearly. Men look like trees. A second touch was required for complete vision. So, when Jesus touched him again, then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.
So, what’s going on here? How do we explain this? Did Jesus not have enough power the first time around? Of course, we know that’s not the case. So why did Jesus need to touch him a second time?
In the past, I always attributed this to the fact that a person who has been blind could be overwhelmed by immediate sight and so the kind thing might be to give sight in stages. If you’ve ever been in a cave, you have probably had the experience of having the lights turned off and being submerged in total darkness. After a while, the lights are turned on, but slowly so that your eyes can adjust. Imagine being totally blind and then being exposed to bright sunlight all of a sudden! And so, I always thought of this as just being a kind thing to do on the part of Jesus.
But, the only problem with that view is that none of the other healings of blind people were done this way, or at least there’s no record of it. So why here? Could it be that there’s something symbolic in this healing? Could it be that Jesus is teaching us a spiritual lesson, even while he was healing this man?
Last week, we read about the feeding of the five thousand. The apostles witnessed Jesus miraculously feed a multitude of people with nothing more than a sack lunch. And yet they were scared and amazed when Jesus came walking on the water. Mark tells us “they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves.” (Mark 6:52). The apostles had witnessed a great demonstration of Jesus’ identity, but they hadn’t fully understood it. They saw it, but they really didn’t see it.
Then there was the controversy with the Pharisees over handwashing and Jesus says that nothing outside a man makes him unclean; it is what comes out of a man that makes him unclean. The apostles asked Jesus to explain what he meant by that. This is where he seems to get a little bit frustrated at just how slow they were to catch on. Again, the apostles saw, but they didn’t see. They still didn’t get what Jesus was all about.
And then Jesus was in a boat with the apostles again. He says to them, “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees.” The apostles don’t understand, and they think Jesus is upset because they forgot to bring bread for lunch. And so, Jesus asks them to recount for him the two feeding miracles — the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand. He asks them, “Do you still not understand?” They saw, but they don’t see perfectly.
All of this happens far too often to be a coincidence — Jesus shows his great power but then he is misunderstood even by his own apostles. They see all the miracles, but they really don’t see at all. They don’t understand what it is about Jesus. They believe in him, they have faith in Jesus, but that faith is flawed. They see, but they don’t see perfectly
And then we read the story of Jesus healing a blind man. Jesus touches him, and now he can see. But he can’t see perfectly. Everything is blurred and distorted. So, Jesus touches him a second time, and the second touch heals him. In order for this blind man to be able to see clearly, Jesus had to touch him a second time.
I think the healing of this physical blindness represents the healing Jesus was attempting among the apostles themselves. When they came to Jesus, they were completely blind. And through his teaching and his miracles, they begin to see him for who he is. But they don’t see clearly. They see Jesus, but to them he looks like a tree walking around. Before they can see completely, there needs to be a second touch. It’s only after the apostles allow Jesus to get closer and closer to them that they begin to see him as he really is.
Peter is getting ready to make what we call the “great confession” in the next few verses, but even Peter still doesn’t fully understand what Jesus was all about. And so, when Jesus says that he must suffer many things and die, Peter rebukes him. He sees Jesus, but not clearly. He has a faith and it’s growing, but at this point, it’s still rather weak and flawed. The disciples have moved close enough to be touched by Jesus. But they need more. They need a second touch.
The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus
Mark 10, beginning in verse 46, “And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’
And Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.’ And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. And Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ And the blind man said to him, ‘Rabbi, let me recover my sight.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Go your way; your faith has made you well.’ And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.” (Mark 10:46-52)
Notice that Jesus didn’t require a second touch here. In fact, he didn’t touch Bartimaeus at all. Jesus said that it was Bartimaeus’ faith that healed him. “Immediately (now we see the word again just like we’re used to seeing in Mark’s gospel) he received his sight…”
Again, the healing of blind Bartimaeus may well be a metaphor for the healing Jesus is about to perform on his spiritually blind disciples. They don’t understand, they don’t see. But these disciples truly want to see – they really are trying to understand Jesus. They’re crying out to him, “Help us to understand. Help us to see!” And because of their faith, they will soon see everything clearly.
At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the apostles left their homes, their families, their businesses to follow Jesus, and I think you have to admit that took a great deal of faith. But time and again, these men showed that their faith was weak and imperfect. Like the blind man of Bethsaida, they saw, but they didn’t see. It was only after they allowed Christ to touch them again… and again… that they finally came to know him for who he really was.
Like the mustard seed in Jesus’ parable, the apostles’ faith started small and grew slowly. And it was only over a period of time that they came to see Jesus clearly. But this story is not just about these two blind men. And it’s not just about the blindness of the apostles. Ultimately this story is about us.
Those of us who are Christians, we have put our faith in Jesus Christ. Our faith has led us to make the decision to follow Christ and to put him on in baptism and commit our lives to him. But, even among those of us who believe, our faith is flawed and imperfect. We don’t always see clearly.
When problems come our way and we begin to question whether God will get us through them, we aren’t seeing Jesus clearly. And when we allow the people of this world to shape our attitudes, what we think about and what we say and do, then we aren’t seeing Jesus clearly. When we live our lives concerned about me, what I like and what I want, we most certainly aren’t seeing Jesus clearly. Like the man who came to Jesus in Mark 9, there are times when we want to cry out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
Because no matter how long we’ve been Christians, we all still suffer from an imperfect and flawed faith that shows itself in several ways.
Our Faith is Weak. Our faith is weak in the sense that it’s not always successful at keeping us from sin. All of us as Christians experience what it’s like to want to do what’s right, we pray that we will do what’s right, but then we do something wrong. How many times have you seen it? Old brother Jones comes down the aisle and asks to be forgiven because of his drinking. We pray for him one more time. Three months later, here he comes again. And we just shake our heads at such a weak faith. But then in unseen and secret ways, we all live out that same weak faith in our own lives. And, like Paul, we wonder “Why is it that the good I want to do I don’t do, but the evil I don’t want to do, that I keep on doing?”(Romans 7:15) It’s because our faith is weak.
Our Faith is Shallow. How many of us really have a full grasp of scripture, a full understanding of God? No matter how long we’ve been Christians, there remain concepts that we just can’t seem to grasp. And not only that, sometimes things that we think that we understand we really don’t understand. Positions that we once held with vigor now appear to be totally wrong. I heard once about a preacher who claimed that he had not changed his position on any aspect of Christianity since high school. I personally find that hard to believe. How can we not change our minds as we learn more? As much as we know and understand about God, there is so much more that we need to understand. Our faith is shallow.
Our Faith is Hesitant. When Jesus called his apostles, he told them to leave their family and jobs and follow him, and they did. Immediately! Sometimes, though, our faith is hesitant. We think we understand exactly who Jesus is, but that doesn’t always motivate us to get involved in service and ministry.
Chances are, everyone here suffers from a deficiency in at least one of these three areas of faith. So, let’s just start by acknowledging that none of us are yet where we need to be, where we ought to be, where we want to be in our walk of faith. It’s a growing process. We don’t become “super Christians” as soon as we come up out of the waters of baptism. Faith is a journey, not a one-time event. And as we struggle toward a more mature faith, the key is to stay close enough to Jesus where he can continue to touch us.
That’s the only way the blind man was healed. It’s the only way the apostles ever matured in their faith. And it’s the only way we can get to a level of maturity in our faith.
Almost everything we undertake in life is a process. Think back to when we were planning to build this church building. We had a picture in mind of what we wanted it to look like. We took that idea to an architect, and he drew up some plans. And then we cleared the land, dug the foundation and poured the concrete. And then the steel structure was built. It still didn’t look like what we pictured in our minds. But eventually we got there.
It’s the same way with Christianity. Our growth in Christ is a process, it’s a journey. The apostles started out with a little bit of understanding, and then they got a little more. Sometimes they were slow to learn, but as long as they stayed close to Jesus, they were making progress.
We can never allow ourselves to believe that we have learned all there is to learn. We can never allow ourselves to think that have completed the process of Christian growth. We’re not there yet, but as we stay close to Jesus, we allow his grace and his strength to transform us, bit by bit.
I once heard a story about a city slicker who was asking directions from an old codger sitting on the front porch of his shack out in the country. The city slicker wasn’t sure he’d been given good directions, and he wanted to make sure that this 80-year-old man knew what he was talking about. He asked him, “Have you lived around here all your life?” The old man looked at him and said, “Not yet!”
I like that answer! And that’s the kind of answer we need to give to someone who asks us, “Have you been a faithful Christian all your life?” And the best response we can give is, “Not yet!” But if we will keep close enough to Jesus through prayer and Bible study and fellowship and service and worship, then we give him the opportunity to touch us again and again, so that we begin to see him clearer and clearer. And we forward with great anticipation to the day when we will have the pleasure of seeing him face to face.
Until that day comes, we’re thankful that Jesus is patient with us as we continue to grow. We need to be patient with ourselves. We’re not yet where we want to be in our spiritual walk, but we keep moving in the right direction. And we also need to be patient with others who may not yet be as far along that pathway of maturity as we think they ought to be. But they’re moving in the right direction.
I leave you with this word of encouragement from 2 Peter 3:18, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and forever. Amen.”