The great call of God in both the Old and New Testaments is to believe Him. God chose Israel that they might know and believe Him (Isa. 43:10). Jehoshaphat encouraged the people of Jerusalem to “believe in the LORD your God, and you will be able to stand firm; believe His prophets [His Word!] and you will succeed” (2 Chron. 20:20). Paul tells the Thessalonians that God’s Word does its work in those who believe (1 Thess. 2:13), the Ephesians that God has incomparably great power for us who believe (Eph. 1:19a). And, of course, we must add the many passages that describe Christians primarily as believers—people who believe what God has said and who He is (cf. Rom. 10:11; 1 Cor. 1:21, 9:5, 14:22; Gal. 3:22; 1 Thess. 1:7; 2 Thess. 1:10; 1 Tim. 3:16, 4:12; 1 Pet. 1:21).
Conversely, unbelief is the great sin of all people, especially of believers! While Christian people cannot be in unbelief finally nor totally (God keeps them trusting Him), we can fail to believe truth God has revealed, fail to apply it to our lives, or fail to trust His promises and character. On some level, these are all sins of unbelief—not trusting and acting on what God has said, but placing our trust in something else.
Thematically, the narrative in Mark moves from those who have completely rejected the light of God in Christ (the Pharisees), to those who have surrendered to it but are not being fully consistent with that surrender (the disciples). It ought to be most comforting that the apostles, who spent years living with and learning from the Lord Jesus, could be as thick-headed as they often were. But thankfully the Lord does not leave them (or us) there, but calls us all to a more robust, fruitful, and consistent faith that views Him, His work, and His world rightly.
Jesus does not beat them over the head for their misunderstanding but accepts their faith where it is and teaches them in order to refine, strengthen, and grow it. This passage, then, gives disciples of every age three divine remedies to mature and strengthen our faith into the mature, confident, and fruitful trust our Lord most desires.
A. Protect Yourself Against False Teaching (vv. 14–15a)
Our Lord has just left the Pharisees in their unbelief and rejection. He and His men are leaving Galilee to travel elsewhere, and interestingly this is the last time He publicly ministers in Galilee (He will return briefly later, but focuses on private ministry to the disciples rather than public to the crowds; cf. 9:30). As the disciples are traveling, they realize they only have one loaf of bread with them. This loaf would not be comparable to our modern bread, but was more like a small cake or cracker. The journey they are on would not be so long that this should have been deeply concerning to them (they will not be on the boat for days on end), but this lack become important as we go on.
Perhaps hearing their discussion regarding bread, the Lord makes an important segue: in light of what has just taken place with the most religious, most respected leaders in Israel, Jesus the truth-teller warns His people to “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees…and of Herod (v. 15a). Matthew’s account adds He warns them of the Sadducees too (16:6). Matthew also highlights the foolishness of the apostles: They think He’s saying this because they forgot to bring bread (v. 7). Well, the bread discussion may have made Him think to use it as an illustration, but He was certainly not talking about literal bread!
“Leaven” can be used both positively and negatively in Scripture (earlier commentators made the mistake of assuming it was always an image of sin, which led to some rather fanciful and inaccurate interpretations of Matthew 13). In either case it refers to something with permeating, powerful influence that spreads quickly and affects everything around it. Here, Jesus uses it as an image of the corrupting influence of false doctrine. The Pharisees were the legalists and externalists who taught self-righteous merit and an unsmiling God. The Sadducees were the liberals, the pragmatists, and the rationalists. And Herod represented depraved immorality and pursuit of pleasure. All of these represent fundamental errors that compromise the gospel. Genuine legalism (which is not simply “someone who is more conservative or has higher standards than I do”) teaches salvation is rooted in human merit, that we earn the favor of God and His justification, that our merit is the ground of our acceptance with God. Liberalism denies the supernatural elements of Scripture, its inerrancy and absolute authority, and thus many fundamental doctrines of Christ and His gospel, while rationalism exalts human autonomous thinking over revelation as the final authority (this is different than saying we use reason to understand the Scripture and the world around us). And depraved pursuit of pleasure without thought of obedience to God or yielding to His rule and reign is a colossal expression of unbelief. All these things risk keeping people out of heaven, and they will send people to hell if not repented of!
Jesus’ urgency is underscored by the verb tenses: He kept giving orders, kept warning them to keep being beware of false teaching. This is precisely the concern Paul had with the Galatians: His writing that they had “fallen from grace” (Gal. 5:4) is not saying they had lost their salvation, nor is it a truism about their leaving grace for law in salvation and sanctification, but a full-throated apostolic warning that if they continued in their pattern of works-righteousness they will leave the path of grace—the only way that leads to heaven—and will be damned forever in hell.
Faith is compromised by false teaching because it is faith in the wrong thing—demonic deception—and thus lacks the approval of God! This is not to say that everyone who espouses heretical notions is automatically consigned to eternal hellfire (we are saved by Jesus, not our perfect articulation or understanding of the truth), but false doctrine does damn and is not something to be played with.
In their desire to defend truth, some of God’s people go to the wrong extreme. Because salvation is not merited by our righteousness, some Christians declare that works have nothing to do with salvation in any sense either as evidence of conversion or as the necessary pathway to final salvation from hell. Some so emphasize the deity of Jesus that they undercut His perfect and fully real humanity. In defending the uniqueness and perfect verbal inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, some deny the human elements of the Bible, whether by advocating a kind of mechanical dictation, or acting as though Paul and Isiah were in trances when they wrote their portions of Holy Scripture.
While the passion for truth displayed in this overzealousness is commendable, it is merely proclaiming the opposite error, and needs to be swiftly repented of! And so the only way to recognize false doctrine on either side is to know the Scripture intimately and fully. This applies to issues that are important but not fundamental to the faith—perhaps the divide between covenantalists and dispensationalists could be narrowed if we both were on our knees before our Bibles with a “first time mentality”!
The best way to strengthen and refine faith is to do the hard work of pursuing, believing, and maintaining the truth. But our Lord gives us further remedies, to which we turn.
B. Raise Your Thoughts Above the Mundane (vv. 15b–17)
We must be careful here. The problem is not focus on earthly, mundane things (such a sharp divide between the “natural” and the “heavenly” smacks more of Gnosticism than biblical Christianity, and often accompanies a profoundly unbiblical view of heaven as well). The problem is sch a narrow imagination that all it sees is this life and its circumstances, not accounting for the spirituality of the world nor the sovereign God whose power and authority envelop it. To use the phrase from previous meditations, it focuses only on the problem, not the divine possibility.
Recall that the disciples were concerned they had no bread. That is a provision issue. They wonder where their next meal is going to come from. Of course, the bigger problem is they have completely missed the point of Jesus’ illustration. But part of why is because they are so focused on this earthly experience and its problems (did you know that can affect how you understand Scripture?!).
Jesus asks them why they’re discussing they have no bread. “Do you not yet see or understand? Do you have a hardened heart?” (v. 17) Our Lord is not comparing them to the Pharisees. He is not saying “You don’t have a hardened heart like they do, so you have no excuse.” We know this to be the case because earlier in Mark the same men are said to have a hardened heart when they do not understand the loaves and fishes miracle (6:52). Believers can have hardened hearts! Surely, in Christians this hardening—which prevents us from understanding all of the truth we have or putting it together properly to draw from it the right implications and applications—is neither permanent nor complete, but it is real. And nor does it preclude us from doing what we can with the truth in following, loving, and obeying Christ. One author writes, “[The apostles] are faithfully following Him to the best of their ability. But their ability then is not what it would be ultimately. They did not have it all together. They had a great deal of growing to do.”
A hardened heart causes us to lose focus on the right priorities, which in turn prevent us from rightly understanding, applying, and piecing together the truth that we do have (never mind from doing so with further truth). The only way out is to trust the Lord with all our might in the truth we do have, and seek to out it into practice. That will cultivate a softened heart able to receive more from Him.
C. Remember the Faithfulness of God (vv. 18–21)
Jesus continues the theme: “Even if I were talking about actual bread, weren’t you there when I multiplied the loaves and fishes—twice? And more than enough for all of you was left over. Do you not yet understand?”
Unbelief makes us stupid. We miss the point of God’s words to us, focus on the wrong things, and allow life’s problems to cloud our vision. We must grasp the covenant faithfulness of God to us—if He has provided before, He can do so again. He has lost none of His power or His unbreakable mercies toward us.
Growing Christians wish to refine and mature their faith, and Jesus is more than able to meet the task. Pursue truth, focus on ultimate realities, and remember His faithfulness. What wondrous things He will do for and through you as you continue to trust Him!