My Dear Shepherds,
Pastors help Jesus’ disciples not fail. That’s why, for our instruction, Mark records several case studies in discipleship failure. Knowing what failure looks like prepares us personally and pastorally to head it off at the pass.
Mark ties two astonishing miracles together—the feeding of the five thousand leads “immediately” to Jesus walking on the water.
Later that night, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. Shortly before dawn he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.
Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened. (Mark 6:47-52)
They were amazed—beside themselves—because they hadn’t grasped the most significant thing that the miracle of the loaves said about Jesus. They failed again after Jesus fed the four thousand. “Do you still not see or understand?” Jesus said then, “Are your hearts hardened?” (Mark 8:17). The disciples’ hearts were not hardened by defiance like Pharaoh’s or the Pharisees’. Their leathery hearts were a congenital defect we all share.
The disciples failed because they didn’t look for the meaning in what they witnessed. They didn’t connect the kindred miracle of manna. God was proving that Jesus was “found worthy of greater honor than Moses.” They certainly didn’t grasp that when Jesus, walking on the lake, “was about to pass by,” it hearkened back to Yahweh passing by Moses as he sheltered in the rock. In Exodus 34:6-7 God declared his glory to Moses:
“The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin ….”
When Jesus “climbed into the boat with them” that same glory of God joined them in person![i]
Disciples fail when we don’t see meanings. The manger was a sign to be interpreted. When Jesus turned water to wine at a wedding, that was a sign. When he fed huge crowds from small lunches, with specific basketsful left over, those were signs. When disciples miss what these miracles signify, blind hearts are the problem. That’s where pastors come in.
Imagine a gifted naturalist taking some city kids deep into a forest to amaze them with the secrets and wonders of the woods. We’re like that, ushering people through the looking glass of Scripture into the wonderland of God’s kingdom. “Look more closely! Taste this!” When Jesus’ disciples asked him why he spoke in perplexing parables he answered, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom has been given to you, but not to them” (Matt. 11:32).
Preachers of Scripture cover a lot of kingdom territory, but our highest duty and delight is laying open before Jesus’ disciples his astonishing glory. We open their eyes to symbols and songs, types and prophecies, and tsigns and visions.
We speak to hearts pre-softened by the Holy Spirit. He also warms and invigorates our words and our very presence so that their eyes need not fail to see. All this in response to our prayers, study, and love.
Be ye glad!
[i] I was helped in this by Dane C. Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly (Wheaton: Crossway, 2020), pp.132-133.