Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

94. A Crisis in the Ministry of Jesus *

It may be helpful to pause here and recapitulate, with apologies for repetition, certain significant details associated with the feeding of the five thousand.

It has frequently been observed that that miracle, a marvel provoked by Christ’s compassion for the suffering of the loyal multitude, had just the opposite effect from that which the miracle deserved; the people’s reaction was completely contrary to what he sought.

Instead of seeing in this wonder a further reason for dedicated discipleship, the crowd tried to impose its will upon its leader: “They were about to come and take him by force that they might make him king”.

Jesus, instead of finding his appeal to the people made easier, had to face afresh in an aggravated form the old temptation that he had grappled with and vanquished in the wilderness: “All these things (the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them) will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me”.

Disciples under strain

But quite as serious as the attitude of the crowd was the impact of this challenge of worldly ambition upon the minds of his disciples. The words of the gospel writers are eloquent of strain and conflict: “Straightway he constrained his disciples to get into the ship, and to go to the other side” — thus Mark. And John adds: “When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone” — ”to pray”, says Mark.

All the Lord’s natural sympathies were on the side of this Jewish restlessness against Roman domination. Often he must have speculated on the dramatic changes he would love to bring in if only the reins of power were in his hands. There would be a clean sweep of all the political and religious abuses which irked his spirit; the poor would be helped and encouraged by an elimination of social injustice; the great days of David would be renewed to a dispirited people; an unequalled surge of true godliness would enrich the tone of the nation. These transformations, and many more of like character, he would speedily bring about — if only he were King of the Jews.

Faced, then, with this temptation, Jesus must fall back on his best line of defence, or suffer defeat and disgrace at the hands of the Enemy.

What was to be his true calling? — social reform for the masses, or redemption for repentant sinners? Since those days many a well-intentioned disciple has been lured away into making a false choice.

Even in this emergency the Lord’s first thought was for his disciples. The terrific surge of popular feeling had already swept them off their feet. Unless they were quickly hauled right out of this roaring torrent of uncontrollable enthusiasm, they were lost men. So with peremptory gesture he hustles them into the boat before they can take active part with the forces of patriotism and unfaith. Then with hard set face and long lean stride, he breasts the mountain slope to seek the sanctuary so needful and so sure.

All this is simple inference and commonplace conclusion from the facts of the narrative.

A Continuing Crisis

This incident was only the beginning of a crisis which beset Jesus for some time to come and which nearly robbed him of his chosen band of disciples, me twelve were as eager as the multitude to have Jesus as King of the Jews there and then, and his vigorous repudiation of any such intention could well lead to estrangement on the part of these whom he would fain have to continue with him in his temptations.

There are enough hints in this part of the gospel narrative to suggest that at this particular time it was touch and go. The Lord was in serious danger of losing not only popular support but also the loyalty of his chosen few.

Walking on the Water

For instance, during that very night, whilst this band of bewildered and disappointed men bent to their oars against the gale, and argued fiercely as they rowed, Jesus came to them walking on the water, “and willed to pass them by!” Surely he who had compassion on the multitude would not be callously heedless of the toil and terror of his own. Can it be that on this occasion Jesus deemed himself unwelcome in their midst? “And when the disciples saw him walking on the water (Jesus must have been .recognized?), they were troubled saying. It is a spirit” (Mt. 14:26). But when reassured, “they were willing (John adds) to receive him into the ship”.

Why this detail in the narrative? Surely it may be taken as axiomatic and utterly unnecessary of mention that they were willing to have him with them. Is there here the implied idea-that only a short while before they would have been unwilling to have him? Were they resentful of their Master’s hopeless lack of worldly opportunism in refusing so emphatically to head a new Maccabean revolt? The text suggests something of the sort: “They understood not the miracle of the loaves: for their hearts were hardened” (Mk). When Pharaoh hardened his heart against Moses, it was not that he failed to recognize Moses’ divine mission but rather that he wilfully and stubbornly refused to conform to that mission. The twelve likewise, it would seem, were peevish about their Master’s rejection of kingly honour and dignity. They failed to recognize, because they did not wish to recognize, that the miracle of the loaves implied a teaching mission and not red revolution. Had not Jesus multiplied the food and given it to them that they might distribute to the multitude? What else could this mean?


On the following day there was the same atmosphere of strain and estrangement’ in the synagogue of Capernaum. Jesus discoursed on bread of life, on death and resurrection: “The bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world... Many therefore of his disciples, when they heard this, said, This is a hard saying: who can hear it?... From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?” His question is charged with yearning and anxiety; it speaks volumes about the indecision of these men who in that very hour should have been his strongest supporters. And the very form of Peter’s reply suggests a man frantically striving to stifle doubts by vigorous over-emphasis: “To whom shall we go? (to Barabbas?). We believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the son of the living God”. How the heart of Jesus must have gone out to Peter for those words! And yet had not Peter hinted at his own doubts by the very way he began: “Lord, to whom shall we go?” So the possibility of going away was not altogether excluded from his mind.

Of one piece with all this is Peter’s unique part in the stirring episodes of the previous night; “Lord, bid me come unto thee on the water”... as who would say: These others may doubt your leadership and authority, yet will not I!

It is only when viewed in this light that Peter’s action is seen to be no braggart flouting of the commandment: “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God”. And how Jesus must have loved Peter for it!

Pharisee Criticism

It was immediately after these stirring events that the Pharisees made the first of a series of attempts to drive a wedge between Master and disciples. “And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashen hands, they found fault” (Mk. 7:2).

Jesus sensed grave danger, and he flew to their defence with a caustic vigour not normally characteristic of him. “Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. Howbeit in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men... making the word of God of none effect through your tradition, which ye have delivered: and many such like things do ye” (Mk. 7:6, 7, 13).

The outcome of this tirade was unusual if not unique in the ministry of Jesus: “Then came his disciples, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying?” (Mt. 15:12). Do you realize, they say, what you have done? You have actually made enemies of the most important people in the country. Why did you do it?

But Jesus was not to be deterred from his polemic. The hen gathering her chickens under her wings! “Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch” (Mt. 15:14).
Let them alone! Keep right away from them! This is the key to the whole situation. Jesus, feeling his lead of his disciples to be seriously weakened, was sparing no effort to save them from Pharisaic corruption.

And again it is Peter only among the twelve who is on the side of his Lord: “Declare unto us this parable”, he says. But it is as though he addressed his fellow disciples: ‘Boys, you can let your indignation against the Master cool off. He is not really talking about literal food at all. It’s another of these strange sayings of his, just a parable like the one we had after yesterday’s feeding of the multitude. And the Pharisees are upset because they have misunderstood him too!’ But well-intentioned Peter was as far from the truth of the matter as he well could be, as Jesus was soon at pains to make plain. Thus the cleavage between Master and disciples continued.

The Canaanite Woman

If Jesus was to save his little flock they must be sealed off — for a time, at least — from all these violently disturbing and subversive influences. So he led them away into “the borders of Tyre and Sidon”. And there God provided a most astonishing lesson of faith for these men whose loyalty was now strained to the limit.

A Gentile woman came seeking help for her stricken daughter. But the disciples, still seared by the flame of nationalism, were in no mood to be patient with a mere Gentile — and a woman, too! And Jesus, for a different reason, shared their sentiment. He had his own lost sheep of the house of Israel — these twelve! — to care for. And it was still fresh in his mind how his compassion for the multitude had led to such bewildering and unhappy results. “Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread and to cast it unto the dogs”.

“Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs”. The ready answer which flashed at him bore witness not only to a quick wit but also to a penetrating insight. This astonishing miracle which I ask, she says, is only a mere crumb compared with what you con provide. Then what was her understanding of the full meal provided for “the children”? What else but the forgiveness of sins? No wonder that out of deep thankfulness an encouraged Jesus responded: “For this saying go thy way: the devil is gone out of thy daughter”. She had given more than she got!

No sooner was Jesus back by the lake than he found himself once more beset with crowds. And again moved with compassion, he fed the people with bread of life. In all probability these were Gentiles (Study 101), or he would scarcely have dared provoke a repetition of the difficult situation created by his earlier miracle.

The Pharisees again

After this he and the twelve crossed the sea again, only to encounter an aggressive delegation of Pharisees and Sadducees. These astute men had already grasped a truth which the disciples were loth to receive, that Jesus was not now set on kingship or any form of temporal power, and realizing that this gave them a tactical advantage they were bent on using it to the full. Hence the repeated arrogant demand for a sign from heaven.

Such a sign would be appropriate enough to an assertion of kingly authority, but it did not become his present work in Israel (Mt.12:16-21).

So he dealt with their challenge curtly, and hastily re-embarked with the twelve. Clearly enough the retreat was not on his own account but to take the disciples right away from the danger zone of these evil men with their pseudo-authority and specious argument.
Nor was this sufficient. He must needs warn them point-blank of the danger in which they stood by reason of their unwarranted reverence for these men: “Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees”.

Again he was misunderstood. “And they reasoned among themselves, saying, It is because we have no bread. And when Jesus knew it, he saith unto them, Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? Perceive ye not yet, neither understand? have ye your heart yet hardened?” Not only was there a lack of spiritual understanding but also still a stubborn unwillingness to accept his authority. “Have ye your heart yet hardened?” He was still nominally Master and Lord, but they neither did nor believed the things that he said.

Two Remarkable Miracles

It was immediately before and after this incident that there came two miracles of healing which in their details are quite without parallel in the rest of the gospels. The one is accompanied by an elaborate ritual of healing, in marked contrast to the single word or touch of power which represented the Lord’s normal method, whilst in the other the cure was gradual rather than instantaneous. Here are the words:

“And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him. And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain” (Mk. 7:32-35).

“And he cometh to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit in his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking. After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly” (Mk. 8:22-25).

What are these miracles if not acted parables of the enlightenment of his blind and deaf disciples whose unseeing eyes and unhearing
ears he had lately found such a cause of personal distress? “And looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened”. It was another expression of the intense and frequent prayers Jesus had offered that these, his chosen, might truly have their ears opened and their minds enlightened to understand him better.

In the second miracle there is the unusual element of gradualness. Was there something especially stubborn about this physical affliction or about the man’s frame of mind, or was the power of Jesus less intense at this time, that this cure must be wrought in stages? Hardly so.

A much more reasonable view is that Jesus deliberately did it in this way that the healing might provide a vivid picture of what at this time constituted his biggest problem and anxiety — the obtuseness of his disciples. And the gradualness of the cure expresses doubtless the Lord’s own conviction that he could not expect any sudden solution to this difficulty. The only thing to do was to persevere in a patient educating of the twelve to a better point of view. Hence the journeys to Tyre and Sidon and, shortly afterwards, to the region of Caesarea Philippi: “he was teaching his disciples” (Mk. 8:31; 9:31 — the continuous form of the verb is significant).

This very method and purpose is reflected in a further detail. In both of these miracles — and in these only — did Jesus first take the afflicted man into solitude “out of the town”, “away from the multitude”.

And another puzzling detail is common to these two miracles! In each case Jesus spat! Why? One may safely consign to the waste-paper basket the trivial babblings of the commentators about the therapeutic value of spittle or about a concessive gesture to the quack methods of the times. Already there can be no doubt that this unusual procedure (elsewhere to be found only in Jn. 9:6, another acted parable) was part of the symbolism of both transactions. What did Jesus mean by it?

In other parts of Scripture spitting is associated with shame and contempt. Nearly always it is a token of reprobation or deliberate indignity. Certainly there is no instance where it carries the idea of anything good, wholesome or praiseworthy. “I hid not my face from shame and spitting” (ls. 50:6). “The Son of man shall be spitefully entreated and spat upon” (Lk. 18:32). “If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be ashamed?” (Num. 12:14).

Then in these two exceptional miracles was not the spitting of Jesus an indication of his displeasure at the continuing blindness and deafness of his disciples? How is it, he must have asked himself almost impatiently on many an occasion, that these men who have known such privileges should show such a disappointing response?

Loyal Peter rebuked

About this very time Peter was once again a comfort and a strength to the discouraged Leader. When Jesus sought to sound their opinions concerning himself it was Peter’s heartening confession of faith in the ultimate Messiahship of Jesus which provoked such a glowing response from his gratified Master: “Blessed art thou Simon Bar-jona”. The words are to be read as an expression of Jesus’ profound relief that in one at least of the twelve there was faith enough to look past his recent refusal of temporal power to a future day of divine glory.

Nevertheless Peter’s zeal was not all encouragement and comfort. Within a very short time he was being sternly bidden: “Get thee behind me, Satan; thou art an offence unto me; for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men”.

Can it be that there was more behind this remarkable volte face on Peter’s part — and on his Master’s too — than is often suspected? Jesus had begun to speak of his impending suffering and death in Jerusalem. “Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee”, responded Peter with warmth and eagerness. Before Jesus rebuked him, “he turned about and looked on his disciples”. Why? Possibly because Peter in speaking for himself had spoken for all. But in that case why should the denunciation be reserved for Peter only?

It is much more likely that Peter, aware of the uncertain loyalty of his fellow-disciples — although himself in no wise sharing it, was warning: “Lord, unless you abandon all such thoughts you will soon have no disciples left at all!” The unspoken wavering loyalty of the others Jesus rebuked with a look. This well-meant but disastrous policy of expediency and compromise, now openly advocated by Peter, Jesus saw as the work of the devil.

It was immediately after this that he spoke so emphatically of the need for every follower of his to take up the cross of self, even as he, in order that there might be reward in the day of glory. First, shame and suffering, then divine glory. So it must be, for Master and disciple alike. It was this lesson above all others which his chosen few were reluctant to learn. And as in every class some pupils respond more readily than others to the lead of the teacher, so also it was with these.

Here, surely, is the explanation why Jesus chose Peter, James, and John only to be with him at the Transfiguration whilst the rest remained at the foot of the mountain. Here, too, perhaps, is a reason for the indictment of the others when Jesus rejoined them: “O faithless generation, how long shall I suffer you?” But it is difficult to be sure of one’s interpretation in some of these details.

This part of the gospels builds up a consistent picture of a group of men loyal but unhappy, following and yet protesting, believing and yet dubious, willing but at the same time resentful. “Perceive ye not yet, neither understand? having eyes, see ye not? and having ears, hear ye not?”

In three and half years Jesus made few converts. It was no small achievement that he converted the disciples. “Them whom thou gavest me I have kept, and none of them is lost save the son of perdition”.

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