Men As Trees Walking
October 7, 2007
“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 men, 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. And he sent him to his home, saying, ’Do not even enter the village’” (Mark 8:22-26).
There are a number of unusual facts about this miracle.
1) It is recorded only in Mark’s gospel.
2) It is the only time Jesus healed someone in stages.
3) It is the only time Jesus actually spit on anyone.
That last point needs to be clarified a bit. In Mark 7:31-37 Jesus healed a deaf man with a speech impediment by putting his fingers into the man’s ears, then spitting on his fingers and touching the man’s tongue. And when Jesus healed the man born blind in John 9, he spat on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and then put the mud on the man’s eyes and they were healed. But this text is notable because it is the only time Jesus ever literally spit on anyone. That alone should make you stop and think, “What’s going on here?”
But the real story of this miracle is that it is really two miracles in one, or more accurately, it is a two-stage miracle. After the first stage, the man can see but his vision is very blurry. Only when Jesus touches him a second time can he see clearly. All the Bible commentators remark on this because there is nothing else like it in the gospels. We know that everything Jesus did, he did for a purpose. He never did “random” miracles or simply performed miracles for no reason at all. So there must be some purpose in the two-stage healing of this blind man. But the text merely relates the story. It doesn’t explain the deeper meaning. And that brings us back to the question, “What’s going on here?” In order to get down to the root of the matter, let’s ask a few questions.
I. Why did he heal this man in stages?
That question is easier to answer in the negative.
It was not because of any lack in Jesus, as if he didn’t have the power to heal him all at once.
It was not because this man’s blindness was a particularly hard case.
It was not because Jesus tried and failed the first time.
We still don’t have the answer, but we know that these other answers can’t be right. So where do we go from here? The answer is, when in doubt, go back to the Bible. Just find out what the text says. If the text itself isn’t clear, go to the context. That is, find out what comes before and after and see if that helps you out.
II. What do we learn from the immediate context?
If you go back to the beginning of Mark 8, you have the miracle of the feeding of the 4000 (vv. 1-10). Immediately afterwards the Pharisees came to argue with him (vv. 11-12. After Jesus and the disciples got into a boat, he warned them to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees (v. 15). Leaven is another word for the yeast necessary for baking bread, but in this case it refers to the false teaching of the Pharisees. But the disciples thought he was talking about literal bread. Jesus then rebuked the disciples by saying, “Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?” (v. 18). Or we could paraphrase it this way:
“How can you be so blind after having been with me so long? Don’t you understand anything I’m saying?”
Every parent has said something similar. You try to teach your children how to do something the right way, and they keep on messing it up. Finally in exasperation you blurt out, “Didn’t you hear what I said? Have you forgotten everything I told you?” The answer of course is yes and no. Yes, they heard it but no, they didn’t remember it.
III. What is Jesus teaching us in this story?
You can’t separate this miracle from its context because the miracle is like a parable of the disciples’ spiritual confusion. It is possible to have eyes and yet not see very clearly. This is a fact I learned in the fourth grade in Mrs. Carter’s class when one day I realized that I couldn’t see the letters on the blackboard. My parents took me to the optometrist who after examining my eyes pronounced me nearsighted. Soon thereafter I began wearing glasses. Not just any glasses, but thick glasses, the kind we used to call “Coke bottle” glasses. I soon learned that I needed my glasses from the moment I woke up till the moment I went to bed. They became as much a part of my life as my shirt and my pants. I never went anywhere without my glasses. As I entered my teenage years, like many young people, I hated those glasses because I thought I looked better without them. And so I took them off whenever I could. I remember wearing contact lens for a year or two but they were difficult and didn’t seem to work well for me. I can recall several times taking off my glasses on a date because I wanted to look better for the girl I was with. Sometimes I would even drive on a date without my glasses, a truly foolish thing to do, but “vanity of vanities” and all that.
Without my glasses I was like the man in this story. I could see “men as trees walking.” That is, I could see blurry images but I couldn’t make out the details. And when I drove at night on those dates, I had to squint to barely see the lines in the road. Now forty years later I don’t wear glasses anymore because about eight years ago I had laser surgery on my eyes. Millions of people have had that surgery and it has given them perfect vision. The doctor makes a tiny flap on the surface of the eye, zaps you with the laser that somehow reshapes the eye, closes the flap, and just like that, you can see again. It works well in nearly every case. Unfortunately it didn’t work perfectly for me. Over a period of four years, I had six different surgeries on my eyes. The doctor said I had a “sloppy epithelium,” which was not a compliment. After one of the surgeries, a nurse commented that I had eyes like a 75-year-old woman. Again, not a compliment. The result is that now I don’t wear glasses anymore (except for reading) but my vision has not improved as much as I thought it would. On extremely sunny days—days so bright that normal people would squint—I can see very well. On cloudy days my eyesight is a bit blurry. And I have trouble at night seeing clearly. Plus I’m now in my mid-50s so there is some normal deterioration in my reading vision. Three years ago I could see well enough that I didn’t need reading glasses in the pulpit. Today I have trouble reading my notes even when I print them in large type. You can’t see me but I just shrugged as I typed that last sentence because it’s really no big deal. I don’t wear glasses except for reading and I don’t have perfect vision, but that’s life and it’s fine with me. But I understand after all of this that perfect vision is hard to come by in this world. It’s possible to have eyes and not see very clearly.
And that’s precisely what Jesus was saying to his disciples. “Do you have eyes and yet not see what I am saying?” “Do you have eyes and yet not see clearly who I am?” Cloudy spiritual vision afflicts every Christian to some degree. None of us sees as clearly as we would like for now we see through a glass darkly. Or we see as if we are looking at a cloudy mirror. Eugene Peterson catches the meaning with this paraphrase: “We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist” (1 Corinthians 13:12 MSG). That applies to all of us.
Squinting through a fog.
Peering through a mist.
That’s what this blind man experienced. When he was partially healed, he saw men as trees walking. No one sees life with perfect clarity. All of us have spiritual nearsightedness to one degree or another.
IV. What Should We Learn From This?
Let me summarize some of the lessons we learn from this miracle of our Lord.
First, he doesn’t treat us all the same way.
This is evident from a study of the miracles of Christ. He has the power to heal instantly or in stages. He is not limited by anything or anyone, yet he does not treat us all the same. He heals one with a touch, another with a word, another with a glance, and yet another at a great distance. He touches one and never sees the other, and yet both are healed.
It is a great advance spiritually to come to the place where you can say, “Lord, you don’t have to treat me the way you treat my neighbor.” Now we all understand that truth theoretically, but it is hard to come to grips with it when your daughter is sick unto death and your neighbor’s children are healthy and happy. No one knows exactly why two people get cancer and one lives while the other dies.
Many people struggle with this concept because they think that because God did something for a friend or a neighbor or a loved one, then God must be bound to do the same thing for them. But it doesn’t work that way. God can deliver your neighbor from cancer and you may die of cancer. Or vice versa. Envying your neighbor because he has something you don’t have is a waste of time because God treats us as individuals, not as groups. The truth is, he might do for you exactly what he’s done for someone else, or he might do more or he might do less or he might do something entirely different. He’s God. He can deal with us the way he wants.
Everyone who has prayed very much understands this truth. One night we fish and catch nothing. The next day our nets are filled to breaking. I may be in prison one night and an angel may come to set me free. Or God may send an earthquake to deliver me. Or I may die in prison as many Christians have over the years. A loved one with a dread disease may be spared by God for several years, only to die from that disease eventually. One day I may sense God’s Spirit working powerfully in my life. Another day I may plod through the doldrums. So it goes for all of God’s children. Our God is infinitely creative in the way he deals with us as he brings us to spiritual maturity. There are bright days and dark nights, and both are from the Lord.
Second, He deals us with us according to our need.
We see it clearly in this story. He dealt with this poor blind man privately by taking him outside the village in order to heal him. Even though his friends brought him to Christ, our Lord is not trying to meet the expectations of the crowd. And he dealt with this man by touching him not once but twice. That’s no small point for a blind man. We know that the blind compensate for the loss of sight by highly developing their other senses, especially the sense of hearing and the sense of touch. Thus the blind learn how to read Braille, something that most sighted people find extremely difficult.
Third, we don’t get better at the same rate or in the same way.
This is a good word for all of us who are praying for our loved ones who are away from the Lord. How often have we done what these neighbors and friends did for this blind man? They brought him to Jesus and said, “Lord, please help him.” And in our prayers we do the same for our prodigals who are in the far country. We cry out on behalf of those who today walk in spiritual blindness and we ask the Lord to open their eyes and help them to see. It is good that we should do this because it humbles us and causes us to say, “Lord, unless you help them, they will not be helped. Unless you work, nothing will ever change.” But sometimes (often, in fact) the change we seek comes very slowly. For every man who is suddenly, radically, completely transformed, it seems that there many more who must grow in Christ slowly, through stages, and whose spiritual vision starts off cloudy and only slowly gets better. To say that is not to give in to pessimism but to realize that it is for our benefit to get better gradually. Spectacular healings always amaze us—and thank God they do happen (I would be a fool to say they didn’t)—yet we must realize that God often chooses to heal by what might be called ordinary means.
Last night we got an email from a friend whose wife got the news that after years of being free from breast cancer, she now has been diagnosed with bone cancer. The prospects are unclear at this point although the husband said that his wife is holding up well and is trusting God for another healing. So we prayed together, earnestly asking the Lord for the healing she needs, and we prayed that God would do it by any means he chooses. I don’t know any other way to pray in a situation like that. I’m not God nor can I boss God around and tell him how to do his work. I earnestly hope that our dear friend is cured of her bone cancer. And if the Lord removes it all today, how happy we will be. If he chooses to grant her healing through radiation and surgery and chemotherapy, then so be it. And if the time has come for our friend to go to heaven, then blessed be the name of the Lord. What else can we say?
This principle works across the spectrum of the spiritual life. Some people come to Christ and grow quickly, becoming strong disciples in a short period of time. Others take years to learn the Word and become strong in the faith. Many will struggle with blurry vision for a long time. I daresay that all of us have areas of “blurry vision” where see things very unclearly. Every believer has blind spots which by definition we don’t see because if we saw them, they wouldn’t be blind spots.
Fourth, our own spiritual perception is often clouded and imperfect.
Having been partially healed, the once-blind man can see, but now he needs glasses! Where once he walked in darkness, now he sees the light, but his eyesight is still dim and unfocused. He has something like 20/500 vision. He’s what you might call legally blind but not literally blind. He definitely shouldn’t be driving a car without wearing his Coke-bottle glasses, with or without a pretty girl by his side. He had been healed, but his healing was not yet complete. He was “on the way” but he wasn’t finished yet. Is that not a picture of all of the followers of Jesus? We all have blind spots, places of weakness, areas of life where we see with blurry vision, parts of life where our sanctification is far from complete. Who among us would say, “I have arrived. I am truly like Jesus in every part of my life.”
It was true then and it is true now that spiritual growth is growth. It is not instant development. That’s bad news for a generation of impatient believers. We are like the man who prayed, “Lord, give me patience and give it to me right now!” We want quick answers, five steps, six keys, seven promises, and eight principles that will lead us to the “victorious Christian life.” But God rarely works like that. We are born as little children, babes in Christ, who must go through all the stages of life, learning and growing as we go along. And how do we learn to walk? By trying and falling, trying and falling, and then trying and falling some more.
What are we to do about this?
Some things seem obvious. It’s a mistake to rush new converts along too quickly. Sometimes we expect far too much from new believers. Jesus asked this man, “Do you see anything?” That’s a question we ought to ask those who have come to Christ. Let’s be careful about putting new converts in the spotlight too quickly. They need time for their vision to become clear.
And don’t give up when you are not quickly transformed. Do not despair about your own lack of spiritual progress. It is not unusual for our eyesight to be blurry at times.
Go to God in complete honesty. It is a great advance spiritually when we can say, “Lord, I am blind. Help me to see.”
Remember that God intends to bring something good out of this. He intends to use your imperfect vision to bring you to a place of deeper trust in him. Nothing is wasted with the Lord, not even those times when you feel as if you can’t see clearly.
Saved By His Honesty
Let me make one final point and I am done. What finally saved this poor man was his honesty. He didn’t lie to Jesus. That’s a crucial insight. He could have said, “Lord, I see all things clearly.” If he had said that, he would never have gotten better. His honesty gave him the sight he did not have.
Oh, how hard it is to be honest with God.
How difficult to admit our weakness.
But Christ didn’t ask this man, “Can you see anything?” in order to get information he didn’t have. Jesus knew the answer to the question. He wanted the man to be honest about his true condition.
We must come to the Lord just as we are, and when we do, he takes us as we are, but he never leaves us that way. That’s why the invitation of Jesus is always very personal. Come unto me! Cast yourself upon the Lord and he will not turn you away.
Are you blind? Come to him.
Is your vision blurry? Come to him.
Do you see men as trees walking? Come to him.
Come to him and you will not be disappointed.
“I want the truth whatever it costs me.”
“Lord, I am coming to you.”
“Open the eyes of my heart.”
Remember, this man was saved by his honesty!
Are you willing to be honest about your own condition? Last week I spoke at a conference in Thailand to a group of Christian workers from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. After my final session, two women took a long walk around the conference grounds and talked about the things they had heard. One woman said, “Now I see it clearly. I never understood the gospel before this week.” She referred to an illustration I gave of God on one side, man on the other, the great gap in between, and how nothing she could do could ever bridge that gap, that only Jesus could bridge the gap between man and God. Although she was a believer, she never really understood that truth until last week. Now at last she could see clearly. She saw Jesus and the amazing power of God’s grace and how salvation must be all from God apart from human works. Even though she had been saved earlier, finally last week she saw it! And how happy she was to finally have clear vision.
But this is what God wants for all of us. It won’t come easily or quickly or in the same way to all of us, but when we admit our need, then we become excellent candidates for some divine eye surgery.
He came that we might see clearly.
Do you believe that?