“You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are . . . blind” (Rev. 3:17, NIV).1
I never knew a blind person could think he was seeing clearly, until I read Mark 8.
The disciples were experiencing the power of God big time. And it wasn’t just the miracles Jesus did. Luke 9 speaks about a successful evangelistic campaign where Christ gave the disciples personal authority to heal the sick and cast out demons. A little later they helped their Master miraculously feed a crowd of more than 5,000 in Bethsaida. Mark picks up the story in chapter 8. Here the disciples had just finished helping Jesus feed another large group, and then came the “blind” lesson.
Leaving the area, Jesus, overhearing the disciples talk about having only one loaf of bread, said, “Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees” (Mark 8:15, KJV). The disciples were confused, thinking He was addressing their bread problem.
This concerned their Teacher. “Why are you talking about not having any bread? Don’t you understand? Are your minds still closed? Are your eyes blind?” (verses 17, 18, CEV).2 Jesus saw a dangerous trend among the disciples with all the attention they were getting as His students—a Laodiceantrend, maybe? He was trying to warn them about the leaven of hypocrisy (Luke 12:1), but they weren’t seeing their danger.
The hypocrisy of the Pharisees was the product of wanting great things for themselves. The object of their lives was personal glory. This led them to pervert and misapply the Scriptures, which blinded them to the purpose of Christ’s mission. Even Christ’s disciples were in danger of cherishing this subtle evil. Though they outwardly left all for Jesus’ sake, they had not in heart ceased self-seeking. As leaven—if left to complete its work—will cause corruption and decay, so the self-seeking spirit—if cherished—will defile and ruin the soul.3
To counteract this, Jesus led them back to where they did many miracles and fed the 5,000—Bethsaida, a city defiled by the leaven of the Pharisees, and one to which Christ said, “Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (Matt. 11:21, NKJV).4When they arrived, someone brought a blind man and asked Jesus to heal him. This is exactly what the Savior needed. He took the helpless man out of the city and began His lesson on blindness (Mark 8:22-25).
Jesus first spat on the man’s eyes—an interesting act because the Bible always associates spit with disgust or rejection (Num. 12:14; Matt. 27:30). With whom was He disgusted? Mark’s placement of this miracle next to the leaven and blindness discussion suggests it was Christ’s (Laodicean?) disciples. Then Jesus touched the blind man and asked how things appeared. The man said he saw “men like trees, walking” (Mark 8:24, NKJV). The first healing didn’t involve clear vision, even though the man wasn’t blind anymore—by human standards. The man could not see clearly until Christ’s second touch. The need for this was not a mistake on the Healer’s part. It was an intentional teaching lesson. I had to get to the bottom of this, so I looked up “eyesight” in an anatomy book. Here’s what I learned.
Anatomy of Human Vision
Our eyes have two types of vision receptors, rods and cones. Rods are used for low light conditions, being 100 times more sensitive to light than cones; but rods are not color sensitive as are cones. Another striking difference is clarity. Since many rods share a common nerve to the optic center of the brain, clear vision is impossible, whereas each cone has its own nerve.
“Men like trees, walking” must be describing the limitations of rod vision, I mused, since trees do not have sharp outlines. Clear vision apparently refers to optimal cone activity. Was Jesus illustrating two levels of spiritual vision, one still referred to as “blindness”? The Master Teacher, always focusing on the development of spiritual life, knew that proclaiming the gospel required clear spiritual perception. Would His disciples catch the lesson? My study deepened.
Two parts of the gospel message are dependent on our perception—law and grace. God’s law is life’s architect, providing the foundation and structure for all creation. Obedience to it is the basis for life (Gen. 2:16, 17) and blessing (Deut. 28:1, 2), so we must be aware of law. In the tabernacle, however, the commandments were not readily seen, being encased in the golden ark. As with all foundations, law was never meant to be a focal point. In the gospel, the law directs the heart to the focal center of life (Rom. 1:20; Gal. 3:24), just as rods help the mind to do.
The retina contains a small area where the lens focuses the light and image for clearest vision (the fovea centralis). Only cones populate this tiny region because clarity and color are essential. When light is bright enough, cones can see everything rods can see, only more distinctly and in full color. The “corner of our eye” describes the outer edges of the retina where mostly rods abound, degrading the vision.
Getting “the Picture”
I was beginning to get the picture. Rods, in spiritual eyesight, assist us to become aware of divine mandates, while spiritual cones help us see God’s love and grace more clearly and beautifully. Sinners do not see anything attractive in the law because they love darkness rather than light (John 3:19), and their “grace receptors” cannot function in poor lighting.5 Spiritual rods, on the other hand, must be able to function in the dimmest light possible, to bring conviction of sin and hopefully get the sinner to focus on the Savior.
“Since the book of nature and the book of revelation bear the impressof the same mastermind, they cannot but speak in harmony.By different methods, and in different languages, they witness to the same great truths.”6
In the physical and spiritual worlds, rods develop first, then cones. Infants begin life with only rod vision. It takes about one year for cones to mature, so the focal center isn’t functioning yet in newborns. This is why infants don’t look directly at us. They are not trying to ignore us. They are just wanting to get a better view, since there are no functioning rods in the focal area. In gospel talk, though law and grace are always working for our good, our first awareness is of law (Gal. 3:23-25). Though this cannot give us a clear view of God, this awareness can help us long for “something better.”
Spiritual rod vision cannot visualize grace, but it can indistinctly perceive the rudiments of law in the dimmest of light. This is what the Pharisees had. They were skilled in seeing nuances of law, but they just couldn’t see them intelligibly, nor had they any idea that the One who straightened them out a number of times on many issues was the Lawgiver. King David, however, had let the Light of the world (John 1:1-5; 8:12) into his heart, and spiritual cone vision kicked in; so whatever he focused on was seen clearly and in color—including the law. This is why he could say, “Oh how I love thy law! It is my meditation all the day” (Ps. 119:97, KJV).To David, the law and the Lawgiver were beautiful.
Light Versus Darkness
Both Mark 8 and the Laodicean message speak of blindness, Christ’s spitting, and two kinds of vision. I finally saw that if God’s law is dull and burdensome, by heaven’s standard I am “legally blind.” If I am more comfortable in darkness and struggle with pride and self-interest, then I have a problem with my “grace receptors” and need to exchange my self-sufficiency with the healing eye salve of God’s Word (Ps. 119:105). Then, and only then, can I see the gospel message in its fullness and beauty.
1 Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright ã 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
2 Scripture quotations identified CEV are from the Contemporary English Version. Copyright ã American Bible Society 1991, 1995. Used by permission.
3 Adapted from Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940), p. 409.
4 Texts credited to NKJV are from the New King James Version. Copyright ã 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
5 Light in the Bible is associated with God, His presence, or His Word; see Isa. 60:20; John 8:12; Ps. 119:105.
6 Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1903, 1952), p. 128.