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Today’s question is What do you think about the vision of walking trees in Mark 8:24? I know that trees are symbols of men in typology, but why are they walking? What does that mean?
The passage in question is in Mark 8. To get a sense of the context, we should begin reading in verse 11 (ESV):
The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side.
Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”
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 people, 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.”
And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
The account of the healing of the blind man is a very rich and complex passage in Mark’s Gospel, and once again this is a passage that shows that Jesus’ miracles are also, to some extent, parables. They disclose something about the identity of Christ and the nature of his mission. They are not just about healing someone; they are telling us about who Jesus is.
There has already been an interesting miracle at the very end of the previous chapter. With the healing of the deaf man, spittle was put on his tongue and then fingers were put into his ears. Here we have the healing of the blind. The healing of the blind and the deaf and the lame—these are all themes that might remind you of the book of Isaiah and of other passages in the Old Testament that foretell the ministry of the Messiah. Christ is ministering as the one who is the foretold Messiah.
But there’s more going on here. If you pay attention to the details of the passage, it leads you to ask some questions. Why does he take him out of the village to heal him? Why does he say, “Don’t return to the village”? Why does he put spittle upon his eyes? Why is there a two-stage healing? Again: Why does he see men like trees walking?
A number of people have questioned the efficacy of Jesus’ healing power. Maybe Jesus is using some traditional methods of healing; this has been represented as some kind of miraculous event, but really he’s just going through a natural process of setting the man’s right by manipulating his eyes.
Now if we think this passage is primarily about Jesus demonstrating his power—and that’s all that’s going on—the question of the two-stage miracle will become a keen one. It will be very difficult to answer because clearly the miracle does not seem to take the first time round. It only half-works. And so there’s a problem: Is Jesus failing to exercise his miraculous powers? He could do it, but he doesn’t. Or is there a problem with this man, a lack of faith that is an obstacle. Or is it something else along those lines?
Here, remembering that the miracles are also parables will help us to understand a bit more about what’s going on.
In the Old Testament, human beings were often compared to trees. You have empires compared to great trees spreading out their branches for the birds of the air to live in. Psalm 1 says the righteous man is like a tree, growing by streams of waters. And elsewhere in Scripture, you have that sort of imagery taken up.
But we should beware of treating symbolism as if it were a code. Symbolism is more like a language than a code. If you think of symbolism as a code, it would be like being in a conversation and looking up every word in a dictionary to find out what it means rather than paying attention to the context. There are times to look into the dictionary, but if you were to try to understand what someone is saying by using a dictionary only, you would end up misunderstanding many things. It would be a very stilted form of communication.
Symbolism is like a language. It depends upon contextual factors and associations. I don’t think that the association with righteous men being like trees is the primary one here. Instead, I would look more closely at the context. What does the context suggest?
Again, if you are treating this as a code, then what does it mean to see men like trees? To say that in the Bible, righteous men are like trees doesn’t explain what’s happening here in this text. Now there may be a sense in which that symbolism does exist in this chapter, but I think a far stronger case would need to be made for it.
What you do see in the two-stage healing is something that is related to the broader context in a parabolic manner.
The disciples are people who have a failure of sight. This is very clear in the context. There is a two-stage healing that needs to take place in them. Their eyes have been opened to some degree, and they see Jesus as the Christ. But they don’t see him clearly. They don’t see his mission and what is going on with him.
They don’t see the kingdom mission, which is perhaps like a group of trees walking around, a new group of men and women who will be like a forest of God. This is Mark drawing on the imagery of Isaiah, where you have the imagery of trees growing up and being cut down—all this forestry imagery. Christ is the root that grows up out of dry ground. He is the branch growing out of Jesse. The trees have the axe laid to the root of them. This isn’t something you find at the beginning of Mark as you do in Matthew and Luke, but the imagery is there more generally in Isaiah and Mark draws upon Isaiah quite considerably.
So maybe there is that sort of thing going on, but a more particular use of the righteous men imagery. Christ is setting up this new kingdom and he has gathered people around him to become this new planting of God, this new forest. They’re seen like trees walking. They’re not perceived for what they truly are yet. But there’s some sort of intimation of what they are even within that blurred and limited vision.
Now look at the way the disciples speak in the surrounding context. There are three key boat stories in Mark, two leading up to this third boat story.
In chapter 4, you have a boat story, with Jesus calming the storm. After he stills the storm, the disciples are filled with great fear. He says to them, “Why were you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they said to one another, “Who, then, is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
And then in chapter 6, he walks on the waters and they see him and are terrified. “Immediately, he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’ And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astonished, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (6:50-52).
This chapter connects with that previous account by bringing up the events of the loaves again, a miracle with a significance. They are supposed to understand something about what that meant. Now they’re on the boat again and Jesus talks to them about leaven. They think he’s talking about their failure to bring bread with them. He says, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And then he says, “Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?” And then again at the end: “And do you not yet understand?”
When he says, “Having eyes do you not see?,” Jesus is again referring to the fact that they have seen some things. They have understood enough to follow Christ, but they do not yet fully perceive what’s going on. And then immediately after that you have the two-stage healing of the man.
The man is taken out of the village. He’s told, as it were, to follow Christ outside of the village. And then Christ gives him his sight. But he does not yet have perception. His eyes are opened, but he does not yet truly perceive. He sees some things, but he sees men walking around as if trees. So at that initial stage, he sees some things, but there is a second stage that must occur.
In the section that immediately follows, there is another case of people failing to perceive in a two-stage sort of testing. Jesus goes with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi and he asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They give him different answers, and he presses them for a further revelation. And Jesus is told by Peter that he thinks that he is the Christ. Yet even then, Peter does not clearly perceive, as we see from what he says after that, as he tries to resist Christ going to his death in Jerusalem. So this is a two-stage event.
I think there may be a clue there as to why it’s trees and why they’re walking. This is the beginning of the walking segment—the way segment—of Mark’s Gospel. They’re on the way to Jerusalem, and this comes at the very outset of that turn in the narrative toward Jerusalem. That two-stage healing introduces that section. At the very end of that section, at Jericho, just before he arrives at Jerusalem, he sees Bartimaeus and heals him by the roadside—another blind man. So it’s framed by the healing of two blind people.
And as you read through the Gospel more generally, you see that that image of blindness is used to reflect spiritual blindness. So the healing of the blind man is not just a demonstration of God’s power over the elements of the physical body but is a picture of the spiritual stage of the disciples and others and what needs to take place in them.
Those verses from Isaiah are quite key within Mark and Luke and elsewhere, where he talks about “Seeing you shall see and not perceive.” There is this judgment upon Israel. And even his disciples suffer from it to some extent: All these things he does in front of them, and yet they cannot truly perceive who he is and what he is doing.
Now why are they trees walking around? Maybe a clue to it is found in what Jesus says to his disciples and the crowd after he has rebuked Peter. He says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Now the cross is such a familiar symbol to us that it may have lost its weight. Maybe we don’t think about it enough in terms of its associations and its particularity, because it represents everything. The weight of associations it has leads us to forget the particularity of its associations—the association with wood, for instance.
Here, that may be part of what’s going on. These are men expected to take up their cross and follow Jesus. So Jesus is walking around, as it were, with this big log on his back, walking around like a tree, and followed by people who are walking with trees on their backs, ready to be crucified.
And the disciples’ vision and yet failure to perceive is associated with a broader failure to perceive that the cross is not just representing the crucifixion but also what Jesus will accomplish at the cross. The cross is not just a tree; it is also the victory of Christ. As they leave the village, as they leave their background and follow Christ, their eyes are initially opened and they see themselves as men carrying trees toward Jerusalem, ready to be crucified.
Then comes the later stage, with the resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Spirit at Pentecost. As Jesus lays his hands on the man’s eyes, so he will lay his hands upon them and they will receive the Holy Spirit and their eyes will be opened to perceive. And now they will see that it’s not just men walking around as trees, it’s not just a wooden cross as an instrument of torture, but it is a means of victory and it is Christ leading his disciples to Jerusalem, to suffering and death, but finally towards victory.
Now this is a rather tentative reading of the passage. I wouldn’t put too much weight upon this, but this is where I suspect it is going.