12 July 2011

"Hardened hearts"... in believers?

by Dan Phillips

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I am reading through the Gospel of Mark in Greek for my morning Bible time, and a phrase leapt out to me, not for the first time: it is Mark 6, in the Evangelist's depiction of the apostles as having "hardened hearts."

Normally we associate the phrase "hard-hearted" or even more specifically "hardened heart" with an unbeliever, or even with a reprobate. Pharaoh is the example that leaps to mind.

However, in Mark 6:52 we read "for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened." This is the Evangelist's explanation for why the apostles were gobsmacked by Jesus' walking on the water and stilling of the storm. They were unprepared, and nonplussed. They had not made the connection between the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and Jesus' divine nature, because their hearts were hardened.

Lexical aside on πωρόω (pōroō), the word used: the Greek translation of the OT (the Septuagint, or LXX) uses other words to denote the hardening of Pharaoh's heart in Exodus. The verb here is only used once in the LXX (Job 17:7). John uses it in what may be his own translation (12:40) of Isaiah 6:10, but the LXX does not. Paul uses it of the hardening of Israel against Christ (Rom. 11:7; 2 Cor. 3:14).

The noun πώρωσις (pōrōsis) occurs in the NT (Mk. 3:5; Rom. 11:25; Eph. 4:18), not at all in the LXX.

This particular word may not have summoned up the connection with Pharaoh to Peter, Mark, and his first readers. But the idea was of calloused obtuseness, thick-headedness.

It comes up again, this time on Jesus' lips, in Mark 8:17. Jesus had just multiplied bread again to feed thousands, and the lot of them were crossing the lake. Jesus said, "Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod" (v. 15). All the Einsteins in the boat immediately "began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread" (v. 16). Exasperated, Jesus says,
"Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?  18 Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?  19 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."

20 "And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?"

And they said to him, "Seven."

21 And he said to them, "Do you not yet understand?" (Mk. 8:17-21)
It was yet another example of the apostles having facts, but not assembling them faithfully, not moving ahead on the basis of the truth that had been arrayed right there in front of them in plain sight.

Now, in 3:5, Mark had used the noun form ("hardness") to describe unbelievers. But in these two instances we've noted above, the subjects by and large are saved men. They are believers, who have left all to follow Christ, and are faithfully following Him to the best of their ability.

But their ability then is not what it would be ultimately. They did not have it all together. They had a great deal of growing to do. Their hearts were, to some degree, "hardened."

Yet in spite of that, they doggedly followed Christ, they clung to Him, they did what they could for Him. They accepted His teaching and His commands and His rebukes. However, their heart-condition prohibited them from putting everything together. Clearly, then, this hardening was both partial and temporary.

From that I draw some observations:
  1. Having a partially hardened heart now does not necessarily mean one will always have a hardened heart.
  2. Having a partially hardened heart is not a sure sign of eternal reprobation. (I take great comfort from this, as I have had long, long stretches of what I only see as obtuseness in retrospect.)
  3. Having a partially hardened heart is not a bar from (nor an excuse to avoid) service.
  4. Having a partially hardened heart does not exclude the possibility of fruitful service.
To which I add these practical observations:
  1. We should not conclude that, because we are elect and in active, fruitful service, it is impossible that we might have a partially hardened heart. We well might.
  2. We should not conclude from the fact that we are not conscious of having a partially-hardened heart that we are not in that condition. The apostles were not aware of their own obtuseness.
  3. In fact, on the principle of 1 Cor. 10:12, we should assume it as likely that we may have a partially hardened heart, in the sense that we too are not putting together all the truths we know in the truest and most God-honoring way.
  4. As we find in ourselves a partially hardened heart, we should not lose all hope.
  5. As we find in ourselves a partially hardened heart, we should not leave off believing and following and obeying and serving to the very best of our ability.
  6. We should note, as to our understanding of our relationship with Christ, that while the Lord does not reject His disciples for their obtuseness, He also does not coddle their obtuseness. He confronts it, He upbraids them for it (cf. Lk. 24:25), He continues to press them onward out of it.
  7. This should inform both our self-ministry (cf. 1 Tim. 4:16) and our ministry to others (cf. Acts 20:20; 2 Tim. 4:2; Titus 1:13; Heb. 10:24).
The writer to the Hebrews (as most NT writers) was addressing obtuse people. So far from either writing them off as reprobates, or coddling them so as to enable their refusal to add 2 to 2 and find 4, he fiercely upbraids them (Heb. 5:11-14), scares the togas off of them (and me; Heb. 6:1-7), and then lovingly exhorts them (Heb. 6:8-20).

Don't accept current obtuseness as the final word. Do not tolerate it in yourself, or let it crush all hope for other believers. Don't give up praying, hoping, and bringing the Word to bear.
    Dan Phillips's signature


    Robert said...

    Good post, Dan. We actually just went through this passage in our Sunday School class this past weekend. And then our pastor preached on John 15:1-11 and abiding in Christ. I think these go hand in hand because our hardness of heart keeps us from fully abiding in Him. Just like when the apostles went from the hardness of heart about feeding the five thousand (men only - much more with women and children) and walking on the water to displaying the same hardness of heart with the feeding of the four thousand.

    Just like in our lives how He guides us through ever-increasing levels of trials to prepare us to serve Him better. We should be serving all the while, but as time goes along we should improve in how we serve (which doesn't necessarily mean serving in a different role). And we should also be thankful for the trials God brings us...as well as for the discipline He provides as He convicts of us of sin so that He can lead us to repentance.

    DJP said...

    LOL: one rating, one star. Bad post! Bad! It'd be fun to know some of the stories behind these ratings.

    edcolley said...

    This is very good, Dan. Thank you for the post.

    James Scott Bell said...

    I liked the post, Dan. It is clear, esp. from Hebrews, that believers can develop hardened hearts, and we bear responsibility not to let that happen, e.g., "See to it..." (3:12). Being under authority in a local church is the primary way this is prevented, as in 3:13 and 10:25.

    Stefan Ewing said...

    I don't get it. What is this post about?

    KIDDING. Based on self-observation, I'd say we our partially hardened hearts can also manifest themselves in stubbornness: a sort of wilful obtuseness in spite of what we know to be better.

    Praise God for His grace, mercy, and forbearance through His covenant of salvation sealed in the shed blood of Jesus Christ upon the Cross, that we are not automatically and instantly cursed every time we transgress His will, and that He rather convicts and corrects us and calls us to repentance.

    JD said...

    This post just got sent to my printer. It is exactly what I need right now.

    Robert said...

    For some reason, I haven't been seeing the stars to rate the posts the past couple of weeks. So not only can I not rate y'all's posts, but I can't even shake my head at the low ratings people give y'all.

    DJP said...

    I think Canadians can't see them.

    GrammaMack said...

    I'm in Ontario, Canada, and I can see the rating stars.

    DJP said...

    It must be a heart-issue, then.

    (I have no idea)


    trogdor said...

    I have a theory to the 1-star rating. Someone read point 5 in the final exhortations and is currently writing a long, poorly formatted, paragraph-less blog post with lots of all-caps sentences about how you're a Pelagian heretic. Actually, it's probably about how Phil or John MacArthur are Pelagian heretics.

    Or maybe it's someone with some heart hardening, specifically when it comes to conviction about being hard hearted.

    Otherwise, I don't know what the problem could possibly be, because this is excellent and convicting.

    Robert said...

    Actually, I'm in Houston. I have to admit I was quite amazed to discover there is actually somebody with my same name in Canada...my last name isn't exactly common.

    Solameanie said...

    Maybe people have the uncomfortable notion that if they give you five stars, that means they agree with all five points of Calvinism? I'm kidding...I'm kidding.

    Coming to the recognition that we are hardened of heart in a particular area is half the battle. I certainly know I have the capability of hardening my heart, and it is indeed scary.

    donsands said...

    "As we find in ourselves a partially hardened heart, we should not lose all hope."

    As I have meditated on 2nd Sam. and David as the King of Israel, and how he too allowed his heart to lose it's tenderness toward God, I saw myself in my own hard-heart. And yet, as I read Psalm 51 I saw the truth that you mentioned here,--not to despair, or lose hope. Fight the good fight of faith in Christ and His promises to sinners like us.

    Thanks for the terrific lesson. I wish I could read Greek. I have a friend from Greece, and it'd be nice to share some words with her.

    Aaron said...

    Best post in weeks from any of the pyros.

    Jackie said...

    very encouraging post...thank you! It can be very discouraging when I finally am able to see an area in my heart where it is hardened. Thank you for urging me forward in Christ.

    Suzanne said...

    A bit off-topic, but love your use of the word "gobsmacked". We've been introducing our kids to great words, and our oldest brought this one to us. One of my favorites.

    Oh, and a very edifying post!

    Pam said...

    Good post,and there aren't any stars for me to rate either. I would rate 5. Thanks.

    Anonymous said...

    Excellent post...very encouraging to know that my hardness of heart in some areas is not an excuse to avoid serving.

    Mark B. Hanson said...

    This is an excellent antidote to the idea circulating in some Christian circles that if you have any sin or weakness in your life, your work for God is worthless (or worse!) God has always used sinful men and women to accomplish His work - even those constantly fighting besetting sins.

    Of course, His Spirit is constantly at work to bring us out of those sins...

    [Verification: chavize. To turn someone into César Chávez?]

    Stuart Brogden said...


    Being a recovering jerk for some 16 years or so since Christ yanked me out of my self-deceived false conversion, I needed this article. I am weary of folks pushing perfectionism off as Christian doctrine, although they never call it that.

    I also loved your second-to-last paragraph, which warrants being repeated here:

    "The writer to the Hebrews (as most NT writers) was addressing obtuse people. So far from either writing them off as reprobates, or coddling them so as to enable their refusal to add 2 to 2 and find 4, he fiercely upbraids them (Heb. 5:11-14), scares the togas off of them (and me; Heb. 6:1-7), and then lovingly exhorts them (Heb. 6:8-20)."

    Robert - I am about 8 miles south of Tomball and I can see the stars on the post :-) What church do you belong to? I am a joyful member of www.gracefamilybaptist.net

    Anonymous said...

    The lexical analysis is stellar, but I wonder if Mark intended to teach on this issue in the way it has been appropriated here (e.g. within a post-Reformed contex)? Do you think that this kind of analysis reflects a more midrashic approach which picks out a word and builds a doctrinal point from it?

    I'm not trying to argue, I'm seriously wondering about the hermeneutical methodology employed here.

    For the record: I can't see the rating system either (e.g. the stars).

    Thomas Louw said...

    Excellent post. Five start rating. No starts there used to be.

    Dan(gief) Davies? said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
    Scot said...

    his post was a great reminder for me, especially points 5 & 6. Usually, I don't need a reminder that I have a hard heart and a thick head. I do need many reminders that that isn't an excuse to sit around waiting to be "fixed." I have neighbors to love, a job to work, a fiance to care for, and a God to worship. My hard heart may make it more difficult to do these things, but Christ has already made me a new man, so I'll work my part and he'll work out his.

    Merrilee Stevenson said...

    Thank you for writing this word of exhortation. It is sometimes easy to look at the thick-headed disciples and poke fun at their cluelessness. But it is hard sometimes to honestly look at my own. (And I wouldn't worry too much about the star-rating system, in light of eternity. I hear it's a different rating system all together.)

    DJP said...

    Bobby Grow Avatar #479: I'm open to instruction, but not sure what your point is. Would your argument be that the "hardened heart" theme in Mark is intended to produce a response of "Hunh, well, I'll be, how about that?", a shrug, and moving on to more relevant concerns; or a response of "OK, so, that happened," and a shrug, or an entry into a historical dictionary article on "Apostles, the"? Or does not the principle of 1 Cor. 10:11 have some hermeneutical bearing here?

    Scot said...

    I should rephrase that: Within the last 6 months, I usually haven't needed a reminder that I have a hard heart and thick head.

    patriciazell said...

    It takes time for God to work things out in our lives. There have incidences when all I could pray was "Lord, I don't want to, please help me to want to..."

    Tyrone said...


    Canyon Shearer, DMin said...

    Ouch, right in my obtuse heart.

    Great post, very edifying. We spent about twenty weeks in Mark and I still looked over that point! Thanks for sharing.

    “If a hardened heart is to be broken, it is not stroking, but striking that must do it.” –Richard Baxter