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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.
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?"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.
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)
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:
- Having a partially hardened heart now does not necessarily mean one will always have a hardened heart.
- 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.)
- Having a partially hardened heart is not a bar from (nor an excuse to avoid) service.
- Having a partially hardened heart does not exclude the possibility of fruitful service.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- As we find in ourselves a partially hardened heart, we should not lose all hope.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
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.