Seeing and Understanding

June 15, 2016
“They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, ‘Do you see anything?’ He looked up and said, ‘I see people; they look like trees walking around.’ Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly” –Mark 8:22-26 NIV

The story of the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida in Mark 8 is a fascinating and somewhat puzzling story recounting one of Jesus’ many miracles. The healing takes place in two stages. After the first stage, the man describes people as “trees walking around” (vs 24). This describes a man who has sight but cannot understand what he sees.

Functioning eyes are not the only component necessary for sight; the mind also needs to be able to process the information coming from the eye in order to interpret visual information. In the second stage “his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly” (vs. 25). After Jesus put his hands once more on the eyes of the man, he was finally able to understand what he saw.

This miracle became even more interesting to me after studying computer vision in graduate school. It clarified for me that seeing truly is not the same as understanding. Capturing an image is one thing, but recognizing an object is a significant challenge requiring complex computer programs which use visual cues to associate them with other knowledge.

Clearly Jesus could have healed this man instantaneously. But instead, the Scripture passage describes a miracle deliberately completed in two phases. It appears that Jesus had a purpose in doing this. How are we to understand this? Although it’s difficult to be certain, here are a few thoughts on how this passage might be understood.

I think it is no accident that this story in Mark 8 is surrounded by portions of Scripture where Jesus was repeatedly asking his disciples “Do you not yet understand?” Jesus’ question to the blind man in vs. 23, “Do you see anything?” is very similar to Jesus’ question to his disciples a few verses back in vs. 17, “Do you still not see or understand?” Again in vs. 18 of this chapter Jesus says, “do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?” and again in vs. 21, “Do you still not understand?”

Immediately following the story of the blind man is the story of Peter’s confession. Although Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah, he still does not fully understand that Christ has to die. Shortly after this declaration Jesus rebukes Peter for not understanding that he must suffer and die. At this point, Peter sees but does not fully understand.

The miracle of the blind man, in effect, describes two cures in one. The ability to see and understand is a gift of God. I think, like the process of healing the blind man, Jesus is gradually healing his disciples – as they move from not understanding, to misunderstanding, to understanding. The gospel is an account of how Jesus is gradually “opening the eyes” of his disciples.

It is easy to criticize the disciples and wonder how they could be so slow to understand. However, we need to also look at ourselves: we too are in need of Jesus’ healing for understanding. We too see through a glass darkly (1 Cor. 13:12) and the fall has given us all white canes, as Kuyper puts it.

“Seeing — that’s the key. When we say to each other “Now you see what I mean,” we’re usually referring to a spiritual kind of seeing, not simply what the eye admits in form and figure. At creation, we all came equipped with that kind of vision. But the fall dimmed our perceptions, gave us all white canes. . . . . At the moment we come to see God in Jesus Christ, as he begs us to do, God Almighty, in His Spirit, comes to dwell in us. That is the moment that we draw near unto God and He draws near unto us.”1

This article originally appeared in Christian Courier. The author is grateful to Syd Hielema for a helpful discussion on this passage.

About the Author
  • Derek Schuurman is Professor of Computer Science at Calvin College. He completed a PhD in the area of robotics and is author of a book about faith and technology titled, Shaping a Digital World.

  1. from Near Unto God, by Abraham Kuyper, translated by James Schaap, p. 67 

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