The first time someone reads His words, Jesus can sound a little harsh. For instance, He criticizes anyone who “hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it” (Matt. 13:19). Now, I’m not always the sharpest guy in the room, and the things of God can be complex. So is Jesus like a teacher reprimanding a 5-year-old for not understanding quantum physics? Does this mean one has to be an intellectual with an advanced degree to excel in the kingdom?
Thankfully, the answer is no. Jesus is actually saying something quite different. When we zoom out to the broader context, He has just quoted Isaiah 6, which prophesies that the people will be “ever hearing, but never understanding” and “ever seeing, but never perceiving.” How can human beings see and hear but miss what’s happening right in front of them? It’s because, Isaiah says, “this people’s heart has become calloused” (Isa. 6:9-10 NIV).
Jesus is not talking about the problem of flunking your SATs here; He’s talking about a much different problem.
The Hardened Heart
In both the book of Isaiah and Jesus’ ministry, the hardened heart is a big deal. When we make something more ultimate than God—elevating gifts like sex, money, and power into idols—we can miss the best thing right in front of us: the Lord’s gracious presence. As our unthankful hearts become infatuated with getting that bigger house, that more intriguing romance, or that public applause, the lavish generosity of God’s kingdom can press up against our body without ever invading our soul. Building our own Babylons can distract us from the God who pursues us from below, showing up in our weakness.
Fortunately, Isaiah talks about more than just hardened hearts; he describes a Messiah who softens them. God’s servant will open the eyes of the rebellious, Isaiah prophesies, so that “what had not been told them they will see, and what they had not heard they will understand” (Isa. 52:15, emphasis added). Jesus opens our eyes, pulls the wax out of our ears, and chips away at the granite around our hearts so they can start to beat again.
This Messiah will be a suffering servant, Isaiah tells us, who’ll give His life to bring us back to God: “He was pierced through for our transgressions ... and by His scourging we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). The reason the Savior’s suffering can heal hardened hearts is because it deals with the sin that’s the source of the problem. This Messianic King will “open blind eyes” (Isa. 42:7) and give His life for us, such that when He is exalted, “the eyes of those who see will not be blinded, and the ears of those who hear will listen. The mind of the hasty will discern the truth” (Isa. 32:3-4).
It’s possible to miss what’s right in front of us. We may want to keep our Christianity at a safe distance, where we’ve read some good truths and listened to some good music but can still keep God at bay. Yet the Father wants to invade the fullness of our lives, and He arrives in Christ so we might truly see, hear, and understand. In other words, Jesus came so we might intimately know and experience God’s redemptive love, within the context of relationship, in a way that transforms us from the inside out.
Two Blind Men
The second gospel drives this point home in a couple of familiar stories where more is going on than initially apparent. Mark writes that en route to Jerusalem to be crucified, Jesus heals two blind men. In the first account, the Lord rubs some saliva into the man’s eyes, which brings only partial improvement. The man says he can see people now, but unfortunately they look “like trees, walking around” (Mark 8:24). So Jesus does a “take two,” touching the imperfect eyes again. Then the man “looked intently and was restored, and began to see everything clearly” (Mark 8:25).
What’s going on here? Did Jesus botch the healing and have to try again? No. On the contrary, this “take two” is actually part of the point. Let me explain. Immediately after this scene, Jesus asks the disciples who they believe Him to be, and Peter correctly answers, “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29 NIV). But Jesus then explains what this means—that He “must suffer many things and be rejected … and be killed” (Mark 8:31). What? Peter doesn’t get it,so he rebukes Jesus. Peter can see, in part, who Jesus is—the Messiah—but as was true of the blind man in the preceding story, the picture’s still fuzzy. It’s going to take some more work before his sight is clear.
Subsequent to this two-part healing of the blind man, Jesus predicts His death and resurrection three times. Each time, the disciples misunderstand, and Jesus has to correct them by teaching that the way to the kingdom is through the cross (Mark 8:31-38; Mark 9:30-37; Mark 10:32-45). And after Jesus gives these three “lessons,” guess which story immediately follows—Mark’s second (and only other) story about Jesus healing a blind man (Mark 10:46-52). Only this go-round, the healing works the first time.
The point? Jesus’ followers will only gradually and incrementally get that God’s victory comes through suffering, His power displayed in weakness. But eventually, as the Messiah softens their hearts, they’ll see Him clearly.
Jesus is a King, but His kingdom isn’t structured as we expect. The rulers of this hard-hearted world may lord it over others, but He tells us, “It is not this way among you” (Mark 10:42-43). As His followers, we’re to walk in the dust of the path He’s laid down before us and—like Him—surrender our lives in sacrificial love. Our endgame is that we might see Jesus as He truly is. That our ears might hear His voice cutting through the fortresses we’ve built to defend ourselves against His advance. That our hearts might be softened as we encounter, in Christ, the very presence of God.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft