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30 | Why one of the Bible’s oddest miracles, may be one of its greatest?


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In this podcast, I want to discuss one of the oddest miracles in the Bible – and for a very strange reason, it could be one of the greatest Biblical miracles.

But we can’t really understand this miracle until we look at a medical procedure that took place in 1991.

Hi my name is Dean Smith I want to talk about the healing of the blind man found in Mark chapter 8.

Now there are several powerful miracles in the Bible. The resurrection of Christ that broke the power of death and of course for cinematic effect what can top the parting of the Red Sea. But this odd healing of a blind man recorded in Mark 8 deserves a spot in the top 10 Bible miracles:

22 And they came to Bethsaida. And they brought a blind man to Jesus and implored Him to touch him. 23 Taking the blind man by the hand, He brought him out of the village; and after spitting on his eyes and laying His hands on him, He asked him, “Do you see anything?” 24 And he looked up and said, “I see men, for I see them like trees, walking around.” 25 Then again He laid His hands on his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and began to see everything clearly. 26 And He sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”

Mark 8:22-26 NASV

There are several unusual things about this passage.

First this healing is only mentioned in the book of Mark, none of the other gospel writers talk about it. Who knows maybe they considered it as a failed or less than perfect healing.

Secondly, Jesus was in the town of Bethsaida when people showed up with a blind man asking Christ to heal him.

But the first thing that Jesus did was take the man by the hand and lead him out of Bethsaida. Why didn’t Jesus heal the man right there in the town?

Many wonder if the reason lies in the fact that Bethsaida was one of two towns mentioned in Matthew 11:21 condemned by Jesus because the people didn’t repent despite all the miracles that had been performed there.

Does this suggest that because of their unbelief Jesus wasn’t interested in performing any more miracles in the town?

The third thing is that people brought the blind man to Jesus asking the Lord to touch him.

And because they had specifically asked Christ to touch the man, Jesus decided to do it in a completely different way revealing that healing can come in a variety of ways from Jesus laying his hands on people, to giving a word and healing a Centurion’s servant that was miles away to telling a man to bathe in a pool. And this instance, just spitting on the man’s eyes and laying hands on him.

Though performed in different ways, the underlying foundation of all these miracles was faith.

But certainly, the strangest thing about this healing is that it seemed to come in two stages. After spitting on the man’s eyes, Jesus asked the man what he saw which is also the only time Jesus asked a person if they were healed.

When the man answered that he saw men walking as trees, Jesus laid His hands on his eyes, and the man’s eyesight was completely restored and the Bible says he could see clearly.

People have a lot of opinions about what happened here.

Some have even suggested that Jesus needed more faith to complete this healing. Jesus was functioning as fully man and we do know in at least one instance that Jesus did not perform many miracles in Nazareth because of their unbelief. Though I am not sure if that meant Jesus couldn’t do miracles or simply decided not to.

Others have argued that sometimes healing can come in stages. There can be a progression. Others have wondered if it has a connection to Mark 4 where Jesus says people were seeing but not perceiving or understanding what they were seeing.

Was this a physical illustration of a spiritual problem in Bethsaida where people were seeing miracles but not understanding the true meaning that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah?

But I am beginning to wonder if there is something more to this healing. In fact, I believe it contains an incredible message.

The first clue is found in the story itself. Because when we look at this passage we find the word “see” used several times. The first couple of times Mark uses the Greek word ‘blepo’ that refers to the physical act of seeing.

This is the word that Jesus used when He asked the man what he saw. It is the word the man used when he answered that he saw men walking as trees.

But the final time the word see is used in this passage, Mark uses a different Greek word to describe the man as seeing clearly. It is the compound word ’emblepo’ and means to focus on and according to Strong’s means “metaphorically to look at with the mind. To consider.”

It seems to add a mental aspect to the seeing. Is this significant?

Well, to understand what was happening here, we need to hit the fast forward button and make sure you stop when you reach the year 1991, where we will take a look at an eye procedure done on a man named Shirl Jennings, aged 50 at time. Shirl had been blind since he was ten year after being diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. It is a condition that attacks the retina affecting how it responds to light and can result in permanent blindness.

Dr. Oliver Sacks was professor of neurology and psychiatry at  Columbia University Medical Centre in New York. He wrote an article in the New Yorker and later included the story in his book An Anthropologist on Mars telling us what happened to Shirl when he received his sight after a lifetime of blindness.

Like Shirl who died in 2003, the blind man in Mark may have been able to see at some point early in his life, because though men and trees were merging together as one convoluted, confusing mish-mash of images, he nevertheless had some idea what a tree looked like.

In 1991, Shirl’s girlfriend was seeing an eye doctor, Dr. Trevor Woodhams, because of her diabetes. After telling him about Shirl, Woodhams encouraged her to have Shirl come see him because though he had been diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, because he could still see light and dark, Woodhams wasn’t convinced that was the problem.

In fact, Shirl had very thick cataracts on his eyes and after Woodhams removed them incredibly Shirl was able to see.

But there was a problem.

In his book An Anthropologist on Mars, Sacks quotes a passage from the journal written by Shirl’s girlfriend that states for several weeks Shirl struggled to see properly. She wrote that Shirl:

“often felt more disabled than he had felt when he was blind… Steps posed a special hazard because all he could see was a confusion, a flat surface of parallel and crisscrossing lines; he could not see them (although he knew them) as solid objects going up or coming down in three-dimensional place.”

An Anthropologist on Mars by Dr Oliver Sacks

She added that the cat was a real challenge. Though he recognized the various part of a cat such as its paws, tail and ears, he was not able to visualize these separate parts as a complete unit.

Sacks wrote:

“His retina and optic nerve were active, transmitting impulses, but his brain could make no sense of them.”

But then Shirl’s girlfriend made a statement in her journal that is oddly similar to our blind man in Mark. She said that it took several weeks before Shirl could see the branches, leaves and trunk as being part of a single tree.

In fact Shirl told Sacks, when the bandages were taken off his eyes he only saw a blur of light, darkness and colors and images and suddenly he heard a voice asking him what he was seeing. It was only then that Shirl realized he was looking at the face of his doctor.

And this was exactly the same problem that the blind man was having when he saw men walking as trees. The images he was seeing were not making sense to him.

Though it took several weeks for Shirl to finally sort this out, when Jesus prayed for the blind man in Mark a second time, he was able to see clearly.

In fact, this was not a two stage healing, like Shirl, the blind man would have eventually learned to see properly to distinguish the different images. It is what babies go through as they are learning to see. When you hold them have you ever got the feeling that they are looking right past you, because they probably are, as they still trying to distinguish your image from the background.

But here is the incredible thing about this story. That statement, ‘I see men walking as trees’ is proof of a miracle taking place because only a man who had been healed of blindness would have had that problem. And we didn’t know about this problem until modern medicine started restoring sight to the blind.

That statement proves that Jesus had healed the blind man, putting it in my estimation on the list of the top ten miracles in the Bible.

Sources:

  • To See and Not See: The New Yorker
  • References: Mano, Keith, How a 20th century eye operation shows the Bethsaida miracle actually happened, (Western Report: Edmonton, Alberta)

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