A reader of Mark’s Gospel may rightly inquire, “Why does Jesus heal the blind man in two stages in Mark 8:22–26?” Earlier in the Gospel, we’ve seen that with simply a word, Jesus can heal from a distance (7:29). So why the protracted healing here?
Let’s begin by noting one thing we can say the text is definitely not teaching. The two-step healing doesn’t imply that Jesus “failed” at his first attempt at healing, or that he is somehow inadequate. Even the superficial reader of Mark’s Gospel couldn’t miss the clarity with which Jesus is repeatedly presented as the authoritative, omnipotent Son of God (1:1; 14:18, 27–28, 62, 72).
At another level, the answer to our question is patently obvious. We read about a two-step healing because that’s how the event actually happened! The early church father Papias affirmed that Mark carefully wrote down the apostolic preaching of Peter. We read of a two-step healing because Jesus, historically, in space and time, healed the man in two stages.
Looking back to the actual historical event, though, why did Jesus heal in this way? And does Mark, the Spirit-inspired narrator of these events, give us any clues in answering this question?
Human Faith and Divine Power
In Mark 6:5–6, we’re told that Jesus could do only few miracles in his hometown because of the people’s lack of faith. Elsewhere, Jesus clearly conditions answers to petitions with the proviso, “According to your faith, be it done to you” (Matt. 9:29, cf. Mark 10:52; 11:22–24). Although Jesus can perform miracles where there is inadequate or non-existent faith (e.g., Mark 5:41–42; 9:23–24), most of the miracles in his earthly ministry correspond to the faith of the petitioner(s). As the author of Hebrews similarly charges us, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God], for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Heb. 11:6) Was there some inadequacy in the faith of the blind man that resulted in the delay of his healing? If so, Mark gives no such indication.
Already in Mark 5, we’ve seen a similar delayed response to Jesus’s authoritative presence. As Jesus approaches the demonized “Legion” man, we’re told that Jesus had been saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” (5:8) What happens is not the immediate fulfillment of Jesus words (the forced departure of the demonic), but a dialogue. Only eventually do the evil spirits depart (5:13).
No ancient faith-healer or modern eye surgery can compare with the clarity and fullness of the physical restoration Jesus brings.
Why does Mark report the episode in this way? He could’ve easily condensed the narrative. Yet, in reporting the episode more slowly, the gradual unfolding of events highlights how powerful an enemy Jesus faces (a legion of foes, who can drown 2,000 pigs!). Emphasizing the strength of Jesus’s enemy conversely magnifies even further the power of the Lord’s triumph.
Likewise, in unfolding slowly for his readers the healing of blind man, Mark paints for us an unforgettable and dramatic reversal of the man’s disability. The formerly blind man isn’t left with severe nearsightedness (as some “faith-healing” charlatans of that day might’ve done), but his sight is perfectly restored to pristine clarity. No ancient faith-healer or modern eye surgery can compare with the clarity and fullness of the physical restoration Jesus brings.
Enacted Parable of Spiritual Blindness
Is there perhaps something more intended by the story, though? Does Mark see in Jesus’s two-step miracle a parable for the partial blindness of the disciples? It’s rightly noted that Mark’s Gospel isn’t just a random collection of stories about Jesus. The inspired Gospel author has provided structural features to help his readers interpret individual accounts.
For example, the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree is told in two parts (11:12–14, 20–25) with Jesus’s pronouncement of imminent judgment on the temple inserted in the middle (11:15–19). It seems clear that Mark viewed the stories as mutually informing, with the fig tree incident understood as an acted-out parable illustrating the Lord’s judgment on unbelieving Israel.
In the account which immediately precedes the healing of the blind man, Jesus has pointedly asked his disciples, “Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear?” (8:18). To instantly follow these words with the account of a man who literally has eyes but doesn’t see doesn’t appear to be accidental on Mark’s part.
Further, the passage about the two-stage healing (8:21–26) is the final literary unit before the widely recognized Markan section that spans from 8:27–10:52. We could title these chapters “The False Path of Worldly Glory vs. the Way of the Cross.” This portion of Mark contain a thrice-repeated pattern: (1) Jesus predicts his death, (2) the disciples misunderstand the nature of true discipleship, (3) Jesus teaches that true discipleship is costly and involves suffering.
The two-step healing doesn’t imply that Jesus ‘failed’ at his first attempt at healing or that he is somehow inadequate.
Through this repeated literary structure, we’re reminded that the disciples have, at this historical juncture, a partial and malformed understanding of both Jesus’s ministry and what it means to follow him. In a sense, they see his ministry with severe nearsightedness. Rather than seeing Jesus as the suffering Servant of Isaiah (Isa. 53), they have quite a few misconceptions. Many biblical commentators see here a parallel with the blind man’s healing. If they’re correct, Mark would then be implying that the disciples need a “second touch” from Jesus (through his continued ministry and teaching among them) so that they might see more clearly who he is and why he came.
Learning to See Jesus More Clearly
As modern readers of Mark’s Gospel, we can draw some implications for ourselves. First, Jesus rightly commands us to come to him in a disposition of faith—trusting his power, goodness, and love. We must believe and worship him, whether that results in miraculous healing in our lives or simply the grace to endure pain.
Moreover, when we read and think on the stories about Jesus in the Gospels, our faith grows as we see the power, goodness, and love of God displayed in Christ.
Finally, we must remember that physical healing and spiritual growth are often not instantaneous. We must hold tightly to Jesus, continuing to look to him to meet our physical and spiritual needs. The answers to our prayers may come quickly; or they may come through stages, after extensive waiting; or only in the new heavens and new earth. Regardless, God’s grace is sufficient (2 Cor. 12:9).