One of the unique characteristics of the book of Mark is that it is the only Gospel that comments that the Lord’s believing disciples had hard hearts. Mark himself tells us so (6:52), and the Lord does as well (8:17). Many have commented that the Gospel of Mark paints the disciples in a more negative light than the other Gospels, and these verses are certainly examples of that. Having a hard heart towards the Lord is not a flattering description.
In fact, when one looks at the book as a whole, it is a brutal description. It is not only the disciples who are said to have hard hearts.
Earlier, the Lord had some run-ins with certain religious leaders. In Mark 2:1-12, He heals a paralyzed man in front of these leaders. Instead of their considering that He might be the Christ since He has displayed such power, they are scandalized because Jesus says that the paralyzed man’s sins are forgiven. They accuse Him of blasphemy. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, we see that these men are not willing to consider what Jesus is saying and doing.
A little later, Jesus heals a man with a paralyzed hand (3:1-5). The religious leaders are scandalized once again because Jesus has dared to do this on the Sabbath. Their religious traditions did not allow such a thing. These men took much pride in such traditions and felt that, because they kept them legalistically, they were better than others. This spiritual pride was more important to them than the fact that a man was made whole. They loved their outward display of religiosity—how they appeared to others. They were lacking in mercy towards this man and the difficulty his disability had caused him. Once again, they were not willing to listen to the teachings of the Lord, in spite of the fact that He had miraculously healed a man.
It is here that we are told what the Lord thought of these men. They had hard hearts (3:5). Their hearts were not open to what the Lord was saying or doing. Their hearts were also hardened in spiritual pride, which prevented them from being merciful towards others.
How sad that the disciples are later described using the same term. In Mark 6:52 they are said to have hard hearts because they did not learn what the Lord was teaching them. The same thing is true in Mark 8:17. Like the religious leaders, their hearts were hardened to the truth that was right before them. Even though they were believers and had eternal life, in this regard they were like the unbelieving legalistic scribes and Pharisees.
The message is clear. Believers can act like the world. In fact, a disciple can act like the world. There is a danger here. Obviously, this is not talking about the loss of eternal life, which is impossible. But both Mark and the Lord are warning the readers of Mark’s Gospel not to be like the world.
We can choose to ignore the Lord’s teachings in the Scriptures. We can close ourselves off from His teachings because they don’t agree with what we think is right. We can refuse to believe them. In this way, believers can have hard hearts.
But can our hearts become, in another way, like the hardened hearts of the unbelieving religious leaders whom Jesus confronted? Mark seems to be saying that we can be like them. Remember what they were like? They gloried in outward religious appearances at the expense of showing mercy to others. The picture of their doing so is odious. We would never want to be as they were towards the paralyzed man and the man with the withered hand.
However, I realize that we can, indeed, be like that. How easy it is, as believers, to think of ourselves as better than others. How easy it is to act with a view towards impressing others through outward appearances. How easy it is to develop spiritual pride. When we do, we fall into the trap of being unmerciful towards others. The Lord teaches us to be merciful towards one another, but if our hearts are hardened to His teaching, we may very well not do what He tells us to do.
Whatever form it might take in our individual lives, we are told in Mark’s Gospel that, like the Pharisees, we can have hard hearts. May we ask the Lord for soft hearts–hearts that are open to what He teaches us, especially regarding how we see and treat others.