Mark 8: “The Test of the Pharisees”

Unfair Test

A young college student had stayed up all night studying for his zoology exam the next day. As he entered the classroom, he saw ten stands with ten birds. A brown paper bag was over each one of the bird’s heads and only the legs were showing.

He sat right in the front row because he wanted to do the best job possible and maintain his 4.0 grade point average. The professor announced that the test would be to look at each set of bird legs and give the common name, habitat, genus, species, and identifying characteristic.

The student looked at each set of bird legs. They all looked the same to him. He began to get very upset. He had stayed up all night studying, and now he had to identify birds by their legs. The more he thought about it, the madder he got. Finally, he couldn’t stand it anymore.

He went to the professor’s desk and said “What a stupid test! How could anyone tell the difference between birds by looking at just their legs?” With that the student threw his test on the professor’s desk and started to walk out of the door.

The professor was surprised. The class was so big that he didn’t know every student’s name, so as the student reached the door, the professor called out “One moment, son, what’s your name?”

The enraged student pulled up his pants at the leg and said, “You guess buddy! You guess!

The Test of the Pharisees

Tests, just the word to some sends shivers down your spine. On the other hand there are some who hear the word test and get all giddy. I don’t understand these people but I do know they exist. Tests are interesting if you think about it, because you are at the mercy of answering the test based on the desire of the person giving the test.

It’s here in Mark 8 that once again Jesus is being put to the test.

Mark 8:11-13 (NLT) 11 When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had arrived, they came and started to argue with him. Testing him, they demanded that he show them a miraculous sign from heaven to prove his authority.

12 When he heard this, he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why do these people keep demanding a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, I will not give this generation any such sign.” 13 So he got back into the boat and left them, and he crossed to the other side of the lake.

Now before we jump all over the Pharisees we have to as ourselves, how often do I test God in this way?

  • “God, if you love me, you’ll…”
  • “God, just                                             and I will                                       
  • “God, if I could just see a sign, then I’ll believe

This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s true. At one point or another in our lives, we too have gotten to the place of testing God. But here’s what’s strange about the Pharisees. They have been traveling with Jesus for a while and he was performing miracles right in front of their eyes, but what they were looking for wasn’t a miracle, it was an astrological sign from the heavens.

Jesus’ Response

The thing that scares me about this scripture isn’t that the Pharisees were demanding a sign, we anticipate that. Instead, it scares me that Jesus got so frustrated he got in the boat and left them. He had enough. He was angry, frustrated with their faithlessness.

The Zondervan Illustrated Bibles says, “The English translation misses how sharply Jesus refuses (v. 12). The text reads literally, “If a sign shall be given to this generation.” It comprises part of a vehement oath formula that would begin or conclude: “May God strike me down” or “May I be accursed of God” if a sign is given to this generation. Only false prophets will give signs to this generation.”

I’m a firm believer in God’s omnipresence (his ability to be everywhere at one time), but I’m also astute enough to realize that there were times that “God’s glory has departed (1 Samuel 4:12-22).”


The thing about this story, or even God’s glory, is not the God ever “leaves” us. It’s the exact opposite. Instead, we leave God. Jesus got in the boat and left because the Pharisees didn’t want to believe. If you too are fearful of this today, cry out to God, “I do believe, but help me overcome my unbelief (Mark 9:24)!” More on that tomorrow…