(1) Mark 8.1-13: This pericope, set off by Jesus' feeding of the 4,000, commences an important motif in the chapter: the contest between "belief" and "unbelief." (a) Jesus presents his disciples with the dilemma, "the people have nothing to eat, and I cannot send them away hungry." The disciples' response ("gosh, that's a difficult one") reflects "unbelief." (b) On the heels of this incredible miracle, the Pharisees have the impudence to request a "sign from heaven" proving who Jesus is. Again, we're met here with a bald declaration of unbelief in the face of Jesus' equally-bald manifestation of his identity.
(2) Mark 8.14-21: Jesus warns his disciples (who had--strange as it may seem for men to do--neglected to load the leftovers) "Be careful...Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod." It's easy to appreciate the disciples' confusion at this point; what precisely is the "yeast" to which Jesus refers? Our answer, of course, depends upon interpreting the word-picture which Jesus attempts to paint in paralleling "Herod" and "the Pharisees." (a) Reference to "Herod" carries the reader back to Mark 6 where the author records the responses of various groups/people to Christ. Notably, Herod thinks he is "John, whom I beheaded...raised from the dead!" Mark moves on then to explain the sordid details surrounding Herod's execution of John the Baptist. (b) Throughout the gospel, the religious leaders chafe at the teachings, the claims, and the conduct of Jesus. There request in 8.11 ("give us a sign!") would no doubt still be ringing in the ears of the listeners to whom this document was being read. So, what have "Herod" and "the Pharisees" in common? Unbelief. Herod dismissed Jesus as a re-embodied antagonist, and the Pharisees dismissed him as a blaspheming lunatic whom they could never manage to best. The point being: they both dismissed him.
(3) Mark 8.22-25: The gospeler next records the story of the man twice-healed from blindness. Jesus pastes spittled dirt on the mans eyes, asks him if he can see, and the man responds "sorta"; then Jesus touches his eyes and they "were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly." By itself, these verses offer an interesting vignette; in context, they provide a crucial element of the narrative's development. Jesus is, I think, offering a sort of "enacted parable" such that it represents stages of belief (blindness/sight relate to unbelief/belief, that is)--and of the disciples' belief particularly. As the next verses point out, Peter and the rest understood who Jesus was...but only in part. They yet awaited Jesus' "hands on healing," i.e. the gift of believing.
(4) Mark 8.27-30: In response to Jesus' question concerning who people perceive him to be, Peter makes the grand declaration: "You are the Messiah!" This is "belief," right? A recognition of who Jesus is and what he came to do, is it not? Nope. As Peter's next exchange with Christ shows, he (and the others) are still seeing "people, trees walking around" (like the blind man above) and not Jesus' actual identity, much less his mission.
(5) Mark 8.31-33: Jesus reveals explicitly the type of "Messiah" he is and the divine agenda he had been assigned to carry out: "He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again." This announcement engenders angst, but angst of the wrong kind. What chaps the disciples isn't the impending suffering of Jesus, but that Jesus intends (by virtue of the fact that he's predicting it) to suffer at all. The Messiah who Jesus came to be was the one that Israel (and the world) most needed, and yet he's the one they least wanted. And so Peter trumpets a rebuke, and Jesus stills him with a shocking response: "Get behind me Satan . . . You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns." Again, unbelief comes to the foreground.
(6) Mark 8.34-9.1: Turning from Peter, Jesus summons the disciples and the crowd to gather around him offer insight into the nature of true discipleship. What does following Jesus look like? Denial of self/sacrificial lifestyle. Loss of life. Boldness to stand by a Messiah no one cared to acknowledge. Mark begins something here which becomes a pattern: three times he tells the disciples "I must suffer" (8.31-32, 9.30-32, 10.33-34), and three times he follows up his comments on suffering with a discussion of "the cost of discipleship" (8.34-38, 9.35-37, 10.42-45). There is, in other words, an inextricable and indissoluble connection between "Jesus' suffering" and "the disciple's suffering" which Mark highlights. Consequently, the standing question with which Jesus leaves his audience is "will you believe in me on my terms (not yours) and follow me down the road of suffering to a place of glory?"
[The relationship between "suffering" and "discipleship" isn't the subject of this entry, but I would note briefly that it corresponds well to Benji's recent comments.]
(6) Conclusion: I've tried to underscore here the importance of the contest between "belief" and "unbelief" in Mark 8. The crucial matter for the community to which Mark was writing was whether or not they would accept Jesus as he defined himself, or reject him in favor of a better Messiah--one who fit a little more neatly into their prophetic paradigm and who required less of his followers. Though the context is a different, I think the same choice stands before us today. Does our belief in Jesus have the right basis? Are we his on his terms, or are we attempting to make him ours on our terms? Granted, that's sort of an abstract question. So here are some concrete tests as to whether or not our belief is valid: (1) Are we denying self by living cruciform lives? (2) Are we concerned with preserving our lives, or are we gladly "spending and being spent" for the glory of God and the well-being of others? (3) To whose kingdom are we devoted--ours or the resurrected Lord's? (4) Are we ashamed of the Son of Man or are we embracing him unreservedly?