What the Bible Really Says: Mark 8:29

Let’s begin with the NRSV:

He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”

Wow. That’s simple. Or is it? About 2 years ago, I sat in church and listened to a sermon on Mark 8:27 – 9:1. After reading the text aloud, the preacher said something like this:

“There are a lot of religions. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Islam…. there is even one called Jainism! But only one world religion carries the claim that Jesus is the Son of God. Mark tells us the story of Peter confessing, as an eye-witness that Jesus is indeed the Son of God.”

“That’s interesting…” I thought to myself. “…considering that is not what Peter said.” And it’s not. Peter does not confess Jesus’s divinity. he confesses his kingship. He says “You are the Messiah.” He does not say “You are the Son of God.” and those are two very different things.

Now, before we go on to explore the difference between “son of God” and “Messiah” (or “Christ”), let me be clear about something. I am NOT saying that Mark (or Peter) is somehow saying that Jesus isn’t the Son of God. I am only saying that in Mark chapter 8, the disciples have not had this epiphany yet. (There is even some good scholarly debate as to whether or not Jesus himself understood that yet – which is beside the point at the moment). The point of Mark 8, is that Jesus is the King of Israel. Moreover, Jesus uses Peter’s confession that he is indeed the Messiah, the King, to say something equally as important – namely, what KIND of King Jesus would be and what it means to be a citizen (or “follower”) of His kingdom.

The Kingdom New Testament reads:

“What about you?” asked Jesus. “Who do you say I am?” Peter spoke up. “You’re the King,” he said.

In his “For Everyone” New Testament commentary series, N.T. Wright says this about Mark 8:22 – 9:1

It is vital for us to be clear at this point. Calling Jesus ‘Messiah’ doesn’t mean calling him ‘divine’, let alone ‘the second person of the Trinity’. Mark believes Jesus was and is divine, and will eventually show us why; but this moment in the gospel story is about something else. It’s about the politically dangerous and theologically risky claim that Jesus is the true King of Israel, the final heir to the throne of David, the one before whom Herod Antipas and all other would-be Jewish princelings are just shabby impostors. The disciples weren’t expecting a divine redeemer; they were longing for a king. And they thought they had found one.

Jesus is a prophet, announcing the kingdom of God; the long-awaited moment when God would rule Israel, and ultimately the world, with the justice and mercy of which the scriptures had spoken and for which Israel had longed. All mere human rule, with its mixtures of justice and oppression, mercy and corruption, would fade before it. What Jesus had been doing – notably, for Mark, the healings, the battles with evil, the extraordinary feedings, stilling of storms, and so on – are signs that this is indeed the moment when the true God is beginning to exercise this power. Finally the disciples have taken a further step: Jesus is not just announcing the kingdom. He thinks he’s the king.

By no means all Jews wanted or expected a Messiah. But those who did were clear (not least from their readings of scripture) that he had to do three things. He had to rebuild, or cleanse, the Temple. He had to defeat the enemy that was threatening God’s people. And he had to bring God’s justice – that rich, restoring, purging, healing power – to bear both in Israel and out into the world. No doubt these ideas were believed and expressed in different ways by different people. But there was a central agenda. The Messiah would be God’s agent in bringing in the kingdom, in sorting out the mess and muddle Israel was in, in putting the Gentiles in their place.

Jesus had already been redefining that set of tasks. He hadn’t been gathering a military force. He hadn’t been announcing a program to topple the Sadducees – the high priests and their associates. He had been going around doing things that spoke powerfully but cryptically of a strange new agenda: God’s healing energy sweeping through the land, bringing about a new state of affairs, arousing passionate opposition as well as passionate loyalty. And he’d been saying things, by way of explanation, that were often so cryptic that even his friends were puzzled by them. Now finally they have grasped the initial point at least. He is giving the dream of Messiah a face lift. He has in mind a new way of being God’s appointed, and annointed, king.

Just how new that way is will now emerge. But for the moment we need to examine our own answers to the question. Who do we say Jesus is? Would we like to think of him as simply a great human teacher? Would we prefer him as a Superman figure. able to ‘zap’ all the world’s problems into shape? Are we prepared to have the easy answers of our culture challenged by the actual Jesus, by his redefined notion of messiahship, and by the call, coming up in the next section, to follow him in his risky vocation?

It is vital that we keep this focus of Messiah and King here. If we supplant what is at stake for Peter with “Son of God.” Then we can quickly jump to the next conclusion – believing that Jesus is the Son of God is all that matters… and it’s not.

Not only is Jesus king, not only is he the awaited Messiah of Israel, but he is also about to clue us in on what sort of Messiah he will be starting in verse 31…

Then he began to teach them that the [he] must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’

You know what is happening in Peter’s head – indeed all 12 of their heads – “What? What is this? This does not sound like a mighty king! This does not sound like the program for restoration and renewal that we have waited for! Haven’t you seen who is oppressing us? We need might! We need force! We need power!”

Peter calls Jesus aside… “Ummm… I need to set you straight… None of that is going to work to do what it is that the Messiah is suppose to do.”

What Peter did not account for is the power of suffering love.

Again, N.T. Wright is helpful here.

But this was different. This was something new. Mark says Jesus ‘began to teach them’ this, implying that it was quite a new point that could only be begun once they’d declared that he was the Messiah – like a schoolteacher who can only begin the next stage of mathematics when the pupils have learned to add and subtract, or a language teacher who can only start on great poetry when the pupils have got the hang of how the language works. And the new lesson wasn’t just that there might be danger ahead; the new lesson was that Jesus had to walk straight into it. Nor would it simply be a risky gamble that might just pay off. It would be certain death. This was what he had to do.

You might as well have had a football captain tell the team that he was intending to let the opposition score ten goals right away. This wasn’t what Peter and the rest had in mind. They may not have thought of Jesus as a military leader, but they certainly didn’t think of him going straight to his death. As Charlie Brown once said, ‘Winning ain’t everything, but losing ain’t anything;’ and Jesus seemed to be saying he was going to lose. Worse, he was inviting them to come and lose alongside him.

This is the heart of what’s going on here, and it explains both the tricky language Jesus uses (tricky for them to puzzle out at first hearing, tricky for us to reconstruct what he meant) and the strong negative reaction of Peter, so soon after telling Jesus that he and the rest thought he was the Messiah. Messiahs don’t get killed by the authorities. A Messiah who did that would be shown up precisely as a false Messiah.

So why did Jesus say that’s what had to happen?

Mark will explain this to us bit by bit over the coming chapters. But already there is a hint, an allusion. ‘The son of man’ must have all this happen to him, declares Jesus; only so will ‘the son of man come in the glory of his Father with the holy angels’. Only so will the kingdom of God come…

So important is this message that opposition to the plan, wherever it comes from, must be seen as satanic, from the Accuser. Even Peter, Jesus’ right-hand man, is capable of thinking like a mere mortal, not looking at things from God’s point of view. This is a challenge to all of us, as the church in every generation struggles not only to think but to live from God’s point of view in a world where such a thing is madness. This is the point at which God’s kingdom, ‘coming on earth as it is in heaven’, will challenge and overturn all normal human assumptions about power and glory, about what is really important in life and in the world.

Jesus seems to think that evil will be defeated, and the kingdom will come, precisely through his own suffering and death.

Indeed the Messiah (as Peter has just declared, is Jesus) will be powerful. But power in this new kingdom gets re-defined. Power is seen in the capacity to love, even suffering-love, with faith that the Father who is in heaven will vindicate such love.

Now the kicker. We have to follow suit. The cross, is not just for Jesus. It is for us as well.

The NIV reads:

“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

For as long as I can remember, this text has been thought to mean something like this:

“…that we all have a cross to bear: mine is lust, yours is greed…”

Sound familiar? It drastically misses the point. While following Jesus indeed impacts our personal struggles, hopefully for the better, he is not setting forth a framework for thinking about personal morality. He is calling us to something new. This moralistic view removes the “call” to “come after me..” and “follow me.” It emphasizes a simple moral adjustment or two to what we are already doing. But Jesus is calling us to something new. To get there, we must bear the cross along with him.

N.T. Wright says it rather bluntly:

Why he thought that, and what it means for those who follow him, will become clear as [Mark] proceed(s). But this passage makes it clear that following him is the only way to go. Following Jesus is, more or less, Mark’s definition of what being a Christian means; and Jesus is not leading us on a pleasant afternoon hike, but on a walk into danger and risk. Or did we suppose that the kingdom of God would mean merely a few minor adjustments in our ordinary lives?

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