"Who Do You Say I Am?"
Mark 8: 27 — 35
In this text our Lord is seen to move 25 miles north from Bethsaida, to the villages around the magnificent city of Caesarea Phillippi, the capital of Iturea. This was the residence of Herod Phillip, on the slopes of Mount Hermon, beautiful and fertile source of the River Jordan.
A little history will help us see why Jesus may have chosen this spot for the event which takes place in this account. William Lane tells us, "When the area was first given to Herod the Great by Augustus he built a temple in honour of the emperor near a grotto consecrated to the Greek God Pan. In 3 B.C. Phillip rebuilt the neighbouring village of Paneas as his residence and, named the new city in honour of Caesar. The area was thus dominated by strong Roman associations, and it may be theologically significant, that Jesus' dignity was first recognised in a region devoted to the affirmation that 'Caesar is Lord.'"
Our account marks a turning point in the ministry of Jesus, and in the understanding he was to impart on the real nature of discipleship.
Some Notes On the Text
Verses 27 and 28
As Jesus was walking from village to village around Caesarea Phillipi, he asked his closest disciples for a little feedback about his ministry. " I know people talk about me. What are they saying; who do they say I am?"
The reply given to this question is particularly interesting. People have been saying some very uncomplimentary things about our Lord, but the disciples keep those to themselves. Instead of giving a cross-section of commonly held opinions, they choose only the best they have heard. And so they volunteer titles such us, "John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the other prophets."
In other words, from what they had overheard from common market-place conversation, in himself, Jesus was no one really; just another (the latest) in a long line of reminders of a long-past golden age of prophecy which every now and then seemed to come to notice, but never achieved anything much.
In response to this, Jesus chose a manner of speaking which showed he rejected the titles commonly attributed to him. He said to his close disciples: "But you, who do you say I am?" emphasising the obvious fact that they have been close to him and been part of all he had done.
Peter, at this point answered, no doubt on behalf of the group. "You are the Anointed of God. You are the Messiah." In answering this way, Peter was giving voice to the Biblical understanding of the Messiah, which implied "divine election and appointment to a particular task and a special endowment of power for its performance" (Lane).
Peter's affirmation of our Lord was a wonderful expression of belief. Perhaps to the surprise of the group, and even to present day readers, the immediate retort from Jesus was a firm warning to them not to repeat Peter's answer. The problem was not what Peter said, but that it could cause confusion to his ministry if it reinforced the wrong messages.
The commonly held view was that the Messiah would be liberator and saviour of Israel who by force would bring the world to compliance. He would make systems and organisations change. Our Lord would not allow his disciples to project their under-developed dreams and vision of a Messiah to a listening audience. William Lane points out that this is a significant example of Jesus teaching the future leaders of his Church that mere declaration, proclamation and giving witness of personal belief are not sufficient to establish Christian faith. The disciples of Jesus then and always must be led beyond mere messianic confession to an awareness of the dimensions of messiahship as defined by the revealed will of God. As the text soon discloses (verses 34 and 35) the disciple must be willing to suffer and die with their Lord.
All of this begged the question, if the restoration and liberty of Israel could not be achieved by force and radical external change, then how were they to come about?
Verses 31 and 32(a)
The Gospel text shows Jesus following up his warning immediately with an explanation:
The best scholars teach us to avoid interpreting this as conveying the idea that an impersonal fate or destiny is the determining factor as though 'the Son of Man is fated to…' Rather this is the God appointed mission of the Son of Man. (Bratcher and Nida, U.B.S.).
Verse 32(a) which we attached to verse 31 above indicates Jesus felt confident enough to speak to his close disciples boldly, frankly, and freely, concealing nothing from them. This is significant if we are to understand correctly what follows.
Augustine Stock points out that "the reference to the three prominent classes of Jews who together constituted the Sanhedrin indicates that certain groups and not the people as a whole were responsible for Jesus' death.
We can sympathise with Peter. Our Lord had indeed spoken so plainly to them that no one missed the point he was making. It came as a real shock! Never did anyone awaiting the coming of the promised Messiah have to cope with the mind-shattering image of a suffering, rejected and executed Messiah, let alone the added dimension of rising from the dead after three days.
With his usual precision and clarity, St Mark records our Lord's reaction to the thoughts and attitudes of his disciples. It is a moment of intense learning and reshaping their thoroughly world-centred way of perceiving:
Most of us learnt Jesus' remark as, "Get thee behind me Satan!" Augustine Stock points out that the words, "looked at his disciples" indicate that all the disciples are included in Jesus rebuke. This is important or we will miss the very strong warning our Lord is giving his Church. In this incident Jesus was implying something like: "You are talking to me exactly the way Satan does!"
(See Luke 4: 5 — 8.)
Jesus does not mean Peter is (or any of them are) satanic or depraved. But by urging Jesus to hold back from death, to be more concerned with preserving his life than to fulfil God's holy will, Peter is allowing himself to be the agent of the tempter: of Satan. In other words, he is allowing himself and his vocation to follow in the footsteps of Jesus to be hijacked and misused,
In effect, Jesus is saying to his disciples:
Jesus shows no inclination to justify the ways of God to men. He simply affirms that the way of the cross is the will of God. (Lane). Only after the resurrection of Jesus did Peter and the other disciples who felt exactly as he did, appreciate how much Jesus had honoured them on this occasion. They were now ready to commence their training on a new level. This is the turning point in St Mark's Gospel. From now on their journey is set for Jerusalem!
Verses 34 and 35
At this point, to the surprise of some, Jesus suddenly called the crowd over to him. He went on to horrify them (together with his close disciples) by saying the following:
So, the path of suffering is not only for Jesus, but his disciples as well. We recall that St Mark was writing in Rome for a small Christian community which was experiencing the most extreme, harsh and unthinkable persecution and torture ever devised by humans for humans.
As Lane so wisely says, "It was the Lord's intention that those who follow him should not be detached observers of his passion, but men who grow in faith and understanding through participation in his sufferings."
This understanding is absolutely crucial in presenting the teaching of Jesus. Again we quote Professor William Lane from his commentary (Erdmans 1994) as he sums up the core of this teaching:
Because it is so important to understand this difficult concept, we add the note from Bratcher and Nida Translator's Handbook (U.B.S):
"Deny himself" is without doubt one of the most difficult expressions in all of Mark to translate adequately. Unfortunately, too many people have taken this expression to mean 'to deny oneself certain pleasures or objects,' while actually the meaning is denial of one's presumed prerogatives or personal interests. The different ways of expressing this concept in various languages is highly illuminating."
Bratcher and Nida then list several examples which include: -
Finally, Charles Erdman sums up the power packed lesson from our Lord:
This has been an exciting, if not demanding reading from St Mark. There is much to ponder, and we have taken five specific thoughts to leave for your reflection and meditation.
In our introduction we noted that a long held view by Christian teachers is that Jesus chose to draw out of St Peter his magnificent declaration to counter local pagan belief. The Roman Emperor enjoyed being treated as divine, and the part-Jew puppet King Herod Phillip curried favour with his master by giving illustrious expression to this in the form of a magnificent city dedicated to him. To all it signified, "Caesar is Lord". Jesus. In his own quiet way simply asked his closest disciples what they thought of him in their hearts. Peter spoke for them all: "You are the one and only Annointed of God. You are Messiah." St Paul echoed this in his teaching and letter writing. To him there was only one Lord and he said it the way it needed to be said:
"Jesus is Lord"
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