"Who Do You Say I Am?"

Ordinary 24B

Mark 8: 27 35

Introduction

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.

Verse 29

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).

Verse 30

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:

"He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed, and after three days rise again. And He said this plainly."

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.

Verse 32(b)

"And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him."

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.

Verse 33

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:

But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter.

"Out of my sight, Satan!" he said!

"You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men."

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:

"You are well meaning; but an unspiritual disciple can quickly become the tool of Satan without even realising it!"

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:

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.

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:

Jesus stipulated that those who wish to follow him must be prepared to shift the center of gravity in their lives from a concern for self to reckless abandon to the will of God. The central thought in self-denial is a disowning of any claim that may be urged by the self, a sustained willingness to say 'No' to oneself in order to be able to say 'Yes' to God. This involves a radical denunciation of all self-idolatry and of every attempt to establish one's own life in accordance with the dictates of the self. This demand is reinforced and intensified by the horrifying image of a death march. Bearing the cross was not a Jewish metaphor, and Jesus' statement must have sounded repugnant to the crowd and the disciples alike. The saying evokes the picture of a condemned man going out to die who is forced to carry on his back the crossbeam upon which he is to be nailed at the place of execution. By the time Mark prepared his Gospel this had become cruel reality, both for Jesus and the Church. Jesus' words were a sober caution that the commitment for which he asked permitted no turning back, and if necessary, a willingness to submit to the cross in pursuance of the will of God. His followers must be prepared to die, for they share in the same veiledness that permits his own humiliation. The call to follow Jesus which recapitulates the action in which self-denial and cross-bearing are to be manifested, provides a vivid reminder that suffering with the Messiah is the condition of glorification with him (Rom. 8: 17).

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: -

  • Have no regard to oneself
  • Not bother oneself about oneself
  • To not worship oneself
  • To stop doing what one's own heart wants
  • To not belong to oneself any longer
  • To not take constant thought for himself
  • To undo one's own way of thinking
  • To leave himself at the side
  • To say 'I do not live for myself

Finally, Charles Erdman sums up the power packed lesson from our Lord:

The result, however, is a larger, fuller, freer, truer life. This is what Jesus means by the promise which he adds, "For whosoever would save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's shall save it." One who suffers for the sake of Christ will enjoy eternal life in heaven; this is true; but the promise is of a present experience as well. Jesus is not urging sacrifice for its own sake, but, quite definitely, sacrifice for his sake and the gospel's. Such sacrifice results in the enrichment and the enlargement of life, and in the enjoyment of all that is worthy of the name of life.

Conclusion

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.

1. We read in verses 27 and 28 how the common person "in the street" at that time thought of Jesus more in Old Testament images and prophecy, than in terms of what he taught clearly and openly. Nothing seems to have changed. Certainly the average non-Christian today thinks of him as something of a religious freak. The real tragedy is that even within much of Christianity, the way Jesus is presented to the world is often locked in private interpretations of Biblical prophecy. A simple test will readily show that the Jesus of the Gospels is not known by those people. What they do present of Gospel content is often too distorted to allow the true message of Jesus to be heard. This is the first crisis in the Church which needs addressing.

2. As we pointed out in the notes on verse 30, our Lord would not allow the private images people had of the Messiah to be projected on to him, his ministry and ultimately upon his Church. His disciples were to listen to him and pass on exactly what he taught. It has been tragic to witness the major denominations of Christianity, including Catholic and Protestant, lose 75 — 80% of their international membership over the past 35 years while the leaders thought they were "modernising" Christian belief and worship. The same model of implementing change was used widely. Much of the change was conceived and strategised in secret by ambitious power-seeking groups. New forms of theology and worship were foistered on people who often found them repugnant, artificial, or just plain silly. Despite the crisis throughout the Church(es), only a few seem to recognise that they have made a laughing stock of their religion. Christian culture is now openly ridiculed throughout the world with barely a word of protest. It is a pitiful situation, but it can be reversed.

The point we are making is that these forms of revolution are exactly what Jesus warned his Church to avoid like the plague! Our Gospel text above makes that very clear. The Church desperately needs members to re-establish Christian principle and teaching firmly and to return to what was passed down to them from our Lord, via his Apostles.

3. Verses 34 and 35 are core material in the Christian vision. One of the key teachings is that Jesus calls on his followers to die to self daily; to bear with suffering and not to let it detract from service to God and community.

Much popular Christianity today presents a hyped up version of living "by the Holy Spirit", being freed from all pain and pestilence if your faith is strong enough, and generally giving little exposure to our Lord's demand to take up your cross daily. This has become a huge consumer industry attracting religious charlatans galore, who deceive countless good and wholesome people who need direction, and want to do the right thing.

If we want to know why Jesus said he would send the Holy Spirit to be our guide and comforter, we need only meditate on his teaching as recorded in the Gospels, and that will show us what we need to uphold.

4. Our Gospel text above sets out the basis of a Christian psychology, which has been faithfully adhered to until comparatively recent times. Much modern popular psychology is strongly opposed to Christian spirituality. Modern practitioners who try to harmonise their theory with our Lord's teaching do him no good service. We have attached two brief readings from an excellent exposure of the failure of modern psychology to help troubled minds. The source we took them from is a highly recommended book entitled Psychological Seduction.

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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