[February 7, 2010] This Sunday we skip ahead in the Gospel according to Mark to the end of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (Mark 8:27—9:1). Since Jesus left the wilderness and came into Galilee to proclaim the Gospel of God in 1:14-15, we have been paying attention to Jesus as the faithful One calling disciples. Last week we listened as Jesus called the disciples to Himself apart from the crowds, who want Him for themselves, and appointed the Twelve “to be with Him” so that He can send them out.
Now we come to the end of this period and a contrast is drawn again between the crowds and the disciples. This time, however, now that they have been with Jesus for a while and He has revealed Himself to them in many ways, the disciples are being questioned as to whether they “get it.” The opposition to the Gospel had grown from both Herod Antipas (whose actions foreshadowed those of Agrippa in Acts 12) and the zealous Pharisees (who did not represent all the Pharisees but rather those who insisted on a formal outward adherence to the letter of the Law and a strict separation from sinners and Gentiles—the proto-Zealots who brought disaster on Israel). The adulation of the crowds had also grown. But concerning the disciples, who had special access to Jesus and been given the “the mystery of the kingdom” (4:11), we are told that they did not understand, “but rather their heart was hardened” (6:52; 8:18).
“Who Do You Say that I Am?” (Mark 8:27-30)
Jesus takes His disciples and leaves Galilee, heading for the villages of Caesarea Philippi near the source of the Jordan in the Hermon mountains north of Galilee. The area is predominantly pagan. There He questions them, “Who do people say that I am?” They describe the impressions of the crowd: You are a resurrected John the Baptist (see 6:14-29), or Elijah who was to come (see 9:11), or One of the prophets of old. The crowds flock to Jesus because of what He can do for them, but His true identity is hidden from them.
But what about you? Jesus asks. “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers on behalf of all of them, “You are the Christ!” the Messiah, the Anointed One of God. (Some manuscripts add “Son of God” after “Christ.”) This is indeed the correct answer (see 1:1), coming out for the first time in the Gospel. Jesus is the One who fulfills the promises made to Israel through the Law and the Prophets; He is the One whom all of Israel had long been waiting for. The word “Christ” refers to His consecration for the task given Him to do, for which He was “anointed” with the Holy Spirit in 1:10.
But do they understand what this means? Is their lack of understanding the reason He enjoins silence on them in 8:30?
This story actually begins the section on Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem (8:27—10:52), which five times Mark refers to as “the way” (8:27; 9:33, 34; 10:32, 52, which includes the first and last verse of this section). Interestingly, adherence to the Gospel is referred to as “the Way” in Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; and 24:22. More importantly, Mark begins with a reference to “the way” in 1:2-3 (from Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3). The way that Jesus takes, the journey to Jerusalem, is for Him the way to the cross. The disciples of Jesus are those who follow Him on the “way”: the way of the cross.
But are the disciples ready for this? They acknowledge Him as the Christ, the One anointed by God to bring in the kingdom of God (who is, in fact, in His own Person, the drawing near of the kingdom of God). But do they understand what this means?
This section of Mark, 8:27—10:52, is bracketed by two stories of Jesus healing blind men. In 8:17-18 Jesus expresses His frustration with the disciples and says to them, “Do you not yet perceive nor understand? Do you have your heart hardened? Having eyes, do you not see? And having ears, do you not hear? And do you not remember?” And again in 21, “Do you not yet understand?” Then in 22-26 Jesus heals a blind man and asks him, “Do you see anything?” and he answers, “I see men, for I see them as trees, walking.” When Jesus laid His hands on the man’s eyes again, “the man looked intently and was restored, and he began to see all things clearly.”
This is obviously a picture of the disciples at this point. They see, but not clearly. It is not until Jesus touches them again, and they look intently, that they begin to see all things clearly. At the end of this section, in 10:46-52, Jesus heals blind Bartimaeus and “immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus on the way.” For us to follow Jesus on the way, we need to see. The disciples saw that Jesus was the Christ, but they did not yet see clearly. What does it take to see Jesus clearly?
Last week we noticed the distinction between the crowds who wanted Jesus for themselves because they saw what He could do, and the disciples whom Jesus called for Himself, who gave up their own lives to follow Him. As much as the crowds adored Jesus, they did not recognize who He was. The disciples are those who do. They own Jesus as their Savior but also as their Lord. Because they respond to His call, they show that they recognize Jesus to be the Christ. But even though this is true, they do not yet understand.
What about us? Everyone admires Jesus. We do too. But who do you say that He is? We say He is our Savior and Lord. We say, in fact, that He is God, the face of God, God-with-us. But do we understand?
The Crucified Messiah (8:31-33)
Jesus is on the way to the cross. As soon as the disciples openly acknowledge for the first time that He is the Christ, the Messiah, He begins to teach them that He, the Son of Man who will usher in God’s kingdom (Daniel 7:13-14), “must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed and after three days rise.” Two more times in this section Jesus tells them the same thing (9:31 and 10:32-34). Here in 8:31 Jesus began to speak of the cross for the first time. If they are going to understand what it means for Him to be the Christ, if they are going to really know who He is, they have to swallow this pill. It is the cross that defines who Jesus is as both “the Son of Man” and the Messiah.
Mark says that Jesus spoke this Word openly. The Gospel according to Mark uses the term “Word” in an absolute sense to refer to the Gospel of His coming and our response to it (see 1:45; 2:2; 4:15-20, 33), but now this Word is identified with His coming to be crucified (8:32; 9:10).
Even though Peter confessed that Jesus is the Christ, when he hears Jesus speak of the cross, he rebukes Jesus. The scandal of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:17, 18, 23; 2:2) is the point at which Peter stumbled. He knew Jesus was the Christ but he did not understand what it meant. The very thought of the Messiah being crucified horrified him. Each time Jesus spoke of the cross, we are told that the disciples “did not understand” (Mark 9:32; 10:35-41). The cross causes us to stumble too. We want a Savior who takes away our suffering, but this Savior not only suffers but calls us to follow in His steps.
When Peter rebukes Jesus, Jesus turns around and looks at all the disciples, because they all felt the same as Peter did, and He calls Peter “Satan.” The word Satan means adversary, and names the angelic power that rules the “world,” the false realm that sets itself up as an alternative to the kingdom of God. Peter set his mind on the things of men, he thought as men do in the world, and this made the things of God unintelligible to him. When he opposed Jesus’ determination to do the will of God by going to the cross, Jesus heard the voice of the ruler of the world speaking through Peter. When the church opposes the way of the cross, it has come under the government of the world and the rule of Satan.
You recall that the Gospel according to Mark comes from the testimony of the apostle Peter when he was in Rome. He retold the story of Jesus, using the accounts of Matthew and Luke, at a time when Christianity was officially declared illegal and the church was suffering terrible persecution under the emperor Nero. He told the story of Jesus in such a way as to portray Jesus as the pattern for the church. As we suffer trial and fear, opposition and persecution, discouragement and confusion, we are to be faithful in the way of the cross as He was, for this is the only way through to victory.
The victory of the Messiah is contained in the words, “And after three days He will rise.” The victory of the Gospel is not by an aggressive overcoming of opposition, but by the faithfulness of obedience that overcomes the power of death in resurrection. Even when the kingdom of God comes in power, when the Son of Man comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels, He overcomes His enemies with the breath of His mouth (see 2 Thessalonians 2:8), or the Word of revelation. The Word, however, that brings the “world” to nothing is the Word of the cross. The victory, even at the Second Advent, is the victory of resurrection.
What Jesus shows here and throughout the Gospel is that this victory only comes by way of the cross. To oppose the cross is to oppose this victory, and is thus to be an adversary of Jesus, one inspired by Satan.
The Cross Is the Only Way of Discipleship Too (8:34-38)
Each time Jesus speaks of the cross and the disciples express their lack of understanding, Jesus then speaks of the nature of true discipleship (8:34-38; 9:33-37; and 10:42-45).
The passage here however makes the most powerful connection. “If anyone wants to follow after Me,” Jesus says, laying out he only way in which we can truly be a faithful disciple, is for that person to “deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.”
These words are easily misunderstood and constantly are. To deny one’s self does not mean to have a weak or fragile ego. In fact, one must have a fully formed sense of self—as Jesus clearly did—in order to deny the self. To deny the self does not mean that you make yourself a victim, allow others to take advantage of you, or do what others want. Obviously, if you simply do what others want or expect of you, you cannot be a disciple, for your allegiance belongs only to Christ. When Jesus allowed Himself to be arrested, He was not the victim but gave Himself up in obedience to the Father’s will.
We should not equate suffering with the cross. We suffer because of the condition of the world; we suffer at the hands of others; we suffer because of sickness, accidents and natural disaster. The cross, however, represents the will of God freely chosen. To take up the cross is to die to one’s self by choosing the will of God, by choosing to follow Christ. It is to die to one’s self “for My sake and the Gospel’s.”
When Jesus died, the Scripture tells us that He laid down His soul (see, for example, John 10:15). In death, He committed His spirit to God (Luke 23:46), but His soul died. To deny the self is to let the soul die. Indeed, “whoever wants to save his soul shall lose it, but whoever will lose his soul for My sake and the Gospel’s shall save it.” Ironically, the only way to save the soul is to lose it. The point is indeed to save the soul. That is worth more than gaining the whole world. Nothing can be given in exchange for the soul.
The soul is not automatically saved when we believe in Jesus, or when we first give Him our allegiance. We are indeed redeemed and forgiven, and have eternal life within us, within our spirit. But the salvation of our soul—which is the inheritance of eternal life—is something we receive as “the end of your faith,” at the revelation of Jesus Christ, at His Second Advent (see 1 Peter 1:5, 9; 2:2; 2 Peter 3:15). The salvation of the soul is yet to come (see also James 1:21 and Hebrews 10:39).
If we try to save our life in a time of persecution, then we are ashamed of Christ. If we are ashamed of Christ because we want to save our life, He will be ashamed of us and we will end up “losing our soul.” Yet the Scriptures also tell us that the Gospel is always opposed by the world. When people hate and kill Christians, the world is persecuting the church. But it is the same world when people love Christians. The world has not really changed. The world just becomes more manifest in one in case than the other. To hold onto our physical life is not the only way to save our soul and to willingly give up our physical life is not the only way to lose it.
The life of our body comes from the spirit, not the soul, and when the body dies, our spirit returns to God from whom it came. The soul is our sense of self, of who we are, our psychological makeup, both our conscious and unconscious mind and our sense of identity that holds it together. It is a construct. What needs to come undone is our attachment to this construct, to who we think we are. Our sense of self is inextricably tied to the world, and because our relationship with God has been ruptured by sin, it is inherently false. We do not really know who we are. Therefore to hold onto our “self” is really to hold onto a false self, a lie. Only when we let go of this illusion of self can we discover our true self and thus save our soul (see Matthew 16:25). If we hold onto this false self, we will inevitably lose our soul in the end because it will be manifested as a lie. If we hold onto it, we will suffer its loss and come under the judgment of God.
To take up the cross is to willfully die to this false sense of self. If we can thus detach from our “self,” the world will have no ground in us. It can kill us or not. But we will then know the victory of resurrection. The way that Jesus offers is for us to believe into Him and give Him our allegiance. If we do this and go the way of discipleship, then, by the arrangement of our circumstances and by the work of the Holy Spirit within us, we will come to know the dying of Jesus putting us to death (see 2 Corinthians 4:7-12) and the life of Jesus—the eternal life of God—being released through us. Our own human life will become transformed in resurrection by the divine life imbuing it.
The Kingdom of God Come in Power (9:1)
When Peter, James and John saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain and saw His glory, they saw with their own eyes that He who was disguised among them in humility was really the kingdom of God come in power. Even though Jesus was as human as the rest of us, He was no other than the Person of God come to us.
Yet this coming into our midst of the divine presence also takes place in the church as Paul makes clear in 2 Corinthians 3-4. The glory of God that shone on the face of Moses is surpassed by the glory of God that we now know through the Holy Spirit. “If the Gospel is veiled, it is veiled in those who are perishing (4:3). But the “illumination of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” does shine for us, for God has “shined in our hearts to illuminate the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” What enables us to see it is the experience of death in our souls. Paul says, we are “always bearing about in the body the putting to death of Jesus that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who are alive are always being delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So then death operates in us, but life in you” (4:10-12).
This operation of life in the church through the faithful dying to self is the “kingdom of God having come in power” before the Second Advent. Even though the salvation of our souls must await His coming, the kingdom of God does not, but it can be manifested in our midst if we will but follow in the way of the cross. This is the message here to the church. Suffer with Jesus now in this time of hardship and confusion. “Inasmuch as you share in the sufferings of Christ, rejoice … because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:13-14).