This is a somber article to write, simply because its issues are very close to home. January 6th has just passed, a second anniversary of when rioters stormed our nation’s Capitol building, something that continues to be a highly politically charged issue, still being investigated today. Nor is the issue limited to the United States, as Brazil suddenly attests.
Why is this relevant in an article about Mark 8:27-38? Why is this important? It is important because Jesus’s words, his exchange with Peter in this passage, speak to the issues of how Christians should see ourselves in the midst of revolutionary situations when we possess of limited human powers, the questions of what we should do and think about Jesus and his kingdom in its relationship to kingdoms of this world. Of course, Mark 8 will not be the final and exclusive word on these questions—other passages must be brought into the mix as well. Nor is this article at all intended to be the final word on how Mark 8 is understood. But what I hope to do is at least alert readers to some things Jesus says here, very relevant to us, as we ponder how Christians should think and act when it comes to the power of governments and the way Christians respond.
And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him. And he began to teach them that the Son of Man 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 again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:27–38, ESV)
Here Peter proclaims that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ. Here he makes his famous grand statement about who Jesus is. But what comes next exposes Peter’s misunderstanding of what his own confession actually means. To the extent that we may share Peter’s misunderstanding, this passage powerfully challenges us to reflect further.
Note the way Jesus responds to Peter. He affirms the good part of what Peter has to say. And this is an affirmation we must hear too. But he also challenges Peter, a challenge that must be heard loud and clear, a challenge to the wrong ways of thinking about Messiah and kingdom. Only as we fully understand who Jesus is, not just potential “political revolutionary” but as the true king, can we understand all this in its fullness, appreciating what we must do also.
A strong case can be made that the whole of Mark’s Gospel is about the identity of Jesus. This book is written to suffering Christians living through Nero’s persecutions in the 1st century, Christians having to wrestle with how they will respond not just to the general vague suffering that surrounds them, but also to the suffering that occurs via the power of the political regime over them. Even as the Christians suffered under the hands of this great tyrant, they were wrestling to understand how their leader, their ruler Jesus, would be greater than Nero and yet not like him at all.
Our story begins all the way back at the beginning of Mark with a discussion of how Jesus will be the king envisioned by the prophet Isaiah, a king who does not rule over simply a worldly Kingdom, but instead a king who rules over an eternal Kingdom, yet paradoxically an eternal kingdom that is already here. But Jesus rules this already-present kingdom not with an iron fist but with gentleness. Isaiah 41 says he will not break a bruised reed, not snuff out a smoldering wick. This is Jesus the powerful and yet compassionate king. Isaiah 40 indicates he leads captives back gently, leading those who carry their young quietly, close to his breast.
The picture of Jesus is the picture of a great and yet compassionate king, unlike Nero in every way. But as well as being great and compassionate, he is also a king who suffers. The disciples had been trying to understand and needed to understand that Jesus is all of these things – and therefore the kingdom that he rules must be like this as well.
As we reach Mark 8:27-38, we have come to the climax of Mark’s gospel. This exchange is the middle of the book, not just spatially, but conceptually, the place where everything comes to a head. Immediately preceding this passage, Jesus heals a blind man, something that will recur in 10:45. As such, this section right in the middle of the book shows Jesus going on the way to Jerusalem, going there to healing another case of blindness, raising the question for Mark’s audience: are we still blind to the character and identity of Jesus? Do we also need to be healed of such blindness?
At this very moment that Jesus and his disciples are going towards the village of Caesarea Philippi. The location is significant, a city specially named after Caesar, and so of all places this becomes symbolic of Jesus’ question: who is the true king? Jesus initiates the discussion. He asks his own disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They start with the same reply Herod had offered in chapter 6, thinking Jesus to be John the Baptist. Others said Elijah, and still others one of the prophets. Jesus then makes it very pointed, and asks them directly, “But you – who do you say that I am?” Peter has not been singled out to this point in the passage, but he is the first to speak up: “You are the Messiah,” the first use of the word Messiah or Christ in Mark since chapter one.
The big question to be asked, however, is whether Peter has any clue what he actually means when he says “Messiah”. Does he have in mind the story of Isaiah, the victorious and yet suffering king? Does he have in mind a conquering king, a king who will destroy the Romans, a king who will upend the political powers of his day?
Jesus has initiated the first half of this conversation. He has asked them, the disciples, the question. Peter has answered. And now it is Jesus’ turn yet again, and he stirs the pot. Now he changes tack, not further questions but didactic teaching, teaching them that the son of man must be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes and be put to death, then after three days to rise again. In fact, this is Mark’s first use of the Greek word δεῖ, which we translate “it is necessary.” He will use it again. With this first usage we get the sense of God’s plan, the sense of what must happen the sense of what must be. Who Jesus is, and therefore this is what he must do.
Peter doesn’t like this part, not one little bit, so he takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke him. What next is very interesting. Jesus looks across at his disciples, aware of them as he responds to Peter, rebuking him, calling him Satan: “Get behind me Satan,” he says to Peter, “for your mind is not on the things of God but on the things of humans.” What a stark statement!
By Peter perceiving Jesus as Messiah, but by making this perception something other than what Isaiah says, something other than Jesus being a strong and yet compassionate and suffering Messiah, Peter has in fact pushed Jesus towards being something he is not, cannot be, and will not be. In fact, the reference here to Satan reminds us of Mark 1 where Jesus, immediately after being affirmed as the Isaianic king, is thrust out into the desert by the Holy Spirit. Why? To be tempted by Satan.
It is Satan who would have Jesus to be an earthly king like Nero. Is Satan who would have Jesus to be something other than the king he is really meant to be. And straight away we can begin to see what is at stake in Mark 8. This passage is incredibly relevant today because it gives us a picture of the issues that have always been at stake when it comes to the son of man. People have always wanted to make him into the king that they want, the king who stands in direct parallel and therefore opposition to earthly kings. But what must be realized over and over again throughout history is that while Jesus is parallel to earthly kings, he is not the same as any earthly king. He is absolutely different, and it is satanic to suggest that he can simply be like an earthly king using earthly powers.
Now Jesus himself unpacks the application for us. He summons his disciples along with the crowd, anyone who would want to hear his words and follow him on the way. He pronounces verse 34: “If anyone wishes to follow after me let that person deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”
Ever since 19th century liberalism, Western culture has been reluctant to think of Jesus in any way as an example. But there are many cases in the Bible where Jesus is called upon as exactly that – an example. In Philippians 2, for example, Paul writes that we should think the very the same that Jesus thought. In Hebrews 12 we read that we should fix our eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith. In 2 Corinthians 8 Paul speaks about following the example of Jesus’ generosity of Jesus with own money. So too here, Jesus is simply saying that who he is as king, that is exactly who his followers must also be. We must be people who deny ourselves and take up our own crosses and follow him.
A cross, of course, in those days was an instrument of death. What Jesus declares here, then, is that Christians should follow his example, being willing to lay down our lives. He goes on to use the word soul repeatedly, a word tied up with a pile of philosophical baggage. Jesus says if anyone wishes to save his soul he will lose it and that whoever loses his soul on account of him and his gospel will save it. Clearly the story of sacrifice and suffering that Jesus is presents is a story of sacrifice and suffering to which he also calls us, his own followers.
To challenge our attitude towards worldliness and worldly power (what he has just challenged in Peter), Jesus then asks the question of verse 36: “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?” This is a question of economics, a question of profit and loss. What does it profit a person to gain the whole world? This is the question of Peter’s rebuke. Peter wanted Jesus to overthrow, to conquer, and to destroy. And this could easily be what we think we need to do as well.
But to gain things in this world means nothing if we don’t follow Jesus and therefore have our souls won. Verse 37 continues the question: “For what may a person give as a recompense for his soul?” Now Jesus employs the language of barter. The soul is too priceless for any such exchange. Because here is the bottom line: the person who does not follow in Jesus’ footsteps, even though they are shameful, will not be received by him. Jesus says so explicitly: “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my teaching in this adulterous and sinful generation, the son of man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory of his father along with the holy angels.”
The message here is rather straightforward. It is rather simple, and immensely relevant in Jesus’ own day given Nero’s the despotic power. But is it not also a message for us today? Is it not also just as relevant for us? Who will people say Jesus is? The answer that Jesus gives is quite clear. He is a ruler like Nero and then he has complete power and the kingdom. But he is completely unlike Nero, and his kingdom is even greater. But his life on this earth therefore will be smaller.
What does this mean for us today? It means Christians being other than what Jesus was about, somehow being about the games of this world, the lust for power and money is all completely wrong. The way Jesus goes about things will not be seen as the most fantastic, honorable, or successful. Jesus says, “anyone who is ashamed of me and my words…,” which implies that to follow Jesus is to follow a way that will necessarily mean embarrassment at times, a way that will necessarily see one taken advantage of at times, a way that will have to stand in the face of violence and power and be crushed under that violence and power.
But it is a way that is right. It is the way of life. It is the way in which the true inner being of who we are finds its fulfillment. And who would want it any differently? It is a person’s soul that matters, and that is gained by following Jesus, not seizing control here. And on this question we must be concerned and responsible to follow Jesus for the good of our soul.