Throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ disciples struggle to understand Who Jesus is and why exactly He has come. Despite sitting under Jesus’ teaching and seeing the signs and wonders He performs, it is made clear at many times that they just don’t get it. And all of this culminates with an important conversation with the disciples in Mark 8:27-38.
Jesus and His disciples are on their way to Caesarea, and Jesus just comes out and asks – “Who do people say that I am?” They reply that some think He’s John the Baptist, others say Elijah, others say one of the prophets. So Jesus continues: “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter, perhaps the boldest of the disciples, says, “You are the Christ.”
In Matthew’s account of this interaction (Matthew 16:13-28), Jesus praises Peter for his response, and says “upon this rock I will build My church” (v.18). He promises Peter the keys of the Kingdom of heaven. Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ – but did he really understand?
Today we use the term “Christ” as interchangeable with Jesus’ name. In our minds it is clearly identified with Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. But “Christ” was not a new term when Peter used it to answer Jesus’ question. It was a title, not a name. The word christ (Greek) and the word messiah (Hebrew) mean the same thing – “anointed one”. So when Peter referred to Jesus as the “Christ”, he was saying that Jesus was the anointed one, perhaps like King David.
Today we would understand Messiah, Christ, Anointed One, to be synonymous with Jesus, the Son of God, the Savior of the world. But in that day, the Jewish people were looking for a Messiah who would deliver them, like Moses of old, from the political and economic oppression of foreign invaders. They were not anticipating one who would come to preach a gospel of repentance and humility and servanthood.
Jesus did not come to take Herod’s throne, or to lead a rebellion, or to overthrow Rome. So when Peter confessed to Him, “You are the Christ,” Jesus “warned them to tell no one about Him” (v.30). And Jesus begins to explain, Mark says “plainly”, that He must suffer many things, and be rejected by the religious leaders, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He is explicitly telling them not only Who He is, but also what He is there to do.
Peter pulls Jesus aside, and begins to rebuke Jesus (v.32)! If it wasn’t clear before that Peter’s answer wasn’t evidence that he finally understood, then surely this is. When Peter said, “You are the Christ,” he wasn’t talking about a suffering servant who would be rejected and assassinated. In this crucial conversation it became clear that Jesus’ plans did not mesh with Peter’s plans for Jesus. Who Jesus was was not Who Peter wanted Him to be. And Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (v.33).
Peter’s understanding of Who Jesus is and what He is there for was so bad that when he tries to convince Jesus to be what the people want Him to be, Jesus says it’s like hearing from Satan himself. (In fact, Jesus had heard this from Satan himself – when He was tempted in the wilderness in Matthew 4:8-9.)
Perhaps Peter and his buddies thought they were going to be the brain trust for the “George Washington” of Israel. They thought Jesus was going to set up shop on the throne in Jerusalem, and they would be his trusted advisors. They imagined freedom from Roman oppression, deliverance from puppet dictators, and real political power, and they said, “Now that’s what I’m talking about!”
But Jesus says, “That’s not what I’m talking about!” He calls the crowd to Him, and He says, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (v.34-35). Wait a minute, this is not what we signed up for! Deny myself? Take up a cross? Lose my life?
Yes, Jesus says. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world (to gain political power or an earthly throne), and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (v.36-37). Jesus is saying that His purpose is so much more important than a throne or freedom or power. You can have all of those things, but if your soul is damned, what good is it?
But Peter and the disciples don’t want a servant’s life. They don’t want the kind of love that would compel one to lay down one’s life for another. They’re so embarrassed by Jesus’ obvious misunderstanding of His own purpose that Peter feels compelled to rebuke Him over it. But Jesus says, “whoever is ashamed of me and my words…the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His father with the holy angels” (v.38).
There is a Kingdom coming. But it is not like any other kingdom in the history of the world. We dare not be dissatisfied by or ashamed of Jesus and His mission, lest He be ashamed of us when He comes to establish His Kingdom. Instead, let us pray as Jesus taught us to pray, “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” and live our lives toward that end.
~ Matt Kinnell
NHIM Board Chair