We all know that in the English language words that are spelled the same or sound the same can have various meanings. For example, the word “spring” has at least three different meanings. A spring can be a source of water, a thing inside of a bed mattress or a season of the year. If you were to use this word, I would need to know exactly how you were using it in order to understand what you meant.
In Mark 8, we see a similar misunderstanding happen between Jesus and Peter. In Mark 8:27, Jesus and his disciples are said to be “on the way,” a common motif in Mark’s Gospel. While we are not told where they are headed at this time in the story, later we will understand that they are on the way to Jerusalem.
As they travel, the disciples are most likely thinking that this trip to Jerusalem will be the event that will usher in the new kingdom of God because Jesus will take his rightful place as king. Perhaps they follow him, not so much because they are committed to him, but because they are hopeful that they will participate in the ascension of Jesus as the new king over Israel.
And so we find Jesus and his disciples on the way to Jerusalem. It is on this road where we see the true character of the 12 as opposed to the true mission of Jesus. It is on the road to Jerusalem that we discover the disciples’ misunderstanding of Jesus.
It all starts with a simple question posed by Jesus, “Who do people say that I am?” The stories of Jesus’ acts of greatness were becoming known, and talk was running throughout the land about him. And now, on the way, Jesus wants to know if people have come up with an answer. The disciples answer, “Some say you are John the Baptist, and others Elijah, and still others one of the prophets.”
But Jesus seems uninterested in the opinions of those outside his intimate friends. His first question is more for the purpose of setting up his second and more important question, “Who do you say that I am?” He knew what others were saying about him, but he wanted those who had been closest to him to give their opinions. He wanted to know who Jesus was to them.
Peter, a person never at a loss for words, answers for the group, “You are the Messiah.” To paraphrase Peter, he is saying, “You are God’s anointed one, sent to bring in God’s victory over God’s enemies. You are the chosen one of God sent to restore the people of Israel to their rightful place and to become king over the nation.”
Does Peter understand this correctly about Jesus? The answer is yes and no. Yes, Jesus is the Messiah, the one chosen and anointed by God. And, yes, Jesus is bringing in the kingdom of God and he will bring God’s victory over God’s enemies. And, yes, Jesus is going to Jerusalem to do this. But this is not the full story.
Though it seems that Peter understands who Jesus is, he does not completely understand. Like the blind man in the story just before this exchange – the one Jesus had to touch twice to heal him of his blindness – Peter sees who Jesus is, but not clearly. Jesus must touch Peter a second time, hoping that he will see clearly.
The second touch of Jesus comes in Mark 8:31-33, where Jesus clarifies what it means for him to be the Messiah. Here, Jesus predicts what will happen when they get to Jerusalem. He must die a cruel death. By Jesus predicting that he must undergo great suffering, he is telling the disciples that it is by God’s will that he goes to Jerusalem and suffers.
Yet, in Peter’s response to this prediction, we see what Peter really believes about the Messiah and what he understands about Jesus. He rebukes Jesus. We do not know what Peter said to Jesus, but we do know that Peter had a different idea of Messiah, and he was intent on persuading Jesus not to go the way of the cross.
But Jesus is stern in his response to Peter’ rebuke, rebuking him and calling him Satan. Peter, at this point, takes on a different role in Jesus’ life. For a moment in time, Peter moves from being a disciple of Jesus, to being the one who tempts Jesus from his God-ordained mission. And Jesus confronts Peter for who he truly is and for what he truly thinks.
What has motivated Peter to think this way? What has caused him to misunderstand Jesus and his ministry? What has pushed him to the point of tempting Jesus? Most probably it is what this meant for him. If Jesus, the Messiah of God, was to suffer and die in Jerusalem, then what did that mean for his followers?
In response to Peter’s misunderstanding, Jesus turns to all those around him to define what discipleship means. Instead of looking forward to the glory of kingship, followers of Jesus are to take up their cross and prepare themselves to suffer with their Messiah. The kingdom of God is not about human power and kingship; it is about divine power and kingship, which is only and fully revealed in the cross of suffering. Power is not saving one’s life but losing it. Influence is not being first but being last. Authority is not gaining the world but sacrificing one’s life.
This whole exchange between Peter and Jesus started because Peter misunderstood what “Messiah” meant. Oh, he had the words right, and he rightly confesses that Jesus is the Messiah. But what good is it to call Jesus Messiah when we misunderstand what this means.
Assistant Director of the Honors College at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.