It was exam time for the disciples. How would they do? For at least a year—perhaps longer—the Twelve had sat at the feet of the one they had come to appreciate as “Teacher” (4:38; 5:35). They had been impressed with his authoritative instruction and had witnessed his miracles, his exorcisms, and his manner of life. Now, they were confronted with the most important of questions, and this from the Master’s own mouth: “Who do you say that I am?”
Though Mark begins his Gospel with reference to Jesus being “the Christ” (or “Messiah” [1:1]), the only people privy to this knowledge were the readers. In space-time history, these men were in a process of discovery. No doubt, they suspected Jesus to be Messiah. After all, his miracles, for the biblically literate, pointed to him as Messiah (see Isaiah 35:5–6; etc.). Further, his authority indicated that he was different. And, if they had done their homework, they would have known that, in accordance with God’s promised Messiah, he was born of the line of David, in the city of Bethlehem. His name (Jesus) indicated that he might be a deliverer. Further, his announcement of God’s kingdom, and the evidence of casting out demons, should have sealed the case. And yet, as we have seen, the disciples didn’t seem to get it. They had eyes to see, but they were not seeing very clearly. Like the man in the previous passage, when it came to understanding the identity of Jesus, they saw him like trees walking.
It had been perhaps several weeks since Jesus’ string of nine rebuking questions to the blind disciples (vv. 14–21). Jesus did not give up on them. He kept touching their eyes, as it were, with more instruction and with more demonstrations of his identity. Jesus now asked them the all-important question: “Who do you say that I am?” (v. 29). How would they answer? And would their answer be sufficient? Did they now see clearly?
This question is “the central question of Mark’s Gospel” (Edwards). There is nothing more important than that we answer it correctly. May we do so.
The All-Important Confrontation
Our text opens with an important confrontation between Jesus and his disciples:
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?”
The Path to Confession
“And Jesus went on with his disciples.” What a beautiful statement that is. Jesus did not abandon them because they didn’t get it. He kept working with them. That is grace on the move.
The Place of the Confession
As he travelled with his disciples, Jesus came “to the villages of Caesarea Philippi.” This was the place where there had once been a major shrine to the Greek god Pan. (The region was at that time called Paneas.) In Jesus’ day, it had a shrine of Augustus, hence its name “Philip’s Caesarea.” It was therefore in an area devoted to false gods that this confession of the true God was made. Thus it was, and thus it still is everywhere. To confess properly that Jesus is Lord is always to go against the grain of society—even religious society
The Popular Confession
The popular view, the view of the ‘populace’, was that Jesus was a special person, even a prophet: “And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets” (v. 28). Some apparently thought he was a prophet who had been resurrected. Regardless, most saw him as a special person, sent by God. Perhaps some felt that he was the fulfilment of the promise of Deuteronomy 18, or Malachi 3–4. He was someone that people needed to listen to. He was not to be followed, for sure, and certainly not to be worshipped or even to be obeyed. But he should be respected.
A form of this confession remains popular today—that Jesus was merely a prophet or a teacher. This brings us to the next, very personal point. Ultimately, we have to answer this question for ourselves.
The Personal Confession
Jesus would not leave the confession hanging there. Instead, he pushed further: “And he asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’” (v. 29). He posed this question to the disciples as a group. As on other occasions, Peter acts as the spokesman.
After much exposure to Jesus, they were now examined: “So, how clearly are you now seeing?”
Everyone needs to be confronted with this question. Jesus is not a historical figure that one can afford to ignore. He is not someone towards whom we can remain indifferent. Jesus of Nazareth is not someone whom we can be merely curious about. Our calendar forces us to reckon with him! That is, “Before Christ” the world was one way. After Christ, things have been profoundly different. In fact, he brought in a whole new creation. So, if we will live the way God intends for us to live, then we must wrestle with the all-important question that confronts us: Who do you say Jesus is?
Is Jesus merely a prophet? Is he merely a moral man or a teacher? Or is he more? In other words, when confronted with Jesus, we must make a confession about him. What is yours?
The All-Important Confession
Not one to miss a beat, Peter immediately responded: “‘You are the Christ.’ And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him” (vv. 29–30). He answered correctly. It was a good and gracious beginning but he would need further grace to finish well.
The Supernatural Confession
We know from the parallel passage in Matthew 16 that this was more than merely an intellectual assent to some facts. There, we are told that Peter received this insight from God the Father. Therefore, Jesus declared him to be “blessed.”
By God’s grace, Peter saw more clearly than the multitude of people. Again, it may be that the other disciples were also enabled with this God-given spiritual illumination. Regardless, this was a momentous moment!
The correct confession of Jesus as the Christ is non-negotiable if one will be his disciple—if one will be a Christian. This confession is not natural but rather requires God’s sovereign grace. God’s eye-opening grace enables us to see that Jesus is more than a carpenter. If you do not see this, then ask God to reveal it to you. Plead with him: “Please, open my eyes!”
The Substance of the Confession
Peter’s answer requires that we understand what he meant by “the Christ.” What is meant by “Messiah”?
“Christ” means “anointed one.” Under the old covenant, prophets, priests, and kings were anointed with oil. This ceremonial anointing signified being set apart to a unique office with divinely-derived authority.
When Jews spoke of “the anointed one,” they did so with what were messianic expectations. They were looking for Yahweh’s promised Son of David, the one whose righteous reign would be forever. Under his reign, the Jews expected justice, equity, and freedom from tyranny. They expected to be delivered from oppression and to literally rule the world. So, during the ministry of Jesus, when people suspected that he was Messiah, they were thrilled that their day had finally arrived. Messiah would conquer the Romans and the nation of Israel would return to a Solomonic glory as Messiah saved them from their enemies. In other words, they expected God’s anointed one to roll up his sleeves, knock the lights out of Israel’s enemies, and place her as the glorious centrepiece of the earth.
It is important to understand this expectation for it helps us to make sense of this passage, and also helps us to understood what it really means to be a Christian, to be a follower of Jesus the Messiah. For as Lane notes, “False hopes and narrow hopes clustered about the designation ‘Messiah.’” Jesus was about to teach them what the biblical expectation of Messiah should be.
Mark wants his readers—both the early church and you and me!—to understand what following Jesus entails. He wants us to understand what true discipleship looks like; what disciples of Jesus should expect.
In other words, Jesus and Mark want the reader to understand what it means to confess Jesus as the Christ.
The Silencing of the Confession
Unexpectedly, Jesus silenced his disciples after hearing this confession: “And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him” (v. 30). This seems strange. After all, such a God-given confession should be shouted from the housetops! Or, so we would think. Yet Jesus “strictly charged them to tell no one about him.” Why?
When Silence is Golden
Proverbs 17:28 tells us, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.” Or as Mark Twain quipped, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”
As in the preceding miracle (v. 26), as in so many other occasions, Jesus commanded secrecy, guided by this proverbial principle. At this point, the better part of wisdom was for would-be disciples to be silent about what Jesus was doing because their confession of him lacked sufficient content. This is so important! And as we will see in a moment, Peter was in this category. His confession was true, but it was not the whole truth. He did not properly grasp the biblical content of messiahship. Therefore, to preach Christ at this point would not be helpful. In fact, it would be irresponsible, for a half-truth can be worse than a lie.
Stated another way, when people do not properly understand the content of the Christian faith, they end up with just enough Christendom to ruin them.
Right views about messiahship lead to right views about discipleship. Conversely, wrong views about messiahship lead to wrong views about discipleship. Peter, at this point, had a wrong view of the Messiah. And until this was corrected, he should have remained mute.
As I think we have come to understand, Mark wrote his Gospel to remind the church (predominately a Gentile church in the Roman Empire) that Jesus is King. That is good news! And, by the way, in the light of the recent national elections, we should keep this good news before us.
Interestingly, the term “gospel” or “good news” did not have a uniquely Christian beginning. Rather “gospel” was a technical phrase used when Augustus Caesar was born. The good news a king’s birth was heralded as good news, and the king given the status of “son of God.” This parallel will become more relevant as we study this text but, for now, keep before you that the disciples were becoming more excited that God’s promised King had come. They saw something of this good news and were quite convinced that the promised kingdom had come. After all, they were arguing about who among them would get the best seats near the throne (9:33–37).
So, yes, at a certain level, they understood the identity of Jesus but, like the man we met previously (vv. 22–26), though they could see, they saw people as trees walking. They had eyes, but they did not see clearly.
Because Jesus knew this about them and the wider society, he frequently commanded secrecy about his miracles. Jesus knew that people had little understanding of the biblical content concerning God’s promised Messiah. Therefore, they would misinterpret why he came and would completely miss their greatest need: to be saved from their sins. After all, they were a wicked and adulterous generation (see 8:12, 38). They needed a Saviour. They needed atonement. They needed redemption. And until the people grasped this ultimate truth of the work of Messiah, his popularity would prove impotent to meet their greatest need.
In other words, their greatest need was not primarily for a sovereign Messiah who would meet their political, socio-economic, physical, and psychological (therapeutic) needs. Their greatest need was for a suffering Messiah who would meet their spiritual need of being made right with and therefore reconciled to God. Until a person recognised this, repented, and embraced this work of Messiah, any confession of loyalty would be wrongheaded; even dangerous. To profess loyalty to a Messiah of their own imagination would fail them in the end. It was for this reason that Jesus exhorted them to silence. It was for this very important reason that we can learn from Jesus that, sometimes, silence is golden.
Over the past one hundred years, evangelicalism has stressed that faithful discipleship consists of immediately “sharing your faith” with others. Multitudes have been told upon their conversion that they need to go and tell others immediately. They are to become soul-winners. Why would anyone question this? After all, didn’t Jesus tell us to preach the gospel to every creature? Didn’t he tell us to make disciples of all the nations?
Yes, he did. And that is the point. What is at the heart of gospel? And what does it mean to be a follower (a disciple) of Jesus Christ? What is the identity of Jesus?
If a person is wrong about the identity of Jesus Christ, they will be wrong about the content of the gospel. They will prove to be an unreliable witness. They may even become a false witness. Think of Simon the magician, who claimed to believe and yet clearly did not grasp the basic content of the gospel. Church history is filled with examples of people “witnessing” who are ignorant of the content of the gospel, largely because they are ignorant about the person and work of Jesus Christ. The result has been a plethora of easy-believism in the church, which has produced a pandemic of nominal Christianity. In many parts of the world, the church is little different than the sinful and spiritually adulterous generation that Jesus encountered.
Because people have not been presented the full gospel, they make empty professions. They have no understanding of the lordship of Jesus and therefore no understanding of their (joyful) obligation to follow him. Because people, even professing Christians, are ignorant of his identity, and therefore ignorant of his atoning work, they approach Jesus as a divine therapist or a miracle-worker or as need-meeter. And some will do so nonchalantly until they die. But then, the awful reality will strijke them.
Others, however, will become disappointed with the “Jesus” they signed onto. When they do not heal by the work of therapist Jesus, or when they are still poor after believing on the miracle-working Jesus, who is supposed to meet all their desires, they turn away. They become embittered because disillusioned in what they thought Jesus was supposed to do for them. So yes, content matters. And if we do not know who Jesus is, then silence becomes golden.
Upon Peter’s confession, Jesus filled in the fuller answer. It was all well and good that Peter got the answer technically correct, but as will become clear in a moment, his answer contained a lot of error. A right answer with wrong understanding will fail you in the end. This brings us logically to the next point.
The All-Important Content
We are told that Jesus “he began to teach them.” And what he taught them was the full answer to his question: “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”(Mark 8:31–32).
In his answer, he explained the content of his identity as Messiah. And the disciples did not like what they heard. They heard about Jesus the suffering servant, not Jesus the superhero.
Jesus taught the disciples that the biblical Messiah would be a suffering servant, not a sword wielding superhero. The endgame of the biblical Messiah was going to prove disappointing compared to the imagined endgame of the populace. Edwards captures it well: “Not only does Jesus not fit the messianic stereotype, but he defines his mission in scandalous contrast to it. The meaning of his life and mission is not about victory and success, but about rejection, suffering, and death.”
Again, this is the rub of the passage in my view. The secrecy was due to inadequate understanding of the identity of Jesus, which highlighted the danger of wrongheaded expectations of what he came to do, and therefore wrongheaded expectations of what he would do. It was essential that this be clarified. Jesus did so here.
For the first of three times in Mark (cf. 9:31–32; 10:32–34), he explicitly predicted his imminent death. In each subsequent revelation, he would be increasingly descriptive. The disciples would be scandalised. They would stumble over this truth, as have so many over the centuries.
You see (or do you?), the idea of a suffering deliverer makes no sense to the natural mind. It certainly made little sense to the original disciples.
Jesus told them that the Son of Man they had just confessed would be treated like a loser. He would be humiliatingly rejected by the religious leaders and would be killed. Messiah would die. Messiah would apparently be defeated. And this would not be by those considered outsiders; rather, all of this would transpire at the hands of those assumed to be religious insiders. Messiah would die. But he would also rise again.
For the disciples, even if the words “after three days rise again” registered, they would have assumed Jesus was speaking of a general resurrection. All they would have really heard was defeat. Again. Perhaps they thought, “Another deliverer, another defeat. Therefore, Israel will continue to suffer at the hands of tyrannical oppressors. Apparently, our confession was wrong, because this is not what we expect of Messiah.”
Mark tells us that Jesus “said this plainly.” This is a strong word which describes bold and crystal clarity. It required much boldness to speak of Messiah in terms completely contrary to the popular idea. It took courage to speak against the cultural expectations. But for anyone to benefit from Messiah, for a confession of him to be legitimate and life-transforming, they must know the full and true picture. And none of this should have been surprising! But it did, and it continues to, surprise.
The designation “Son of Man” has been used only twice in Mark (2:10, 38). But from this point forward it will be found twelve more times (one being a final confession in the book, 15:39). It was Jesus’ favourite self-designation. Its significance was at least twofold.
First, he used the title to make it known that he was human. After all, he was born of a woman (Gal 4:4). He was human. He could therefore suffer and be killed as well as rise from the dead. It was essential the disciples understand this. Messiah had to be human.
But, second, he was also much more, for he was also the Son of God. Messiah also had to be God. If Israel had been properly shepherded (cf. 6:34) by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, she would have been prepared for a suffering Messiah. After all, passages like Isaiah 53 make this abundantly clear.
It seems that they had become focused on Daniel 7:13–14 and a few other similar passages in which “Son of Man” was a title for Messiah.
The Daniel passage reveals Messiah as crowned conqueror. And this, for the Jews, including the disciples, was the Messiah they were happy to confess. They did not want a suffering servant or a murdered Messiah. Yet Jesus knew that this was precisely the content that their confession required if they would truly be a Christian.
But why? Why did Messiah—Jesus the Son of Man and the Son of God—need to suffer to the point of a blood-shedding death? Because the problem of the Jews, as well as the problem with all of humanity, was not fundamentally political, social, economic, or physical. The fundamental problem was, and remains, a sin problem. Because of sin, they were (and we are) separated from God. It was a soul problem. Until that was put right, all other aspirations were meaningless. But not everyone understood this. Even Jesus’ disciples struggled with this. And this brings us to the final point.
The All-Important Correction
When Peter heard Jesus’ words, he was not a happy camper. Shockingly, the student now assumed the role of teacher! “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’” (Mark 8:32–33).
Peter “took [Jesus] aside” (I suppose to try and shield him from embarrassment) and “began to rebuke him.” He only “began” because he wouldn’t get too far!
The word “rebuke” is used elsewhere in Mark of Jesus rebuking demons. Peter was treating Jesus like he was demonic. You see, Peter was a Bible-believer—or so he thought. Like many in today’s “discernment ministries,” his erroneous opinions had gotten in the way of the actual text. But he was convinced that Messiah was wrong. He was guilty of playing God. But in fact, as Jesus would point out, he was actually behaving like Satan. As Edwards notes, “When disciples play God rather than follow Jesus, they inevitably become satanic.” Jesus now made this clear.
Though they had gone aside, Jesus would not allow a teaching opportunity to pass. He turned to the disciples and, while getting their attention, offered a shotgun rebuke to Peter. I believe he did this because they were as guilty as Peter was. They simply were not as impetuous as him.
Mark uses the same loaded word (“rebuke”) but now for the words of Jesus. It was Peter, not Jesus, who was behaving demonically. Any attempt to detour Jesus from the cross is Satanic.
Note that satanic temptation occurred earlier, after the identification of Jesus as God’s Son (1:11–13). We will see this again later in Gethsemane. In each case, the cross was present. These temptations occurred at three most crucial turning points of the narrative.
In Jesus’ response—“Get behind me”—is it possible that he was saying to Peter, “Stop trying to lead me; stop getting in front of me and rather, like a disciple, get behind me and follow me”? Being a follower of Jesus is a lordship issue.
It’s All in the Mind
Jesus rebukes Peter for satanic thinking: “You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (v. 33). The words “setting your mind on” translate a word meaning “to exercise the mind,” implying the direction to which one is mentally disposed. It can also be translated as to set one’s affection on something (see Colossians 3:1–3).
It is important to observe that Peter’s problem was not only that he did not understand; it was equally that he did understand! That is, he understood too clearly that if a cross was Jesus’ destiny, so a cross would be their destiny. And, like you and I, Peter did not want to suffer.
Peter’s problem lay in his thinking, in his affections. He was thinking like a natural man (1 Corinthians 2:14–16). He was thinking like one who supposed he knew better than God. Therefore, he was thinking as one who was opposed to God. In effect, Peter was mentally disposed to self-righteousness and therefore to a worldview of autonomy. This in fact was the fundamental problem.
Whenever our ideas contradict God’s revealed mind, we are behaving demonically. This will always disable us from correctly answering the all-important question, “Who do you say that I am?”
In other words, man-centred approaches to God will invariably blind us to seeing Jesus Christ as Lord. “The natural mind never objects to the concept of a Messiah, provided that he is to be a Messiah who commends himself to the natural mind” (Cole).
What are some wrong concepts of Messiah? A nationalistic Messiah. A political or revolutionary Messiah. A moralistic Messiah. A therapeutic Messiah. A religious Messiah (akin to a moralistic Messiah). A personal Messiah (as in, “Coach Messiah”).
In the situation before us, Peter had the audacity to voice authority over Jesus Christ the Lord. His mindset and manner were, in effect, a denial of his confession. In the words of Jesus, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ and yet you do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46).
The answer to that question is, because we think too highly of ourselves and therefore we are not able to see Jesus Christ as the full and true Messiah he is.
The disciples’ problem was not only that they had wrong views about Messiah, but they also had wrong views about themselves. These go hand in hand. For Peter to rebuke Jesus and to resist his suffering reveals that he did not see the depth of his sin problem and his need for God to do something radically sacrificial about it.
Since Peter and the disciples did not see themselves as desperate sinners who needed God’s appointed Savour, they misread the Scriptures. Therefore, they tended to see themselves as Christ’s moral equal and the Romans and others as the enemy.
Here are some important principles to bear in mind.
If we minimise our sin problem, we will minimise the Saviour’s purpose. If we minimise our sin problem, we will maximise our esteem and minimise our esteem for the Saviour. If we minimise our sin problem, we will remake Jesus after our own image. If we maximise our righteousness, we will minimise Jesus Christ’s righteousness. If we minimise our sin problem, we will be offended by the cross. If we minimise our sin problem, we will be happy for Jesus as martyr, but not Jesus as a vicarious sacrifice. In short, if we minimise our sin problem, we will be ashamed of the gospel (see vv. 34ff).
Satan in the Church
Nearly thirty years ago there was a popular book in South Africa titled Turmoil in the Toybox. It was nonsense, but it sold well.
The idea was that parents needed to be careful about toys that supposedly had a curse on them, such as Star Wars toys, Cabbage Patch dolls, Barbie and Ken dolls, Smurfs, along with the obvious ones such as the game Dungeons and Dragons. One proponent of the book said that Toys R Us should be named Sinners R Us. It is all too easy to sensationally freak out evangelicals. But though you shouldn’t be concerned about demons in your toybox, Jesus does make clear Christians should be aware of the danger satanic thinking in the local church.
And before you begin thinking about the person sitting next to you, we should all do some serious self-examination. Each one of us is susceptible to wrong views of ourselves and our Saviour. We need righteous thinking as well as righteous living. In fact, you can’t consistently have the one without the other.
As we come to the end of this study, let me simply repeat Jesus’ all-important question: Who do you say that I am? How you answer determines your destiny. It also determines the quality of your life now.
Christian, you and I must embrace the full Christ. We must embrace him as Saviour and as Lord. A half Christ is a whole lie. Be careful.
Non-Christian, an essential element in properly answering the question is, who do you say you are? If you see yourself as a sinner who needs a Saviour, then God will enable you to clearly see that his Son is that Saviour. And that, my friend, is good news. That, according to Mark, is the gospel of Jesus the Christ.