Who Do they Say That I am?

Proper 19, Year B

Proverbs 1:20-33 or Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 19 or Wisdom 7:268:1
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38 

Introductory comments

There are two interesting structural things I want to point out. The first is that this is the first in three predictions of Jesus’ suffering (v. 31; 9:31; 10:33-34), three misinterpretations by the disciples (vv. 32-33; see also 9:32-34) and three teaching moments on discipleship (8:34-91; 9:35-37; 10:42-45).[1]

The second is that this is sometimes called a “hinge text” for Mark’s Gospel, in that everything that comes before it seems to lead up to this point, and all that follows after it seems to go away from it, or more precisely, down  from it, because the narrative from now on leads directly to the cross. Before this time there were great crowds. After this story, Jesus speaks mainly to his own disciples. In fact, starting with this text we enter a section that is mainly discipleship training mostly just to his disciples, all along the way to Jerusalem.

This block is “Bookended” on two sides by stories of healing two blind men, and Mark seems to have done that on purpose to send a not-so-subtle message that these other people are physically blind (and about to see), and the disciples are spiritually blind (and about to see) (cf. 8:22–26 and 10:46–52). Like so much of Mark, all of this functions on both a physical and spiritual level at the same time. You never know where Mark is speaking symbolically or literally, and in the end, whatever happened literally or historically, Mark’s main message is really always at a symbolic, spiritual level.

Symbolically, these stories are models for followers: we are always in the process of being able to see, we are always on the road towards receiving our sight. And true sight means knowing the Jesus is the anointed child of humanity and that being within his realm one is taken up into a whirlwind of service and self-sacrifice.

Mark (almost) always ties the healings to faith, and that also operates at a physical and spiritual level as well. We cannot move forward in faith if we don’t have faith, if we can’t find ourselves in a trusting, faithing, relationship with the mystery that brought us into being. It’s wholeness and salvation, but it cannot happen, it cannot be unless we are within its world in a trusting relationship. And we cannot be in it, unless we are “healing” others as well.

Geographical Location
The story takes place where Philip had built an altar to Caesar, who was by the time of Jesus considered a god. It was also thought by the Greeks to be the birthplace of Pan. And it was thought to be the home of “various Semitic deities and was possibly the location of Baal-gad or Baal-hermon of the OT (Josh 11:17 ff; Judg. 3:3; 1 Chr. 5:23).”[2] Barclay observes that it is interesting that Jesus chose this spot to ask his disciples for the first time, who do the people on the street believe him to be. In other words, there is lots of competition going around here for loyalty. And that is what was behind Jesus (or Mark) wanting to know where they were and what they believed.

It is possible that some of the context for Mark’s having Jesus ask this question is in Mark 13:21, where he speaks of false messiahs. 
“And if anyone says to you at that time, ‘Look! Here is the Messiah!’ or ‘Look! There he is!’—do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be alert; I have already told you everything.”

If so, what distinguished Jesus as being the true Messiah? It wasn’t the miracles, because the false messiahs and prophets were producing signs and omens.

James Edwards (The Gospel According to Mark) in an excursus on “Christ,” states:
The most common conception of the Messiah in pre-Christian texts is as an eschatological king. Otherwise, the messianic hope remained fairly general. Through the Messiah, God would establish and protect an everlasting kingdom over all the earth. The Messiah would be the perfect king chosen by God from eternity, through whom God would first deliver Israel from its enemies and then cause Israel to live in peace and tranquility thereafter (Sib. Or. 3:286-94). It may also be noted that neither the Servant of Yahweh nor Son of Man concept in the OT is associated with messianic connotations. (p. 250)

The expectation of the (unbelieving? all?) people was that the Messiah would save his life and come down from the cross. That is not the way of Jesus the true Messiah.
Marva Dawn in Reaching Out without Dumbing Down makes an interesting comment about the possibility of different Christs today:
...at the 1987 Vancouver World’s Fair, the Christian pavilion’s presentation utilized glitzy double-reversed photography and flashing lasers. When I tried to explain my qualms about the production to an attendant who had asked me how I liked their “show,” she protested that it had saved many people. I asked, “Saved by what kind of Christ?” If people are saved by a spectacular Christ, will they find him in the fumbling of their own devotional life or in the humble services of local parishes where pastors and organists make mistakes? Will a glitzy portrayal of Christ nurture in new believers his character of willing suffering and sacrificial obedience? Will it create an awareness of the idolatries of our age and lead to repentance? And does a flashy, hard-rock sound track bring people to a Christ who calls us away from the world’s superficiality to deeper reflection and meditation? [p. 50]

From this point forward, I’m going to share some fairly standard, line by line commentary on some of the main points and words of the story, followed at the end with some thoughts on how to preach it.

8:27 Hodos = “Way”
This became a title of early Christians. Note that this was also the name of the first followers of Jesus, in the book of Acts, the “people of the Way” (cf. Acts 18:25, 26; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). Being “on the way” is a theme throughout Mark, especially in this section. Hodos can simply refer to a road or path, or it can refer to a way of life. Jesus is “on the way” (8:27) when he asks his question, as though literally striding down a path and grilling the disciples in back of him while they walk. The phrase appears again in 9:33-34. There the disciples indicate that they don’t understand the “way” of Jesus (well, who does?). Jesus is sad to be on his way again in 10:17 when the rich man asks his question about getting into the kingdom, and again when he gives the third passion prediction (10:32). Perhaps most significant use of hodos is with blind Bartimaeus, who was found on the “side of the way” in 10:46, and then, after the miracle, he is able to follow Jesus “on the way.” (Stoffregan)

8:27 On the asking of who he is
“In the first section (of Mark’s Gospel) we have heard of a whole series of deeds and incidents in the life of Jesus which raise the question: who then is this that he can do such things? (cf. e.g. 4:41). Indeed, according to Mark the career of Jesus had raised the question so inescapably that even …ordinary people (v.27), people who made no presence of being disciples, had found themselves not only asking it, but forced to answer that Jesus must be some very great figure indeed.”[3]

8:31: dei, necessary or inevitable?
What Jesus is doing will make his suffering at the hands of his enemies inevitable. According to W. Bennett, cited in Myers, Mark was also thinking of the persecuted Christians in Rome in his own day. “The theological emphasis of this assertion is to strengthen the faithful in times of frightful suffering”[4]

“Why is this ‘necessary’? Is Mark betraying a ‘theological discourse of predestination’…? No; but he is challenging the accepted bounds of political discourse in the war of myths. According to the understanding of Peter, ‘Messiah’ necessarily means royal triumph and the restoration of Israel’s collective honor. Against this, Jesus argues that ‘Human One’ necessarily  means suffering. This is so because, as the advocate of true justice, the Human one as critic of the debt code, and the Sabbath necessarily comes into conflict with the ‘elders and chief priests and scribes’ (8:31). In other words, this is not the discourse of fate or fatalism, but of political inevitability.[5]

Jesus’ substitution of Son of Man over Messiah:
The term, “Son of Man”[6] is an Apocalyptic figure, taken from Daniel 7, and 4 Ezra. It “represents true ‘human’ government as opposed to the brutality of the ‘beasts’ in the visions.”[7] Note that Daniel was written “under the pogroms of Antiochus Epiphanes IV two centuries earlier, as a manifesto of Jewish political resistance to imperial oppression by Hellenistic rulers.”[8]

“You have set your mind on human things, not on divine things” (v. 8:33). On this dualism, cf. v. 7:8, “you abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” “The…dualism implies that there is no middle ground—a theme indigenous to the perspective of apocalyptic”[9] This is the “heart of the ideological conflict.”

Note that when Jesus began to describe the Son of Man, he “said all this openly” (v. 32) (presumably to all who were present), and Peter “took him aside” to rebuke him But Jesus turned back and looked at the disciples when he rebuked Peter (v. 33) and then called together both the disciples and the surrounding crowds when he talked about discipleship and their own personal suffering if they follow him (v. 34).

8:32, 33 “Rebuked” epitimaoô
Jesus silences Peter with the same term used for demons. Don’t tell anyone what you have just said. Why? Probably because of the militarist v. humanist distinctions in the terms messiah and son of Man. The Son of Man is the one who suffers, and the Messiah is the one who reigns and rules and conquers. There doesn’t seem to be a difference in terms of goals between these two visions, but clearly there is in terms of how one gets to them.

He then tells them that the Son of Man must suffer first before the exaltation (did Peter [by way of Mark’s interpretation] believe that the Messiah would begin as an exalted leader/ruler?). “The revolution, Peter is saying, is at hand”[10] 

Take up your cross
One cannot over state that the ross was an overwhelmingly political and military form of punishment by Rome. Used almost exclusively on rebels, revolutionaries, escaped slaves, violent criminals. Whatever else we might think of Jesus, Rome saw in his behavior a clear political threat. And never forget that he called upon us to join him in doing what it takes to acquire our own cross:
34If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

Detailed Exegetical Comments

Mark 8:27-38

Peter’s Declaration about Jesus[11]
27Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi;[12] and on the way[13] he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”[14] 28And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29He asked them, “But who do you[15] say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”[16] 30And he sternly ordered them[17] not to tell anyone about him.

Jesus Foretells His Death and Resurrection

31Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man[18] must[19] undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days[20] rise again. 32He said all this quite openly.[21] And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke[22] him.[23] 33But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
34He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross[24] and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life[25] will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel,[26] will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38Those who are ashamed of me and of my words[27] in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” 9:1And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with[28] power.”

[1] From HarperCollins Study Bible
[2] The Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible
[3] D. E. Nineham, Saint Mark, Penguin, 1963) pp. 223-4
[4] Myers, p. 243.
[5] Myers, p. 244.
[6] Something like “Child of Humanity” would be more accurate. Myers has “Human One,” which is less accurate and awkward.
[7] Myers, p. 243.
[8] Myers, p. 243.
[9] Myers, p. 245.
[10] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Orbis: Maryknoll, New York, 1988), p. 242.
[11] “Robert Price (2000, p. 109) has argued that Mark has set the discussion of 8:27-30 here in Caesarea Philippi in order to ‘blast what he deemed inadequate local Christologies of the region.’” (Michael A. Turton, Historical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark [http://users2.ev1.net/~turton/GMark/GMark08.html#8.p.34.38]).
[12] “The villages of Caesarea Philippi.” eis tãs kõmas Kaisariãs tēs Philoppou. Parts (mereô) Matthew 16:13 has, the Caesarea of Philippi in contrast to the one down on the Mediterranean Sea. Mark means the villages belonging to the district around Caesarea Philippi. This region is on a spur of Mount Hermon in Iturea ruled by Herod Philip. (Robertson). Known today as “Baniyas.” Also known as Panias for the Greek god Pan, who was said to have been born there in a cavern in a mountain. That cavern was also said to be the origin of the Jordan River. Barclay adds that “Farther up on the hillside rose a gleaming temple of white marble which Philip had built to the godhead of Caesar, the roman Emperor, the ruler of the world, who was regarded as a God,” and makes the point that “It is amazing that it was here of all places that Peter saw in a homeless Galilean carpenter the Son of God” (William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: Westminster Press: 1954 [Rev. 1975]), p. 192.
[13] “On the Way” (En tē hodō, cf. 8:3), or as they went. Most of the life of discipleship is to be lived out in practice, on the way. “ Hodos can simply refer to a road or path, or it can refer to a way of life. Jesus is “on the way” (8:27) when he asks his question,” Brian Stoffregan, Exegetical Notes at CrossMarks (http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/mark8x27.htm).
[14] “Who do people say that I am?” Tina me legousin hoi anthrõpoi einai’). Matthew 16:13 has “the Son of Man” in place of “I” here in Mark and in Luke 9:18. He often described himself as “the Son of Man.” Certainly here the phrase could not mean merely “a man.” (Robertson).
[15] “You.” The disciples, of course, but deeply and forcefully so: “In the Greek, the you is emphatic; the meaning is : ‘you who form the nucleus of the new Israel, you to whom has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God (cf. 4:11), you whom I have called and chosen, who have consorted with me, who do you say that I am?” (Mark, Nineham, p. 224, n.).
[16] “You are the Messiah” (su ei ho christos). Mark does not give “the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16) or “of God” (Luke 9:20). The full confession is the form in Matthew. “Scholars have no evidence that ‘the anointed’ designated a specific figure, since persons could be hailed as being anointed in a variety of contexts. Anointing represents God’s affirmation that the prophet, priest, or king is the divinely chosen leader of the people. Jewish texts of the period describe a king who is to be the agent of God’s restoration of the people in the end time. (Cf. Pss. Sol. 17:32; I Enoch 48:10; 512:4; 4 Ezra 12:32; 1QS 9:11.) The epithet may have been used to describe the historical Jesus as an agent of God’s saving power without implying that he alone filled that role.” NIB, p. 621.)
[17] “And he sternly ordered them.” (Kai epetimesen autois). Verb, Indicative Aorist Active Third Person Singular. Command, order, give a command; rebuke; scold; d. perhaps show him his fault. Note that epetimesen is translated as “sternly” here, 3:12, and 10:39; and as “rebuke” in 4:39; 8: 32, 33; and 9:25. “In the form of direct discourse this verse may be translated as ‘he commanded them Do not tell this about me to anyone’. The Greek does not mean, as is translated in some languages, ‘Do not speak to anyone about me’; rather the prohibition is to refrain from disclosing this specific information about Jesus as the Christ” (Bratcher, p. 262).
[18] “Son of Man” Jesus’ customary but ambiguous expression of self-reference in Mark. The title can be translated variously as “Son of humanity,” “Child of humanity” or even (less likely) “Son of Adam.” There are three types of meanings for Son of Man that can be found in Hebrew scriptures: (1) As an insignificant figure (Job 25:4-6), (2) Little lower than God (Psa. 8:3-6), and (3) Apocalyptic, militaristic agent of God (Dan. 7:13-14) (from The Five Gospels). Perhaps to make a clear contrast with the militaristic image, Jesus (or Mark) here focuses it on his giving his life over to suffering.
[19] “Must” (dei). It is (or was, etc.) necessary (as binding). Also, inevitable. Note that there is a vast theological difference between saying that Jesus’ death was necessary (i.e., foreordained by God’s will) and inevitable (i.e., an inevitable result of his behavior in the face of brutal, oppressive authorities.
[20] “After three days” (meta treis hēmeras). Matthew 16:21 has “the third day” in the locative case of point of time (so also Luke 9:22). “There are some people who stickle for a strict interpretation of “after three days” which would be “on the fourth day,” not “on the third day.” Evidently Mark’s phrase here has the same sense as that in Matthew and Luke else they are hopelessly contradictory. In popular language “after three days” can and often does mean “on the third day,” but the fourth day is impossible” (Robertson). Bratcher notes that it should literally be translated, “on the third day after this one,” i.e. “on the third day,” as in Matthew.
[21] “He said this quite plainly” (kai parrēsia ton logon elalei). Freely, boldly, confidently frankly. The imperfect tense of elalei shows that Jesus did it repeatedly. If it were perfect, it would mean that it happened only once, imperfect suggests that it contuse to happen. Only at this one place in Mark’s gospel, and Mark’s alone has it.
[22] “Rebuke” (epitimao). Verb Indicative Aorist Active Third Person Singular. Relative to the text and its usage in Mark, it also means censure, command, scold, reprove, censure severely and admonish. Thayer’s adds, “to raise the price of….” Same verb used for Demons (1:25; 3:12) and the wind (4:39, which often had demonic dark spirit connotations). See below in v32 and 33.
[23] “Rebuked” (epitimao). Note its use above at v. 30 and below at 33.
[24] “Their cross” (aratō ton stauron). Pronoun. Emphatic. Their Cross! Note that this is the first mention of the cross in this gospel.
[25] “Life.” “The use and meaning of psuchē , life, soul in vv. 35-37 is a matter of dispute (cf. 3:4). …The word has a three-fold meaning, life, or soul or oneself. In these verses there is an interplay between natural life, life in the flesh (which is clearly the meaning in v. 35) and true life, spiritual life, future life (which is the sense demanded in vv. 36-37). The O.T. concept of nehesh which furnishes the basis for the meaning of the N.T. word psuchē bears no resemblance to the Greek idea of psuchē, soul as the spiritual part of human being, distinct and separate from material make-up, the fleshly body. Rather the basic O.T. concept of nephesh (for which the LXX psuchē generally stands) is that of breath, life and is used of the individual (animal or human) in his quality as a breathing, living being (Bratcher, pp. 266-7).
[26] Other ancient authorities read lose their life for the sake of the gospel
[27] Other ancient authorities read and of mine
[28] Or in