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?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” 30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.
31 Then he began to teach them that the Human One must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But 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.”
34 He 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 and follow me. 35 For 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. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words 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.” 9:1 And 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 power.”
The location of this story should not be missed. Caesarea Philippi was a major Hellenistic city that casts a political shadow over the exchange between Jesus and his disciples. “It is here in this ‘alienated’ narrative site – the far north of what could still be considered Palestine, in the region that reflected the Herodian sell-out to Hellenism – that the political narrative proper commences (Myers, 241).”
In the midst of a city named after Caesar, the political “son of god” in the Roman world, Peter will confess Jesus to be the Messiah, God’s anointed one, another politically-charged title and one that challenged the supremacy of Rome.
In our modern context this is difficult to imagine. For those in the united states, an equivalent would be for one to stand in the center of Washington D.C., the new Rome, a city whose architecture mirrors the grander of Rome, and proclaim that Jesus is the savior of the world, not the united states. The united states self-proclaimed title and understanding as the world’s savior is a modern-day idolatry that needs to be exorcised.
On the Way
Mark focuses the reader’s attention on the rhythm that is about to unfold. “Against this site Mark reintroduces the true narrative site for discipleship: ‘on the way.’ This is the way that Isaiah through John announced in the wilderness; the kingdom lies on, not beside it (4:4;15l cf. 10:46) (Myers, 241).” Remember, hodos is often translated as “road” in English translations. While this may be accurate, it misses the symbolic power of the narrative. To be “on the way” with Jesus is to be engage in life as his follower.
Who Do You Say that I Am?
In the face of the political and cultural statements of the city Caesarea-Philippi just asks his disciples about what the people have to say about him. Their response reminds us of the rumors about John the Baptist in Herod’s flashback. Jesus’ ministry has been connected to those of Elijah and John, political prophets of history and recent memory. But Jesus is more than these.
He turns the question to them again - “But who do you say that I am?” With this statement he draws on the “I Am” moment between God and Moses at the bush, connecting his ministry with God’s saving acts in history.
In this question Mark also reaches out of the flow of the story to the audience, literally asking who we say that Jesus is for our lives. Our lives become moments of confession about Jesus and how we understand his ministry and the kingdom of God. The attention of this moment, the confession of Jesus as the Messiah, is often focused on Peter, but there is this layer of our confession about Jesus that can also be addressed. How do we confess Jesus with our lives? Do others encounter Jesus because of how we live?
Get Behind Me Satan - Parable of the Sower Revisited
Jesus’ public rebuke of Peter’s private rebuking contains a powerful statement from Jesus - “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
It is a reflection on Peter’s priorities and a statement on his failure to understand the conflict that Jesus’ nonviolent, direct action ministry has elicited. He is “blind” to Jesus ministry. This pattern of ministry has set in motion a conflict between Jesus and the powers of his day and culture - the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes.
The phrase “get behind my Satan” has evoked a great deal of absurdity in tradition and pop-culture. In Mark’s story this another reminder of a previous moment, in this instance, the parable of the sower.
It was in the parable of the sower that we last encounter satan, “the adversary,” in Mark’s story: “The sower sows the word. 15 These are the ones on the way where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.”
Mark has just reminded us that Jesus and his disciples are “on the way.” Jesus has just sown the word through his teaching the disciples. Satan, the adversary, appears in the form of Peter’s “blindness,” his inability to understand the teaching of Jesus. “We are now witnessing the enactment of the parable, for throughout the discipleship catechism, Mark will make allusions to each of the three obstacles. Jesus here has explained ‘the word’ plainly to those one the way (8:32a), and Satan is challenging him (Myers, 245).”
A Second Call to “Follow Me”
After the challenge of Satan to those on the way, Jesus continues to teach. He gathers his disciples, and the crowd, and gives the second call to discipleship - “He 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 and follow me (8:34).’”
Here we must tread cautiously, especially if we come from a position of privilege. The call to “deny yourself and take up your cross” has been abused by people in power over the centuries. In privileged circles, it has abandoned the blunt reality of the call of Jesus. For Mark’s audience, the phrase “take up your cross” had one image - the vehicle used for state-sanctioned death. It was a statement of power, used by the Roman empire to proclaim one message to those it had conquered and who chose to rebel: we are more powerful than you.
“There can be no equivocation concerning the political semantics of this invitation. The ‘cross’ had only one connotation in the Roman empire: upon it dissidents were executed…Mark’s first readers could in no way have missed the terrible implications of such a saying - conveniently avoided by so many modern, privatizing interpretations (Myers, 245-46)!”
Taking up one’s cross is a conscious decision to engage in the radical rhythm of nonviolent, direct action initiated by Jesus. Taking up one’s cross is about challenging systems of power that deny life to vulnerable members of society. For privileged people, this is a difficult concept to understand and even more difficult to engage in. Often it is the privileged who set in motion systems and moments that require others to take up their crosses.
This is a political statement from Jesus, and a clear message about the trajectory of his ministry. “Jesus has revealed that his messiahship means political confrontation with, not rehabilitation of, the imperial state. Those who wish to ‘come after him’ will have to identify themselves with his subversive program (Myers, 247).”
The final statement of this teaching session is also an honest one from Jesus, one that will indeed play out before the end of the story. There were those in the crowd that would have undoubtedly witnessed the raising of Jesus on a cross, the place where the glory of Jesus is revealed. It is on the cross that Jesus is enthroned and the power of God reveal. It is the central mystery of the Christian faith - God’s power displayed through weakness. The Centurion, symbol of Roman’s power, the one who held the hammer of the death sentence, who will confirm the power of God - “Truly this man was God’s Son (15:39)!”
I have also written a reflection on 8:31-38 - "Taking Up Your Cross, Harry Potter, and Privilege."
Questions for Modern-Day Disciples
- How do we confess Jesus with our lives?
- Do others encounter Jesus because of how we live?
- When do we have our minds set on things of this world, not on the call of Jesus to follow?
- How do we interpret the call to “take up our cross?”